Saturday, February 26, 2011

From the editor's desk: The tacit nature of political knowledge

I was introducing the philosophy and practice of action research to a group of physicians recently. It was in the context of their leadership development program in which an action learning project is central. Whenever I first introduce AR I feel a philosophical tug - after all it is really only by understanding Western Philosophy of Science that we can understand the madness of the past century - whereby all knowledge generation has become the work of a professional elite in service to questions that this elite poses. Unsurprisingly this approach has not served humanity. But one doesn’t need to be philosophical to create the case for a transformative knowledge creation. Let’s be pragmatic: today we enjoy the rather startling statistic that 80% of organizational change efforts fail. They don't fail because they are not needed – notot overstate things but really…our healthcare systems no longer keep us healthy, our justice system is unjust, our financial system - even before it melted down - simply gave rise to a plutocracy... nope it's not that no change is needed. It is OVER AND AGAIN that change efforts are not participative or learning oriented. People, feeling steamrollered, make sure that change doesn't happen. Of course too many of us are change resistant to begin with. I would much prefer if when looking in a mirror I saw the body I had say 20 years ago, no change would be great! But I wouldn't be willing to give up the 20 years of experiences (and all those donuts, always organic!) that also transpired. We are at best ambivalent about change, so fearful perhaps of our inevitable end. So we multiply our normal human ambivalence by everyone else in the organization - not least the one's whose careers are to be threatened. And we realize - what a miracle that 20% of change efforts succeed! Perhaps it really does take a revolution, though I’d vote for action research as a transformative model of knowledge creation in lieu of the heroically slain on the streets of Tripoli today. Needless to say I am thrilled as well as fearful about the potential of the youth uprisings around the Middle East. If these mostly horribly misogynistic cultures can become even a tad more participative/inclusive, it will bode well indeed for all men women and children. No accident that Tunisia with its European levels of gender equality has led the way. But Saudi?! Saudi, where a woman can't even go outside without a male relative escorting her. Change is difficult and change is deeply political. Back to my classroom - I noticed among the physicians how tacit is my own reading of how to make political change. I can say one thing explicitly – if you want to see change, enjoin the change "champions." They are the ones who have that magical combination of being able and willing. It's tacit because I don't really want to stand there and explicitly describe how the men, and some women, in charge may be able but not willing, or willing but not able, or sometimes neither, when it comes to changing things toward a more positive direction (healthcare needs some positive momentum before we are all bankrupted!). Such things, i.e., specific names, are better left unsaid...YET maybe they have to be said. Interesting that the king of Saudi threw 35 billion of his personal money at ‘his’ problem of a potential uprising of all his deeply unhappy subjects. Lucky for him so many are illiterate and yes, the woman all stay home! Yet those in the know say the problems are structural, no amount of money will fix them. What they really mean is that the relatives of the king stand in the way of change. His relatives, more bluntly his sons and their off spring are in charge of everything. And one has a quite few sons when all your many, many wives can't go out alone and the general birth rate in Saudi is 9 children per woman (presumably per each out-of-her-mind-with-boredom--and-without-access to-family-planning-woman). To draw this to a close, politics, philosophy and pointed name calling is all entwined. The question is how to make the insights explicit while truly being participative and inclusive – not yielding to scapegoating. Not yielding to patriarchy!

Hilary Bradbury Huang

ARJ Editor,

Portlandia, OR.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Comments on the new book by Zachary Schrag, Ethical Imperialism A History of the IRB and Social Sciences, posted by Mary Brydon-Miller

You all remember Ronsencrantz and Guildenstern from Hamlet. “Peripheral to the main action, they stumbled onstage and off, neglected or despised by the main charactes and destined for a bad end” So they are described by Zachary Schrag in his recent book, Ethical Imperialism: Institutional Review Boards and the Social Sciences, 1965-2009, in which he likens their plight to that of the social sciences in the development of current human subjects review processes. In this volume Schrag traces the history of the IRB and the ways in which the social sciences have been increasingly brought under the control of these bodies without having had significant involvement in the process of creating them.

As Schrag points out, the IRB system was designed to address issues facing medical and behavioral sciences and based on four assumptions:

1. Researchers know more about their subjects’ condition than do the subjects themselves.

2. Researchers begin their work by spelling out detailed protocols explaining what hypotheses they will test and what procedures they will meploy to these those hypotheses.

