Action research, a methodology of care

[Word version available]

This chapter is from ‘Rethinking Pastoral Care’ (1999), edited by Úna M. Collins and J. McNiff., published by Routledge, London. You can access further information about the book by clicking on the link to the Routledge website.

Some things defy definition. As soon as we try to define them, they are somewhere else. Sometimes the attempt to define itself distorts the thing we are trying to define.

So it is in acts of love, and despair, in acts of compassion and acts of care. The acts speak for themselves. They are the meaning we give to our lives as we live them. The acts elude definition, the capturing in linguistic form of the actions we do in relation to each other. The iridescent butterfly in flight is pinned to the board and becomes a crusted mockery of itself; the letter is a fragile bridge flinging itself across the chasm of absence, staying connected.

There should be more poetry in science, says Chris Langton (in Horgan, 1996: 201). There should be more poetry in teaching and educational research, say I, and tactfulness (Van Manen, 1991), and care (Noddings, 1992). There should be more feeling, and multiple kinds of language to voice that feeling, expressive forms to show the reality of lived experience at all levels of the self. Yet, as soon as we try to pin the words to paper, communicate the complex transformative experience of living in the linear format of well-formed grammatical utterances, we are at risk of losing the awesome wonder of life as experience, and aim to transfix it as a phenomenon to be described and explained away. We cling to philosophy as analysis, not as a means to understand existence; we speak about, rather than do as we say.

This, for me, is one of the major dilemmas in writing about subjective experience – finding a way to communicate non-linguistic and non-sequential experience through the use of words that of grammatical necessity follow a linear, well-formed sequence. The dilemma is acute in the field of educational research, for research is held to be scientific, and dominant views say that one particular form of science is legitimate, and its methods must follow strict rules. I do not hold such views; this kind of thinking is outdated, and the concept of science they celebrate, as the literature of the new science tells us. The methods of science in the natural and physical sciences have moved on, as have their forms of enquiry and their modes of expression. It is time for the social sciences to catch up, and for educational research, both as an art and a science, to point the way in which existence might be understood and expressed at the level of lived experience – a form of living theory (Whitehead, 1993) that shows the reality of flesh and blood people in relation with each other and the earth that supports them.

Science and accountability

There are probably multiple methodologies of care, and there is a growing movement in the research community to identify and articulate them (for example, Beck, 1994; Bowden, 1997; Christiansen et al., 1997). Here I want to investigate how action research might be one of them – possibly a major candidate – and why.

A methodology is more than a method. Put in a simplistic way, method might be seen as the steps involved, whereas methodology would include the values and attitudes that the researcher brings to her work.

One of the purposes of doing research is to generate new theory, which then needs to be tested against existing theory to check the strength of its authenticity in making claims to knowledge and understanding. If a practitioner claims that she has done such and such, she needs to show how and why that claim can be taken seriously, by producing validated evidence in support of what she is saying. This is responsible practice. If she cannot produce such evidence, the research community could rightly require her to do so before they took her claim seriously.

Theory helps us to produce descriptions of our practices – what we are doing and how we are doing it – and explanations – why we have undertaken research and what we hope to achieve. These constitute the methodologies and epistemologies of our research, our ways of doing, and our ways of knowing. We state our reasons, purposes and intentions for our research; we give an account of ourselves. This is not the case for all kinds of research, nor for all researchers. Empirical research, which has traditionally been seen as the ‘correct’ way, has stopped at the level of description; and many researchers working in this tradition do not see any need to offer real-world accounts of how the research influenced their own situation or that of the participants in the research. Such a view has significant implications when it is applied to educational research. I am not saying that this approach has not use value; but I think the extent of its use value is in serious question.

