ARTICLE 24: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Action Research

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel


Studying for a Ph. D. or a master’s degree can be expensive.

Also, some universities are better positioned than others to offer research in certain fields of science.

You might need a laboratory that only one or a few universities have.

Or perhaps you might need a special computer or other scientific tools and equipment that not all universities have.

In such an instance you will be doing the right thing to do whatever it takes to be accepted for Ph. D. or master’s degree studies by the university of your choice.

However, whatever the topic of your research, the most important deciding factor, if your dissertation or thesis will be a quality product, is you – the student.

Some know action research by other names, for example, action learning, action science, collaborative inquiry, community-based study, contextual action research, co-operative inquiry, emancipatory research, participatory research, etc.

Action research is “learning by doing”.

This means that a group of people or just one researcher will identify an immediate problem, do something to resolve it, evaluate their efforts and try again if unsuccessful.

Action research aims to solve the practical concerns of people in an immediate problematic situation.

It, simultaneously, adds value to social science, especially on the doctoral level.

The community that is the target for action research often also actively participate in the research.

This means that the people affected by a social problem work with the researcher to study a problem.

They help to collect data, make suggestions and recommendations and use the results of the research to influence social change.

This would be an emic approach to research.

Just to clarify – In terms of the relationship between the researcher and his or her target for research, we can follow either an emic or an etic approach.  

An emic approach to research is where the researcher and the target for the research cooperate in finding a solution to a problem.

An etic approach to research would be where the researcher does research as an observer divorced from the target group.

Action research is a developmental research process.

This means that people not only solve problems by falling back on their current knowledge but also learn and develop new knowledge that they can apply in the future to solve the same or similar problems.

The solutions to problems in one community can often also be used to solve the same or similar problems in other communities.

Action research is typically cyclical in terms of data collection and analysis and starts with identifying a problem, collecting data, analyzing the data, taking action to resolve the problem and evaluating the outcome of the research.

Typically, the participants in the research “own” the problem and they become partners in carrying out the research.

A process of reflective critique is followed, meaning that members of the target group together with the researcher would consider, discuss and decide on a solution to the problem being researched.

It also implies dialectical critique, meaning that the research problem is solved through open critique.

As a researcher, you will probably be concerned that people might not accept your interpretations, ideas and judgements.

This is normal. People often resist change because it creates uncertainty and sometimes even fear.

Sometimes fear has little to do with the potential changes in the immediate environment, but rather with the research process itself.

There is also the risk that change might threaten people’s status and even their relevance to the community.

You will need to address these fears if you are to gain and keep the support of the community with your research.

Such fear is not all bad, though. It is what drives you to do professional research.

The nature of action research raises several possible ethical dilemmas.

Your bias towards the data being collected might damage the quality of your research as well as your relationship with the target group for your research.

Other factors, such as the needs and fears of the target group might contaminate the authenticity and validity of the data that you and the members of the target group collect.

The target group might have a different agenda than you for participating in the research.

Your own diligence and drive, or rather lack of diligence and drive, can hamper the level of your involvement in the research.

You might become too emotionally involved with the target group for the research and the problem being investigated.

The effect on the participants when you withdraw from the community on completion of the research might leave them in a position where they cannot manage the situation on their own.

You will need to consider this and ensure that the community is not damaged by your research.

Examples of paradigms that fit in well with action research are:




The process of action research can be summarized as in the slide given here.

Action research considers theory to inform practice, that is the real situation in a particular context and at a particular point in time.

Theory together with reality is analyzed to transform the status quo, which is to solve a social problem.

Solving a social problem is achieved by following an emic approach and reflective and dialectical critique.

The researcher should consider the possible risk that research can do more harm than good if there is not mutual respect and trust between him or her and the community whose problem is being addressed.

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