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Social impact and the justification of action research knowledge

Blog post by Bjørn Gustavsen, Work Research Institute, Norway

Research is under the obligation to produce knowledge that can be generalized. The common way of meeting this challenge is for research to study a limited number of phenomena, construct a theory, and claim that this theory is valid also for phenomena not studied. For action research, this way is deeply problematic, for two reasons: First, because of the action dimension: action research generally works with small units, such as groups where face-to-face relationships are possible. Second, because the main task of action research is concretization, which means to take concepts like democracy and participation and demonstrate what such concepts imply when turned into practice. Rather than texts where generalizability is claimed, generalization becomes equal to the direct dissemination of this knowledge to other people, like ripples in the water.water ripple

Several action researchers have recognized this point and have started to explicitly consider how projects in specific field sites can be structured in such a way that impulses can cross the site boundaries and reach out in society. The article summarizes some of the initiatives taken in this context and uses experience from work reform initiatives in the Scandinavian countries to suggest broader perspectives on this issue. A core point is to see specific action research projects as unfolding within frameworks set by society level discourses on issues like democracy, autonomy and participation, where a main task for action research is to provide discursive links between the field sites and society. The justification of action research knowledge is no longer its correspondence to realities in single cases, nor to abstract theory, but its ability to reach out in society and influence the thoughts and actions of a growing number of people.

Bjørn Gustavsen

Bjørn Gustavsen

Bjørn Gustavsen

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