ART offers a vital vehicle for social science today

Action Research Transformations, a meta-methodology for social scientists, offers a primary vehicle for the kind of study and learning needed today. Our collogue on this topic began in April and continues through 2022. Over the summer at the Academy of Management Conference in Seattle AR+ hosted a symposium (and a book launch party!)

Our goal was update notions of action research and attract more people who are interested in the contemporary promise of this work for our times of eco-social crisis. The recording from the SYMPOSIUM AVAILABLE here requires post-conference registration with AOM. 

For those not registered, however, you’ll find a “play by play” digest below with further links to materials relevant to each of the five presentations within the symposium. There’s also a related podcast in which ARTists Miren Larrea and Carey West talk with Jemma Llewellyn about the ART of transforming power which appears in the yes/and PODCAST series  

The Symposium Cast of Characters 

  • Hilary Bradbury is curator at AR+ and Editor in Chief at Action Research Journal, where she raises consciousness about ART (action research for transformations) while organizing the global field of action researchers through Hilary shares the meta-model of ART (3 spaces, 7 choicepoints) and uses it to illustrate large scale change at the Port of Los Angeles.
  • Miren Larrea is senior researcher with Orkestra Institute, a think-tank at Deusto U, Spain.  Miren presents her work as an action researcher in territorial development. The focus is on a case of ART with policy makers and politicians in the Basque region of Spain where action research has been used for decades extending the original success of Mondragon, the world’s leading cooperative.
  • Aftab Erfan is Chief Equity officer with The City of Vancouver, BC, Canada.  Aftab (in absentia) presents a case of ART with 10,000 employees which emphasizes adult developmental perspective.
  • Ken Gergen is Professor Emeritus at Swathmore College and Principal at the Taos Inst. Ken is known for bringing social construction to the world of psychology and for emphasizing the relational component of constuctivism. Acting as discussant, he frames the wider implications of ART and presents it as a primary vehicle for the kind of study and learning most needed today.
  • Dana Carman a member of AR+| Action Research Plus Foundation and principal at Dana Carman Integral Executive Coaching and Organizational Development consultancy acts as moderator. Dana leads a brief mediation to help us all get underway. Then…

Digest of the Symposium Presentations

Dr. Hilary Bradbury frames Action Research for Transformations as offering a viable alternative to to normal social science at this time of eco-social crisis. ART is an invitation to bigger, more impactful work. In the context of the Academy, it’s an invitation to heal the gown / town (university-community) gap. She says, for simplicity’s sake, that ART happens in three spaces: Relational, Conceptual and Experimental spaces. These three spaces are present in action research that she has seen over decades of reading action research manuscripts, as well as being engaged in the work with students, scholars and organizational managers. The relational is usually taken for granted.

Keeping in mind that ART is about transformation she notes up front that we have to work within ongoing “feudal” power to reach toward mutuality. None of us is especially good at this. ART is therefore a transformation of self and system. Together. She introduces the first of three ART examples we’ll hear today.

Example #1 at the Port of Los Angeles

ART at the Port of Los Angeles started when a multi-disciplinary team from University of Southern California (led by Hilary) partnered with executives from the Port of Los Angeles. Together they convened a group of representatives along the cargo transshipment system (truckers, shippers, manufacturers, retailers etc).

Convening the representative system of stakeholders in a well facilitated relational space created a learning context in which the group of executives could begin to reframe issues together. For example the research team aggregated each stakeholder’s confidential data on pollution and CO2 and developed a carbon calculator (with help from friends at MIT). When the impact of collective actions was visible, the group could agree on ‘low hanging fruit’ that could reduce CO2 emissions. After this initial success, each stakeholder could look at what’s next. New insights and policy spread through ports in US and from there to rest of the world, via the port conference networks. Less visible, though at least as important, was the social impact of this work.  We created a learning system in which people could be partners rather than customers to one another and we reduced pollution in the LA Basin which particularly impacts children in low income communities.

