Saturday, February 12, 2011

From the editors desk. Action research is not like deboning a duck before roasting

I have always been interested in the kind of action research that lives in synergistic proximity to conventional research – the kind that makes important ideas actionable; the kind that is equally interested in outcomes as with inputs & validity.  I am thinking about this as I prepare a series of invited talks aimed at graduate students and their mentors on how to do action research.  When I think about how to start such a talk, I look for a compelling image. I still find most compelling the image/ story of smallpox eradication. The story contains all the important elements of action research. It starts by recognizing that that all the technical innovation in the world couldn’t make smallpox disappear. In fact the smallpox vaccine - a miracle of conventional science - was in existence well over 100 years before smallpox was vanquished. A full ten years after the vaccine was invented thousands upon thousands were still dying from smallpox. Then along came Dr. Henderson to head up the World Health Organization. He committed to a world free of smallpox and declared that the field workers who had first hand understanding of the obstacles must be listened to (itself a big organizational innovation)!  What the field workers then reported , over and over, was the primacy of socio-cultural obstacles to vaccination. For example, in parts of India it was seen as an insult to an important goddess to be vaccinated; clearly eternal rebirth in a bad life would be much worse than getting smallpox! Conventional research, ensconced in its paradigm of techno-rationality, simply can’t respond to the mother who’d prefer not to offend a goddess.  Or more precisely,  the response that emerges from the conventional research paradigm, can’t be either effective or respectful to that mother. So is it still science when you recognize social barriers as being as important as technical ones?  Was Henderson an action researcher? I answer yes. In the field of AR we’ve been saying that integrative approaches to knowledge have both a social and technical component.  Concentrating only on the latter means overlooking how to have impact or expecting that good ideas, or good technique will simply magically be adopted. I call it the awareness fallacy – as if awareness of information changes things. Certainly it does for some – usually the educated middle class when sober and judicious. In other words, it doesn’t hold true for most – otherwise we’d all be slim trim and fabulous. So the world needs a science of action that overcomes systematic barriers to desired change.  It is, necessarily, a reflexive science. Its measures of success are farther ranging than ‘merely’ proving itself right.  This science, action science, must, however, prove itself useful and contribute to ongoing efforts in social and organizational change. What I am describing is the need to open up our definitions and practices and to be rigorous despite ‘non-standard’ work. The analogy of cooking comes to mind.  Not so very long ago –certainly in our parents generation - one still heard the declaration that “real” cooking can only happen if it follows French Cordon Bleu techniques so rigorous as to require study for years in Paris. Cooking was the domain of the professionals.  Yes, you simply have to debone that duck before you roast it! And what of everyday cooking? Wasn’t there a place outside the professional guild?  Indeed it turns out that some thought so. Some being quite non-mainstream (those vegetarians!), some who liked nouvelle cuisine (even the original guild members innovated when pushed!). And today we even have the miracle of pacific rim fusion (my personal favorite, yum yum!).  In science too – we have moved beyond the professional gatekeepers. We do so with seriousness of pursuit and dedication to outcomes. Because we need more than one type of science. Besides who wants to eat deboned duck!
Warm regards,
Hilary Bradbury-Huang
Editor, ARJ

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