Emancipatory design choices for action research practitioners

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  • Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology

    J. Community Appl. Soc. Psychol., 13: 486495 (2003)

    Published online in Wiley InterScience (www.interscience.wiley.com). DOI: 10.1002/casp.753

    Emancipatory Design Choices for Action ResearchPractitioners


    1Department of Primary Industries, PO Box 519, Longreach, Queensland, Australia2Southern Cross Institute of Action Research, Southern Cross University, Lismore, New South Wales, Australia


    The process choices made in action research can determine how emancipatory an experience it is for

    participants. Some choices promote an experience of emancipation. Other choices can reduce it.

    There can be tensions between choices that encourage emancipation and those that pursue other

    advantages at the expense of emancipation. Here we consider six such tensions.

    For each choice we suggest how to frame the tension to deliver an experience of emancipation.

    The suggestions involve practitioners and participants choosing the driving force for the work,

    acquiring and applying skills for empowerment, mixing action and research to suit the context,

    choosing an appropriate simplicity of methodology, planning participation, and engaging with the

    different beliefs of practitioners and participants. We use practitioner and researcher interchange-

    ably. Copyright # 2003 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

    Key words: action research; privileging participants; participation; practitioner choices;

    emancipation; resolving tensions; empowerment


    In our usage action research is an intervention methodology using action and research to

    increase understanding of the research situation and at the same time to pursue change.

    Change and understandingaction and critical reflectionalternate within a cyclic pro-

    cess. The understanding and change enrich each other.

    Practitioners and participants can make choices about the way action research is used.

    The choices can determine whether or not the action research process is experienced as

    emancipatory. In general it is argued that emancipation will be increased when the parti-

    cipants are most involved in decisions and when their content and process knowledge is

    most privileged and utilized. This may sometimes be at the cost of sacrificing other


    * Correspondence to: Gerry Roberts, Innovation and Development Specialist, Department of Primary Industries,PO Box 519, Longreach, Queensland, Australia. E-mail: gerry.roberts@dpi.qld.gov.au

    Copyright # 2003 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Accepted 3 September 2003

  • Where a choice exists between emancipation and other options there is a potential for

    generating tension. Here six such tensions are addressed. They are:

    * whether the process is data or theory driven;

    * the level of skill of practitioners in using emancipatory processes;

    * action emphasis versus a research emphasis;

    * the level of sophistication of the methodology in use;

    * the style and extent of participation;

    * differing epistemic beliefs especially between participants and practitioners

    These tensions do not define dichotomies. Rather they are situations that can occur in

    action researching where the decisions made can influence the level of emancipation

    achieved. Choices can often be made which both expand participant emancipation and

    at the same time achieve other advantages appropriate to the research context. At other

    times the emancipatory choice may be made, but disadvantages of that choice may be

    minimized in some way. Skilful practitioners, with emancipation as their goal, can use

    the resolution of these tensions to deliver Deweys beliefthat for democracy it is essen-

    tial that ordinary citizens join with professionals in programmes of enquiry and reform

    (McTaggart, 1991).

    We wish to make two points before proceeding. First, our emphasis here is on the crea-

    tion of an emancipatory experience within the research process. Second, we are not

    arguing necessarily for highly participatory or emancipatory research. There are times

    when less participatory research may be justified (Clark, 1972). On occasions practitioners

    and participants may choose approaches other than those that have been described. Our

    intention here is to describe some important tensions which influence the potential for

    emancipation within the research experience when that is the choice of participants and



    The tension

    Grounded theory was developed by Glaser and Strauss (1967). In his more recent discus-

    sions of it Glaser (e.g. 1992) distinguishes emergent research, as he calls it, from

    hypothesis-testing research. The latter accepts the existing body of knowledge as the

    foundation for the current research. The assumptions about what is being researched

    are expected to be consistent with that knowledge. In emergent research, researchers

    try to put aside their presumptions to engage with the research situation as it is.

