Figure 3.2. The iterative nature of action research (Source: Damme 1998)
It is by being deliberate and intentional about this process that you can maximise your learning. The rigour in action learning lies in the quality of the data and the interpretations of this to help people think about -- reflect on -- how they can improve the situation in question. "At each of the steps you learn something. Sometimes you are recalling what you think you already understand. At other steps you are either confirming your previous learning or deciding from experience that your previous learning was inadequate. This is equivalent to what Gummesson (1991) calls the 'hermeneutic spiral', where each turn of the spiral builds on the understanding at the previous turn. It is these - the responsiveness to the situation, and the striving after real understanding - which define action research as a viable research strategy" (Dick 1993).
Thus, in some sense of the terms, action research tends to be cyclic, participative, qualitative and critically reflective. All of these features (except the last) can be seen as choices to be made by the researcher in the context of the problem being studied (Dick 1993). And it is this process of critical reflection that distinguishes action research from everyday inquiry (Dick 1996, Wortley 1996, Bunning 1995) and also makes it a particularly suitable approach with which to help develop the change needed for areas such as environmental management and sustainable development. Indeed, in the sense that action research seeks alternatives to the status quo that will both illuminate what exists and inform fundamental change, it is a form of critical theory and seeks to stimulate critical reflection among human agents so that they may more freely choose whether and how to transform their world (Argyris et al. 1985 pp.70-71).
As Kemmis and McTaggert observe, to do action research one must plan, act, observe and reflect "more carefully, more systematically, and more rigorously than one does in everyday life: and to use the relationships between those moments in the process as a source of both improvement and knowledge" (1988 p.10). It is the process of reflection in this process, on one's own views as well as those of others, that provides the basis for learning -- enabling all those involved to develop a more holistic perspective of any given situation, within which they can best make their particular contribution.
The challenge for the action researcher lies in the fact that learning can be difficult, even at an individual level. Accepting new information that challenges the way we think and the things we do is, even with the best of will, difficult to undertake, to accomplish, and to sustain (Michael 1995). Finding out about problems also implies that we may have to act to correct them. What often stops us doing this is an anxiety, or the feeling that if we allow ourselves to enter a learning or change process, if we admit to ourselves and others that something is wrong or not right, we will lose our effectiveness, our esteem, and maybe even our identity. Most of us need to assume we are doing our best at all times, and it may prove a real loss of face to accept and even "embrace" errors. Adapting poorly, or failing to realise our creative potential may be more desirable than risking failure and loss of esteem during the learning process (Allen & Kilvington 1999).
Because of this, "learning, which mostly upsets beliefs and habits in individuals and organizations, is hardly likely to be embraced easily and enthusiastically, even though there is a growing, and sometimes powerful, recognition of the need for change" (Michael 1995 p.470). Indeed, as Argyris et al. (1985 ch.3) point out, individuals and organisations have a number of defensive reactions that resist change -- or learning -- by preventing open dialogue and the integration of new information which may challenge their existing worldviews (values, assumptions, paradigms, etc.). These defenses include making some subjects 'undiscussable' (Argyris et al. 1985 p.87), or an unawareness that their 'espoused theory -- the world view and values people believe their behaviour is based on -- is different to their 'theory in use' -- the worldviews and values implied by their behaviour (Argyris et al. p.82).
Accordingly, as Aryris et al.. (1985 pp.84-85) suggest that the first match to any inquiry into a mismatch betwen intention and outcome is likely to search for another strategy that will satisfy the 'governing variables', the belief systems and values which the individual or organisation is trying to maintain. For example if a land manager views his/her enterprise solely in terms of sheep production and notes that the vegetation condition of the land is deteriorating, the action strategy will likely be to try a different grazing regime. In such a case when new strategies are used to support the same governing variable (i.e. the land as a sheep production system) this is called single loop learning (Figure 3.3). A similar science example might arise in response to funder requirements for a scientist to be more participative. The response might be to find a 'friendly' group of people to work with that are happy to acknowledge the scientist as the 'unquestioned expert' - the governing variable.
However, another possibility is to change the governing variables themselves. For example rather than try a new grazing strategy, the land manager may choose to initiate a more open form of enquiry. The associated action strategy might then be to look at how the enterprise could function as a tourism, or forestry, system for example. The scientist may choose to involve appropriate stakeholder groups in a more collaborative approach, changing the role of science to one of a co-researcher and recognizing that the role of 'expert' is more a matter of perspective. These cases are called double-loop learning, and involve more fundamental shifts in people's belief systems and values. In this way they can often minimise the gap between espoused and theory-in-use.
Figure 3.3. Single and double-loop learning (Adapted from: Argyris et al. 1985)
Accordingly, Meziro (1991, quoted in Bunning 1995) draws attention to the need to address three elements through the reflective process: i) content, the substantive issues involved; ii) process, how such issues were raised and addressed; and iii) premises, which are the values, assumptions, paradigms and whole framework of individual and collective mindsets, which inevitably influenced what was attended to and what was not, and other issues such as goals, process and interpretation.
Developing double-loop problem solving approaches is thus a critical part of changing people's actions in respect to the environment. However, it also requires the action researcher to deal with the defenses of individuals and organisations -- which is no small undertaking! In many cases this will mean having to address situations in which participants may feel embarrassed or threatened. However, as Grudens-Schuck (1998 p.61) points out, unless research and education programs build specific processes for confronting people about unworkable theories and organizational defenses, the use of local knowledge and interpretations of events cannot be a sound foundation for collaborative learning and positive change.
The growing use of action research within environmental research and development initiatives explicitly recognise that natural resource management issues (such as biodiversity protection and enhancement) are not characterised so much by problems for which an answer must be found, but rather by issues which need to be resolved and will inevitably require one or more of the parties to change their views. The underlying assumption of these approaches is that effective social change depends on the commitment and understanding of those involved in the change process. In other words, if people work together on a common problem ‘clarifying and negotiating’ ideas and concerns, they will be more likely to change their minds if their ‘joint research’ indicates such change is necessary. Also, it is suggested that collaboration can provide people with the interactions and support necessary to make fundamental changes in their practice which endure beyond the research process.
Similarly, exploring the social process of learning about situations is inextricably linked with the acts of changing those situations. “Certainly surveys and other social research results are useful, but so is information on why different people see things as they do, and the political relationships between stakeholders. It is by bringing these aspects into the open, and stimulating debate between the different groups through action research approaches that the social parameters — so neglected in most analyses — are automatically brought into the process” (Bosch et al. 1999). Thus, the action research approach seeks to influence the phenomena being studied during the action research process itself, in the belief that the true nature of social systems (social, cultural and institutional considerations) become most evident when you seek to make changes to them.