Political Action Research Ethics

Action research has its roots in political movements that seek “to create social change toward greater social justice through the use of research” (Noffke, 1997, p. 305). Action research emerged in the 1940s as a as a form of social activism based on improving local conditions. As in all lineages of action research, political action research is a spiral of activity that begins when a problem or a possible improvement or series of improvements are identified. At that point community or organization members collect data, a reflective analysis is conducted, action is planned and implemented, results are analyzed and publicized, and the spiral restarts (Adler, 2003). Political action research projects can be large, aimed at improving district-wide or community-wide practices. This research is publicized through locally produced media, mass media, or social media in order to garner resources and impact public policy.

What political action research projects are you familiar with and what ethical considerations were considered or should be considered when embarking on political action research?

Highlander Research Center

Shared by Jennifer Robins

I was impressed by the work of the Highlander Research Center which hosted the CARN Study Day at the 2015 ARNA Conference. Part of the history of the center involved the actions of Rosa Parks, who in 1955, refused to give up her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama. Non-violent resistance can be an example of political action research - which when repeated in cycle after cycle, results in political change. Looking for ethical guidelines for non-violent resistance and other examples of political action research, I find some guidance for the ethics from guidelines of the Society of Professional Journalists:

  1. Seek and Report Truth: If an account of political action research is not believed, it is unlikely to have an impact. But verifiable accounts can be powerful.
  2. Minimize Harm: Like lies, harm that results from political action research can negate its impact. However harm is considered in a balance with good that is achieved. Potential positive and negative outcomes must be considered and harm avoided whenever possible. In the example of Rosa Parks, she suffered through an arrest, which was certainly to her harm, but the resulting bus boycott grew to demonstrate the power of resistance in the Civil Rights Movement.
  3. Act Independently: Even though political action research is the work of many in a community or organization, it is the action of individuals like Rosa Parks that can have a significant impact.
  4. Be Accountable and Transparent: Reports about political action research should be well-documented and that documentation should be readily available to the public. Here is an example from the National College of Ireland's Early Learning Initiative that demonstrates an effective way to report action research that has a political impact on communities: https://www.ncirl.ie/Portals/0/Users/030/30/30/ELI-Newletter-Oct-web.pdf

Equity Oriented Collaborative Community Based research

Shared by Margaret Riel

I am going to extract some of the ethical issues that are address in chapter 31 by Foster and Glass in the Palgrave International Handbook of Action Research. They make the case that the foundational concerns of research ethics--informed consent, confidentiality and anonymity--are challenged in cases where community partners, practitioners and partners are both the researchers and subjects of the researchers. Foster and Glass suggest that we need "a more relational, responsive and critically sensitive ethical practice of knowledge production,"(Foster & Glass, 2017:513). This is particularly true when the university is work as co-researchers with practitioners and community and political leaders in what they call equity oriented collaborative community based research..

Foster and Glass argues that many forms of knowledge production and inquiry in the social sciences are not served by the ethical review that evolved from biomedical practices. These current practices do not address the complexity of action research in community settings.

  1. Action research is embedded in the collaboration, politics, public debates and practices that work to achieve social and institutional change. It is an emergent process and would not be possible to get informed consent of the participants before the process. Neither the process nor the participants involved are clear in the beginning. Who, for example, gives consent for the community, the institutions, or the organizations that are undergoing a change by one or more segment? Informed consent might be replaced by ethical practices that honor the nature of the relationships between all of the stakeholders. When a community studies itself, it is not clear who needs to give informed consent. Instead their needs to be a transparency among the partners particularly when working with people who hold differing positions of power.
  2. Similarly, the issues of confidentiality and anonymity that arise from this form of researcher are also not addressed by the conventional institutional review boards. Collaborative community based research often is political in nature and is trying to work towards community social justice. This means an engagement in public dialogue with issues and stories that are personal and contested. The courage to share them is a judgement of the people, the community and the research. How do we provide guidance for behavior in the political and social arenas of discourse? Often everyone involved is forced to deal with contested ethics as co-researchers develop strategies for co-responsibility of ethical behavior.

Foster and Glass are searching for a relational ethical process of collective work. They suggest that researchers need to engage the ethical challenges of action research, not so that they can check boxes on the IRB process of the university, but rather to engage in open and transparent discussion of the ethical issues, the risks to participants and shared goals of the community. The goal of an ethical praxis is to develop an attentiveness to pervasive ethical dimensions in human relations, epistemic judgements, and social and political actions.

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