Essay: Action Science

A short summary that I wrote for a class on Participatory Modes of Inquiry about Action Science — one of many threads in the participatory action research (PAR) tradition. “Participation” is a tricky concept in academic realm where the “experts” who do the studying tend to exert power over “laypeople” who get studied. As I consider the academic lifestyle more seriously, I wonder in what ways my work can subvert this dominant mode of operation? Participatory research tends to take longer and hence be more expensive because it requires real relationships with people and lots of listening. On the other hand, one can argue it’s more likely to have catalytic validity especially when it comes to “wicked problems” — the kind that deal in human values and can’t be solved, but only “managed.”

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The Action Science (AS) approach to action research (AR) distinguishes itself from other forms of AR in its attempt to remarry practical action with scientific method and scientific rigor (Greenwood & Levin, 2007). The strand of research offers a direct response to the problem of “rigor versus relevance” in which norms of ‘rigorous’ positivist science such as experimentation under controlled conditions and separation between the researcher and the researched may produce results that are irrelevant or invalid for practitioners working to affect social change (Friedman, 2001, p. 160); on the other hand, more ‘relevant’ alternative action research methodologies may define validity by the positive social effect they engender and eschew rigorous empirical testing or attempts to develop falsifiable theory. AS attempts to bridge this “widening gap between social science theory/research and social science-based professional practice” (Friedman 2001, p. 159) by arguing that rigor and relevance can both be achieved by collapsing “theory building and theory testing” together into one systematic inquiry (Greenwood & Levin, 2007, p. 224).

Action Science embraces dual objectives of improved social practice and the development of generalizable theories of practice through intervention, in contrast to the detached observation of traditional science. Specifically, AS intervention attempts to address “intractable conflicts and difficult dilemmas faced by social practitioners” through the act of “confrontation” (Friedman, 2001, p. 160). Confrontation requires practitioners to uncover implicit theories of action (also known as “theories in use”) and reconcile them with what they say they believe (“espoused theories”):

The goal of action science inquiry is to help practitioners discover the tacit choices they have made about their perceptions of reality, about their goals and about their strategies for achieving them. The fundamental assumption of action science is that by gaining access to these choices, people can achieve greater control over their own fate. (Friedman, 2001, p. 161):

For example, in his article on the “paradox of participation” in action research, Friedman (2009) and his co-researchers engage in a meta-analysis of a “failed” project between an Israeli university and an Arab-Palestinean NGO. Through critical reflection and analysis of meeting transcripts, the researchers confront the conflict between their espoused values of equal and full participation and an implicit theory of action that required the NGO to take on a role as fully invested co-inquirer regardless of its own perspective and goals. The inquiry helped both to mend the strained relationship between the academic team and the NGO leadership and also developed “actionable knowledge” to help others build better participative relationships (Friedman, 2001, p. 1).

In line with its emphasis on developing generalizable theories of action, AS has its own well-developed set of precepts. For example, AS delineates between Model I and Model II theories of action. A Model I theory of action is characterized by defensiveness and unilateral control, whereas Model II features “minimally defensive interpersonal and group relationships, high freedom of choice, and high risk taking” (Argyris et. al., 1985, p. 102, qtd. in Greenwood & Levin, 2007, p. 226). AS interventions often attempt to move a group from Model I defensiveness to Model II open inquiry. Friedman’s (2001) work with the Open House organization attempted to interrupt a cycle of conflict between two subgroups in the organization by constructing a causal map of the conflict that allowed staff members to “test their own interpretations,” “see clearly their own blindness,” and eventually “redesign their theories of action” (Friedman, 2001, p. 165).

While praising AS for its attempts to address both “scientific clarity and practical utility,” Greenwood & Levin (2007) also point out the shortcomings of the approach. In particular, they note that AS assumes that individuals’ “natural” state is Model I defensiveness. This is problematic for a number of reasons. First, the narrow focus on defensiveness ignores the “richness of human motivations” beoynd defensiveness (Greenwood & Levin, 2007, p. 230). Second, the approach ignores the broader political, economic, and cultural context that may influence or determine Model I or Model II theories of action by placing the onus on individuals or organizations to create internal change. Finally, this view creates a chasm between participants (who are doomed to defensiveness) and action scientists who are presumed to have a special ability to transcend these limitations; this places the researcher in a special elite status, yet AS does not address this difference directly. Friedman’s (2009) previously referenced work on the “paradox of participation” shows that even experienced AS researchers are not immune to acting out Model I theories of action, and glossing over implicit power differentials between researchers and participants can undermine participatory relationships. Thus while AS holds significant promise as an approach to address difficult to solve and unique organizational and social problems, these criticisms point to the need for more reflective work in the vein of Friedman (2007) to develop AS theory further.

Greenwood, Davydd and Levin, Morten. 2007.  Action Science and Organizational Learning, in   Introduction to Action Research, 2nd Edition.  Thousand Oaks, CA:  Sage, pp  223-235.

Friedman, Victor.  Action Science:  Creating Communities of Inquiry in Communities of Practice.  Chapter 19 in The SAGE Handbook of Action Research, 1st Edition, ed. by P. Reason and H. Bradbury. Thousand Oaks, CA:  Sage, 159-170.

Friedman, Victor.  2009.  The Paradox of Participation in Action Research.  Action Research. 7(2)263-290.

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