    Of course, both forms of research test hypotheses. Hypothesis-testing is therefore a

    misleading label. The two approaches differ not in the existence of hypotheses, but in

    the source of their hypotheses. In one form the hypotheses are grounded in the data or

    derived from the data through the interpretation of participants. (In his 2002 critique of

    the more constructivist views of Charmazs 2000 paper, Glaser supports this.) In the other

    the hypotheses are taken or derived from existing theory. Therefore our earlier practice

    (Dick, 2002) will be followed by referring respectively to data-driven research and

    theory-driven research.

    These approaches have different implications for emancipation. In theory-driven

    research the existing theory is treated as a given which limits the hypotheses which can

    Choices in action research for emancipation 487

    Copyright# 2003 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. J. Community Appl. Soc. Psychol., 13: 486495 (2003)

  • be developed. As the bearer of theory the researcher is usually placed (at least initially) in

    a privileged position relative to the participants in content knowledge and methodological

    expertise. It is easier in data-driven research to be open to the particular context of the

    situation and the views of the participants. This can be at the cost of abandoning the under-

    standing which the literature might provide.

    Resolving or reducing the tension

    Glasers recommendation is to take existing theory into account. However, he does this

    only after a theory has emerged from the data. It is then refined by the practitioner treating

    the literature as data (e.g. Glaser, 1998). This partly answers the problem but at the cost of

    again privileging the practitioners.

    However, it is possible to engage the participants in interpretation of the data. This

    restores their ownership of the interpretation, compensating for the more extensive knowl-

    edge of literature which the practitioners usually bring to the situation.

    Some forms of theory are more accessible to participants. The theory of action

    approach of Argyris and Schon (1974) has much to offer. Such a theory has three main

    components: situation, actions and resultant outcomes. Participants can derive such a the-

    ory from their experience. It also translates more easily into action. It can be further

    refined in successive action research cycles as participants carry through their growing

    understanding into action.

    In partial summary, emergent research methods can engage participants in interpreting

    their data. This can reduce the influence of prior theory and thus of the practitioners who

    are familiar with it.

    An application

    For reasons addressed earlier, in our own practice we usually seek to work with a data-

    driven approach. For instance, for diagnostic interviews we often use an open ended

    approach to interviewing (Dick, 1990a). We deliberately reduce our questioning of infor-

    mants to avoid shaping their responses. We then involve them in interpreting the informa-

    tion which they and others have provided.


    The tension

    Practitioners who wish to use emancipatory processes may find themselves limited by

    their skill in the more participatory forms of action research. Practitioners less skilled

    in emancipatory practices may be less well placed to support a group in choosing its

    own path.

    Over time, practitioners accumulate experience, for example about participant aspira-

    tions in a particular situation or environment. A similar environment may trigger similar

    expectations on the part of the practitioner. Participants may not meet those expectations

    or may not agree amongst themselves. Practitioners may then experience a tension

    between the aim of creating an emancipatory experience for participants and the wish

    to follow the dictates of previous experience or the need to pursue certain outcomes such

    as an acceptable written report or thesis.

    488 G. Roberts and B. Dick

    Copyright# 2003 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. J. Community Appl. Soc. Psychol., 13: 486495 (2003)

  • For Lincoln and Guba (2000) emancipation is fostered when control of the research

    study and the ensuing action are shared with or surrendered to the participants. Kemmis

    and McTaggart (2000) refer to it as a perspective in which people construct their own

    research of their own social situation. As Goff, Gregg, and May (2001) say, participation

    in action research transforms the power relationships and enables change to occur.

    This requires an action research practitioner to understand and be able to work in col-

    laborative ways with those in the situation. Some practitioners may be poorly equipped to

    do this.

    Resolving or reducing the tension

    The usual resolution is to leave decisions on content to participants. However this still

    privileges researchers who facilitate the process. Although the initial step may be difficult,

    to reduce this tension practitioners may begin where participants are at as researchers.

