For your initial post to this discussion, create a checklist that details your plan for developing your Action Research Project, based on one or more of the checklists or lists of questions from your textbook readings in this unit.
Chapter 4 Action Research by Ernest Stringer pages 99-134
FOCUSING: FRAMING THE RESEARCH QUESTION
The basis of any investigation is a specific, usually problematic issue. Why are students in my class disengaged? How can we get young mothers in this area to have their babies vaccinated? Why is our customer base being eroded? What can we do about domestic violence? And so on. The underlying problem in action research is to establish the nature of the issue or problem and how it might be stated. Statement of the problem is a key issue that requires significant attention from the outset, since often problems are designated by people in positions of authority and defined in terms that either valorize their own perspective or demonize those central to the problem. As Denzin suggests (1989), policy makers, program managers, and others develop interventions and programs on the basis of their own experience rather than the experience of the people whom their policies are meant to benefit.
This is clearly the case in situations where marginalized groups are subject to research by authorities. Research proposals in Aboriginal contexts often start with a litany of grief that points to high levels of incarceration, high levels of domestic violence, low levels of employment, low levels of educational achievement, poor health . . . and so on. From the very start of a research project Aboriginal people are presented in negative terms, the focus being on the worst segment of their community lives. Such projects fail to recognize the significant majority who live well-ordered lives, within the bounds of their own social and cultural circumstances, and the deep well of experience available in almost any location.
Problems, in any case, are difficult to state clearly since any issue is usually enmeshed in a web of relationships, interactions, actions, events, and activities that make up the dynamic operation of any social setting. Statement of the problem is sometimes simple, but framing that problem as a question to be investigated often requires careful thought and some initial analysis. Research facilitators and participants need to think carefully through issues to identify key concerns related to the problem to be investigated. This type of reflection often reveals subsidiary questions that provide the basis for a more systematic and comprehensive investigation. Some of the questions we need to ask when identifying a problem are the following:What is the actual problem here?For whom is it problematic?How do stakeholders perceive the problem?Are problems and issues within or behind the initial problem?
An effective action research process therefore requires participants to work through the first cycle of investigation by exploring and examining the ways stakeholding groups describe or interpret the problem as initially framed. Only then can a research project frame questions that provide sufficient direction to an investigation that enables it to accomplish an effective outcome.
I was once asked to assist a school system to develop ways of engaging parents and communities in development of school resources.
Question: How can parents assist in the development of school resources?
Initial attempts by principals to engage parents proved ineffectual, and discussions with a number of parents indicated that they were suspicious that this was another strategy to have them “donate” more money to the school or to increase school fees. Preliminary workshops with parents in a sample of schools clarified this issue and asked parents to identify things they would be willing to do to develop school resources. The framework for action research workshops in schools in the system started with clarifying comments indicating why the school needed extra resources and that it was not intended to ask parents for donations of money. Subsidiary questions extended the original question to focus on actions.
What resources are needed?
How can parents assist in acquiring these resources?
What can they do?
How can they do it?
Framing the issue as a question rather than a request enabled parents to discuss many creative possibilities, and workshops in pilot schools were notable for their success in mobilizing parent energies in a wide range of activities and projects that, in the end, significantly enhanced their school’s resources.
GATHERING DATA: ACQUIRING INFORMATION
The primary objective of the Look phase of the process is to gather information that enables researchers to extend their understanding of the experience and perspective of stakeholders—those mainly affected by or having an influence on the issue investigated. The first cycle of an action research process is therefore qualitative, requiring researchers to gather information about participants’ experiences and perspectives and to define the problem or issue in terms that “make sense” in their own terms. We seek to understand participant experiences in order to work toward a viable solution in which people will invest their time and energies. Participants, especially primary stakeholders, are therefore consciously engaged in the process of describing the nature of the problem and gathering information.
This differs from traditional hypothesis-testing research in two significant ways. First, participants are knowingly engaged in seeking to develop understandings and solutions, objectivity not being the primary aim of the process, as solutions need to make sense to the subjective experience of the participants.1 Second, researchers do not hypothesize an answer to the research question but seek to understand the nature of related events—how and why things happen the way they do. Gathering data, therefore, has quite a different purpose.
There is a real sense, however, that we seek a sense of objectivity as we gather data, as we need to ensure that information is gained directly from the participants and is not tainted by the perspectives, biases, or experiences of research facilitators. When we frame research questions for interviews or questionnaires, for instance, we need to be very careful that we don’t inadvertently incorporate our own views or ideas. Leading questions that implicitly suggest an answer to the problem taint the research process with the perspective of the researcher.
In the Think phase of the research, analysis of information emerging from responses to questions provides insights from which “interventions”—actions to remedy the situation—are formulated. Continuing research cycles enable evaluation, reformulation, and redevelopment of actions, leading to increasingly effective solutions to the problem at the heart of the research project.
I’ve seen many examples of action research processes that have provided effective outcomes for the key stakeholders. Lisa, a special education teacher, worked with her students to understand why they were so disinterested in reading. By increasing her understanding of their experience of reading she was able to formulate effective strategies that greatly improved her students’ interest and engagement.
In another school in the same city, a group of Hispanic parents expressed concern about the quality of their children’s schooling. With the support of the principal they engaged in an action research project that focused on improving communication between the school and the students’ families. Volunteers from a Hispanic neighborhood group interviewed parents and teachers to understand their experiences of parent–teacher conferences. They were able to identify a range of ways that both parents and teachers could improve the conferences and in the process also discovered other ways to improve communication between the school and the students’ families.
