Face-to-Face, Online, or Both?
General Type of Method
Collaborative approaches
Deliberative and dialogic process
Research or experimental method
Open to All or Limited to Some?
Open to All
Number of Participants
There is no limit to the number of people who can participate
Types of Interaction Among Participants
Discussion, Dialogue, or Deliberation
Decision Methods
General Agreement/Consensus
Scope of Implementation
Level of Complexity This Method Can Handle
High Complexity


Action Research

February 16, 2021 Jaskiran Gakhal, Participedia Team
February 11, 2021 Jaskiran Gakhal, Participedia Team
October 1, 2020 kieran.way
September 30, 2020 kieran.way
Face-to-Face, Online, or Both?
General Type of Method
Collaborative approaches
Deliberative and dialogic process
Research or experimental method
Open to All or Limited to Some?
Open to All
Number of Participants
There is no limit to the number of people who can participate
Types of Interaction Among Participants
Discussion, Dialogue, or Deliberation
Decision Methods
General Agreement/Consensus
Scope of Implementation
Level of Complexity This Method Can Handle
High Complexity

Action research is a collaborative and participative orientation toward enquiry that links action and ideas with the goal of promoting human flourishing and social change.

Problems and Purpose

Action research encompasses a family of participatory practices, paradigms, and processes of inquiry that link action and ideas with the goal of promoting human flourishing and social change. Often referred to as a research methodology, action research is more accurately described as an “orientation to enquiry”. [1] Most concretely, action research arises when people of different backgrounds – citizens, migrants, academics, NGO workers, government officials, etc. – come together to address problems facing their communities. These problems can be big or small, easy to solve or complex, and can require short-term or multi-year commitments. All action research, however, is participatory and community-based. What this means in practice, is up for debate. 

Indeed, although action research is community-based, it can be carried out with different degrees of community involvement. Action research can therefore be said to exist on a spectrum, with community-driven projects on one side and investigator-driven projects on the other.

Hacker usefully outlines these differences through the following image [2]:

Projects with high levels of community involvement are referred to by Hacker (2017) as “community-driven”. To many scholars and activists, research must be community-driven in order to effect sustainable social change. Community-driven action research emerges from “the street,” and therefore in response to problems facing local communities through discussions in spaces like local markets, mosques and churches, living rooms or community centres. It therefore grows out of collaborative, grassroots efforts to solve problems in local communities. Community members decide to collaborate with academics and practitioners trained in action research when they lack the resources or expertise to understand and tackle these problems alone. 

Action research projects with lower levels of community involvement are referred to as “investigator-driven”. Academics or practitioners initiate investigator-driven projects for a variety of reasons. For example, they may believe that in order to get a more nuanced and holistic understanding of the problem they work on, it is better to work collaboratively with the community the problem affects. However, they may not have the time, resources, or relationships necessary to involve community members from the beginning. They may also find that community members lack the capacity, resources, or time to remain substantively involved throughout the project. Nonetheless, like practitioners and academics involved in community-driven projects, they remain committed to ensuring their findings are useful to people, encourage social action, and therefore have an impact beyond their immediate professional worlds. 

In practice, action research often falls somewhere in the middle of these two poles. Furthermore, action research projects are not static, and can therefore change in structure over time. For example, as community members make new demands, new resources become available, or trust and rapport is built, investigator-driven projects may become community-driven, while community-driven projects can also become more investigator-driven as the commitments of community members wane or as new demands are placed on their schedules. Overall, however, as an emerging body of research asserts, which is explored in detail below, it is important to maintain high levels of community involvement throughout action research projects in order to make a tangible, lasting impact, and therefore promote human flourishing and social change.

As an orientation toward knowledge production, therefore, action research challenges how research is conventionally approached. All action research is participatory and community-based. Action researchers put forward distinct understandings of who holds knowledge, how it should be generated, and how it should be used, which together challenge the way conventional research is done. As Bradbury and Reason put it, “[a]ction research challenges much received wisdom in both academia and among social change and development practitioners, not least because it is a practice of participation, engaging those who might otherwise be subjects of research or recipients of interventions to a greater or less extent as inquiring co-researchers”.[1] The primary purpose of action research, therefore, is to produce practical knowledge that can be useful to people, allowing them to live better lives.  

