A Short Guide to Action Research for Beginners

Last Updated on January 10, 2021 by Chrisantus Oden

A Short Guide to Action Research

Discovering and interpreting the facts of the world through science requires thorough investigation and appropriate methods. The word comes from the Greek ” méthodos ” and means “the way to an end.” The method, therefore, is a set of procedures and techniques chosen by the researcher to carry out his research.

Currently, there are several methods used in scientific research and that can be applied in different areas of knowledge.

Action research combines theoretical research and action (that is, intervention) in a single procedure. In today’s article, we’ll talk a little more about how this type of research came about. We also explain what its characteristics and methodological structure are.

Action research in the history of scientific research

In 1946, researcher Kurt Lewin used the term “action research” for the first time. He conceived the term as an investigative practice followed by a self-critical reflection of it.

But, although the term was born with Lewin, it is known that action research as a scientific research procedure has been used since the beginning of the century. On the other hand, after the creation of the term action research, several authors used it as an umbrella term for four different types of research procedures. They are diagnostic research, participatory research, empirical research and experimental research.

Another detail is that, since action research was only an idea, its application in different areas of knowledge gave rise to different types of research. Action research applied to education, for example, is different from that applied to management. Even if both maintained the principle of investigation and reflection. In the late 1990s, researchers identified six types of action research most used.

But then, what is action research?

Action research is a type of investigation procedure that follows a cycle between practical action and the investigation of it. Thus, within an action research, action is first planned. Then, what was planned is implemented. The reactions to the change made are observed and described. Then, the effectiveness of the action is evaluated and what can be done to improve the practice. And the cycle starts over.

In short, it is a process in which you learn more about the practice and its investigation as you progress with it. In 1990, John Elliot defined action research as a study that aims to improve the quality of the action taken to solve a problem. It aims to modify reality through reflective practice, where the practices adopted are constantly evaluated

Thus, it behaves like a medical treatment. First, symptoms are monitored, the disease is diagnosed, treatment is prescribed. Then, the patient’s recovery is monitored, and the treatment’s effectiveness is evaluated based on the results.

In short, it is also similar to a development process. The cycle is the same, from the identification of the problem to the evaluation of the results. Whether in personal, professional or product or policy development. The difference between the situations that bring together research and action is precisely the action applied to each phase of the cycle.

A Short Guide to Action Research for Beginners

The characteristics of action research

We have already discussed above about action research being confused with other types of research involving interventions. The differences between them are in their methodology. That is, in the processes that are employed during the research. Defining the characteristics of action research is important so that the term does not become vague and broad. Likewise, defining the methodology of action research helps us to differentiate it from other research, preventing errors and misapplications. David Tripp, in Action Research: a methodological introduction points to the following characteristics of action research:

  • Innovation

Action research focuses on innovation because it proposes to solve a problem and thus improve a given reality. Therefore, it leaves the usual field, that which is already inscribed in the daily reality in which it is applied.

  • Continuous

Action research is ongoing, not repeated or carried out occasionally. Therefore, it must be applied regularly, in order to improve an aspect of the adopted practice.

  • Strategically proactive

Action research is proactive when a change is needed. But their actions are strategic, that is, they are determined based on the understanding of the collected data. This is only possible through a well-founded research process.

  • Participation

At its core, action research is a collaborative methodology. The people involved actively participate in the production of knowledge, not just focusing on an outstanding researcher. Thus, the action research process does not focus on applying previously formatted techniques to solve a problem. Its practices focus on the means in which research methods and techniques are constructed and reconstructed.

The participatory characteristic of action research configures it as a type of social research with an empirical basis.

  • Interventionist

Action research aims to improve the practice adopted in a given reality. It applies in unhandled scenarios. That is, it does not follow controlled variables, such as research conducted in a laboratory, for example. In this way, it differs from experimental research, being better defined as interventionist.

  • Problematization

As an improvement process, action research begins with identifying a problem. As well as a reflexive practice, this type of research looks at the problem in a problematic way, trying to understand its origin and its effects on the different groups in which it presents itself.

  • Deliberation

Action research is necessarily deliberate, as it directly interferes with the routine practice of a given reality. Thus, it is necessary to understand the scenario and make competent judgments about how the action taken will improve the situation.

  • Documentation

As a process of creating scientific knowledge, action research is also subject to demonstration and proof. Therefore, your procedure contains a rigorous practice of documentation through the compilation of portfolios. It contains data surveys, results, tabulation, meeting minutes, among other documents relevant to the progress of the research.

  • Understanding

Understanding the problem in its entirety is essential for action research. Only in this way are changes projected that bring improvements to the situation and that prevent the problem from appearing again.

  • Dissemination

Action research has a practical purpose for solving problems. But it must not be contained in a single situation or reality. Action research also focuses on the construction of practical scientific knowledge, which is why it needs to be disseminated through publications and the education network.

Action Research Structure

As we have already pointed out, action research has a circular structure. The process consists of a repetitive cycle of investigation and action. Thus, with each cycle that begins there are conditions to improve the previous one. Thus, reflection is the constant of all phases of the action research cycle. It is through reflection that effective action is planned and scientific knowledge on the subject is built.

We now present the steps that constitute the circular structure of action research:

  • Recognition of the theme

First, it is necessary to make a general survey of the situation that is interested in investigating and intervening. This is the time to discover the research field in depth. Thus, the main elements of that reality are raised: its details of functioning, the subjects that are inserted in it and the problems presented.

This is an essential phase for delimiting a problem to be solved. As well as the research and intervention objectives, which will make the work performed effective. Therefore, this phase is also called exploratory.

  • Identification of the research problem and processes

This phase consists of delimiting the problem that will guide the development of the research. The problem is delimited from the discussion with the research participants. The problem must be clear and unambiguous.

Another important point is that the problem of action research is initially of a practical nature. But that does not mean that the problem should not be analyzed within the theoretical field. That is why, at this stage, there is also a survey of the literature on the topic.

And, as in other research methodologies, this is when the hypotheses are defined. And how data will be collected, analyzed and evaluated throughout the research.

  • Planning of problem-solving actions

In this phase, the data and information necessary to carry out the research are collected. And future interventions are planned. Thus, collective and individual interviews with participants are used, questionnaires and field diaries are carried out. As well as other types of anthropological techniques that allow the researcher and the participants to develop an action plan to solve the proposed problem.

  • Implementation of planned actions

It is at this stage where the intervention on the problem is carried out. That is, where the action plan carried out in a participatory manner is carried out previously. As in the previous phase, data collection is carried out, following the effects that the change brings to the participants’ lives and to the general scenario.

  • Evaluation of the effects of the actions

After the implementation of the action plan, it is necessary to understand its effects and its effectiveness in eliminating the problem. This phase involves a reflection on the results of the action; both intentional and unintentional. Thus, when evaluating, a review is made of the entire research process, as well as the implementation, the short-term results and the impacts of the long-term intervention for that reality. Through this reflection, a cycle of action research is closed. However, considerations about the process carried out will influence the action of the next cycle started.