Initial phases of exploration are designed not to gather concrete evidence or objective data but to reveal the reality that makes up people’s day-to-day experience, bringing their assumptions, views, and beliefs out in the open and making them available for discussion. The process of talking about their experience provides people with rich insights that enable them to achieve greater clarity about events and activities in their lives. As they share experiences they gain greater understanding of the realities of the situation and the potentials of constructing solutions to the problem that take these realities into consideration. By working collaboratively, participants develop collective visions of their situation that provide the basis for effective action. At its best, this type of activity is liberating, enabling people to master their world as they see it in a different way—a tangible process of enlightenment.
At a community health workshop focused on problems related to alcohol, participants were asked to describe the types of drinking behavior displayed by groups in their community. At the end of the workshop, one of the health workers exclaimed excitedly, “I used to see alcohol as a blanket covering my community. Now I see it in a different way. I can see the different ways that people use alcohol and the different outcomes of that use. Now I can see areas where things can be done.” An explanatory framework that focused on descriptions of alcohol use, rather than alcoholism as a whole, resulted in a new vision that provided novel possibilities for action.
This anecdote contains an important message: Problems do not exist in isolation but are part of a complex network of events, activities, perceptions, beliefs, values, routines, and rules—a cultural system maintained through the life of the group, organization, or community. As people reveal relevant details of their situation, they see more clearly the ways in which the research problem or focus is linked to features of their organizational, professional, and/or community lives. This type of exploration leads people past their taken-for-granted perspectives and promotes more satisfying, sophisticated, and complete descriptions of their situation.
SOURCES OF INFORMATION
Information to be gathered in any investigation will be determined to a large extent by the nature of the issue or problem investigated. The remainder of this chapter identifies the types of data that might be collected and the processes for gathering that information. As participants explore the issue at hand, they may discover the need for other types of information, and data gathering becomes an ongoing process that emerges as the investigation proceeds. This contrasts with procedures of experimental research in which the data to be gathered are precisely defined in the research design.
A social worker I know set out to investigate why young teenagers in her town engaged in so much vandalism. By talking with some of them she discovered that the underlying reason was boredom, and the sources of boredom included schooling that was boring, the lack of sports facilities, and the closure of parks and gardens. Her investigation broadened to include discussions with the local principal and some teachers, local sports people, the local government office responsible for parks and gardens, and the town police. She discovered that sports clubs lacked facilities to accommodate teenagers, that parks and gardens had been closed for economic reasons, and that the schools were locked into a mandated curriculum that was marginally relevant to the needs and interests of the young people in that region. The information she was able to acquire and share with the stakeholders enabled them to take action to increase leisure activity opportunities for teenagers, with a consequent dramatic drop in acts of vandalism.
I have elsewhere (Stringer, 2004) mentioned Lisa, a special education teacher who was concerned about her students’ lack of interest in reading. Initially she tried different teaching strategies to try to increase their engagement—but without success. As she talked with her students, however, she discovered a number of issues that affected their reading activities and was able to take appropriate and successful action to remedy the situation by taking these matters into account. She discovered that students responded to different types of reading activity, the physical arrangement of seating, the social arrangements related to learning activities (some liked solitary reading activities; others liked to work in groups), and the types of reading material she used. She had not been able to “guess” these in her first attempts, but the appropriate data emerged through collaborative work with her students.
The primary data in action research are derived from interviews with primary and key stakeholders. As the focus of investigation and the issues to be incorporated in the emerging investigation become clearer, other sources of data may become relevant. Research participants may also become involved in events and activities that are themselves informative, or they may systematically observe a site or context. As they do so, a variety of other sources may provide information that further clarifies or extends understanding of the issue being investigated. These may include information derived fromInterviewsFocus groupsParticipant observationQuestionnairesDocumentsRecords and reportsSurveysThe research literature
Researchers need to be parsimonious in selecting information specifically pertinent to the issue, as a mass of peripherally relevant information may create less rather than greater clarity.
INTERVIEWS: GUIDED REFLECTION
Interviews provide opportunities for participants to describe the situation in their own terms. It is a reflective process that enables the interviewee to explore his or her experience in detail and to reveal the many features of that experience that have an effect on the issue investigated. The interview process not only provides a record of participants’ views and perspectives but also symbolically recognizes the legitimacy of their experience. To initiate an interview, research facilitators shouldIdentify themselves, their role, and their purposesAsk permission to talk with people and to record informationCheck that the time is convenient for an extended discussionNegotiate alternative times and places for interviews, if necessary
Interviews should be characterized as informal conversations. For example, the research facilitator might say, “I’d like to talk with you about how things are going for you, Jenny. Could we have a talk sometime? When could we do that?” Allowing participants to designate the time and place maximizes the possibility that they will suggest contexts in which they feel comfortable. One of the key features of successful interviews is the need for participants to feel as if they can say what they are really thinking or to express what they are really feeling.
