Participation and co-creation are essential for creation of prehearsals. Action research is one of the primary academic disciplines looking at how to include participation in ongoing research processes. On this page we look at what ideas and techniques from action research, action foresight and anticipatory action learning.
Quotes From: Action Research as Foresight Methodology by Jose Ramos
One of the key concepts in action research is participation. The meaning of this word has been given much attention in this field, and there is a particular branch of action research, participatory action research, that makes participation its central tenet. In participatory action research (PAR), for example, a planning process is participatory, meaning that a broad body of stakeholders (not just shareholders) are involved in the planning process, be this community, organisational or state. Such participatory planning leads to co-generative action and this co-generated action leads to shared reflection, and the ongoing re-conceptualisation of planning. Yoland Wadsworth has pioneered such a ‘collectivist’ approach, which 2 translates shared knowledge into social action, for many years.
By contrast, futures studies leans toward expert or strategic planning normally used within upper management or government policy circles by those who have command and control power to steer the direction of an organization. This combines sensitivity to an organisation’s future environment with sensitivity to an organisations internal values/mission/capacity, translates this into ‘visionary’ directives, and implements these through intelligent planning and action taking.
This kind of expert process has also been said to alienate the very same people who have created the strategic plans in the first place, through over-professionalised jargon and technical superiority on the part of professional planners. At its worst people subsequently become slaves to the plans they sponsor.
action research aims to deal with the alienating effects of such expert/non-expert divisions through a reflective (not dogmatic) participatory approach. In action research the research process is open to many and facilitated to promote fairness. Outcomes support participants’ interests so that the knowledge created 4 helps participants to control their own destiny. Actions are generated by the participants themselves ensuring a maximum amount of self-determination. Finally, the action researcher, through the process of capacity building, becomes redundant: The outsider [action researcher] gradually lets go control so that the insider can learn how to 5 control and guild their own development process.
Sohail Inayatullah argues that to be effective in futures work, the futurist must be willing to play both roles (‘sage on stage’ and open facilitator) responsibly, at certain points leading by listening, at others leading by teaching by traditional lecture methods.
For action research such strategic facilitation is participation with a forward view.
One of the more rigorous aspects of futures studies is its investigation of change theories through sociology, macro-history, cultural anthropology and the like. The diversity of theories in social change, and the level of complexity within the change discourse that futurists attain, make them adept at sense- making and communicating this change to others.
These theories, however, often only explain change and many futurists have shied away from creating change or exploring social change agency. A dual aspect in the discourse on social change is needed – knowledge of structure should be balanced with practise in agency. It is in this second aspect of social change where action research excels, working within communities or organisations to bring about meaningful results, and deriving useful knowledge from this experience for participants.
In general, futurists tend to focus on the larger scale and action researchers tend to focus on the smaller and immediate organisation, or community context. Macro-history, for instance, analyses change within a time scale of 500-1000 years (or more in some theories). Environmental scanning, a common foresight method, respects the diversity of global phenomenon. Multicultural futures look from the vantage point of civilisational ways of knowing.
Yet action researchers might feel they have little use for time scales of 1000 years if their goal is to create meaningful change in a community or organisation in a one to five year timeframe. Action researchers need to know more about a local culture, how innovations are diffused there, the intricacies of the local power structure, and other concepts that would help them to help locals better their situation.
Translating global insight, the forte of futures studies, into local action, the forte of action research, would seem to be a promising challenge yet social change as structure and agency are integral to each other. Foresight without action is meaningless, and action without foresight can be dangerous.
Seeing such grand patterns within history might allow for greater understanding of local dilemmas that might otherwise be considered eternal facts of life or unsolvable conundrums. In short, action research can be a way of applying foresight toward the aim of meaningful social change, while futures studies can be a way for action research to connect its project to the global and temporal in meaningful ways
In the end, scenario building eclipsed forecasting as the concept of a predictable future began to seem philosophically naïve to many. The exploration of the potentialities of an open, dynamic and evolving future, through the study of emerging issues, scenario building, and acknowledgement of human will and action as critical determinants, has distanced futures studies from what many social scientist’s consider scientific thinking.
