Differences between technical, participatory and critical action research

Published by at November 4th, 2021 , Revised On November 10, 2021

Action research (AR) – A brief introduction

Action research is a form of research in which practitioners reflect systematically on their practice, implementing informed action to bring about improvement in practice and add to a body of knowledge.

According to Dick (1999):

  • Action is change or intervention.
  • Research is understanding.

Bassey (1998, p.93-95) describes educational action research as follows:

“Educational action research is an inquiry which is carried out to understand, to evaluate and then to change, to improve some educational practice.”

Following are some more basic differences between action and research:

Action Research
  • Initiating
  • Involves enquiring i.e. review of literature
  • Doing i.e. taking action
  • Requires ‘standing back’ i.e. reflection
  • Intervening i.e. facilitating
  • Involves being careful i.e. making modest educational claims
  • Improving practice
  • Requires discipline i.e. time to reflect and write.
  • Interested in the research topic
  • Involves evidence that can be in the form of video recordings, tape transcripts, written reflections, peer validation, meetings and so on
  • Is systematic; not ad-hoc. Time-scale i.e. everything is done methodically

Kinds of action research

The three main types of action research are:

  • Technical action research
  • Practical action research
  • Critical action research

Technical action research (TAR)

Technical action research is guided by an interest in improving control over outcomes. The task for the participant-researcher is to improve the means (his/her practice) to achieve the outcomes. In technical action research, there is an asymmetric, one-way relationship between the participant-researcher and the others involved in or affected by the research.

In TAR, it is important to keep a researcher’s three roles separate. And those three roles are:

  • Designer: where he/she helps another individual in designing a technique/instrument OR designs one themselves.
  • Helper: where he/she helps others by educating them on how to use that technique/instrument.
  • Researcher: where he/she draws lessons learned about technique/instrument.

TAR is not…

  1. Consultation: where a consultant is paid by the client. Furthermore, in consultation, existing and not experimental techniques were applied. TAR uses techniques/instruments that are already in the process of being tested are not final yet. TAR focuses on testing an instrument or a technique, whereas consultation focuses on helping a client.
  2. An observational study (case study or survey): TAR aims to help improve social practices by direct involvement of concerned researchers. Case studies/surveys do not, although they might suggest solutions.
  3. ‘Classical’ action research: where a researcher aims to merely help or free the oppressed and/or underprivileged. In TAR, a researcher aims to find out something unknown before regarding a technique/instrument/problem.

Why use TAR

One might choose to opt for conduction technical action research because:

One might have come up with a new technique/instrument and wants to apply it to real situations to evaluate its effectiveness. Additionally, techniques/instruments now obsolete, if modified by contemporary social practitioners, might need to be tested in realistic situations. That is where action research like technical action research comes in.

Participatory action research (PAR)

Participatory action research is guided by an interest in educating or enlightening practitioners so they can act more carefully. The focus is on long-term improvement. The practitioner, in such a case, might still be the one who decides what is to be explored and what changes are to be made.

However, in participatory action research, a researcher remains open to the views and responses of others, as well as to the consequences that others experience as a result of the practice. In this type of AR, there is a symmetrical, reciprocal relationship between the practitioner and others involved in and affected by the practice.

In PAR, all the parties and stakeholders involved are interested in the research topic.

Critical action research (CAR) or emancipatory research

Critical action research is guided by an interest in freeing people and/or groups from irrationality, injustice and the like. In this type of AR, the reciprocity between practitioner-researchers and others in a setting is amplified still further.

Responsibility for the research is taken collectively, by people who act and research together in the first person (plural) as ‘we’ or ‘us’. Consequently, based on this ‘us’ or ‘we’ approach, decisions about what to explore and what to change are taken collectively. CAR tries to empower the less privileged or those at a political disadvantage. Because of this reason, CAR is also called emancipatory action research.

Scope of CAR: In recent times, critical participatory action research has attempted to take account of disadvantage attributable to gender and ethnicity as well as to social class, its initial point of reference, and to issues of unsustainability in contemporary times(Kemmis, McTaggart & Nixon, 2014, p.12).

Three types of action research – A comparison

In a nutshell, the three types of action research are present on a spectrum. It starts with technical and ends at critical action research. The three types differ from each other in the following ways:

Type of action research Ideology Focuses on Aims and objectives Examples
Technical
  • What works
  • Problem-solving approach
  • Functional and practical
  • Short-term
An experimental product/process/service Improved and effective change in social practices Teachers are supporters as well as consumers of certain software used in classrooms.
Participatory
  • Improving practices
  • Shaping practices
  • Developing an understanding of existing problematic practices
  • Self-reflection
Educating others Long-term change in social practices Teachers that have co-created a certain software used in classrooms.
Critical
  • Critiquing existing social settings
  • Stopping cultural, social and/or historical injustices
  • Develop a connection between the political and the personal
Freeing and/or helping others Emancipation of oppressed/unjustly treated groups Teachers have designed and advocated a certain software used in classrooms to help students learn better.

