Action research and the vicious cycle between low status and low impact

Let me be blunt. I’m interested in power. I’m frustrated by the lack of power exercised by those of us involved in action research and related initiatives—systems thinking, transdisciplinarity, design science, team science, sustainability science, integrated assessment, to name just a few. I’m frustrated by our lack of power in setting research and funding agendas and in contributing in the way we should to addressing the big intractable problems that confront our societies—global climate change, organised crime, inequality and poverty, escalating health care costs… you get the picture.

What’s worse is that our lack of power is our own fault. While we criticise disciplinary silos, we have barricaded ourselves into silos of our own. By and large action researchers don’t talk to transdisciplinarians or the team science folks or the integrated assessment folks, and we only occasionally interact with the systems thinkers and design scientists. We have hardly scratched the surface of identifying the similarities and differences in the theories and methods we use. And if we need a new approach, say to problem framing or to dialogue, we’re more likely to reinvent the wheel than to develop a productive collaboration with a group who have already made progress in such an area.

This fragmentation of resources and groups means we don’t have a powerful, growing, maturing, effective body of knowledge to draw on, or a powerful college of peers to assess and advance our work, or leaders with powerful backing to advocate for us when research priorities are set, when funding is allocated, or when initiatives to tackle big problems are established.

The timing could not be worse for launching initiatives to overcome this fragmentation. Metric-driven research assessment means we’re scrambling to produce and publish, with little time to take a big picture view or to engage in the time-consuming business of building new alliances. But the timing could also not be more critical for overcoming the fragmentation. Just think about where you publish. When you are looking for a high-ranking journal, few of our own journals fit the bill—and few of the high-ranking journals will publish our work. We need to break the vicious cycle between low status and low impact.

What can we do? Small steps: Next time you organise a conference, think outside the box for a plenary speaker. Join a listserv or LinkedIn group in a related field that is outside your own core group. Reach out to build new connections.

Big steps: work on effective ways to bring our related fields together. For example, I’ve proposed a new discipline—Integration and Implementation Sciences (I2S, see to provide a conceptual and methods-based foundation we could all contribute to and build on. If you like the idea, join in. If you hate it, propose an alternative. Look for ways to collaborate and build common tools.

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