It has been just over a month since we met in Forres to participate in the Leapfrog Summer School dedicated to Action Research (AR), Engagement and Co-design. For me, the event was in one way the first time I met researchers from different nationalities and disciplines ranging across design, sociology, psychology, policy and health care. I believe the Summer School has been able to create an inclusive space for discussion to share our reflections and thoughts on how to perform AR and engage with communities. One aspect I particularly liked was the fact that during the different activities there were no differences between delegates and speakers. We mingled, and I believe this helped break the social hierarchy and altered the balance of power. Indeed, it made me feel less intimidated by the high level of delegates and speakers, and also more comfortable when it came to sharing my thoughts.
The speakers presented their work but we, as delegates, had our own space to present our research in relation to two questions: what is AR and why is it an appropriate lens through which to explore my research? In general terms, the delegate presentations were really insightful. It was comforting to see that, to some extent, we all share the same concerns: for instance, the role of the researcher/designer when engaging with communities. This reminds me of comments like “well, I would like to be the forgotten facilitator for the communities I work with”, pointing out that whatever we do in conjunction with people has to be owned by them, legitimated and sustainable. Another element we discussed over these sessions was how to engage with community members so that, once we finish our investigation, the community has been strengthened by producing practical outcomes related to the current lives of people. Emphasis was placed on the fact that our actions within the community have an impact which can be positive or negative, so it is very important to reflect on our own practices and introduce ethical design as a mechanism to avoid bias and harm to communities. We also talked about the tension produced between theory and practice, noting how in the theoretical world everything is clearer, whereas in real life it gets mixed up and it is very difficult to make sense from such complexity and uncertainty.
One of the lessons I learnt from being part of this experience is that AR is a collective research framework that aims to produce knowledge which arises in a context of practice. As Hilary Bradbury says, “theory without action is not research but speculation”. Therefore, understanding the context is critical to fully understanding the community members’ needs and desires. I also learnt that in AR the distribution of power amongst facilitators and people has to be balanced, because we all participate together in a systematic chain of democratic actions and reflections, all the while seeking to produce social change by collective effort. For this to occur, we need to balance power in order to create a space where people can properly express themselves.