Action Researching at Boston College

Professor Paul Gray in conversation with Hilary Bradbury about a popular action research program for doctoral students. 

Paul Gray is a professor in the department of sociology at Boston College where he helped design a successful and popular program for action researching scholar practitioners. It started in the 1980’s.  For many years Paul taught and advised doctoral students in this and other programs.  Paul will retire this year. He remains associate editor for ARJ (Action Research journal) where he’s planning a new Special Issue. The call for papers is due out later this year, stay tuned!

Paul and I spoke about meeting the needs of students interested in how academia helps enrich their practice as scholar practitioners, as change agents, seeking to make an informed  difference. 

Who were the students your program wanted to serve?

Generally we attracted talented professionals who felt they’d run into a career dead-end. People who wanted to use the best tools and measures to make the case for a new strategy in their career sphere.  We sought, in response, to design a program to make them skillful in doing that.  We emphasized doing that in a valid or rigorous way. Action research was the heart of that.  For us it means checking things out, examining assumptions, continuous learning with stakeholders.  It’s not for everyone!  In this work of being a rigorous and vigorous change agent, there is often a pretty intensive exposure to conflict in the organization in which the student is doing the action research.  Ability to deal with conflict is part of that work.  This takes skills and skill development.

Tell me about how you got your popular program off the ground.

It grew quickly; it was popular! By the third cohort we had 18 doctoral students (note to readers, that’s a lot for a  doctoral program!). We used the Action Research resources we had then – there were not so many before the Handbooks of Action Research – we had Bill Torbert’s work, Peter Reason’s, Ernie Stringer’s and Bill Joiner’s.

Some of our students were choosing our new program over better known or more prestigious ones nationally. Our program was operating in tandem with a more conventional scholarly Ph.D. program and it also overlapped with an MBA/PhD joint degree, offered in collaboration with Boston College’s School of Management.  While our scholar-practitioner PhD was not intended to produce academics, it turned out that several alumni did go on to become professors, some now tenured.

Give me a taste of the type of work the students did.

We had students such as Patrick Withen doing Action Research in the National Forest Service; he was inquiring with the firefighters about the morale gap between themselves and their leaders in Washington, DC. There was Mary Ellen Boyle who published a book from her dissertation, called The New Schoolhouse. In this she investigated why companies pay for educating their workers.

An example?

One student, Ivan Brown, offers a good example.  He wrote a good dissertation having been invited into Franklin Management, later, Trillium, Joan Bavaria’s organization, at the time one of the first socially responsible financial funds.  He was invited in during a rebellion! There were fund managers who were simply not comfortable with the new “sustainability” rules. These rules meant, for example, they couldn’t perhaps invest in so called “blood diamonds”  even if the return was terrific. Basic questions of what is acceptable came into view. Fund managers wondered, is this unethical? Are we not to make as much money as we can for our clients? 

Ivan was an honest broker. I recall Ivan telling me of some of the fund managers lining up to talk with him after a stormy meeting with Joan the CEO. It was her vision for social responsibility that was new at the time. Joan found Ivan’s work incredibly valuable in navigating the new vision. His dissertation resulted in some fund managers leaving the organization as they realized they were just not a good fit for the vision.

What does this tell us about skills for action researchers? 

Action researchers  have to be persuasive; they can’t be abrasive… Especially if they’re not invited in. (Ivan was invited in on the suggestion of Bill Torbert who was serving as a director on Joan’s advisory board). Action researchers have to have a long fuse, not get into the debates, especially early on, but focusing on being very curious.

If inquiry is important, why is it so few graduate programs even mention what in Action Research we now call “second person inquiry/practice skills?”  Is it perhaps considered simply too hard to teach, or is curiosity and inquiry mistaken for a personality trait?

Students and faculty must have a deep desire for understanding…and sometimes that is missing…it’s a rather deep curiously that is needed; it’s a subtle matter. I always mentioned it in my classes. 

