So, I hope you got what you wanted….

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It was only a small phrase, uttered at the end of the “interview” I used to pilot whether or not the questions worked or not.  But it rang a few alarm bells in my head – I’d obviously set the scene in the wrong way.

Let’s face it, there is a very dominant understanding of the word “research” – something that is done by a “researcher” who collects information and uses it to develop or test theories.  New knowledge gets created, published in academic journal and potentially into text books.  It may end up in books for a more ‘popular’ market too or influence training and development programmes. Then it ‘drip-feeds’ back to those who need it.

(This reminds me of something Kate Pickett said when I heard her talking about the work that informed the Spirit Level book and the launch of the Equality Trust.  They got really frustrated that all of this important epidemiological knowledge was sitting in academic journals barely getting read and it was about something that needed to be in public consciousness – that’s what drove Pickett and Wilkinson to write the book, launch the Trust and now do talk after talk using their material.  It was too important to be tucked away in journals.)

So all along I have tried to resist this dominant view of research – preferring instead the principles and values that underpin action research.  This is summed up well in the following abstract:

Action research is a participatory, democratic process concerned with developing practical knowing in the pursuit of worthwhile human purposes, grounded in a participatory worldview which we believe is emerging at this historical moment.  It seeks to bring together action and reflection, theory and practice, in participation with others, in the pursuit of practical solutions to issues of pressing concern to people, and more generally the flourishing of individual persons and their communities.

Reason and Bradbury (2006, 1)

So I’ve designed a research project that draws in particular on Schein’s view that it is important to take a helping stance – and see data as generated through the intervention.  That’s what I think I am doing… but… the risk is

Others just hear the word “research” and the word “interview” and they think they are helping me.  They default to the mode of  research ‘subject’ – the giver of information, not a co-participant in inquiry.  It doesn’t matter how much I think I am ‘doing action research’ if others don’t then it is just conventional research.

Wadsworth (2006) discusses the move from being ‘the researcher’ to becoming ‘the facilitator of our co-researching’.  There are very different capabilities needed and different working practices.  Wadsworth notes:

Given that the quality of an inquiry can be depleted if participants are not themselves actively inquiring, one of the important skills of a nominal facilitator is to divine for and assist the maximum energetic self-pursuit of the questions and answers by the largest number of people possible.  In my experience, when this works, participatory research takes off and the facilitator or coordinator may need only lightly to hold the shape of the emergent design

(Wadsworth, 2006, 322)

Although my research project (the one I am doing for my masters) is more akin to ‘conventional’ research (a choice I had to make in order to ‘suit’ imposed course requirements and timescales), I am really keen that the process that people experience is one of co-inquiry into our partnership working practices – that is why I have embedded my shorter term ‘research’ into a longer term piece of development work.  So, if the conventional understandings of words like ‘research’ and ‘interview’ are so dominant, should I be changing the words?  How is it best to talk about the work to get everyone in the ‘right’ groove of inquiry?  It seems this is vital.

Drawing on Wadsworth’s work (esp Table 31.1, 333), I want to make sure these underpinning messages are there from the outset:

‘We’ (people involved in partnership working) are undertaking an inquiry [NOT Helen is doing a research project]

‘We’ (people involved in partnership working) will be supported in this process by a group of facilitators [NOT there is a research team]

‘We’ (a (hopefully ever growing) group of facilitators) will work over time to take steps to support people involved in partnership working in a continous, long-term inquiry [NOT Helen has a plan we all need to work to]

‘We’ (group of facilitators) will learn from our experiences to co-design the next steps in the process (within the broad approach of appreciative inquiry) [ALTHOUGH Helen will do her side-line piece of research work this is ‘added value’ to our main inquiry, not in place of it]

‘We’ (group of facilitators) are engaged in and part of partnership working, not separate from it – we need to hold up mirrors and magnifying glasses to ourselves and each other.

The worst possible result is that self-understandings are not achieved and we keep status quo practices [NOT worse possible result is Helen fails her course]

The best possible result is that new insights are gained and practices change [NOT best possible result is Helen passes her course]

Now I need to turn all that into ‘work speak’ – even the word ‘inquiry’ is alien there…. think and learn together, improve our understanding.. latch into and create a sense of purpose.  I know the what and the why but HOW.  Unfortunately, great though the work of Wadsworth is, it is written from the perspective of an ‘external’ consultant or researcher – they only get involved when the ‘client’ calls them in because they have a identified a ‘need’.  HOW you do it as an internal change agent needs to be different.. but internal change agents are so busy they never write up how they did what they did.


Reason, P. & Bradbury, H. eds., 2006. Handbook of Action Research Concise Paperback Edition., London: Sage Publications.

Schein, E.H., 2006. Clinical Inquiry/Research. In Reason, P. and Bradbury, H. (Editors) The Handbook of Action Research: Concise Paperback Edition. London: Sage Publications, pp. 185-194.

Wadsworth, Y., 2006. The Mirror, the Magnifying Glass, the Compass and the Map: Facilitating participatory action research. In Reason, P. and Bradbury, H. (Editors) The Handbook of Action Research: Concise Paperback Edition. London: Sage Publications, pp. 322-334.

2 thoughts on “So, I hope you got what you wanted….

  1. Helen
    Periodically dipping into your blogs (in part to fill the void of dialogue from my current module!)
    I found this one really interesting as it is something I too am grappling with at work. (Won’t take up your blog space with this, but may email you separately)
    It was your final paragraph which really threw a line out to me! It seems so central to so much of what we endeavour to do through systems approaches, not only find our own space to reflect on practice (or in practice) but also support the creation of space and value for wider stakeholders to find /make this time. Yet, and the big yet, is your final sentence . HOW you do it as an internal change agent needs to be different.. but internal change agents are so busy they never write up how they did what they did. Which shifted me on to a contemplation of the benefits of consultant verses internal change agent..
    Anyway, ever grateful for the usefulness of your ‘reflective prodding’ Must catch up soon.
    Bridget x

    • Hi Bridget
      Good to hear from you…must have a catch up email some time soon. I think that ‘getting consultants in’ marks a point in time where people are (theoretically at least) ready for change/learning so academics/consultants rarely have to face this particular challenge. Remember in TU812 we learnt about the importance of the underlying emotion of inquiry – the idea that you are ready for change/learning at any time – I suppose the trick as an internal person is to try and create that spirit of inquiry as an ongoing ethos. It’s kind of a vicious circle we need to feed a point of intervention into. Difficult – but if you find the magic wand please let me know!


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