Action research proposals – bridging two worlds

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I have just packaged up the third iteration of all the materials for research ethics – subject to final supervisor ‘tweaks’ they are done (hooray).  This means that the research proposal I first attempted last july and amended and re-drafted ever since is now ‘done’.  But I didn’t want to move on without posting some reflections on writing an action research proposal.

It strikes me that not nearly enough is written about how to write action research proposals and different approaches to take.  Unlike protocols for RCTs or systematic reviews it is really difficult to find published action research proposals.  Action research books often give up just a page to explain ‘write your proposal’ and don’t seem to help you navigate the tensions that I now understand arise from the dual ‘use’ of action research.  You are in effect writing a proposal with two sets of rationales, two sets of justifications and two sets of ‘language’.  I had no idea how deeply those dilemmas go and therefore how important it is that you have the conceptual clarity to help potential readers ‘get’ the way you are approaching it.  Action research seems to be about bridging the world and expectations of academia with the world and expectations of the community/organisation right from the moment that you start designing it in your head.

In a previous blog on Research questions, I mentioned the brilliant distinction made by McKay and Marshall (2001; 2007) between the dual imperatives of research – the ‘research imperative’ aiming to make a form of knowledge contribution and the ‘problem solving imperative’ aiming to make improvement to a situation perceived as problematic.  This distinction has provided a backdrop to my proposal and helped me keep clear as to how to frame things and what I wanted to do.  I’m not saying my decisions are the ‘right way’, just that they are ‘a’ way of approaching the task.

I took the decision up front that I was writing a RESEARCH proposal and that I should major on looking at the whole thing from the research imperative.  I felt that if I didn’t favour the research imperative,  I could end up writing a BUSINESS CASE or PROJECT proposal – which may be required too but not by my academic institution.  This emphasis was partly driven by my understandings of the expectations of the discipline of academics who would be reviewing my proposal (staff in a Faculty of Health and Medicine).

Background section

The background sections in research proposals are used to set the scene in terms of why the research needs to be done and outlines key concepts that will underpin the research.  From the perspective of the ‘research imperative’ the answer to ‘why?’ is to add to the body of formal knowledge.  From the perspective of the ‘problem solving imperative’ the answer to ‘why?’ is a description of the current rationale for change/development/improvement in the community/organisation.

Coghlan and Brannick (2014) frame their recommendations for thesis proposals from the ‘problem solving imperative’ i.e. by proposing you cover the policy and institutional context that frames the action that will be taken.  My approach – of favouring the research imperative – led me to go the other way, to major on the current debates/issues in the literature and the ‘gap’ I see in the existing academic literature.  The intro to my background section therefore reads as follows:

This background section starts by explaining why understanding policy work practice and its development is critical to those with an interest in healthy public policy and acknowledges that it may also be of value to others who have a normative interest in the process or content of public policy. It then provides a brief overview of existing research into policy work and highlights that little is yet known about policy work practice and its development at a local government level. Finally, it briefly outlines the conceptualisation of practice and practice development that underpins the design of the study, thus setting the scene for the later section on methodology.

I left the description of the current situation and rationale for the ‘problem solving imperative’ until the sub-section on research Setting as part of the Methodology and Method section.

Aims/Objectives/Research Question

A choice needs to be made here as to whether to give precedence to the aims/objectives stemming from the ‘research imperative’ or the ‘problem solving imperative’.  Even if you include both you do have to decide which order to put them in and symbolically that means you are favouring one over the other.  Again much will depend on your audience or institution.

My position – favouring the research imperative – led me to start with aims/objectives from the research imperative, give more space to detailing this and end with only a glancing reference to the aim from the ‘problem solving’ perspective.   The whole section on Aims/Objectives starts by helping the reader to understand the dual imperatives:

As Section 4 Methodology and Methods outlines, the proposed research is an action research study. An implication of this is that it has dual imperatives – a research imperative aiming to develop a knowledge contribution and a ‘problem-solving’ imperative aiming to improve a ‘real-world’ situation experienced as problematic (McKay and Marshall 2001; 2007). Understanding this distinction is particularly important when carrying out action research in order to achieve academic accreditation when the ‘thesis action research’ to achieve the research imperative is carried out independently and the ‘core action research’ motivated by the problem solving imperative is carried out collaboratively during fieldwork (Zuber-Skerritt and Perry 2002; Zuber‐Skerritt and Fletcher 2007).

It then proceeds by stating “From the perspective of the research imperative, the aim is….”

I blogged in quite a lot of detail about research questions in action research previously.  For my research I decided to keep a clear distinction between my guiding question for the research imperative/thesis action research  (i.e. ‘What shapes policy work practice and its development at local government level in England?) and the participants’ guiding question for the problem solving imperative/core action research (i.e. How can we understand and develop our policy work practices and the context in which they take place?).

