© Sally Wortley 1996



Literature Review

defining action reserach

action research typologies

Research design

the context

project outline

project phases

Analysis and Intrepretation




According to Tripp it is not uncommon for researchers to be unable to "distinguish the difference between action research and business-as-usual professional practice" (1995 p.2). One explanation offered for this misconception concerns the plethora of definitions employed to describe action research. Another relates to the platitudes used. The ideals and language of action research, such as collaboration, consultation, empowerment and social change are so continuously mouthed by health professionals that it is easy to be deceived that one is part of an action research paradigm, yet in fact subscribing to a probable eclectic individually conceived framework. These misconstructions lead to a tendency, as Hart and Bond (1995) note, to apply the label action research to almost any research which involves the elements of collaboration or feedback. To warrant the designation action research there should be recognisable and deliberate research component in the inquiry. Thus this paper will seek to

  1. distinguish between everyday practice and action research;
  2. 2. describe the differing models/types of action reserach;
  3. 3. apply these models to a recent community project.

Literature Review

There is much debate in the literature as to what distinguishes action research from other practices. As Dick and Swepson state, action research and some forms of practice are in some ways very similar. "Both are often directed towards the achievement of change. Both are qualitative and often participative. Both tend to be flexible and cyclic" (1994 p.4) However despite these similarities, there are characteristics and criteria that differentiate an action research project from everyday practice. Most definitions of action research focus upon the themes of "empowerment of participants; collaboration through participation; acquisition of knowledge; and social change" (Masters 1995 p.2). Whilst it is understood that these are important values underlying action research, they are often also incorporated into everyday practice. In contrast, the equally common phrases of systematic inquiry, critical reflection and strategic action are frequently reserved specifically for action research. Thus it would appear that action research differs from everyday inquiry in that it is a systematic and deliberate process. Kemmis and McTaggart write that to do action research one must plan, act, observe and reflect "more carefully, more systematically, and more rigorously than one usually does in everyday life; and to use the relationships between these moments in the process as a source of both improvement and knowledge" (1988, p.10). In defining the concept of action research one must be careful to include aspects of both action and research. There is a risk otherwise that action research can become a tool rather than a means of genuine critical reflection and social action (Drinan 1991).

Action research has a distinct identity. However whilst it has particular characteristics, action research is also a superordinate term, one in which a variety of types and models are subsumed. Similarly as action research has been distinguished from other methodologies, authors have also differentiated between different types and models of action research. This could be explained by the inclusion and interplay between the dual dimensions of action and research. As Tripp (1995) notes the varying importance placed upon these two concepts can produce recognisably different kinds of practice.

Grundy (1982) writes of three modes of action research: technical, practical and emancipatory. Holter and Schwartz-Barcott also identify three approaches, the technical collaborative approach, a mutual collaborative approach and an enhancement approach (1993 p.301). Other types and models of action research have also been suggested by McKernan (1991) and McCutcheon and Jurg (1990) (cited in Masters 1995). More recently, Hart and Bond have developed an action research typology. This describes four types of action research; experimental, organisational, professionalising and empowering (1995 p.40). It would seem that the majority of these types can be placed upon a continuum. This serves to illustrate that whilst there are different forms of action research, they differ not in methodology but in the underlying assumptions and views of the participants. (Grundy 1982).

Consensus model of society

Conflict model of society










Fig. 2.1 Action research typology (adapted from: Hart and Bond 1995 p.40)

The point of distinguishing a number of different approaches within action research is to enable the appropriate type, to be chosen for the presenting context. As Stringer (1995) states, often in community settings there is a conflict for the facilitator-researcher to met the requirements of both the participants/consumers and the professionals/managers. Thus the choice of an approach is often a political compromise. However it would seem that once a consensus is reached and an action research project begins, there is a greater scope for movement and a chance of shift in orientation (Hart and Bond 1995).

In examining the orientations of the various types/models of action research, it has already been stated that the primary difference relates to the underlying assumptions and world views of the participants (Grundy 1982). Whilst it is these assumptions that cause the variations in the application of the methodology, it is not in the methodology itself that they differ. The degree of collaboration and the nature of participation is one of the distinguishing criteria in defining the type of action research employed. This is evident not only in relation to actions but in relation to labels. The way in which research roles are defined alter as one moves across the continuum of action research types. According to Kemmis and McTaggart (1988), the language used is just as salient as the specifics of what one does. It is important for the faciliator-researcher to realise that language and dialogue is imbued with a sense of power, and is often used to exclude and define the level of participation.








