Action Research in Finland

© Marjatta Palmu 1999 

This article may be cited as Palmu M (1998) 'Action research in Finland' in Hughes I (Ed) Action Research Electronic Reader [online] The University of Sydney, available (download date)



History of Action Research in Finland

Contemporary Action Research in Finland

Classification of Finnish Action Research




This reader surveys the use of action research in Finland based on literature written in Finnish. First the history of action research (AR) in Finland is described. Action research is used in several discipline areas in Finland like in education, in social and health care and in the study of the work organisations. Currently, the Finnish name for action research is toimintatutkimus. This is a direct translation of the two words action meaning toiminta and research meaning tutkimus. However, it took about ten years after the introduction of action research in Finland before the current name for this research approach gained general acceptance within the Finnish context.

My main objective for this paper was to study the use of action research in Finland and to define what type of action research the Finnish action researchers use. I started this task by carrying out a small survey among the Finnish action researchers. After describing the survey results, I refer to the most recent definitions and orientations of action research in Finland. Finally, I classify the action research studies by using in my classification the seven criteria of Hart & Bond (1995: 40-43) in defining the types of action research used in Finland. My interpretation of the different types of action research and writings on action research resulted in the following conclusion: in Finland, the organizational and the emancipatory action research types are the most prevailing action research types. Also some professionalising action research is carried out. In my literature study, I found only a very limited number of cases using the experimental action research type. The organizational action research is used within the change processes of the work organizations and the emancipatory and the professionalising action research types within the educational context.


History of Action Research in Finland

The active use of action research in Finland began in the end of the 1970’s and a major contributor in this field is Jyrki Jyrk‰m‰ (1978), who proposed the action research as an alternative research approach to the positivism in the social sciences research. In the first writings from the end of the 1970’s, consensus had not yet been reached about the Finnish term for action research. Only after the writings of Jyrk‰m‰ (1978) and Kangas (1979) were published one term, "toimintatutkimus", became the sole term used for this type of a research strategy in Finland.

Despite the fact that action research was first introduced in the field of social sciences, the Finnish researchers in sociology are not as eager users of the action research approach in their field as the educational professionals are. This phenomenon owes partly due to the "teacher as a researcher" movement originating from the United Kingdom. During the middle and end of the 1980’s similar administrative and philosophical changes within the educational context took place in Finland which gave rise to the movement in the United Kingdom (Carr & Kemmis 1986; Lahdes 1989).

The action research tradition in the field of the work organization studies has stemmed from the democratisation movement of the working life in the Nordic countries. One of the most important authorities in this field is Bjˆrn Gustavsen from Sweden. His democratic dialogue approach and the combination of the Tavistock institute’s sociotechnical systems approach have been the tools and methods in use when technological change has been introduced into the Finnish work place (Ranta & Huuhtanen 1988, Kauppinen & Lahtonen 1994, Vartiainen 1994, Heikkinen & al. 1999).

Jyrk‰m‰ (1978) wrote the earliest in-depth paper on action research in Finnish in the bulletin "Social Policy". He defined action research as a research approach or a research strategy. In this approach, the researcher is in close contact with the members of the target of study and tries to solve certain problems by solving them together with the members of either the community or the organization in question. The researcher tries to achieve the goals and objectives, which are set together with the members of the target organization by studying, how these problems express themselves and what are the conditions for their emergence and their development. The researcher acts based on the collected information and on the problem solutions developed together with the target group members. The aim is to achieve the set objectives and to reach the group’s goals.

In the early action research, the need for action research was always tied up with the notion of an existing problem. Resulting from Lewin’s and the Swedish tradition in the community planning this problem was tied up with the situation and the context of an underpriviledged group or groups (Lewin 1946, Swedner in Harju & al. 1977: 92). Action research was seen more like an intervention research. During this same time period, the first research methodological books in Finland started writing about action research as an alternative research approach (Jyrk‰m‰ 1978).

The emergence of action research started around the middle of the 1980’s in both the field of education (Lahdes 1989) and in the work organizations (Toikka 1984, Ranta & Huuhtanen 1988). This is also one of the starting points for a development approach called the developmental work research (Toikka 1984, Miettinen 1990, Engestrˆm 1995). Some non-Finnish researchers view this approach as a special application of action research, though the developers of this approach state that it is a completely new developmental approach (Heikkinen & al. 1999: 53-54). What differed in the 1980’s from the 1970’s in action research was that the action research needed not be solely problem focused and that the action research could also aim at an improvement. This change of the attitude could also have been a reflection of the continuous improvement ideas made popular by the total quality movement (TQM). TQM gained ground in Finland in the end of the 1980’s.

