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Rethinking action research: Theory and extension practice

Ruth Beilin1 and Lucia Boxelaar2

1Senior Lecturer & Landscape Sociologist School of Resource Management, Forestry & Horticulture,
ILFR, University of Melbourne.
PhD candidate, School of Resource Management & Horticulture, ILFR, University of Melbourne

Introduction — Rethinking participation and the responsibility for theory

Over the past decade the language of participation has become increasingly prevalent within the practice of extension. Underpinning the principle of participation is the idea that community ownership and empowerment are crucial in supporting and effecting change. There is growing recognition within industry and government that the vision of social, ecological and economic sustainability depends on building social capacity, as well as economic and physical resources. Hence government and industry initiatives instigate bottom-up approaches that aim to take account of local resources, knowledge and issues (Monash Regional Australia Project and Centre for Learning in Regional Australia 2001:4-5).

Ideally, a participatory approach collapses the distinctions between policy making, policy implementation, research, extension and farming practices (Aarts, et al 1999). Interactive policy making, action research and social learning approaches intend to integrate these domains to facilitate community participation and empowerment. However, such integration presents significant challenges and new roles for governments, universities, extension practitioners and farmers. The emphasis moves from knowledge transfer and development of policy, to the cogeneration of knowledge and facilitation of interactive policy development and implementation (Monash Regional Australia Project and Centre for Learning in Regional Australia 2001:4-6). Central to this process is the need to democratise research itself (Greenwood and Levin, 2000).

We hypothesise that action research is popular among extension practitioners because it offers just such democratic research opportunities. However, at times this has led to the neglect of theory. The intent of this paper is to emphasise the importance and role of theory within an action research approach. In particular we argue that both cultural studies and critical theory can strengthen action research practice.

Rethinking theory and practice

Within the emerging participatory approach to agricultural extension, many social researchers adopt an action research approach (for example Nettle et al. 2000, Kersten 2000, Paine 1997, Engel 1997). Action research methods aim to integrate theory and practice by working with people rather than for people. Furthermore, action researchers have highlighted the need for social research to be focused on developing practical outcomes. This approach is a response to traditional academic research that emphasises the development of theory, yet seems unconcerned or unable to effect practical outcomes or change.

According to action researchers, theory alone has little power to create change (Gustavsen 2001:17). They argue that the main criterion for social science should be the ability to produce knowledge that facilitates practical outcomes (Fals Borda 2001:28). Action research thus aims to bring together theory and practice as researchers work with participants towards practical outcomes and new forms of understanding (Reason & Bradbury 2001:2). Action researchers facilitate participation and empowerment by opening up the communicative space, bringing stakeholders of an issue together to negotiate and develop mutual understanding and consensus about what to do (Kemmis in Maguire 2001:59). Kersten (2000:193) argues that, as knowledge is power, this inclusion of multiple views leads to the possibility of producing knowledge on a more equitable basis, and as such action research is a process of knowledge creation that empowers participants.

Action researchers reject their colleagues’ claims to neutrality and objectivity, which distance the researcher from the researched. According to action researchers, conventional research approaches ignore local and practice-based knowledge. Therefore they cannot develop a full understanding and also fail to facilitate the social transformations researchers want to stimulate (Fals Borda 2001:28-29).

However, as action researchers focus on the development of practical outcomes and theory developed through action, this at times leads them to ignore theory, or place theory after practice. Action research methodologies provide very little space to integrate theory in the early stages of research, emphasising theory that emerges from the particular practices that are part of the research project. This is problematic: as theory and practice are intertwined, theory is not something that just emerges from a particular research activity or practice. For example, extension practitioners are working within a particular paradigm. They do not just go out there and ‘do extension’, and then develop theories about their practices. Clearly, when a particular extension practitioner enters his/her practice, s/he will have ideas about how to conduct him/herself and these ideas are very much shaped by contemporary extension theory. Job descriptions, interview schedules and training will reflect prevailing notions of ‘appropriate’ extension practices. In other words, they are shaped by prevailing theories on extension.

Similarly, the way in which extension practitioners and researchers work together is very much shaped and constrained by t traditional theories on science and government processes An example of this is the purchaser/provider model, which reflects the dominance of economic theories. Theory is clearly embedded in our practices and in the structures that shape or constrain them.

Theory is constituted within a particular research setting. Therefore we need the theoretical strategies and tools to understand and question both the setting and its practice. While the increased emphasis on practice and locally based knowledge is necessary, it is equally important not to privilege practice over theory, but rather to recognise that theory and practice are mutually present in any research or extension practice.