Therefore, as Bradbury and Reason [3] summarize, action research:

  • “is a set of practices that responds to people’s desire to act creatively in the face of practical and often pressing issues in their lives in organizations and communities; 
  • calls for engagement with people in collaborative relationships, opening new ‘communicative spaces’ in which dialogue and development can flourish; 
  • draws on many ways of knowing, both in the evidence that is generated in inquiry and its expression in diverse forms of presentation as we share learning with wider audiences; 
  • is values oriented, seeking to address issues of significance concerning the flourishing of human persons, their communities, and the wider ecology in which we participate; 
  • is a living, emergent process that cannot be pre-determined but changes and develops as those engaged deepen their understanding of the issues to be addressed and develop their capacity as co-inquirers both individually and collectively.” 

Origins and Development

Action research encompasses a wide range of approaches to social action, so researchers disagree over how it should be practiced, by whom, and to what end. This section identifies a number of distinct approaches within the category of action research, each of which has its own intellectual and/or theoretical influences. It also considers what connects these approaches together as forms of action research, despite their differences.

The origins of action research begin with the work of Kurt Lewin. Two more recent iterations of action research are participatory action research (PAR) and community based participatory research (CBPR). Each of these approaches builds on, but also challenges, the work of Lewin. Participatory action research (PAR) originates in the anthropological work of Marja-Liisa Swantz, then developing from the work of Swantz to Latin America, where it was most famously elaborated by Paolo Freire and Orlando Fals Borda. Although CBPR offers some innovations on previous approaches, it shares many similarities with PAR. By following the development action research over time, one can see that, at their core, PAR and CBPR should be considered forms of action research through their commitments to participation, community, and social change. 

Kurt Lewin

Most scholars trace the origins of action research to the work of Kurt Lewin.[4] In the 1930s, Lewin undertook a series of experimental research projects in factories across the United States. Lewin’s research challenged the theory of scientific management, put forward by Fred W. Taylor. At the time, scientific management prevailed as the theory of management in most factories, emphasizing top-down decision-making structures that prioritized efficiency. Lewin’s goal was to demonstrate that, within factories but also neighbourhood settings, productivity and social gains were more likely to be produced through democratic participation rather than scientific management, which he considered to be a form of autocratic coercion. Working alongside “minority groups” Lewin sought to enhance their independence, equality, and co-operation. Lewin promoted these goals mainly through discussion-based groups. This is illustrated well by his work at one factory. As Adelman describes [5]:

“The first group received direct training given didactically with little opportunity to raise questions. The second group was encouraged to discuss and decide on the division of tasks and comment on the training that was given. Over several months the productivity of the second group was consistently higher than that of the first. The staff of the second group learnt the tasks faster and their morale remained high, whereas in the first group morale remained low”.

Lewin therefore lent credence, and power, to reflective thought, discussion, and action, affording them capacity to challenge and overcome local problems.

A central critique levelled at Lewin’s work, however, was that the group-based gains his research resulted in rarely led to structural change. As Adelman writes, “[a]lthough power relations became more equitable in the workplace this reconstructionist research made little difference to the ownership of capital."[9] As she goes on to say, although Lewin did important work on “participatory democratic workplaces” the “institutionalisation of these relationships has only been possible in parts of nations where wealth is more evenly distributed”.[6] At the same time, one must also consider the degree to which the structural change desired by researchers is reflected in the desires of participants themselves.

Participatory Action Research

Participatory action research emerged in the 1970s as a riposte to how action research had been institutionalized across much of the developed and developing world. Participatory action research has been defined thusly by Mandakini Pant in the Encyclopedia of Action Research[7]:

“Participatory Action Research (PAR) can be conceptualized as a process of research, education and action in which participants transform reality and transform themselves. Unlike traditional, expert-model, top-down approaches to research, PAR gives community members a central role in the research process. This includes participation in the identification of the problem, the formulation of research questions, the collection, analysis and interpretation of data, the formulation and communication of conclusions and the implementation of an action plan”

The origins of PAR are pinpointed in the work of the Finish anthropologist, Marja-Liisa Swantz. This is important, as her contribution to PAR is ignored in many accounts of its history. In Latin America, the work of Orlando Fals Borda and Paolo Freire on PAR developed their own community-based orientations toward social action, but also built on the ideas proposed by Lewin, Swantz and others in order to challenge the structural inequalities that faced their region and the communities with which they worked.

