Do action researchers have something to offer to the contemporary and urgent question of how to respond to complex real-world problems? I think so.
Action researchers, often working in inter-disciplinary settings, hold in mind that technical, practical and emancipatory goals of action research require us to develop facility in communicating with two audiences: the ‘local’ practitioners and the ‘cosmopolitan’ community of scholars.
Let’s start with the latter. The cosmopolitans are motivated by the question of what, if anything, can be contributed to what scholars already know. As a result these academic colleagues usually privilege the written medium exclusively. The local audience, however, is not served when action researchers write a manuscript intended for scholarly peers!
Communicating with practitioners involved in the nitty gritty of real world problems will be shaped by their professional or cultural expectations. As a rule of thumb, I find that practitioners are more readily engaged by story and multimedia reports to which their reaction may then be invited.
Generally speaking, action researchers ought to find ways to communicate with the local community first, using this as an opportunity for validating and disseminating local learning.
In some early public musings on what constitutes quality in action research (Bradbury 2010), I suggested that quality:
develops from action research praxis of participation with practitioners;
is guided by locals’ concerns for practical results;
is inclusive of stakeholders’ ways of knowing, which means letting go the conventional over-emphasis of rational frameworks;
helps to build capacity for ongoing change efforts; and,
results from choosing to engage with those issues people might consider significant; from asking “how do we accomplish more good together?“.
Good action research is very time consuming, so I suggest that we should not waste time on trifling matters.
Furthermore, action researchers do not pretend to be value neutral. This moment in history asks us to authentically respond to the huge need to seed more learning processes.
What has your experience been with action research? What would you recommend to achieve quality action research?
Bradbury Huang, H. (2010). What is good action research? Why the resurgent interest?” Action Research, 8, 1: 93-109.
Biography: Hilary Bradbury Ph.D. is Founding Principal of AR+ | Action Research Plus: a network for Action Research worldwide. She has edited or co-edited three editions of the ‘Handbook of Action Research’ and is Editor-in-Chief of the journal ‘Action Research’. She is Jubilee Professor at Chalmers Institute for Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden.
AR+ has recently released two volumes of Cooking with Action Research. One volume covers stories and resources and the other is a resources guide.
Human groups and societies have built many kinds of bridges for centuries. Since the 19th century, engineers have designed complex physical structures that were intended to serve one or more purposes in precise situations. In essence, the construction of a bridge is meant to join two places together. What may appear as a mundane functional structure is built only after numerous decisions have been made about its appearance, cost, functions, location and structure. Will a bridge serve only as a link and passage, or will it serve other functions?
In discussing three things the transdisciplinary research community can do to build bridges, I use “building bridges” as a metaphor. I discuss a bridge as a human-made artefact that is attributed meaningful form. It is created intentionally for one or more purposes. I step along a path I sketched in a recent publication (Lawrence, 2017) in order to explain why bridge building is fundamental for transdisciplinary inquiry, and three tasks that are necessary in order to effectively build bridges across academic, institutional and professional divides.
1. Build cultural bridges
The transdisciplinary research community has given little attention to the culture of transdisciplinary inquiry. I am using the world ’culture’ to denote a multi-dimensional (plural) and evolving (change) concept rather than a monolithic and static one. This interpretation of culture enables us to explain why there has been an increasing division and specialization of disciplinary knowledge and professional know-how since the 19th century.
Today, for example, the word ‘environment’ (which only came into public use from about 1970), has been attributed different meanings by biologists, chemists and geologists, as well as anthropologists, sociologists and psychologists. Beyond these discipline-based groups, there are other trades and professional groups as well as policy decision makers who have specific interpretations too.
This example shows that there are no longer “two cultures” as C.P. Snow (1961) claimed, but multiple cultures, sub-cultures and micro-cultures, in a broad field concerned about the environment. Consequently, a fundamental task for the transdisciplinary research community is to develop capabilities and skills to build cultural bridges, and especially conceptual and linguistic bridges, between key concepts and their meanings used during specific projects. This is not a simple task.
The diversity of coexisting cultures today is only one reason why a trans-anthropo-logic of transdisciplinarity requires a commitment by funders and researchers for more in-depth research. In order to respond effectively to this challenge, a major shift is required from inward looking perspectives common to disciplinary-based education, training and research, to outward looking perspectives with vision beyond disciplinary divides. Today, beyond the walls of universities and professional institutions, there are a growing number of international organizations and foundations that support knowledge networks founded on such outward looking perspectives.
