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Critical and Relational Action Research: Sharing Experiences for a Sustainable Future

Democracy
Governance
Policy Analysis
Political Methodology
Political Theory
Public Policy
Methods
Koen Bartels
University of Birmingham
Koen Bartels
University of Birmingham
Julia Wittmayer
Dutch Research Institute for Transitions (DRIFT), Erasmus University Rotterdam

Abstract

We currently face political, social, economic, and environmental crises that beg urgent action, yet are surrounded by deep knowledge uncertainty. Moreover, they highlight fundamental and relational interdependencies and expose the bankruptcy of hegemonic systems. Climate change, unstable financial and economic systems and extremist populism, to name but a few, reveal both the ecologic tragedies and cracks of modern democratic capitalism. In this paper we argue that, to address these crises, a type of knowledge and research is needed that is not only actionable, but also recognizes, works with, and strengthens interdependencies while at the same time critically and constructively transforming hegemonic systems. Action research fits this picture neatly. In the fields of policy analysis and transition studies, action research is increasingly adopted to combine a practical and normative analytical orientation to knowledge development with transformative ambitions. However, action research is still marginalized by mainstream scholarship, its academic and practical value is hotly debated, and it comprises a number of inherent tensions and challenges. The latter include instrumentalization by power holders, identity costs for all participants, and questions concerning evaluation. Fundamentally, action research involves dealing with the double challenge of negotiating the focus, methods, findings, and implications of the research as well as the meaning of ‘knowledge’ and ‘research’. In this paper, we propose that dealing with these tensions and challenges in research while developing effective and workable responses to the current crises, requires critical and relational approaches. Being critical means increasing awareness of and pushing for transformation of habits, discourses and power inequalities engrained in hegemonic systems. Being relational implies maintaining trust, shared goals, and commitment as well as pragmatically accepting things for what they are and what is practically possible. We argue that enacting critical and relational practices in concrete action research settings is a vital way for working out how the inherent tensions of this method can be handled and the current crises addressed.