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What is action research

What is action research?

Social psychologist Kurt Lewin is credited with developing the field referred to as action research. It is a methodology that originally had a social science focus. In its original context, action research was meant to encourage social action in a way that supports making decisions based on democratic ideals as well as the active participation of all stakeholders in research activities. Lewin’s intention was to use action research to assist field workers in the US who sought better intergroup relations among minority groups. From being a social phenomenon, action research made its way into the field of education, also under the initial influence of Lewin. The education version of action research is well-entrenched in the UK among other countries.

Action research defined

From a contextual viewpoint, action research can be described from a couple of perspectives or traditions – British and American. The British perspective usually follows an educational angle. This angle sees action research as research that aims to improve the field of education. Some in this school of thought explicitly define action research as a form of social but self-reflective investigation which the researchers engage in to bring about improvements in the rationality and justice of their individual practices, their comprehension of such practices, and the conditions under which the practices can be applied. 

The American perspective mainly focuses on social welfare and intergroup relations. Certain adherents of this tradition describe it as the systematic collection of information that can be used to initiate social change. The logic here is that action researchers should gather data that can be used to highlight anti-social practices and threats to the environment. Subsequently, the researchers should suggest actions that can usher in change, based on collected data/evidence. The key aim of this tradition is to encourage citizens’ action as well as community organizing. Here, the researcher plays an active role in the matter being researched. This commitment is part of his duties as a social researcher or professional. 

Origin of action research in the US

The first use of the term action research was in 1944. It is credited to Kurt Lewin, then a professor at MIT. Lewin was a German psychologist of Jewish origin who is often regarded as the founder of social psychology. He was also a pioneer in the study of group dynamics and organizational development. In 1946, he formalized the concept of action research in a paper titled “Action Research and Minority Problems.” 

He used the term to describe the kind of research required by social scientists to effectively address the challenges observed in intergroup relations in the US. According to him

The research needed for social practice can best be characterized as research for social management or social engineering. It is a type of action research, a comparative research on the conditions and effects of various forms of social action, and research leading to social action. Research that produces nothing but books will not suffice.

Steps in Lewin’s action research

According to Lewin, rational social management should be organized via a series of steps. Each of these steps must be characterized by planning, action, and obtaining feedback or engaging in fact-finding about the outcome of the action. These steps can be broken down as follows:

  • identifying a general or initial idea
  • reconnaissance or fact-finding
  • planning
  • first action
  • evaluation
  • amend plan
  • second action

Lewin’s model was not restricted to intergroup relations. His influential ideas found their way to the field of education in the US. He personally collaborated with teachers to implement action research programmes. At the Teachers’ College, Columbia University, his methods were particularly influential in areas like curriculum research and collaborative research with teachers, schools, and school districts. Stephen Corey and other US action researchers extended Lewin’s approach to the field of education.

In the 1960s, action research somewhat fell out of favour due to its adoption by radical political activists. Questions also arose about its depth as a scientific method as well as about the professional training of action research practitioners.  But after the period of decline, the theory resurfaced because of the strong backing it had from a section of scholars who felt that its methods of interpreting data/information were systematic enough to be valid science. Many action methods have since been developed.

British origins of action research

The origins of action research in Britain dates back to the Schools Council’s Humanities Curriculum Project between 1967 and 1972. The project emphasized an experimental curriculum as well as a re-conceptualization of curriculum development. Lawrence Stenhouse remains one of the most popular action researchers in the UK. His 1975 paper “An Introduction to Curriculum Research and Development” drew more attention to the application of action research in pedagogy. The likes of John Elliot have also inspired action researchers in the health sector. Elliot’s action research model is based on that of Lewin. It includes

  • identifying a general idea
  • reconnaissance or fact-finding
  • planning
  • action
  • evaluation
  • amending plan  
  • taking second action step, etc

There are also other models that see action research as a cyclic process that becomes clearer with the emergence of knowledge. An example is Zina O’Leary’s cycles of action research.


The term action research was coined by Kurt Lewin in 1944. His idea was to initiate community-based action that could help promote intergroup relations in the US. Though Lewin’s theory initially had a social science focus, it was subsequently extended to the field of education and has been applied by educationists both in the US and UK.

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