Commonalities and Differences: Four Types of Action Research
In order to discuss the differences and commonalities between classical action research, participatory
action research, applied research, and grounded action we first need to settle on specific definitions for each. Of course,
this isn’t easy as a wide range of terminologies exist which endeavor to explain these designs and this makes for a
crowded, and often confused, field of knowledge.
1. Action Research
The major emphasis on action research is to provide concrete solutions to issues that affect social and educational
systems in a localized setting. Action research was devised to examine the “…immediate and day to day problems
of practitioners” (McKernan, 1998). It uses qualitative methods in natural settings to develop theories for teaching
and learning. Halsey (1972) defined action research as “a small scale intervention in the functioning of the real world…and
the close examination of the effects of such interventions."
As stated by Burns (1999), the common features of action research are:
- Action research is contextual,
small-scale – localized – it identifies and investigates problems within a specific situation.
- It is evaluative and
reflective as it aims to bring about change and improvement in practice.
- It is participatory
as it provides for collaborative investigation by teams of colleagues, practitioners, and researchers.
- Changes in practice
are based on the collection of information or data which provides the impetus for change.
Action research is designed to implement change. It is dynamic in that its suggestions for change should not become
dogma, merely a guidepost for reflection. Change comes about when educators are able to “open” the systems in
which they engage daily and alter, via needs assessment based on action research, their day-to-day activities to express the
elemental forces which occur in their organizations.
2. Participatory Action Research
The commonalities far outweigh the differences between classic action research and participatory action research. In
fact, the terms participatory or collaborative are commonly attached to definitions of action research. One definition I prefer
is that participatory action research is related to “liberatory” research founded by the Brazilian educator Paolo
Friere in the 1970s and based on his idea of "conscientization." Conscientization is a practice diffused in many countries,
mainly in South America, based on trust in
oppressed "knowledge" and on questioning traditional power bases through reciprocal dialogues. The objective of conscientization
is to empower the knowledges and resources of groups by facilitating a learning process that becomes critical, "transitive,"
and dialogically conscious with the potential of transformational social "liberation."
Participatory research is based on the collective production of knowledge and at its foundation is the desire to transform
the process of education so that it reflects the needs of the community and not just the dominating culture. Rosas (1998)
states that “Applied to education, participatory research seeks the transformation of educational practices through
the participation of educational agents in reflective action groups."
3. Applied Research
Applied research is dedicated to developing practical knowledge that can be used to alleviate modern
world problems. It uses the application of existing knowledge to create solutions for problems, and it is outcome-based as
opposed to theory-based.
The term “applied” refers to the inherent goal of this type of research, which is to form practical applications
to real-world problems. In an educational context this could mean the use of research to decide the best approach to improving
declining enrollment rates. This type of research is similar to action oriented research in that it strives to make sense
of an existing problem utilizing existing data. In many cases, it involves the application of solutions to inequities in social
4. Grounded Action Research
If a grounded theory is one that, as Strauss (1990) contends, “…is inductively derived from the study of
the phenomenon it represents," then grounded action could be described as “…one that is inductively derived from
the study of the phenomenon it represents for the purpose of creating and applying practical solutions to social systems”
(Simmons & Gregory, 2003).
Simmons & Gregory (2003) developed grounded action as a logical end-point
for grounded theory studies. Grounded Theory is concerned primarily with the generation of “…theory that is grounded
in data." (p. 1); this differs from GA in that GA
takes the data and develops actions to support it. It could be said that GT provides
the framework from which to extract theory from data; while G/A also provides operational
The operational theory is systematically generated from and grounded in explanatory theory. The operational
theory provides a grounded theoretical foothold for action planning and implementation. (Simmons & Gregory, 2003, p. 4)
The operational theory “…serves as a rationale and model for action.” (Simmons &
Gregory, 2003, p. 8) and through a systematized questioning process, constructs actions that can be delivered into the system
for the purpose of its improvement. Grounded Theory finds the essence of a system and GA
applies correctional constructs to it based on the same data collections and analysis techniques; therefore GT defines and GA transforms.
In qualitative research, researchers have the obligation to examine
each component of a study, constantly framing questions and theories as they navigate through the research process. Grounded
theory doesn’t test a hypothesis, instead through observation and constant comparison, a theory “grounded”
in the data emerges. Like action research, it focuses on understanding the research situation rather than on proving or disproving
a theory. As a result, findings that are discovered are apt to have immediate uses. This is because the research points to
the solution instead of the solution pointing to the research.
