Action research is a research initiated to solve an immediate problem or a reflective process of progressive problem solving led by individuals working with others in teams or as part of a "community of practice" to improve the way they address issues and solve problems. It sometimes called participatory action research.
Action research involves the process of actively participating in an organization change situation whilst conducting research. Action research can also be undertaken by larger organizations or institutions, assisted or guided by professional researchers, with the aim of improving their strategies, practices and knowledge of the environments within which they practice. As designers and stakeholders, researchers work with others to propose a new course of action to help their community improve its work practices.
Kurt Lewin, then a professor at MIT, first coined the term “action research” in 1944. In his 1946 paper “Action Research and Minority Problems” he described action research as “a comparative research on the conditions and effects of various forms of social action and research leading to social action” that uses “a spiral of steps, each of which is composed of a circle of planning, action and fact-finding about the result of the action”.
Action research is an interactive inquiry process that balances problem solving actions implemented in a collaborative context with data-driven collaborative analysis or research to understand underlying causes enabling future predictions about personal and organizational change (Reason & Bradbury, 2002). After six decades of action research development, many methods have evolved that adjust the balance to focus more on the actions taken or more on the research that results from the reflective understanding of the actions. This tension exists between
- those who are more driven by the researcher’s agenda and those more driven by participants;
- those who are motivated primarily by instrumental goal attainment and those motivated primarily by the aim of personal, organizational or societal transformation; and
- 1st-, to 2nd-, to 3rd-person research, that is, my research on my own action, aimed primarily at personal change; our research on our group (family/team), aimed primarily at improving the group; and ‘scholarly’ research aimed primarily at theoretical generalization and/or large scale change.
Action research challenges traditional social science by moving beyond reflective knowledge created by outside experts sampling variables, to an active moment-to-moment theorizing, data collecting and inquiry occurring in the midst of emergent structure. “Knowledge is always gained through action and for action. From this starting point, to question the validity of social knowledge is to question, not how to develop a reflective science about action, but how to develop genuinely well-informed action — how to conduct an action science” (Torbert 2002). In this sense, performing action research is the same as performing an experiment, thus it is an empirical process.
Major theories 
Chris Argyris' Action Science 
Chris Argyris' Action Science begins with the study of how human beings design their actions in difficult situations. Humans design their actions to achieve intended consequences and are governed by a set of environment variables. How those governing variables are treated in designing actions are the key differences between single loop learning and double loop learning. When actions are designed to achieve the intended consequences and to suppress conflict about the governing variables, a single loop learning cycle usually ensues.
On the other hand, when actions are taken, not only to achieve the intended consequences, but also to openly inquire about conflict and to possibly transform the governing variables, both single loop and double loop learning cycles usually ensue. (Argyris applies single loop and double loop learning concepts not only to personal behaviors but also to organizational behaviors in his models.) This is different from experimental research in which environmental variables are controlled and researchers try to find out cause and effect in an isolated environment.
John Heron and Peter Reason's Cooperative Inquiry 
Cooperative inquiry, also known as collaborative inquiry was first proposed by John Heron in 1971 and later expanded with Peter Reason and Demi Brown. The major idea of cooperative inquiry is to “research ‘with’ rather than ‘on’ people.” It emphasizes that all active participants are fully involved in research decisions as co-researchers.
Cooperative inquiry creates a research cycle among four different types of knowledge: propositional knowing (as in contemporary science), practical knowing (the knowledge that comes with actually doing what you propose), experiential knowing (the feedback we get in real time about our interaction with the larger world) and presentational knowing (the artistic rehearsal process through which we craft new practices). The research process includes these four stages at each cycle with deepening experience and knowledge of the initial proposition, or of new propositions, at every cycle.
Paulo Freire's Participatory Action Research (PAR) 
Participatory action research has emerged in recent years as a significant methodology for intervention, development and change within communities and groups. It is now promoted and implemented by many international development agencies and university programs, as well as countless local community organizations around the world. PAR builds on the critical pedagogy put forward by Paulo Freire as a response to the traditional formal models of education where the “teacher” stands at the front and “imparts” information to the “students” who are passive recipients. This was further developed in "adult education" models throughout Latin America.
