Course Director: Beth Franklin
Action Research proceeds by using
a series of theory-practice cycles to improve the circumstances
of the people involved in the research. Plans are created, then
implemented, and the results evaluated to inform the next cycle
of planning. But this chicken and egg situation has to start
somewhere - an initial plan has to be created. This document
itself has been created to serve as just such a plan. It is written
in the form of a listing of some things I think are potentially
important to do in the first stages of an anticipated action research
My particular planned intervention
involves participants in a community of interest, rather than
a particular organization or geographic locale. This community
is world-wide and addresses a multitude of broad social problems,
and it is my aim to facilitate their focusing on a particular
problem. In this case, I am preparing to assist the social investment
field to focus more on how they might influence corporations to
reduce greenhouse gas emissions, thereby reducing the dangers
of climate change.
Since this situation is relatively
unique, and not typical of most Action Research projects (e.g.,
the researcher isn't an outside party "called in" by
domain-based insiders to apply methodological expertise in addressing
an already-perceived problem), this document should not be considered
a 'recipe' to be applied in all cases, but rather an illustration
of some theory-derived guidelines for beginning research with
a specific circumstance in mind. It will also provide a baseline
for reflection on the methodology as the project proceeds. For
brevity and the sake of generalization, however, I have not included
the details pertinent to my own particular research.
As the following sections describe,
there are four main sets of activities that flow into one another
when initiating the research: 1) methodological preparation,
which involves acquiring knowledge of action research principles
and techniques; 2) preparation for intervention, which
includes acquiring knowledge of the field, developing personal
research tools, creating introductory and background documents,
and developing an initial schedule; 3) first contact, which
involves making initial contacts, creating a website, beginning
a funding proposal, and considering alignment with a reputable
organization; and 4) design team, which includes creating
a web forum, developing strategy, assigning and implementing sub-tasks,
It is quite useful to have a good
grasp of the methodology prior to undertaking an Action Research
project. This helps provide the researcher with a procedural
framework upon which to base decisions and actions. One might
take a course, or read a number of books and articles, but writing
a paper will help to consolidate knowledge of the subject. It
can also be tailored to the situation and distributed to participants
as background reference material. In particular, researchers
would do well to anticipate which types of related methods might
be used over the course of the project and include these in their
studies, if possible. These sub-methods might include focus groups,
participant observation techniques, surveys, and the like.
Since the field of Action Research
is continually evolving, serious practitioners should strive to
keep up with the latest insights provided by the experience of
other researchers. Subscribing to the relevant journals, or to
the Internet mail lists (e.g., Action Research List (Arlist-l)
and Action Research Methodology Network (Armnet-l), will provide
information and forums for inquiry for ongoing learning.
Once the researcher is methodologically
aware, the next stage is to prepare for the research undertaking
at hand. This period is for gathering background information
on the community of interest and developing the tools to be used.
Note that this phase of information collection is not an end
in itself - while no significant contact is made yet with participants
in the 'community', the researcher will be continually corroborating
and updating this initial information during subsequent interactions
in the field.
Prior to entering into purposeful
interactions with members of a working community of interest,
it is very helpful to have acquired a good understanding of the
concepts, history and general knowledge of the field. This will
not only serve to impress contacts, but will also allow the researcher
to be less of an outsider in their eyes and make collaboration
more likely. It also makes communication flow more smoothly if
the researcher has already learned their worldview, values, and
'language'. One must be aware that this background research
may produce a bias, though, and one must be prepared to keep an
open mind in later interactions.
There are several areas to focus
background preparation on: the players and their activities, their
modes of communications, and the historical dynamics of the community.
First, developing a good overview
of the players and their activities is important to avoid future
oversight of relevant stakeholders in the process. Researching
the players is a matter of discovering the organizations involved
and what they do. Core organizations will be those whose work
is directly related to the central tenets of the field. Peripheral
organizations are those that share similar aims to the core groups,
or occasionally provide similar services, but whose work is primarily
in another area. The distinction is useful, insofar as it helps
to situate the main body of participants in the 'domain', and
at the same time provides a working knowledge of potential 'allies'.
Knowing what they do involves scanning
a gamut of individual players, noting their main operational objectives,
and placing them into various categories. This typology (which
may already exist, which makes things easier) will help in better
understanding their communications and linkages. Though it will
take time, knowing the 'network' of interactions is important
to weaving people and activities together.
There are two other aspects to work
on. One is to be able to rank the organizations within each of
their categories to know which are seen to be the more important
players. The other is to identify the individuals who are considered
noteworthy decision-makers in the field - these are the ones to
involve on a personal basis as the initiative progresses.
