By Jean McNiff
Action research is a way of looking at your life, personally and professionally, to make sure that it is how you would like it to be. This means monitoring what you do, and critically evaluating whether you are thinking and acting in a way which is in harmony with the things you believe in, or whether you might be thinking and acting in a way that is contrary to your values.
I want to share with you my understanding of (1) what action research is; (2) how it is different from traditional forms of enquiry; (3) how it is being used in various contexts; (4) how I think it could be taken forward by humanist and integrative psychotherapists. You need to be aware throughout that I am offering you my views, and, although they are shared by a number of action researchers around the world, these views are far from representative of all action researchers everywhere. One of my core values is that people should experience freedom with justice, and I therefore encourage you to read the action research literature and other opinions, so that you can decide for yourself what is most appropriate to you and your own situation. Finding out what is available before deciding on any one course of action is responsible practice. For now, please be aware that this article offers a limited but useful overview of what action research is and where it could be going.
1. What is action research?
The main question that action researchers ask is ‘How can I improve what I am doing?’ This may apply to our personal and professional life.
The main features of action research include:
– a commitment to personal and professional improvement;
– putting the ‘I’ at the centre of the research;
– a special kind of action that is informed, committed, and intentional;
– systematic monitoring to generate valid data;
– authentic descriptions of the action;
– explanations of the action;
– validating claims made as the result of the research.
Action research asks a special kind of question beginning with, ‘How can I improve …?’- for example,
How can I improve …
… my personal way of being? … my professional work? … a particular context?
It is important to begin with ‘How can I …’ because action research is about improving your action, not the action of others. It is your responsibility to make your life the best it can be in order to help other people effectively.
The question, ‘How can I improve my work?’ embraces our personal and professional lives. ‘Work’ I take to be the purposeful activities we engage in. Our professional lives are grounded in our personal lives; we cannot develop professional knowledge about a particular situation or relationship unless we first develop our personal knowledge about our own situatedness; as Fromm tells us, we need to celebrate the quality of our productive lives and loving relationships. This reveals the deeper, implicit question, ‘How can I improve myself?’ Action research is often characterised as ‘person- ‘ and ‘practitioner-centred’: it is the person investigating the person, to check whether that person is the best they can be in order to serve others most effectively. I shall come back to these issues shortly.
Action research is a practical way of addressing personal and professional issues in a systematic fashion, and producing evidence to show that whatever we have done to address and improve these issues really has been beneficial for ourselves and other people.
It operates in cycles; the findings from one cycle become the starting point of the next:
1. We review our current practice,
2. identify an aspect we want to improve,
3. imagine a way forward,
4. try it out, and
5. take stock of what happens.
6. We modify our plan in the light of what we have found and continue with the ‘action’,
7. monitor what we do,
8. evaluate the modified action,
9. and so on until we are satisfied with that aspect of our work.
(see McNiff, Lomax and Whitehead, 1996).
To put this into practice, it is often helpful to form it as a series of questions:
What is my concern/interest? Why am I concerned/interested? How could I show the situation as it is? What could do about it? What will I do about it? What kind of evidence can I gather to show that my intervention has made a difference? How can I explain that impact? How can I ensure that any judgements I might make are reasonably fair and accurate? What will I do then?
(see Whitehead, cited in McNiff, 1988, 1993; Whitehead, 1993)
Finding new questions
These questions are not fixed. Each person is encouraged to find new questions that are relevant and meaningful to their personal situation. In working through such questions, we are making justified claims about the worth of our practice. We produce validated evidence to support our claims to improvement in the form of our own and others’ records, interview transcripts, video tapes, and other forms of first-hand data.
On this view, doing action research is more than problem solving, although it includes basic problem-solving principles. Action research involves monitoring our action and gathering data to show the action. The ‘action’ is not enough, however. We continually reflect on what we are doing, and interpret our data so that we can identify key features that we feel are symptomatic of an aspect of our practice. We can then extract pieces of data to produce evidence to show that we have improved at least some key areas. Improvement does not have to be perfection; minimal improvement is still improvement. If we can show that we are moving forward we can claim to be improving our work.
A Moral Commitment
It is also not enough to make a claim to improvement without validating that claim. Action research involves other people as our critical friends and learning partners. We systematically share our data, as well as our claims to knowledge, and invite other people to comment on whether or not they agree with us. We take their comments seriously and are willing to go back to our original situation to refine and improve our research in the light of their evaluation. These people might be our peers, our managers, our clients, or the world at large. All opinions are potentially valid, and all people are invited to speak, and are listened to with courtesy.
