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Complexities Involved in Participatory Action Research

written by: Jo Murphy•edited by: Laurie Patsalides•updated: 3/11/2011

There are many forms of action research. This is because different styles of research suit a variety of applications at the "level" at which the research is being performed. Here we describe the complexities of participatory action research.

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    Discreet Simplicity Ensures Manageability

    Action research can become very complex if the process isn't managed in a simple straight forward manner. At the problem redefinition stage the questions themselves can "slip or "dive" as the cycles of questioning glide into new stages that evolve at a deeper level (Muir, 2007). This is not a discreet process; the process is much more fluid, especially if the research groups are large.

    As mentioned in Steps to Writing an Action Research Plan, at the dialectic stage, after data has been gathered, different cohorts may choose to act in different ways based on a variety of attitudes toward the same material collected.

    There are many complexities of participatory action research. On the individual level, teachers find that they can test assumptions, make discoveries about their teaching and the classroom dynamic by listening carefully to students and collaborating with other professionals. Action research is about conversations that take place in classrooms, schools and the community from a local to a global context.

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    Ways to Keep the Action Research Dynamic Simple

    Even at the simplest, most basic, classroom level the research question is expected to slip. This is a fluid and often unpredictable process, especially if the research groups are large.

    By working with students and collaborating with professionals, teachers become involved in productive conversations. These conversations guide decisions. This makes it important to keep the process simple.

    Ways to Keep the Dynamic Simple -

    • understand that "You get More of What You Focus On" (Simplicity)
    • keep people in the loop
    • ensure language is simple
    • design and use simple data capture systems
    • don't allow computing filing systems to become a complex mystery
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    Accountability to the Research Community

    In the Friday Afternoon Ambiance FAA example, there was great importance placed on respect, listening and democratic process. Co-research amounted to co-learning and this is basic to managing the research process.

    Active collaboration of researcher and client must be focused around two intertwined objectives to:

    1. unearth useful information for the client in the research environment
    2. documenting new knowledge in a way that will be useful and usable for the research community as a whole

    This is why it is desirable, but not imperative, that professionals facilitate the process at the beginning. Teachers can be guided about sound collection methods. They can be shown ways to adequately diagnose and evaluate as they are become adept at a process. This process can then inform personal teaching practice for an entire career.

    As well, when teachers have been adequately guided by professional research facilitators, the information, strategies and approaches to community knowledge building can bring useful insight at local through to district level. The process is all the more powerful as it is embraced by whole school communities. As the process strengthens, benefits can eventually "trickle up" to government policy and international collaborations.

    The blatant emphasis on scientific study implies that research is intended to be systematic and informed by theoretical considerations. There is an expectation that as teachers become more adept at research techniques, they will spend time refining the methodological tools. These tools will be molded to fit the exigencies of classrooms, as teachers collect, analyze, and present data on an ongoing, cyclical basis (O'Brien, 2001).

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    Action research evolved as a way to solve genuine problems and the co researchers will face real life dilemmas. Within authentic situations researchers do not remain objective. Making known bias in action research to other researchers ensures the process is transparent and that collaborators are accountable.
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    Bias in Action Research

    Gradually stakeholders learn how to apply what they have learned to research that has a social dimension. The questions being asked must "matter" to stakeholders. It is essential that the questions make sense within the context of the co-researchers authentic world.

    Researchers openly aim to solve genuine problems and will be faced with real life dilemmas. This is an authentic situation within which researchers do not remain objective. By openly acknowledging bias to the participants, they reveal honestly if they have a stake in advocacy.

    For example, those who work with refugee claimants must make known their affiliations, and the reasons why they do their work. In this way it is possible to be transparent when gaining permission to raise pertinent questions in the field. In this article, I have as an educator laid my own concerns for refugee claimants transparently on the line in Rethink refugee's strategies for Australian citizens (2011).

    As teachers learn to become researchers, they tap their own potential to become experts. Over time they will recognize within themselves theories and ideas, which they will refine in the light of evidence as it surfaces. They are not creating an objective body of knowledge; rather they seek to become deeply engaged in all of the complexity and “messiness" of the problems that affect human beings as they go about the business of their daily lives.

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    Action Researchers Need to Be Able to Negotiate Conflict

    Action researchers will become negotiators and mediators of conflict. Because the process builds empathy, they will develop an ability to tolerate ambiguity and lack of closure.

