Forming a research question for action research

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The minute I wrote that title, I realised that in a strict sense it is a little back to front.  We all know that our choice of research methodology should follow the definition of our aims, objectives and research question – form should follow function!  At least that is what the text books say.

But I’ll readily confess that I became a research student because I wanted the opportunity to learn more about and experience action research – others do that too for example some embark on a PhD because they want to home their quantitative data analysis skills.  So the ‘search’ for a research question and defining aims and objectives is also informed by the sort of knowledge, skills and experience I want to develop through my PhD and ultimately the sort of researcher I want to be.

Although I produced a draft research proposal last July, I felt uncomfortable about the research question I’d included, it didn’t seem to home in on what was interesting to me.  So I’ve been trying to focus on what an action research question looks like – unlike other forms of research there aren’t lots of published research proposals/protocols that you can easily locate so it is hard to get a feel for what you are trying to emulate.  And, action research books just simply say ‘form your research question’ as if it isn’t a problematic thing to do.

The main problem comes with the ‘dual’ function of action research – it is simultaneously a process to generate knowledge AND a process to improve a situation.  This distinction is described in different ways in the literature.  I have two favourites…

In literature discussing doing action research for academic accreditation (e.g. Zuber-Skerritt and Perry (2002); Zuber-Skerritt and Fletcher (2007); Coghlan and Brannick (2014)), a distinction is made between the Thesis Action Research which is carried out independently by the research candidate and the Core Action Research which is carried out collaboratively.  The ‘core action research’ is understood as being the fieldwork phase of the ‘thesis action research’.  The Thesis action research kind of operates at a meta-level – i.e. research on the core action research.  This means that the ‘thesis action research’ can have a different research question to the ‘core action research’.

The second way of making the distinction is even more powerful and quite exciting because it builds on the work of Checkland who developed soft systems methodology so it feels quite systemsy.  It appears in information system research discussions of action research (e.g. McKay and Marshall 2001, 2007).  The authors argue that action research has dual imperatives – what they refer to as a research imperative AND a problem solving imperative*.  Drawing on the idea of action research as a cyclical process, they argue that the dual imperatives mean that two interlinked cycles are operating – a research cycle and a problem solving cycle each driven by their own interests, aims and objectives and therefore different understandings of progress and success.  Importantly, they argue that it is important not to conflate the Methodology for the research (i.e. action research) with the Problem solving methodology (which could be any one of a range of organisational development or change management methodologies including systemsy ones like SSM or systemic inquiry).  The balance of the two imperatives is really important – focus on the problem solving imperative, then it becomes more like consultancy than research with potential risks to the ‘rigour’ of your findings.  Whereas focussing on the research imperative can lead to stakeholders in the research setting and participants feeling ‘done to’.

Taking the two distinctions together offers another helpful insight.  In my case, the research imperative is fulfilled independently as the ‘thesis action research’ – I am its owner and its customer is the academic community.  The ‘knowledge’ it generates is judged through the academic lens of validity, reliability and so on with all the caveats that those words have when drawing on qualitative data.  The problem solving imperative is fulfilled by the participants together as a collaborative problem solving process.  The participants are the co-owners and they and their stakeholders are the main customers.  It can be referred to generally as the core action research – but in itself it needs to be understood through the lens of creating improvement/change with learning and knowing-in-action being more important than formal propositional knowledge.  The change could be understood as ‘new’ learning generated through a process of social learning and/or it could be understood as new procedures, new practices, new ‘systems’ etc.

Back to the Checkland connection.  According to Checkland, research consists of a framework of ideas (F), which are employed via a methodology (M) to investigate an area of interest (A).  As a result of the research, learning will take place about F, and/or M and/or A.  McKay and Marshall (2001, 2007) argue that the dual imperatives of action research result in an adaptation to this general model.  The setting in which the research takes place has a ‘real world’ problem situation (P) which enables the researcher to find out about the area of interest (A).  As already mention there are two methodologies in use – the research methodology (MR) and the problem solving methodology (MPS).  This means the research can tell us about any combination of:

P – the real world problem situation

A – the area of research interest

F – the framework of ideas

MR – i.e. action research (a methodological contribution)

MPS – i.e. the chosen methodology to improve the situation

And so, opens up different options for framing your research aim(s) and question(s)…

It could focus on the area of research interest (A).  The setting for the research is one example – a case study if you like – of the research phenomenon of interest.  The research is about understanding and exploring this situation.  You could do this by other research methods but the value of using action research is you take a dynamic perspective of the forces and factors that shape the phenonenon of interest and you go back to test your ideas as the research proceeds.  As Lewin is cited as saying – you can’t understand a system unless you try to change it.  In my case then a research question is something like “What shapes policy work practice and its development in English local government?”

It could focus on the real world problem situation (P).  In my case the question would be something like “What is policy work practice like in local authority X?”  In my view this could by a risky route to take – whilst providing a thick description of the real world problem situation could be valuable to help with the generalisable lessons, there is a risk that the findings in themselves aren’t useful to third parties i.e. those not directly involved.  From the point of view of the research imperative, the Thesis has to make some attempt to go beyond the specific case and generalise.  However, this question could well be a natural part of the process in the research setting whereby the participants inquire – it belongs to the problem solving imperative, not the research one.

