Paper 3

‘The privatisation of action research’

A paper presented at the MOFET Institute, Tel Aviv, 16 February 2003

(Word Version Available)

Jean McNiff

As I said in the introduction to this set of papers, for this visit I decided to revisit a book that Jack Whitehead, Moira Laidlaw and I wrote in 1992, entitled ‘Creating a Good Social Order through Action Research’, and track to what extent I believe we have moved in the direction of creating a good social order since writing it. While I cannot speak for Moira and Jack, I can speak for myself. So when it was suggested that I focus this talk on the problems and pitfalls of action research I was delighted to do so. It is an issue I am focusing on these days, because currently there is a good deal of debate about the nature of action research and its use value. There is also a growing debate about the form of theory appropriate for presenting and discussing action research accounts.

In these past ten years much has happened in action research. Considerable refinements have taken place in the methodological base, and new dimensions have been foregrounded, for example, the ethics base, the need for empirical evidence to support claims to knowledge, and the core issues of validity and legitimation. For my own part, I have become increasingly interested in the idea of personal responsibility and its corporate denial. This is a general interest for me, but it takes on special meaning when the context is educational research. I am intrigued how action research has been appropriated by policy and intellectual elites, and I am fascinated by the strategies that are deployed in the process, one of which – the form of theory – I would like to explore here in some detail. In effect, I believe action research has, in some contexts, gone out of the hands of the people it was supposed to serve, and has been privatised as a weapon of control in the inexorable drive to eliminate public participation from serious economic, political and social debate.

Privatisation is usually understood as the taking over of democratically-constituted state enterprises by private corporations, and is frequently seen as part of a neoliberal trend towards globalisation. Globalisation is generally understood as the diversification of companies across the world in a drive to secure the greatest cost benefits in labour and productivity for the least expenditure. In both cases, the animating principles are to make profits for the companies, to concentrate power and wealth into the hands of elites. Chomsky (1999) speaks of this trend as ‘profits over people’. The elites in question are corporate elites, and also intellectual elites. This is evident in higher education institutions. If our age can be characterised as ‘the information age’ (Castells, 1997) or ‘the knowledge creation age’ (Giddens and Hutton, 2000), where the economy is driven largely by knowledge-exchange, it follows that knowledge-creating companies (Nonaka and Takeuchi, 1995) become the most powerful companies on earth. These days, universities have transformed themselves into businesses, knowledge-creating corporations, and even multinationals in some cases. They trade in knowledge. It is in the interests of universities to maintain an epistemological tradition that ensures their uninterrupted control of knowledge-creation and knowledge-exchange processes. In this paper I am suggesting that the privatisation of action research is yet another take-over bid by elites (note 1) in their tireless efforts to maintain control of economies and resources. This desire for control is all the more insidious because the aim is not only to control what counts as knowledge, but also to control the legitimation processes of who counts as a knower and who makes those decisions. These are the contexts in which I locate my ideas.

I am passionately committed to democratic involvement in public affairs, and to the emancipatory influences of education. I see education in general and action research in particular as processes that enable all people to make their contribution to the social order. I would like to take this opportunity today to look at some of these issues and consider what might be done if the values that inspired the creation of action research are to continue to be realised in public lives. In particular I want to set out how important it is to learn from a critical understanding of privatisation processes, and understand how free market forces work. I want to suggest that this learning can contribute to an understanding of how action research can be reclaimed and retained as the property of ordinary citizens as they seek to make the world a better place than it is at present. Like Chomsky (1999) I believe that education and democracy can be redefined as a global movement, not a global market, and I work towards that end.

Part One Action research and its betrayal

The problem with action research

The problem with action research, as I see it, is not action research. The problem is people. And people are always caught up in their own needs, wants and interests, which, more often than not, manifest as relationships of power and control.

In the 1992 book I said, ‘There is no such thing as action research, but there are action researchers’. This remains my opinion. What has happened, however, is that ‘action research’ has been turned into a thing (it has been reified), and this ‘thing’ is now considered more valuable than its users. The process of reification has been accomplished by certain theorists who use a form of social science enquiry to describe and explain action research processes. I shall talk about this issue later.

