© Ian Hughes 1997


Research reports

What is Action Research

Action research is a tool to change society and generate knowledge, which at its best is emancipating and empowering. The documents in the Action Research Electronic Reader are original contributions brought together with the purpose of supporting and informing students, researchers and change agents in the field. They are grouped under two headings, 'Discussion' and 'Research Reports', though in the nature of action research, boundaries are not distinct.


Janet Masters' History of Action Research introduces us to three types of action research, along a continuum from technical and positivist approaches, through collaborative and interpretive perspectives to critical and emancipatory action research. This is a useful classification in a field where new and experienced researchers frequently debate the boundaries and characteristics of action research.

Participatory Action Research: Getting the Job Done complements the history, using the four 'moments' of PAR to approach issues of definition and method. The arrangement of this paper reflects the essential interrelation between theory and practice in action research. The paper closes with a justification for using action research in the health professions.

Regina Hatten, Donna Knapp and Ruth Salonga came together as an action learing set, from different professional backgrounds. Exploring the similarities and differences between the concepts of reflective practice, quality assurance and action research clarified the boundaries of the action research process. This is a useful contributon to frequently discussed topic.

Melinda Lewis's review of the literature on focus groups is a background to the theory and practice of this growing research strategy. The way she has organised the material is designed to be useful to researchers considering using focus groups, and the short, and briefly annotated bibliography may be very useful to those new to this technique.

The paper on how to keep a research diary is a short, pragmatic piece which a number of people involved in action research say the have found useful.

Research reports

In her report of an action research project implemented by nurses, in order to improve and maintain the standard of wound care in a paediatric surgical ward, Rowene Brooker outlines how the project was established; describes the issues addressed, the problems encountered,  and what strategies were used to overcome some of these problems. This action research project ended up being a smaller study within a larger one, and was focussed on issues relevant to nurses as regarding their knowledge and practice in wound care. It is, I believe, an example of technical action research, which is not emancipatory but has high social and ethical values.

The boundary between action research and otherf approaches is not always clear. In Business as Usual Sally Wortley reports on a project whcich did not purported to be an action research project, nor was the concept of action research discussed later in the projects design. However from the nature of the project she concludes that  an action research approach would have been an appropriate choice. Although no reference was made to an action research approach, there seemed to be a tacit understanding among the professionals/managers that an action research framework was employed.

Shankar Sankaram provides a report of a short action research project testing the use of reflective e-mail memos by students of action research. Though his report is not conclusive, he shows how a new technology may be used to aid the reflective process.


What is action research?

As Bob Dick puts it, 'Action research consists of a family of research methodologies which pursue action and research outcomes at the same time' <> Action research is action and research in the same process. It has twin, aims of action for change in an organisation or community, with research to increase our knowledge and understanding. It is not action for research (doing in order to increase understanding), nor research for action (increasing knowledge in order to be applied at a later time), but a coming together of two purposes in a single project or process.

Action research is not a research method, as many methods of data collection may be used in action research projects. It is, rather, a way of doing research and acting to change situations at the same time.

There are several forms of action research (see Masters 1996) . McKernan (1991:16 -27), for example, list three types of action research:
Type 1: the scientific-technical view of problem solving;
Type 2: practical-deliberative action research; and
Type 3: critical-emancipatory action research.

The underlying goal of the researcher in the scientific-technical approach is to test a particular intervention used by a practitioner in the field. The research is based on a pre-specified theoretical framework The researcher identifies the problem and a specific intervention, then the practitioner is involved in implementing the intervention or treatment. (Holter and Schwartz-Barcott 1993:301). The collaboration between the researcher and the practitioner is technical, in the sense that it is instrumental to the research goals. This approach to action research results in the accumulation of predictive knowledge, the major thrust is validation and refinement of existing theories.

In the practical-deliberative type of action research the researcher and practitioners come together to identify potential problems, their underlying causes and possible interventions (Holter and Schwartz-Barcott 1993:301). The problem is defined in dialogue and mutual understanding between the researcher and the practitioner. "The goal of practical action researchers is understanding practice and solving immediate problems" (McKernan 1991:20). Practical action research fosters the improvements in professional practices by emphasising the part played by personal judgement in decisions to act for the good of the client. This mode of action research "promotes autonomous, deliberative action, that is praxis. Practitioners involved gain a new understanding of their practice. However the changes are sometimes connected to the individuals directly involved in the change process, and improvements in practice may not survive when these individuals leave the system or there is an influx of new people (Holter, I.M., and Schwartz-Barcott 1993:301).