It could focus on the research methodology (MR).  This is more focused on making a methodological contribution and would be something like “What are the value and limitations of action research in understanding policy work practice and its development?”.  Most research will include an element of this – potentially in an implicit way – as the strengths and limitations of the research are generally included as part of the Thesis or the research articles.  The ‘answer’ comes as much from rigorous reflection on the experience of the process as it does from empirical data.  This feels like a ‘sideline’ – something to be aware of but not the main purpose of the research.

It could focus on the ‘problem solving’ methodology (MPS).  This is more like an evaluation – an assessment of whether the ‘problem solving’ methodology is useful and creates a ‘better’ situation.  It has parallels with an experiment – you hypothesise that using problem solving methodology X will create an improvement in the situation – and your research therefore focusses on evaluating what changes if any arise and if so why.  From the reading I have done so far I think this is a key way that action research is framed – “a what happens if I” orientation.  In my case then a research question would be something like “Is [methodology] an effective way of making improvements to policy work practice in English local government?”  This of course throws up other issues in terms of what constitutes an improvement, what constitutes effective and who gets to define that.

It could be on the framework of ideas (F).  I’m struggling to articulate this a little more and maybe that is because I have yet to really identify,  home in on, and justify my framework of ideas.  In general I know that they all seem to fall into the area of things that feel systemsy – particularly the soft and critical traditions and social learning.  McKay and Marshall (2001, 2007) don’t seem to suggest that there are different Fs for the research imperative and the problem solving imperative, but in theory they may not be congruent (probably leading to some cognitive discomfort!).  So I know I have some work to do here articulating my F for myself and others.   But a tentative research question about my tentative F would be something like “To what extent and in what ways are systems thinking and social learning helpful ideas in researching and developing policy work practice?”

Of course, there is no reason why these questions can’t be combined in a research project – making knowledge contributions and methodological ones.  But you’d need to design your data generation and analysis differently to answer each question so in my view I need to major on one – make it my primary question – and then treat anything else as a useful ‘by product’ of  the process.

The distinction of research imperative and problem solving imperative has also helped me develop clarity on how to write my research proposal.  Again books can be a little light on action research proposals and what may be different in them from research proposals from other disciplines.  But a general observation I have made is that some seem to imply there is no real difference whereas others imply a great deal of difference…but what I have realised is that this is all about whether you frame your proposal through the lens of the research imperative or the problem solving imperative.

Framing a proposal through the lens of the research imperative is more consistent with ‘traditional’ research proposals.  You set the scene by talking about what is already known about your phenomenon of interest, what the debates are and where the gaps are.  You then talk about what your research aims to do, what its question is.  The problem solving imperative surfaces more when you talk about the setting in which the research will take place – what is the problematic situation that participants will be addressing there and how that offers an opportunity to generate data that will help you with your research aim and question.

Framing a proposal through the lens of the problem solving imperative is more like a business case for change.  You start by describing the real world instance of the situation perceived as problematic in its wider context – why it needs to be improved and how you are going to set about doing that and later explain how the activities of research will complement and enhance that improvement/change journey.  The more I think about this the more I realise it isn’t a RESEARCH proposal at all – it is a change or improvement proposal.  In my case, this isn’t what my university wants but it could be what the stakeholders in the setting where I am going to do the research want.  I think it gets confused a little in books because in some cases universities are asking for this type of proposal.  One of the issues I have worried about with my research proposal is that I define too much up front, by myself, rather than involve the participants themselves in the ‘proposal’ – what I may find as I embark on the core action research is that this type of proposal is generated as part of the ‘action’ that the participants choose to take together.  As I said above this is their process, they are the owners not me – I am their facilitator or helper.


*I’m a little uncomfortable with the framing of ‘problem solving’ here – I’d prefer to say something like ‘improving a situation perceived as problematic’ – but that is quite clumsy and wordy.  So I am using ‘problem solving’ as the authors do but with some caveats about taking the words too literally.


Coghlan, D. and Brannick, T. (2014), Doing action research in your own organisation Fourth Edition., London: Sage Publications.

McKay, J. and Marshall, P. (2001), The dual imperatives of action research. Information Technology & People, 14(1), pp.46–59.

McKay, J. and Marshall, P. (2007), Driven by two masters, serving both: the interplay of problem solving and research in information systems action research projects. In Kock, N. (Editor), Information Systems Action Research: An applied view of emerging concepts and methods. New York: Springer US, pp. 131–158.

Zuber‐Skerritt, O. and Fletcher, M. (2007), The quality of an action research thesis in the social sciences. Quality Assurance in Education, 15(4), pp.413–436.

Zuber-Skerritt, O. and Perry, C. (2002), Action research within organisations and university thesis writing. The Learning Organization, 9(3/4), p.171.

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