Social Change: Action research


quote-no-research-without-action-no-action-without-research-kurt-lewin-136-14-90Not all of us will become professional scientists, but most thinking persons are lay scientists. For example, we all make predictions about the outcomes of various choices at our disposal in our daily life through an informal and largely unconscious process. Similarly, those of us who are personally invested in (any pro-social) career outside of basic research nonetheless conduct informal action research in the pursuit of successful outcomes. By definition, action research occurs when individuals seek to influence the community they are a part of, and therefore have a vested interest in (Lewin, 1946, in Scheider, Gruman & Coutts, 2012).

In order to become a better doctor, for example, one must not only stay on the cutting edge of medicine, but must also learn how to achieve greater patient compliance with medical directives. If patients aren’t compliant, a physician might dig deeper to find out why individuals don’t act in accordance with medical advice. He or she might wonder, are patients confused about instructions, unable to afford prescribed medications, or embarrassed to discuss side effects, fears, or other concerns? Could they disagree with or distrust the physician’s goals? These types of questions exhibit more than simple curiosity—they indicate an underlying desire to improve health outcomes more effectively through heightened awareness of patients’ personal and cultural needs.

If we want to systematize this informal process of examination so that our own findings may contribute to broader understanding, participatory action research is an avenue that capitalizes on the insights tharcat can be gained through being on the front lines of a pressing social concern. This iterative cycle of inquiry and reflection (Kolk, n.d.) allows us to—to paraphrase Paulo Friere, author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970/1993)—both educate, and be educated by, the very people we study (Brydon-Miller, 1997). At the core of this approach is the fundamental belief that authentic knowledge cannot be generated without the participation and perspective of the communities investigated.

People in various careers participate in action research, not the least of which is education. Dick Sagor, former high school principal and current Director of the Institute for the Study of Inquiry in Education, encourages teachers to collaborate with each other as action researchers (Kolk, n.d.). By pooling their experiences and results, he says, teachers became more invested and successful, boosting teacher satisfaction as well as school culture. Melinda Kolk, editor of Creative Educator lays out a template for would-be action researchers in the classroom environment to follow if they wish to formalize their informal processes (Kolk, n.d.). By progressing through the action research cycle, they can reap the benefits of promoting effective change in their own classrooms, while potentially benefiting students and teachers in the broader community should their research be published.

I can’t help but think that adopting an action researcher mentality, regardless of one’s career, would provide a greater sense of fulfillment and purpose to daily tasks. A sense of ongoing inquisitiveness, paired with a commitment to the greater good, would particularly enrich those whose career choice puts them into frequent contact with disadvantaged or marginalized groups.

Brydon‐Miller, M. (1997). Participatory action research: Psychology and social change. Journal of Social Issues, 53(4), 657-666. doi:10.1111/0022-4537.00042.

Kolk, M. Embrace action research. Retrieved November 17, 2016, from Creative Educator,

Kolk, M. K. M. Interview with Dick Sagor. Retrieved November 17, 2016, from

Retrieved November 17, 2016, from

Schneider, F., Gruman, J., & Coutts, L. (2012) Applied social psychology: Understanding and addressing social and practical problems. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.



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1 comment

  1. Ava Courtney Sylvester

    What an excellent post, as always! I couldn’t agree more with the importance of keeping the lessons of critical thinking, evidence-based opinions, and participatory action research in mind no matter our future endeavors. Far too often, it’s easy to go with what we feel, what we assume, and what we’re taught to believe than to think for ourselves. From the little I learned about cognitive psychology, we actually feel before we think and use our thoughts to rationalize our feelings (Haidt, 2013; Shermer, 2002, 2011). Awareness of this fact and using the scientific method you mention may not reduce the innate tendency we have to feel first, but it can help us make sense of our emotions and thoughts and better choose the appropriate action in response.

    I think awareness of cognitive biases like these can help lead us to better decisions, especially the doctor you mention trying to determine the best treatment for her patient and especially if that patient may experience her disorder in the context of her culture. Indeed, some disorders do have a cultural construct, like taijin kyofusho, a fear common in Japan that one’s body odor, eye contact, or blushing may offend someone else, or ataque de nervios, an experience of anxiety that involves uncontrollable shouting or screaming among Latino cultures (Kring et al., 2016). The underlying genetic or behavioral causes of these disorders may be universal, but perhaps the expressions may have a cultural influence. For instance, a panic attack in American culture may be indicated by social withdrawal, heavy breathing, and profuse sweating, whereas the same root cause could be expressed via shouting in another culture. If a psychologist were to practice in the United States, she should apply the anthropological approach and consider the influence of culture on the presentation and etiology of a patient’s symptoms. And of course, the influence of culture on a person has been the key lesson we’ve learned all semester!

    Haidt, J. (2013). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. (Rpt. ed.). New York, NY: Pantheon Books.

    Kring, A.M., Johnson, S.L., Davison, G., & Neale, J. (2016) Abnormal psychology: The science and treatment of psychological disorders. 13th ed. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

    Shermer, M. (2011). The believing brain: From ghosts and gods to politics and conspiracies–How we construct beliefs and reinforce them as truths. New York, NY: Henry Holt & Company.

    —. (2002). Why people believe weird things: Pseudoscience, superstition, and other confusions of our time. (Rev. ed.). New York, NY: W.H. Freeman.

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