In this presentation I wanted to place the focus on the research component of action research. Somewhat surprisingly this is an often neglected in action research projects. It is quite possible to undertake the commonly understood cycle of action research (plan, act, observe and reflect) without actually doing research but rather doing good practice. To explore this phenonomum in more depth I started with the fundamentals of research, drawing on the historical but still very insightful paper from Bruce Archer titled ‘The Fundamentals of Design’. Bruce, the father of design research lays out 5 requirements for something to qualify as research. Research must be…
1 Systematic because it is pursued according to some plan
2 An enquiry because it is seeks answers to questions
3 Goal-directed because the objects of the enquiry are posed by the task description
4 Knowledge-directed because the findings. of the enquiry must go beyond providing mere information
5 Communicable because the findings must be intelligible to, and located within some framework of understanding for, an appropriate audience.
From this starting point we explored two major projects that adopted an action research approach. The first of these Beyond the Castle was a co-design project with 2,000 people funded by the PROUD project. The second the Creative Exchange project, specifically we looked at a new approach to PhD education in the arts that placed students in research projects with companies and other academics from day one.
Finally we looked at Leapfrog with a critical eye, highlighting some of the factors that can place great engagement in tension with great research. Specifically we explored the issues of
Tempo: if an activity goes well people want another one soon, they are enthusiastic! Its sometimes hard to do the required analysis of the data collected and create the next event in a timely manner.
Resourcing: The analysis and communication of data takes resources (time and material) away from the often more tangible activities with communities and other stakeholders. There is a danger this is seen as ‘wasted’ resource.
The ‘invisibility’ of research: linked to the above issue, publishing is needed to ‘qualify’ as being research but this can be a time consuming process that can take years to come into the public realm. This can make it harder to prioritise this over the more immediate needs of community work.
To try and address these issues (and others) I recommended a framework of 4 activities to bake research into action research processes. These were
1) Design the research cycle into projects from before day one.
2) Have someone specially tasked to focus on research delivery
3) Accept effort on research (doing and reacting) will take resources away from the more visible engagement activities.
4) Have concrete goals in terms of research outputs.