The rise of empirical research, and ‘the scientific method’, associated with Newton and his contemporaries, taught us that events in the world were linear, contingent on each other, and discrete. We live in a clockwork universe. Descartes taught us that it was possible to discover absolute truths. While no reasonable person would want to diminish the legacy of the scientific achievements of this time, I think Magee (1997: 464) is right when he complains that this was the beginning of a fool’s errand in search of certainty from which the scientific community has ever since suffered. For three hundred years or so we have believed that reality is constituted of a series of separate events which happen sequentially; that events stand in a causal relationship with each other (event B happened because of event A); that reality has an existence of its own, independent of the observers who are describing it; that once researchers produce descriptions of phenomena which are approved by peers on the specific criteria of replicability and generalisability, these descriptions become the Truth. It is assumed that there is an external body of knowledge, that this knowledge is true for all time, and that it exists independent of knowers. In this tradition, research has been viewed as a value-neutral activity, its objective being to contribute to the generation of new knowledge. Professor Sir Ernest Chain (1970), for example, writes:

‘Science, as long as it limits itself to descriptive study of Nature, has no moral or ethical quality, and this applies to the physical as well as the biological sciences. No quality of good or evil is attached to results of research … No quality of good or evil can be ascribed to studies aimed at the elucidation [of such questions]’ (in Midgley, 1989: 74).

This is a sad depiction of science, saying that it has no further use value than to offer descriptions of natural phenomena and to accumulate knowledge of facts, and with no moral or ethical intent. It is also a sad view of scientists, who in this case are encouraged to stay outside the field that they are investigating and not to contaminate outcomes by their personal engagement. Fortunately, there are scientists who disagree with the establishment, and insist that the purpose of science is to help us to understand the nature of the world we live in, and how we are to live together (for example, Bohm, 1980; Appleyard, 1992; Prigogine and Stengers, 1984). These scientists also say that science should not limit itself to the descriptive study of Nature, but move beyond, offering explanatory accounts of what it means to be human. Exciting and problematic issues arise here: How do people interpret ‘humanity’? What kind of evidence can they produce to show this humanity in action? What standards are to be used in judging the quality of that humanity?

In the latter half of the twentieth century, a new paradigm has been emerging steadily that not only challenges the old-mind view of science, but has focused on finding new ways of doing research, and imagining new ways by which its findings might be validated. These new ways celebrate the idea of science as a quest for knowledge that will help us understand our own existence more fully (Popper, 1985). This understanding, it is hoped, will enable us to address seldom-asked major philosophical questions such as ‘How are we as people?’ and ‘How do we live better together?’ (Magee, 1997). This approach has been based on new models of science that began with the work of people such as Einstein and Bohr, in the ‘upper echelons’ of science, and has now spilled over into all areas of human enquiry, in fields such as economic theory (Fukuyama, 1995; Henderson, 1978), theological enquiry (Capra, Steindl-Rast and Matus, 1992; ó Murchú, 1997a and b); and management theory (Senge, 1990; Wheatley, 1994). What is particularly important is that these fields are no longer held to be separate fields of enquiry, but are linked by the deep-level strands of commonly held commitments. These commitments are towards exploring how healthy and life-giving relationships might be nurtured for all people, and how these relationships might contribute towards people’s current and future well-being. Importantly, the aim of investigating the nature of relationships is conducted in a relational way; the object of study itself becomes part of the research methodology. Responsibility and concern are anticipated features, and these are investigated within an ethic of responsibility and concern.

Until quite recently, and ironically, the methods of much social scientific and educational theory have lagged behind those in the natural and physical sciences. Educational research has traditionally been located within social scientific research, and its main commitments, methodologies and epistemologies have been those associated with empirical research. In other words, the main aim of research is to find out facts about the world; the way to do this is to conduct experiments; such knowledge is validated using the criteria of replicability and generalisability. People, in this view, are variables, and what they do can be predicted and controlled. When this view is applied in real life education settings, the outcomes are, not surprisingly, adequate as descriptions – activity lists – but quite inadequate as explanations for human interactions. This approach to research can show what is going on, but can only guess as to why that activity is going on, let alone suggest how it might be improved. This is a sorry state for researchers who hold commitments towards the betterment of the contexts and quality of human life; and, since betterment is the major aim of education, it is not surprising that the major thrust for reform has come mainly from the educational research community, by placing the search for reliable information within a broader humanitarian, politicised view of human endeavour.

