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What is Action Research?

How does the AR SIG Community Define Action Research?

Discussion about how to define action research on this site, led to a study that combined the Delphi Method with SIG leaders and a Learning Circle process with participants who attended the community meeting in 2012 at AERA in New Orleans (Rowell, Polush, Riel, & Bruewer (2015). The study led the authors to construct an overarching narrative based on the 30 statements identified through the study’s Delphi and learning circles’ processes that depicts the essence of action research. The challenge was to offer a definition, supported by the data of the present study, which reflected a coherent pattern regarding the nature of action research and captured the dynamics of its conduct while respecting both the methodological plurality evident among action researchers and the likelihood that new forms of action research will develop in the future. We post it here in our SIG wiki with the knowledge that it will change. This is a living document. Feel free to change this version if you find it does not represent your views. Please add a comment about why you changed it so we can engage in a dialogue around our shared understanding of action research. You will have to sign-in to modify the document. See instructions on the left.

The Nature and Processes of Action Research

as defined by the AERA SIG Members

Action research seeks transformative change through the simultaneous process of taking action and doing research, which are linked together by critical reflection. Action research practitioners reflect upon the consequences of their own questions, beliefs, assumptions, and practices with the goal of understanding, developing, and improving social practices. This action is simultaneously directed towards self-change and towards restructuring the organization or institution within which the practitioner works.

The nature of action research places the researcher in the middle of the inquiry and not on the outside as an observer and/or experimenter. Action researchers do not claim ‘neutrality’ but rather account for their position in the action and inquiry. A strength of action research is that the researcher studies what she or he does in concert with others. Therefore, the knowledge created through action research is inevitably dialogical in nature, and is thus always a negotiated and co-created knowledge. This knowledge is not inert, but serves to improve the quality of life by engaging participants in a quest for deeper understandings that lead to improvement.

Action researchers are often guided by questions of this kind, ‘How do I improve my practice?’ Action research takes time, energy, commitment, and courage because it is about changing oneself, which means changing one’s thinking, and recognizing that, once changed, there is no going back. However, action researchers are also engaged in a process of authentic collaboration with participants who seek to improve their practices. The focus is on the actors (participants) within their local social contexts. These participants are often co-researchers (but not always). The four key processes of an action research cycle include planning, implementing the plan, gathering and analyzing data as the plan is implemented, and reflecting on these results. The choice of specific data collection and analysis methods (practices) occurs in alignment with the action researcher’s personal and professional epistemological and ontological belief systems, while also reflecting the discourses of the larger organization and society within which the action research is being conducted. Further, the choice of research methods in action research is dependent upon the question, problem, dilemma or dissonance to be examined, and the nature of the practice situation. The cycles of action research represent iterative problem solving linked by reflection. Critical reflection on action and reflexive writing are key and central processes of action research.

Making decisions about involvement in action research carries certain risks. It involves interrogating one’s thinking and deciding actively to change established self-perceptions and personal and professional habits to move into the future, recognizing that action researchers are responsible for their decisions and the consequences of these decisions. Specific action research practices are informed by researchers’ values that carry hope for the future including the procedural principle of democracy and insights from the most advanced social theories of the day.

The action researcher, like all researchers, is expected to share research findings as part of the process of knowledge creation. Action researchers also expect to have those findings scrutinized by other professionals, including professionals whose knowledge and belief systems may vary markedly from those of the action researchers.

1Rowell, L. Polush, E. Riel, M, & Bruewer, A. (2015) Action researchers’ perspectives about the distinguishing
characteristics of action research: a Delphi and learning circles mixed-methods study. Access online at
Subpages (1): Delphi Study Results