Marja-Liisa Swantz

Swantz coined the term Participatory Action Research during her work in Tanzania in the 1970s, when she worked as a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Dar es Salaam. Specifically, PAR emerged from an income-generating project involving youth from five coastal villages in the country.[8] The project involved the youth at every stage of the project, allowing them to select the activities to pursue in collaboration with the researchers, who were students of Swantz’s. In the end, they decided on gardening, carpentry and fishing projects. 

As one of the of the students reported about the project,

"Colleague, Ruth Besha and I have come to realise that this was a unique programme. While the traditional research methods take the people as objects of research, ours took them as actors, in fact as the stars of the whole process. This was a revolution in itself. Despite the problems, the method whereby researchers stay and work together with the local people is the best one, as besides bringing youth of different educational levels together, it also gives the local people opportunities for learning from the researchers. ... At the same time we learned a lot from the local people. People talk freely with people with whom they are acquainted". [9]

In her reflections on PAR, the term she used to describe the work done by her students and herself during her time in Tanzania, Swantz emphasized the practical, phenomenological, and hermeneutic origins of PAR.[9] For her, PAR emerged as a local, collaborative response to specific, community-based problems. Above anything else, PAR required participants to identify communicatively with one another through this process. As she later wrote about these origins, “I identify my own approach as being hermeneutic and phenomenological, critical of my person in relation to partners and seeing that I have a role in bringing into people’s consciousness connecting factors for their own analysis.”[10] Swantz therefore pushed back against other, more ideologically-driven approaches to PAR, especially those rooted in Marxism. 

Paolo Freire 

Perhaps the prominent scholar involved in the development of PAR, Freire’s formative years were spent working for the University of Recife’s Cultural Extension Service, through which he introduced literacy programs to poor communities around Brazil.[11] Freire worked under conditions of intense inequality, political violence, and exploitation, and was committed to dismantling the structures that helped create these conditions. During his work for the Cultural Extension Service, Freire approached literacy differently to most program managers. He started his literacy programs by teaching basic words, but also asked participants to reflect critically on the political conditions they lived in.

Central to Freire’s work was the notion of conscientizaçao, a form of literacy that challenged the manner in which education was conventionally pursued, as well as the structural conditions of education’s making. Freire defined conscientizaçaoas a form of “learning to perceive social, political, and economic contradictions, and take action against the oppressive elements of reality.”[12] He therefore eschewed dominant approaches to literacy programming, instead focusing on training peasants to recognize the roots of their oppression. For Freire, knowledge was power. By doing research with oppressed communities, therefore, Freire tried to change how they looked at the world.

Orlando Fals Borda

A contemporary of Freire, encountered his ideas several times. A Colombian researcher, sociologist and activist, Fals Borda read Pedagogy of the Oppressed through Latin American activist networks he participated in.[13] Fals Borda helped found the School of Sociology and was one of the first scholars to systematically study violence in his country. His first statement on the approach that would later come to be referred to as Participatory Action Research can be found in a 1972 book, Causa popular, ciencia popular. As Lomeli and Rappaport note, the book was published by La Rosca de Investigación y Acción Social. La Rosca, which means in-group, was organizationally focused on “militant” research.[14]

At first, PAR was historically-oriented. Fals Borda wanted scholars and the people they collaborated with to pay “special attention to those elements or institutions that have been useful in the past to confront the enemies of the exploited classes.”[14] Through historically-oriented study, researchers and community members could collaboratively work to change existing socioeconomic conditions. As he wrote, “once those elements are determined, they are reactivated with the aim of using them in a similar manner in current class struggles”[14]

As with Freire, Borda wrote in the context of growing inequality, intensification of capitalist growth, the spectre of American encroachment into the region, and the success of the Cuban Revolution. In this context, scholars, communities and activists collaborated to craft approaches to social action that combined knowledge production with activism and therefore political change. For all of them, research was about reclaiming knowledge lost, dispossessed, or ignored by those in power. Borda, Freire and Swantz, although working on similar projects, did not meet until the late 1970s. It was here, alongside Budd Hall, at the Conference on Participatory Action Research where they most clearly articulated their vision of PAR. 

