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"Deep action research"

A mystic and a sceptic discuss the


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


A French translation of this document has been provided by Vicky Rotarova here.

Below are two letters leading up to a conference session at the ALARPM action research conference, Brisbane, July 1998.  The discussion was originated by Paul Wildman sending an email letter to Bob Dick, and followed up with a reply from Bob and by the conference session.

It is probably relevant to mention that Paul and Bob have been friends and colleagues for some time, and with a profound respect for each other.

From Paul W to Bob D

Over the past 12 mths I have become increasingly concerned about AR and its seeming lack of deepening as to its meaning ie layers of causation.  Admittedly I have been out of the cycle somewhat so am not acutely aware of recent developments, however the following critique represents a fundamental and cumulative one and goes to the nature of this thing called knowledge and scientific inquiry in the west and so is at the heart of AR in spite of any recent developments.

Basically my concerns are with the following:

  • Phenomenology - events as action AR is a form of, or is related to, phenomenology - here phenomena or events are uniquely privileged (ie a form of externalist imperialism that is empiricism) and inner and intersubjective hermeneutical meanings are lost
  • Systems theory - Von Bertalanffy's system theories are fundamentally flawed and are blisteringly critiqued by Wilber and others- and relate to the continuation of flatland empirical epistems the death of Gaia ie inner meanings and levels of consciousness are excluded and the system is seen as a holistic web in the external world this ignores esoteric thinking/levels of consciousness
  • Reflection is on the results of action ie not on the meaning of action ie refection is not contemplation
  • Levels of causation - there are readily identifiable 4 levels of causation and the pragmatism of AR is essentially 'does it work' it does not seek deeper understandings of relationships than an empirical indirect social science one of 'does it fit/work?' and not 'what does it mean?' - this is flatland monoscience at its worst
  • Levels of consciousness - AR privileges the rational stage in development as the only level of consciousness worthy of inclusion - this excludes other levels of consciousness such as pre rational systems of mythic in disassociation and post rational systems of integral, psychic, causal (vision logic) and non dual
  • AR can be seen as essentially anthropocentric and cannot easily deal with AI and AL in CAS
  • .AR essentially reifies conventional views of space, time and matter
  • Action/ Reflection now has no way to engage the deeper issues of meaning and levels of consciousness (let alone spirituality)

In effect action research is sense though well intentioned is IMHO naively tragically part of the virulent disease of flatland 'monotopia' that is late empiricism and its economic manifestation - capitalism.  This monological imperialism is killing Gaia

I am greatly saddened by the inability of Action Research to reflect on itself in the above light and move beyond flatland empirical imperialism by pretending to be atheoretical

Years ago i suggested a system of coupling heuristic inquiry with ar to try to over come this fatal flaw - however ar IMHO remains solidly status quo


ciao paul w

IMHO - in my humble opinion


Wilber, K.  (1995).  Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution.  Boston: Shambhala.

Wildman, P.  (1995a).  Research by Looking Backwards: Reflective Praxis as an Action Research Methodology.  In S.  Pinchen & R.  Passfield (Eds.), Moving On: Creative Applications of Action Learning and Action Research (pp.  171-192).  Brisbane: ALARPM (Action Learning, Action Research and Process Management Association) ISBN 0 646 25930 X.

Wildman, P., & Inayatullah, S.  (1996).  Ways of Knowing and the Pedagogies of the Future.  Futures ISSN 0016-3287, 28(8), 723-740.

From Bob D to Paul W

Dear Paul

A sceptical reply to a critique of action research

Thank you for your comments about action research.  I have thought about them, and they have helped me to a different understanding of action research and how it might usefully develop.

I'll attempt to respond below to your specific critique.  To place those responses in context, let me first provide a number of more general responses.

First ...

I am by nature a sceptic and by calling a pragmatist.  The deeper levels of perception are closed to me.  I don't have mystical experiences.  I live my life by dealing with those matters I do experience; I don't concern myself unduly with those that are beyond my horizon.  For that matter, I don't know that I can usefully be any different.

However, I am willing to assume that there are levels of experience and of matter beyond those I have access to.  I am willing to assume that in these respects your experience and your knowledge of the less-tangible world are substantially richer than mine.

This has its consequences here.  And one is that I can't respond to that part of the critique that is beyond my own experience.  That doesn't mean that I dismiss it.

Second ...

I think it is useful in this present discussion to differentiate between what action research usually is, and what it might be.  It seems to me that some of your critique is of action research, and some is more of action researchers.  There is little to prevent someone such as yourself taking action research beyond some of its usual boundaries.  Other boundaries may be more solid.

Third ...

Perhaps this is my pragmatic bias showing.  It seems to me that action research is in a sense true to label.  It seeks to achieve action and research simultaneously.  It seeks better action, and better understanding of that action.  If I understand your critique, you wish in some of it to extend action research beyond that purpose.  For my part, I think a critique which is intended to improve action research for its intended purpose is more to the point that a critique which chastises it for what it does not try to be.

Fourth ...

In this discussion I do not wish to be a defender of or champion for action research.  My position is (and has always been) that for some purposes and in some situations action research is good research.  For other purposes or in other situations some other approach is preferable.  I am no evangelist.  Following (that other pragmatist) John Dewey I regard good research as research which achieves the intended research outcomes in the research situation.  Sometimes that is action research and sometimes it isn't.


Let me now respond in turn to your claims, as I understand them.

1    You say that action research privileges external events, and empiricism, at the expense of intersubjective meanings.

To an extent I agree.  Action research is intended to act in the world, and thus pays more attention to that world.  Further, it is the child of its parents and embodies the philosophy of its time.  Given the purpose of action research, this does not concern me unduly.