In my opinion, this shift needs to be extended. Educational researchers need to make a conscious leap away from the traditional methods of science, and embrace new forms of research (Eisner, 1993) that enable us to address issues of what it means to be human and how we should live together (a humanitarian conceptualisation of curriculum); and we need to develop new metaphors and analogies to help us to describe and explain our practices as educators. Nor is it enough to claim science as the ultimate rationalisation for educational practices; for science might help us to understand the world, but it is our responses as people to those facts that help us to give them meaning in our lives. Science gives us facts; faith gives us meaning. Faith may or may not be theistic; faith constitutes a commitment to something; and faith, commitment and the will to care are beyond the purview of science, sometimes beyond cognition, and, often, beyond words (McNiff, 1999).

Science and spirituality

One of the inevitable spin-offs from the reductionist and behaviouristic view of traditional science is that people have come to expect research to generate specific outcomes, in a cause and effect way, and these outcomes are seen as objects and structures. Such outcomes and structures are bounded, wrapped up as certain answers or packets of truth. So, for example, when we want to understand the nature of violence, we look at statistics or sociograms, to give us facts and verification of the facts; when we want to understand spirituality, we first define it (NCC, 1993) and find that it is some thing different from, say, personal and social education or personal development. It is tempting to settle for glib answers and structured outcomes; and these would reinforce the ways of thinking that led to such answers in the first place. We are in danger of expending time and energy in finding the right way to talk about problems, rather than tackling them in a thoughtful and creative way; of directing our commitments to thinking about and describing problems at the level of conceptual analysis (which does not involve putting ourselves out personally), rather than feeling about and tackling problems at the level of lived joy and misery (which does).

New approaches to research encourage us to shift our gaze from anticipated outcomes (very often they do not come out as we expect, nor do we know what to do about them when we have them), and to focus instead on what happens in between. The new science descriptions that we have of space are that it is not a vast emptiness in which planets and stars exist in splendid and remote isolation from each other. Space is filled with teeming activity, full to the brim with potential matter that is in vibrant and continual interaction, new forms constantly coming into being, and transforming themselves into and within an infinite seamless unity. The same is true of human interaction. People do not exist separate from each other. We are all in some way in relation to each other. I am alone as I write, using a pen that someone else produced, on a table, in a house, that other people made. Yet I am inextricably bound to those others in the activities that we share and our influence on each other, albeit at a distance in time and space; they made the pen and constructed the house that I use, and I write the words that I hope others will use. We are all part of the field of action and influence in which we live; and, as responsible people, we need to ensure that the quality of our relation with each other is the best it can be, otherwise we limit not only the other in our potential for responsiveness, but also ourselves.

As researchers, we need to break away from the mental security of faith in bounded objects and outcomes, and make a commitment to faith in unbounded processes and relationships. We need to move from an objectivist view of knowledge and experience as separate realities, to an epistemic view, where we see knowledge and experience as interrelated and interdependent, each contributing to and transforming the other within a unified reality. In our research we need to see ourselves as practitioner-researchers, in relation to others, and they to us; we need to see what we are doing not so much in terms of what we are aiming for but in terms of how we are with each other. If we can get the relationships right, the aims and outcomes will look after themselves. Futures research teaches us that if we can concentrate on getting today right, we are already contributing towards a good tomorrow; for tomorrow never comes, but today is here and is all that we have. So we need to commit ourselves, as responsible human beings, to finding ways to understand ourselves and others better, and learn how to live together for a sustainable good society.