As interviews progress, research facilitators may be presented with viewpoints that appear limited, biased, or wrong. Interviewers should, however, avoid discussion or debate with interviewees, since this detracts from the ability of participants to express views of their own experiences and perspectives. Challenges to participant views will occur naturally as differing perspectives are presented in more public arenas. The task at this stage, to adapt the words of a well-known anthropologist, is “to grasp the natives’ point of view, to realize their vision of their world” (Malinowski, 1922/1961, p. 25). Questioning procedures described shortly therefore are drawn from ethnographic procedures that seek to elicit information from an insider’s perspective, technically known as emic knowledge or understanding, in contrast to etic constructs and terminologies derived from people who do not naturally “inhabit” a particular social domain.
Semistructured Questioning Procedures
A major problem with the interview process is that questions are easily tainted by the researcher’s perceptions, perspectives, interests, and agendas. Professional practitioners are confronted with practical problems and issues that they usually resolve by applying skills and procedures drawn from their professional stock of knowledge. They are confronted with difficult clients who seem unable or unwilling to follow designated procedures, students who seem unable to perform or behave appropriately, or dysfunctional family or community groups. In these instances research always starts with a general question: “Why are the clients unable to follow their care plans?” “Why can’t these students learn this material?” “Why do they engage in these inappropriate or disruptive behaviors?” or “Why are people in this organization or family always arguing?”
Common professional procedures require practitioners to hypothesize an answer to these questions, formulate a potential solution, and then test it out by having clients, students, or groups follow procedures implied by that solution. In action research, the practitioner “brackets”—holds in abeyance—his or her professional stock of knowledge and starts by having the client, student, or group explore the issue in their own terms. Practitioner perspectives are included at a later stage, when primary stakeholders have described both the situation and the issue in their own terms.
Questioning procedures are very delicate because participants are likely to react negatively if there is an implied judgment or criticism embedded in the question. In the beginning, research facilitators will ask very general questions that enable them to understand the way participants experience the context—“How are things going for you, Jenny?” “Tell me about this school (or your class)”—and following questions enable participants to extend their exploration of their own experience and their own perspectives on issues that emerge in the course of the interview. Questions, in fact, are merely triggers that enable participants to explore and describe what is happening in their lives or to reflect on events associated with issues of concern. Sensitive questioning processes enable them, in effect, to tell stories of their own experience. These not only allow them to recount the everyday context in which events emerge but sometimes also to explore epiphanic events—those defining moments of experience that occur in problematic interactional situations and reveal underlying tensions and problems in a situation (Denzin, 1989). The procedures described momentarily and summarized in Box 4.1 follow Spradley (1979) and provide a useful framework of relatively neutral and nonleading questions that minimize the extent to which participants’ perceptions will be governed by language and concepts inadvertently imposed by researchers.
Grand tour questions enable participants to describe the situation in their own terms (e.g., “Tell me about [your work]”) and provide focus without giving direction or suggesting responses. An initial grand tour question may be followed by questions that assist respondents to extend their descriptions.General grand tour questions enable participants to describe the setting or issue in their own terms (e.g., “I’ve recently come to [town, this office, the school] and don’t know much about it. Could you tell me about this place?”).Typical questions encourage respondents to describe how events usually occur (e.g., “How does your group usually work?” “Describe a typical day in your office”).Specific questions focus on specific events or phenomena (e.g., “Can you tell me about yesterday’s meeting?” “Describe what happened the last time.” “What happens in the recreation room?”). Researchers can further extend accounts by using activities that enable participants to visualize their situation more clearly:A guided tour question is a request for an actual tour that allows participants to show researchers (and, where possible, other stakeholders) around their offices, schools, classrooms, clinics, centers, or agencies (e.g., “Could you show me around your center [office, classroom, clinic]?”). Throughout the tour, participants may explain details about the people and activities involved in each part of the setting. Researchers may ask questions as they go (e.g., “Tell me more about this part of the clinic [room, office, class].” “Can you tell me more about the social workers [clients, patients, young people] you’ve mentioned?”).A task question aids in description (e.g., “Could you draw me a map of the place you’ve described?”). Maps are often instructive and provide opportunities for extensive questioning and description. Participants can also demonstrate particular features of their work or community lives (e.g., “Can you show or tell me how you put a case study together?”).
Further information may be acquired through the skillful use of prompts that enable participants to reveal more details of the phenomena they are discussing.Extension questions (e.g., “Tell me more about . . .” “Is there anything else you can tell me about . . .?” “What else?”)Encouragement comments or questions (e.g., “Go on.” “Yes?” “Uh huh?”)Example questions (e.g., “Can you give me an example of that?”)
Researchers may gain more detailed information by pursuing a minitour that focuses on issues and events emerging from grand tour questioning. Minitour questions focus on each issue and explore it using the types of questions described earlier (e.g., “You previously mentioned [blank]. . . . Tell me more about that.” “Can you describe a typical . . .?”). Combinations of typical, specific, tour, task, extension, encouragement, and example questions provide opportunities for extensive exploration of the setting, events, and activities. Research facilitators should take a neutral stance throughout these activities and neither affirm nor dispute, verbally or nonverbally, the information that emerges. At the same time, they should remain keenly attentive, recording responses as accurately as possible. It is essential that they capture participants’ own terms and concepts for later use in formulating accounts.
Questions should be carefully formulated to ensure participants are given the maximum opportunity to present events and phenomena in their own terms and to follow agendas of their own choosing. Researchers should be particularly wary of leading questions that derive from their own interpretive schemata and are not directly related to participant agendas. These types of questioning are distinctively different from those formulated for use in surveys that often require researchers to hypothesize variables influencing the issue investigated and frame questions around those.