Grounded Theory/Grounded Action:
The Sixties and the Significance of Grounded Theory
Grounded theory was “discovered” by Glaser and Strauss in the early sixties. It identified
a movement in the study of the patterns of human behavior that was indicative of the sixties itself because it signified an
intellectual revolution against the traditional research thinking of the 20th century: a customary approach to
clinical science which stated that, although empirical research was king, the generation of its theories should be consigned
to a select few; a closed kingdom comprised of elitists whose theories had the highest priority. Thus we were introduced to
a long era of theory validation during which researchers conducted studies that were designed to prove or disprove the theories
set forth by the small group of researchers.
But by the sixties, the status of intellectual elitism was being challenged and the post-modernists
were waiting in the wings. The belief that social ”universals” do not exist and that toleration of the incommensurable;
that which cannot be commonly compared, led to a world-view based on the principle that the existence of social paradox and
inconsistency indicate the complex nature of being, an essence that is not easily quantified.
Social science is, by disposition of the great variations of human behavior, a dynamic discipline.
This is not a drawback to social research; it is merely a characteristic that needs to be understood. However, over the years,
qualitative research, the main focus of social science research, developed a regrettable reputation because, unfortunately,
in many studies, little control was exercised and sloppy investigations and analyses were performed. Some reform was necessary
so that practical progress could be made and the first step was the discovery of grounded theory. By the time Glaser and Strauss
set forth their ideas, society still had vast problems, so although understanding human behavior had made great strides, a
dynamic way of investigating and improving social systems had not yet been created, but Glaser and Strauss saw that social
science research could be improved, it could generate theory, it could follow precise paths to discovery, and in the hands
of an expert analyst, it could raise the standard of social research. These factors conspired to help GT gain popularity,
but its results are what gave it momentum.
Grounded Action and the Study of Solutions
With GT researchers finally had a process that respected their ability to observe and explain, while
with the development of Grounded Action researchers had a process devoted not only to theory generation, but more importantly,
“…for the purpose of implementing practical actions such as interventions, program designs, action models, social
and organizational policies, and change initiatives” (p. 1). A move toward critical, empirically grounded, action-oriented
research was a vital step because a systematic process that could offer practical solutions was sorely missing from other
Grounded Theory is concerned primarily with the generation of “…theory that is grounded
in data.” (p. 1). This differs from GA in that GA takes the data and develops actions to support it. It could be said
that GT provides the framework from which to extract theory from data; while GT also provides operational theory:
The operational theory is systematically generated from and grounded in explanatory theory. The operational
theory provides a grounded theoretical foothold for action planning and implementation (p. 4).
The operational theory “serves as a rationale and model for action” (p. 8), and through
a systematized questioning process, constructs actions that can de delivered into the system for the purpose of its improvement.
Grounded Theory finds the essence of a system and GA applies correctional constructs to it based on the same data collections
and analysis techniques; therefore GT defines and GA transforms.
Grounded Action and the transformation it creates are dependent only on the data. It is relevant both
locally, and in many cases to society at large. In other words, its successful applications can be, but are not limited to,
the area studied. In addition, it is an extension of GT and not a fully differentiated system of study; it was born from GT
and is connected to the inductive processes represented by it, and as an outgrowth, it follows the same logical patterns of
induction as GT does, the difference lying in its ability to reconstruct system deficiencies through systematic, action-implementation
…Like all other aspects of a grounded action project, all actions must earn their way; they
must be ultimately traceable back to and supported by data. The calculated actions constitute an empirical test of the explanatory
and or operational theory. I actions are fully grounded in dense, rich explanatory and operational theories they should significantly
mitigate the action problem (p. 9).
This is a crucial statement in that it emphasizes the commitment to sound scientific study; personal
inclinations of the analyst, while they can be an important factor in theory generation, are not allowed to dominate the data.
Not only does the analyst follow an empirical focus while designing actions, but she returns to question the actions provided:
Whether or not conventional evaluation measures are taken, it is important to continue doing interviews,
observations, and constant comparative analysis, to measure the process of change, not just outcomes. There is seldom a point
at which outcomes crystallize. The full grounded action process does not end when initial actions are implemented and outcomes
evaluated. The unfolding consequences of actions must be studied in process, both in terms of the effectiveness of actions
and the responses of participants (p. 10).
This process ensures that an element of modification occurs. Modifying actions is crucial to the process
because as stated before no transformational enterprise can be perfectly planned because no predictable system of human behavior
in a given environment exits. This does not mean that ideas cannot be generalized; it means that analysts must be aware of
the huge variations that exist even in systems that appear to be similar. Consequently, GA controls for these possibilities
by the use of evaluation and modification based on the practical results garnered during the transformation process.
