Inquiry capabilities and preferences for navigating full cycle action research

‘I see where you’re coming from’ –

By: Yoland Wadsworth


In the following four vignettes are just some of the familiar challenges of attempting to inquire ‘full cycle’ together from ‘how things are’ to ‘how things could  be better’ to trialling, refining and ultimately routinizing practice in ‘how we now do things round here’, until the need for change arises again.

action research cycle

From observation to deeper reflection. Or not.

The group has just sat down together for the first time to meet and hear from everyone about their different experiences of the complex situation that everyone agrees is not working well. The facilitator has achieved agreement on the participatory action research process and a sequence of inquiry and begins the first round robin.

After two heartfelt accounts of what people have experienced, the third person to speak (who is the manager of the service) says: ‘I don’t think we need to go back over all this. I’d like to move on to a plan of what is going to be done about it, because I think that’s obviously really urgent’. One other person quickly agrees. The other seven sit in silence. How will the group have the wisdom to realise the preferences of a few are just about to short-circuit the group’s inquiring ‘full cycle’?

From action to observation. Or not.

Many of the practitioners know they have a problem listening to consumers but don’t believe there is any point looking into it. They say, variously, ‘We tried to fix it once before but that didn’t work (we told then it wouldn’t); We can’t see any better way, this is just the way it has to be; People are bound to be negative and I’m not going to put up with that, We work hard, and this job is difficult enough as it is; We can’t involve everyone and the squeaky wheels wouldn’t be representative;  Well of course I’d love to know what they really think but there’s no part of my job that says I’m a researcher; The last thing I want is a researcher coming in here not understanding how things are round here and telling me what to do’.

A lone voice of a colleague says ‘We must listen to our consumers’ but thinks, well that’s going to be trouble, anyway I know what they’re going to say; why don’t they listen to my ideas for a change’. How will the group have the wisdom to realise the preferences of all of its members are just about to short-circuit the group’s capacity to keep inquiring ‘full cycle’?

Dialogue about action across difference. Or not.

There have been two things happening with the new action research project’s meetings. If those with formal educations and plenty of cultural capital feel comfortable enough to speak, then those who do not, stop coming to the meetings (‘I just knew I wasn’t using the right words; I felt confused and needed more time to think things through, They didn’t want to hear what I was saying’).

On the other hand, if the meetings are facilitated equally skilfully and the latter feel comfortable enough to speak, and their attendance begins to go up, the former group excuse themselves (‘I’m so sorry I have a really urgent report to finish’, ‘I can just stay 20 minutes then I’ll look forward to hearing what you’ve came up with’, or later one tells a colleague ‘honestly they didn’t have a clue about why we are doing it this way, they’ll just slow us down’). How will the group have the wisdom to realise that the there is a split that will mean that the whole group will not be able to inquire ‘full cycle’ together?

From new plans to scaled-up experimental action. Or not.

The action research group has worked well over a year to explore the issues, share observations, draw new conclusions and trial some of the changes. There is a lot of energy in the group as a really innovative solution has been generated from practice and thoroughly thought-through. It has however recently become clear that there is something important going on outside the group that is impinging on their ability to trial it.

They approach the most relevant external player with an invitation to join the inquiry group, but that senior professional says the service is already using the best-practice evidence-based model available internationally and thinks it would be unscientific for changes to be suggested by local staff and their consumers. How will that external group have the wisdom to realise the value of inquiring ‘full cycle’ at every scale including the local?


Short-circuiting across the cycle, being blocked or stuck at some point, everyone wanting to start in a different place, some not wanting to start at all – these are common occurrences with which not only skilled action research facilitators have to deal, but also all people, human groups, organisations and communities, and seemingly pretty much all of the time.

Yet in action research we regularly insist that all of us are ‘already doing action research’ in that we all know how to act, observe, reflect, plan and alter action – indeed how else could it be that our species has managed to survive for 200,000 years if we were unable to skilfully and repeatedly ‘inquire for life’?

Yet why is it that, in a contemporary, fast-moving, urbanising and increasingly complex world, we have a sense that we are frequently not achieving this effortlessly at all?  And even that we are instead generating systemically insoluble problems – ‘wicked’ we call them, reinvoking a mediaeval concept that 500 years of rational enlightenment was meant to address.

I have begun to approach this paradox from a new perspective, offering in the spirit of ‘going to the roots’, a radical meta-epistemology (Wadsworth 2011 – cf. that can both explain why things are as they are, and offer epistemic pathways back to inquiring ‘full cycle’, through greater understanding of self and others’ characteristically preferred ways of inquiring and the corresponding aspects of the action research inquiry cycle.

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