Community-Based Participatory Research

CBPR shares many similarities with PAR. Theoretically and in practice, it largely emerged through the work of North American-based scholars in psychology and health, such as Karen Hacker, Barbara Israel, Michelle Fine, and Nina Wallerstein, and organizations like the Centre for Participatory Research and the Wellsley Institute. 

To advocates of CBPR, their projects fall to the right side of the spectrum discussed above, and can thus be described as community-driven research projects with high levels of community involvement. The projects often begin when citizens are facing a complex social issue — such as poor health outcomes in a neighbourhood — but lack the capacity, knowledge or networks to fully understand or positively impact it. 

Community based participatory researchers therefore carry forward several key principles outlined above. First, CBPR is initiated to address the needs and interests of the community, rather than the researcher or government department. Some CBPR scholars, however, are critical of other approaches to action research, such as PAR, through which they contend the source of problems is ideologically pre-determined. As with other approaches to action research, however, CBPR develops the capacity of the community members it involves, as well as their understanding of the problem that confronts them. Community members are “empowered” as they participate, gaining knowledge that spurs action. CBPR also transforms historically “expert” dominated spaces, like academia and government ministries, by introducing novels insights from the communities it's conducted in. This transformation is critical to CBPR researchers, who work with academic or government spaces to better equip them to respond to the challenges facing communities, but in a context specific manner. Every CBPR project, therefore, is open-ended and flexible, and responds to a series of unique social conditions. Consequently, there is no “blueprint” or “model” for communities, researchers, or government officials interested in CBPR to follow. 

One of the most prominent contemporary proponents of CBPR, Barbara Israel, articulates 9 principles that, together, help distinguish CBPR from other approaches to research:

  1. Recognizes community as a unit of identity. 
  2. Begins with and builds on strengths and resources within the community. 
  3. Facilitates collaborative, equitable partnership in all phases of the research, involving an empowering and power sharing process. 
  4. Promotes co-learning and capacity building among all partners involved. 
  5. Integrates and creates a balance between knowledge generation and action for mutual benefit of all partners. 
  6. Emphasis on local relevance of public health and social problems and ecological approaches that address the multiple determinants of disease and well-being. 
  7. Involves systems development through a cyclical and iterative process. 
  8. Disseminates findings to all partners and involves all partners in the dissemination process. 
  9. Involves a long-term process and commitment [15]

Many differences, therefore, separate Kurt Lewin’s approach to action research from later iterations proposed in the works of Lewin, Fals Borda, and CBPR researchers. Over time, new approaches to action research have focused more explicitly on the structural roots of inequality, such as through PAR, and have become more community-owned, through CBPR. Nonetheless, PAR and CBPR fall under the rubric of action research and are therefore considered to be of the same “genre”.[16] This is perhaps most definitively summarized by Holkup et al (2004), whose argument is worth quoting in full. As they note, each of the approaches discussed above should be considered a form of action research because:

“They all emanate from the same ontological paradigm, one embracing a participative reality. They rely on an epistemology of experiential and participative knowing, informed by critical subjectivity and participatory transaction. All link action with research, and all recognize the importance of involving members of the study population in the research process. Additionally, knowledge gained from participatory approaches to research continues to increase understanding of what it means to work within the subjective spaces created when people from diverse cultures collaborate to work toward a common goal” [16]

Participant Recruitment and Selection

How one approaches participant recruitment and selection will depend on a variety of factors, especially the degree of community involvement in a project, and will require the organizers to ask a range of questions.

For example, when action research is community-driven, many of the participants may already be recruited through an existing community network. Therefore, the main questions revolve around the composition of the network, as well as how to add new collaborators who can advance the work. Community-driven action research also often requires recruiting other collaborators, especially if organizers lack training in action research. Here the involvement of academics and practitioners can be especially useful. When a project is investigator-driven, recruitment is often a much larger undertaking, requiring outreach with communities one may not have links to. Kubicek and Robles have put together a series of questions to consider:

  • "Is your participant recruitment goal realistic for the persons, population, and region with whom/in which you are conducting your study?  
  • Is your recruitment approach tailored to the interests and priorities of the target person/population? 
  • Is your study timeline realistic for the number of participants you plan to recruit? 
  • Are you allocating time and money towards better understanding and developing the necessary partnerships to gain the trust of that population before you begin recruitment?
  •  Have you developed an alternative plan for recruitment in case your first plan does not succeed?" [17]

When approaching recruitment at the community level, there are also several practical considerations involved in participation recruitment and selection. Particularly, it is important to consider how the backgrounds of prospective participants should shape the recruitment approach. Indeed, it is important to consider how the age, language, cultural norms, gender, socioeconomic status, legal status, condition of being studied are relevant.

