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Action research international

Paper 1Pam Swepson (1998)

Separating the ideals of research from
the methodology of research, either
action research or science, can lead to
better research



Action research international is a refereed on-line journal of
action research published under the aegis of the Institute of
Workplace Research, Learning and Development, and Southern
Cross University Press



Pam Swepson

Separating the ideals of research from the methodology of research, either action research or science, can lead to better research

February 1998


I have an interest in understanding and doing good research. Given my orientation towards people systems, I mostly use qualitative methods and action research in my own work.  But for many reasons I also have a keen interest in science, particularly because I work for a government agriculture department which has a significant research function.  From this dual stance, I would like to suggest that the literature on the practice of good research, either science or action research, can be confusing when it over emphasises some of the ideals of research without integrating those ideals into a methodology that can deal with the contingencies of real life.  I describe this over-emphasis on ideals as the idealist trap.

It seems to me that this has happened in some of the literature on action research when some theorists have rightly attempted to establish the ideals of participation and emancipation, in reaction to the untenable ideal of the philosophy of a value-free science.  However, in doing so, I think they have fallen into the same idealist trap as the philosophers that they criticise.

I understand idealism to be the philosophical belief that the ideals that we create for ourselves, like truth, are achievable in the material world.  It seems to me that this belief is untenable. In my own search for truth I have accepted the position of the sceptics who have demonstrated to my satisfaction that it is impossible to achieve ultimate ideals like certain knowledge, or truth, either with the methods of science or any other method of gaining knowledge.  However, I also agree with post-modernists, like Agnes Heller, that we must not abandon ideals because they are important guides for our actions, even though they can never be achieved in the material world.

So it seems to me that research theorists or philosophers fall into the idealist trap when they insist that the ideals of research, either the ideals of objective knowledge or the ideals of emancipation and participation, must be achieved in the material world, otherwise the methodology is flawed.  This is not to say that I don't think participation and emancipation and objective knowledge are ideals to be aimed for.  In my own work, I try to keep those ideals at the front of my thinking, and I develop my methodologies as best I can to achieve as much of them as I can, while I recognise that they are not actually and totally achievable in the material world.

And I think that this is the 'philosophical' point that many agricultural scientists that I know have got to.  For whatever reasons, it seems that some of the scientists that I work with, who have the respect of their peers and their industry, have been less influenced by the ideals and philosophy of science than possibly many action researchers have been by the ideals of action research.  And it seems to me that they are then less confused about their practice.  They are not focussing on doing science or finding objective knowledge.  But while valuing both science and accuracy and honesty, they work to improve the local situation in agriculture.  I am suggesting that some of the literature on action research might have become too concerned about doing action research at the expense of suggesting methodologies for solving problems in the material and social worlds.  This over emphasis may not have helped practitioners.

I would then suggest that practical guides for the practice of good research come first hand, from stories of good research which is guided by the aims to solve real world problems, to be honest, to be liberating while dealing with local contingencies and recognising that ideals are unachievable, but important visions.


My journey to this conclusion

As I explained, I am an organisational consultant in a department of agriculture, and I use participatory methods as much as possible.  In my own work, I became concerned about how to evaluate what I do and action research seemed to have potential as a planning and evaluation framework.  But I found some of the literature on the practice of action research to be contradictory and this left me confused about how to practice it.

I read Peter Clark's book of 1972 where he describes four processes for doing action research.  These models have a fundamentally cyclic nature but vary, primarily, in the degree of participant decision making and the relationship of the researcher to the participants.  I find Clark's work very appealing because, given my work situation, I resonate with the practicalities of fitness for function, as a guide for choosing a methodology in a given situation, rather than having a general commitment to one model.

Then I read Carr and Kemmis' book of 1983 where they describe three models of action research; technical, practical and emancipatory; based on Habermas's theory of three areas of knowledge interest, with the emancipatory model being the ideal. In 1988, Kemmis and McTaggart stressed that action research must be a collaborative activity.  Again, given my work situation, I also resonate with the values of collaboration and emancipation. But the apparent conflict between the models of Clark and Kemmis et al confused me even though both perspectives have much to offer me.

I recognise that there are many other action research theorists, but I would like to use these two as exemplars of two ways of writing about action research and because I wish to widen my argument to include a discussion on the literature of scientific method as well as that of action research.


A similar issue in science

Given my confusion from the literature about the methodology of action research, I developed other ways of trying to understand what it is.  One way was to compare it with the practice and theory of science.  Unfortunately, but similarly, I discovered that the philosophy of science literature too has come under wide criticism for being impractical for scientists.

Sir Peter Medawar (1967) held that Sir Karl Popper as the greatest philosopher of science this century, if ever! But it seems to me that Popper (1974) was a philosophical idealist who attempted to a develop a scientific method as an epistemology (a way of knowing) to his vision of objective, value free knowledge. We now recognise that Popper's vision was not possible.  The work of Thomas Kuhn (1970) and others who study the history of science have criticised a value-free vision of science by showing just how value-driven science really is.  Paul Feyerabend (1993) criticised his supervisor Popper for proposing a method that is neither descriptive of what actually happens in science -- it is an ideal that is never realised; nor prescriptive of what should happen in science.  In fact, he says that if science had followed Popper's prescription as a methodology, it would have severely restricted. I am not saying that Popper's methodology is not extremely useful as a tool in some situations, especially for critically testing an idea, But that is different from saying that it is the method for achieving an ideal of value-free, objective knowledge.

