This is “Doing Research for a Cause”, section 15.2 from the book Sociological Inquiry Principles: Qualitative and Quantitative Methods (v. 1.0).
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Some sociologists engage in research for reasons in addition to or aside from career motivations. These individuals might conduct some form of action research. While action research may be conducted as part of a person’s paid employment, as described in Section 15.1 "Doing Research for a Living", you might also conduct action research as a volunteer working for a cause that you find worthy. If you’ve discovered that you have an interest in sociological research but would rather not pursue a career in research, perhaps some volunteer involvement in action is for you.
Action researchResearch that is conducted for the purpose of creating some form of social change., sometimes referred to as participatory action research, is defined as research that is conducted for the purpose of creating some form of social change. When conducting action research, scholars collaborate with community stakeholdersThe groups or individuals for whom research is of direct benefit or concern. at all stages of the research process with the aim of producing results that will be usable in the community and by scientists. On the continuum of basic to applied research, action research is very far on the applied end of the spectrum. Sociologists who engage in this form of research never just go it alone; instead, they collaborate with the people who are affected by the research. Kristin Esterberg puts it quite eloquently when she says, “At heart, all action researchers are concerned that research not simply contribute to knowledge but also lead to positive changes in people’s lives” (2002, p. 137).Esterberg, K. G. (2002). Qualitative methods in social research. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill. Action research was first developed in the 1960s and 1970s (Freire, 1970)Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed (M. B. Ramos, Trans.). New York, NY: Herder and Herder. for the purpose of empowering individuals in underdeveloped nations (Reason, 1994).Reason, P. (1994). Participation in human inquiry. London, UK: Sage. Since then, action research has become increasingly popular among scholars who wish for their work to have tangible outcomes that benefit the groups that they study.
There are many excellent examples of action research. Some of these focus solely on arriving at useful outcomes for the communities upon which and with whom research is conducted. Other action research projects result in some new knowledge that has a practical application and purpose in addition to the creation of knowledge for basic scientific purposes. A search using the key term action research in Sociological Abstracts will yield a number of examples of the latter type.
One example of action research can be seen in Fred Piercy and colleagues’ (Piercy, Franz, Donaldson, & Richard, 2011)Piercy, F. P., Franz, N., Donaldson, J. L., & Richard, R. F. (2011). Consistency and change in participatory action research: Reflections on a focus group study about how farmers learn. The Qualitative Report, 16, 820–829. work with farmers in Virginia, Tennessee, and Louisiana. Together with farmers in these states, the researchers conducted focus groups to understand how farmers learn new information about farming. Ultimately, the aim of this study was to “develop more meaningful ways to communicate information to farmers about sustainable agriculture.” This improved communication, the researchers and farmers believed, would benefit not just researchers interested in the topic but also farmers and their communities. Farmers and researchers were both involved in all aspects of the research, from designing the project and determining focus group questions to conducting the focus groups and finally to analyzing data and disseminating findings.
Action researchers are interested in social change. For example, Fred Piercy and colleagues conducted research with farmers to understand how best to educate farmers about sustainable agriculture.
Many additional examples of action research can be found at Loyola University Chicago’s Center for Urban Research and Learning (CURL; http://www.luc.edu/curl/index.shtml). At the center, researchers seek “to promote equality and to improve people’s lives in communities throughout the Chicago metropolitan region.” For example, in 2006 researchers at CURL embarked on a project to assess the impact on small, local retailers of new Walmart stores entering urban areas (Jones, 2008).Jones, S. M. (2008, May 13). Cities may mute effect of Wal-Mart. Chicago Tribune. The study found that, while the effect of Walmart on local retailers seems to have a larger impact in rural areas, Chicago-area local retailers did not experience as dramatic an impact. Nevertheless a “small but statistically significant relationship” was found between Walmart’s arrival in the city and local retailers’ closing their doors. This and other research conducted by CURL aims to raise awareness about and promote positive social change around issues affecting the lives of people in the Chicago area. CURL meets this aim by collaborating with members of the community to shape a research agenda, collect and analyze data, and disseminate results.
Perhaps one of the most unique and rewarding aspects of engaging in action research is that it is often interdisciplinary. Action research projects might bring together researchers from any number of disciplines, from the social sciences, such as sociology, political science, and psychology; to an assortment of physical and natural sciences, such as biology and chemistry; to engineering, philosophy, and history (to name just a few). One recent example of this kind of interdisciplinary action research can be seen in the University of Maine’s Sustainability Solutions Initiative (SSI) (http://www.umaine.edu/sustainabilitysolutions/index.htm). This initiative unites researchers from across campus together with local community members to “connect knowledge with action in ways that promote strong economies, vibrant communities, and healthy ecosystems in and beyond Maine.” The knowledge-action connection is essential to SSI’s mission, and the collaboration between community stakeholders and researchers is crucial to maintaining that connection. SSI is a relatively new effort; stay tuned to the SSI website to follow how this collaborative action research initiative develops.
Anyone interested in social change can benefit from having some understanding of social scientific research methods. The knowledge you’ve gained from your methods course can be put to good use even if you don’t have an interest in pursuing a career in research. As a member of a community, perhaps you will find that the opportunity to engage in action research presents itself to you one day. And your background in research methodology will no doubt assist you and your collaborators in your effort to make life better for yourself and those who share your interests, circumstances, or geographic region.