How it Works: Process, Interaction, and Decision-Making

This section first considers how action research unfolds when it is investigator-driven. It then considers a more community-driven approach to action research. There is often overlap between these processes.

Investigator-Driven Action Research

For Mertler, investigator-driven projects can be understood to unfold over four stages: planning; acting; developing; and reflecting.[18]

Stage 1: Planning 

Within stage one, Mertler identifies four steps. It is important to note, however, that projects initiated by action researchers do not necessarily unfold according to a linear trajectory. Therefore, each step should be considered a guidepost rather than sequential series of law-like rules. This applies to all of the steps and stages described below.

Step one of this stage requires the researcher to identify and then limit their topic. A few things should be top of mind when pursuing this step. First, the researcher should select a project that will make a difference to the participants with whom they are working. As Mertler writes, “[i]t is important to remember that the goal of any action research project is a desire to make things better, improve some specific practice, or correct something that is not working as well as it should”.[19] Second, researchers should select a topic that genuinely interests them and sparks curiosity, as they will be working on the project for quite a while. Also important is selecting a manageable topic. Manageability can be thought of from several perspectives; for example, is there a timeframe within which the research needs to be completed, such as a school semester or an election? Furthermore, consider who will be participating in the project, and what level of engagement they will be capable of.

Step two is to gather baseline information for the project. This is a preliminary step that Mertler refers to as "reconnaissance".[18] This can involve discussing the project with stakeholders or key interlocutors, both casually as well as more formally. For example, this may involve getting a coffee with them, but also arranging a stakeholder meeting. This will help complement the next steps of reviewing academic and policy literature, and developing a research plan.

The third step is to review the related literature. There is no limit to how much time one should dedicate to this step but they ought to try to gather information from a diverse range of sources, and think about the positionality of whoever has produced the source and the biases with which this perspective will be associated. Some good resources include JStor, open access journals, census data, newspaper archives, and/or local libraries. 

The final step is to develop a research plan. During this step, the insights developed in each of the previous steps are formalized and a methodology is selected. One might ask: "what methodology should I select?" Or alternatively, a researcher may think, "I thought action research was my methodology." However, to state definitively, action research is not a methodology. It is an epistemology or a mindset. In fact, numerous research methodologies can, hypothetically, be implemented under the banner of action research, from ethnography to large scale quantitative projects. Questions ought to be asked about which is most suitable. For example, are you running your project in a particular discipline? What types of skills do your participants need to develop? What are they capable of? What does your ethics approval allow for? Therefore, think about the methodology that is best suited to the study area, and do research on how to make it participatory, community-based, and useful to participants. 

Stage 2: Acting

This stage requires the researcher to act on the plan they developed in stage 1. It involves two steps. The first step — step 5 — is implementing the plan and collecting data. No matter what method is used, it is critical to record as much information as possible by keeping detailed field notes. One can collect data through participant observation (by conducting interviews or distributing questionnaires), or by reviewing existing documents and quantitative data. 

Step 6 requires the researcher, as well as participants, if they are willing, to analyze the data. Analyze them by looking for themes, categories, or patterns that emerge. This analysis will influence further data collection by revealing what to look for while moving forward. Therefore, analysis is an iterative and open-ended process. This helps to create feedback loops. As new insights emerge, the research focus may shift. 

Stage 3: Developing

Step 7, developing an action plan, is the heart of any action research project. The most important outcome from this action plan is the creation of a specific and tangible outline of how the ideas collected can contribute to understanding, and solving, the problem that the researcher set out to address. To learn more about the practicalities of developing an action plan, please turn to Mertler's (2019) discussion.

In step 8, the group moves to communicating and reporting results. The most important consideration here is to have several outputs for different audiences. For example, policymakers, academics, and community members may look for different types of information when engaging with, and acting on, the research. Of course, at points these categories can break down. Community members may themselves be academics, or especially inclined toward highly technical reporting. However, researchers should try to think generally about the audience their work is connecting with, and what distinguishes them from other groups. In this step, there is significant license for creativity. Although action research can be disseminated through reports or newspaper articles, more heterodox forms, like performances, such as theatre, can be also be incredibly effective. 