Orlando Fals-Borda (1925–2008), Colombian sociologist and political activist, was one of principal promoters of "participatory action research" (IAP in Spanish) in Latin America. Published "double history of the coast", book that compare the official "history" and the non official "story" of the north coast of Colombia.
William Torbert’s Developmental Action Inquiry 
The Developmental Action Inquiry is a “way of simultaneously conducting action and inquiry as a disciplined leadership practice that increases the wider effectiveness of our actions. Such action helps individuals, teams, organizations become more capable of self-transformation and thus more creative, more aware, more just and more sustainable” (Torbert, 2004).
Action Inquiry challenges our attention to span four different territories of experience (at the personal, group or organizational scales) in the midst of actions. This practice promotes timeliness – learning with moment to moment intentional awareness – among individuals and with regard to the outside world of nature and human institutions. It studies the “pre-constituted internalized and externalized universe in the present, both as it resonates with and departs from the past and as it resonates with and potentiates the future” (Torbert, 2001).
Jack Whitehead's Living Theory approach to action research 
In generating a Living theory, most recently explained in Whitehead and McNiff (2006), individuals generate explanations of their educational influences in their own learning, in the learning of others and in the learning of social formations. They generate the explanations from experiencing themselves as living contradictions in enquiries of the kind 'How do I improve what I am doing?'
They use action reflection cycles of expressing concerns (saying why you are concerned in relation to values), imagining possibilities in developing action plans, acting and gathering data, evaluating the influences of action, modifying concerns, ideas and action in the light of the evaluations. The explanations include life-affirming, energy-flowing values as explanatory principles. Resources and material to support researchers are freely accessible from http://www.actionresearch.net
Action research in organization development 
Wendell L. French and Cecil Bell define organization development (OD) at one point as "organization improvement through action research". If one idea can be said to summarize OD's underlying philosophy, it would be action research as it was conceptualized by Kurt Lewin and later elaborated and expanded on by other behavioral scientists. Concerned with social change and, more particularly, with effective, permanent social change, Lewin believed that the motivation to change was strongly related to action: If people are active in decisions affecting them, they are more likely to adopt new ways. "Rational social management", he said, "proceeds in a spiral of steps, each of which is composed of a circle of planning, action and fact-finding about the result of action".
- Unfreezing : Faced with a dilemma or disconfirmation, the individual or group becomes aware of a need to change.
- Changing : The situation is diagnosed and new models of behavior are explored and tested.
- Refreezing: Application of new behavior is evaluated, and if reinforcing, adopted.
Lewin's description of the process of change involves three steps:
Figure 1 summarizes the steps and processes involved in planned change through action research. Action research is depicted as a cyclical process of change.
- The cycle begins with a series of planning actions initiated by the client and the change agent working together. The principal elements of this stage include a preliminary diagnosis, data gathering, feedback of results, and joint action planning. In the language of systems theory, this is the input phase, in which the client system becomes aware of problems as yet unidentified, realizes it may need outside help to effect changes, and shares with the consultant the process of problem diagnosis.
- The second stage of action research is the action, or transformation, phase. This stage includes actions relating to learning processes (perhaps in the form of role analysis) and to planning and executing behavioral changes in the client organization. As shown in Figure 1, feedback at this stage would move via Feedback Loop A and would have the effect of altering previous planning to bring the learning activities of the client system into better alignment with change objectives. Included in this stage is action-planning activity carried out jointly by the consultant and members of the client system. Following the workshop or learning sessions, these action steps are carried out on the job as part of the transformation stage.
- The third stage of action research is the output or results phase. This stage includes actual changes in behavior (if any) resulting from corrective action steps taken following the second stage. Data are again gathered from the client system so that progress can be determined and necessary adjustments in learning activities can be made. Minor adjustments of this nature can be made in learning activities via Feedback Loop B (see Figure 1).