In the 1990’s, the popularity of action research continued especially in the field of education, but also within the work life context. Also some studies in the field of health care and information systems were carried out with action research or by using a related reflective practice (Heikkinen & al. 1999: 30, von Hellens 1992, Heiskanen 1994). Most of the studies I had access to deal with the use of the action research in developing education. Education seems to provide an ideal environment for action research. In Finland, the early critique directed towards the action research approach was partly politically oriented. Action research was not that easily accepted in the social sciences in the 1970’s due to its background of being a critical social science and thus it was also seen as a political way of doing research (Jyrk‰m‰ 1978). Within the micro context of the school and the classroom, action research did not give rise to such a debate and was more easily accepted by the practitioners.

H. L. T. Heikkinen, R. Huttunen and P. Moilanen (1999) have edited a recent anthology of action research in Finland and it gives a good perspective to understanding how the major practitioners currently view action research. In this book, once again, Jyrki Jyrk‰m‰ outlines new directions for the Finnish action research by looking at action research from the perspective of Anthony Giddens’ theory of structuration.


Contemporary Action Research in Finland

I became interested in finding out what type of approaches were used in Finland in action research, since there did not seem to be any unanimous view on what action research is. I started my study by carrying out a search of the World Wide Web using the Finnish name for action research i.e. "toimintatutkimus". I was faced with 200 different web references on the uses of action research in the development of the work organizations, in health and social care, in information systems development, and in education among others. Only some studies are reported on the web, but the references list the names of the professionals in Finland carrying out action research. In addition, I was able to track some key reference works of these researchers.

My next step was to inquire the researchers about their dominant action research model or models. I also asked them what they saw was their role as a researcher in an action research project.

I sent the following questionnaire to the Finnish action researchers identified as a result of the web search. I sent the questionnaire to a total of 70 researchers. 22 e-mails never reached their target and three recipients informed me that they were not action researchers. Out of the 48 e-mails delivered, I received 11 answers. In addition, I received 4 answers from members of one professors’ study group totalling 15 replies for the survey.

I asked the researchers four questions. I emphasised that the first two questions were the most important for the study. These could be answered by crossing out the most suitable alternative or alternatives. I asked the respondents to answer the last two questions only in case they had enough time for answering. Most of them replied also these two questions.

The questions were:


    What is the action research model or authority you use in your action research?


    The alternatives were K. Lewin, S. Kemmis (& W. Carr & R. McTaggart), E.L. Trist & F.E. Emery, Y. Engestrˆm, R.F. Chisholm & M. Elden, ˆ. Spejkavik, B. Gustavsen, C. Argyris, D. Schˆn, E. Schein, E. Gummesson, U. Suojanen, H.L.T. Heikkinen, TQM, some other model.



  3. The researcher’s role in action research.

    The alternatives were:
    a) an objective observer,
    b) the person responsible for the research,
    c) the person responsible for the key tasks in the research,
    d) an expert on the research process,
    e) an action research expert member or advisor in the research target,
    f) a change consultant,
    g) a catalyst for change,
    h) an external advisor,
    i) a subjective actor,
    j) some other, please specify.

    An additional question to question 2 was:
    What is the role of the target organization or the members of the organization in action research?


  4. Your view on action research. What is it?
  5. Do you know the following reference or have you used it:

    Hart & Bond (1995) Action research for health and social care. A guide to practice. Buckingham: Oxford University Press. Only one respondent (see Heikkinen & al. 1999) knew this reference.

The summary results for questions 1 and 2 are as follows:

Question 1

The action research models used are influence by the following authors:

Number of replies

Bjˆrn Gustavsen (1990)


Donald Schˆn (1983)


Kurt Lewin (1946)


Wilfred Carr & Stephen Kemmis (1986)


Hannu L.T. Heikkinen & al. (1999)


Developmental work research (Engestrˆm 1995)


Edgar Schein (1987-1988)


The following models or authors were mentioned only by one respondent: Sociotechnical systems model, communicative development model, Chris Argyris, Rupert F. Chisholm and Max Elden, Pauli Juuti and Kari Lindstrˆm, Evert Gummesson, Ulla Suojanen, and Matti Isohanni.

Their views on the role of the researcher (Question 2) were as follows:

the person responsible for the research (7 replies)

the person responsible for the key tasks of the research (7 replies)

a subjective actor (5 replies)

a change consultant (5 replies)

a catalyst for change (5 replies)

an expert member on the action or an adviser in the target of study (3 replies)

all of the roles, changing in during the different phases of the action research (2 replies)

an objective observer (1 reply)

an expert on the research process (1 reply)

an external expert (1 reply).

