Action Research: A cycles and epicycles framework

Action Research begins when you (as an individual or as a group) want to do something to change the current situation, that is, to take action.

  • “Action” refers to many different things: a new or revised curriculum; a new organizational arrangement, policy, or procedure in educational settings; equivalent changes in other professions, workplaces, or communities; changes in personal practices, and so on.

Action Research then progresses through stages of Planning and Implementing some Action to Evaluation of its Effects, that is, Research to show what ways the situation after the action differs from the way it was before.

To this traditional cycle of Action Research we can add reflection and dialogue through which you review and revise the ideas you have about what action is needed and about how to build a constituency to implement the change. Your thinking about what the situation is and what needs changing can also be altered by inquiring into the background (e.g., what motivates you to change this situation?) as well as looking ahead to future stages. Constituency-building happens over time like the basic cycle of Action Research, so we can think of this a second cycle. The other additions, however, often make us go back and revisit what had seemed clear and settled, so we can call these the “epicycles” (i.e., cycles on top of cycles) of action research.

In what follows, I expand on this brief introduction, then in the next post elaborate on the key Aspects of Action Research and list the Tools useful in the different aspects of Action Research. This text is deliberately brief–a summary more than a detailed guide–because it is primarily through experience conducting Action Research and practice using the tools that the interplay between the cycles and epicycles become clear. (See also a step-by-step presentation of this framework).

Again, Action Research begins when you (as an individual or as a group) want to do something to change the current situation, that is, to take action. To move from a broad idea of the action you think is needed to a more refined and do-able proposal, you may need to review evaluations of the effects of past actions (including possibly evaluations of actions you have made) and to conduct background inquiry so you can take into account other relevant considerations (e.g., who funds or sponsors these kinds of changes and evaluations). You also have to get people—yourself included—to adopt or adapt your proposals, that is, you have to build a constituency for any actions. Constituency building happens when you draw people into reflection, dialogue, and other participatory processes that elicit ideas about the current situation, clarify objectives, and generate ideas and plans to take action to improve it; when people work together to implement actions; and when people see evaluations of how good the actions/changes were in achieving the objectives. Evaluation of the effects of a change or action can lead to new or revised ideas about further changes and about how to build a constituency around them, thus stimulating ongoing cycles of action research.
These cycles are not a steady progression one step to the next. Reflection and dialogue “epicycles” at any point can lead to you to revisit and revise the ideas you had about what change is needed and about how to build a constituency to implement the change. Revision also happens when, before you settle on what actions to pursue, you move “backwards” and look at evaluations of past actions and conduct other background inquiry. Revision can also happen when you look ahead at what may be involved in implementing or evaluating proposed actions and building a constituency around them. Such looking ahead is one of the essential features of planning.

In summary, action research involves evaluation and inquiry, reflection and dialogue, constituency building, looking ahead and revision in order to clarify what to change, get actions implemented, take stock of the outcomes, and continue developing your efforts.

Of course, as is the case with all evaluations and research more generally, there is no guarantee that the results of Action Research will influence relevant people and groups (“stakeholders”), but constituency building–including dialogue and reflection on the implications of the results–provides a good basis for mobilizing support and addressing (potential) opposition in the politics of applied research and evaluation.

Extracted from Taking Yourself Seriously: A Fieldbook of Processes of Research and Engagement


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