What do we actually do — take two?


Acting captures the spirit of “action research,” differentiating it from the traditional academic practice of walling off knowledge “discovery,” even in the social sciences, from the messy realms of practice, policy, and “application,” and from distancing researchers from subjects of analysis. It is the close linkage of inquiry to action which opens the door to those closest to the action to “participate,” or indeed to own the entire process, as for example when groups of teachers, managers or shop floor workers undertake to analyze and improve aspects of their work environment. “Act” as a heuristic can therefore mean whatever those involved in the project feel is useful to distinguish from other processes – thus, conducting an interview, building a playground, or analyzing community approaches to reducing flood risk can all be acts, as can “connecting” activities like meeting co-researchers or playing with kids, or planning activities like working with community members to design improved toilet facilities.

Acting in a SAL project requires paying attention in a variety of ways. You should have in mind your plan and be paying attention to what you are trying to do and how that relates to both your strategy and intentions. If things don’t go exactly as planned (and they seldom do), you need to revise your plans in the moment, so you need to be thinking in terms of your strategy and finding other ways to realize that strategy. Or you may even need to change your strategy. It requires attention to both what you are doing and what is happening in response to what you are doing at the same time and thinking about what it all means in real time. This is reflection-in-action where you have to act and react, where you need to question your plans and re-plan on the fly. It is why we will be encouraging you to think of many actions as “scenes” that are often somewhat improvisational. You have a plan and then you act and sometimes you stick to your plan and sometimes the plan goes out the window. Sometimes you make up a new plan on the fly and sometimes you call a timeout and stop and think a bit – reflection on action.

There are no solid rules for knowing when to change your plan, when to question your strategy, or even when to recast your intentions. Luckily as a human being you have some innate skill and a lifetime of practice of interacting with other humans to draw upon. You also have each other, your advisors, your sponsor, and your co-researchers to help you.