A look at the replies gives an impression that the Finnish action research is rooted strongly in the socio-psychological approach introduced by Kurt Lewin, and the current action research models are influenced either by the Swedish research or by the critical social science as described by Carr and Kemmis (1986). The participation of the members of the target group is a key element in the Finnish action research. The action researchers see themselves as research experts, facilitators, and sounding boards for the members of the organisation. This requires their active involvement and interaction with the target group.

In addition to Carr & Kemmis (1986) and other works of Kemmis, the most popular research methodology book related to action research was Cohen & Manion’s Research methods in Education (1989). The researchers used general Finnish qualitative methods books, too. These books were used together with Suojanen’s (1992) and Kurtakko’s (1990) writings.


Classification of Finnish Action Research

Definitions of Action Research

Heikkinen & al. (1999: 25) state that action research should include the following features and these should serve as criteria for the researcher when deciding whether he or she is dealing with action research or with another type of research. This list is meant to be more a guide than a comprehensive definition of action research.

"Action research may be your research strategy, if you operate in a community or organization where the individuals

ponder about (= reflect) and develop their work

analyze, how their action / practice has historically developed to its current state

develop alternatives for solving problems and reaching goals

produce new knowledge (= theories) about their action. "

Ulla Suojanen (1992: 16-17) produces a comprehensive list of orientations of action research in Finland. Most of these orientations stem from the international action research literature. Jyrk‰m‰ (1978) defines the action research orientations as intervention oriented, research oriented and action oriented depending on whose interests the research serves. Kangas (1979) lists the following orientations: diagnostic, participative, and empirical action research. Carr and Kemmis (1986: 134-136) base their classification on the Habermas’ "theory of knowledge-constitutive interests". These interests are "technical, practical, and emancipatory" and thus also the action research is technical, practical or emancipatory. Kurtakko (1990: 9-12) classifies four action research traditions: the intervention tradition, the pedagogical action research, the pedagogical-analytical action research, and the social experimental action research. According to Kurtakko, the pedagogical action research and the participative and the action orientations are the most popular streams of action research in Finland.

Classification of Finnish Action Research

The main objective of my project was to study what is action research in the Finnish context. I planned to use the seven criteria defined by Hart & Bond (1995: 40-43) as the basis of my classification of the types of action research used in Finland. I also intended to use some other criteria in classifying the action research carried out in Finland. I have described some of these approaches in my review of how action research is defined within the Finnish action research literature. The classifications and definitions used in the Finnish literature overlap with Hart & Bond’s and thus I will use only their classification in the following.

My other objective was to find out the role of the researcher in the Finnish action research. The views on the researcher’s role are various and this is based on my e-mail survey results especially in the replies for the Question 2 and on reading action research Master’s thesis written in the 1990’s. Especially the Finnish educational researchers favour a collaborative approach in which the target group is partly responsible for collecting the research data themselves.

In the following I have used Hart & Bond’s classification frame and left in the frame those descriptive features which in my opinion best describe the Finnish action research approaches either described by the authors of the literature listed in the bibliography or by the individual researchers.

Action Research Type





1. Educative base

enhancing social change towards consensus (Jyrk‰m‰ 1978)


enhancing organizations change towards consensus

overcoming resistance to change managerial bias (Ranta & Huuhtinen 1988, Toikka 1989)

reflective practice

enhancing professional control

advocacy on behalf of clients (Heiskanen 1994)


structural change towards pluralism

user/practitioner focused (Kiviniemi 1994, Videnoja 1998)

2. Individuals in groups

not defined in literature

work groups and mixed groups of workers and managers selected membership (Ranta & Huuhtinen 1988, Toikka 1989)

interdisciplinary professional group

fluid groupings, self-selecting, open or closed by negotiation (Kiviniemi 1994, Videnoja 1998)

3. Problem focus

problem emerges from the interaction of social science theory and social problems (Jyrk‰m‰ 1978, Harju & al. 1977)

problem defined by the most powerful group, some negotiation with workers, success defined by sponsors

problem defined by professional group, some negotiation with users

problem emerges from members’ practice, competing definitions of success accepted and expected (Kiviniemi 1994, Videnoja 1998)

4. Change intervention

experimental intervention to test or to generate theory (Alasuutari 1994, Jyrk‰m‰ 1978)

top-down, directed change towards predetermined aims (Ranta & Huuhtinen 1988, Toikka 1989)

professionally led, predefined, process-led (Heiskanen 1994)

bottom-up, undetermined, process-led, problem to be explored as part of change (Kiviniemi 1994, Videnoja 1998)