The key difference between Slaughter’s and Greenwood’s frameworks, in terms of knowledge creation, is that action research demands that propositions of a social nature be verified by generating experience and 16 creating change in a given local context. Futures studies, in terms such as an integral cycle, demands that propositions of a ‘forward view’ be verified through interpretation and judgement within a given foresight context, ie a community of foresight. Yet the parallels in the two approaches are significant, as both move through iterative cycles of action and reflection, rely on explicit methodology which is well documented, seek confirmation within a communal context and consider valid and relevant knowledge to live within defined local contexts – as opposed to over-generalised propositions of the universal category.
action research can offer futures studies a way of testing the applicability and validity of foresight within local contexts. In relation to local stakeholders, ‘knowledge about the future’ shouldn’t be an overly abstract concept lacking relevance, but rather an inspirational call to action with traction.
Both fields, while not necessarily stemming from systems thinking, have come to rely on it. Whether using the soft-systems approach of Peter Checkland, the hard systems approach of Jay Forrester, or the complexity theories of the Santa Fe Institute; futurists have relied more and more on complex systems thinking to understand complex and counter-intuitive change processes, and to model these in order to make some of the assumptions within these systems explicit.
Social systems have a history and are in constant motion, evolving through time. Humans are situated in these social systems, and these social systems influence human behaviour and are influenced by human behaviour. There is an appreciation of dynamic interaction not reducible to reified and static categories of social life and structure, a stark contrast to orthodox social science, which is founded on social facts that stand on their own with claims to general universality. In addition to understanding social reality as a dynamic and systemic phenomenon, action research has moved toward systemic intervention, 18 influence at a systemic level, aimed at re-creating and designing the deep ecology of social life. Action 19 research can be understood as an effort to transform society into ever more open systems.
In both fields a grounded relationship with the unknowable is very important. Action research is not rigid and prescriptive about the right course of human action and development, but more about research that 21 empowers people to take meaningful steps in desired directions. Good foresight does not pretend to know the future or to predict the future, but rather aims at creating a meaningful ‘forward view’, as argued by Slaughter, that leads people to meaningful and constructive activity.
Inayatullah defines complexity to be about reflexivity regarding our own perceptions, toward peripheral vision and depth understanding, ‘horizonal and vertical’, exploring ways of knowing and epistemological space.
Our research findings thus must be open ended, ready to be discarded if a new 22 paradigm provides more elegant, informative, explanatory insights.
Such a view is consonant with the ‘systems’ thinking of Humberto Maturana, who argues that the mind is 23 not epiphenomenal and that ‘all knowing is doing, all doing is knowing’. Robert Flood writes that action research is a balance between mystery and mastery. Because the complexity and vastness of the variables that envelop our lives is boundless and beyond our capacity for comprehension, leading us to an appreciation of the unknowable
In both domains the quest for absolute knowledge is ending, and with this the positivist’s dream of intellectual mastery. In place of this is an appreciation for the infinite complexity we are part of (and create), and a desire to understand this. It is not the hubris of intellectual triumphalism or the humble oblivion of the agnostic, but a balance between the two which allows a ‘forward view’ to be a call to meaningful action.
For many years now, futures studies has made an art form of studying visions of the future. These might include provocative images, ideal images and images of probable futures. Within this the visioning process, how a vision of the future is created, has also been of central concern. The contexts necessary for a vision to occur; what the content of a vision should be; and how to develop organisational vision, among 25 others, have been primary questions.
Appreciative inquiry in particular is an action research methodology that leads to group visioning of preferred futures and actions toward the particular future state envisioned.
In terms of visioning, action research is relevant to foresight in opening a visioning process to many stakeholders in authentic ways, of making ‘pie in the sky’ visions grounded in local context and real practice. It also means that visioning is an iterative process that can never be locked-in in the way traditional strategic plans are.
Yet action researchers’ concern for creating meaningful social change through open ended inquiry can be assisted by futures studies’ expertise in group visioning processes and in understanding images of the future.
A variety of futures thinkers have articulated commitments to ‘democracy’ although by different definitions and through different means. In futures parlance this has been referred to as ‘democratising the future’, a commitment to giving all people a voice in their society’s futures, opening the discourse of a good society to broad participation. Wendell Bell, for example, has argued that one of the primary aims of futures studies is such a democratisation of the future, giving people normally outside of the decision making loop a say, and encouraging people to participate in dialogue that for many years they may have 28 been alienated from. The grass-roots visioning exercises and ‘futures workshops’ conducted by visionary Robert Jungk is another example of this intention to facilitate popular hope and social capacity to take 29 action on issues that are of common interest. Critical futures education, as developed by Richard Slaughter, also seeks to give students the intellectual futures tools to deal with future challenges and respond to social problems and complex changes that most people could not deal with or might be 30 resigned to.
