This is a version of my editorial just published in Educational Action Research, a journal I co-edit with colleagues in the UK, USA, Australia and Austria.
Governments in many parts of the world are increasingly concerned with demonstrating the results of their research investments. Research funding schemes are not only being steered strongly towards politically framed agendas, but there is also considerable pressure placed on universities and researchers to show how their research results have traction beyond the academy.
The notion of research with ‘impact’ has gained considerable currency in the United Kingdom and in the United States of America. ‘Impact’ is not only common parlance, but is now integral to the way in which the quality of university research is judged. In the last UK Research Excellence Framework, universities had to provide ‘evidence’, in narrative form, of how the research conducted by their academic staff had had an influence on policy, media and public understanding, and/or various publics. Government funding for higher education research is subsequently distributed on the basis of this audit exercise. All applications for UK Research Council funding also have to have an ‘impact plan’ which shows how their research will be communicated to, and taken up by designated ‘user ‘communities.
The idea that research might make a difference is integral to action research. We want to make a positive difference. Action researchers might therefore be forgiven for thinking that, in this context, their/our moment in the sun had finally arrived. However, this is not the case. The press for more ‘useful’ research has been accompanied by the elevation of particular research approaches. The gold standard for research in the field of education for example is the randomised controlled trial, a procedure which follows an experimental model often used in medicine and laboratories. There is also in the UK a new emphasis on longitudinal research, and on statistical approaches which assess the relative influence of various correlates on a designated measurable outcome.
These research traditions assume a separation of research from the change that they bring about. First there is the research and then the findings are applied. These research traditions also generally posit a researcher who remains detached from the research process; the research is directed towards something or somebody else. In some of these research traditions, there is adherence to the idea that any form of researcher influence, or any change during the process of research, corrupts the results.
While action researchers may have no particular objections to these kinds of research traditions (some of us also do some of this kind of research), the same is not true in reverse. Action research is most often positioned at the bottom of the contemporary methodological hierarchy. This is not simply because it produces research and change at the same time, rather than as sequential events. Nor is it just because researcher subjectivity, enlisted via processes of reflection, is integral to our practice. It is also because the goal of action research and change is often seen as slight – our sites are the self, various forms of professional practice, the experiences and understandings of small groups of people. The research that is most valued as being ‘impact’-full occurs at scale. Impacting on one person, a small group or a single institution is seen as insignificant.
The impact agenda thus creates a considerable challenge for action researchers. One the one hand, our practice, by definition, does produce change – change that we can and do ‘evidence’. On the other hand, the change is rarely scale-able. One can’t simply take the results of one piece of action research and apply them elsewhere. What is transferable is the practice of action research itself – cycles of reflection and action.
However, the impact agenda does create an opportunity for us to argue for understanding change differently and to place the various results of our action research project into a wider arena. Our research community takes as its starting point that action research enlists the minds, hearts and actions of people and this drives sustainable change. While there is no doubt that big systemic change can be achieved by the manipulation of strategic policy levers, there is also a place for small-scale projects which address not only local concerns but also intractable issues. Action research, and its close relatives – practitioner, practice-based and participatory research – are particularly powerful in local contexts and with ‘wicked problems’. Action research generates hope, energy, optimism, enthusiasm and new ideas.
Action research does achieve what some would call ‘impact’ but in ways somewhat different from those currently in political favour. Perhaps part of the lack of regard for the work undertaken by the action research community is that our research projects are never combined as meta-studies. While action research never features in ‘evidence’ based reviews based in experimental models of research, there are other ways of conducting a meta-study – the narrative review (see this guide to their conduct) and the meta-ethnography (Noblit & Hare, 1988) for example. Our community may be better regarded in the discursive struggles over what counts as impact if we are able to develop more systematic ways of looking at our aggregated work around particular topics of concern.
The impact agenda is unlikely to go away in a hurry and all signs are that it will increase in importance. As a community, action researchers have a clear choice about whether to see this as a threat or as also, and at the same time, a chance to showcase what we can do. We can take as a small optimistic sign the interest of both the UK arts and humanities and social science research councils in participatory research traditions. There is a place for us to begin to marshal our own ‘evidence’.
Noblit, G., & Hare, G. D. (1988). Meta-ethnography: synthesising qualitative studies. Thousand Oaks: Sage.