5. Improvement and involvement

towards consensus definition of improvement (Harju & al. 1977)

towards tangible outcome (Ranta & Huuhtinen 1988, Toikka 1989)

towards improvement in practice defined by professionals and on behalf of users (Heiskanen 1994)

towards pluralist definitions of outcome (Kiviniemi 1994, Videnoja 1998)

6. Cyclical processes

research components dominate

identifies causal processes that are specific to problem context, discrete cycle, rationalist, sequential

research and action component in tension, identifies causal processes that are specific to the problem

action components dominate, recognition of multiple influences upon change, open-ended, process-driven

7. Research relationship, degree of collaboration

differentiated roles (Harju & al. 1977)

consultant, respondents; differentiated roles

outside resources or internally generated, merged roles (Heiskanen 1994)

practitioner researcher /co-researcher/ co-change agents (Kiviniemi 1994, Videnoja 1998)

Area of study in the Finnish context:

Social sciences, community work

Technical changes in the work organizations

Information systems implementation and design, educational research

Educational research, democratic dialogue in the work organizations


The Finnish action research has followed the same popularity trends as action research in the other industrialized countries. The major field using action research currently is education. Here the Finnish expert researchers use very similar methods compared with their non-Finnish counterparts. While going through the action research studies, my conclusion was that the more experienced the action researchers are, the more reflective they are about their role as an action researcher. The impression I got from their writings and other comments was that action research is a deliberate research strategy chosen by these researchers. And they are thus also very conscious about the ethical problems the action research may impose on the researcher. Several educational action research studies are carried out annually in the universities for Master’s thesis. In these theses, I can see a wider variety in the understanding of what action research is. Some studies lead to significant improvement in the mindset and the actions of the target groups. In some other cases, the action research cycle was mechanically applied and repeated without an in-depth reflection about its applicability to the research problem in question.

As a conclusion, in the educational action research, the Finnish approach is very similar to the Australian approach. In the area of organizational change, Finnish action research relies on different action research approaches compared with the educational action research. The approaches used in work organizations are the sociotechnical systems approach (Tavistock tradition), the democratic dialogue (Gustavsen in Heikkinen & al. 1999: 207) and the developmental work research (Engestrˆm 1995).


Alasuutari P. 1993. Laadullinen tutkimus (Qualitative Research). Jyv‰skyl‰: Vastapaino.

Carr, W. & Kemmis, S. 1986. Becoming critical. Education, Knowledge and Action Research. Revised edition. Burwood: Deakin University.

Cohen, L. & Manion, L. 1989. Research Methods in Education, 3rd edition. London: Routledge.

Engestrˆm, Y. 1995. Kehitt‰v‰ tyˆntutkimus (Developmental work research). Helsinki: Yliopistopaino.

Harju, P. & al. (eds.) 1977. Yhdyskuntatyˆ yhteistoiminnan, suunnittelun ja vaikuttamisen v‰lineen‰. (Community work) Lapsiraportti A24. Mannerheimin Lastensuojeluliiton julkaisu. Valkeakosken kirjapaino Oy.

Hart, E. & Bond, M. 1995. Action research for health and social care: a guide to practice, Buckingham: Open University Press.

Heikkinen, H. L. T, Huttunen, R. & Moilanen, P. (eds.) 1999. Siin‰ tutkija miss‰ tekij‰ &endash; toimintatutkimuksen perusteita ja n‰kˆaloja (There a researcher where an actor &endash; basics and views on action research). Juva: Atena kustannus.

Heiskanen, A. 1994. Issues and factors affecting the success and failure of a student record system development process. A Longitudinal Investigation Based on Reflection-in-Action. Doctoral dissertation. EDP Office, Offices of the Rector, University of Helsinki. Helsinki: Yliopistopaino.

Juuti, P. & Lindstrˆm, K. 1995. Postmoderni ajattelu ja organisaation syv‰llinen muutos (Postmodern thinking and the fundamental change of an organization). Tyˆ ja ihminen. Tutkimusraportti 4, JTO-tutkimuksia, Sarja 9. Helsinki: Tyˆterveyslaitos and Johtamistaidon Opisto.

Jyrk‰m‰, J. 1978. Toiminnantutkimuksen teoriasta ja tutkimusk‰yt‰nnˆst‰ (Of the theory and research practice of action research). Sosiaalipolitiikka (Social Policy). Sosiaalipoliittisen yhdistyksen vuosikirja 1978. Vol. 3. Helsinki.

Kauppinen, T. & Lahtonen, M. (eds.) 1993. Action research in Finland. Active Society with Action Research. 25-27 August, 1993, Helsinki Finland. Labour Policy Studies No 82. Ministry of Labour. Helsinki: Hakapaino Oy.