Field Notes: Applying the Verbatim Principle
Participant researchers should carefully record details of interviews, using field notes or tape recordings for this purpose. Taking field notes is a skill that requires some practice, as it is important to apply the verbatim principle, recording precisely what is said, using the respondent’s language, terms, and concepts. Researchers should resist the impulse to summarize what is said or record it in terms with which they are familiar or comfortable. This requires researchers to write at speed, so that notes may be rather untidy. If possible, use forms of shorthand in note taking (e.g., t for the, takg for taking, w for with, and so on).
As an interview commences, or when rapport has been established, the interviewer should ask, “Do you mind if I take a few notes as you speak? I’d like to remember what you’ve said.” As the interview progresses, you might also ask, “Could you just hold on for a moment? I’m a bit behind.”
Following the interview, the interviewer should “member check,” reading back the notes and asking whether they are an accurate record of what was said. Alternatively, he or she may choose to type up the notes later and have the respondent read them, preferably with the interviewer present, to check for accuracy.
The use of a tape recorder has the advantage of allowing the researcher to record accounts that are both detailed and accurate. The use of tape recorders can have a number of disadvantages, however, and researchers should carefully weigh the merits of this technology. Technical difficulties with equipment may damage rapport with respondents, and people sometimes find it difficult to talk freely in the presence of a recording device, especially when sensitive issues are discussed. A researcher may need to wait until a reasonable degree of rapport has been established before introducing the possibility of using a tape recorder. When using a recorder, the researcher should be prepared to stop the tape to allow respondents to speak “off the record” if they show signs of discomfort.
Follow these steps for using a tape recorder:Prior to the interview, check that the tape recorder is in working order and batteries are charged. Have sufficient tape or recording space for the length of the interview(s).Ask the interviewee’s permission to record the interview.Transcribe the tape as soon after the interview as possible.Provide the interviewee with a copy of the transcription to check for accuracy.Store tapes and transcriptions in a safe place to ensure confidentiality.
Focus groups provide another means of acquiring information and might be characterized as a group interview. Participants in a focus group should each have opportunities to describe their experience and present their perspective on the issues discussed. As with interviews, carefully devised questions provide the means to focus the group on the issue at hand and enable them to express their experience and perspective in their own terms, without the constraints of interpretive frameworks derived from researcher perspectives, professional or technical language, or theoretical constructs. Focus questions should follow the same rules and formats as those used for interviews, employing neutral language and maximizing opportunities for participants to express themselves in their own terms.
The following steps provide a basic framework for facilitating focus groups:
Set ground rules. For example,Each person should have opportunities to express his or her opinions and perspectives.Participants should be respectful and nonjudgmental of each other.
Explain procedures clearly.Designate a leader and recorder for each group (or have the group elect a leader).Provide and display focus questions.Explain recording and reporting procedures.Designate time frames for each activity.
Facilitators shouldEnsure each person has an equal chance to talk.Ensure discussions relate to the focus question(s).Keep track of time for each activity.Assist the group in summarizing the perspectives emerging from their discussions and identify key features of their experience and perspective.
Recorders shouldKeep note of what people say, using their own words.Record the outcomes of the summarizing process, preferably on a chart.
Plenary sessions offer feedback and clarification.Gather groups for plenary sessions, ensuring adequate time for the process.Each group should present the outcomes of its discussion, using the charted summary.Where one person presents, provide opportunities for individuals within the group to extend or clarify points presented.The facilitator should ask questions that clarify or extend the information presented, extending understanding of the group’s perspective.Ensure that new information emerging in this process is recorded on charts.
Combined analysis. Have participantsIdentify common features across the charts.Identify divergent issues or perspectives.Rank issues in order of priority, using some form of voting procedure.Planning: What happens next?Make an action plan, starting with an issue of highest priority.Designate tasks, persons, time lines, and resources.Designate a person to monitor these tasks.Designate a time and place to meet to review progress on the action plan.
Participant observation is distinctively different from observational routines common in experimental research or clinical practice, where the things to be observed are specifically defined. Observation in action research is more ethnographic, enabling an observer to build a picture of the lifeworld of those being observed and to develop an understanding of the way they ordinarily go about their everyday activities. It enables teachers to see how students go about the tasks that have been assigned them, social workers to observe how mothers interact with their children, marketers to study how customers interact with a business or commercial environment, or consultants to see how people go about the work of an organization.
Observation enables researchers to record important details that become the basis for formulating descriptions from which stake holding groups produce their accounts. Although field notes are commonly used for observations, videotapes and photographs may also provide a powerful record of events and activities. As researchers observe stake holding groups, they have opportunities to gain a clearer picture of the research context by observing the everyday settings in which participants undertake activities relevant to the research focus. By recording their observations as field notes, they acquire a record of important elements of the context of the participants. Researchers should record these notes during or soon after events have occurred, incorporating information that will later provide the means to describe a context or event. The schema depicted in Box 4.2 assists observers to include all relevant details in their description. Participation in research contexts also provides research facilitators with opportunities to engage in interviews and conversations that extend the pool of information available. Appropriate questions enable researchers to describe the situation in the participants’ own terms. For instance ,What are all the (places, acts, events, and the like)?Can you describe in detail the (objects, times, goals, and the like)?Can you tell me about all the (people, activities, and the like)? (Spradley, 1979, p. 79)
This process also provides opportunities for researchers to check the veracity of their own observations. Phenomena such as purpose and feeling can be inferred only superficially by an observer and need to be checked for accuracy. I might record, for instance, “The principal met with faculty to present a written statement of the new school policy. The faculty appeared rather disgruntled with the new policy but made no comment about it.” Here I have noted information related to the purpose of the meeting and the feelings of the faculty. This is potentially relevant information, but I would need to check with the principal and faculty to verify the authenticity of my interpretation. The principal may have other unstated purposes, the presentation of policy merely providing the context for meeting with faculty, and the faculty themselves may have been disgruntled about those other (hidden) agendas.
