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Action Research

In this post I want to explore what action research meant to the CDP in Hillfields in the 1970s and how this compares with my thinking about action research today and our current project looking at how regeneration has been imagined in Hillfields since the 1970s.

Our project is an historical look at community development in the Hillfields area since the 1970s. In 1969 the Home Office commissioned twelve action research projects called the Community Development Projects that sought to understand why certain areas were deprived. I wondered what the CDP researchers thought action research was and who informed this thinking. This led me to wonder about the action research we are conducting in Hillfields today, and whether there are common elements to our research, or whether some of the methodological assumptions under which we operate are different.

Action research has a developmental path that is worth recounting as its history echoes the increasing need for critical reflection in the research process. Its theoretical history is located in Marxism with Hall (1981) contending that Engels’s involvement in the Poor Law protests in Manchester in 1835 was as an action researcher, using participant observation rather than the detached researcher of conventional research (Selener, 1997: 13). Other early exponents were Kurt Lewin (1948, 1952) and those working with shellshock victims at the Tavistock Institute in the immediate post-World War II years (Given, 2008:2). Both sought to improve participants’ psychological conditions by understanding how behaviour is conditioned by specific social contexts.

Despite criticism throughout the 1960’s for not being objective enough (Given, 2008: 4) action research was resurgent during the 1970s and 1980s. In 1968 the British government started on a series of experimental research projects as part of a poverty programme called the Urban Programme. The Community Development Projects were part of this, set up in 1969, and taking an action research approach chosen on the rationale that ‘there are so far no known and tried solutions to (urban problems) which can be described and offered for general application’ (Home Office, 1970:1 in Benington, 1975: 2). Benington describes an approach that was

(a)   Action research

(b)   Focus on a small area

(c)    Involvement of a range of public agencies

(d)   Self-help and involvement in the community


Such an approach seems to build on the theories of Kurt Lewin (1948, 1952) whose research, whilst principally interested in the psychological, argued that:

The research needed for social practice can best be characterized as research for social management or social engineering. It is a type of action-research, a comparative research on the conditions and effects of various forms of social action, and research leading to social action. Research that produces nothing but books will not suffice (Lewin 1946, reproduced in Lewin 1948: 202-3)

The collaborative approach of the CDP sought to identify social issues and rectify them. Initially social issues were thought to lie with ‘family inadequacy…deviant behaviour’ and how these problem people interacted with local services. However the project soon found that ‘people disagreed strongly with local agencies about the nature of their needs and aspirations’ and that their ‘powerlessness to influence decisions’ was the major concern of residents (ibid: 3). The action research model shifted the critical analysis of the researchers away from the community and towards those serving the community, namely the local and national government agencies. In particular CDP research suggested that the power national government had to act as the change catalyst for community change, not residents.

Action research was also prevalent at this time in other countries. Selener (1997) recounts Columbian sociologist and priest Camilo Torres who died after joining armed guerillas (Selener, 1997: 14). The most well-known action researchers of this era may be Paolo Freire and Myles Horton. Freire is perhaps best known for the process of ‘conscientization’ in which the oppressed engage in ‘praxis’, a process in which action to tackle oppression follows reflection on how and why a group are oppressed. Horton worked in the early part of the 20th century in the Appalachian mountains of the USA at Highlander Folk School. Working with others he created ‘Citizenship Schools’ in North Carolina in the 1950s in which those who could not read learned to do so by studying their political rights: the vote at that time was available to those who were literate and this could only be proved by reading the state constitution to an officer in the town hall (Horton and Freire, 1991).

Bogdan and Biklen (1992) suggest that one tradition focuses on the practice of a particular community, for example of teachers or a group in a specific area working to improve their practice, whilst a second tradition focuses on community activists as fieldworkers involved in ‘the systematic collection of information that is designed to bring about social change’ (Bogdan and Biklen 1992: 223 in Smith, 2007: n.p). This second tradition is more closely allied with social work and uses fieldworkers to collect data.

