Moving Mindfully into Action Research

What follows are some notes on recent readings and how they apply to the action research/consulting process.

As it happened, I had created an agenda for my action research team’s first meeting in which I allocated 15 minutes for 1) answering fun questions, 2) discussing the strengths and weaknesses we each bring to the group, 3) sharing the roles we would prefer to play in the group and 4) talking about how we would like to work together as a group in terms of communication, working styles, values, and decision-making. I thought the exercise would be important for me, but not necessarily for anyone else, as I tend to assume others have better social skills than me and would automatically just pick all these things up. After reading Edgar Schein’s book Humble Inquiry, though, I decided I was wrong. I realized that a conscious effort of getting to know each other benefits everyone. By understanding each other better, we would work together better as a team. 

The simplest message to take from Humble Inquiry is that we really do need to get to know the people we work with on a personal level. This message is important and easily applicable to my project group process and to our work with our client organization. But Schein’s analysis of the type of communication he is referring to as “humble inquiry” is not such an easy one to implement. It is actually quite difficult to ask a humble question. But I think taking the general attitude of not knowing – which at this point is easy for me because I have no experience with action research or consulting – will enable us to ask enough humble, open questions and will make the process of learning about our client organization’s sustainability challenges very fruitful.

Schein’s discussion of status and hierarchy I found very helpful. We generally avoid explicitly talking about such issues, yet they play a significant role in our interactions. My guess is that the representatives of our client organization could consider themselves to be of a higher status than us as students, because from the sound of it many are well-off, retired people who have past careers in high-powered corporate jobs, and they may be a little skeptical of what we have to say. I myself will probably feel some deference towards them because they are much older than I, which could conceivably be an obstacle for me in communicating with them freely.

I enjoyed Graham Duncan’s book chapter “Innovations in Appreciative Inquiry: Critical Appreciative Inquiry with Excluded Pakistani Women.” The methods for group work used in the chapter may or may not be applicable to our action research project, but will be helpful to consider when interacting with groups in the future. These methods include the establishment of rules to shape the space and conduct of the group and differentiate it from behavior outside the group, icebreakers or the opportunity to establish deeper relationships, self-revealing through storytelling, and discussing societal examples and norms as a means to critically engage with culture. I did like the positive emphasis of appreciative inquiry, and I would like to keep that in mind for the action research project. I think the idea of looking for “what gives life: the best of what is” (p. 56), which could counteract the tendency towards focusing on diagnosing problems and losing sight of the strengths the organization already possesses.

Bradley Huang’s article “What is good action research?: Why the resurgent interest?” was a good overview of the process. My group, in pulling together the terms of reference document, is in the process of articulating our objectives. It is our intention to fully partner with our organization and get their participation, although we have yet to discuss the events or exercises we would like to propose to them. Actionability is an important element, too, for we want to keep ourselves firmly grounded in the practical, here-and-now situation, not wishing we could implement some fantastic idea, if only the organization had more funding. I was very happy to read Bradley Huang’s view of reflexivity, especially in terms of including self-narrative and one’s own learning process as part of action research. The academic injunction against the first person singular bothers me because no matter how my paper is worded, I am always the one writing, so I should acknowledge that. Bringing oneself into the process allows for more self-awareness and for others to better understand my ideas, assumptions, and decisions. Finally, I thought her idea of significance, or the need for the research to contribute to “the flourishing of persons, communities, and the wider ecology” (98) could apply to our project. This idea reminded me that we should consider our organization’s place in the wider community, not just how it runs internally.

Lykes and Scheib, in their book chapter on emancipatory photovoice, discussed the challenges of doing action research with power imbalances at play. They pointed out the possibility and potential unhelpfulness of imposing your own way of doing things on a group process when there might be a different way more appropriate to the local people. In response to this idea I think it would be helpful to discuss, as a project group, what we want our ways of working and values to be, so that the dominant ones in our culture do not implicitly rule our process. Because I anticipate that the members of our client organization will hold greater status in society than our consulting group, I am not too worried about us imposing inappropriate processes on them. But it is helpful to be reminded that as a group process facilitator you have the power to impose your methods and values, and that the other people participating might let you get away with it. It is up to you to find out what methods are most familiar and appropriate to the group with which you are working.

I found Swantz’ book chapter “Participatory Action Research: Its Origins and Future in Women’s Ways” to be a very interesting perspective from someone who seems to have come to deeply understand a local context in which she lived for a long period of time. This article reads very differently than Lykes and Scheib’s article, because here the story the author is telling emerges vividly and vibrantly, straightforwardly, without being cloaked in a lot of self-consciously reflexive language. Unfortunately, for our action research project we cannot live for years with our client organization because we only have two months, but we can have the intention to dive in and immerse ourselves, be uncritical and see and hear everything. We can suspend what we think we know about how organizations should run or how the organization’s mission should be carried out. We can trust that by doing this, real and useful insight will emerge. 

I can liken this discovery of insight to the process of analyzing a piece of literature. As a student of French in college, I wrote many explications de texte where for the assignment I was given a surprisingly short passage and told to explicate it. These were always frightening assignments because when I sat down to begin, I had no idea what I would say, even if I had already read the text. It was only by going through the explication process, by asking questions of the text, by considering the vocabulary, the tone, how it was constructed, that meaning would emerge. And meaning always did emerge and (because we studied fabulous texts) the meanings were breathtaking – deep, moving, and stunningly beautiful. It is a process of discovery.

Hopefully, armed with these ideas and methods, we will embark on an action research process that will allow meanings to emerge from the mundane, and that whether inspiring or disappointing, those meanings will inspire change for the better.

Originally written on March 3, 2017 for a graduate course on organizational sustainability.