DOCUMENTS, RECORDS, AND REPORTS
Researchers can obtain a great deal of significant information by reviewing documents and records. Documents and records may include memos, minutes, reports, policy statements, procedure statements, plans, evaluation reports, press accounts, public relations materials, information statements, and newsletters. Organizational literature from schools, hospitals, clinics, centers, churches, businesses, and so on may include client records, policies, plans, strategies, evaluations, reports, procedural manuals, curricula, public relations literature, informational literature, and so forth. These types of documents are often prolific, and researchers need to be selective, briefly scanning their contents to ascertain their relevance to the issue under investigation.
Researchers should inspect official directories, where available, and keep records of the documents reviewed. They should record any significant information found in documents and note its source. In some cases, researchers may be able to obtain photocopies of relevant documents.
Researchers should prepare summary statements of information they have acquired and check them for accuracy with relevant stakeholders. In the process, they should ascertain which information may be made public and which must be kept confidential. The intent of the summaries is to provide stakeholders with information that enables each group to review and reflect on its own activities and to share relevant information with other stakeholding groups. This information provides the key elements from which a jointly constructed account will be formulated.
The electronic age has provided the means to greatly enhance people’s ability to represent their lives in visual form, greatly extending our ability to present representations of people’s experience in ways that capture the reality of any context. A wide range of media, produced relatively easily through the use of still and video cameras, enables production of photographs, films, charts, posters, books, magazines, newsletters, and so on that greatly enhance an action research process. Not only do they more clearly depict the realities of people and contexts, but they provide ways in which participants in an action research process can provide a more empathetic understanding of their situation and the issues within it. Lists of some of the available resources to help develop these types of material are listed in the Participatory Visual Methods section of Chapter 5 and the Social Media and Online Collaborative Tools section of Chapter 9.
Photographs and Videos
“A picture is worth a thousand words.” Written text is often an inadequate means of developing understanding, and simple photographs often provide a powerful means of presenting images of events and other phenomena—resources, offices, housing, and so on—relevant to the issue under investigation. Although the images themselves can provide a useful ongoing record, they also enhance reports and presentations produced as part of an investigation.
A particularly powerful use of photographs is provided by participatory visual methods such as Photovoice, Picturevoice, Paintvoice and Comicvoice (see Chapter 9: Social Media and Online Collaborative Tools). These include techniques of photo elicitation, wherein participants describe and comment on photographs of events or contexts in which they have participated and are assisted to create visuals that capture their individual or group experiences and perspectives. Participants can take control of the camera, taking images that seem most relevant from their perspective, and learn how to develop visual materials—books, charts, posters, menus, cards, and so on. Simple visual materials produced with common word-processing programs can be enhanced by more sophisticated productions as people develop their skills. Applications such as iBook and similar programs provide the means for people, with a little assistance, to produce materials that greatly enhance an action research process.
The development of videos is likewise within the grasp of many people through computerized programs that enable them to develop simple but powerful films that capture their experience and provide the means for more empathetic understanding of their situation or the issues they investigate. Researchers can loan cameras or video recorders to participants and work with them to think through—as part of the Look, Think, Act process—what images, events, activities, or situations they will record. This provides them with the means to control their worlds, framing and focusing according to their own terms of what is significant and how it should be presented.
Where photographs are used, it is usually necessary to first ask those being photographed permission to do so. If the photographs or video footage is to be shown publically, then written permission is needed, in accordance with the ethical guidelines suggested in Chapter 3. SURVEYS
Surveys are of limited utility in the first phases of an action research process because they provide very limited information and are likely to reflect the perspective, interests, and agenda of the researcher. In later stages of action research, however, a survey may provide a very useful tool for extending the data collection process to a broader range of participants. It provides the means to check whether information acquired from participants in the first cycles of a process is relevant to other individuals and groups.
To conduct a survey, researchers should
Establish the purpose and focus of the survey. Carefully defineThe issues to be includedInformation to be obtainedThe respondents to be included in the survey sample
Formulate the questions for the questionnaire:Construct one question for each issue or piece of information.State the question in clear and unambiguous terms.State the question in positive rather than negative terms.Do not include jargon or technical terms that may be unfamiliar to respondents. Keep questions short and to the point.
Construct response formats:Open response: for example, “What factors have the most impact on your ability to do your work?”Fixed response: “How long should employees have for midmorning break: 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes, 20 minutes?”Dual response: yes/no; either/or; agree/disagreeRating response: There are two major forms of rating: the Likert scale, where respondents rate their response to a statement by circling or checking that which is most appropriate (1. Strongly agree___ 2. Agree___ 3. Neutral___ 4. Disagree___ 5. Strongly disagree), and the semantic differential, where respondents rate the degree of their response to polar opposites (“The service provided was . . . fast slow.”