Kangas, A. 1979. Toimintatutkimuksen k‰yt‰ntˆ. (The praxis of action research). Sosiaalipolitiikka. Vol. 4. 221-225. Sosiaalipoliittisen yhdistyksen vuosikirja 1979, Vol. 4. Helsinki.

Kiviniemi, K. 1995. "Tavallista opetustyˆt‰h‰n t‰ss‰ tehd‰‰n" Tyˆn ohessa toteutettua opetusharjoittelua koskeva toimintatutkimus. (AR on teacher student’s carrying out educational training). Jyv‰skyl‰n yliopisto, Chydenius-Instituutti. Kokkola: University of Jyv‰skyl‰, Chydenius-Institute.

Kurtakko, K. 1990. Toimintatutkimus koulun ja opetuksen kehitt‰misess‰. TUKU-projektin loppuraportti II osa: Projektissa k‰ytetyn toimintatutkimusmallin l‰htˆkohdat ja kokemuksia sen soveltamisesta. (AR in the development of the school and teaching, end report of the TUKU-project). Lapin korkeakoulun kasvatustieteellisi‰ julkaisuja B. Tutkimusraportteja ja selvityksi‰ 14. Rovaniemi: University of Lapland.

Lahdes, E. 1989. Opettaja tyˆns‰ tutkijana. (Teacher as a researcher). Kasvatus, Vol. 20, no. 6: 468-475. Jyv‰skyl‰: Kirjapaino Oma Ky.

Lewin, K. 1946. Action research and minority problems. Journal of Social Issues, 2, 34-46.

Miettinen, R. 1990. Koulun muuttamisen mahdollisuudesta. Analyysi opetustyˆn kehityksest‰ ja ristiriidoista. (About the possibility to change the school). Helsinki: Gaudeamus.

Suojanen, U. 1992. Toimintatutkimus koulutuksen ja ammatillisen kehittymisen v‰lineen‰ (AR &endash; a tool for the development of education and professionalism), Loimaa: Finn Lectura.

Toikka, K. 1984. Toteava ja kehitt‰v‰ tyˆntutkimus eli voiko ja kannattaako ihmist‰ tutkia tyˆss‰ ihmisen‰? (Statemental and developmental work research - is it worth a while to study humans at work as humans?) Psykologia vol. 19, 4/84: 259-265.

Toikka, K. 1989: Kehitt‰v‰ kvalifikaatiotutkimus. (Developmental qualification research). Julkaisusarja B no 25, 1984. Helsinki: Valtion painatuskeskus. 110-133.

Vartiainen, M. 1994 Tyˆn muutoksen tyˆv‰lineet. Muutoksen hallinnan sosiotekniset menetelm‰t. (The tools for changing work. Sociotechnical methods for mastering change.) Espoo: Otapaino. 85-106.

Videnoja, J. 1998. "T‰ss‰ meid‰n toimintatavassa oli jotain hullua ..." Tyˆyhteisˆn sis‰inen kehitt‰minen p‰iv‰kotiyhteisˆss‰ toimintatutkimuksen avulla. ("There was something crazy in our way to work ..." Internal Organizational Development in a Kindergarten using Action Research. Master’s thesis. University of Helsinki. Faculty of Pedagogics and Teacher Education.

von Hellens, L. (ed.) 1992. Action Research in Management Information Systems Studies. Publications of the Turku School of Economics and Business Administration. Series A-3:1992. Turku: Turku School of Economics and Business Administration.


The survey respondents

Buhanist Paul - Helsinki University of Technology
Juuti Pauli &endash; Johtamistaidon Opisto
Heiskanen Ari &endash; University of Helsinki
Heiskanen Tuula &endash; University of Tampere
Kako James &endash; University of Jyv‰skyl‰ via Hannu Heikkinen
Korhonen Saila &endash; Diakonia Polytechnic, Helsinki
Kurtakko Kyˆsti &endash; University of Lapland, Rovaniemi
Lahtonen Maarit &endash; City of Helsinki
Laitinen Matti &endash; Surrey, UK
Moilanen Pentti &endash; University of Jyv‰skyl‰
Nieminen Pentti &endash; University of Oulu
Puurula Liisa &endash; University of Jyv‰skyl‰
R‰s‰nen Marjo &endash; University of Industrial Design and Applied Arts, Helsinki
Varis Maarit &endash; City of Helsinki
Vartiainen Matti &endash; Helsinki University of Technology

e-mail addresses:,,
marjatta.palmu@ (only e-mail address starting January 2000)

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Copyright © 1998 Ian Hughes, The University of Sydney
Last updated:
07 September, 1999