In the same context, the three types of action research resemble each other concerning open-ended objectives, active participation and high levels of commitment from the researcher and participants involved. These similarities in the three methods of AR are further explained below:

 

  • Active participation

 

It does not matter which type of AR one is conducting. In all three types, participants/employees are just as involved in the research process as researchers/leaders of an organization are. Therefore, all types of AR are collaborative research designs.

Furthermore, a researcher does not necessarily study themselves in AR research types. He/she can also be under study by another group within the AR process. In other words, an active researcher might be observed by another active researcher within the same research. Hence, active participation is involved once again.

Research involves the input and involvement of employees, including leaders, in designing the process with researchers. This is done as a group by implementing the results together. On the other hand, active research—regardless of type—involves those greatly affected by a problem by engaging them in planning, implementing and applying results of the research.

In light of these facts, it is claimed that AR is wholly based on active participation, in every sense of the word.

 

  • Open-ended objectives

 

When research begins the process of AR—regardless of the type of AR—the research objectives are not set in stone before research. Rather, they are developed and modified along the way. This is done to ensure that problems an organisation is facing are met with solutions that are not rigid, but developed in response to the problems simultaneously. In other words, real-time problems call for real-time solutions. Such solutions, according to active researchers, are ‘open-ended objectives.’

This is how action research helps create skills in individuals to solve real-world business solutions, even. Where research allows employees to influence and create solutions to a business problem, AR invents new knowledge while inventing solutions to those problems. And in doing so, it also improves individuals’ capacities within their organizations.

 

  • High levels of commitment from researcher and participants involved

 

Last but not the least, all three resemble each other in high levels of commitment. These high levels of commitment and involvement are required from the organizations/employees and researchers involved in the AR process. And expected levels of commitment and involvement are regards to the research problem at hand. And to the results and knowledge gained thereof from that research, too.

Every form of AR focuses on the result that an organization or its participants become empowered. Empowered enough to be able to improve their social standing where before they were powerless. General well-being for communities involved, therefore, is a major goal of every active research method.

The researcher guides and controls the process differently in all three types of AR. However, in all three methods, a researcher aims to create a process that will somehow benefit an entire group or community of individuals, including an addition to existing knowledge and perceptions.

Groups that are otherwise isolated or powerless are unified through the process that is active research (with all its types). As a result, new, context-dependent understandings about other individuals and organizations are born.

1. What is practical action research? Is it the same as participatory action research?

All action research is practical research. However, ‘practical action research’ is a collection of articles in book form, edited by Richard A Schmuck. Different researchers have composed those articles. These contributors offer critical remarks about the process involved in action research. The book is available on Google Books.

2.How does one decide which type of action research to go for?

Whether one should opt for critical, technical, or participatory action research depends on the kind of research problem one wishes to address. Is there a new technical invention whose effectiveness in learning needs to be tested? Is there an existing problem in society that everyone needs to be more aware of? Is there a group of people, treated unfairly, that require help voicing their concerns?

Once the problem itself has been identified, the same process has to be followed that guides every kind of research, that being:

  • Analysing the research problem
  • Listing possible solutions
  • Developing a plan of action
  • Selecting an instrument to gather data
  • Gathering the data
  • Analysing the gathered
  • Reporting findings and conclusions
  • Modifying theories involved (if the need be) and repeating the above steps and repeat the cycle
  • Reporting the results

Other than the research problem, the kind of AR to opt for also depends on the area and context involved. For instance, it does not necessarily have to be a school. It can also be a business group, a medical community, a court of law, or some other place. And the type of AR chosen in the end should be appropriate for the context it will be conducted in.

3. What are the four stages of action research?

Action research and the three types of action research themselves, follow these four stages: reflect, plan, act and observe. Additionally, one might re-reflect to modify the active research and repeat the cycle from there on out (Dickens & Watkins, 1999).

According to some researchers, these are also the five phases of action research, that is, reflect, plan, act, observe and evaluate/re-reflect.

4.What methods of action research are there?

Action research rigorously follows certain methods, mostly characteristic of qualitative research. They involve journal keeping, documenting one’s findings or analyses, recording of one’s participant observations, questionnaire surveys, case studies and structured/semi-structured/unstructured interviews.

5.Which type of action research is the best?

No single type of action research is more effective than the rest. They all have their merits and demerits. Just as the selection of the type of action research depends on the research problem, so does its efficacy. One kind of research problem might better be solved through technical active research, for instance. However, that does not mean the other two types are not ‘good enough.’ They just might not be ‘suitable.’

6.What type of research is action research, including its types?

Every aspect of research can be covered within action research. It can be considered experimental (TAR), diagnostic (all three types) and instructional (PAR).

7. What type of research design do TAR, PAR and CAR follow?

 They can be based on four main research designs: individual, collaborative, school-wide district-wide research designs.