Mayvin Director James Traeger looks at how to approach the ethical and methodological dilemmas of Action Research. This article first appeared in Action Learning: Research and Practice, February 2016
By: JAMES TRAEGER
Therefore, doing action research in your own organization is political. Indeed, it might be considered subversive. Action research has a subversive quality about it. It examines everything. It stresses listening. It emphasizes questioning. It fosters courage. It incites action. It abets reflection, and it endorses democratic participation. Any or all of these characteristics may be threatening to existing organizational norms, particularly in those organizations that lean towards a hierarchical control culture. (Coghlan and Brannick, (2005), p127)
How do action researchers do their work, on the ground with sensitivity to the political and ethical challenges that await them, in their own organisations?
Action research is conceived as a feet-on–the-ground process – a way of addressing and improving the everyday experiences and concerns of people who deliver real goods and services in an organization, through the process of finding out new things – i.e. ‘research in the broadest sense. In the spirit of action research lies a democratising, participatory principle – that rather than ‘expert researchers’ parachuting in to diagnose complex organisational issues and prescribing cures, we aim to equip those who inhabit the folds of organisations, doing its everyday doings, with tools that support them to take an ‘attitude of inquiry’ (Marshall 2008).
This should enable them to both collectively research into and address their own challenges whilst simultaneously developing as people. While this sounds like an ideal, and the truth is ‘never plain and rarely simple’, to quote Oscar Wilde, this is the yearning at the heart of action research.
However, when we set out on that seemingly righteous path, (after all, who could object to people researching and improving their own condition?) we may immediately encounter challenges that are structurally bound, within the hierarchies of control to which Coghlan and Brannick refer (Coghlan and Brannick 2005). One of these is the political system that tends to surround questions of research ethics.
It runs like this: Let’s say I am a budding action researcher who works in a mid-level managerial position in a large organisation, for example in the UK’s National Health system. I want to research (perhaps as part of my own masters or doctoral journey) how at a practical level in my clinical service area the patient voice could be engaged and developed. Initially, to find my feet, I set out on some ‘first person’ research, reflecting on my own practice as a manager. I am encouraged to start some ‘second person’ investigations, ￼engaging and including others in my developing, emergent inquiry. Enthusiastically, I imagine setting up a ‘cooperative inquiry’ with fellow colleagues. I even imagine I could include some volunteer service users, that is patients, if they are interested. But then, the powers that be that claim authority for this sort of thing get wind of this. ‘Have you written to the ethics committee for approval for this? Have you filled in the requisite paperwork and addressed the terms laid out in the ethical research policy set out by this Trust? You must take your proposal to the research committee, who will need to approve the research and you must set out in this proposal what you aim to study, what questions you will address, who and how you will go about your research, and lay out the methodological risks you anticipate. You must also indicate your likely outcomes. You must gain written consent form everyone involved, especially the patients’.
Phew. Our action researcher is thrown into a quandary. Meanwhile the tentatively interested co-researchers, terrified by the weighty bureaucracy now impinging on them, are scared away.
‘But my research is into my own practice, and that of my fellow managers!’
‘How does that constitute valid research?’ they will respond.
Now this question can be addressed by action research, mostly by through the development of a conversation that aims to show how paradigmatically, Action Research takes a long way around much of this traditional construction of the world. How this goes on is not the subject of this article, as it is addressed at length elsewhere (see Reason and Bradbury’s Handbook of Action Research for many good articles that address the ontological, epistemological and methodological challenges of AR to the dominant, ‘positivist’ paradigm). (Reason and Bradbury 2008)
Here, our concern is for our action researcher, who has been devoiced, deskilled and de-friended in their attempt to engage inquiringly into their own practice with colleagues. The questions remain – how do they address the ethical concerns that legitimately exist in all forms of research, in a way that takes account of this paradigmatic disconnect, and how might they go about it, in a way that opens up the possibility for inquiry by side-stepping this minefield?
As we go about exploring this question, please note that I am not having a go at the NHS here. It is amongst many technocratic institutions that legitimately adhere to ethical guidelines, aimed at protecting employees and service users from abuse and exploitation. But is there a way that we can in some clear a space for people to engage at ground level practices of inquiry that in some way don’t get smothered by the bureaucratic blanket that tends to get thrown indiscriminately over everything and everyone in the attempt to preserve ethical probity?
