Action research aims to create social change in the process of conducting research. Although it is linked to design research through a shared focus on practice, action research’s critique of power and its epistemological insights provide a more critical and holistic foundation. Action research (AR) emphasizes learning by doing, addressing real life problems, increasing participation and bringing together theory and practice in pursuit of practical solutions. In The Handbook of Action Research (2006) Peter Reason and Hilary Bradbury describe AR as a unique manner of conceiving of knowledge and its relation to practice. It is an orientation that enables researchers to take on more complex social problems than traditional social sciences. Action research is a value-oriented approach that is more critically aware of its social, historical and political context than design theory, research and practice. As such AR offers important insights for the learning and communication problems associated with ecological literacy. Action research developed in tandem and was strongly influenced by pragmatic philosophy, liberationist movements, social theory and ecological thought. This chapter will briefly explore the provenance of these ideas and the key concepts coming from each tradition. AR aims to do better research because of the diverse voices that inform the process thereby creating a richer, more nuanced and representational perspective on complex issues. While some forms of action research simply reflect on practice, the more radical AR practices question underlying values. Action research creates a basis for individuals to become more effective agents of social transformation and has a legacy of facilitating change within organizations and wider social movements. These factors make AR a rich field capable of informing design practice in the context of sustainability. Action research is an orientation to inquiry that is participatory, practical, multidisciplinary, systemic and contextual as a deliberate reaction to earlier social research that created a dichotomy between research and action – amongst other identified sites of contention in traditional social sciences, which are explored below.
Chapter Five can be downloaded here.