2. Use dialogue and negotiation to build bridges
A second task for the transdisciplinary research community stems from a commitment to the co-definition of the purpose of the bridge. It is worth emphasizing again here that the bridge is not a physical structure, but a cultural artefact with meanings, uses and values. Participants in transdisciplinary projects need to agree on the shared concepts, data, definitions, information, meanings, rules and methods that will be used. Dialogue and negotiation are the means for the construction of a bridge across common divides. These processes can bring together academic and non-academic actors and institutions to tackle real-world concerns and situations that may require change. Building bridges across conceptual divides, institutional borders and social barriers takes time rarely allocated sufficiently in project proposals.
3. Use the bridge to challenge perceptions
The third task is to creatively use the bridge not just as a passage but as an artefact that can challenge the way the transdisciplinary research community and others perceive and interpret real world situations that require some kind of intervention for the common good, especially:
to challenge our thinking in terms of dichotomous categories (eg., either disciplinary or interdisciplinary);
to replace reductionist and normative interpretations of the challenges we face in the world today by admitting diversity, complexity, uncertainty, and unpredictability; and,
to remember that the bridge we have co-created expresses the way we act, perhaps not just during a research project but during our daily lives.
In essence, the way we think will influence our decisions about the purposes of building bridges, or whether we construct a bridge at all! Are you a transdisciplinary bridge builder? If so what do you think the next steps should be to bridge over academic, institutional and professional divides? Do you know of positive bridge building by the transdisciplinary research community?
Snow, C. (1961). The two cultures and the scientific revolution: The Rede Lecture, 1959. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, United Kingdom.
Biography: Roderick Lawrence is Honorary Professor at the Geneva School of Social Sciences, in Switzerland, Honorary Adjunct Professor at the School of Architecture and the Built Environment, University of Adelaide, Australia, and Adjunct Professor at the Institute for Environment and Development (LESTARI) at the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, in Malaysia. He is a member of the Scientific Advisory Board for Interdisciplinary and Transdisciplinary Research at the Swiss Academy of Sciences. His current research is about transdiciplinary planning of the built environment in the context of global, regional and local changes in order to promote and maintain health and well-being of all.
Community member post by Julie Thompson Klein and Holly J. Falk-Krzesinski
Expanding interest in interdisciplinary and collaborative research across universities, funding agencies, professional organizations, and science-policy bodies has prompted growing attention to the academic reward system. Promotion and tenure loom large in this discussion. The acronym “P&T” in this blog is the customary abbreviation for “promotion and tenure” in North America, but the practices are international. All collaborative research is not interdisciplinary, and all interdisciplinary research is not team based. However, they are coupled increasingly in order to address complex scientific and societal problems, while also fostering innovation and partnerships bridging the academy and industry. Continue reading →
Can boundary objects be designed to help researchers and decision makers to interact more effectively? How can the socio-political setting – which will affect decisions made – be reflected in the boundary objects?
Here I describe a new context-specific boundary object to promote decision making based on scientific evidence. But first I provide a brief introduction to boundary objects.
What is a ‘boundary object’?
In transdisciplinary research, employing a ‘boundary object’ is a widely used method to facilitate communication and understanding among stakeholder groups with different epistemologies. Boundary objects are abstract tools adaptable to different perspectives and across knowledge domains to serve as a means of symbolic communication. Continue reading →
What does it mean to be a bi-cultural researcher? The following eight key reflections are based on working bi-culturally in New Zealand.
I am a Pākehā (non-Māori) New Zealander and started learning Māori language and culture at university in 1995. Previously I had little to no contact with te reo Māori (the Māori language) or te ao Māori (the Māori world and culture). During my studies I became involved in kapa haka (the university Māori cultural club), and as such was exposed to a whole new world.
When I embarked on my journey into te ao Māori I naively thought I would be only learning about the Māori language and culture, however I also learnt what it meant to be Pākehā. I had been blind to my own culture as I had nothing to reflect it back to me. Continue reading →
Community member post by Jen Badham and Gabriele Bammer
What is a mental model? How do mental models influence interdisciplinary collaboration? What processes can help tease out differences in mental models?
Let’s start with mental models. What does the word ‘chair’ mean to you? Do you have an image of a chair, perhaps a wooden chair with four legs and a back, an office chair with wheels, or possibly a comfortable lounge chair from which you watch television? Continue reading →