These ethical concerns are legitimate but the way they are facilitated, through a hierarchical, legalistic process, is inadvertently preventing people on the ground from inquiring into and voicing their questions and concerns. The move such technocracies make is to distance the experience on the ground from those in the organisational stratosphere, who have license to ‘inquire’ (Note the power-laden, double-edged uses of this term – to inquire is ‘to investigate what’s gone wrong’ vs ‘to research’). As the recent Francis Inquiry (sic) into the failure of care quality at the Mid Staffs NHS Trust) said, critical breakdowns in systems like the NHS are partly fostered by:
‘Standards and methods of measuring compliance which did not focus on the effect of a service on patients’. (Francis, Executive Summary ! 2010 p6)
The local, timely arena of practice, in its own terms, is not the one that gets reported. When there are breakdowns, the heavyweight bureaucratic investigation becomes even longer on blame and shorter on genuine listening and open-minded (as distinct from legalistic) inquiry. Such inquiry, as Coghlan and Brannick rightly suggest, takes time, care, patience and a lot of listening and understanding of the world on the ground (Coghlan and Brannick 2005). Most of these commodities are in short supply in most organisations, and in even shorter supply when there is the other sort of (judicial) inquiry underway, with a press pack on the hunt and a serious amount of emotive pressure for blame and ‘heads to roll’. What is most lacking is a spirit of generosity, empathy and engagement, qualities that are required for ground-level inquiry to take place.
Perhaps what we require is an ‘ethics of generosity’, that open a space of genuine inquiry up, and allow people to speak about their experience without exposing others to blame, and worse, shame. Is there a way forward through finding creative representations of what constitutes research that playfully engage and enlighten? Before we look at the creative processes I have in mind, and of which I offer an example, a word on the paradigmatic implications of ‘ethics’ in AR, which is relevant to how this creativity unfolds.
For this I turn to Philip Hancock for help (Hancock 2008). I aim to offer a decoding of his work; one that I hope isn’t too simplistic. His language is sometimes impenetrable, despite the excellent thinking behind it. He suggests that research broadly has had three historical phases, with coincidental ethical implications, and that organisational research is broadly stuck in the first one. These phases are Kantian, Post-modern and Contemporary, (Again this is my shorthand). Kantian ethics suggest a rational, objective set of truths to be researched and discovered in a straightforwardly mechanical world. This suggests an ethics that are mostly about consent. I.e. Do you agree to be the subject of this research? As a researcher, will you comply to the objective standards such research lives up to? That is the legalistic, rational conceptual basis of most research ethics policies, in most organisations, even though it is based on a worldview that was crystallised in the 17th Century.
Immediately one can see how AR throws up challenge to this – if I am both part -subject and part-researcher, who is giving consent to whom? Also, if I am describing my own phenomenology – my own experience and that involves me pondering on the way I engage with others (opportunistically and emergently) am I expected to hand out consent forms before every interpersonal encounter? If I do not know yet what will emerge to the foreground of my experience as a significant in the data field before me, then I must assume, at least initially, that I need consent from everyone, including friends, family, cats and dogs. I move to the absurd here to illustrate the absurd position that such an ethics puts the Action Researcher in, right from the outset.
Moving on, the Post-modern ethical position takes this to the other extreme. It posits that my research world, by definition, belongs to me – that I am entitled to my own meaning-making, and that everyone and everything becomes, in a sense fair game, as expressed through my own subjectivity. I do not have to justify, or even request of you what part you may play, because I am the sovereign meaning-maker and ethical arbiter in my world. Such a supremely subjective position, whilst intellectually righteous in the cafes of the left bank of the Seine, suggests a self-absorption to the point of nihilism, which goes against the spirit of AR as a participatory, collaborative undertaking.
Hancock suggests a further third position, and one that I think has mileage for action researchers and a clue to how we might find our way through the bureaucratic/hierarchical minefield. He suggests a contemporary reframing of ethics situated in a spirit of ‘embodied generosity.’
“What I hope I have suggested here, is that if this is to be achieved it will not be through compliance [i.e. Kantian] or the actions of isolated subjectivities [i.e. post modern], but rather through the emergence of a mutual recognition of, and state of generosity towards the other; one that seeks not closure but a genuine openness to difference, creativity and the conviviality of an ethical organizational life.” (Hancock, 2008, p1371)
This suggests that whilst I recognise my entitlement to my own developing worldview as an action researcher, I do this with a spirit of generosity and creativity towards others, hoping that they may trust my intention to learn, and inviting them and their difference into my immediate, local, timely practically grounded, messily convened research territory. By recognising that this is situated, and emerges in a state of dynamic responsiveness to a complex life-world of fragile relationships, that need to be nurtured and cherished as well as inquired into, I am opening up the possibility of curiosity.