This shows our own moral commitment to continual improvement in the service of others. We constantly check that we are operating in the best interests of other people by asking them whether or not we are having a beneficial influence in their lives. We also need to check that we are not subtly leading them to give us the kind of answers they think we would like to hear! These aspects involve rigorous monitoring and evaluation of what we are doing, in critical dialogue with others, so that our practice is honest, authentic and motivated by a commitment to self-improvement.
2. How is action research different from traditional forms of enquiry?
This way of working involves research as well as action, because it uses techniques of data gathering, analysis and interpretation, as well as validating the research findings; it involves monitoring and critical reflection on the action, and modified action to show that addressing the original issue hopefully made a difference in people’s lives, and has now revealed new issues to be investigated.
This is quite different from traditional kinds of research – empirical research within the scientific paradigm – which has a different starting point, and emphasises instrumental, quantitative techniques of data collection and analysis. Empirical research holds the following assumptions: there is a world of objective knowledge ‘out there’; the researcher should not be involved in the research, so the data remain uncontaminated; variables may be controlled to produce anticipated results; research is value-free; results from a sample may generalise to a whole population, and findings from one situation may be generalised to other like situations; research needs to be replicated in order to demonstrate its validity and reliability. The emphasis in data gathering and interpretation is on statistical techniques, and verification procedures involve pointing to objective evidence to substantiate research findings. Empirical research assumes a cause and effect relationship between events – ‘If I do X, then Y will follow’.
When this model is applied in social research (and also in counselling situations), it often involves the researcher doing research on other people. It is assumed that people operate in the same way as rocks and plants; that their mental and social activities can be controlled, and modifications brought about through manipulating variables. The methods of the natural sciences are assumed to be appropriate to the human sciences, and people are often viewed as passive objects in the researcher’s space and time. I was struck by Mary Montaut’s critique (in Inside Out No. 25) of how ‘the discomfort of the establishment with Rogers’ method is very evident’, even to the extent that there is resistance to the word ‘client’. In my view, this is a demonstration of how propositional forms of thinking are cultured into our society, where we view people as ‘over against’ ourselves. Our traditional research practices still adopt the medical model of ‘curing’ people – a deficiency model of relation, where we do research on others in an attempt to impose our interpretations of their lives on them, and thus aim to control them by persuading them to see the world through our eyes rather than their own. One of my areas of interest is the control of knowledge and information, and I am constantly aware that the very language that we use, as well as the messages that we receive from the external world persuade us that someone else knows better than we do, and that our personal experiential knowledge is not valued. This leads to a dependency culture, and, in my view, does not contribute to a good social order. For me, a good social order involves people working with others, each recognising the inalienable value and integrity of the individual. The purpose of empirical research is to predict, often with a hidden agenda of control; the purpose of action research is to change a situation for the better. To paraphrase Karl Marx glibly, it is not enough simply to describe the world; the point is to change it. The philosophy and methodology of action research indicates that each person can change her or his bit of the world, and, working together, they can influence their situations for massive social and cultural renewal.
I am not arguing that empirical research is not valuable. All research aims to generate and test new knowledge. In this sense, all research serves a purpose and has merit. What I am arguing is that, while empirical research has a use value, it should be used with that specific use value in mind, and not taken as the dominant form in human enquiry. I would also argue that the kind of knowledge that is celebrated by different research traditions is at issue. At the moment, social research still places a dominant value on conceptual knowledge, the facts and figures of human enquiry. I and other action researchers believe that there is need for a radical shift in what is seen as the main purpose of human enquiry – a search for methodologies and epistemologies by which we might celebrate personal experiential learning, connectedness and interrelation with each other, dialogue and listening, care and connectedness. The new quantum science of our time demonstrates the underlying unity of the universe, and those patterns are the same as the patterns of our personal and interpersonal consciousness, the interrelatedness of our self-generating social and cultural patterns (Zohar and Marshall, 1993). These are questions that go beyond a researcher doing research on others. It demands that we do research with each other, to improve our self-knowledge, and our knowledge of how we can move forward in harmony with each other, rather than valorise separateness and confrontational practices.
3. How is action research being used in various contexts?
Action research is being used extensively in a number of fields, and particularly in the area of continuing professional development. It has been taken up energetically in third level and higher education contexts, and is used widely in teacher education, and increasingly in police training, nursing and health care, the civil service, and the service professions.