Action research also seeks to create new forms of interaction that distribute power more evenly. This cannot be done without an understanding of social systems as integrated wholes, and an analysis of existing power structures.
action research seeks democratic inclusion and social research that ‘democratises research processes through the inclusion of local 31 stakeholders as co-researcher’. There is no ‘subject’, but a partner in research: action research democratises research processes through the inclusion of local stakeholders…[and is] central to the enactment of a commitment to democratic social 32 transformation through social research.
Part of the project of democratising the future is to problematise existing claims about the future, or certain images of the future, and open up avenues for alternative futures and social innovation. This can come in the form of deconstruction, as in Inayatullah’s causal layered analysis, or hermeneutics via 36 Slaughter’s scholarship.
Critical futures studies is clearly a challenge to the distortion of meaning within society, seeking to be an agent for human emancipation.
Total systems intervention (TSI), is a branch of action research that uses a systems thinking approach. Despite coming from a different epistemological framework, it has many parallels to critical futures studies.
Critical futures and TSI share intimate interests, thus local systemic intervention could be integrated with critical futures, to critique how reified notions of the future are embedded in organisational practice, and vice versa, to show how systems in organisations maintain dystopia.
futures work such as Robert Jungk and Norbert Mullert’s future workshops see social innovation as a central priority in futures studies, part of the process of democratising the 42 future, opening alternative futures through diverse creative participation. Slaughter also sees social innovation as a primary futures studies domain, and the necessity for deep design, to re-conceptualise 43 social reality in fundamental ways.
Strategic innovation in both the technical and social domains requires foresight. Thus action research gives futures work a way of bridging creative thinking about the future with experimentation, fostering social innovations with futures relevance. It can allow futures studies to be more than speculation about the future; deeply re-constructing social ecologies through social innovation. Foresight gives action research processes, already known for generating meaningful social innovations, enhanced futures relevance, meaningfulness in the context of alternative futures.
in future search, a type of search conference developed by Janoff & Weiss, participants are asked to bring news clippings of what might be emerging issues that could affect community stakeholders. Based on this initial base, the group together begins creating a time line which forks into ideal and probable futures. This divergence then becomes the 45 bases for creating a group vision for the community and creating meaningful action.
A group of futurists from Australia have for many years been incorporating action research into futures work. Robert Burke, Tony Stevenson, Julie Macken, Paul Wildman, Sohail Inayatullah and others have for many years been developing anticipatory action learning, a form of foresight work done in an action learning setting.
Anticipatory action learning seeks to link inquiry, anticipation, and learning with decisions, actions and evaluation, during an openly democratic process. It integrates research/search actions and evaluation, during an openly democratic process. It integrates research/search with decision and action, and downgrades the prerogative of a research elite, empowering all 47 participants.
actions and evaluation, during an openly democratic process. It integrates research/search with decision and action, and downgrades the prerogative of a research elite, empowering all 47 participants.
Sohail Inayatullah has for many years developed anticipatory action learning as pedagogy in teaching foresight to students and professionals. He considers action research as the fourth and most recent epistemological advance in foresight work, after the predictive (assumes that the ‘universe’ is deterministic), interpretive (assumes the ‘universe’ is contextually given), and critical (assumes the 48 present is the ‘victory of one particular discourse’).
in anticipatory action learning, the key is to develop probable, possible and preferred estimations of the future based on the categories of stakeholders. The future is constructed through deep participation. Content learning gives way to process learning. The future thus becomes owned by those having interests in that future. Moreover, there is no perfect 49 forecast or vision. The future is continuously revisited, questioned.
There exists a complementarity to the respective disciplines that is hard to ignore. It promises to be a rewarding endeavour, and many have already been at work in this social innovation for years. This social innovation could help create communities of foresight, facilitate the emergence of institutions of foresight, and the democratisation of grass-roots futures. It is the possibility of ‘foresight-in-action’, and action foresight.