However, this deconstruction of the dichotomy between theory and practice has serious implications for traditional ideas about theory. If we accept the idea that all knowledge is socially constructed, then there is no theory outside practice, and no neutral and objective place outside practices from which a social researcher can do his/her work. Nevertheless, while it is important to recognise the limitations of theory, this does not mean abandonning theory. As Spivak argues, we should recognize these limitations, and avoid making claims about universality, yet use the theories developed within social science strategically to intervene in our practices, to question what we do (Spivak 1990:12-15).

The challenge is to integrate theory in a meaningful way that aims to produce practical outcomes and change. Theory is a powerful process of sensemaking, of explaining. However, following on from the notion that knowledge is socially constructed, Weick suggests that sensemaking is not about a linear process of obtaining more information about something and subsequently acting upon that information. He describes sensemaking as a retrospective process. We make sense of a lapsed experience or action to which many possible meanings could be attached, by selecting meanings, imposing coherence and framing things in a way that is congruent with our sense of self and our values and norms (Weick 1995

The current emphasis on participatory approaches requires considerable reframing processes that challenge prevailing ideas about the role of government, extension practitioners, researchers and farmers. Through theory, social scientists can question prevailing meanings, thereby facilitating the necessary process of reframing and reattaching meaning to events and issues. Social researchers can be ‘sensegivers’ (Weick 1995:10) as they are skilled in representing meanings in different forms. Social researchers have at their disposal a number of strategies, skills and tools that allow them to develop such ‘interruptions’ (Weick 1995:105) in everyday practices.

As Czarniawska argued, the role of a researcher is not to come up with an ‘objective’, or ‘superior’ account within a particular context, but rather to highlight and provide alternative and competitive accounts that facilitate dialogue within the field. As such, the researcher’s reading of a context is no more then a ‘novel’ reading (DeVault quoted in Czarniawska 1998:30).

Czarniawska suggests that such a 'novel' reading permits the researcher as sensemaker to enter into dialogue with practices and connect local narratives with theory. The main task for a researcher in this process is not just to describe events, but to question and highlight where, why and by whom particular accounts (or knowledges) are produced (Czarniawska 1998:17). The strength of research and theory then lies in the researcher’s ability to take “… us out of our old selves by the power of strangeness, to aid us in becoming new beings” (Rorty quoted in Czarniawska 1998:71).

Cultural studies — Rethinking diversity

One theoretical perspective that may be relevant to providing a better understanding of the context of change within agriculture, is the cultural studies perspective. Cultural studies emphasize that culture is central to any analysis of social issues. However, cultural studies theorists have not focused merely on culture in the sense of unity and cohesion. Through its focus on concepts such as identity and difference, a cultural studies perspective allows for an exploration of the dynamics of social groups and the processes by which they emerge, highlighting what divides them and what brings them together (Frow 2001:317). Cultural studies theorists question the common assumption that at the end of change and cultural processes “… there lies the achievement of a whole and coherent ‘society’ or ‘community’” (Hunter in Frow et al. 2001:317).

A cultural studies perspective is consistent with action research in so far as it recognizes a multiplicity of knowledges. Cultural studies theorists have highlighted how ‘other’ voices and knowledges have often been excluded by traditional academic research.. However, while cultural studies’ theorists are committed to an emancipatory approach, they have highlighted the dangers of processes that aim to ‘give voice’ to others, yet may (unwittingly) assimilate other views within the dominant perspective, as these processes aim for cultural coherence and unity of groups (Spivak 1990). Rural sociologists and action researchers tend to ignore that ‘giving voice’ to others implies a power relationship and a dependence of the ‘other’. Merely including others does not necessarily empower them, especially when their views are assimilated within the dominant view to achieve cohesion within a group.

Overall, by stressing diversity and difference, a cultural studies perspective will allow us to analyse change methodologies and practices, exploring integrating forces without losing sight of tensions and contradictions. Cultural studies is not commonly associated with the rural context in Australia, however, it is a perspective that is relevant to the current context of change within agriculture, which is characterised to a significant degree by contestation and difference.

Cultural studies and action research perspectives share a commitment to emancipatory and participatory research practices. An action research approach that is underpinned by cultural studies theory provides the basis for an effective interface between social research and extension practices (cf. Maguire re feminism: 2001:63). Such an approach focuses on an understanding of difference and diversity, with research methods that facilitate participation and practical outcomes. This strengthens the approach towards participation, empowerment and change.

Critical theory — Rethinking power

Critical theory stresses the importance of participation in action research and that this participation is both explicit and emancipatory. Critical theorists argue that empowerment means that people participate in the construction of meaning, and create their own practices. Furthermore, critical theory adds another strategy to the social research process: a reflexive analysis of practice by the people involved in its formation. This reflexivity is theory building. It is important because it builds theory and informs practice. Therefore, the use of a critical theory framework enhances the integrity of the action research process.