This case helps illustrate and clarify the Meta-Model of ART. In addition to the three spaces of relational, conceptual and experimental work, of the model there are also seven quality choicepoints which can be used to assess and to guide improvements.  These comprise: #1 INTENTION (we helped make a more sustainable port); #2 PARTENRSHIP (we worked with key players along the cargo transshipment route).  #3 METHODS: We used participative, experiential methods for systems mapping and understating one another and then built in more rigor with quantitative methods, such as the carbon calculator. #4 CONTRIBUTION: As a multidisciplinary team there were multiple publications and, more immediately, we had measurable – and large – positive impact on the work of the port(s). #5 ACTIONABILITY refers to how we clarified how others can use the work; #6 RELEVANCE demonstrates that the actionability worked! The work migrated to healthcare transformation efforts in Sweden. #7 DEVELOPMENTAL REFLEXIVITY: each of us was learning to become partners in interdependence rather than remaining as independent players, as we had arrived into the system.


Dr. Miren Larrea presents a case from Spain’s Basque country. It is an example of how ART is influencing policy making transformations in the development of the territory.

What’s new is exploring ways of bringing personal development to territorial development. This is new for the regional actors. The emphasis is on developmental reflexivity within relational space. 

This emphasis was a bit resisted at the beginning however now an exciting developmental experiment is underway. In it we are focusing on inquiring, relating …Note: this work is not primarily theoretical, but allows for emergence of improvement within the system of SMEs. We work as learning partners and seek to define the policies that affect their small and medium businesses.

Miren’s team’s questions can be categorized in three:

 #1 Inquiry: How do we connect with other democratization processes? How are we careful not to undermine the communitarian ethos with our new focus on personal development?

#2 Relating. We differentiate informal and formal spaces. In the former, we’re focusing more on “caring” and “love” which informs the formal policy making/political context. Our efforts go beyond the common talk of “trust.” We practice with the courage to be honest in giving and receiving feedback.

#3 Regards power. We are talking more about empowerment inside what have been hierarchical power systems that are being democratized.  There are many micro experiments.

Miren concludes “ART is helping us transform!” (Note: Miren is part of a podcast interview on her work (AR+ Yes/And Podcast #2) and shares more details on how the power and love aspect of the work came into being and how it’s having an impact.


Dr. Aftab Erfan, Chief Equity Officer at City of Vancouver, BC. Hilary speaks for Aftab who had to step away at the last minute due to Covid.  Hilary uses Aftab’s slides. 

The City of Vancouver BC has 10, 000 employees. This is not small easy work!

Aftab is leading both a new way to theorize new ways in which organizing is happening – and emphasizing bridging ties. Also

Working with power…which happens by reframing within explicit conversations. For all this Relational space is so important, as that creates the context for the conversations that bring new ways of organizing together.

In all this Aftab emphasizes developmental reflexivity. Aftab reminds us that the success of this work requires attention to personal interiority.

Participant input was welcomed:

Professor Hanna from Finland highlights the value of starting with a systems approach in all contexts of ART as this shapes the building of a platform with learning partners across the system.  This is useful for her work in Finland.


Prof. Emeritus Ken Gergen (who put relational into social construction) acted as discussant.  Over all he expresses enthusiasm about ART’s pragmatic constructivism.  Ken Gergen also discusses the implications of what he’s seeing and hearing in ART.


Ken explains: “There is a lot at stake.  So let’s think about this work in a broader way. Notice that management science has inherited a “predict-control” model of knowledge which presumes a fixed world in which objectivity is possible.


However, reality is in flux and flow. The study of reality is changing it! We carry agendas; we bring a values orientation to how we study and learn. We need to rethink this model in light of reality – and the landscape of relating.