Goetschius and Tash (1967) are an example of this style of action research in which researchers were trained in interviewing and observation techniques (as Goetschius and Tash were not directly involved in fieldwork) and a community café and other venues created to attract unattached youths. Goetschius and Tash developed in the researchers the ability to assess and describe what they were observing:

‘our most important work throughout the project was the work with ourselves’ (Goetschius and Tash 1967: 238).

The participant observation method (Becker, 1958) set the researchers as outsiders, able to make detached observations from which they could clarify theory in supervisory sessions with Goetschius and Tash. Any self-reflective element rested with the researchers, not with the community of unattached youths.

This led me to think about some interesting features of our exploration of the activity of the CDP in Hillfields in 1970 and the work we are undertaking today. It seems likely that the CDP sought to use the tradition prevalent at the time, inspired by Lewin and Goetschius and Tash, in which the researcher was an outsider, systematically collecting data ‘to bring about social change’. A participatory element was reflected in the rejection of a positivist approach to fieldwork that reduced society to a series of trends to be examined and the use of ethnographic fieldworkers using a variety of fieldwork methods. This is evident in the CDP: researchers set up an Opinion and Information Centre, worked closely with the Hillfields Community Association, and undertook surveys to seek the opinions of residents. They did not publish with residents and nor were residents on the Project Committee:

The Project Management Committee consists of the Chairmen of relevant local authority committees, plus representatives from the Home Office and major voluntary agencies committing resources to the Project (op cit: 7)

The conclusion in the CDP report, that the change agent for Hillfields needed to be central government who held greater authority to dictate to the local authority than resident associations or committees, suggests a more social work oriented take on action research. The ‘change’ of the research was to be at a meso-political level and not in the community.

How we are then to theorise our action research approach? Is it similar to the CDP approach? This is a difficult question to answer. There are similarities: I am a fieldworker, seeking to work with our voluntary sector partners to critically address the many issues they are facing, and using the research project as a way of addressing them much like the CDP. This is essentially an iterative and dialectical process of experimentation, trying out something, seeing if it works, and moving on if not.

There are differences however. My sense of action research is more informed by a need for community volunteers to address the issues they face through the practice of researching – they are seen as co-workers – bringing in a participatory element to the research process. This is the research process as praxis in which volunteers develop understanding that informs their continued engagement in the research. For me, action research is informed by Freire. I consider:

Change occurs though resident engagement in the issues they face. This means working with researchers to understand what the issues are and how to address them;

Research decisions about what to do, why to do it and how to do it are made by the organisations and their volunteers, based on a rationale developed in step one;

Though less visible, the possibility of change through increased community activism is valued at a grassroots level.

The final point may be a further distinction from the CDP approach. Greater community resilience, generated through improved volunteer capital (that is the context-specific skills and knowledge needed to keep a community organisation functioning through the role of volunteer), might not be valued beyond the streets and grassroots of Hillfields. In times of less and less support for voluntary organisations, the future for such places may be in the hands of volunteers. Throughout our research it will be interesting to see how volunteers imagine the future of Hillfields and what they feel they are able to affect; as we have seen across the UK, attempts to address the effects of austerity through volunteerism, such as food banks, are perhaps nothing more than a sticking plaster.


Organisational learning

An interesting discussion with Isaiah today.

We spoke about keeping Hillz FM going, and how this can happen if volunteers conceive their participation firstly as part of a whole and not for individual reasons. From this the idea that knowledge becomes shared because volunteers are thinking about the benefits for the station of as many people as possible knowing the same things. Isaiah’s concerns stemmed from a problem that I am sure many organisations suffer from. When a person with much of the intimate knowledge of how systems works leaves, replacing that knowledge is difficult. This person should be sharing their knowledge across the volunteer base to ensure they are not missed when they are absent or leave.

How to do this is much harder as it requires more group thinking, more time together, and people are busy. This is why DJ meetings, which happen monthly, are valuable. I also suggested that DJs coming a little earlier for their shows to chat and share knowledge with each other, or changes to the schedule which might force volunteers who might never really meet to chat. New people perhaps might create new opportunities.

Ultimately this might be about keeping the station fresh – fresh thinking and fresh sounding. But to do this everyone must be onboard!