Action Research

Updated on Dec 23, 2009

Action researchers develop actionable knowledge. They do not merely study problems from a distance. Participants become empowered and aligned around the truths created/discovered in the action research so that desirable change results.


The work of action researchers challenges much received wisdom in both academia and among social change and development practitioners, not least because it is a practice of participation, engaging those who might otherwise be subjects of research or recipients of interventions as inquiring co-researchers. Action researchers do not start from a desire of changing others out there, although their work may eventually have that result, rather it starts from an orientation of change with others. Action research is therefore not a methodology but an orientation to inquiry that comprises a great variety of practices.

In the often-cited definition given by Peter Reason and Hilary Bradbury in their Handbook of Action Research (2001, 2006, 2008), action research is described as

“a participatory process concerned with developing practical knowing in the pursuit of worthwhile human purposes … It seeks to bring together action and reflection, theory and practice, in participation with others, in the pursuit of practical solutions to issues of pressing concern to people.”


Common among the varieties of action research is a holistic approach that integrates reflection and action. Thinking together in dialogue is especially valued because innovation and coordinated action is thereby generated. A review of a large variety of action research projects over the years shows that action research has the following characteristics:

  • grounded in real life experience,
  • developed in partnership,
  • addresses significant needs,
  • develops new ways of seeing/interpreting the world (i.e., theory),
  • works with (rather than simply studying) people,
  • uses methods that are appropriate to the audience and participants at hand,
  • develops needed structures to allow for follow up or institutionalization of new practices so that the work may have a lasting, positive impact.

While there are many ways of doing action research, the following steps suggest how a generic action research project evolves over time:

  • Co-scoping the work in an insider/outsider team (e.g., scholar/practitioner),
  • Mapping the entire system in which the need for change is perceived,
  • Identifying key stakeholders and possible leverage for desired change,
  • Collecting targeted data, often including interviews and focus groups,
  • Meeting with stakeholder on preliminary findings and design of participatory implementation,
  • Ensuring infrastructure that will sustain the work,
  • Presenting findings for wider audiences with use of metrics to support the effort.


The best way of understanding action research is to be immersed in a project. Perhaps second best is to read rich descriptions. The following constructs, selected from The Handbook of Action Research and the Sage journal Action Research, offer a way of appreciating what can otherwise seem like a bewildering array of projects.

The construct of context refers to the manifold types of places and organizations in which action research takes place. Action research happens in private spaces; in urban communities; in business, healthcare, and development contexts; and in the ministerial offices of nation states.

The term leadership refers to the core group of movers in the action research projects. In most cases the movers design a project that envelops larger numbers of people at different levels of engagement over time—from supporters to active co-researchers. However, sometimes those who generate the original design for the action research also experience it, as for example with collaborative inquiry aimed at professional improvement for all participants.

First-, second-, and third-person modes of inquiry often coexist in one project. But for the sake of overview it is helpful to differentiate which predominates as the cause of a project's impact. First-person mode refers to the work that each individual does with regard to cultivating an orientation of learning. Second-person mode refers to the work of group learning that usually underpins the participative approach in action research projects, within which people engage with one another. Third-person mode refers to efforts to involve or share information with those not originally involved in the work, which typically happens through publication or invitation for others to join an on-going effort.

The level of impact refers to the place in a system where impact is felt, for example, at the level of the individual; the small group organization or unit of community; or at the level of the whole society.

Finally, people who study action research ought to look at the order of change. First order change or single loop change refers to the degree to which concrete results are experienced by project participants. Second order or double loop change refers to the change occurring at the level of operating theories and values.


Action research typically involves two sets of actors whose roles may blur. One set is directly responsible for effecting change in a system while the other helps frame and theorize the work. Strengths and weaknesses are therefore viewed through different lenses—the need to act and the need to understand.

For practitioners it is often that a good balance between first and second order outcomes (immediate results and value added learning) helps to better commend the action research approach as it allows for momentum to build around small wins.

For those situated in a scholarly context, methodology must include the question of how to relate to conventional social science and especially how to work with the issue of partial objectivity. In the West, most action researchers have been brought up in a broadly Cartesian worldview, which channels their thinking in significant ways. It views the world as made of separate things. These objects of nature are composed of inert matter, operating according to causal laws. They have no subjectivity or intelligence, no intrinsic purpose or meaning. The philosophy of Descartes states that mind and physical reality are separate. Humans alone have the capacity for rational thought and action and for understanding and giving meaning to the world. This split between humanity and nature, and the abrogation of all mind to humans, is what Max Weber meant by the disenchantment of the world. Participation therefore becomes an epistemological principle with methodological implications. An attitude of inquiry includes developing an understanding that people are embodied beings that are part of a social and ecological order, that they are radically interconnected with all other beings, not bounded individuals experiencing the world in isolation. This all leads to individual researchers suggesting that there can never be one right way of doing action research.

In addressing the important question of how one knows if action research can be deemed good (Bradbury & Reason, 2003; Bradbury, 2007), Bradbury and Reason argue that a key dimension of quality is for action researchers to be aware of their choices for quality and to make those choices clear, transparent, articulate, to themselves, to their inquiry partners, and, when they start writing and presenting, to the wider world. This is akin to the crafting of research that Kvale (1995) advocates, or following Lather (2001), away from validity as policing toward incitement to dialogue. The degree of actionability in the work of Bradbury and Reason is a function of how rigorously they can address issues of quality in their knowledge generation efforts.

Generally then Bradbury and Reason suggest that action researchers keep an eye on a handful of issues and address them early and often in the life of a project. Those are considerations of quality with regard to the following:

  1. Quality of partnership,
  2. Quality of practical outcome,
  3. Quality of methodological and theoretical rigor (being careful to include the multiple ways of knowing best suited to participants),
  4. Quality of infrastructure.


Action research can be undertaken by people in all walks of life as they study and attempt to change their world. It does not have to be part of a formal academic project. It can be facilitated by scholars and those in graduate training at universities, by those in think tanks and nongovernmental organizations around the world. Scholarly action researchers are called upon to unify oppositional approaches that include the integration of theory and practice, action and reflection, empirical analysis and normative vision, critique and appreciation, explanation and action, vision and current reality. In academic cultures that more readily replace and with or, this will always be a challenge. Thankfully this challenge also offers opportunity for experiencing that the action research approach makes a positive difference, especially as researchers contribute to a more sustainable world.


Bradbury, H. (2007). Quality and actionability: What action researchers offer from the tradition of pragmatism. In A. B. (Rami) Shani, S.A. Mohrman, W. Pasmore, B. Stymne, & N. Adler (Eds.), Handbook of Collaborative Management Research, pp. 583–600. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Bradbury, H., & Reason, P. (2003). Action research: An opportunity for revitalizing research purpose and practices. Qualitative Social Work, 2 (2) 173–183.

Kvale, S. (1995). The social construction of validity. Qualitative Inquiry, 1(1), 19–40.

Lather, P. (2001). Validity as an incitement to discourse: qualitative research and the crisis of legitimation. In V. Richardson (Ed.), Handbook of Research on Teaching, 4th ed., pp. 241–250. Washington DC: American Education Research Association.

Reason, P., & Bradbury, H. (Eds.). (2001). The handbook of action research: participative inquiry and practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Reason, P., & Bradbury, H. (Eds.). (2006). The handbook of action research: Concise paperback edition. London: Sage.

Reason, P., & Bradbury, H. (Eds.). (2008). The handbook of action research: participative inquiry and practice. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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