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Action research: collectively investigating reality while creating change

Bruna Viana de Freitas

Action research is a process of investigation and transformation of reality carried out by the people themselves - or in close collaboration with people - who experience a certain context that is to be understood and transformed. It is not a single method, but a family or practices that share the intention of creating “participative communities of inquiry in which qualities of engagement, curiosity and question posing are brought to bear on significant practical issue” (Reason & Bradbury-Huang, 2007, p. 1) to the ones involved.


In action research approaches, the traditional distinction between people conducting research and people 'being researched' is reframed. It is not about an external group of researchers engaging with people who experience a given situation to conduct a diagnosis, consult their preferences on a list of pre-determined solutions or give their opinion on a project that was previously designed. Rather, it is a process in which participants engage as both subjects and co-researchers.


This does not mean that everyone in the group has the same role, knowledge, involvement or influence over the research. It is likely that some of the participants are initiators of the research, either because they are the connection point to funding of the initiative, either because they were the first people motivated to do it, either because they have knowledge about this participatory process, or for other reasons. Rather than masking these differences in power, knowledge, resources and contribution, action research proposes a reflexive and critical approach to these issues so that participants engage in an analysis of their own positionalities in relation to that context and group (1). Thereby, co-researchers can act more critically towards their reality.


This relationship of straight collaboration between the co-researchers, who are people with knowledge of the reality being investigated, contributes to the fact that, in this approach, action and research go hand in hand. Research is not an initial stage that generates a report on which specific actors will later base their decisions. Through cycles of action and reflection, changes take place throughout the process: in the individuals involved, in the relationships between them, through actions taken by the group or in a more subtle way, in the system as a whole.


Reason e Bradbury-Huang (2007, p. 4) define action research as a 


          participatory process concerned with developing practical knowing in the pursuit of                worthwhile human purposes. It seeks to bring together action and reflection, theory                and practice, in participation with others, in the pursuit of practical solutions to issues            of pressing concern to people, and more generally the flourishing of individual                          persons and their communities.

There is no single or correct format for carrying out action research, but I understand that some values and principles guide this practice:

  • It is a process committed to social justice, which intends to challenge pre-existing power structures towards greater democracy (2).

  • Theory and action walk side by side: knowledge is generated participatively in the process of enquiry, combining action and reflection. Thus, the validity of theories is tested by their applicability to solving practical problems that influence people's lives (3).

  • There is no attempt to find an objective truth that is universally accepted. The group's comprehensions at a given moment are provisional and will be constantly challenged by new experiences throughout the process (4).

  • Diversity is valued in the group and everyone's contribution is taken seriously (5).

  • People's knowledge, experiences and skills to solve the problems they experience have great value. They will be the ones to define the focus of the investigation - a problem that is real and meaningful to them (6).

  • The knowledge and results generated by action research should contribute to making people who experience a problem better able to deal with it. They will be the best placed to judge whether a solution is useful or not (7).

  • It is an approach aimed at generating change with others, rather than on others (8).

This is not an exhaustive list, but a selection of guiding points that guide my practice as a co-researcher. Below, I explore in more detail some of these points. The full list of references follows at the end of the text.


Origins of action research 

There is a diversity of fields of study and contexts from the beginning of the 20th century that can be related to the foundations of action research (9). Among these is the critical pedagogy of Paulo Freire, who argues that people become more capable of transforming situations of oppression when they engage in emancipatory processes of critical analysis and reflection on the reality in which they live (10).

This diversity of bases leading to action research is unison in opposing some characteristics of conventional social sciences, marked by a positivist vision of knowledge: the attempt to simplify reality into generalist abstractions, the search for objective truths, the separation between thought and action, the intention to generalise results and a vision that assumes the neutrality of the researcher. 

In contrast, action research is especially suited to complex contexts, it values people's diverse types of knowledge and subjective experiences, it is committed to action that transforms reality, it is contextual, and it assumes not only the participant (non-neutral) position of the researcher but invites participants (who are simultaneously subjects and co-researchers) to reflect critically on their values and views in relation to the research (11).

Purposes of action research

Most researchers aligned with this approach understand action research as a practice committed to values of social justice, questioning power inequalities and contributing to improving the living conditions of vulnerable people (12).