    They may then increasingly engage participants in control of content, process and meta-

    process. (The role of metaprocess is referred to later.)

    Any loss of emancipatory effect from such a tension is further reduced where partici-

    pants are prepared for and supported to accept and use their role as process decision-


    Action research is well suited to collaborative decision-making. The continuing cycles

    of action and critical reflection form a process all participants and practitioners can learn

    to use. It requires only that they understand and make use of the cyclic process.

    An application

    One of us sought to create opportunities for emancipation of participants through action

    research when introducing experiential learning (Kolb, 1984) to pastoralist farmers. When

    action was not taken by the pastoralists he examined his role as facilitator.

    Through critical reflection he realized he directed participants to certain content out-

    comes, manufacturing a situation to support this. Reflection showed the behaviour was

    founded on a personal concern that participants and external observers would not see

    the project as successful unless his version of practical action was in evidence (Roberts,

    1997). Changing his behaviour to have participants decide on actions relevant to them, led

    to participants identifying significant areas for action.


    The tension

    The immediacy of an initial action oriented approach to action research can be experi-

    enced as more emancipatory. Increasing understanding of a situation through an initially

    research oriented approach may be seen as increasing rigour through increasing under-

    standing on which action for change can be based. Tension may be experienced where this

    is seen as an either/or choice.

    The possibility for tension arises when the complementary roles of action and research

    are not recognized. Action provides for change and research delivers understanding. We

    have argued elsewhere (Dick, 2002) that the two fit well together. The better understand-

    ing gained through research allows more effective action. In taking action one develops a

    better understanding of the research situation.

    Choices in action research for emancipation 489

    Copyright# 2003 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. J. Community Appl. Soc. Psychol., 13: 486495 (2003)

  • Resolving or reducing the tension

    Resolution of the tension appears to be most readily achieved where the balance between

    action and research is relevant to the context. For example a level of crisis in the system

    may prompt participants to think first of action. It then seems prudent to begin there.

    Where there is little understanding of what productive action can be taken, research

    may initially be more appropriate.

    In action research the starting emphasis does not decide the continuing emphasis. The

    flexible process is adjusted continuously to suit the situation.

    This flexibility allows the beginning to be imprecise, if necessary. Action research can

    be described (Dick, 2003) as a cyclic progression from fuzzy questions through fuzzy

    methods to fuzzy answers, proceeding to less fuzzy questions, methods and answers.

    The reflection allows the process to be adjusted to incorporate what has been learned in

    the previous cycle.

    Eizenberg (1990) identifies a further source of flexibilitythe use of smaller cycles of

    action research within any larger cycle.

    In partial summary, action can offer emancipation by engaging participants in their cho-

    sen actions. Critical reflection before and after each action can then refine the future direc-

    tion. Research can offer participants more rigorous data from which to understand the

    system. Combining both is in keeping with the emergent nature of action research.

    An application

    An example is provided by a project one of us conducted under the guidance of a com-

    munity steering group (Roberts, 1998).

    Initially the steering group participants were unclear about how to proceed. They chose

    to carry out a preliminary survey of selected strata of residents. The purpose was to gen-

    erate a list of items and features (data) that those in each strata believed contributed to the

    character of the community.

    Interpretation of the research data by steering group participants provided increased

    understanding of the system of character in the community. It enabled the steering group

    to choose the next step in the project through refining their process based on their under-

    standing of the content of their research.


    The tension

    It has been mentioned earlier in the first of the six tensions that researchers are usually

    more methodologically knowledgeable than participants. Where researcher knowledge is

    privileged it reduces emancipation of participants. Here we contrast the relative effects of

    simple and complex methodologies on participant involvement with the understanding

    that increased participant involvement usually increases emancipatory outcomes has been


    It is assumed that in most settings the researchers take initial responsibility for metho-



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