The aim of this short review is to provide a brief look at both Action Research and Grounded Theory as a research method in our consultation research work. Comparing the two allows us to increase our insight into both. Combining the two allows us to tap some of the advantages of both. Importantly, it gives us a very high level understanding of these methods.
Action research in a nutshell
- From Kurt Lewin (1946) onward many descriptions of action research refer to its cyclic or spiral nature. The labels used differ from person to person.
- For Stephen Kemmis and Robin McTaggart each cycle consists of: “plan - act and observe - reflect”.
- Ernie Stringer (1999) chooses the deceptively simple labels “look - think - act”.
- These and other descriptions can be compared to the experiential learning cycle of David Kolb (1986): “concrete experience - reflective observation – abstract generalisation - active experimentation”.
These different versions might be summarised as a two element cycle which alternates between action and critical reflection. In turn, critical reflection can be subdivided into analysis of what has happened, and planning for the next action. A collaborative mindset is seen by many as a core characteristic. That is, Action Research is participatory.
- Action Research bears a strong resemblance to what many practitioners already do - they plan before action. To some extent they notice afterwards what has or hasn’t worked. Action Research benefits from much more careful and systematic and critical planning and review than is common with practitioners.
- The cyclic process confers a valuable flexibility. It isn’t necessary for the action researcher to have a precise research question or a precise research methodology before beginning a research study. Both the research process and the understanding it yields can be refined gradually over time. In other words action research is an emergent process with a dual cycle: an action cycle integrated with a research cycle.
Since grounded theory originated in the work of Barney Glaser and Alselm Strauss (1967) its purpose has been to develop theories which are grounded in the data: which fit the data, which work in practice, and are relevant to the researched situation. It does this by using a particular process for analysing the data. (The description which follows is based on a number of works by Glaser, especially 1992, 1998 and 2001. Although the work of Anselm Strauss and Juliet Corbin, 1990, 1998, is better known, Glaser’s more grounded approach compares more easily to action research.)
- As data are collected, for example by interviews, the researcher;
- Takes notes on the content of the interviews (or other data collection methods)
- Codes and sorts the data into categories, and the properties of those categories, which are relevant to the concerns of the people in the situation being researched.
- Memos or writes notes on the possible links between categories.
These four activities; data-collection, note-taking, coding and memoing are carried on simultaneously. In time, a core category emerges. This is a category which is of central concern to the people in the situation, and to which many other categories are linked. After a time no further categories emerge. At this point data collection and analysis cease. The memos are sorted and the theory is written up. In other words, the theory is built progressively as the study proceeds. As further information is collected it is compared to the emerging theory. The theory is refined to take account of the additional information.
Initially, descriptions of action research and grounded theory might lead to the conclusion that they are very different. Action research is action oriented and usually participative. In grounded theory the researcher alone does the theorising. The actions are left to the people in the research situation. Action research is usually described in terms of the relationship between researcher and participants, or as a cycle. Grounded theory is described more in terms of the different operations carried out. The cyclic nature is left implicit. From the description above, however, the emergent nature of both action research and grounded theory is evident. Both use an iterative approach. The understanding of the situation emerges gradually as the study unfolds. Further, the research process is also progressively refined.
Combining the two
It has been suggested in the work of Bob Dick (2003) that in some ways action research and grounded theory are complementary. They can be combined in a number of ways. Whatever methodology is used for data collection and analysis – this can be reviewed and refined using overarching action research cycles. When there is uncertainty of the methodology to use, action research cycles allow researchers to begin collecting information. As understanding of the research situation grows researchers are better able to make an appropriate choice of methodology. Action research can then be the meta-methodology, for example, in a grounded theory study. Alternatively, elements of action research can be embedded in a grounded theory study.
Carr, Wilfred, and Kemmis, Stephen (1983) becoming critical: knowing through action research.
Checkland, Peter, and Holwell, Sue (1998) Information, systems, and information systems: making sense of the field.
Glaser, Barney G. (1982) Basics of grounded theory analysis: emergence vs forcing.