Awakening to Action Research Plus Participative Policy: Action Dialogue with Miren Larrea

Dr Miren Larrea

Hilary: My dialogue with Miren Larrea is part of  our blog thread on liberating the Ivory Tower leading us to our AR+ Chalmers Gathering in March 2019.  Miren is an action researcher at Orkestra in Spain’s Basque region with a PhD in economics. Her work focuses on participatory policy & ‘power to the people’ governance.  

Miren what’s important to you in your action research these days?

Miren: For years my action research team has been seen by other policy experts as working in very local policy efforts. That is changing now. Now we’re also reaching to international audiences of policymakers with what we have learned from our local action research. This moment of going more international is the result of quite a few years of hard work.

Hilary.  Policy work seems to be exciting these days.  I’ve been admiring the Podemos party in your own country.  They seem to be aiming for democracy that is participatory.  Isn’t it ironic how  unusual that is. And I feel optimism when I read about Audrey Tang in Taiwan. She is a talented hacker type who became part of the Taiwan government. She put her high tech skills to “unbundle” democracy and foster policy with citizens. Finally! Seems exciting as democracy itself is more fragile than we knew. That word “with” is worth lingering on.  It’s very important to us as action researchers. And for democracy.  How do you go about this in your policy work?

Miren: We work trying to make conflict explicit in a way that those involved in policy making can handle it. For example we have a quite a critical vision of the projects we’re collaborating on with local government  Tomorrow, for example, I have a meeting with the policymakers on a city council. So as usual I’ll look for ways to softly uncover the conflict, get it into the agenda so we we can work it.

Hilary.  Good action researchers need to work with conflict, don’t we. We rarely like it though.

Miren:  People say to me you are the one who likes conflict. But I don’t for sure.  I think that we need to make it explicit in order to manage and take the new step. To make things move. We then work a lot also as a follow up on how to construct a shared vision. We help have a dialogue about the differences so we know what people can agree.  And not.  What we don’t agree on is also important. If we can agree on something then we can find enough space to take action. But we don’t have to agree on everything to build enough shared vision.

Hilary: Are you helping people see that lack of agreement is not about ill will. It’s just, hey we see the world differently sometimes. I know that’s easy to say.  I am amazed at how hard it is for us as a species to remember that in the heat of arguments.  We probably all know it theoretically, but we get reactive —oops I am speaking from personal experience!  But it it sounds as though your efforts bring some momentum, some life back in the system. I am guessing here, but maybe policy is needs a little life.  It’s not the most lively of spaces to be?!

Miren.  The main problem as we saw it is that things just stagnate. We’ve elaborated our own practice over the years to work with that. We saw, after a lot of money was invested, nothing was really moving. Nothing happened! What’s with that?! And what we realized  – it’s the conflicting interests. But making the conflict explicit has a price. And rather than pay the price, everyone acted politically correctly and things stagnated. Stagnation was the cost.

Hilary: I’ve been in group meetings like that!  But you have to be careful I bet. What you make explicit will cause some hurt and then you’re be the one rubbing the cat up the wrong way as we say in Ireland. The messenger can get shot if she’s not careful.

Miren: I like that image of a potentially dangerous cat, but she can also be an agreeable cat.  Our action research processes have developed very much on using dialogue to first detect the conflict of interest that are stagnating processes. Then we see how we can make them slowly emerge in a way that they can be handled by the participants.

Hilary: Im curious what drives you to want to get to the truth of things? Get people to be real? Also to bring those people along with you.  Is it difficult work?

Miren: I think I learned something about this in my PhD. And I have felt the need to use it in my work ever since. The important of doing something to shake things up.  There is a kind of growing realization now that governments alone cannot do policy. They need to involve other actors of the system. This shakes things up.

Hilary: Lucky you – sounds like you got to make your dissertation research useful.

Miren.  It wasn’t so easy or so quick…Not at all.  I have reflected a great deal about my education as a phd. It transformed me. Just not in a way I’d care to repeat!  You see I was educated in a very strict, conventional way. I was told that there was one scientific method. We simply did not discuss different approaches. I learned not to interact with anyone because they would contaminate the object of my study. So I did an econometric study using statistical methods. The regional government published my thesis. Even delivered them to policymakers. At first I was so thrilled. But I never got any sign of impact from it.

Hilary: I see a parallel. You had talked to no-one. Then no one talked to you. Ouch.

Miren: I mean, absolutely nothing happened. And that was a kind of a shock for me. Because I had been working on this for four years. But I had never actually stopped to think how it was going to have influence. So when nothing happened, I felt sad. I felt kind of empty. I had a good university position by then.  It was a good position, a good contract.  And I couldn’t really tell why but I had to say “okay, I’m leaving the university. I need to do this.” I had learned something in my PhD and I needed to use it. To do something to change things for the better. To solve problems.

Hilary: Yet today you are a researcher back at the university and you work also with students?

Miren: Yes I am at a policy institute with strong ties to a university.  And I have been asked to teach students do more useful research. So I teach action research. I tell my students my sad story.  How unhappy I was. And I introduce action research is a way of doing research that can make some of us happier.

Hilary:  That’s a marvelous story because there’s so much emotion in it. You felt empty. You wanted to do something that was useful. I feel very connected to your story. I believe it may well be a common story among action researchers. And now today you pay it forward. You’re teaching students, you’re making something new possible for the next generation. Who may even need it more than you.

Miren: The students at least know action research exists. And then those who are interested will contact me and we can continue talking about it. I think that’s very important for me. And that is what I tell the students. I want you to think whether this is something useful for you. Or not. And that’s usually the assignment they have. It’s a short assignment: why I am or not using action research in my dissertation. So that at least they are conscious about these choices. Now they’re choosing for themselves.

Hilary: I’m wondering your thoughts about joining us at Chalmers. How does it sound to you to be part of knitting together various efforts among action researchers around the world? Is there value in that for you with what you yourself are up to?

Miren:  We have gotten a lot of recognition from our stakeholders who really value this way of doing research in the policy arena. I think we have even gained also some credibility inside the university and the institute. So I think it’s time to use some of our energy in more a multi lateral learning community. Looking beyond ourselves.  What you’re saying resonates very well with our moment.

Hilary: Timing is everything! We are lucky then. Can we do something to support your faculty and students in learning more about action research I wonder?

Miren: A colleague just approached me and asked if we can organize a kind of a summer school. We could invite our students and maybe the participation of AR+ community.

Hilary: Good idea.  Let’s partner in some kind of experiment.  At the top of our AR+ agenda is how to cook up a global learning platform.  We’ve referred to it as a virtual university for action oriented transformation researchers. 

Miren: Let’s look to have such a meeting soon after Chalmers.  And let’s see what we can accomplish in the meantime.  I look forward to meeting in person at Chalmers.

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