This may of course have all sorts of consequences, some of which may be difficult for myself and others to navigate through, but note the intention in the inquiring voice: “Please do hear my intention to work this through, with you, the others involved, as best I can, and with the intent to learn for the sake of all those involved. For that I need you to trust me to enter this research territory without being bureaucratically encumbered, but with an intention to work through the troubled issues that may emerge, with everyone’s interests cherished as best as we can. This ethics isn’t built on a policy of consent, because you cannot know, if you engage with me, to what you are consenting, as things are yet to unfold. But it is built on a politics of trust and openness, of respect and yes, generosity. It infuses the research project with the possibility of what Martin Buber would call an I/thou relationship, rather than an I/it relationship.”
The length of this clause may suggest why this ethics of generosity isn’t simple to navigate. It is a complex meme to infect into the system and needs some explanation. That is its biggest drawback in my view. But isn’t it at least a relief to know that there is a possibility of a sound ethical basis for emergent learning and research?
So what does this look like on the ground? That brings me onto the creativity as a key to unlock the door of technocracies in AR. I would argue ethical generosity is at the core of, rather than a bolt on to, a quality piece of action research (as it would be in a more Kantian position). Enticing people into the research process with us, finding a way (i.e. a methodology) to go about the research with them will entail some generosity, openness to difference, flexibility. Developing what can be known (i.e. an epistemology) that is grounded, and interesting to a range of co-participants who are free to express their own diversity will require some creativity and craft. This is more of an emergent art that a deterministic science, and to show what that might look like, I offer a story of my own research into masculinity in organisations.
A few years ago I worked as a member of teaching staff at a business school. Whilst delivering leadership and organisational development programmes, my personal pre-occupation was with gender, and in particular masculinity in organisations. This had been the focus of my work for a number of years. It is of course a controversial subject and because hardly anyone likes to be ‘othered’; that is, put into the role of being a member of a ‘group’, especially one associated with patriarchal dominance, it is a quite a difficult one to research. (‘What is it like for you being a man here?’ ‘Say what??!’ ‘I don’t understand or accept the premise of your question.’ etc. etc.)
But I was determined to make this research ‘personal’ as well as political (to borrow from a feminist saying), because it seemed to me that men, their identity, their real private selves and everyday embodied experiences are often ‘disappeared’ in the organisational context; as a consequence of being part of this very group. It therefore seemed to be important to keep myself in the picture in some way. But in doing so, I risked making it too personal, ‘about me’ or indeed about the individual men that I encountered. How can I research into my own experience in a way that holds to the universality of it?
This also had ethical and political implications for me in my organisation – how could I research into my own experience of my masculinity, with it’s inherent power dynamics, amongst others in my workplace, in politically arch circumstances, without exposing myself or others to professional and political risks? Ethically, I had my own and others’ boundaries to think of. Yet simply asking for their ‘consent’ (a Kantian approach) wouldn’t cut it because a) I didn’t know where the research would go, so what was I asking consent for? and b) this process of gaining consent somehow suggests that opposite of what an appropriate investigation of masculinity requires – that they could let go of the research process, hold it at a distance to themselves and thereby make it my problem not theirs. What I wanted to do was include them, entice them somehow, and bring them into contact with a topic that is difficult, problematised and generally speaking, the last thing anyone wants to surface and talk about, no matter how important it might be.
So what did I do? Importantly, I didn’t immediately hit on the answer – it took about two years for the methodology to evolve. That is crucial, because a consequence of embodied generosity might be to allow oneself and others the space to ‘play’ with an idea – indeed this is the very inquiry space that organisations do not easily open up. It actually happened almost by chance: someone (I don’t remember who) said to me, “When you write about your research, I find it hard to read. It is too abstract and over- complicated. Could you make it more grounded and accessible somehow?’ They (or it might have been someone else) suggested that I should try a way of writing as if the reader was ‘an intelligent ten year old’. This would make it more accessible to others. And it just so happened that I had one of those in my own family – my son.
So I started writing letters to him – again this was an evolution of form, rather than a step change, but engendered by a spirit of generosity and playfulness. It occurred to me that I couldn’t necessarily share these with my son (yet) for a variety of reasons, including, to embody a generosity towards him, the understanding that he may not find reading the outpourings of his father going through something of a mid-life-crisis- masquerading-as-research a wholly enjoyable experience. (Doesn’t all research work out our inner ‘stuff’ in some way, I’d maintain, in my defence?) So I decide to hold these in perpetuity for him, and in doing so, imagined myself in some future place and time. Then it came to me that I could create a character, at the centre of a story; someone who was writing to his son from the future, about his work, his life and other issues relating to his identity and masculinity. To cut a long story short (and indeed this story from the future became one chapter of my PhD thesis), I developed a short story, based on a guy who worked in a business school, set slightly in the future (Traeger 2009). I then offered this story, as research tool, to any ￼of my colleagues who wanted to read it, both men and women, inviting them to give their feedback, as if they were in a ‘book group’. It seemed to work – previously most had been essentially wary of my research – now they were overwhelmingly warm and engaged – in short most people really liked the story; they found it intriguing, and many wanted to discuss it with me. This was a huge breakthrough. Two Directors of the organization, one male, one female, expressed a particular interest and this enabled me to engage them in a discussion about gender and masculinity, with quite a high level of intimacy, which I subsequently published, with their consent. I am not sure, it is important to note, that if I had approached them with a consent form at the start of the research, outlining the depth and vulnerability they would eventually show, I would have got very far. The story was the key.