Methodology and Methods

This is where it started off feeling most messy and it took a number of iterations before I decided how to deal with the two methodologies in use during action research.  I ended up explaining my decision at the beginning of this section as follows:

In action research, there are two methodologies in use – the methodology selected to achieve the research imperative (i.e. action research) and the methodology selected to achieve the problem-solving imperative. However the latter is not always explicitly stated resulting in conflation of the two methodologies and confusion (McKay and Marshall 2001; 2007). This section will start by justifying the use of action research in order to achieve the research aim. A description of, and rationale for, the methodology that will inform the core action research process will follow in 4.4 The Fieldwork Process.

In other words – I kept my approach of favouring the research imperative and went on to justify why action research is the ‘right’ way of meeting the research aim as compared to other research designs like participant observation, ethnography or survey.  It also highlighted potential dilemmas and the limitations arising from this decision.  I even included a paragraph explaining how my use of action research is different to how others use it (i.e. how I am NOT using action research even though I could!).

Methodology and Methods sections then ‘home in’ on the specific ‘hows’ of your research.  My proposal included a few sub-sections:

Setting – where I describe the setting where the research will take place, perhaps similiar to a case study proposal.  Here I include brief reference to the rationale from the perspective of the ‘problem solving imperative’

Recruitment strategy – research proposals use this to explain their sampling techniques (purposive, opportunistic, snowballing etc) and the criteria for what makes a participant.  Although I could spell this out from the perspective of the research imperative I do wonder whether in taking this forward other issues will come to the fore.  I think there is probably a difference between the ‘right’ participant from the research imperative (someone who offers a unique perspective) to the ‘right’ participant from the research imperative (someone who comes from a particular department and is likely to be a good change agent).  I’ll have to see.

The fieldwork process – I used this term drawing on the Zuber-Skerritt literature cited above.  It is here where I outlined the ‘problem solving’ method that will form the orientation to the core action research (in case you are wondering I selected systemic inquiry) and also justified why that was suitable to the situation-to-be-improved.  I explained the three Phases of my research and used a table to give the purpose of each Phase from the perspective of the research imperative and the perspective of the problem-solving imperative.

Data generation – I pulled out the data generation events from the fieldwork process and described them in more detail.  An interesting issue here was what to call them.  As an example, research literature talk of ‘group’ events in terms of group interviews and focus groups with the distinction being the degree to which the researcher holds the ground in terms of asking questions.  In change processes however facilitators design, convene and facilitate workshops or the participants have meetings.  It seemed to me that this indicates an even greater ‘letting go’ by the researcher – in focussing on creating the right sort of  space for the participants’ reflection and learning you have to let go of the ‘what data do I need’ imperative.  You design the workshop according to the needs of problem solving imperative and anticipate that the right sort of data will come up for the needs of the research imperative – not the other way round.  It is only a small step away from ethnographic approaches where the ‘event’ is not even created by the researcher.

Analysis and interpretation – I decided that the structured and more formal analytical work for the research imperative will be undertaken by me.  It is noteworthy that in action research, the process referred to as ‘member checking’ where you reflect findings back to participants to see whether your interpretations resonate with them has the additional purpose of informing the understandings that participants have as they continue onwards with their shared inquiry.  In effect member checking like data generation is an intervention, not a neutral act.

Ethical issues

Of course my research proposal had to cover this, given it was being developed to support the study’s approval through ethics.  There are a few things I made clear at the outset of the section

  • action research has a flexible, recursive nature so you cannot predict and pre-empt every ethical dilemma up front
  • that the systemic inquiry could happen in the research setting anyway as part of natural everyday improvement work.  Ethical approval, informed consent etc isn’t about doing that work it is about gathering, analysing, interpreting the data generated through that work and putting your findings and conclusions into the public domain.

This section of my proposal picked up on how ethical research practice is different to what would normally be expected in the research setting.  For example, while research ethics majors on voluntary participation, the more usual practice in a workplace is for someone to be told to get involved in something by their manager.  There are also particular perspectives on anonymity and right to withdrawal.  Thinking these things through in order to write the proposal helped me develop materials such as Participant Info Sheets – equally drafting those materials provided lessons for what I needed to cover in this section.


Having to include this in my research proposal made me think through in detail the ‘pace’ at which things can take place in the research setting and the practicalities of doing things in ‘down-times’ like august and december when many people take time off.  It became more clear to me how the problem solving imperative and its need to allow for participants’ reflective cycles and the busy-ness of organisational life has implications for the speed of the research study.

In summary then I started out emphasising the ‘research imperative’ but as the sections of a research proposal got more and more detailed and practical, the more the influences of the ‘problem solving imperative’ came to the fore.  It’s been an interesting journey even getting this far – the end of the beginning!



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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