I am suggesting that the problem with Popper's vision was that he was a modernist who thought that ideals like objective knowledge are universal and achievable in reality.  Sceptics like Feyerabend have demonstrated that there is no methodology that can achieve such an ideal.  However, post modernists like Agnes Heller at the action research conference in Cartagena in June 1997, suggest to us that visions are essential for creating myths that give guidance and meaning to our lives, even though they are not realities that can be achieved.

But it seems to me that the idealist trap in science has been less of a problem than it seems to be in action research.  Again, the other day, I was talking to a most esteemed and mature scientist where I work, who has an international reputation and a doctorate in veterinary science (not just a common doctorate of philosophy).  He had never even heard of some like Popper, let alone used him to guide his practice.  I am suggesting, for whatever reasons, that action researchers might be much more dependent on their action research theorists and this is a concern when some of the literature does the same as Popper did, and presents an ideal, laudable as it is, instead of a methodology, or does not separate out the ideal from the methodology.

For example, Habermas's (1984) vision of the force of the unforced argument is such an ideal.  It is an excellent vision to give meaning and guidance to our actions, but is doomed to failure if we think of it as an ideal that must be achieved in reality, and if it is not achieved it is our methodology that is flawed.

Richard Rorty (1989), on the other hand, seem to me to present a vision rather than an ideal because he recognises the failure of modernism to find an epistemology (a way to truth) and recognises our contingent condition.  Therefore he suggests that we need strong poets and that we should let a thousand flowers bloom.  His metaphors cannot be confused with ideals, but are important for creating meaning and guiding our actions.

To avoid the idealist trap, I suggest that action researchers keep the vision and values of action research separate from their methodologies in order to fully develop both.  While emancipatory research can be an ideal like value-free research can be an ideal, it can not be a methodology either because it is neither descriptive of what happens in all cases of good action research nor do I believe that it can be prescriptive of good research without the danger of overriding the contingencies of the local situations.  So, I think it would be good to keep our vision clear in one part of our mind, and to keep methodologies that are practical for local conditions in another part of our minds so that we can fully attend to both.  I believe that the research literature is confusing, when it runs the two together.

I am sure that some readers will object to me seeming to encourage yet another dangerous dichotomy, a dangerous split of ideals from method, of values from practice, of theory from practice.  Let me suggest a particular way to use dichotomies to overcome this danger.

It seems to me that since the times of Plato and Aristotle, dichotomies are an almost inescapable way of thinking for westerners.  And they are indeed dangerous when we believe that the poles of the dichotomies are descriptions of reality or universal essences.  However, I suggest that instead of thinking of the poles of dichotomies as realities, we think of dichotomies as useful thinking tools, and as such, they can help us to clearly define the poles for our dialectical thinking and planning processes. This can helps us to more consciously and successfully operationalise both of the poles It seems to me that this is what we do when we create a vision in a strategic plan and then an operational one.  The vision is not a description of reality, and the two sets of plans are different but in a dialogue with each other In research, the vision could be for emancipation or objective knowledge but needs to have well-spelt-out operational plan or methodology to deal with the contingencies of the local situation.

I accept and embrace the visions that Kemmis et al and Habermas present to us.  I cannot however, accept them as universal principles, only as ideals.  But accepting them as ideals means that we have to find ways to take immediate steps towards them.  It seems to me that the literature on action research and science falls down in specifying useful methodologies when the methodology is confused with unattainable though important ideals.

Also I would prefer not to criticise writers like Peter Clark, whose failure, perhaps, was to not make his ideals explicit.  He has given us some practical methodologies for contingent situations, I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and suggest that he had implicit ideals of both participation and emancipation.  And I am sure that Kemmis et al as practitioners have methods for taking the immediate steps towards their ideal, with dealing with locally contingencies, and how and when to decide on what sort of participation.  But like Clark, part of their stories is implicit, rather than explicit.

Perhaps Chris Argyris and the late Don Schon (1974) give us an example of an explicit ideal linked to an explicit methodology. From my perspective, if not theirs, their model II is an important guiding ideal, but ultimately unachievable.  They do, however, spell out the important next steps to move us in the direction of that ideal.



Argyris, C, and Schon D.A.  (1974) Theory in practice: increasing professional effectiveness, Jossey-Bass.

Carr, W., and Kemmis, S.  (1983) Becoming critical: education, knowledge and action research, Deakin University.

Clark, P.A.  (1972) Action research and organisational change, Harper and Row.

Feyerabend, P.  (1993) Against method (3rd edition), Verso.

Habermas, J.  (1984) The theory of communicative action, vol 1: Reason and the rationalisation of society, Beacon Press.

Heller, A.  (1997) Modernity from a post modern perspective.  Paper delivered at the 4th World Congress on Action Research, Action Learning and Process Management, Cartagena, Colombia

Kemmis, S., and McTaggart, R.  (1988) The action research planner (3rd edition), Deakin University.

Kuhn, T.S.  (1970) The structure of scientific revolutions, University of Chicago Press.

Medawar, P.B.  (1967) The art of the soluble, Penguin Books

Popper, K.R., (1974) Conjectures and refutations, Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Rorty, R.  (1989) Contingency, irony and solidarity, Cambridge University Press.



Copyright © 1998 Action research international and Pam Swepson.  May be used with appropriate acknowledgment for any educational or training purpose without further permission

This paper may be cited as follows:

Swepson, P.  (1998) Separating the ideals of research from the methodology of research, either action research or science, can lead to better research.  Action Research International, Paper 1.  Available on-line:




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