The ability to remain objective in scientific research is important, but some issues require involvement and action to reach desired outcomes and drive change. Traditional research would be inefficient (or too time consuming/expensive) to fully reach an understanding of some of our most complex and evolving social problems. So, while traditional scientist scoff at the idea of a researcher jumping into a social problem to drive change, it is necessary to solve particular problems because the researcher can be flexible and adapt to the situation as they research through action. The difference doesn’t make the approach flawed it makes it practical. After all, the point of any research is to improve lives (Schneider et al, 2012).
To highlight the power of research to drive social change, I introduce two social problems where traditional research would be inefficient. First, global women’s rights are a complex social issue that is unique in each culture and stems from and evolves with social and environmental pressures. Traditional research will be ineffective at collectively researching this phenomenon and thereby ineffective at pinpointing causal and perpetuating factors needed for communities to move forward with interventions. Action research (or social action and activism) can gain the collective resources needed to understand and resolve issues of this magnitude and complexity. First, there is a close relationship between the research and actions. Ideas turn to research plans, which determine actions to solve the social issue. Actions are continuously evaluated and research plans are revised based on real-time findings, or other variables. Most importantly, research and actions are carried out with the target audience. Research that drives social change is focused, whereas traditional research seeks to produce generalizable results (Schneider et al., 2012).
The first example is a movement called The Girl Effect; it has organized individuals, corporations, and government agencies across the globe to solve issues of poverty and women’s rights. They hypothesize that if girls around the world are given access to education, are free from forced marriages/child birth and other forms of oppression and abuse, they will be a catalyst for change… ending poverty, improving global economic conditions, and the overall human condition. Essentially, when a girl is taken out of the equation through oppression, they are unable to contribute to the economy/community, resulting in significant economic losses and the perpetuation of poverty and cycle of abuse/oppression. They have made significant strides by influencing policy through their research, as well as gaining momentum by educating the public on the needs of girls. I encourage everyone to browse the site and find out more (linked above) (Girl Effect, 2014).
The second example is the idea that businesses can actually solve many of our global social issues. In this Ted Talk by Michael Porter, a Harvard Business School professor and business strategist, he argues that businesses, which are often seen as the cause or sustaining factors in our social problems, are actually the solution. For social change to work it must be brought to scale, that is, it must be large enough to actually change the factors that are causing the problem and mass produce the solution. We fail to make progress on big social problems because we rely on organizations (i.e. traditional research) that do not have the resources necessary for this. Businesses have the resources necessary to produce large-scale solutions because they actually produce profit, whereas other organizations consume resources (take tax dollars, donations, etc.). By allowing businesses to profit from solutions they can drive the innovation and mass production necessary to create large-scale change in society, and sustain it (Porter, 2013). As an example, we have serious issues with our current energy consumption. It is damaging our climate, it creates global and national tension, and it is also unsustainable. Businesses have made considerable profits by “going green”, and those profits have helped to innovate new technologies and products to solve our environmental and social issues. Wind/solar energy and electric cars are just a couple examples of how business can drive such large magnitude changes.
In closing, there should be a distinction between traditional research and action research, but those distinctions should not make assumptions about the value of the approaches. Each has it’s own unique contribution to society and individuals. While there is bias introduced in action research, there is undeniable benefit to being involved in the research and outcomes for social change. Matter of fact, social change (real social change) isn’t possible without this approach (Schneider et al, 2012).
Girl Effect. (2014). Taking the Girl Effect to Scale. Retrieved from http://www.girleffect.org/explore/taking-the-girl-effect-to-scale/
Google Images. (2014). Image Search: Collective Power. Retrieved from http://www.pachamama.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/collective-action.jpg
Porter, M. (2013). Why Businesses Can Be Good At Solving Social Problems. Ted Talks. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/michael_porter_why_business_can_be_good_at_solving_social_problems
Schneider, F. W., Gruman, J. A., and Coutts, L. M. (Eds.) (2012). Applied Social Psychology: Understanding and Addressing Social and Practical Problems (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. ISBN 978-1412976381