Major adjustments and reevaluations would return the OD project to the first or planning stage for basic changes in the program. The action-research model shown in Figure 1 closely follows Lewin's repetitive cycle of planning, action, and measuring results. It also illustrates other aspects of Lewin's general model of change. As indicated in the diagram, the planning stage is a period of unfreezing, or problem awareness. The action stage is a period of changing, that is, trying out new forms of behavior in an effort to understand and cope with the system's problems. (There is inevitable overlap between the stages, since the boundaries are not clear-cut and cannot be in a continuous process).
The results stage is a period of refreezing, in which new behaviors are tried out on the job and, if successful and reinforcing, become a part of the system's repertoire of problem-solving behavior. Action research is problem centered, client centered, and action oriented. It involves the client system in a diagnostic, active-learning, problem-finding and problem-solving process.
Data are not simply returned in the form of a written report but instead are fed back in open joint sessions, and the client and the change agent collaborate in identifying and ranking specific problems, in devising methods for finding their real causes and in developing plans for coping with them realistically and practically. Scientific method in the form of data gathering, forming hypotheses, testing hypotheses and measuring results, although not pursued as rigorously as in the laboratory, is nevertheless an integral part of the process. Action research also sets in motion a long-range, cyclical, self-correcting mechanism for maintaining and enhancing the effectiveness of the client's system by leaving the system with practical and useful tools for self-analysis and self-renewal.
See also 
- Action learning
- Action Medical Research
- Action Research (journal)
- Appreciative Inquiry
- Lesson study
- Praxis intervention
- Reflective practice
- Wendell L French; Cecil Bell (1973). Organization development: behavioral science interventions for organization improvement. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall. p. 18. ISBN 978-0-13-641662-3. OCLC 314258.
- Kurt Lewin (1958). Group Decision and Social Change. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. p. 201.
- Richard Arvid Johnson (1976). Management, systems, and society : an introduction. Pacific Palisades, Calif.: Goodyear Pub. Co. pp. 222–224. ISBN 978-0-87620-540-2. OCLC 2299496.
- Center for Collaborative Action Research Contains examples of peer-reviewed action research reports and a wiki for supporting those engaged in the process of writing or supporting action research.
- James, E. Alana; Milenkiewicz, Margaret T.; Bucknam, Alan. Participatory Action Research for Educational Leadership: Using Data-Driven Decision Making to Improve Schools. Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2007. ISBN-978-1-4129-3777-1
- Burns, D. 2007. Systemic Action Research: A strategy for whole system change. Bristol: Policy Press.
- Davison, R., Martinsons, M., & Kock, N. (2004). Principles of canonical action research. Information Systems Journal, 14(1), 65-86.
- Noffke, S. & Somekh, B. (Ed.) (2009) The SAGE Handbook of Educational Action Research. London: SAGE. ISBN 978-1-4129-4708-4.
- Greenwood, D. J. & Levin, M., Introduction to action research: social research for social change, Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1998.
- Reason, P. & Bradbury, H., (Ed.) The SAGE Handbook of Action Research. Participative Inquiry and Practice. 1st Edition. London: Sage, 2001. ISBN 0-7619-6645-5.
- Reason & Bradbury, Handbook of Action Research, 2nd Edition. London: Sage, 2007. ISBN 978-1-4129-2029-2.
- Sherman & Torbert, Transforming Social Inquiry, Transforming Social Action: New paradigms for crossing the theory/practice divide in universities and communities. Boston, Kluwer, 2000.
- Stringer, E.T. (1999). Action research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
- Woodman & Pasmore, Research in Organizational Change & Development series. Greenwich CT: Jai Press
- Addison-Wesley Series in Organization Development
- Pine, Gerald J. (2008). Teacher Action Research: Building Knowledge Democracies, Sage Publications.
- Scholarly Journals
- Philosophical sources of action research
- Abram, D. 1996. The Spell of the Sensuous. New York: Vintage.