Within public and private organisations, this approach is also applied more specifically to address issues that influence organisational development and the results achieved by the organisation. Although action research is suitable for involving people working together on solving problems of relevance to them, it is worth highlighting it is not solely a methodology for engagement. In other words, this participatory process does not aim to commit people to decisions previously taken by a smaller group, or to strengthen the status quo and pre-existing power relations. The purpose of action research is to be a methodology of social transformation, not one of manipulation.

          A wider purpose of action research is to contribute through this practical knowledge              to the increased well-being – economic, political, psychological, spiritual – of human              persons and communities, and to a more equitable and sustainable relationship with                the wider ecology of the planet of which we are an intrinsic part.

          (Reason & Bradbury-Huang, 2007, p. 4) 

The process of action research: how it unfolds

Action research takes time - it can develop over years. Groups of co-researchers engage in cycles of action (testing propositions and changes in the reality under investigation) and reflection (critically reflecting on their actions and learning from the process) (13). Therefore, initiatives based on action research require flexibility so that decisions and actions can be tested as the group generates knowledge, experiments and reflects on the next steps. 


There is not only one way to carry out this participatory process: action research is “a family of practices of living inquiry” (Reason & Bradbury-Huang, 2007, p. 1). Practitioners must make decisions about which methods are most appropriate to the group's context and to the stage of the research. The intention is to create conditions so that reflection and action continually feed back into each other. Thus, while provoking changes in the participants and in reality, the process allows the group to make sense of what is being learned and to make adjustments over time.


          AR is, first and foremost, a way of “keeping the conversation going.” AR's methods aim              to open horizons of discussion, to create spaces for collective reflection in which new            descriptions and analyses of important situations may be developed as the basis for                new actions. This is what we mean by cogenerative learning.

          (D. Greenwood & Levin, 2007b, p. 16)

The relationship among co-researchers

Depending on the case, the distinction between 'insider' researchers (who are previously part of that context) and 'outsider' researchers (who came in to carry out the research) may be more or less evident. In cooperative enquiry, which is one of the applications of action research, this distinction tends to be less obvious, as in this case, a group of people who already experience a common issue decides to engage in a process of collective enquiry. Yet, the co-researchers may have differences in roles, hierarchy or knowledge. In other formats of action research, this distinction may be clearer. This happens, for example, when a project has the resources to carry out action research in a particular context, and so it brings initiating researchers to start the process, who will later invite local co-researchers to join.


In all cases, in action research, we recognise and value diversity in the group, rather than seeking to mitigate it. Some participants may have more practical, experiential and historical knowledge about the context in question; others may bring more theoretical and propositional contributions; while others might have already developed skills in sustaining the communicative space that sustains this participatory process. This fusion of contributions generates knowledge and action. Regardless of the profile of each person and the roles they play in the process, no co-researcher is considered a neutral, objective or distant actor. 


        The obvious participant status that any social scientist has in any research process is              fully acknowledged in AR and is treated as a resource for the process. The construction          of new knowledge is built on the premise of this mutual engagement.
        (D. J. Greenwood & Levin, 2007, p. 10)


Results in action research

Practitioners of action research are committed to bringing about change as a result of the research. When engaging in action research, co-researchers should reflect as a group on what kind of transformation they want to bring about. In other words, how will we know at the end of the process whether we have achieved our objectives? What will we understand by "action" in this journey? The objectives of action research might be, for example, to deepen knowledge about a certain context, to create partnerships in order to act in that given context, to solve a practical problem, to question established practices and values...In cycles of action and reflection, the path, and why not to say, the goals, will be adjusted according to what appears to be useful and meaningful to the co-researchers at each point in time. 


Regardless of the peculiarities of each process, it is essential that the knowledge generated can be used by participants to deal with issues important to them: "the credibility-validity of AR knowledge is measured according to whether actions that arise from it solve problems (workability) and increase participants' control over their own situations” (D. Greenwood & Levin, 2007a, p. 8 tradução minha). However, reinforcing the value of diversity for action research, it is not necessary for the group to reach consensus on the knowledge generated - the plurality of perspectives is also welcomed in the analysis and reflection on the results achieved (14).