I believe what has happened is symptomatic of the reification of human interests, a topic that Habermas frequently speaks about. He says (1972) that as people’s ideas are gradually normalised into systems of social action, those ideas adopt a formulaic character. This process happens invisibly over periods of time, particularly when critique is not kept in the public eye. People become complacent about what they think and how they are thinking, and, gradually, and without their conscious intervention, their ideas begin to take on a life of their own, so that the ideas themselves become reified, separate from the people who thought of them in the first place. Then, hey presto!, almost before they know it, people begin conforming to the now abstracted ideas. They begin serving the system, rather than have the system serve them. Bourdieu (1990) develops the theme in his idea of the habitus. He speaks of the development of social formations in which, ‘because of the constancy of the objective conditions over time, rules have a particularly small part to play in the determination of practices, which is largely entrusted to the automatisms of the habitus’ (p. 145). Although this is a theoretical concept, I believe its practice is endemic to social life. It manifests at all levels of individual and collective experience. Here is an example.

I have recently begun working, part time, with a university. In my opinion, universities should be about encouraging scholarly debate, particularly about contested issues, and about learning. When I first became formally involved in higher education life, however, I quickly came to understand that the university I was in (and according to colleagues around the world, the universities they are in, too) was about making money in the interests of corporate elites. These days I am fascinated at how I am positioned in the university as an element of other people’s work, for other people’s purposes, rather than experience university life as a context for the collaborative working of independent thinkers, including myself.

In Paper 1 in this set of papers I have explained how I see abstracted systems of thought as potentially totalising grand narratives. My concern is that these grand narratives are put out as the unquestionable norms and values of a culture, rather than be seen for what they are. In the case of the privatisation of action research and other similar initiatives, the grand narrative of market forces that carries an imperative for all to conform to its values acts as a weapon of control. In the same way as Berlin (2002) explains how the idea of freedom is often betrayed by the very people who say they value freedom, so I understand how the privatisation of action research also is a betrayal of its core principles of freedom.

The commodification of action research

As noted, action research, which in my understanding is a term that refers to a process of people systematically investigating their work, has been reified. In a good deal of the action research literature, the object of enquiry is not the process of people asking interesting and important questions about their work and finding new ways of working. Instead, the object of enquiry is an analysis of the category ‘action research’, and what constitutes that category. What the category involves appears to be a prescriptive sequence of steps that have to be followed carefully. This has serious consequences for practitioners, especially those who are working in contexts where productivity is understood as the production of people who think in a conformist way, usually in terms of what counts as official knowledge. Performance outcomes are expected in terms of identified targets. If the targets are not met, ‘action research’ has failed. This is not how I understand action research, or what action researchers do. In my opinion, action research is a process that enables all people to celebrate the transformation of the infinitude of knowledge they possess at a deep level into social practices. It is a methodology for the use of people who value their capacity to help others by asking, ‘How do I improve what I am doing for our mutual benefit?’ In the context of the other papers in this set, people also ask, ‘How do we improve what we are doing for the preservation of ourselves and the world?’

To engage in such celebration, however, involves using a different form of theorising than the currently dominant social science form. This in turn involves using a different way of thinking and the exercise of what Whitehead (1999b) calls ‘a philosophical imagination’. Such a way of imagining allows people unlimited scope for realising their dreams and values.

These ideas are of course contradictory to the interests of elites, who spend considerable resources in maintaining the status quo. At the Annual Conference of the British Educational Research Association in September 2002, a cogent argument was made by some prominent researchers for the creation of highly funded, regional educational research centres, based at particular universities. Funding would be give to groups of researchers who were committed to the creation and testing of propositional theories. No mention was made of funding being allocated to the creation and testing of the living theories of practitioners.

An obvious way to control knowledge and its dissemination is to make it inaccessible to all but the privileged few. Whatever happens, knowledge must not fall into the hands of the common people. The most effective way to do this is to control how common people think, that is, how we respond to a situation in which elites keep control, and also how we think about knowledge and knowledge-generating processes. The aim of many elitist educational researchers is to preserve knowledge domains for themselves, and one of the most powerful ways of doing this is to control public perceptions of what counts as theory.