- Argyris, C. Putnam, R. & Smith, D. 1985. Action Science: Concepts, methods and skills for research and intervention. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
- Gadamer, H. 1982. Truth and Method. New York: Crossroad.
- Habermas, J. 1984/1987. The Theory of Communicative Action, Vol.s I & II. Boston:Beacon.
- Hallward, P. 2003. Badiou: A subject to truth. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
- Lewin, K. (1946) Action research and minority problems. J Soc. Issues 2(4): 34-46.
- Lewin, G.W. (Ed.) (1948). Resolving social conflicts. New York, NY: Harper & Row. (Collection of articles by Kurt Lewin)
- Malin, S. 2001. Nature Loves to Hide: Quantum physics and the nature of reality, a Western perspective. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Polanyi, M. 1958. Personal Knowledge. New York: Harper.
- Senge, P. 1990. The Fifth Discipline. New York: Doubleday Currency.
- Torbert, W. 1991. The Power of Balance: Transforming Self, Society, and Scientific Inquiry
- Varela, F., Thompson, E. & Rosch E. 1991. The Embodied Mind: Cognitive science and human experience. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.
- Whitehead, J. & McNiff, J. (2006) Action Research Living Theory, London; Sage. ISBN 978-1-4129-0855-9.
- Wilber, K. 1998. The Marriage of Sense and Soul: Integrating science and religion. New York: Random House
- Exemplars and methodological discussions of action research
- Argyris, C. 1970. Intervention Theory and Method. Reading MA: Addison-Wesley.
- Argyris, C. 1980. Inner Contradictions of Rigorous Research. San Diego CA: Academic Press.
- Argyris, C. 1994. Knowledge for Action. San Francisco CA: Jossey-Bass.
- Cameron, K. & Quinn, R. 1999. Diagnosing and Changing Organizational Culture. Reading MA: Addison-Wesley.
- Freire, P. 1970. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Herder & Herder.
- Garreau, J. 2005. Radical Evolution: The promise and peril of enhancing our minds, our bodies – and what it means to be human. New York: Doubleday.
- Heikkinen, H., Kakkori, L. & Huttunen, R. 2001. This is my truth, tell me yours: some aspects of action research quality in the light of truth theories. Educational Action Research 1/2001. http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/content~content=a739035953
- Heron, J. 1996. Cooperative Inquiry: Research into the human condition. London: Sage.
- McNiff, J. & Whitehead, J. (2006) All You Need To Know About Action Research, London; Sage.
- Ogilvy, J. 2000. Creating Better Futures: Scenario planning as a tool for a better tomorrow. Oxford UK: Oxford University Press.
- Reason, P. & Rowan, J. 1981. Human Inquiry: A Sourcebook of New Paradigm Research. London: Wiley.
- Reason, P. 1995. Participation in Human Inquiry. London: Sage.
- Schein, E. 1999. Process Consultation Revisited. Reading MA: Addison-Wesley.
- Senge, P., Scharmer, C., Jaworski, J., & Flowers, B. 2004. Presence: Human purpose and the field of the future. Cambridge MA: Society for Organizational Learning.
- Torbert, W. & Associates 2004. Action Inquiry: The Secret of Timely and Transforming Leadership.
- 1st-Person Research/Practice Exemplars
- Bateson, M. 1984. With a Daughter’s Eye: A Memoir of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson. New York: Plume/Penguin.
- Raine, N. 1998. After Silence: Rape and My Journey Back. New York: Crown.
- Harrison, R. 1995. Consultant's Journey. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
- Todhunter, C. 2001. Undertaking Action Research: Negotiating the Road Ahead, Social Research Update, Issue 34, Autumn.
- Whitehead, J. (1993) The Growth of Educational Knowledge, Bournemouth; Hyde. Retrieved 1 March 2007 from http://www.actionresearch.net/writings/jwgek93.htm
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- DARnet wiki - Action Research with distributed communities of practice
- Action Research in Science Education - from the Education Resources Information Center Clearinghouse for Science, Mathematics, and Environmental Education, Columbus, Ohio.