Stage 4: Reflecting 

This is the final stage. Here, researchers reflect on their action research process, involving as many people as possible. Stakeholders are people who participate in, but also who were affected by, the project. Gathering reflections can be a great way to consider the impact. Because many action research projects are iterative, reflections may also feed into other action research projects run by others interested in tackling similar challenges. 

Community-Driven Action Research

Action research that is community-driven has been described by Hacker as a three-stage process,[2] which are elaborated on below, building on Hacker's insights.

Stage 1: Defining the community, engaging the community, community needs assessment, identifying the research question 

As Hacker notes, depending on how a project is conceived, each step in every stage will manifest differently.  Therefore, as with the process described above, the below should not be taken as a blueprint for action, but rather a series of guideposts to direct a research project.

The first step of stage one is to define the community one is working with. How a “community” is defined will change markedly depending on the terms of engagement. And with community-driven research, the community often defines itself through its own participatory processes. Broadly, however, communities can be defined by geography, by condition, or by other common characteristics. In an example cited by Hacker, for example, the community engaged through action research was a group of immigrants.[2] But a panoply of possibilities exists. For example, one could work with people living with disabilities, or grandmothers, or with a diverse range of backgrounds from a particular location. At a certain point, however, decisions need to be made as to when the community is bounded, and whether the process should be open to new participants. 

Once the community has been defined, engage the community members to understand their needs. Engagement here requires formal meetings in both group and one-on-one scenarios, but this process also benefits immensely from less formal modes of engagement. For example, planning and attending community events can build trust. Indeed, the more rapport one has with other community members, the more nuanced and comprehensive one’s understanding of needs can potentially be. 

After defining the community and engaging with them for a sustained period of time, it is important to conduct a formal needs-based assessment. This can be done using insights from the community as well as existing data and literature. Here, it is helpful to standardize a form and a set of questions to ensure consistency in response. Consulting existing databases and literature can also be useful as these sources may afford a more complete picture of prevailing needs in the community one works with and in. It can also be important to raise awareness around accessing these sources, build capacity, or find ways to ensure sustainable access to knowledge. This way, the community can stay informed once the researcher leaves the community. Furthermore, as Hacker notes, researchers may discover new sources of information through their engagement with community members.[2]

The final step in Stage 1 is to identify a research question. This is one of the most important steps in any action research process. It is imperative to work with everyone when identifying a question. In many cases, communities may frame their question(s) in general terms. For example, “why are crime rates high in our community?” The training and experience of researchers and practitioners can assist in sharpening the focus of these more general questions. For this example, the question may transform into, “What role do stop and frisk policies play in shaping the reporting on crime rates in our community? Therefore, it is important to make the question specific, to make it manageable for the researcher and the community (time, resources, capacity) and to ensure that whatever findings result from the question posed will be actionable.

Stage 2: Design/hypothesis testing, roles and responsibilities in the conduct of the research 

Once a consensus is reached around the proposed research question, the next steps in the research process are to design the project, demarcate responsibilities and roles, and conduct the research. 

When designing the research, for instance, one may discover that the original ideas proposed are infeasible. Therefore, research is always iterative and open-ended, and needs to be adjusted according to new insights. 

Some developments may render a project infeasible. For example, although rare in its scale of disruption, the COVID-19 pandemic has required many researchers to adjust their projects, moving from in-person to online methods. Preparing for eventualities such as this is important. 

Next, a discussion should take place around the designation of roles and responsibilities. Here, it is decided how each participant will be included in the project. Community advisory boards may be helpful. When designating roles and responsibilities, one must also consider who will need to receive training, where necessary. Training can be critical, as the project must involve people with the time and skills necessary to fulfil their responsibilities. Researchers should also consider developing contingency plans in case participants can no longer commit to the project.

Once each of these steps has been taken, a window within which the research takes place should be formalized. One should ensure that researchers adhere to ethics. Take copious notes; make sure analysis is ongoing and that researchers are archiving their work in some form. 

Stage 3: Analysis, interpretation and results, dissemination and action 

The final phase in the community-driven research process, the approach used here also distinguishes itself from other epistemologies and approaches to research. During a traditional research process, for example, results are analyzed by the academic or whoever “leads” the research project. Subsequently, the researcher “disseminates” their findings by publishing them in an academic or open access journal, and perhaps writes an article on a popular news site or blog or attends a thematic conference during which their project is discussed alongside similar research outputs.

