Lessons learned regarding the benefits and shortcoming of the methodology of action research as a source of recommendations for practical measures through which organisations can achieve change.
I have done action research (AR) to examine gender equality and the engagement of actors at various levels of society over decades. In Nordwit, for example, researchers collaborated with regional developers in South-West Finland. Action research (firstly) engages with the practices of the participating actors and (secondly) explores the dynamics of these practices. The first aspect, engaging with the practices of actors, can be achieved also with other methods such as ethnography or fine-grained interviews. Researchers who use all these methods often, for example, observe that gender equality is implemented in the practices of research and innovation (RI) organisations, funding agencies and governmental bodies only in a limited manner, although gender equality is supposed to be mainstreamed in the Nordic countries. They then suggest that RI organisations should take measures to implement gender equality in a more appropriate manner. The second aspect of AR takes this on board and interrogates the specific dynamics of the RI organizations’ practices, for example, why and how the implementation of gender equality fails and how it could be made successful effective. In AR, researchers and actors together reflect on the findings (i.e. gender equality is not implemented), then collaboratively identify key practices which fail, and then tackle them together. Researchers can facilitate the process at the very level of the actors’ practices in question. Collaborative workshops are commonly used methods in AR, allowing actors to learn new perspectives at the level of their own everyday practices, and then applying new knowledge in their further work.
Action research is always time consuming. The process of collaborative workshops that put research-based findings and everyday practices in a dialogue takes months, and much longer in uncertain situations such as the covid-19 pandemic. Researchers need to engage themselves in an intensive learning process to be able to facilitate the dialogue at the level of the actors’ everyday practices. Additionally, publishing based on an action research process takes time. Research findings from the AR process are not ready when the last workshop has been held and when the process has been evaluated with the collaborating actors. Researchers additionally analyse the process with theoretical concepts, and also develop new concepts about the dynamics within the development of gender equality (e.g. ‘situated gender equality’, based on situated knowledge by Donna Haraway and feminist citizenship by Ruth Lister). Although AR, compared to other methods, has plenty of potential for new kinds of findings on gender equality in RI, the longer timespan it requires also has risks, especially when that timespan exceeds the originally planned schedule, as happened within the conditions of the pandemic. Many researchers and actors work with fixed-term contracts, therefore move on to other commitments, and often cannot participate to the end of the process. This detracts from the AR process in various ways.
Action research may have long-term implications for the investigated activities, organisations, and regions. The practices of developing gender equality may continue there under favorable conditions (the involved people stay, the structures are supportive, etc.). The networks that worked together for action research may continue without the presence of the researchers, and the national or Nordic bodies in ministries may consider and implement the recommendations based on the collaborative evaluation at the end of the AC process. Establishing the lasting impact of action research takes long-term commitment to a project which however may not be possible as projects are usually time-delimited in terms of funding. However, one more lasting contribution of action research are the findings about the dynamics of actors’ practices. Those findings travel from the particular settings of the study (organisations, regions) internationally if researchers manage to write about them so that researchers and actors across countries can learn from them.