The participants in the action research process are part of a 'lifeworld' that implicitly represents a theoretical position. Here, critical theory makes explicit the social underpinning of that 'lifeworld', identifying the historical and political context that shapes and makes sense of their practice. Understanding the everyday, or status quo, is consequently a strategic part for social researchers in participatory action research. Social researchers 'without denouncing anyone, can undertake to map out (the) networks and show how the circulation of ideas is subtended by a circulation of power' (Bourdieu, 1995:55). This process exposes the forces limiting decision making.

Critical theory does not accept the dominance of economics or the unquestioned promotion of technological solutions. It evaluates the organisational structures and motives within society's institutions to make transparent the power structures operating within and upon society itself. Critical theory examines the use of language and of academic discourse, considering neither to be 'neutral', and both to be used to construct a 'real world'. Critical theory recognises that knowledge itself is a construct that manifests local and broader structural relations that are contested by participants in the particular research process at a local level.

Critical theory, demanding what Gramsci describes as "'a critical perspective…" involves the ability of its adherents to criticise the ideological frames that they use to make sense of the world' (Kincheloe and McLaren, 2000:288). Extension practitioners, in recognising the operational framework of their institutions, can resist, reformulate or strengthen the research process. Critical theory exposes ideology as a value system that once made explicit allows differences to be breached. Through reflection, individuals become aware of 'ideological imperatives' and through analysis, they are provided with opportunities for change (Kincheloe and McLaren, 2000:292).

Critical theorists would question two aspects of action research as it is currently practiced. The first is the reification of 'local knowledge' and 'local experience' over 'outsider' knowledge. The recognition that institutions do not hold all the knowledge, are powerful and work for vested interests that generally exclude other stakeholders has somehow catapulted some action research advocates to extreme ends of the spectrum. They are inclined to recommend 'local knowledge' as being above all other forms or constructions of knowledge. All local knowledge is neither good nor 'true'. As we have discussed, knowledge is deliberately shaped and located. Local knowledge can benefit from outside research, and one informs the other.

The second issue arises from the assumption that only field based practice generates worthwhile theory. It is important to challenge this construction because in the case of action research, it implicitly suggests a linear process. We argue that an effective action research approach recognises the cyclical and iterative character of action research, thereby acknowledging successive generations of outcomes, representing action and theory, theory and action. These continuous generations are ideally created as 'collaborators constantly demand more and better knowledge from us (university researchers, formal research liaisons) to help them achieve their goals' (Greenwood and Levin, 2000:104).

Rethinking collaboration

The effectiveness of collaboration and the interface between practices depends on the ability to work together in a way that does not collapse the distinction between the different practices altogether. Researchers, extension practitioners and farmers benefit from working together and coordinate their activities to produce collaborative outcomes (Paine, 1997:20). However, we need to recognise and acknowledge the value of diversity and the strength of those perspectives that can provide different and competitive accounts, which in turn may facilitate becoming new beings (Czarniawska 1998:30). If we are consistent with action research principles, we need to acknowledge different ways of knowing, and highlight how interplay between different practices and their emerging different ways of knowing, can provide ‘interruptions’ to our practices that facilitate change and innovation. This means valuing theory and practice, and the various ‘knowledge/s’ that are produced through them.

In pursuing a participatory approach that is genuinely emancipatory, the greatest challenge is to overcome some of the institutional structures we inhabit. These constrain our everyday actions and reinforce traditional distinctions between theory and practice Structures within universities, the traditional sites of research, (Greenwood & Levin 2000), supply and demand market approaches (Leeuwis 2000), and government models such as the purchaser/provider model, all separate knowledge and action, or research and implementation. Further they tend to delegitimate research and action that is generated in a grassroots or non-institutional framework. These structures maintain and foster the kind of linear thinking that needs to be overcome to facilitate cooperation needed for local and participatory approaches to change management (Leeuwis 2000:88). Clearly, significant challenges to institutional structures, procedures, roles and responsibilities are required, if we are to achieve a genuinely participatory approach to managing change and innovation.

Conclusion — Rethinking and reflecting

Overall, our challenge is to develop an effective interface between the practices of social research, extension and farming, in a way that recognises the importance of theory and practice as mutually present in the achievement of change and practical outcomes. As discussed, with reference to cultural studies and critical theory perspectives, an action research approach must not ignore theory, but rather use theory strategically. This prevents us from adopting nave notions of empowerment and community coherence and will provide an effective context for the interplay between research, extension, policy and farming practices.

Action research approaches have the potential to catalyse change. This paper has argued that theoretical perspectives such as those offered in cultural studies and critical theory are tools that strengthen participatory approaches.


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