Not 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 that 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, http://www.thecreativeeducator.com/v07/articles/Embracing_Action_Research
Kolk, M. K. M. Interview with Dick Sagor. Retrieved November 17, 2016, from http://www.thecreativeeducator.com/v07/articles/Interview_Dick_Sagor
Retrieved November 17, 2016, from http://www.azquotes.com/picture-quotes/quote-no-research-without-action-no-action-without-research-kurt-lewin-136-14-90.jpg
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.