Provide introductory information for respondents:Purpose and nature of the surveyLikely duration of time to complete responsesExamples of types of response required
Test the questionnaire:Select a small pilot sample of respondents.Have them complete the questionnaire or respond to interview questions.Analyze responses to identify problematic or inadequate questions.Modify those questions.
Conduct the survey:Administer questionnaire or interview respondents.Collect responses.Thank people for their participation.
Analyze the data:Collate information for each question.Compute appropriate statistical measures—sum, mean, standard deviation, and so on.Identify significant results.
Report on the outcomes of the survey.
REVIEWING THE LITERATURE: EVIDENCE FROM RESEARCH STUDIES
In the first stage of action research the purpose of investigations is to extend and clarify participant understanding of the issue. Research participants seek to understand how and why events happen as they do. Often, however, people’s “common sense”—the taken-for-granted knowledge accumulated through their personal experience—comes into conflict with other people in the setting. We need to find ways of checking the validity of these differences in perception, and we also need to check whether commonsense interpretations of the situation can be otherwise verified. Sometimes people assume the truth of a statement at odds with other credible sources of information. This is particularly true of distortions arising from media sensationalist reports or the grandstanding of political figures.
In these situations we have available a stable and powerful body of knowledge, established through a long history of systematic investigations, that enables us to check the validity of statements often presented as “facts.” While the research literature does not provide definitive answers to all issues, it does provide information that sometimes has been thoroughly established through rigorous and systematic studies that provide much higher degrees of certainty than gained from other sources—press reports, political statements, and so on. When matters of fact are at issue, research can often help resolve disputes or provide information that has a more solid grounding than “What I think is . . .” or “It’s just common sense!” Research can assist us in finding the extent to which the following types of assertions have any basis in fact:Crime is increasing.Students are performing poorly in schools.Taking “soft” drugs leads to “hard” drug usage.•Youth engage in sexual activity (or become pregnant) much younger than they did previously.This treatment definitely is successful in creating weight loss (or stopping smoking, improving health).
The outcomes of research, presented as statistical information, can often provide clear evidence to either support or reject the veracity of such assertions. It is important, however, to check the history of any given set of information to ensure that though a situation may look bad, it may represent an improvement in the situation. It is also important to check a variety of studies because single studies often provide inadequate evidence upon which to make judgments. Review reports provide a useful source for information. Access to the research literature is usually found in university libraries, largely in academic or professional journal reports. Though this is still the greatest repository of research reports, the Internet now provides a number of avenues to enable community-based researchers to acquire this type of information through web searches. A number of powerful search engines—Google, AltaVista, Yahoo, and so on—and websites now provide the means to access information derived from a large body of research. Google Academic provides a general resource, while derivatives of the old ERIC system still provide access to reports and reviews of educational research. Where matters of fact are involved, research participants now have the ability to acquire solid information from the huge array of research currently available (see Chapter 9).
To conduct a web search, researchers shouldIdentify and describe the issue or topic.Identify key terms that characterize the topic.Log on to an appropriate search function. (Click on the “search” function incorporated into most computer programs.)Enter key terms.Review relevant websites.
GATHERING STATISTICAL INFORMATION—HOW MANY . . .?
An action research project may make use of statistical information for a variety of purposes. Records of numbers of events, participants, and so on can contribute to a clearer picture of the status of a research project. An action research project might include the following numerical information:Occurrences: the number of people, events, behaviors, participants, and so on
A record of the number of people engaged in a project, using a service, participating in activities, and so on provides the means of keeping track of events and estimating the degree to which the project is reaching intended audiences.Comparisons: differences in occurrence between groups
Interesting information can be obtained by comparing people from different groups—men and women, people from different age groups, people of different race or ethnicity, and so on.Trends or histories: changes in occurrence over timeA single “snapshot” provides information that, by itself, may be misleading. Sometimes significant accomplishment or success is masked by a low “score” that fails to reveal considerable improvement over time.Central tendencies: the average number of people, occurrences of events, and so on
Mean scores help us keep track of occurrences of phenomena, especially where large numbers are involved. We can be better informed of the number of people participating in events, the scores on tests, and so on.Distributions: the extent to which scores or occurrences are clustered or widely spread
Attention to the distribution of occurrences assists us in understanding whether or not there is a wide dispersal of scores in a sample. The distribution may signify the need to treat groups differently or to pay further attention to individuals or groups who appear to be different in some way, either through the lack of participation indicated by the data or through the outcomes of the activities in which they have been engaged.
EXTENDED UNDERSTANDING: DESCRIPTIVE ANALYSIS
The first phases of an action research process are designed to provide well-grounded understandings of the experience and perspective of participants. Further information from observations and so on provides additional data that can complement, clarify, and extend understanding of the events and other phenomena associated with the issue at hand. Preliminary observations and interviews may lead to more extensive processes that enable participants to construct more sophisticated and detailed accounts of their situation, enabling them to see the complex web of interactions and activities within which problematic events are played out.
The following section therefore provides three alternative procedures researchers may use to assist people in extending their understanding of their situations and the issues investigated. These are similar to ethnographic processes used in qualitative research and have been applied successfully in many community, organizational, and group contexts. Although each process is intended to provide a separate alternative approach to the development of a descriptive account, researchers may find in practice that they include any combination of these procedures. Chapter 5 provides a set of procedures for identifying the features and elements to develop descriptive accounts.
