The cycle or spiral which they describe consists of four steps: plan, act, observe and reflect..
This cycle is carried out by the participants -- they conceive of action research as something done by the clients, not something done to the clients by a researcher. To my mind one of the strengths of their approach is the emphasis on research which liberates those who are researched. Kemmis and McTaggart provide a description of the Deakin approach. Zuber-Skerritt a, b uses a similar framework.
Anything by Richard Bawden, who runs a whole faculty on action research principles at the Hawkesbury campus of the University of Western Sydney, is likely to contain a thoughtful and well-argued commentary for example Bawden, His approach is in most respects consistent with that of the Deakin team.
Denham has done a coursework masters dissertation using action research, though not in the Deakin style. Participatory action research is a generic methodology. You could treat it as a back-up position for some other approach if you wished. It might also be a good choice if the research situation appears too ambiguous to allow a more specific choice. The next methodology, action science, is more specific.
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For some decades now, Chris Argyris has been developing a conceptual model and process which is at the one time a theory of social systems and an intervention method. It is particularly appropriate to the researching of self-fulfilling prophecies, system dynamics based on communication flows, and relationships. The central idea is that, despite their espoused values, people follow unstated rules. These rules prevent them behaving as they might consciously wish. The result is interpersonal and system processes in which many problems are concealed. At the same time, taboos prevent the problems or their existence being mentioned.
In effect, the unstated rules of the situation, and the unstated assumptions people form about each other, direct their interactions in both group and organisational settings Figure 6. I know of no other system which integrates in so well-argued a fashion interpersonal, intrapersonal and system dynamics, and processes for research and intervention. As Argyris presents the approach it does depend on high quality relationships between researcher and client, and skilled facilitation.
However, there are alternatives in the form of detailed processes which clients can manage for themselves.
They have been used in one action research thesis to my knowledge, Anderson The book deals primarily with the effects of intrapersonal and interpersonal dynamics on social systems. The later book focuses more deliberately on system dynamics. Many people find this material hard to read. Argyris is easier to follow. People have told me that a book Tim Dalmau and I wrote Dick and Dalmau, sets out the concepts well. Your understanding of the relevant system dynamics may be helped by Senge , who describes system functioning in terms of interaction cycles.
The research methodology is most clearly described in Argyris, Putnam and Smith It is also worth browsing through Argyris , which was written for consultants. This is an action research project and action implies intervention. Argyris, too, is evangelical about his approach, and criticises other research methods.
If you use his own arguments you may have to be careful to avoid offending some readers. Essentially it depends upon agreeing on processes which identify and deal with those unstated rules which prevent the honest exchange of information. The diagram above can be used as a model for the type of information to surface. There is a strong emphasis on the people involved in the research being honest about their own intentions, and about their assumptions about each others motives. You can think of it as providing a detailed set of communication processes which can enhance other action research approaches.
I have treated action science as action research. While acknowledging action science as a form of action research they identify an important difference in focus. In particular, Argyris has argued here and elsewhere that normal social research is not capable of producing valid information. Without valid information the rigour of any action research endeavour is necessarily undermined. As I understand him, he believes that action science is a research method which is capable of obtaining valid information about social systems where most other research methods, action research or otherwise, would fail.
Action science is a good choice of methodology if there are strong within-person and between person dynamics, especially if hidden agendas appear to be operating. However, it probably requires better interpersonal skills and willingness to confront than do the other methodologies described here.
You can use a pre-designed process, but unless you sacrifice some flexibility you still require reasonably good skills. Soft systems methodology, which follows, is somewhat less demanding in terms of the interpersonal skills it requires. Soft systems methodology is a non-numerical systems approach to diagnosis and intervention. Descriptions have been provided by Checkland , , Checkland and Scholes , Davies and Ledington , and Patching The book by Davies and Ledington is a good starting point.
It also has the advantage that both authors are now in Brisbane. He provides a complementary description, as he writes as a practitioner. The other writers are academics. Jackson has provided a critique, partly sympathetic, of soft systems methodology and related approaches. In the description which follows, I will first outline an inquiry process which stresses the notion of dialectic rather more than the descriptions given by the authors cited above.
I then explain the specific features of soft systems methodology. In doing this I use the framework which this inquiry process provides.
One form of inquiry process consists of three dialectics. In each dialectic you or the researchers alternate between two forms of activity, using one to refine the other. Figure 7 outlines the process as a series of dialectics. The diagram may make this clearer. In more detail It is typical for each cycle in soft systems methodology to take place several times. A better understanding develops through these iterations.
Continuing uncertainty or ambiguity at any stage may trigger a return to an earlier stage. To give more impact to the third dialectic, the first dialectic can be put deliberately out of mind when the second dialectic is current. In other words, when you are devising the ideal, try to forget how the actual system operates.
In this way, the ideal is derived from the essence, to reduce contamination by the way the system actually behaves.
The comparison of ideal and actual then offers more points of contrast. I have taken some pains to describe the process as an inquiry process. If you wished you could use models other than systems models within the process. What converts this inquiry system into a soft systems analysis is the use of systems concepts in defining the essence and the ideal. In systems terminology the essence becomes the necessary functions.
Checkland calls them root definitions. To check that they are adequate he proposes what he calls a Catwoe analysis. Catwoe is an acronym for The ideal, too, is conceived of in systems terms by devising an ideal way of transforming the inputs into outputs.
Systems models help to suggest ways in which the different goals of the studied system can be achieved. In his earlier work Checkland described this as a seven-step process.
The steps are Soft systems methodology is well suited to the analysis of information systems. For an example of a dissertation using it in agriculture see van Beek Reville has used it to evaluate a training scheme.
It seems to lend itself to the analysis of decision-making systems generally. The next subsection deals with a more generic methodology: evaluation. It is misleading to characterise evaluation as a single methodology.