3. Researchers perform experiments designed to alter subjects’ physical state or behavior, rather than simply gathering information through conversation, correspondence, and observation.

4. Researchers have an ethical duty not to harm their subjects.

But while these assumptions may apply to medical and some forms of psychological research, they don’t do a good job of recognizing and addressing the ethical issues facing researchers in other social science fields, and certainly don’t begin to respond to the ethical implications of action research where we acknowledge that our community partners know more about their experience than we do, where we co-generate meaningful research questions that may change as the process moves forward, and where we create knowledge together through a variety of methods.  We do agree about not causing harm, but don't impose this on our partners with the same patronizing attitude that seems to pervade much other human subjects research.

This week is the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics conference (where, by the way, this blog is going to be featured in a discussion of ways to use electronic media to teach ethics!) and Schrag will be visiting Cincinnati and meeting with members of our Action Research Center and other students and faculty colleagues. We’ll continue this discussion of his book together in next week’s post.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Creating Social Space in Virtual Worlds - Megan Paxton Wuebker - Guest Blogger

Victor Friedman (right) and audience (correct date: 2.16.11)

Having Victor Friedman in class last week to discuss AR, and more specifically his concepts of space, was quite a treat. I’ve always found it fascinating to meet the authors of the ideas we are using to develop our own knowledge and opinions as we move through graduate school.  During our talk, Victor discussed the social construction of space and the differences between social and physical space.  He asked if the advent of social networking is creating a new type of space based on changes in the formation of social relationships.  This really got me thinking about social space, relationships, and the influence that social networks have had on my experience. 

Like many people, I have accounts on social networking sites, including Twitter and Facebook.  Twitter is my social website of choice, where I can interact with others who have common interests, seek answers to questions, and provide support and motivation to my virtual and “real life” friends.  Within our online community, we have created a social space that exits within a virtual space.  But what is a virtual space?  How would Victor Friedman define a virtual space?  I think it would be more than a social space, but perhaps it’s not. 

Social space allows us to develop relationships.  According to Victor, social space is an individual’s generation of feelings and emotion, the externalization of which permits interactions with other individuals’ feelings and emotions.  This interaction amongst individuals allows for the development of relationships.  However, these relationships are typically formed in physical space.  Can virtual space be considered a physical space where individuals come together and form relationships?  While we all construct our Twitterverse social space, there is no aspect of physical space beyond a website or a phone application.  Is this enough to constitute a virtual space?  Or do our virtual relationships not move beyond social space?

The answers to all of these questions are something that I am still working on.  The concept of a virtual space is something that, as a social networker, I am very curious about.  Victor Friedman’s discussion of space poses more questions than answers.  I look forward to examining these questions as my inquiry into space evolves.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Looking Forward - Alan Wight




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

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

From the editors' desk...

Picking up the admittedly slim thread from last weeks' ruminations - I have since googled around on the issue of journal rejection rates.  In this I happened across the "journal of universal rejection." Let me share what I think may inform the action research community. Unlike with that journal, at least your comments on this topic will be accepted HERE ;)

About the Journal

The founding principle of the Journal of Universal Rejection (JofUR) is rejection. Universal rejection. That is to say, all submissions, regardless of quality, will be rejected. Despite that apparent drawback, here are a number of reasons you may choose to submit to the JofUR:

You can send your manuscript here without suffering waves of anxiety regarding the eventual fate of your submission. You know with 100% certainty that it will not be accepted for publication.

There are no page-fees.

You may claim to have submitted to the most prestigious journal (judged by acceptance rate).

The JofUR is one-of-a-kind. Merely submitting work to it may be considered a badge of honor.

You retain complete rights to your work, and are free to resubmit to other journals even before our review process is complete.

Decisions are often (though not always) rendered within hours of submission.

The JofUR solicits any and all types of manuscript: poetry, prose, visual art, and research articles. You name it, we take it, and reject it. Your manuscript may be formatted however you wish. Frankly, we don't care.

After submitting your work, the decision process varies. Often the Editor-in-Chief will reject your work out-of-hand, without even reading it! However, he might read it. Probably he'll skim. At other times your manuscript may be sent to anonymous referees. Unless they are the Editor-in-Chief's wife or graduate school buddies, it is unlikely that the referees will even understand what is going on. Rejection will follow as swiftly as a bird dropping from a great height after being struck by a stone. At other times, rejection may languish like your email buried in the Editor-in-Chief's inbox. But it will come, swift or slow, as surely as death. Rejection.