The form of theory beloved by intellectual elites is traditional social science enquiry. This is generally viewed as the generation of linguistic propositions that are held together in terms of their logical and empirical relationships. Note this definition of theory:

‘Theory’ would seem to have the following features. It refers to a set of propositions which are stated with sufficient generality yet precision that they explain the ‘behaviour’ of a range of phenomena and predict what would happen in future. An understanding of these propositions includes an understanding of what would refute them – or at least what would count as evidence against their being true.

(Pring, 2000: 124–5)

The form in which this definition is offered is abstract and conceptual. There is an underpinning assumption, part of the grand narrative of hidden control, that people will unquestioningly accept both the definition and the right of the researcher to seek to impose the definition on the public consciousness. The mindset that produces such definitions about theory is the same as the kind that produces definitions about action research. It is also the same mindset that justifies privatisation processes. Part of the hegemonising process is then to ensure that these definitions are imposed in the public domain. An implication for education is that teachers have to accept the definition, as well as the process that legitimates elites to produce abstract definitions. It is just a short jump to appreciate how the imposition of these processes is used as a form of control of educational practices in the direction of increased productivity, that is, the production of young people who think in ways of which the establishment approves. Assessing the effectiveness of these productivity processes is understood as in relation to the fit between children’s behaviours and anticipated targets. Targets are set in terms of the number of school leavers who attain satisfactory grades in demonstrating competence in official forms of knowledge, that is, technical rational forms that serve the interests of knowledge-creating companies. The closed system perpetuates itself by constantly closing the circle.

Action research has become part of it. In some quarters, the mandating of action research has become a form of intellectual terrorism. I am thinking of the many e-mails I get from people around the world, asking for advice on how to do their action research projects. One gentleman wrote from Egypt, saying that he was to be assessed on the outcomes of his action research project which focused on how he managed the activities of pre-service and post-service teachers. He wanted to know whether he should ‘apply’ action research to his studies of groups of teachers at pre- or post-service levels. His success depended on the extent to which teachers conformed to what he was teaching them to do. The most poignant letter was from a group of four women teachers in Malaysia, who explained that they were doing their action research but were now under pressure from their managers to produce observable results in terms of the changed behaviours of their children. ‘We were so enthusiastic when we began,’ they wrote. ‘Now we are very unhappy.’

What is going on here? Habermas helps me make sense of it.

Habermas (2001) comments on the foundations of the two ‘currently most successful sociological approaches, rational choice theory and systems theory, each of which concentrates on one of the two rationality problematics that Weber had brilliantly conjoined – rational choice theory on the purposive rationality of individual actors, and systems theory on the functional rationality of large organizations’ (p. 142). Habermas explains how rational choice theory enables individuals to offer descriptions and explanations for their own actions. Systems theory on the other hand ‘offers a collectivist framework, reformulating what Weber had understood as organizational rationality into the functionalist concepts of self regulation …’ (p. 142). I understand how action research has become defined by some as a form of functional rationality, and is now deliberately imposed to maintain established structures in the interests of preserving the unquestioned hegemony of elites.

Now let me turn to how I understand action research, and explain what I believe is an appropriate form of theory for enabling people to exercise their originality of mind and engage in critical debate about the form their lives should take and how they might achieve their dreams of democratic participation.

Part Two Action research and its realisation

Creating a good social order

I believe it is the responsibility of each one of us to imagine what kind of social order we would like to live in, and then work systematically towards making it happen. This has especial implications for us here who are publicly positioned as knowledge-creators. As self-professed democratic actors, we have responsibility to practise what we preach. It is not enough only to talk about action research in abstract terms, which as I have explained is the main form of discourse of those who wish to maintain control by stamping a set of explanations-as-definitions onto other people’s practices. We also have to do it, a case of showing how the definitions transform into the explanations we offer for our lives.

