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Research Process Journal

Action Research

My research projects are action based art projects and involve site analysis, designing and implementing an art based project, reflecting, analysing and then repeating the process. My diagram here shows the process in which I develop projects. Each cycle of the process is refined, with roles in participation becoming clearer. New knowledge is gained through the variables in each of the projects such as various community groups, community narratives, relationships to place, cultural outlooks and demographic. This cycle is often repeated with each project, following the various phases of the project. 

Returning to consider the philosophy of Action Research

June 1, 2020

We're still working at home, after two months of COVID-19 restrictions here in Victoria. Restrictions are starting to loosen up. Grade 2 home-schooling for 6 weeks has come and gone. Another semester of Curating Contemporary Art is coming to an end. In the back of my mind is the pressure to get on with a paper which reflects on my research work on curating inclusive cities. In preparing for writing this paper, I am beginning to re-visit and further research discussions on action research and consider how these discourses relate to me. I found an journal called Action Research, a paper called 'Why action research? written by the editorial board (Brydon-Miller, Greenwood & Macguire, 2003) was usual in defining, considering the key common concerns and controversy of action researchers. 

The paper starts the conversation by stating the definition of action research as defined by researchers Peter Reason and Hilary Bradbury: 

"a participatory, democratic process concerned with developing practical knowing in the pursuit of worthwhile purposes, grounded in a participatory worldview which we believe is emerging at this historical moment. It seeks to bring together action and reflection, theory and practice, in participation with others, in the pursuit of practical solutions to issues of pressing concern to people, and more generally the flourishing of individual persons and their committments" (2001, p. 1). 

It was good to re-engage with a definition of the methodology, as my research since the PhD has certainly evolved towards this model of practice. During my PhD research (2008-11) my research led to a series of major locally based case studies (central Sydney and central Melbourne) and three smaller international case studies, central San Francisco, Sile, Istanbul, Turkey and Shanghai. As my positioning as a researcher began to transform through this period of research, being located as a researcher at RMIT University School of Art, I began to value the role of researcher practitioner and how social change can be made through participation with communities in order to connect theoretical concerns with practical concerns. In particular the work carried out in the Shanghai case study came from the voice of a practicing curator, developing a project amongst a community of artists in the academic context. The definition of action research is particularly appealing to me as an art and curatorial researcher. as it focuses on a participatory, democratic process to develop practical knowledge in the pursuit of improving a social context. As a practicing artist and curator who entered the academic field, I have entered the field with the desire to bring together action and reflection, theory and practice with others in the community. 

Key common concerns

  • Limitations in existing research methods and a lack of training in practical approaches - learning and action

The key common concerns identified in this journal article are that action researchers often found themselves undertaking action research, although they had little training to undertake these methodologies in their studies through the PhD level. They commonly found limitations in the development of their research methods when studying a particular social context and felt the desire to enact a project in society to fully understand the impact of social change through the project. 

  • Relationship between theory and practice

Action researchers also reconsider the relationship between theory and practice. Traditionally academics work from a theoretical position to study a particular context, in the discipline of art and curating art, this position doesn't make sense, as being both an artist and curator are both considered a type of practitioner, one producing art and the other producing art exhibitions (and sometimes these roles are not separate). With an approach of social justice and change in mind, the action researcher considers how evaluating the theory of the field can inform the design of an action research project. It is through the implementation of the project (the action), that these theoretical frameworks are confirmed (which perhaps empowers the value of the context) and other new theoretical positions are considered through what is uncovered in the analysis of the actions, which is where the new knowledge is gained and perhaps can lead to the re-design of an improved research project approach. McTaggatt asks "What really is the purpose of social research?" answering with "the improvement of social practice". In light of my own work in the curatorial space, the social improvement is using curating as a methodology to express the narratives of a marginalised urban community through a collaborative creative process, which allows the community to find their own voice and express it through a public outcome. 

  • A shared commitment to democratic social change

Action researchers reject the idea that research can be objective and value-free and that knowledge generation should be political, socially engaged and democratic in practice. That the research needs to acknowledge that human systems can only be understood and changed if one involved the members of the system in the process of inquiry itself. That through collaboration the researcher brings the experience of being a co-learner in the group through a participatory process. The crucial element which is different is the commitment to action of researchers to bring about social change, as part of the research act for all participants and community that is involved. In my own research work the commitment to inclusive approaches to curating projects in particular to address the concerns of the lack of access to the arts (elitism of the institutions) and representation of marginalised immigrant communities. 

  • Action research and educators
The paper discusses the recognition that the continued practice in a community and the study of that practice, contributes to becoming a more informed and connected educator. This has certainly been the case for myself, as am more aware of the relationship between the theoretical concerns and how this can inform the development of the practical approaches to enhance the democratic participation in the development of public spaces. 

  • The world of heretics

To be heretic is to hold an opinion at odds with what is generally accepted. A colleague of mine once observed and complimented me on my insights into our local context as an Australian of an immigrant background, which gave a new perspectives to a reading on Australian culture. This has certainly been my experience growing up in Australia, but often feeling at odds with what is generally accepted, although earlier on in life I had never seen it as a positive attribute, more of an attribute which kept in a position of displacement and at time isolation from the mainstream discourse. Fortunately, the action researcher embraces this position, as a way of critiquing a social context and perhaps consider the various viewpoints. 

  • The beauty of chaos
And of course, trying to work through the chaos of a context and make sense from a research position is part of the challenge of working on an action research project, recognising that in each circumstance the power dynamics will be different and being able to navigate and learn to distinguish between roles and power in an situation. 

  • Facing the challenges of change

The end of this paper critiques the limitation of the action researcher in particular the localism and the complexity of intervening in large-scaled social change efforts and also the failing to extend beyond the local context. In my own work, I have worked as an action researcher amongst the community, but also studied the power structure, so that there was an opportunity to effect change in the structure to influence the community which is being represented. For example The Anonynous Sojourners in the Australian Bush (2017), was a project which recognised a deceased Chinese mining community in St Andrews in the 1860s, by developing the project with the community and publicly acknowledging their story, this created a change by introducing a new historical narrative about the cultural diversity of the local area. This narrative was then adopted and celebrated by local historical groups and even distributed further in their community via their community network. Similarly development of Far Flung (2019) project with Asian-Pacific families introduced the idea of collaborative art projects with a public outcome, as a way of working with local communities which need further support and recognition as belonging to a local community. 

In spending to time to read this paper and find the commonalities with other researchers in this action research space, has helped me to decide on focusing my research in this space during this pandemic year, which is a suitable time for being in a reflective space and truly understanding what theoretical frameworks are influencing my practical action research out in the community. Looking forward to engaging further with action research community groups, to understand these conversations in greater depth. 

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