Saturday, November 6, 2010

From the desk of the editor: Politics, seeking scale and influence in AR.

Perhaps because it was election campaign season recently, I found myself at dinner with our state legislator, along with a dozen or so university colleagues. We talked about how to better influence state policy with research. The senator, an economist by training, emphasized the importance of researchers attending senate sessions and presenting our work on a topic the senate is taking up. The efficient scenario, according to the known model, is for researchers to be invited to address legislators. This assumes that their work is known to the senators. This being a democracy (or at least an ongoing attempt in that direction), public sessions also allow for self introductions. The core of the legislator’s invitation was that we prepare to offer testimony backed up by rigorous statistics. In turn legislators vote and in time (with the many intervening and politicized details to be determined!), laws would be passed to improve life for citizens. The action research model of influencing policy is worth reflecting on explicitly. It is also scientific (we investigate empirically) even if we treat issues of validity differently and with transparency. I won’t recap the thinking on this topic, but suffice it to say action researchers don’t conflate quality with conventional measures of generalizability. We measure quality as ‘actionability” which grows from partnership, practicality, rigorous methods and attention to infrastructure that sustains work over time.

So then, how does an action researcher influence government policy? Certainly the element of designing infrastructure that sustains work over time might potentially also embrace inquiry into creating enduring impact through policy. Simply stated, action researchers should consider when to plan for representation from a community of stakeholders who might have policy implications. Such policy implications would be articulated from the reflections on having implemented an experimental, successful intervention. The policy guru will naturally ask “how is this not advocacy?” And while much has also been written about the ways un which al “objective science’ is also partial in a postmodern world, the better response, may be to describe the ways in which the policy implications are grounded in empirical investigation that has cycled through inquiry and action, validated with stakeholders throughout the process. The quality of the implications resides the quality of the partnership and having meet practical objectives throughout the intervention process. Needless to say, but worth repeating anyway, qualitative and quantitative methodological rigors are adhered to in action research as appropriate to the research design. Scale therefore is not reached by reporting on statistics. Scale is reached by representatives of a community who experimented together sharing their insights. Clearly not all reports are worthy of legislators’ time. But some, especially those action research implications that were developed over time and in different contexts, are indeed worthwhile. I hypothesize that action research reports –when made by community representatives directly-- are more digestible, useful – actionable! – for the typical politician than are reams of rigorous numbers. Having been involved with local politics myself, when chairing meetings I was so often astonished how substance takes a back seat to impactful presentations made by concerned citizens at the right time. Because politics and dynamics of power are core to the work of action research, I invite more accounts that follow community interventions to the level of scale, this is a call then for accounts of how scale was reached, or designed to be reached, via formal political channels.

Next week I will introduce our soon to be published papers. I will reflect on them from the pespective taken in this blog post, namely what they suggest for moving toward scale. 
Best wishes,
Hilary Bradbury Huang
Editor in Chief

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