And tis curiosity – and ability to listen – is key also in other action research programs I’ve helped develop.  For example I was involved with a number of faculty in the certificate program called Leadership for Change [note: designed and led by Steve Waddell while he was a student in the PhD/MBA program at Boston College;  Steve is a steward in AR+]. Leadership for Change ran for 17 years. In that we taught a complete module based on Bill Torbert’s action inquiry/collaborative developmental work. We brought this to participants especially when teaching about individual (different from an emphasis on social systems’) models for change. In that we could see curiosity was key.  Early on in the program, the practitioners i.e., action researchers, reflect on the difficult conversations in their personal life.  Invariably difficulty had arisen because of the attributions made at the start but which were not checked and which may or may not be true…Practicing to bring real inquiry got the participants to the substance required to transform their conversations, make them more productive.  Then their attributions got grounded. Real learning could develop.

I am thinking of Marja Liisa Swantz’ who coined the term “Participative Action Research” when doing her field work in Tanzania in the 70’s.  Do you see the engagement with inquiry in Action Research relating to its roots in anthropology?

Yes. Action Research is a kind of extended fieldwork – open to any and all contact with stakeholders.  That’s really important in the beginning.

What have you learned as you reflect on all this work over the years in support of Action Research in doctoral programs?

Generally I find that methods are not taken as seriously as they should be…students are often not self conscious choice-makers with regard to the appropriate method for their question.  They may not know a lot about action research and then it’s too late.  If the research problem gets all the attention without being considered with intervention and stakeholders as part of it, it’s simply too late.  So I’ve learned it would be helpful to get the input of action researcher advisors much earlier in the dissertation conversation.

Thesis advisors have a huge impact! If the student selects (or is given) a conventional researcher as an advisor in the problem definition phase, i.e., before considering methods and methodologies, then it is very hard to bring action research to students’ attention. 

I’m hearing you also emphasize curiosity – respect – mutuality – ability to see complexity as skills for the action researcher.

Action Research is almost a philosophy of life! There are the [expert] tech- types who want the best statistical methods without much attention to the people in the organization. This gets supported now with the hiring of of quantitative junior faculty.  Some are full of soul and, well, some are not! The best work is done by those who share respect for the people they study, the co-researchers as we call them in action research.  I am amazed and dismayed by how little of the humanity of researchers and their “subjects” comes across in some of the journals I review for. ARJ is obviously an exception! I question the value of these quantitative measures when inappropriately used. Their very validity is jeopardized because of the disregard for engaging with the stakeholders. Action research ensures more valid outcomes.

What value does ARJ/AR+ offer in all this?

We make things better by providing a place for people who are committed to making change. We can connect those without much support systems to the AR research community! It’s a place where their work is respected.

And the power of the mainstream? The dominance of conventional methods?

Some people still teach objectivity – they want so-called “pristine research!” It’s an idea that is hard to defend, yet still it continues.  Action Research seizes the opportunity (the fall of the empire of objectivity!) and makes a virtue out of it…we can have higher validity by engaging with stakeholders. This is really important for the conventionally minded to understand. Action research results in work that is reliable and valid…If I have to pick one it has to be validity.  Action Research improves validity! 90% of “pristine”  methods are never used again!

And most social science papers are never even cited! What an incredible waste. I have become concerned that academic social science is an obstacle to social transformation. This is a time when we are moving into runaway climate change. We are also confronting how unsustainable our institutions are. Academia too. It seems ironic that so many academics who likely do not wish to be obstacles to change may be supporting a system that prevents change. Insisting on objectivity where rigorous intervention would be more helpful…what a waste of resources.

Action Research means a higher likelihood that findings get listened to…but it’s a big cultural struggle. It’s hard to be an academic these days.  The tenure track is disappearing. Academia is less fulfilling! In the midst of these broader cultural trends, at least action researchers get to do the interesting stuff! Many students want more of this.

Thank you Paul. Thanks or your service to ARJ.  We will hear more from you as you develop the call for papers for an ARJ special issue.  Our intention with having it be part of the journal is to highlight the best of action research in its cross pollination with conventional research methods among scholar practitioners. It’s intended to build bridges so graduate students can see how to connect up conventional and action researching methods.  Stay tuned to the call for paper which be out later this year.  Papers will be due late 2019:

These notes are excerpted from a longer audio file of my conversation with Paul.

Paul S. Gray is Associate Professor of Sociology at Boston College.  He received his A.B. from Princeton, an M.A. from Stanford, and the Ph.D. from Yale University.  He is principal author of The Research Imagination, a comprehensive methods text published by Cambridge University Press.  This work includes a lengthy section on Action Research.