There is a substantial and growing literature on spirituality. Throughout, there is a deep connecting strand to say that spirituality is about relation. Two books especially have helped me to understand what this means (and these books have not only been part of my experience, but have also constituted moments of grace, appearing at times when I most needed them). One is Belonging to the Universe by Capra, Steindl-Rast and Matus (1992); the authors share their ideas that belonging is a reciprocal act undertaken in faith and trust; living forms belong to each other, to the earth, and ultimately to the universe. Humans are made of the same stuff as stars; the earth may be seen as a living organism, constantly in transformation. This view is rooted not in metaphysical lyricising, but in hard-nosed scientific investigation. The other book that has helped me to understand the nature of my relationships with myself and others, and also my work with them, is Bradley J. Macdonald’s (1995) collection of the essays of his father, James B. Macdonald, entitled Theory as a Prayerful Act. James Macdonald wrote of response as a key element in dialogue and interaction (I am reminded of the words of Jean Clandinin as they appear in the conversation in the final chapter of this book). Macdonald spoke of ‘[t]he act of theorizing [as] an act of faith, a religious act. It is the expression of belief, and as William James clearly expounds in The Will To Believe, belief necessitates an act of the moral will based on faith. Curriculum theorizing is a prayerful act. It is an expression of the humanistic vision in life’ (Macdonald, 1995: 181: emphasis in original). He spoke of the need for educators to profess: ‘to reveal and justify from our own viewpoints what we believe and value’ (op. cit. :159), and this, for Macdonald, constitutes an act of faith, of prayer (some might say of meditation or reflection), and concentration on the serious responsibility of giving an account of our lives as good, responsible lives.

Here is a link with our newest kinds of theory in education: the idea of a living educational theory. Jack Whitehead of the University of Bath, UK, is its acknowledged major theorist. The kind of theory, says Whitehead (1989, 1993), that qualifies for the term educational (in that the process of theory-making itself demonstrates the growth of educational understanding by the researcher) – has its roots in a view of human development that, as Macdonald notes, focuses on ‘human potentials that center upon the developmental aspects of personal responsiveness’ (Macdonald, op. cit.: 17). While learning may be seen as an individual activity (being that which goes on in the individual mind-brain), it needs always to be situated within a socio-historical context. No learner, no human being, can be separate from her own situatedness, both in space and time; nor for that matter can she ever transcend her own perceptions of that situatedness, as Kant and Schopenhauer emphasise. Not one of us can see ‘reality’ as it is, if it exists at all; everything we perceive is mediated by our perception. The most we can ever hope to know is that process of perception, and to know that we know that. This constitutes a major task for educators, for the contexts of our situatedness arise from interpersonal activity, people in relation with each other. Whatever reality we know arises from the quality of the relationships we have with each other, and from our perceptions of those relationships. It is the quality of those interactions and relationships that influences the nature of the responses to each other of the participants in the dialogue. Educative relationships are those in which the responses are life-giving for all, and enable each person to develop those potentialities of humanity, in a way that is reciprocal and danger-free to all participants. Such relationships have to be worked at. They require intention, purposeful morally committed action; and they constitute a praxis of thoughtful response in relation.

This is why I call action research a methodology of care. It is not the only such methodology; others include listening, counselling, supporting – the caring practices, which call for a commitment by practitioners to care and be held accountable. Action research however seems to be a major candidate (if not the only one) among research methodologies that holds this commitment as a necessary condition.

Action research as a caring practice

There is a vigorously developing literature about action research – its characteristics, use value in social situations, and different approaches. To some extent Úna Collins and I have discussed the characteristics of action research in chapter 1. Here, I would like to point to some major elements in action research, and show how it meets the challenge of the commitment to care.