This approach to professional development involves departures from traditional forms, both from the practitioner’s and from the provider’s point of view. The practitioner is assumed to know what she is doing, and is seen as the person best placed to make judgements about her own professional practice. Responsible professionals are constantly reviewing their work and appraising their own performance, to ensure that they are being as effective as possible. Action research is particularly helpful here, because self-assessment is not seen as a ‘bolt-on’ but as an integral part of self-reflective practice. The role and responsibility of the provider changes, too. The provider is not seen as ‘the person with the answers’. She is seen as a supporter and a learning partner. Practitioners and providers acknowledge that they probably have different strengths and limitations, and different areas of expertise, but they are peer professionals. They share their professional knowledge in the spirit of securing a quality experience for their clients. This kind of democratic practice demolishes elitist forms of knowledge and barriers of role in relationships. People are acknowledged for who they are, rather than what status they hold, and authoritarian social and relational structures are challenged and rendered obsolete.
Some of the pioneers of action research, working as early as the 1940s, said that everyone in the enterprise ought to engage in their own self-reflective enquiries. As action research became well known in higher education, particularly in the UK, it was embraced by academics who were working in teacher education. Many academics encouraged teachers to do action research, without doing it themselves. The contradiction here between values and practice was challenged vigorously (e.g. Whitehead, 1993), and today many academics are involved in producing descriptions and explanations for their own development, and producing case study material to show that process (e.g. Russell and Korthagan, 1995). Increasing numbers of practitioners in all contexts are conducting enquiries into their own work: students in schools, managers, nurses, police, counsellors, parents and welfare officers. The democratic nature of action research means that elitist forms are challenged, and people everywhere are regarded as equals in the enquiry, and not underlings (Lomax, 1994).
4. How could action research be taken forward by humanist and integrative psychotherapists?
It seems to me that the practice of counselling and psychotherapy is informed by the same values that inform the epistemology and methodology of action research – recognition of the inalienable worth of the individual, the need for dialogue to enable people to create their own meanings out of their realities, a commitment by people to take responsibility for their own lives, a commitment to self-reflection and a model of learning, the legitimacy of autobiography and personal enquiry as a form of making sense out of confusion. These values inform the practices of counselling and psychotherapy in the sense that people work with, rather than on, other people; people, share their learning and modify it in the light of the other’s responses. There is no intention of ‘curing’ a person so much as helping that person to make sense for themselves of what is happening. It is not experience that is important in our lives, but what we learn from and do with the experience. Counsellors and their clients, and action researchers, decide for themselves what they will do with their own experience, and they commit themselves to transforming that experience into wise practice for the benefit of other people.
Deciding for ourselves and taking responsibility for our own decisions does not mean freedom to throw one’s weight about. Freedom should always be accompanied by moral responsibility. Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby in Charles Kingsley’s ‘The Water Babies’ is the one to watch. Action research helps people to look at what they are doing with a view to improving it. They decide in collaboration with each other what the best way forward might be. They bring their own critical reflection to bear on the actions they decide to take, to make sure that those actions are in other people’s best interest. It is very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that we are serving others when we are really serving ourselves. We constantly have to check this. This is one reason why we gather the data and produce evidence to show that what we are doing really has had benefit in the lives of other people, and we ask them to produce their testimony to say that this is so. To do action research for its own sake is pointless, in the same way that counselling is pointless without a purposeful counselling relationship. Action research focuses on relation, as does counselling. To make sure that we do live out our values in our practice means producing clear evidence that we have done what we claim to have done in helping other people.
This has been a very brief overview of some of the main aspects of the philosophy and methodology of action research. In future I would like to explore other issues of how we do the research, and to produce some case study evidence of its power in helping people to live more productive and peaceful lives.
There is a substantial literature on action research and self-reflective practice. I would be glad to be in touch with you in this respect, or on any other matter concerning action research and personal and professional development. You can reach me in care of the Editor of Inside Out.
Lomax, P. (1994) ‘Standards, criteria and the problematic of action research’ in Educational Action Research, 2(1)113-167.
McNiff, J. (1988) Action Research: Principles and Practice; London and New York, Routledge.
McNiff, J. (1993) Teaching as Learning; London and New York, Routledge.
McNiff, J., Lomax, P. and Whitehead, J. (1996) You and Your Action Research Project; London and New York, Routledge and Hyde.
Russell, T. and Korthagan, F. (1995) Teachers Who Teach Teachers; London, Falmer Press.
Whitehead, J. (1993) The Growth of Educational Knowledge; Creating Your Own Living Educational Theory through Action Research; Bournemouth, Hyde Publications.
Zohar, D. and Marshall, I. (1993) The Quantum Society; London, Flamingo.
Jean McNiff is an independent consultant, currently working mainly in Ireland, supporting teachers and other professionals in gaining accreditation for workbased learning through practitioner-centred action research.