Alternative 1: Working Ethnographically—Collaborative Descriptive Accounts
The processes outlined in the interviewing section in this chapter may be applied to group contexts. Grand tour and other questions may be directed to a single group or to varied groups attending a meeting rather than to individuals. The research facilitator should elicit multiple responses to these questions verbally, using group processes where appropriate, and should record them in summary form on charts. This material can then be used in the formulation of descriptive accounts (see the Formal Reports section in Chapter 8).
Alternative 2: Six Questions—Why, What, How, Who, Where, When
The first question—why—provides a general orientation to the focus of the investigation, whereas succeeding questions—what, how, who, where, and when—enable participants to identify associated influences. The intent is not to define causes but to understand how the problem is encompassed in the context or setting. How and what questions are more productive than why questions. The former provide opportunities for revealing direct experience, whereas the latter often lead to explanations remote from people’s experience. Examples of appropriate initiating questions include the following:Why are we meeting today? What is the purpose?What is/are the problem(s)? What is happening?How does it affect our work or lives?Who is being affected?Where are things happening?When are things happening?
Answers should focus on acts, activities, and events related to the problem; participants should not attempt to evaluate or judge individual or group behavior. An initial pass through these questions will lead to further questions that can provide increasingly detailed information. This will include the history of the situation (how it came to be as it is), the people involved in or affected by the problem, interactions and relationships among these people, resources (people, space, time, funds, current use, access, availability), dreams, and aspirations.
Alternative 3: Community Profile
A community profile provides a descriptive snapshot of the context in which the investigation is placed. It enables stakeholders to formulate an overview that describes significant features of their context. Smaller projects in restricted sites, such as classrooms, schools, community centers, and government agencies, may require information that focuses only on dimensions of the setting itself—that is, the classroom, school, agency office, and so on. In many cases, however, persistent problems require investigations that extend into the neighborhood, town, city, or region.
There is often a profusion of information about community contexts, and it is essential that the work of preparing a profile remain focused. Following preliminary activity that briefly describes the setting (see Chapter 3), researchers should ask major stakeholders for their views about the types of information pertinent to the investigation. This will help researchers choose judiciously from a potentially vast array of information and minimize the time spent amassing inconsequential information. Research facilitators should assist stakeholders in developing a community profile framework that appears most appropriate to the task at hand. A community profile might include any of the following:Geography: location, landforms, climateHistory: history of the setting, major events, developments, history of the problem(s) under investigation, major laws affecting the site or the problem(s)Government: impacts and places of local, regional, state, and federal government policies and agencies; boundariesPolitics: parties, organizations, representativesDemographics: population size; gender, race, ethnic, and age distributions; births and deathsEconomics: sectors (e.g., business and industry), employment, wages and salary levels, general status (prospering, declining)Health: services, agencies, facilities, special populations (e.g., older persons, children, persons with disabilities)Education: schools, institutions, services, sectors (e.g., primary, secondary, college), resources, community educationWelfare: services; institutions, agencies, and organizations (government and nongovernment); personnel (e.g., social workers, counselors)Housing: number, type, and condition of dwellings; forms of accommodation (e.g., low rent, transient, hotel)Transportation: public and private transportation, accessibility and availability, areas serviced, road conditions, types (road, rail, air)Recreation: type, number, condition, and accessibility of facilities and services; clubs and organizations; age groups targetedReligion: type and number of churches, levels of attendance, activities and servicesIntergroup relations: social groups (race, ethnic, religious, or kinship affiliations), coalitions, antagonismsPlanning: regional, city, town, or local plans
Community profiles usually provide demographic information, much of which can be gained from official or documentary sources, but information may also be acquired during preliminary observations and interviews. John Van Willigen (1993, after Vlachos, 1975) suggests a format that embodies cultural information in addition to the types of demographic data just described. The type of information collected necessarily requires extended ethnographic work with people within the setting. Van Willigen’s framework incorporates cultural tracts that include the following:Lifestyle: economic status, communication (including language, proxemics, and expressive media), religious sites and practices, housing (styles and clustering of dwellings, place of kin networks), geographic location, institutional characteristics, health definitions and practices, education, leisure and recreational activities, politicsHistorical features: contemporary and historical artifacts and physical representationsWorldviews, beliefs, perceptions, and definitions of reality: cognitive systems (how people think about and organize everyday reality), religious systems (spiritual reality), values systems, belief systems, perceptions of one’s own group and others, intercultural perceptions
Once the researcher has acquired the information for the community profile, he or she can organize and present it in a form that people from all stakeholding groups can readily understand. The profile can be made available for their scrutiny as part of the process of formulating accounts (see Chapter 5). A community profile provides a structured way for participants to determine clearly the range of influences likely to have an impact on the problem under investigation. The information ensures that a broad range of relevant features of the situation are taken into account and paves the way for effective and sustainable projects and programs.
MEETINGS: GROUP PROCESSES FOR COLLABORATIVE INQUIRY
The most successful and productive action research occurs where participants have the opportunity to talk extensively about their experiences and perceptions. Interview processes enable people not only to reveal the issues and agendas but also to reflect on the nature of events that concern them. Where individual interviews are not possible, research facilitators may organize meetings that bring people together to explore the issue under investigation. In these circumstances they should use carefully articulated group processes to ensure that each participant has extended opportunities to describe his or her situation and to express his or her issues and concerns.