    The paradigm of action research has not been contrived within the safe space of a laboratory experiment. Researchers come face to face with co-researchers, rather than rely on large population samples of people, who have been approached outside the realm of everyday experience.

    Research is personally oriented toward:

    • natural, direct experience
    • rawness and directness of the encounters that ensure a productive and fertile arena for discovery
    • the messiness and unpredictability of "normal" life

    These attributes can be frustrating as well as 'embodied' and emotional in ways that are not usually welcomed by the scientific community.

    In this article Jacobs Educates for Compassion and Empathy, readers will see that trust and rapport were built rapidly over a two and half hour period. Although the workshop was a training session for teachers, teachers can see what fruitful dialectic could culminate in a debriefing session that would occur to capitalize on material unearthed in such a session.

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    Role Reversal

    Role Reversal
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    The Messiness and Unpredictability of Action Research

    Because correspondents are telling 'their truth' from their own point of view, 'truth' becomes a relative proposition. Reflective critique is a necessary process. Researchers must become good at facilitating tension and conflict, as well as manage the energy released by insight. This is to ensure participants reflect on issues and processes in a useful way.

    It is possible to distill honest, social truth when correspondents have modeled ways to make explicit interpretations, biases, assumptions and concerns. These factors impinge upon data gathering and interpretation stages of the research modality. Skillful facilitators gather themes as practical accounts "to form a body of information that leads to theoretical considerations" (O'Brien, 2001).

    Dialectical critique is a way to bring points of contention to the foreground by focusing attention on the issues that are a puzzle or in opposition to one another. By bringing conflict into the open, researchers are likely to bring about transformable change. To negotiate the creative tension of this conflicting situation, a high degree of trust and empathy is required. Techniques, which have become accepted in the field of the creative arts, have become popular strategies with which to deal with difficult encounters frequently experienced.

    "Principles of collaboration presupposes that each person’s ideas are equally significant. They have the potential to be resources for creating interpretive categories of analysis, negotiated among the participants" (O'Brien, 2001).

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    Community Knowledge-Building

    Researchers become committed to hearing new previously hidden voices. They try to be even handed and to consciously avoid skewing data, and they actively and consciously ask participants to let go of issues of power and control associated with status.

    Distilling themes from a stream of anecdotal input provides the potential to glean insights about notable contradictions both between many viewpoints and within a single viewpoint. These tensions lead to synergy as it arises from these oppositions (Bilorusky, 2003).

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    The idea of leading teaching research practice through honest dialog expected to bring synergistic empowerment, leads to the realization that the change process may potentially threaten all previously established ways of doing things. Honest acknowledgment of the risks associated with Action Research will help co researchers deal with feeling threatened.
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    The Risks Associated with Action Research

    The idea of dialectic leading to synergistic empowerment, leads to the realization that the change process may potentially threaten all previously established ways of doing things. In the humorous story of the Friday Afternoon Ambiance, one can see why teachers may have felt threatened. They were asked to admit that students were being indolent because they thought their teachers didn't care.

    In this case, the leadership of the pesky principle came into the foreground. "Let this be an occasion of empowerment," he said. This set the tone for a process, which would become mutual discovery and encouraging cooperation. There is a call for this kind of leadership, which is both empowering and humbling.

    When Bilorusky talks about "psychic fears among the practitioners" (2003), he is referring to risk to the ego. Many feel threatened by open discussion of interpretations, ideas, and judgments when judged within the context of their professional capacity.

    It was by design that Percy the Principle was portrayed as a "humble, unassuming, old chap, (who) felt teachers should be empowered." Bilorusky says initiators of action research would be advised to actively acknowledge and attend fears of all involved, They can strengthen an invitation by pointing out that the researchers themselves will be subject to the same process.

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    The Plural Structure of Action Research

    Action Research is by its own definition messy. Bilorusky calls this its Plural Structure, because the very foundation of the process is the acceptance of a multiplicity of views, commentaries and critiques. The messiness is welcome as a fertile ground of discovery. Complication increases when attempts are made to evaluate specific learning. Diagnostic stages throw up a multiplicity of possible actions and interpretations, so, consequently a plural structure of inquiry requires a plural text for reporting.

    Various teachers could interpret the same data, but, choose differently from a range of competing options when planning a way forward. The results of the research could lead to a variety of outcomes and strategies. How delightful!

