Action Research Process: Literature Review


The process of Action Research (AR) and the features that distinguish it from other research methods have been described by numerous studies. The literature review provided in this paper focuses on methods and tools of AR as well as the key principles of AR conducting to demonstrate how AR should be carried out. It should also be pointed out that all the cycles of AR presented here to provide only a guideline. Some authors emphasize the necessity of creating, modifying, and improving the frameworks depending on a specific situation (Marshall & Reason, 2007; Marshall, 1999; Petri, 2011; Dick & Greenwood, 2015).

Literature Review

The sixth chapter of “Introduction to action research” by Greenwood and Levin (2007) demonstrates that the techniques or work forms of AR are, essentially, borrowed from previous forms of research. However, they are changed to be consistent with the principles of AR. For example, non-AR research does not presuppose the participation of the “objects.” For AR, however, it is important to include everyone in the processes of knowledge gaining and learning. From the point of view of Greenwood and Levin (2007), it is especially obvious in the face of the fact that AR presupposes the involvement of “insiders” (those who have the addressed problems) and outsiders (researchers). They possess different information, but both types of knowledge are needed for success. Greenwood and Levin (2007) believe that this knowledge exchange must take place in communication arenas, and the rules of these arenas must prohibit the discrimination of knowledge types or sources.

Still, according to Greenwood and Levin (2007), methods that are unacceptable for AR do exist. Those include the techniques that break the key rules of AR, for example, those that require keeping relevant information from the “objects.”

The Process

The second chapter of “Doing Action Research in Your Own Organization” by Coghlan and Brannick (2014) is devoted to the process of AR. According to the authors, the process begins with knowledge-gaining that starts with obtaining experience (which can be both planned and unplanned). After this stage, the experience is understood, most often through the predictable insight moment. The insight is then judged, and the resulting judgment is the knowledge we gain. Afterward, a practitioner is expected to make a decision or take an action based on this knowledge. This is the general empirical method that is employed by AR as well. At the same time, the process is expected to be cyclic, repetitive: in AR every following stage is capable of modifying the initial goals (Dick & Greenwood, 2015).

The requirement for carrying out this method within the frame of AR is authenticity described by Coghlan and Brannick (2014) as the imperative to be “attentive, intelligent, reasonable and responsible” on each respective stage of the research (p. 23). Authenticity is thoroughly investigated by Coghlan (2008) who presents it as a first-person practice which means allowing the personality of the researcher have an impact on the process (p. 352). According to Coghlan (2008), authentic subjectivity “consists not in overcoming the particularities of my subjective viewpoint but in getting more deeply in touch with the unique particularity of my own perspective in order to better appreciate both the similarities with and differences from the standpoints of other individuals” (p. 356). Therefore, authenticity is connected to self-reflection or, rather, the first-person inquiry approach.


The notion of inquiry is investigated by Marshall and Reason (2007) who describe it as a requirement for becoming aware of the processes of interpretation, reflection, and action that are characteristic of research. Marshall (1999) defines the notion of inquiry, or, rather, “living life as inquiry” which means “living continually in process, adjusting, seeing what emerges, bringing things into question” (p. 155). At the same time, the inquiry has a broader meaning. Schein suggests the following inquiry types: pure inquiry (that focuses on the topic itself), exploratory/diagnostic inquiry (that includes the topic, but also attracts attention to the experience of a practitioner), and confronted inquiry (that suggests other, alternative ideas) (Coghlan & Brannick, 2014). It is obvious, though, that AR practitioners tend to relate the process to self-reflection.

The Researcher

According to Coghlan and Brannick (2014), an AR researcher is a reflective practitioner, an active actor that is willing to learn. Marshall and Reason (2007) also emphasize the importance of self-reflection and believe that it can enhance the quality of research. In AR, instead of being the object of study, a researcher considers oneself as a subject that is aware of the inner processes (Coghlan, 2008). Marshall and Reason (2007) suggest a number of qualities that facilitate inquiry and are, therefore, necessary for AR: curiosity, ability and “willingness to articulate and explore purposes”, humility which presupposes acknowledging the limited resources and possibilities of a researcher, participation which is characteristic of action research, and radical empiricism (369). As Marshall and Reason (2007) point out, researchers need to be disciplined, but that should not and cannot deprive them of being “political”.

The Tools

Various techniques of ensuring that AR is carried out correctly have been developed. For example, journal-keeping can help researchers discipline themselves and provide a way of recording experience (Coghlan & Brannick, 2014). Coghlan and Brannick (2014) also present the seven rules for hypothesis testing that have been created by Argyris et al. Those require combining advocacy and inquiry, illustrating, making the reasoning explicit and making sure to achieve agreement on every step, searching for rebutting evidence, and other variants; learning from mistakes; inquiring into the personal contribution and learning from it, and testing alternative views.

Apart from that, Coghlan and Brannick (2014) describe particular frameworks, for example, Torbert’s four parts of speech that include framing (that presupposes the statement of the purpose of the research), advocating (defining and grounding a goal/decision/opinion); illustrating (providing an example that makes the previous part cleared), and inquiring (discussing the point with co-researchers). The final part is supposed to provide experience, test insights, and judgments. Afterward, one may proceed to make decisions or actions. By following these suggestions, one can ensure that AR is carried out appropriately.

Seven Rules for Hypothesis Testing and Four Parts of Speech

The Argyris’ seven rules for hypothesis testing or Torbert’s four parts of speech can be used to test the processes that will be put in motion when the AR starts (Coghlan & Brannick, 2014). At the same time, they need to be taken into account while creating the hypotheses and suggestions that are going to be presented to the other members of the research group. The two methods appear to be particularly useful in forming the communication that is the key feature of AR. While both of them are applicable, the “four parts of speech” method seems particularly enticing to me as, instead of suggesting a set of rules, it provides a transparent and consistent framework for communication. The methods will be used to test and ensure the authenticity and other AR requirements as defined by Marshall (1999), Marshall and Reason (2007), and Coghlan and Brannick (2014).


AR is a process that requires the active participation of the insiders, that is, the people who are directly confronted with the problem (Greenwood & Levin, 2007). The necessity of demonstrating the importance of AR to these people appears to be a challenge. In order to overcome it, a presentation concerning the process could be provided for the potential participants. By displaying the presentation in the form of a communication arena, we could provide the participants with a clear illustration of the process, and refine our initial ideas concerning the procedures.


The primary conclusion that could be drawn from the presented information would be that AR methods are the general research methods that are modified to suit the major principles of AR, first of all, the participation and democracy principles. Numerous tools aimed at helping researchers conduct the AR in a proper way have been described by the researchers, but in the end, it is the self-reflection and awareness of a practitioner that enables one to carry out AR.


Coghlan, D. (2008). Authenticity as first person practice: An exploration based on Bernard Lonergan. Action Research, 6(3), 351-366. =

Dick, B., & Greenwood, D. (2015). Theory and method: Why action research does not separate them. Action Research, 13(2), 194-197.

Greenwood, D., & Levin, M. (2007). Introduction to action research (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications.

Marshall, J. (1999). Living life as inquiry. Systemic Practice and Action Research, 12 (2), 155-171.

Marshall, J., & Reason, P. (2007). Quality in research as “taking an attitude of inquiry”. Management Research News, 30(5), 368-380. =

Petrie, E. (2011). Action research informing the development of a conceptual model of care and service delivery to populations of interest in rural and remote communities. Australasian Psychiatry, 19(S1), S102-S105.