Attributed to work done in the 1940s by Kurt Lewin, action research is an iterative research process involving researchers and community stakeholders. The approach creates a cycle of inquiry through three elements: “an ongoing analysis of contextual conditions, discrete actions taken to improve those conditions, and an assessment of the efficacy of those actions, followed by a reanalysis of the current conditions” (Foster-Fishman and Watson 2010). Action research has been used to evaluate change implemented at the organizational, inter-organizational, and community levels, including the expansion of health care services, the promotion of community development, the revision of education curricula, the creation of healthier communities, and the improvement of local government services (Springer 2007).
In the reflective or analytic phase of the inquiry cycle, the researcher facilitates a process in which the project stakeholders review the consequences of their actions and reflect on the effectiveness of their actions in solving the identified problem. This requires the creation of a group environment called situated learning that promotes dialogue and the development of a shared understanding of what new actions to take (Rosaen et al. 2001). Although the process theoretically ends when the original problem is solved, some argue that because the environment is constantly changing, this “cycle of inquiry, action, and reflection” can be used on a continuous basis (Rappaport 1981).
Recent adaptations of action research include participatory action research and systemic action research, which supports large-scale systemic change. Action research has more transformative, system-wide impact when it moves beyond first-order change. First-order action research projects make incremental improvements in existing programs and practices by asking how current practices can be done better, rather than asking why the system operates as it does. In contrast, second-order, or transformative, action research projects ask why the current system operates as it does and seek to uncover the system’s underlying patterns and the root causes of existing problems, which can result in a significant reframing of the issue and targeting of required changes to the system (Bartunek and Moch 1987).
Action research theories contributed to the work of Chris Argyris, and Don Schön, particularly on the concepts of single-loop and double-loop learning. Single-loop learning refers to an error and correction process that focuses on making a particular strategy more effective, without changing the underlying goals. In contrast, double-loop learning involves questioning the basic assumptions behind the goals and strategies, which leads to changes in the organization’s underlying norms, policies, and objectives (Argyris 1982). Quality improvement is a form of single-loop learning. Frameworks for transformative systems change in action research use a more complex systems change approach that questions the system dynamics that led to the problem and intervenes in ways that modify underlying system relationships and functioning (Foster-Fishman and Watson 2010; Patton 2011).