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A while back, I wrote a blog with a similar title to this – but with ‘systems thinking’ rather than ‘research’ the focus of the answer.  That blog was inspired by Ison (2010, 187)’s discussion about – if ‘managing’ is the answer what is the question.

This frame of inquiry came to mind today as I started thinking about the purpose of ‘research’ – what is the system to which doing research is the answer?

I am currently gradually working my way through the chapters in Reason and Bradbury (2006)’s Handbook of Action Research.  The general implicit message is that research is a ‘knowledge production process’.  That gives me the ‘What’ to which research is the ‘How’.

But what about the ‘Why’?  A while ago, at the onset of studying T847, I read an article by Ulrich (2001) which suggests that you should have a clear idea of the improvement the research should make – with a focus on a specific domain of practice (e.g. in my case, improvements in way in which people work together to improve wellbeing and health).

So if I pull that what, why and how together using PQR structure…

to…produce knowledge

by means of…research

in order to…achieve improvements within a specified domain of practice

As a starter I feel that gives a useful generic motivation for research.

But the problem is – those few words all seem to have many contested meanings.

The innocent phrase ‘produce knowledge’ evokes lots of potential perspectives on what ‘knowledge’ is and how it gets ‘produced’ (back to those questions of epistemology that I have grappled with on a few occasions for example in this blog and this one).

Similarly, the word ‘research’ evokes lots of perspectives on research paradigms, research approaches, methods all leading to different claims as to what makes the research of good quality (see this previous blog).

When it comes to the ‘why’, I sometimes get the feeling that some people are more concerned with a ‘why’ of making a theoretical contribution or theory building – rather than particularly the ‘improving practice’ orientation that Ulrich (2001) has helped me to articulate.  I think that part of the reason behind this difference – theoretical contribution or practice improvement – may be a reflection of the degree to which people perceive the research process itself as incorporating a process of getting the ‘knowledge produced’ into ‘knowledge in use’ amongst practitioners in the ‘target’ domain of practice.  There is a whole industry of research itself into the process of ‘knowledge transfer’ [which seems to imply knowledge in the form of theory building by a researcher being ‘transferred’ usually via explicit means like an article or briefing or training intervention INTO knowledge in use by a practitioner].  Others talk of ‘knowledge translation’ – which seems to add in the idea that the knowledge has to be further developed or translated before it is useful to the practitioner.  I’ve heard people working in that sort of mode get disappointed by the fact that their ‘knowledge’ simply isn’t taken on board by practitioners – the underlying current is that practitioners are at fault for not being ‘evidence-based’, the criticism is rarely levied at the knowledge production process itself.  From what I understand of action research so far, this whole issue is framed differently – the knowledge is co-produced by participants and researchers – the participants have the new practical knowing instantly, whilst the researcher can write it up so that it is shared with third parties.

That leads me onto another contested aspect – the stakeholder roles in this system. In particular, I am interested in different perspectives on the stakes held by the participants in the research process and alongside that the nature of the relationship between the researcher and the participants (something I explored in this blog)

Sometimes, the participants are ‘subjects’ and research can even be done without the ‘subjects’ knowing about it – in the extreme case of epidemiological research using mortality data, the ‘subjects’ aren’t even alive!  In research like this the participants are outside the boundary of the research process – they are unwitting witnesses to it and ‘ethical approval’ processes are the way in which their interests are represented.

Other times, the participants are the ‘beneficiaries’ – people involved in the relevant domain of practice that the research is seeking to transform.  Once participants become more central to the process in this way, there are questions about the degree to which they have an active role in ‘deciding’ how the research is done alongside the ‘researcher’.  In participatory and action research orientations, the ‘researchers’ role can be that of source of knowledge and expertise to the participants co-designing their own process to co-produce knowledge that is immediately useful to them.  I reckon that can be a painful position for an academic researcher to be in – especially when they have budgets and deadlines and performance frameworks drives the need to do quality research that can be written up and published in quality journals.

What all this throws up for me, is that in designing research, researchers do need to be clear about the ‘research’ system – its boundaries and different stakeholders – and about the particular stance they want to hold in relation to all of the contested meanings above.  Systems thinking helps with this – particularly through purpose definition ‘tools’ like PQR and CATWOE and also critical systems heuristics helps with boundary critique.  Yet when I see ‘research design’ sections in a journal article it is more focussed on the description of the METHOD – paradigm, data collection, and so on – rather than these issues of purpose, epistemology and ethics.

Let’s hope I can retain some of this sort of thinking in my research.  Kind of worried that as I get ‘socialised’ into research practice, I’ll end up conforming too much just to get through it!


Ulrich, Werner (2001) ‘The quest for competence in systemic research and practice’, Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 18(1), pp. 3–28.

Ison, Ray (2010) Systems Practice: how to act in a climate-change world, Milton Keynes/London, The Open University/Springer Publications.

Reason, Peter and Bradbury, Hilary (eds.) (2006) Handbook of Action Research, Concise Paperback Edition. London, Sage Publications.

2 Responses

  1. #1

    Quick note to self so I don’t forget. I’ve been looking more into action research and found this:

    “The essential purpose of action research is to address issues of concern to individuals and communities in the everyday conduct of their lives. A wider purpose is to contribute to the increased well-being—economic, political, psychological, spiritual—of humanity and to a more equitable and sustainable relationship with the wider ecology of the planet of which we are an intrinsic part (Reason & Bradbury, 2001a).”

    It is cited in Reason, P. (2006) Choice and Quality in Action Research Practice, JOURNAL OF MANAGEMENT INQUIRY, Vol. 15 No. 2, 187-203 available here:

    I like the focus on practical day to day concerns in this.

  1. […] know I’ve been here before – most recently in If research is the answer, what is the question? and Knowledge to action (or theories in practice) – but it also touches on issues way back, […]

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