Practitioners of community-driven action research, however, approach these steps much differently. Analysis and interpretation, for example, are carried out by whoever is willing and able. Discussions may be held on whether any of the material collected is too sensitive to publish. Co-writing is common. Once the project is ready to release to the public, many platforms and dissemination strategies are considered. For example, CBPR projects are often published in multiple formats, such as academic papers, policy memos, or more accessible working papers or research summaries. Additionally, practitioners are likely to consider disseminating their findings in more heterodox forms. For example, plays, radio pieces, and TV appearances are commonplace. The goal is not only to reach different audiences, but also, as has been mentioned repeatedly, to produce knowledge but also encourage action. Therefore, through the knowledge one creates, one should consider forms of dissemination that can be used to solve everyday problems. 

Influence, Outcomes, and Effects

Research into the impact of action research remains scant. However, some systematic overviews have been written in recent years. The studies overwhelmingly suggest that action research in a variety of forms has a positive impact on its participants and within the communities where its initiated. Indeed, as Cook notes in her review of 20 projects based in the United States, 14 of 20 engendered action to improve the health and well-being of community members.[20] Understanding impact is critical, because one of the primary goals of action research is to translate knowledge into action. Of these projects, nine out of the fourteen were initiated by the community. Cook also found that CBPR enhanced the capacity of research participants in certain cases.[20]

Analysis and Lessons Learned

Broadly construed, action research constitutes a family of participative approaches to knowledge production that aim to link learning and action to promote social change. As has been noted several times above, therefore, action research is not a methodology, but an epistemic approach, or an orientation toward inquiry. It remains distinct from traditional research approaches through its commitment to participation, community, and social change. Action research is not suitable for every context. It requires careful planning. And although it is often necessary or tempting for academics and government agencies to run investigator-driven projects, available evidence suggests the best projects are citizen-driven. When CBPR works, it produces knowledge and builds capacity that make a meaningful differences to vulnerable populations around the world.

See Also

Community-Based Participatory Research

Asset-Based Community Development


[1] Bradbury, H and Peter Reason. 2018. The SAGE Handbook of Action Research: Participative Inquiry and Practice. London, UK: SAGE Publications. p.1

[2] Hacker, K. 2017. Community-Based Participatory Research. London, UK: SAGE Publications. p. 3

[3] Bradbury, H and Peter Reason. 2018. The SAGE Handbook of Action Research: Participative Inquiry and Practice. London, UK: SAGE Publications. p.3

[4] Adelman, C. 1993. "Kurt Lewin and the Origins of Action Research." Educational Action Review 1(1): 7-24. Available at

[5] Adelman, C. 1993. "Kurt Lewin and the Origins of Action Research." Educational Action Review 1(1): 9.

[6] Adelman, C. 1993. "Kurt Lewin and the Origins of Action Research." Educational Action Review 1(1): 14.

[7] Pant, M. 2014. "Participatory Action Research," in Coghlan, D. and Mary Brydon Miller. SAGE Encyclopedia for Action Research.

[8] Swantz, M. 2008. "Participatory Action Research as Practice," in Bradbury, H and Peter Reason. 2018. The SAGE Handbook of Action Research: Participative Inquiry and Practice. London, UK: SAGE Publications.

[9] Swantz, M. 2008. "Participatory Action Research as Practice," in Bradbury, H and Peter Reason. 2018. The SAGE Handbook of Action Research: Participative Inquiry and Practice. London, UK: SAGE Publications. p. 33

[10] Swantz, M. 2008. "Participatory Action Research as Practice," in Bradbury, H and Peter Reason. 2018. The SAGE Handbook of Action Research: Participative Inquiry and Practice. London, UK: SAGE Publications. p. 42

[11] Freire, P. 2012 (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York, NY: Continuum.

[12] Freire, P. 2012 (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. p. 35

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[14] Lomeli, J. D., & Rappaport, J. (2018). Imagining Latin American Social Science from the Global South: Orlando Fals Borda and Participatory Action Research. Latin American Research Review, 53(3), 597.

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External Links

The SAGE Handbook of Action Research Participative Inquiry and Practice 2008