(Differentiated roles)

(Differentiated roles)

(Merged roles)

co-change agents
(Shared roles)

Table 2.1 Research relationships, degree of collaboration in action research types (adapted from: Hart and Bond, 1995, p.43)

Grundy (1982) writes of this concept of power in relation to the different modes of action research. "In technical action research it is the idea that is the source of power for the action and since the idea often resides with the facilitator, it is the facilitator who controls the power in the project" (Masters 1995 p.7). Power in practical action research, like organisational and professionalising action research, involves the sharing between a group of equal participants. However the emphasis is still upon individual power for action. In emancipatory/empowering action research, participants are free from the traditional oppressive constraints. Power is located in the group and not with individuals. "The expert is a process moderator, collaborating and sharing equal responsibility with the participants" (Hughes, 1996, p.2). As Grundy states "it is often the change in power relationships within a group than causes a shift from one mode to another " (1982, p. 363).

Research Design

Prior discussion has focused upon several different types/models of action research, in the subsequent section these typologies will be explored in the context of a recent research proposal. In relation to the proposal, it was not purported to be an action research project, no reference was made in the outline in relation to an action research approach, nor was the concept of action research discussed later in the projects design. However from the nature of the project it would seem that an action research approach would have been an appropriate choice. Debate arose, as 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.

A project will be undertaken to develop a consumer information booklet for people with acquired brain injury and their families, living in the South Western Sydney region. The proposed project would involve the employment of a project worker for three months. The worker would interview consumers to determine broader information needs, identify the range of relevant services and obtain appropriate descriptive information, write up the information and co-ordinate the production of the booklet. The aims of the consumer information booklet are:

to identify relevant services that meet the needs of people with a brain injury living in the South Western Sydney region.

to produce a consumer information booklet about services available to clients with brain injuries caused by motor vehicle accidents in the South Western Sydney region.

to improve consumers access to appropriate services in the South Western Sydney region.

By giving consumers greater access to resources and control over knowledge it is envisaged that this project will reduce the stress and isolation individuals feel and increase the power consumers can exercise over their own lives.

Throughout the duration of the project there is to be a continuous evaluation process. The project worker is expected to facilitate consultation with the stakeholders throughout each stage of the project. It is also anticipated that the demand and utilisation of the consumer information booklet be continuously monitored to ascertain whether consumer needs have been met.

Project Phases

Phase 1: This was primarily an orientation to the agencies who had an interest in the consumer information booklet. From this initial stage it was clear that these individuals held power, and were key stakeholders within the project. Their major concern was the project time frame. It was considered imperative that the consultation, writing and evaluation of the booklet all be completed within the three month time span. However the realisation of this goal would be dependent upon the degree of consumer participation within the project. It appeared that there may be a conflict between key players in relation to the level and degree of consumer participation within the project. The original proposal stated that consumers were to be interviewed. This was revised prior to commencing, and questionnaires were offered as a more appropriate and efficient form of consultation. Instead of collaborators the consumers became respondents. In relation to the "continuos consultation with the stakeholders" this appeared to mean the professionals from the agencies and perhaps some responses from clients.

Phase 2: Since the development of a questionnaire was now essential, most of phase two was spent drafting and redrafting an acceptable form. After two pilots/evaluations, the steering committee, which consisted of two professionals and one client, approved the final format. Most of the questionnaires had to be distributed through the agencies since it was considered unethical to approach clients directly. This meant a low response rate, and a difficult task of trying to generate a feeling of consumer ownership about the consumer information booklet. Some interviews were conducted and these highlighted issues about the original aims of the project. It was felt that there were other concerns that were not addressed within the project. The majority of consumers stated that it was not lack of information that stopped them from accessing services, it was the lack of motivation (a change associated with brain injury), a lack of community awareness about brain injury and the inadequate numbers of appropriate services.

Phase 3: This stage was primarily concerned with obtaining relevant service information and the writing of the consumer information booklet. Eighty questionnaires had been returned, which was a surprise to most of the professionals. Only half that number had been anticipated. The project however was behind and it had to be finished quickly to meet the deadline. Unfortunately this meant that the draft was unavailable for consumer comment, and booklet was produced without any input from the stakeholders.