When diverse stakeholder groups are brought together, it is often fruitful, particularly where there has been a history of conflict between parties, for researchers to do some preliminary work to ensure harmonious and productive meetings. Holding prior meetings with each of the conflicting parties can enable them to define their own agendas and to clarify the purposes of the larger meeting. In these contexts, researchers should work to formulate statements that are nonjudgmental and nonblaming yet clearly articulate participants’ perceptions and concerns. In some instances, public meetings provide contexts in which individuals or groups in conflict meet for the first time. Without preliminary work, these types of meetings may degenerate into conflict-laden situations that serve only to reinforce antagonisms and exacerbate existing problems. Public meetings, therefore, should be used only after stakeholder groups have had the opportunity to meet in safe and comfortable contexts to explore their issues and to clarify their thoughts and perceptions. Where there is no other alternative, researchers should carefully facilitate group processes, as suggested in the following section, to enable all participants to express their views in safety and have their issues recognized.
Meetings don’t “just happen”; careful planning and preparation must take place to ensure that participants can work through their issues and attain their objectives without the distractions of poorly articulated activities, inadequate materials and equipment, or uncomfortable or irritating conditions. The following are critical issues research facilitators need to take into account when organizing meetings.
Meetings should reflect the participatory intent of action research; it is important, therefore, to ensure that people who can legitimately speak for the interests of each stakeholding group attend. Having one or two persons represent a diverse ethnic group, for instance, may ignore the deep divisions that lie among families, cliques, and social class groupings within that population. Researchers should review their initial social analysis to confirm that all groups are appropriately represented by individuals who can legitimately take on the role of spokesperson. Meeting conditions—time, place, and transportation—should maximize the opportunities these people have to attend.
Leadership: Facilitating a Productive Meeting
A meeting is best led by a neutral chair or facilitator—a person perceived as having no overriding loyalty to any particular stakeholding group. Researchers can act as facilitators, but it may be appropriate in some circumstances for a respected community member to act in this role. It is important that participants accept the chair or facilitator as a legitimate or appropriate person to direct proceedings. Only in exceptional circumstances, for example, would a meeting investigating women’s issues have a male chair.
The task of negotiating diverse perspectives in a research process can become difficult if strong and determined people try to impose their own agendas and perspectives. The chair or facilitator should employ judicious, diplomatic, yet firm processes to ensure that such people do not stifle the diverse agendas and perspectives that are essential components of the process. For that reason, researchers should ensure that the chair or facilitator has the formal authority and the procedural skills to maintain the integrity of the meeting process. A formal statement, written or verbal, that acknowledges the chair or facilitator’s authority should be obtained from key stakeholders prior to the commencement of the meeting. This may take the form of a letter or memorandum to participants or may be included in a welcoming speech at the meeting.
Significant differentials of power between the research facilitator and other participants are not conducive to productive meetings. Researchers should ensure that people of appropriate status are engaged to facilitate or lead meetings. Procedures
Meeting procedures can ensure that each group has an equal opportunity to express perceptions and concerns and to have them included in the meeting’s generated statements and accounts. By making frequent use of small-group processes, facilitators can provide opportunities for people to articulate their thoughts and ideas in safety. This ensures that multiple perspectives are elicited and that forceful people do not dominate proceedings. In one useful type of small-group process, the facilitator or meeting leader follows these steps:Divide the meeting into groups of, usually, no more than six members.Describe the activities to be performed or the questions to be discussed (these may be selected from any of the frameworks for developing descriptive accounts presented in this chapter).Provide adequate time for these purposes to be achieved.Have each group write a summary of activity outcomes on a chart.Have all participants reassemble and display their charts.Have each group present its summary verbally. As each group presents, questions from the facilitator or audience may allow group members to clarify meanings and in some cases extend their descriptions. This additional information may then be added to the chart.
Meetings should operate on the basis of consensus, rather than on majority vote. The latter encourages competitive, divisive politicking, which usually ensures that the least powerful groups will not have their interests met. Although consensus is sometimes difficult to attain, it is a powerful instrument for change when it is achieved. When agendas are pushed through to accommodate time pressures, bureaucratic pressures, or the interests of powerful groups, the outcomes are likely, in the long run, to be unproductive. Time is an essential element in any collaborative activity; it cannot be compressed without damaging the essential participatory nature of a action research process.
Initial meetings may be held in people’s homes, cafes, offices, community centers, or any other venue where the stakeholder group itself is comfortable. When people talk in the comfort of their own territory, they are more likely to be honest and forthcoming. Public venues are appropriate when all stakeholder groups meet to work through issues and agendas. Even then, however, researchers should take care to select meeting sites where the least powerful groups will feel comfortable. If a meeting is held in their territory, they are more likely both to attend and be willing to contribute to the proceedings. A local community hall, church halls, hostels, community health clinics, lodge halls, and even parks may provide appropriate contexts.
Communicating and Reporting
Action research requires all stakeholders to be informed of activities and events as they occur. Where groups engage in activity—sometimes with great enthusiasm—but fail to inform other participants of what they are doing, the process is likely to be disrupted in a number of ways. People may have their feelings hurt, feel excluded, become suspicious, or feel unwanted. In these and many other ways, failure to maintain communication can lead to a loss of commitment and loss of ownership. Continued communication can be achieved informally by regular meetings in which people report on their activities, e-mail, phone calls, or u
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