For me, personal accountability is a core mandate for what I understand as a moral practice. I hold myself accountable for my actions and I require those I support to do the same. My work is to enable educators to achieve their masters and doctoral degrees through studying their own practice and to hold themselves accountable for their claims to knowledge by producing validated evidence in support of those claims. The masters and doctoral theses on my own website and that of my friend and colleague Jack Whitehead (see and show the nature of our educative influence as we support educators across the professions to enquire into their work with a view to holding themselves accountable for its influence in the lives of other people. Evidence of that commitment in action is presented at the end of this paper in short accounts of the work of two educators whose masters studies I have supported, and in the conversation with doctoral researchers at the end of this set of papers.

Doing action research involves a special form of thinking, the exercise of a philosophical imagination that enables people to ask questions about their work and imagine ways in which they can realise their values in their practice (see Paper 2 for detailed discussion). These questions are often of the kind, ‘How do I improve what I am doing?’ (Whitehead, 1989), and ‘How do I help you to learn?’ (Whitehead, 1999b). Questions of the form ‘How do I …?’ contain the generative transformational potential to transform values into practice and dreams into reality. As people enquire into their work and imagine ways in which it could be better, they generate their personal theories of practice. The research programmes that generate these living theories (Whitehead, 1999a) are characterised by the production of validated evidence to support claims made by researchers that they have improved their work and are now living more fully in the direction of their values.

Democratic global orders through education

A paragraph on the back cover of Chomsky’s (1999) ‘Profits over People’ reads:

Chomsky offers a profound sense of hope that social activism can reclaim people’s rights as citizens rather than consumers, redefining democracy as a global movement, not a global market.

I support this view entirely, adding that educational activism is a key driver within social activism. What is essential however is for educational practices to be perceived as educational, and not, in Chomsky’s (2000) terms, mis-educational. If what counts as educational practices is informed by educational research, this means generating new forms of research methodologies and new forms of theory that are of their nature educational.

I believe that processes such as action research help people to reclaim their rights as citizens rather than consumers. Given that all people are capable of learning (in Habermas’s (1975) view, people are not capable of not learning), people should be seen as participants in public debates about what counts as knowledge and education. Given their capacity to draw on their infinitude of knowledge in order to generate an infinitude of new forms of practice, people should be seen as knowledge creators and practitioner researchers, not as the consumers of elitist renderings of social science theory. Given that people have the capacity for self-direction and personal accountability within democratic practices, people should mobilise to insist that their personal theories of practice are grounded in the explanations they offer for their lives, and not in the propositional theories generated by social scientists. This is not to say that propositional theories are useless. I have demonstrated my use of insights from such theories in this paper. It is to say that they become dangerous when individuals subordinate their own explanations of their own learning to such conceptual frameworks.

These high principles are not rhetoric. Their transformation into real lives has been demonstrated as true, as the websites referenced show, and the appendices at the end of this paper and at the end of the set of papers. What is needed is a concerted drive towards the dissemination and legitimation of action research accounts that show practitioners to be generating their own theories of practice and to explain their impact on social realities.

Part Three Action research and its dissemination

I said above that we need to learn from the processes of privatisation and the activities of free markets, not for the sake of creating new global markets but for the sake of creating new global movements. We need to distinguish between the global movement of capital for profit, and the global movement of educational values for the future of humanity. We need to study the processes of establishing grand narratives, not for the purposes of establishing our own ideas as hegemonising forces that obliterate smaller narratives, but to show them as transformative forces that enable people to overcome personal and organisational constraints and realise their educational values in their practice.

We need to learn a thing or two about communicating ideas. The big ideas in educational research and theory are to do with knowledge, and even more to do with educative influence. Education, in my view, is not a process of indoctrination or imposition. It is to do with the process of people coming together, on an equal footing, to find creative ways of living. If we respect people’s originality of mind and capacity for creative engagement, we need to present our ideas not in a coercive way but in a way that shows the potential use value of the ideas. This means creating a knowledge base to present the stories of other researchers who have engaged in the process and can testify to its benefit.

These days I frequently say that a system is dominant because it is prominent. Ideas become popular, and are taken up in the public domain. Much of the appeal of ideas can be put down to how they are promoted. What I am clear about now is the need to engage people’s hearts and minds in persuading them to commit to one idea rather than another. It is vital to let people know that one is personally committed to an idea by demonstrating its worth, and by helping people to see that it might be worthwhile for them.