Phase 4: This final phase involves the ongoing monitoring and evaluation of the consumer information booklet. Only a hundred copies were printed (target 1000/year) thus allowing for the booklet to assessed and revised to meet consumer need.

Analysis and Interpretation

From the above discussion, it would seem that the consumer information booklet does not prescribe to an action research framework. Perhaps in the broadest sense of action research it could be incorporated, however this would be applying the label to a project simply because it has some elements of action and research - the two do not necessarily interact. (Deshler and Ewart 1995)

With certainty it can be clearly stated that the consumer information booklet fails to fulfil the criteria of a emancipatory/empowering or participatory action research approach. In relation to the other typologies, it bears the most resemblance to the professionalising model. As Hart and Bond (1995) write, problems in this type usually emerge from professional experience, improvement is professionally defined and on behalf of users, and education is generally practitioner focused. However a few incompatibilities are evident. The professionalising model is placed on the right side of the continuum, inferring a higher level of participation. Whilst the project advocated the importance of consumer consultation, the degree of collaboration that existed within the project is not consistent with the professionalising research relationship. Consultation itself is an ambiguous term, as Dick notes "sometimes it is used to refer to the whole spectrum as in the phase community consultation or sometimes it is intended to describe a situation where people are given information, or asked for opinions but no more than that" (1995 AREOL 6).

In addition, as has been already stated, action research is "deliberate and strategic" (Seymour-Rolls and Hughes, 1995, p.2). Apart from a few instants within the project, the moments were generally unplanned and without design. It would seem then, that it is perhaps more appropriate to term the consumer information booklet a thoughtful action project. (Tripp 1995.)= According to Tripp thoughtful action is any action which is not automatic or reflex and so requires thought. Like action research it follows a basic plan, act, review sequence but it is not a true from of action research. "The cycle is not consciously employed, strategic action does not result, its different moments merged because they are simultaneous rather than sequential, and there is no separate design phase" (1995 p.6)


As Drinan writes "action research conducted in its true spirit, will change situations and organisations" (1991, p.93). As a paradigm, it demands practitioner discipline and knowledge. Yet as Stringer notes, often people in positions of authority fail to grasp that others "may interpret the situation and or the significance of the problems in ways very different from their own" (1996 p.43). This ignorance, unfortunately can inhibit true change. The consumer information booklet was circumscribed by practitioner knowledge. An action research approach would have been appropriate for the project. However this would have involved more than tokenistic phrases and actions. While certain aspects of action and research were incorporated into the project, it did not differ significantly enough from everyday practice to constitute the term action research. This does not mean the project was not worthwhile or beneficial, "but to call it by the same term "devalues and domesticates a powerful way of reconstructing social practices and discourses" (Hughes 1996 p. 2).


Deshler, D. and Ewart, M. (1995) Participatory Action Research: traditions and assumptions. Paper posted on PARtoolbox

Dick, B. (1996). Action Research and Evaluation On Line (Areol).

Dick, B. and Swepson, P. (1994). Frequently asked questions about action research. Paper posted on PARtoolbox

Drinan, J. (1991). Reflections on the first days proceedings: values and action research. In O, Zuber-Skerritt (ed) Action Learning for Improved Performance: Key contributions to the First World Conference on Action Research and Process Management.

Grundy, S. (1982). Three Modes of Action Research in S.Kemmis and R, McTaggart (eds). (1988). The Action Research Reader (3rd edition). Geelong: Deakin University Press.

Hart, E. and Bond, M. (1995) Action Research for Health and Social Care: a guide to practice. Buckingham: Open University Press

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, 128, pp.298-304.

Hughes, I. ( 1996). Action Research what is it ? : action research on the web. Paper posted on AROW

Kemmis, S & McTaggart, R. (1988). The Action Research Planner (3rd Edition) Geelong: Deakin University.

Masters, J. (1995). The History of Action Research. Action Research Electronic Reader. Paper posted on AROW

Seymour-Rolls, K. and Hughes, I. (1996). Participatory Action Research: getting the job done. Paper posted on AROW

Stringer, E. (1996). Action Research: a handbook for practitioners. Thousand Oaks: Sage publications.

Tripp, D. (1995). Action Inquiry. Paper posted on PARtoolbox

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