Action Research in Policy Analysis. Critical and Relational Approaches to Sustainability Transitions

Why is there hardly any action research in policy analysis? This was the question we discussed when we first met in 2012 at the Interpretive Policy Analysis conference. Six years, seven conference panels and one journal symposium (Critical Policy Studies, vol. 8 iss. 4)later, we are part of a vibrant and growing community of action researchers in our field and have published an exciting edited volume with Routledge: ‘Action Research in Policy Analysis. Critical and Relational Approaches to Sustainability Transitions’.

The book is a collaborative product of reflective conversations in our community about action research practices in areas as varied as water management, regional welfare systems, prostitution policy, social integration of Roma, animal husbandry, urban governance, climate change, and elementary schools. In the book, we outline the recent growth in uptake of action research in the fields of policy analysis and transition research. We explore what action research has to offer and demonstrate how it can be engaged in productively.

Our motivation is the claim that action research is a valuable methodology for producing collaborative knowledge and action necessary for addressing today’s pressing societal, political, economic and environmental crises. But to learn how we can generate effective responses and transformative changes, we need to delve into the specific ambitions, challenges, and practices involved with fostering sustainability transitions by co-producing changes in the policy domain.

The core argument of the book is that action research is both critical and relational. It combines a critical stance towards injustices, exclusion, and inequalities with a relational worldview in which action researchers are interconnected with other people and real-world situations and share responsibility for fostering change. Integrating criticality and relationality is challenging: how can we critically question the status quo and push for transformation of deeply engrained habits, narratives and power inequalities, while at the same time maintaining respectful and trustful relationships and pragmatically accepting what is practically possible? Then again, there is great potential for synergy: good relationships enable people to tolerate critique and make changes, while a critical stance to our relational interdependencies can generate transformative ideas and sustainable practices.

We provide a four-tier guiding framework for engaging in these critical-relational dynamics of action research. Each of the ten chapters share their diverse practices of (1) negotiating ‘the starting point’, (2) enacting ‘multiple roles and relationships’, (3) addressing ‘hegemonic structures, cultures, and practices’, and (4) evaluating ‘reflexivity, impact, and change’. The academic contributions are all accompanied by a co-inquirer reflection, providing fascinating alternative perspectives on their experiences with the action research process.

So, we now no longer ask ourselves why there hardly is any action research in our field, but where to next with this burgeoning community? By sharing and reflecting on our action research experiences in this book, we aim to bring into the limelight what is involved with coproducing policy changes and sustainability transitions. We also hope it will trigger interdisciplinary conversations and collaborations with action researchers in other fields. Weaving a wider web of (critical and relational) action research is urgently needed if we want to make waves in addressing the pressing sustainability crises we currently face.

Koen P.R. Bartels is Lecturer in Management Studies at Bangor University, UK, where he teaches courses in public administration and qualitative research. He has published in leading journals, including Urban Studies, Environment and Planning C, Public Administration, Public Administration Review, and International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, as well as a book Communicative Capacity (The Policy Press, 2015).

Julia M. Wittmayer works at the Dutch Research Institute for Transitions, Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Netherlands. With a background in anthropology, she is interested in roles of and social relations and interactions between actors in sustainability transitions (governance).

Citation: Bartels, K.P.R. and J.M. Wittmayer (eds.) (2018) Action Research in Policy Analysis: Critical and Relational Approaches to Sustainability Transitions. London: Routledge.