In a further respect I disagree.  Much of action research is participative.  Those understandings which people develop about their situation are coloured by the meanings they attribute to their experience.  When intersubjective meanings are relevant to the action outcomes, I believe those meanings become incorporated in the understanding from which people operate.

2    I do not understand fully what you say about systems theory.  I think you are saying that it is cast in the same mould as empiricism and again disregards the deeper inner meanings.  I think you are saying that compared to more esoteric traditions it is unidimensional.

If this is what you are saying, my response is largely what I gave to your first point.  See also my response to your fourth point, below.

3    You distinguish between reflection, which considers only the results of action, and contemplation, which considers the meaning of action.  I think you claim that action research engages in reflection, not in contemplation.

I believe that action research gives more attention and encouragement to reflection than to contemplation.  In other words, although I think you overstate the point, I agree with a less strongly stated version.

As I view it, action research is about producing desired change.  I therefore think it is appropriate that its main focus should be on the results of action.  Where internal meanings are relevant to that action I think it is capable of considering them too.  It may be that it would often be useful for action researchers to give more attention to other levels of meaning than they often do.  Perhaps like me they lack the ability to do so.

4    You claim that four levels of causation are "readily identifiable", yet action research asks only "does it work".

I agree that there are more levels of causation than are often considered in either action or research.  I don't attribute this directly to action research, but rather to the wider context in which it was developed and in which it operates.

In one important respect I think you are mistaken.  Many of the action researchers whose work I respect are systems thinkers.  They recognise that the world they operate in is complex and richly interconnected.  They mistrust simple causal models.  When almost everything affects almost everything else, they recognise that simple causal models are quite misleading.

In short, I acknowledge that the work you do is more multidimensional than is most action research.  On the other hand, I think you overstate the unidimensionality both of many systems thinkers and of many action researchers.

5    You claim that action research privileges the rational and ignores the other levels of consciousness such as the mythic, the psychic, and others.

Privileges the rational?  Yes, I believe so.  Excludes the others?  To some extent but not absolutely.  That depends more on the action researcher and the other participants, I believe, than on action research itself.

Speaking for myself ...  I don't understand enough of the others to make much use of them.  I cannot see what I cannot see.  In those areas where I have some experience -- cultural change is one -- I deliberately move beyond the rational.  To the extent that I am able I try to include the arational.  I believe many other action researchers do so too in such settings.

6    You say that action research can be seen as essentially anthropocentric, mentioning that it cannot easily deal with "AI" (artificial intelligence, I presume) and "AL" (animal liberation?).

Well, yes, I suppose.  Certainly it would have some difficulty in using its more participative versions with computers or non-human animals.

7    You say that action research "essentially reifies" conventional views of space, time and matter.

As I see it, much action research is bound to its history and its context.  And from these it inherits a focus on conventional views of space, time and matter.

I would add that these conventional views are often enough to serve us well when we seek to improve our immediate situation.

8    You say that "action/reflection now has no way to engage the deeper issues of meaning and levels of consciousness (let along spirituality)"

I believe there is some truth in this.  I would reply that it is an overstatement.  It depends upon the action researcher and the participants.  In most of the action research I'm familiar with, people are encouraged to bring their whole selves to the action research.  To the extent that they are aware of these deeper issues and levels they can incorporate them.

9    While acknowledging that action research is well intentioned, you claim that it is part of the "late empiricism" that is "killing Gaia".

If you are saying that many action researchers lack the understanding to act in ways that are best for the world, I agree.  I acknowledge this in myself.  There are many times when I can have no assurance that my locally-beneficial actions are the best actions for the world as a whole.  Like many of my colleagues, I try to "think global and act local" while painfully aware that my understanding of the global issues is inadequate.

If you have better ways of ensuring the global benefit of local actions I am keen to know of them.

10    You say (and here I quote you in full): "I am greatly saddened by the inability of Action Research to reflect on itself in the above light and move beyond flatland empirical imperialism by pretending to be atheoretical".

Here I believe you are responding more to your own fantasies about action research than to its actualities.  I think you are mistaken on both counts.

Those action researchers whose work I most respect do reflect upon their own practice of action research.  Most of them are aware of how limited their understanding is, and wish to expand it.  Most are committed to their development as action researchers and as people.

I don't understand your comment that action research "pretends to be atheoretical" so my response may miss the point.  As I see it, action research is committed to developing an understanding which derives from action and which informs action.  To my mind, that understanding is theory at its most useful.

11    You refer to an earlier suggestion of yours to couple heuristic inquiry with action research.  You claim that action research has ignored this suggestion.

I know of many action researchers who look for ways of deepening their knowledge of action research and the world through deep reflection on what they do.  In some instances this is not unlike heuristic inquiry.

Perhaps you refer to the paucity of this in the literature.  If so, I agree.  Many action researchers do much, and write little.  I would be careful about judging action research by its literature.


I think there are some themes both in the points of your critique and in my responses.  My own impression is that you ask action research to be all things to all people, but especially to those aspects of existence that you most value.  In doing this, I think you do not judge action research against its own purposes.

Personally, I think action research would benefit from giving attention to what you propose.  I think you underestimate how much of this is already done, to some extent, by some action researchers.


With love and respect -- Bob


Probably to be continued ...


Copyright © Paul Wildman and Bob Dick 1998-2000.  This document may be reproduced freely provided it is not included in material sold at a profit, and this and the following notice are included.

This document may be cited as follows:

Wildman, Paul, and Dick, Bob (1998)  "Deep action research": a mystic and a sceptic discuss the issues.  Edited from a paper prepared for the ALARPM Conference, Brisbane, July 1998.  Available on line at




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