ART is a primary vehicle for the kind of study and learning. It presumes change as it helps make desired change happen. ART is a paradigm shift from observational to creative mode


Ken takes special delight in 1) the vital emphasis on participation; 2) openness of the meta-methodology (there are many ways to do ART!) and 3) the passion invested which it brings life

There is an imperative here…we cannot afford to just feed one another with academic papers! We are called to respond to the eco-social crisis

Prof. Gergen ends his discussion of ART by saying he’d like to see more 1. generative theory and 2. practices that others can use for say networking; peace building etc. 3. clarity on the pedagogical implications beyond logocentrist orientation. When learning is recognized as happening in the doing then words become practice; practice caught in words and books are part of the dialogue.

  • He concludes “ART is heartening and I wish you well with it!” Link to more Ken Gergen has to say on the intersection of ART and social construction here:


Prof. Emeritus Bill Torbert. Bill was unable to be with us or to share a presentation due to illness.  We want to note, however, that at the heart of Bill’s work is thinking of the shift from observational to creative as a developmental difference in social science. It’s the result of a developmental maturity in the field and is carried by social scientists capable of responding to the complexity of reality. They can both observe and intervene.  This is not just a different way of doing social science. It’s qualitatively different.  We need more such social scientists. In the terms of ART, we need more ARTists. 

Participant comments/Q&A and Dialogue

Prof. Julie Stoford Walker from George Washington says she’s “on fire.” Loves the “big tent” approach here and how this symposium can inform her work with faculty colleagues. As more faculty realize we needing to move beyond re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Can we open the doors and the windows of the Academy?!


Response: Faculty need have spaces for peer learning with colleagues outside their schools. There are so many resources to be shared. For example at AR+ we work with faculty from universities that bring ART throughout their whole programs, e.g., De La Salle University in Manila, or Aalborg in Denmark in which the action orientation is throughout the schools and programs. More typically we see ART in professional schools and peer networks allow contagion, from e.g., University Technology Sydney to similar programs in other countries. Miren’s work offers also a good example of involving doctoral students in a way they can apprentice to ART.


Question: The issue of developmental reflexivity is new. What are unique challenge to integrate personal and community development?


Miren replies: Basques are proud of our communitarian values; we have cooperatives (Mondragon etc). So we first found resistance to personal development work. It was seen as alien that personal transformation is connected to group transformation. Now it’s an experiment around the idea that “if I transform, my community transforms with me – because we are not separate.” It’s a reframing of how we have separated individual and community and we are doing the work to show how the two can be integrated.


To take one example concerning maturity. Consider how each of us prefers to work with feedback at different stages of our life. When we are young we don’t like criticism! So, it takes maturity to practice with giving and receiving feedback as we work with others. Seeing our default mode allows us to make improvements. In a policy making context this is about opening our closed systems to learning partners’ influence. The ongoing experiment therefore started by doing a baseline assessment on how people involved view and enact power, inquiry and collaboration.


Miren concludes. We’re not here to primarily observe. We need to transform. We’re mobilizing actors in Basque territory to build our future together. Our research is now part of that change. We have a huge opportunity with our research. It’s a responsibility to do all we can so our research impact is positive. This means accepting the political dimension


A participant comments in closing: The speakers are normalizing that we are creating the future in our research. This is not a conversation I grew up with inside the academy or in my Yale doctoral program. Thank you!


Hilary concludes by showing a global map of AR+ learning partners. She explains that AR+ seeks to bring Northern and Southern action research approaches together. We have 40 or so individual members (e.g., individuals leading consultancies) and 7 or so think-tank and universities, e.g., De La Salle University in Manila, or Aalborg in Denmark in which the action orientation is throughout the schools and programs. We all meet up inside AR+. We have coLABs for peer learning. We work around certain issue such as politics of caring; we are generating theory and clarity of practices. We have a space to give and receive feedback on our work! It is a community of developmental friendship.

The work of facilitation – and learning to facilitate and teach – is noble work.

We’re inviting educators and change leaders into development with one another.  This is an invitation into, in the terms of the book on ART (Elgar, 2022) that the symposium helped launch, “developmental friendship.”


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