It is good to know the communication
venues of the players as well. These are the main means by which
news and ideas are disseminated, and collaborative ventures initiated
and coordinated. Knowing which magazines and newsletters are
produced, which reports and news articles have been written, and
which mail lists and websites are available, will make it easier
to find information as well as distribute it. Again, wherever
possible, it helps to rank these communication vehicles, especially
in terms of their audience size and perceived importance.
The interorganizational dynamics
of the community will be difficult to glean at this point, since
much of that kind of information is not often published, but it
is helpful to keep notes on any alliances, joint ventures, and
other linkages among the players, as well as any rifts or divisions
Preparation is not just a matter
of background research, it is also important to get several research
'tools' ready for deployment. Such tools involve setting up systems
for managing information as it is acquired, and so it is highly
recommended that information technology be used in this regard
(i.e., computers and software programs).
Keeping a research journal will help
in remembering the details of activities undertaken, and make
periodic summaries easier. Setting up a listing of contacts,
including their e-mail addresses, will facilitate communication.
A document repository system will be needed in the collection
of reference materials - using both electronic and paper-based
filing systems. And, since the Internet is becoming so popular,
a means of categorizing and filing e-mail correspondence and website
bookmarks will prove invaluable.
Just as it is handy to have a business
card to hand out when meeting someone, it is also of benefit to
have prepared documents ready to give to contacts and potential
participants. A personal introduction should include a statement
of bias - the relating of beliefs and opinions to show others
"where you're coming from". At some point, depending
on the impetus for the project, it is useful to introduce people
to the research procedure with a description of expected or possible
activities (e.g., a plan such as this document). A paper on the
Action Research methodology may be distributed here, as could
any other overviews of particular issue areas that affect the
project, but that are not necessarily common knowledge to participants.
Finally, a statement on ethics and privacy, along with any consent
forms needing participants' signatures, may be required to conduct
A key part of intervening in a community
of interest is the timing of activities. Knowing not only the
upcoming dates of significant events, such as major conferences,
but also the general scheduled activities of certain players in
the community (such as work 'recesses' for politicians or teachers),
will help in the planning of research interventions. It is also
vital to be aware of one's own upcoming future since, as a major
initiator of action, the researcher must have the time available
to carry out certain requirements of the work. It helps to develop
such a scheduling system in the beginning, and constantly revise
it as the project proceeds.
Once the preliminary, pre-intervention
preparation is complete, it is time to begin making initial contacts
and becoming interactive. From here on, actions taken will be
based on the feedback and advice of members of the research 'domain'.
Initial contacts must be made to
solicit the involvement of insiders required by Action Research.
These people will hopefully do three things: a) provide insider
information about the domain - its scope, stakeholders, problems,
issues and dynamics; b) give the researcher advice and feedback
on the initial deployment of the methodology and the strategy
for intervention; and c) suggest suitable people as possible members
of the project's design team, and comment on the means by which
to engage them. They may also advise on finding resources, particularly
funding for the research.
Careful thought must go into choosing
the 4 to 6 people initially contacted. They should be representative
of the community of interest, have a good working knowledge of
the domain, and, if possible, be well-connected and respected
by their colleagues. It is also necessary for them to be sympathetic
to the research ideals and have the time to interact with the
Unless the researcher's reputation
is of sufficient stature, or the case for the research project
overwhelming, it will be difficult to elicit the participation
of busy decision-makers immediately. For this reason, there are
two strategies that may prove useful. First, personally-known
contacts can be tapped to provide assistance. If they are in
the domain, so much the better; if not, they may provide personal
links to those that are. Personal relations are definitely superior
to 'cold calls' to strangers, although such calls may be necessary.
Second, try to locate those people who have expressed a concern
about, or are already working on, the particular problem of interest.
They may not have the influence or resources needed, but they
will probably have the inclination to participate. If they can't
spare the time, they may be able to suggest someone who can.
Communication with these first contacts
will be one-to-one with the researcher, by telephone unless face-to-face
meetings can be arranged, with subsequent follow-up in written
correspondence (mainly via e-mail). A summary of feedback should
be written up by the researcher at this point, and distributed
to these first contacts. It is possible that some of them will
become members of the design team.
The Internet is proving to be an
excellent communication tool for facilitating group processes,
and one of the best ways to keep people informed about a project
as it unfolds is to make use of a website. It can not only provide
a common online 'file cabinet' for relevant documents, it also
can act as a central reference point for gathering and disseminating
information. Online forms, for example, can provide a quick means
of conducting surveys, sound bites and video clips can be mounted
online, and areas restricted by passwords can be used in conjunction
with computer conferences to allow private group discussions.
To create a good website is no easy
task, and resources should be found to get professional assistance
here as soon as possible. However, it is not too difficult to
set up a simple, functional site by oneself, so lack of professional
resources should not preclude establishing one at the outset of
the project. The initial contacts can provide feedback on the
design and utility of this initiative.