    Co-researchers can now ask these kinds of questions:

    • "Which response brought about the most productive change for my class?"
    • "Are the varieties of responses complimentary and mutually supportive?"
    • "If the class next door chooses differently from the range of available options, will it lead to a synergy that will transmute to even better possibilities over time?"

    Bilorusky says that there will be many accounts made explicit, with commentaries on their contradictions, and a range of options for action presented. We can see why this will lead us into new questions and another spiral of a deeper and wider level.

    "A report, therefore, acts as a support for ongoing discussion among collaborators, rather than a final conclusion of fact." (Bilorusky. 2003)

    What at first seems to be over whelming messiness, is now exciting. Theory informs practice, and practice refines theory, in a continuous transformation. Implicitly held assumptions, theories and hypotheses, are made explicit as observed results inform researchers and theoretical knowledge is enhanced. There is a transformable cycle that continuously alternates emphasis between theory and practice.

    Teachers will become better able to deal with complications and to predict what is right for their situation. Because the classroom is "their domain" they will be the ones to decide, which data is the most appropriate to collect. They will have the right to call a halt if further probing could exacerbate the problem under investigation. Sensitivity to certain issues is predictable.

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    To take full advantage of the new knowledge created by the action research process, a sustained way of communicating the results of action research will be required. This will ensure people don't drop out of the communication loop. This will keep the process in motion and sustain momentum. By actively seeking to establish sustainability, creative thinking will develop communicative vehicles such as newsletters, magazines and video conferencing.
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    Sustainable Communication Platforms

    As experience increases so will the level of the research able to be undertaken. District-wide research is far more complex and utilizes more resources, but the rewards can be great, especially if well funded.

    The move from local to a wider level of research will come about naturally, as questions lead researchers to see wider implications. In our small example, other schools were contacted and a magazine allowed a much wider participation in the Friday Afternoon phenomenon.

    As action research moves to address problems common to several schools, or one of organizational management, the process moves toward complexity. There are a variety of ways this can occur within organizations, communities, performance-based and/or processes for decision-making. As the process becomes more complex, documentation requirements increase and become more laborious.

    To take full advantage of the new knowledge, a sustained communication platform would be required so that people don't drop out of the loop. This will keep the process in motion. By actively seeking to establish sustainability, creative thinking will develop vehicles such as newsletters, magazines and video conferencing.

    Flexibility and foresight will bring into existence strategies for convenient communication and dissemination of information. Occasions to showcase achievements and breakthrough strategies will become appreciative in nature and thus affirming of the process.

    Data collection and collation may become laborious, but if managed well they evolve into forms of empowerment perceived as well worthwhile.

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    Resource List

    Books & Academic Papers

    • Bilorusky,J. Community Knowledge-Building Handout for Session #7 of WISR Action-Research Seminar Series. 2003
    • Ferrance,E. Themes in Education. LAB @ Brown University. 2000
    • Gilmore,T., Krantz,J. and Ramirez,R. Action Based Modes of Inquiry and the Host-Researcher Relationship. Consultation 5.3 (Fall ): 161 1986
    • Kemmis & McTaggart, The action research planner. Deakin University Press. Victoria O'Brien, R. (2001) An Overview of the Methodological Approach of Action Research. In Roberto Richardson (Ed.), Last Accessed Feb 2011.
    • Muir.P. Action research in the scholarship of L & T. 2007
    • Senge,P. Presence. Crown Business. 2005.
    • Susman,G. "Action Research: A Sociotechnical Systems Perspective." Ed. G. Morgan. London: Sage Publications, 95-113 1983

    Online Articles

    • Jacobs Educates for Compassion and Empathy, readers will see how Jacobs and Kreisch were able to build trusting rapport rapidly over the two and half hour period. Although the workshop was a training session for teachers, teachers can see what fruitful dialectic could come in the debriefing session that would occur to capitalize on the session.
    • Rethink refugees strategies for Australian citizens (2011) In this article, I have as an educator laid my own concerns for refugee claimants transparently on the line.

Understanding Action Research

Get a great understanding of the action research process with these articles for the graduate student.
  1. Action Research Projects: Steps in the Process
  2. Steps to Writing an Action Research Plan
  3. Complexities Involved in Participatory Action Research
  4. How Triangulation Strengthens Action Research
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