Action research above all is a methodology that requires practitioners to accept the responsibility of offering a public account of their own educational journey, of how they grew in understanding. This is however not a solitary journey, since no meaningful research in the human sciences can be conducted by one person separate from others. Action researchers acknowledge that they are undertaking their research with the aim of improving the quality of life for themselves and others, and that their research will inevitably involve others in a variety of ways: as participants in the research, as validators of its findings, as new researchers who will carry the research forward, and so on.

This aspect is neglected in the old-mind paradigms I discussed above, where researchers adopt a neutral stand to doing research. Neutrality is not a feature of action research. Action researchers make a personal decision not to leave an unsatisfactory situation as it is, but to work towards improvement.

The focus of action research is the self, the living ‘I’, to use Whitehead’s terms (Whitehead, 1989, 1993). It deals with real-world work undertaken by real people in real situations, such as you and I and the practitioners whose stories are told in this book. The aim of the research is to improve the social situation of others. This raises some key issues about the ethics involved in the methodology of action research, and about the personal responsibility of the practitioner-researcher, and how far this responsibility extends.

No one person can accept the responsibility for the thoughts and actions of another. To try to do so is as pointless, says Chomsky (1995), as trying to accept the responsibility for something that happened in the eighteenth century. A researcher cannot claim that s/he has ‘brought about’ change within human interactions, since such a claim cannot be justified. There are too many considerations, not least the fact that we can never know another person’s consciousness, and will never know exactly why s/he acted as they did. Consider the ‘what if that had happened’ game that we all play from time to time: it takes us into a permanent regress of possibility, and we end up with thought experiments that cancel out our own existence. It is impossible to say what led to what in human interaction. All we can do is recognise that we are in relation to our situation, including other people (and these may also be distant in space and time); and recognise that what we do will affect them, as their actions will affect us, just as the beat of the butterfly’s wing may have unforeseen effects in other spaces and times (Lorenz, in Casti, 1994). All we can do is accept that, by nature of our very humanness, we are in relation to each other and the rest of creation; and because we are in relationships of influence, we have to accept the responsibility of constantly changing ourselves for the better, and try to make our influence count for good in the wider scheme of things.

By the same token, as responsible researchers, we need to produce accounts to show our commitment – as Macdonald says, to profess what we believe in and value. We need to show the nature of the change we have begun in ourselves, and how we hope that might impact beneficially on others. Public accounts are vital, to show the real-life action of what people do when they say they care. The more real-life accounts that appear in the public domain, the stronger the case for encouraging this kind of practice, and the stronger the case for such accounts to be legitimated by academic bodies. The business of producing accounts of our own self-studies applies to all – managers, practitioners, students.

This is a far cry from the idea of ‘bringing about change’, a phrase that implies sequential cause and effect, separate bodies existing in a fragmented reality. As researchers we make a commitment to investigate our practice, not with a view to impacting at first hand on others, but on our selves. This is a personal undertaking, a desire to transform oneself into the best of available potentials, for those potentials are, in Macdonald’s words, potentials of response. We take care in our own way of being, knowing that we must embrace our connectedness with each other and the rest of creation, knowing that it is our responsibility as educators to respond with thoughtfulness and compassion. While action research might begin with the commitment of the individual ‘I’, this is an ‘I’ who recognises her or himself in relation to others; and this is a reciprocal commitment enacted collectively. It is not a case of one individual over against the rest; it is a case of all individuals acting in the best interest of each other.

This is, of course, the message at the heart of many religions and beliefs. For it to work at its most effective, all members of a community should share the same kind of commitment (though this would probably manifest at diverse levels). In real life this is frequently not the case; yet it is sometimes so. Nor should the fact that it is not always the case deter us from trying. The trying is as much part of the endeavour as the outcome; for commitment given when future success is uncertain works towards a more sustainable vision of relationship than commitment given when the future is assured.

It begins with individual persons, you and I, recognising that we are in relation with each other – I with you, and you with me – and we care enough to take the trouble to do something about our own personal practice for the benefit of each other. Such recognition of personal accountability is an act of devotion, a prayerful act of care.



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