Facilitate the power of love - confront the love of power

Fri, 24 Sep 2004

Action research - learning from experience

If you have read some of the earlier entries you see that I regard this blog as a form of research, albeit haphazard, unfunded and outside of academe. And yet it's style has a history and a location in the story of research in general. So... when the The Centre for Action Research in Professional Practice at the University of Bath sent me a flyer for a conference on Action Research, 'Emerging Approaches to Inquiry 10', I signed up.

Having led and participated in Cooperative Inquiry style Action Research for around 20 years, I wasn't looking for some seal of approval. I wanted to check out how this weblog sat in relation to the current perspectives and learning about the Cooperative Inquiry tradition. This four day conference provided a welcome return home in which I was well able to do this.

I explicitly see my psychotherapy work with clients as inquiries and I hadn't been in doubt that what I'm doing with the g.o.r.i.l.l.a.weblog was a valid inquiry too. As I listened to the chat about Action Research and the varieties of experience it entailed, I was surprised and pleased to realize that the life of the Independent Practititioners Network [IPN] group to which I belong has the form of an inquiry. I saw that in an equally informal, haphard way, both it and the broader IPN Network are forms of Action Research. In each, the action and reflection process is intrinscally cooperative and the research outcome is holding accountability to clients. These interleaved processes of inquiry and reflection inform what you are presently reading, and affirmation of them warmed me up considerably.

Discussing this weblog and its intentions with conference participants led me to wonder whether I needed to pay some attention to accountability. To cut to the chase, I realized that, if I don't find, or connect with, a community of other co-inquirers, then some kind of supervision is appropriate, and I'm looking into organising that.

Making Satygraha
Action Research in its several varieties, ranging from strong to informal, is a core example of what I mean by satyagraha - positive programme, 'making the thing we want'. If you are in a situation where you are seeking to live, work, or organise a piece of life in ways that step aside from hierarchical, patriarchal structures of domination, into 'living from love', I believe you'd find some form of Action Research a promising option. Even, I'd go so far as to say, if you manage to make the move to living from love, the result is likely to resemble Action Research. Because for me living from love is not a passive state of grace in which, once it has descended (or we have ascended) we have got 'it'. Living from love implies inquiry, a process of action and reflection, even struggle, to find meaning and validity, preferably while held in a community of other inquirers.

If this sounds very fancy, idealized, out of reach - that would be a pity because in my experience Action Research, at least in the variety I know well, Cooperative Inquiry, is something anyone can learn and practice. For example here is an account of an Inquiry into 'How to Move From Survival and Recovery into Flourishing', that Annie Spencer and I led a while back, and here, as a download excerpt from Letting the Heart Sing - The Mind Gymnasium, is a recipe for setting up a Cooperative Inquiry used in that and other inquiries, and which I have found works very well.

I found 'Emerging Approaches to Inquiry 10' warm, welcoming and very well focused and I'd recommend it's bi-annaual successors to anyone with an active need to develop cooperative or peer assessment structures. If there was a downside, it would be that, on the basis of my experience of this conference community, Action Research seems paradoxically dominated by academic 'discourse', and a puzzlingly symbiotic relation to the process of writing a PhD. As though action research could only be led, or usually is led, by someone with, or researching a PhD. Perhaps as a primarily visual, aural, intuitive person I was blindsided to the value of such determinedly taxonomic conversation as I very often heard in these four days.

And perhaps this is part of the price that has to be paid for establishing this new paradigm of inquiry in the face of a dominant research culture that still believes in doing research 'on' people rather than 'with' people. Holding and nurturing the Action Research tradition as Peter Reason and Judi Marshall at the University of Bath, and John Heron and others have done, is a tremendous achievement. I salute them.

If Action Research as a form of Satygraha still remains a mystery to you, albeit I hope an appetizing one, here are some links through which you can follow it up:
The opening chapter of this Handbook by Peter reason and Hilary Bradbury, and this Introductory article by Peter Reason and John Heron provide concise overviews of Action Research. The Introduction to Geoff Mead's PhD thesis outlines many of the key elements of Action Research, especially the 'first person' inquiry style that this blog follows. Elsewhere, the South Pacific Centre for Human Inquiry holds and reports on inquiries, and publishes introductory material on Action Research.