Practical Action, Adjustments, and Rapid Changes in Communication
Practical action is, in essence, an iterative process of investigation. It is a replication of the
cycles of operative procedures: investigation, analysis, and proposed solutions followed by implementation and further investigation
if necessary, then re-implementation and the continuation of the procedure until the results are acceptable. The members of
the team are change agents who during the process exist within a dynamic interface that closely resembles the ever-changing
structure of human interaction, it is not static, and as a result, not easily defined or controlled, this is why the investigative
progression in some ways mirrors the problem and why, to my mind, properly developed action doesn’t end with the study.
By this I mean that continuous, subtle change is embedded in the all human social processes including investigation and observation
and analysts must always be aware of this actuality.
A component of “evaluative persistence” needs to be administered throughout the life of
the study of a system. Case in point, in my school district the demographics of the schools are in constant flux, it is impossible
to find two consecutive years in which the student makeup remained fixed. Since the students change, the actions of the system
must follow. This can also be applied with equal emphasis to yearly changes in teacher staffing and administration and, with
some imagination the argument could include our ever-morphing society as well. Flux in the trends in human interaction and
behavior can be severe and new fashions can quickly conspire to manipulate the way a school system behaves.
A good example is the rapid changes in the way we communicate and the influence mobile technology
has had on how students, friends, and families converse. This constant interconnectivity between key players in the system
adds an extra element of stress to the educational mix. Teachers find that students use the phones during class time, and
students find that these phones not only allow them to connect quickly with friends and family, but they also can lodge legal
complaints quickly and, if the right phone is displayed, enhance their social standing. What is apparent is that a swift advance
in technology has changed the way humans interact, thus affecting their behavior patterns and revising the communication resources
of the system, and, most importantly, achieving this position in a very short period of time. Examples like this demonstrate
the power of action because the action process has the ability to change with the
system, it doesn’t allow for stagnation, unless this is a property that somehow is dominant, and, of course, if this
is the case, then it is reasonable to assume that it would be discovered in the investigation and analysis and embedded in
the action plan.
The great hope of GA lies in its ability to adapt; although human behaviors are fundamentally the
same as they were at the start of the century, the situations in which they interrelate are constantly evolving at a rate
that precludes the application of universal models (for the government of human behavior), what’s more, because of the
speed that systems are interacting with each other in our world, the potential for unpredictable collision is immense, and
with the rise of these new constructs, the need for methodical, locally coherent strategies for systemic change will, hopefully,
lead analysts to higher levels of positive social understanding that can be applied to modify existing configurations, since
the drive for human decency and respect is a consequence of the same convoluted, yet entirely human path.
American Hegemony and the Future of Grounded Action
Finally, on a recent trip to Costa Rica I was amazed to read in the Tico Times a story concerning the plight of education in that country. The article asserted that students who
took a state administered exam be should re-graded on a curve due to their poor performance. These “high-stakes tests”
which were taken by 9th and 11th graders showed a pass-rate of only 50%.
A representative for a group contesting the scores stated that, “This is all linked to neo-liberalism.
Policies from foreign countries seek to dominate our youth.” And Maria Elena Salazar a founding member of the Patriotic
Education Union (SINPAE) went on to say “It also worries us, as educators, that in this era when so much has been discovered
regarding multiple intelligences, we have a test that supposes everyone learns
the same way.”
As an educationalist, this piece struck a nerve and I began to think about how certain perceptions
about testing and learning have swept from our culture to others around the world, and how educators in this century have
constantly made poor decisions regarding how students learn. But most importantly it highlighted the need for practical, localized
study, so that under-evolved ideas could be exposed and balanced learning structures put in place. I suppose that I wonder
why, or even how, the theory of MI fits with Costa Rican education and why this foreign idea isn’t regarded as “dominating
youth” in the same way as standardized testing. I fear that ideas that are in their nascent stages in the U.S., might
be adopted in countries with a much different cultural/social circumstances and with far less funding available simply because
they are popular at the time. (I’ve done quite a bit of reading regarding MI, and although the theory is promising,
finding real-world classroom applications for it are difficult, even Dr. Gardner concedes this fact.) The big question is, from my perspective as a potential educational theorist, where is the data to support
these claims within the environment in question? As Simmons and Gregory (2003) maintain:
Practitioners acting as change agents often fail to understand the importance of systematically generating
an explanatory theory grounded in context, prior to action planning. However, the development of a theory that explains and
clarifies the underlying, usually complex, sources of a problem is critical (p 3).
We live in a world of ideas and those with which we most deeply identify become the foundation of
our own personal and social meaning. If American hegemony disperses fuzzy “snapshots” for consumption, and if
other societies derive meaning from unarticulated methods that are not specific to their domains, then the world suffers.
But if we can institute a global network of action research protocol, then maybe ideas can evolve within the framework of
culturally-specific, iterative processes that culminate in re-energized systems of fluid transformation that can, hopefully,
achieve positive social reform.