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How Action Research Can Strengthen Community Services

Action research is a methodology where researchers consult with communities in a more inclusive way, by listening to their concerns directly, rather than simply relying on government and agency directives. Action research also involves community members and stakeholders in all steps of the research process, from the types of questions asked and the way in which the issues are investigated.

This means liaising with service providers, patients, patrons or other service recipients, and involving them in the writing process. This includes discussing the analysis findings and conclusions before a project wraps up, in order to include feedback and questions from all stakeholders.

Below is an excerpt from from an action research study carried out by Jessica Smartt Gullion and Erin Graybill Ellis. They enlisted a group of research students (15 PhD candidates and 5 Masters students) to collaborate with a not-for-profit lung health advocacy community group. The community organisation was interested in two questions:

  1. Do parents view outdoor air quality as a factor in their child(ren)’s asthma?
  2. How do parents change their behavior in response warnings about outdoor air quality?

The students carried out interviews with parents and community members. Below is an explanation of action research and some reflections from students and instructors about the benefits of this work.

'An underlying premise of action research is that all research is embedded in a values system. Knowledge is socially constructed by those who have the power to do so. Action researchers attempt to shift this power to community members who are typically excluded in this process through the process of cocreated knowledge (Arieli et al. 2009). They then leverage their social location to ensure findings are legitimated by outside groups.
'In the research methods classroom, action research can provide students with an opportunity to work with the community on a social change-oriented goal. Knowledge is cogenerated in a nonhierarchical partnership, a collaboration to solve a social problem (Smith et al. 2010). Members of the local community are called upon to help synthesise the research questions and possibly to help collect, analyse, and interpret the data (Boser 2006).
'People who are disenfranchised are often excluded from knowledge generation, even when that  knowledge directly affects their lives (Freire [1968] 2000). Action researchers address this problem by valuing existing knowledge and lived experience as equal to that of the researchers themselves, and approach research with the understanding that the community members will know best what issues they need addressed.'

 Comments from the students and instructors:

‘By working with parents directly impacted by asthma and the outdoor air pollution in our own community, we helped these parents find their voice and make sure their needs were both heard and understood by the agency. ‘(Student)

‘Many of the students hadn’t considered living with a chronic illness as a source of oppression. Yet through honoring the stories of the research participants, they discovered how difficult—how frightening—life can be for parents of children with asthma. In one interview, a parent said her daughter had called on her cell phone from the school restroom in the middle of an asthma attack. The school nurse wouldn’t let her have her inhaler because the nurse had decided the student was “faking it” to get out of class. Stories like these helped students understand better why they were involved with this project, and emphasised for them the utility of applied qualitative research.’ (Instructor)

‘Data needs of community agencies are great—outreach programs should be data driven, and funding agencies require proof that their funds are both needed and are being put to good use. Yet with funding limitations, community organisations often do not have the resources to conduct research. Establishing a partnership between the research methods classroom and community organisation is a win–win. Students have the opportunity to use their skills to benefit the community. Engaging students in community partnerships and providing them the opportunity to witness the benefits of their labours instills an attitude of public sociology.’

Read the study (pay per view via the publisher).

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