We educators and educational researchers need to develop strategies for disseminating our work and making it attractive in the public domain. We need to develop our skills as promoters and advertisers, spend as many resources in telling our stories as the current market controllers spend in telling theirs. The media need to be our working ground, too. We have a message that is as, if not more, powerful than the dominant messages on our TV screens. If we believe in it, we must be prepared to stand up and fight for it. We can do this first by standing up and being counted, and then by professing, as professionals (Macdonald, 1995), that this is who we are and this is what we do.

I like this passage from Chomsky (1996: 77), and use it rather as a touchstone:

The ideas expressed in the not very distant past by such outstanding figures as Russell and Dewey are rooted in the Enlightenment and classical liberalism, and retain their evolutionary character: in education, the workplace, and every other sphere of life. If implemented, they would help clear the way to the free development of human beings whose values are not accumulation and domination, but independence of mind and action, free association on terms of equality, and cooperation to achieve common goals. Such people would share Adam Smith’s contempt for the ‘mean’ and ‘sordid pursuits’ of ‘the masters of mankind’ and their ‘vile maxim’: ‘All for ourselves, and nothing for other people’, the guiding principles we are taught to admire and revere, as traditional values are eroded under unremitting attack.

I believe that processes such as action research are a means to implementing the ideas expressed by Russell, Dewey and Chomsky. I believe that when people begin to study their own practice, they celebrate their own development as human beings whose values are independence of mind and action, as human beings who have come together on terms of equality and cooperation to achieve common goals, in relation to their educative influence in one another’s lives.

Sowell (1987) speaks of a conflict of values. Throughout history there have been mighty conflicts of values that have often resulted in new world orders. I do believe that, coercion aside, people’s future is in their own hands. This involves choices about which values we endorse and how we try to live in their direction. We can choose to act freely, or we can choose to remain as data in someone else’s research project, and as consumers of someone else’s dream. What we choose today influences tomorrow. I know what my choices are. I’d love to hear yours.

Note 1

I am aware that my use of the word ‘elites’ could be seen as ambiguous. I need to make a distinction between the elites who are supporting a future for humanity that is grounded in the global movement of capital for profit and a future that is grounded in the global movement of educational values. I appreciate that the word ‘elites’ in general terms refers to people who are very good at something. In my view, we all need to become very good at accounting for ourselves in relation to living our values more fully in the creation of a good social order.


Here are two examples of action research accounts that show how practitioners demonstrated their accountability for their actions and for their educative influence.

Marian Nugent (2000) ‘How can I raise the level of self-esteem of second year Junior Certificate School Programme students and create a better learning environment?’ MA dissertation, Dublin, University of the West of England, Bristol.

Marian Nugent, a classroom teacher in Ireland, tells how she worked with a group of 15-year-olds in an examination class, with a particular focus on developing more sustainable classroom relationships. This group was hostile to herself and one another. Relationships were strained all round. In her masters dissertation, Marian produces evidence in terms of the young people’s voices, saying that, through her influence, they have learnt to be more tolerant of themselves and one another. To get to this point however required the same sort of self-critique for herself as she was encouraging the young people to develop. She says:

‘Before starting on this [MA] course of study I never really focused on my relationship with any class. … In discussing with the MA in Education study group it became evident to me again that I wanted to go off on a tangent and deal with the system, but not look at myself. I could continue to look at students’ learning, or their inability to learn, but not at my relationship with the students and how this affected their learning. … In the light of what I was [learning], I thought it better to stop pointing the finger at [others] and ask what this was saying to me’ (pp. 50–51).

She later has this to say about the importance of her own learning:

‘I believe I have developed my own theory of education which I have generated from within my practice. [During the process of] this research I realised that the processes of encouraging students to think, be polite, discuss and learn from each other, was causing less tension in the classroom.

Personal diary 13 March 2000:

Student 1 … actually apologised for being late and then asked to speak to me privately (this was to tell me she had no homework done).

Student 7 … Student 5 was having problems working out anagrams and Student 7 without any prompting saw she was having difficulties and helped her.