Good enough to begin with?

          AR is not an ideal process, happening like neoclassical economics in an environment of            perfect information, ceteris paribus, and other absurd nonexistent conditions. It is a                real process, happening in real-time contexts with real people, and it has all the                        contingencies, defects, and exhilarations of any human process.
          (D. Greenwood & Levin, 2007b, p. 11)

In an action research process, it is unlikely that significant route adjustments do not occur along the way. If the co-researchers are attentive to the emerging needs of the context in which they are involved, committed to questioning their own assumptions and positions, open to reflecting on the actions and the knowledge generated, the initial question, the desired results, the methods or the formation of the group will most likely require adjustments. Therefore, waiting for "perfect" conditions to start action research doesn't make sense. In my belief, being mindful of the principles guiding this practice, cultivating the quality of your presence and your ability to reflect critically on yourself and the process are valuable ingredients to start with. 


  1. D. Greenwood & Levin, 2007a, 2007b

  2. D. Greenwood & Levin, 2007b

  3. D. Greenwood & Levin, 2007a

  4. D. Greenwood & Levin, 2007b

  5. D. Greenwood & Levin, 2007a

  6. Brydon-Miller et al., 2016

  7. Brydon-Miller et al., 2016; D. Greenwood & Levin, 2007b

  8. Reason & Bradbury-Huang, 2007

  9. “The origins of action research are broad: they lie in the work of Lewin and other social science researchers around at the end of the Second World War; in the liberationist perspective that can be exemplified in Paulo Freire (1970); philosophically in liberal humanism, pragmatism, phenomenology, critical theory, systemic thinking and social construction; and practically in the work of scholar-practitioners in many professions, notably in organization development, teaching, health promotion and nursing, and community development both in Western countries and in the majority world.” (Reason & Bradbury-Huang, 2007, p. 3)

  10. Freire, 1970; Reason & Bradbury-Huang, 2007

  11. Brydon-Miller et al., 2016; D. J. Greenwood & Levin, 2007

  12. Brydon-Miller, 2008; Reason & Bradbury-Huang, 2007

  13. Reason & Bradbury-Huang, 2007

  14. D. Greenwood & Levin, 2007b


Brydon-Miller, M. (2008). Ethics and Action Research: Deepening our Commitment to Principles of Social Justice and Redefining Systems of Democratic Practice1. The SAGE Handbook of Action Research, 199–210.

Brydon-Miller, M., Greenwood, D., & Maguire, P. (2016). Why Action Research?: Http://Dx.Doi.Org.Ezproxy.Sussex.Ac.Uk/10.1177/14767503030011002, 1(1), 9–28.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogia do oprimido (17a. ed). Paz e Terra.

Greenwood, D. J., & Levin, M. (2007). An Epistemological Foundation for Action Research In: Introduction to Action Research An Epistemological Foundation for Action Research Introduction to Action Research. Introduction to Action Research, 55–75.

Greenwood, D., & Levin, M. (2007a). Introduction to Action Research. SAGE Publications, Inc.

Greenwood, D., & Levin, M. (2007b). Knowledge Generation in Action Research: The Dialectics of Local Knowledge and Research-Based Knowledge. In Introduction to Action Research (pp. 103–114). SAGE Publications, Inc.

Reason, P., & Bradbury-Huang, H. (2007). Introduction. In The SAGE Handbook of Action Research : Participative Inquiry and Practice (pp. 1–10). SAGE Publications.

About the author

Bruna Viana is a participatory processes facilitator, with experience in supporting organisations from different sectors to create collaboration between relevant actors and to make decisions that consider all their impacts. She is a Chevening Scholar with a Masters in Power, Participation and Social Change from the Institute of Development Studies - University of Sussex, UK. Bruna is also an Amani fellow, having studied for a postgraduate diploma in Social Innovation Management at the Amani Institute. 

About this site

On this website, I publish stories of relevant projects I have been involved in during my journey, as well as content - reflections, proposals and stories - that I trust may inspire more conscious and sustainable views on how we relate, produce, consume and live. I hope that what feeds my thoughts may generate ideas within you as well. If something you find here makes you want to have further conversations, write to me at

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