Every once in a while I run across a methods book that I think applies broadly to people doing certain types of research. For some time now I have been advocating the use of Action Research for individuals or groups who are researching their own organizations. One of the most mentioned texts on the topic is Stringer’s Action Research (2007). In this post I am going to explain why I think anybody doing research on an organization in which they are involved should take a look at this book.
This is the third edition of the classic work in the field of action research. It is focused on community-based action research with particular attention to the involvement of interest holders in the research itself. That is, if the aim of the research is to improve some aspect of some community’s life then those affected by the changes should be involved in the research. By involved in the research Stringer does not just mean that we consult a few key leaders. Rather he argues that we need a process for getting as many of those affected involved as possible. To adapt an example provided by Stringer: we would not think of making a man in charge of a women’s organization so why do we not consult parents when we make decisions that affect their children. Or to extend it further why do we do things to young people rather than with young people.
All this said, Stringer is not trying to be provocative. Quite the opposite. He is dealing with a contemporary world where our attempts at top down social planning have had limited positive outcomes at best. In an organizational context we need only look at the large number of outside programs that flow through our organizations. Some of them stick and make a positive difference but many of them just flow right through with little discernible long-term positive effect. Stringer’s book provides us with the tools to not only collect data about our current context but also to change it in positive ways.
Action Research begins with a discussion of why an action research approach to research makes sense and what it looks like in practice. Stringer focuses on working principles like relationships, communication, participation and inclusion that will resonate with many different organizations. From there he moves on to figuring out how to talk with people and how to understand the context in which you are operating. These sections are accompanied by excellent charts that summarize his main points and regular illustrations from his own work in community-based research. Having looked at the context Stringer then provides a number of helpful frameworks for collectively thinking about and analyzing what you have observed. This section illustrates the highly practical nature of Stringer’s recommendations. A practically which extends into his section on how to move into the action phrase of action research. His suggestions for how to agree on action and how to assure that everyone carries through with their commitments and are adequately supported in their action(s) are excellent. He even includes a section on resolving complex and common problems such as finding a unifying vision and an appropriate organizational structure to support the action. A section on reporting on the results further emphasizes what is modelled in this book. Communication only happens when the intended audience understands what is communicated. In view of this he provides some helpful suggestions on language, format and even medium. At one point he gives an illustration of how short videos proved to be the most effective way to communicate. Finally, Stringer provides a theoretical framework for action research for those who question is scientific validity.
This is an excellent book. It is written in language that is accessible to the practitioner without insulting the academic researcher. It is highly recommended as a first stop for anyone researching a community-based organization of any kind.
Stringer, Ernest T. 2007. Action research. Los Angeles: Sage Publications.