While many social endeavours are
carried out purely on a volunteer basis, any large-scale or long-term
social change intervention will require significant resources.
A funding source is thus essential, particularly to elicit the
support of overworked personnel of underfunded non-profit organizations.
Advice on potential funding sources,
as well as suggestions about fundable activities, can be solicited
from initial contacts to form the basis of a draft funding proposal.
In order to immerse oneself even
more in the domain, the researcher could consider alignment with
an organization in the field. Part-time work is a possibility,
with full-time work to be considered only if it could contain
the action research project itself. Voluntary service, such as
joining a board of directors, or working on a committee or campaign,
is another way to become more of an insider. It could also help
to obtain endorsement or sponsorship for the research from a reputable
Successful action research requires
the development of a cadre of people working in the field who
accept the responsibilities of becoming co-researchers in the
project. They do not have to share the same values, visions,
or beliefs, but they must all be prepared to accept the basic
premises of action research as a method for improving their collective
situation. Such a group is representative of the domain as a
whole, and forms the core of the decision-making regarding subsequent
activities. Due to this role in formulating plans for action,
it is usually referred to as a design team.
Unlike the case of the initial contacts,
whose interactions with the researcher were one-to-one and of
a minimal nature, the design team interacts as a group, with significant
involvement in the process. These are the people who will define
the problem, propose initial strategies for intervention, seek
out and deploy resources, and evaluate the consequences of their
Potential members of the design team
can be initially contacted by the researcher, or by the person
who suggested their name. The researcher will explain the situation
and provide the background documents (revised upon feedback from
the initial contacts). If they are unwilling or unable, they
might suggest others who are more likely to participate.
Once they commit themselves, it will
be a matter of determining the nature and degree of their involvement.
Barriers to further participation and ways to circumvent them
should be identified. Communication procedures will need to be
established, and all members must understand the basic principles
of Action Research. These people, along with the project initiator,
will become co-researchers, mutually responsible for effecting
change and learning from their experiences.
The design team will set the research
agenda by creating an action plan, comprised of problem definition,
vision, strategy, tasks, resources, schedule of activities, and
methods of evaluation. Such a plan cannot encompass too onerous
an undertaking, since there will be few resources at hand initially,
but it will suffice for the first research cycle. One of the
first steps, presumably, will be the finishing and submission
of a funding proposal to acquire resources for future cycles.
Good communications among design
team members is essential. Face-to-face meetings are the best
way for people to do group work, and these should be conducted
whenever possible, but it is unlikely that sufficient resources
will be found in the early stages of the project to allow for
this, particularly since the members of the design team could
be living in several different countries. This, along with the
fact that telephone conference calls are expensive and difficult
to schedule, means that some kind of electronic forum will be
needed for group interactions.
The simplest and most expedient means
to stay in touch is via an Internet-based mail list. Correspondence
is many-to-many, and, as it arrives in each individual's mailbox,
is more likely to be attended to on a daily basis. At some point,
though, the group may wish to establish a private computer conference
accessible from the project website. Experimentation will be
needed to ascertain the optimal interaction patterns for such
diverse group procedures as brainstorming, consensus building,
joint documentation creation, and the like. The design team will
decide on the frequency and nature of their ongoing communications,
and this will be dependent on their circumstances at that time.
After assessing environmental constraints
and opportunities, and visioning the "desired futures",
an initial strategy of action will be established. Out of this
strategy, a number of activities will be decided upon to realize
the goals set. Members of the design team will accept individual
responsibility for carrying out these sub-tasks. In order to
have a basis for future evaluation, the tasks will have timelines,
resource budgets, and reporting mechanisms attached to them.
Ongoing communication on the implementation
of the assigned tasks will be occurring on both a regular and
ad hoc basis. This 'formative' evaluation is needed to maintain
group interest and involvement, coordinate action, and share support
when difficulties are encountered.
At the predetermined 'end' of the
initial research cycle, a 'summative' evaluation will also be
needed to assess to what degree the group's actions have succeeded.
The project initiator will most likely be the one to write up
the evaluative report, after getting feedback from the others.
This report will form the basis for the next cycle of research.
Once the design team has begun operating effectively, the initial phase of the project can be said to be complete. The onus for conducting the project has been removed from the initiating researcher and is now shared among several people willing to work together on the issue. But, as is the nature of all cyclical processes, many of the activities begun in this phase will have to be maintained, and improved on, during subsequent research phases. The tools and techniques used will be re-applied as the project evolves and expands, and new ones added, and they will be made all the better as the result of the experience gained from these initial preparations.
Preparation for Intervention
Develop the design team, i.e., those "resonant" insiders - sympathetic, in-the-know, known by you or recommended by someone who knows them
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