Emancipatory action research promotes emancipatory praxis in the participatnts, that is, it promotes a critical consciousness which is expressed in political as well as practical action for change. There are two goals for the researcher using this approach, one is to increase the closeness between the actual problems encountered by in a specific setting and the theory used to explain and resolve the problem. The second goal, which goes beyond the other two approaches, is to empower participants in identifying problems and making them explicit by raising their collective consciousness. Jurgen Habermas presents a framework of critical social theory for action research. In critical theory the mediation of theory and practice is possible.

Much action research is participatory. That is, people who may be affected by the outcomes of the action and the research, the stakeholders participate in all stages of the research, including initial idea, planning, implementation, and reporting.

Kemmis & McTaggart (1988: 11), in their model of participatory emancipatory action research, present a well known spiral of action research, which shows action research passing through cycles of planning, acting and observing, and reflecting.

But, the fundamental feature of participatory action research is not the well known spiral, but collective reflection by participants on their efforts to change the ways they work (which are constituted by discourse, organisation, power relations, and practice) (McTaggart 1992: 2).

In health sciences all three types of action research, technical, practical and emancipatory are valid. So are participatory and individualistic action research projects. My personal preference is for participatory action research as a process in which groups of people attain critical understanding and improvement of their situation through participating in planning, acting, observing and reflecting.

In summary, technical action research aims at effectiveness and efficiency in performance. That is, change in social practices. Participants are often co-opted, and rely on the outside expert. Practical action research involves transformation of the consciousness of participants as well as change in social practices. The expert is a process consultant, engaging in dialogue to encourage participants' cooperation, active participation and self-reflection. Emancipatory action research includes the participants' emancipation from tradition, self-deception and coercion, and their critique and transformation of the social practices and organisation (often bureaucratic) in which they are enmeshed. The expert is a process moderator, collaborating and sharing equal responsibility with the participants.

Participatory action research

Is about the improvement of practice and creation of knowledge in social groups.

May start at anywhere, and proceeds through complete cycles of planning, acting, reflecting and observing.

Involves participation in all stages by those affected by changes in social practice and discourse.

Is participatory, often conducted by an action group with at least one expert.

Criteria for participatory action research

At its broadest action research can refer to any process with the dual aim of changing situation and producing knowledge. My working definition implies a number of characteristics. The more of these characteristics an activity has, the better it is an example of participatory action research. Participatory action research is characterised by:







Groups of people


Critical understanding


Improvement of their situation


Activities that share some, but not all features of action research are:

reflective practice

action learning

participatory research

action planning

continuous quality improvement

Devaluing and co-opting participatory action research

The term "action research" is sometimes used for a type of personal learning, which does not lead to publication of results. I think this obscures a fundamental purpose of action research, which is to make social practices, and the values they embody, explicit and problematic. Practical action and action learning can operate within ethical and value frameworks, without these being called into question. Action research, at its best, is about involvement in the praxis of inventing new ways of working, interacting and knowing. I am not suggesting that activities that do not problematise current values, knowledges, and practices are not good. But to call them 'participatory action research' devalues and domesticates a powerful way of reconstructing social practices and discourses.

Participatory action research has a potential to empower participants. This can be subversive of established structures of power.


Holter, I.M., and Schwartz-Barcott, D. 1993, Action Research: What is it? How has it been used and how can it be used in nursing? Journal of Advanced Nursing 1993:128; 298-304

Kemmis, S. & R. McTaggart 1988, The Action Research Planner, Deakin University, Geelong.

McKernan,J. 1991, Curriculum Action Research. A Handbook of Methods and Resources for the Reflective Practitioner, London: Kogan Page

McTaggart, R. 1992, Action research: Issues in theory and practice, paper presented to Methodological Issues in Qualitative Health Research Conference, Deakin University.

Zuber-Skerritt, O. (ed.) 1991, Action Research for Change and Development, Avebury, Aldershot.

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Copyright © 1998 Ian Hughes, The University of Sydney
Last updated:
24 August, 1999