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Choosing action research


This is a resource file which supports the regular public program "areol" (action research and evaluation on line) offered twice a year beginning in mid-February and mid-July.  For details email Bob Dick.

...  in which I outline a view of different research paradigms, and discuss some of the conditions which may favour the choice of action research

Natalie Harmann has provided a French translation of this document here.


Research studies can differ on many dimensions.  they may be participative or not.  They may take place in a situation where everything can be measured or controlled, or in the confusion and unpredictability of a live and complex situation.  They may be qualitative or quantitative.  And so on...

And each of those dimensions can be subdivided further.  Who will participate?  In what?  To what extent?

Now suppose that you have identified 20 or 30 of these dimensions.  (I suspect that there are many more than that.) Suppose, further, that you used those dimensions as a checklist.

You consider the situation you are researching.  You take account of constraints -- time, money, people, your skills and experience, and the like.  You specify your desired outcomes.

(The "you" may involve a lot of other people, too.)

Then imagine that, for each of those 20 or 30 dimensions, you made the best choice for achieving those outcomes in that situation.

How do you think that would work?


I don't imagine that much research is done that way.  My guess is that most people know a few research approaches.  Perhaps they learned them in their undergraduate degree.  Or they may have used them for a thesis.  Or studied under a researcher who used them.

For many researchers, I suspect, "good research" is "good experimental research".  And "good experimental research" is research which fits the current mythology about what is good experimental research.  Research has its fashions.

Or "good research" is "good action research".  And "good action research" is whatever form the researcher learned or saw used or whatever.

We're imagining that researchers might do good research by making each possible decision on its merits, not in accordance with some prevailing custom.  We're imagining research done thoughtfully and creatively and critically, not by a technician following a recipe.

But this doesn't have to be real.  We are just indulging our imagination.


As it is now, there are major clusters of research studies.  A major cluster occurs because certain dimensions usually go together in human research.  For example

  • quantitative measures
  • an emphasis on measurement
  • relatively few variables
  • laboratory conditions
  • precise causal hypotheses
  • study derived from the literature, and the situation then chosen to fit
  • demanding assumptions about the nature of the data
  • interpretation of data by the researcher
  • low participation
  • researcher as independent
  • inflexibility once data collection has begun
  • all literature reviewed before the study begins
  • use of control groups
  • generalisation highly valued
  • reductionist assumptions

and so on.  Most of these dimensions could be further divided.  And there are more dimensions that could be added.


Now, suppose it became the practice that researchers are responsible for their own philosophy and methodology.  They can't just say "I'm using this or that methodology"; they have to justify their choice.

Even if they are doing mainstream research, they have to explain why that is their choice: why it fits the research situation and the research question.

Imagine that all researchers use a checklist.  They work from first principles, taking as little for granted as possible.  They analyse the situation and the desired outcomes and the constraints.  They make the best choice for each item on the checklist.

I think that if that occurred, certain dimensions would still tend to be associated.  For instance, causal hypotheses derived from the literature tend also to favour experimental and quasi-experimental approaches.  But I think the clustering would be less than it is now.

I think there would be much greater variety in research than there is.  There might even be more multidisciplinary research.  More unique research.  More thoughtful research.  Perhaps more thoughtful researchers.

An outrageous idea?  I really don't think so.  In fact, it is what I'm suggesting as good research.  1


Where does this leave "action research"?  On the one hand, if each of us justifies our choice of research design, the label isn't all that important.  The design is.  The conduct is.  On the other hand, it's useful to have a label.

Just over two years ago, two colleagues and I set out to devise a minimal definition of action research.  2 This proved difficult.  We finally settled on a definition built around two main criteria:

  • that it pursued both action and research outcomes; in a sense, it was true to label; and
  • that it was a cyclic process, with critical reflection a component in each cycle.

We added that it was _usually_ qualitative and participative.  But we preferred to leave those as choices.


Whatever you do, the issues are important.  Judge experimental research by its own criteria of rigour, and you make good judgments.  Judge action research by experimental criteria and you mistake good research for poor, and poor research for good.  Judge action research by the criteria for some particular version of action research, and you may make the same mistake.

Each research paradigm is developing through a slow evolution.  My guess is that informed trial and error is probably the major vehicle.  Trial and error is fine, if that's all there is.  In my view, we would profit from more actively researching our research.


If we did that, the processes for this meta-research might bear a surprising resemblance to action research.



  1. Thank you, Pam Swepson.  Many of these thoughts have arisen through our conversations.
  2. My two colleagues were Ron Passfield and Paul Wildman.  Some of the ideas emerging from those discussions are to be found in Arcs Newsletter, 1 (1).  I've reported similar ideas in the paper A beginners' guide to action research.  This was published in the same source.  A shortened version is available as the archived file similarly named.  The URL is



Copyright (c) Bob Dick 1997.  May be copied if not included in material sold at a profit and this and the following notice are included

This document can be cited as follows:

Dick, B.  (1997) Choosing action research [On line].  Available at



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Maintained by Bob Dick; this version 1.07w; last revised 20140915