Action research: a way of researching or a way of managing?

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Colleges, School and Institutes


Scrutinising recent systematic reviews both on action research and on the management of change in organisations, we have made two observations which, we believe, clarify a rather amorphous literature. First, by comparing formal descriptions of each, action research cannot be clearly distinguished from many other change methodologies. This applies particularly to total quality management (TQM). Both action research and TQM are cyclical activities involving examination of existing processes, change, monitoring the apparent effects of the change and further change. Both emphasise active participation of stakeholders. The examples used to illustrate action research would serve equally well as examples of TQM and vice versa. Second, the methods used in action research are neither specific to action research nor are they of any particular kind. It therefore follows that action research, in so far as it purports to describe a unique or discrete form of research rather than a change process, is a misnomer. Based on these observations, we make two suggestions. Organisational change should be described in terms of the steps actually taken to effect change rather than in 'terms of art' which, like the various brands of post-Freudian psychotherapy, obscure what they have in common rather than illuminate substantive differences. And the research embedded in any cyclical managerial process can have two broad (non-exclusive) aims: to help local service managers to take the next step or to assist managers in other places and in future years to make decisions. These can be described as limited (formative) and general (summative) aims. Whether, or to what extent, a research finding is generalisable across place and time is a matter of judgement and turns on the form of the research and on its context; it is completely independent of whether or not the research was carried out within a cycle of managerial action currently described by terms such as action research or TQM.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)100-104
Number of pages5
JournalJournal of Health Services Research & Policy
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 31 Dec 2004