What can action research and transdisciplinarity learn from each other?

By Danilo R. Streck

Danilo R. Streck (biography)

A man raises his hand and brings up the following issue: “Our community is constantly affected by terrible floods that not only destroy our houses, but are the cause of sicknesses of our children.” This statement—in the midst of a participatory budget meeting in South Brazil—raised issues concerning the deforestation of riverbanks, the deficient sewage system, contested land ownership and occupation, among others.

Our research group is primarily interested in citizenship education and in supporting it through studying what makes learning possible (pedagogical mediation) within discussions about the allocation of resources for the public budget. Stories like this one remind us of the limits of a simplistic approach to understanding citizenship. In this case, citizenship and citizenship education was clearly related to health, to ecology, to urban planning, to farming, among other fields of acting and knowing.

Action research, broadly understood as collective (self) reflection in action within situations that one wants to change, is intrinsically an exercise of disciplinary transgressions.

Kurt Lewin in his seminal paper Action research and minority problems (1946), had already foreseen the need for “serious attempts of an integrated approach to social research.” He suggested the metaphor of the “symphony”.

More than half a century later, another key action researcher, Orlando Fals Borda, delivered a lecture with the title Action research in the convergence of disciplines, where he described how Colombian research practice involved “sociologists, anthropologists, economists, theologians, artists, farmers, educators and social workers.” It was “a diverse, complex group, some of whose members had decided to abandon the university routines and dedicate themselves to alternative research” (2013, p. 157).

What action research, then, can offer transdisciplinary practice and theory is a research approach that:

  • has as its core the participation of a diversity of stakeholders in the production of relevant knowledge for promoting specific changes; and that,
  • aims more fundamentally at democratizing knowledge.

This represents a special challenge for social research developed in universities, where the legitimization of knowledge is generally determined within a disciplinary perspective.

Considering that transdisciplinary is a call to transgress frontiers that keep knowledge within closed disciplinary compartments, action research can learn from practical and theoretical advances in transdisciplinary experiences, especially in addressing the following questions:

  • What are the personal and professional abilities required for successful transdisciplinary research?
  • Since knowledge is always immersed in a given cultural context, what conditions are important for enabling intercultural dialogues to take place?
  • How can bridges be built across necessary specialized knowledges, and across specialized knowledges and general knowledge of a field?
  • What are the important foundations on which transdisciplinarity is built?

These are some key questions that action researchers deal with in their practice. The answers provided by transdisciplinary researchers would provide a platform for fruitful joint discussion.

How would you answer these questions? Do you see yourself as an action researcher, transdisciplinary researcher or something else?

Fals Borda, O. (2013). Action Research in the Convergence of Disciplines. International Journal of Action Research. 9, 2: 155-167 [This conference speech was originally published in lasaforum (Fall 2007: volume XXXVIII: issue 4, p. 17-22), in Spanish, under the title “La Investigación-Acción en Convergencias Disciplinarias”. It was delivered at the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) special session in 2007 where the author was honoured as the Martin Diskin Oxfam America Commemorative Conference Speaker.]

Lewin, K. (1946). Action Research and Minority Problems. Journal of Social Issues, 2, 4: 34-46.

Biography: Danilo R. Streck is Professor at the Graduate School of Education at the Unisinos University, Brazil. He is also a visiting scholar at the Latin American Center at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), USA and at the Max Plank Institute for Human Development in Berlin, Germany. Current research projects focus on popular education, Latin American pedagogy, pedagogical mediations in participatory social processes, and participatory research methodologies.

Danilo Streck is an invited speaker at a plenary panel on Research integration and implementation. Commonalities and differences among diverse communities at the International Transdisciplinarity Conference 2017, Lueneburg September 11-15 2017.

3 thoughts on “What can action research and transdisciplinarity learn from each other?”

  1. Disciplines are invented by academics not by practitioners, led by nature scientists. Action is inherently multidisciplinary. Action research is a strange bird, because it must act holistically to advance disciplinary knowledge.

    BTW, social science has to be a single discipline, but I suppose that there are different academic communities interested in different aspect of social reality.


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