Marian continues:

‘Here I have traced a shift in my practice and thinking and I feel because of that my relationship with the students have improved. I have become more understanding and facilitative by allowing and encouraging the students to think for themselves, instead of trying to control them and make them follow my ideas and thinking. I feel … I am encouraging the students to look at alternative ways of interpreting their ideas and to examine them critically (Brookfield, 1986). In doing so, I have created an environment that is friendly and collaborative, by encouraging all students to participate and to voice their opinions without fear and ridicule’ (pages 57–58).

Karen O’Shea (2000) ‘Coming to Know my own Practice: How I came to know my own practice as a human rights educator through reflection and action as I undertook to develop human rights and citizenship within the established Leaving Certificate.’ MA dissertation, Dublin, University of the West of England, Bristol.

Karen O’Shea, a human rights educator in Dublin, writes about her struggles to incorporate new forms of thinking about human rights into traditional curricula. As evidence in support of her claim that she has succeeded in doing so, she writes (p. 49):

‘… we were also aware that the curriculum, as expressed through the ‘subject’ lens of the established Leaving Certificate, would be difficult to challenge as it could be argued that it was serving many of our young people well. We struggled to move away from the idea of a subject-based approach to human rights and citizenship education by reflecting on the following questions:

  • What does it mean to think politically and to act politically, rather than to study the theory of politics?
  • What does it mean to understand how society is structured and stratified in a way that empowers some and alienates others and to take action to challenge these divisions, rather than to study sociology?
  • What does it mean to grapple with the concept of identity, culture difference and diversity, rather than simply to study anthropology?
  • What does it mean to educate for sustainable development, rather than simply study the environment?

(CDVEC Curriculum Development Unit, 2000: 7)

These questions, we argued, pointed to the fact that any programme in human rights and citizenship should not be content-driven but rather should be an experience which enhances students’ capacity to live and act in the world. In a response to the submission from one colleague I was delighted to read:

“I just read your submission and liked it tremendously. The idea of a core course with options is excellent … One powerful argument for this type of course is the generally alienated view which people have of politics as a consequence of recent scandals. This course could be an important element of creating the kind of political culture necessary for proper democracy.”

Karen claims that she has come to a new understanding of her work, and this provides the new grounds for a new practice. She writes (pp. 57–58):

As I continue to strive to develop a value-based approach to my practice I am challenged to shape my practice in a way which makes explicit those values I claim to hold. If I value a community-based approach to curriculum development, how do I live this out with my colleagues? … My practice has revealed that communities of learning will only emerge through the concerted efforts of practitioners. These efforts need to be supported and, while I have only caught a glimpse of what such a community might involve, I am committed to trying to continue to develop such an approach within my own practice. …

I believe that my entry into action research was underpinned by a desire to examine my practice. I hoped that through the act of systematic research I would help elucidate for myself the purpose and meaning of my practice. It was a journey into the unknown and a journey that sought to ask, what is important in what I do? What do I want to continue doing and how can I best become who it is I am fundamentally always becoming? I am not on my own in the pursuit of this kind of understanding. Like many others I am committed to discovering who I am called to be.

I have presented these extracts as examples to support my idea of what I have described elsewhere (McNiff, 2000, 2002) as the generative transformational nature of educative influence, and to support my claim that this is an appropriate living form of theory that is sufficiently robust to explain the sustainable development of social formations. My claim is that the properties of living theory – the living experiences of people as they try to live in the direction of their educational values (see the writings of Jack Whitehead on – are commensurate with the essential properties of living societies – the capacity to transform freedom of choice and the desire for self-accountability into considered social actions that do no harm to self or others. While agonistics and contradiction are taken as first principles (see Paper 1), the reality is an inexorable commitment towards justice through the equitable distribution of social goods, a commitment whose reasons and purposes are consistently hammered on the anvil of personal responsibility.

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Read about the Value and Virtue in Practice-Based Research conference at York St John University, Tuesday 9th and Wednesday 10th June 2015. Go to for further information.
Keynote speakers: Dr Tina Cook, Northumbria University

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Professor Julian Stern, York St John University

Professor Jean McNiff, York St John University




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