Now there were a number of other twists and turns on the way, but essentially, this illustrates the local, timely evolution and playfulness in an action research process that an ethics of embodied generosity suggests. None of my colleagues as far as I know, overly identified with the story (although some of them were some of the basis of some of the characters) and overwhelmingly the story went like a wave through the organisation, opening up generous whirls and pools of discussion, conversation and thoughtfulness, about an issue that is usually avoided, shunned and disappeared in the organisational everyday.
My research method drew on what Heron and Reason call ‘presentational knowing’ (Heron & Reason 1997). This presentational knowing, in emergent, storied form, helped me walk the line between facing what goes on in organisation and avoiding scaring the horses; it helped us all describe what went on, face it, engage people in participation, yet not end up either exposing people painfully or limiting my or anyone else’s career. My answer to my ethical dilemmas was in an intention to seduce and beguile (more or less) through a parallel world, negotiated through the generous license in a piece of fiction. The playfulness of it was to designed to engage. It gave me a chance to expand the story and create a fantasy, dreaming of possibilities relevant to my research topic (whither gender?) and also enable people in the organisation to look at themselves and yet pretend it was about somewhere else. I did ponder long and hard about whether this allowed for engagement with a troubling issue, or avoided it completely. This too is the part of the ethical dilemma for what Deborah Meyerson and Maureen Scully call the ‘tempered radical’ (Meyerson and Scully 1995). But nevertheless, that is what ‘drama’ can do and has been doing of course since the ancient theatre of Greece. This sums up an ethics of embodied generosity for me – it entices, invites, seduces even, inviting a trusting spirit of inquiry, rather than a fearful nailing down of the boundaries.
Critically, this story did not emerge overnight – it evolved as play, a sometimes painful birth of some creative process that was enabled by paddling in the pool of the imaginal and representative – initially through letters I wrote to my children in order to be able to write in a more grounded straightforward way. This allows for the ethical issues to emerge in the context of research that is what John Heron calls ‘dionysian’ – emergent forms of research in conversation with others, that take respectful, generous steps, and create spaces to play when we don’t know where they will lead, or
what they might uncover (Heron 1989).
What I would say as I round this all off is that I am not suggesting that emergent storytelling is the answer to the ethical and methodological dilemmas the budding action researcher may face. But I am implying that a creative side-step is the possible move that we can encourage. It may take a bit of courage, and even a bit of guile, but if it is done with a spirit of generosity, and embodied with a yearning for understanding and generatively, it may be a worthwhile move.
Coughlan, D. and Brannick, T. (2005) Doing Research in Your Own
Francis, R. (2010) The Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust
Public Inquiry – Chaired by Robert Francis QC,– available from: http:// www.midstaffspublicinquiry.com/sites/default/files/report/Executive %20summary.pdf
Hancock, P. (2008), Embodied Generosity and an Ethics of Organization, in Organization Studies 29(10): 1357-1373.
Heron, J. and Reason, P. (1997) A Participatory Inquiry Paradigm, in Qualitative Inquiry 3(3):274-294.
Heron, J. (1989) The Facilitators Handbook, Sage.
Marshall, J and Reason, P. (2008) ‘Taking an attitude of inquiry’, in Boog, B., Preece, J., Slagter, M. & Zeelen, J. (eds,), Towards quality improvement of action research: Developing ethics and standards. Rotterdam: B.V. pp61-81. Sense Publishers.
Reason, P. & Bradbury-Huang, (eds.) (2000, 2007) Handbook of Action Research: Participative Inquiry and Practice, Sage.
Meyerson, D.E. & Scully, M.A. (1995) Tempered Radicalism and the Politics of Ambivalence and Change in Organization Science Vol. 6, No. 5, pp. 585-600.
Traeger, J. R., 2009. On Mentshlichkeit: An Inquiry into the Practice of Being a Good Man. Thesis (Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)). University of Bath.
Also featured in Routledge’s Making Organizations Meaningful free access collection and first published in the Action Learning Journal: Research and Practice, February 2016.