Throughout my master there had been a set of theories about alternative ways of doing research that had interested me a lot, the “Action Research method” in particular. Action research is a method of doing research that involves the people to whom the topic you are researching is relevant in every step of the research process. Rather than just taking part as informants in the researcher’s study, in action research the participants are the ones who establish the research objectives and research questions, and who search for answers to these questions together with the researcher. In discussions in class and in my essays, I kept returning to these theories as they seem so relevant in creating research that is more inclusive and stands closer to society. However, as I did not have any experience with applying and studying the theories in practice, it was difficult to understand how they can really work, and to argue for these methods in discussions. I managed to find a thesis assignment which consisted of setting up a local platform for international cooperation in Wageningen through an action research approach.
Our concrete task was to set up workshops for diverse actors who might be interested in development cooperation in Wageningen: students; immigrants; representatives of the municipality, the private sector and of existing development initiatives. Because we worked as an action research we did not start off with any assumptions and we only had a broad aim: to bring these people together so that they could develop a way for them to cooperate in development initiatives. Throughout the process, the group established the concrete aim of the project: it became a platform for knowledge and practical exchange for actors engaged in development initiatives. In action research, you let the participants and the context decide the direction you go, so everything can change at any point, it is a continuous learning process where unexpected things can happen. Through my facilitation and the writing of evaluations of the meetings for the actors, I connected findings that the group generated to theories that I learned in communication courses (I had chosen to do my thesis under the Communication and Innovation group within the specialisation Communication, Technology and Policy). Through the immediate interaction of these theories with the experiences of the group, you get a more realistic picture of how academic theories make sense to people, and which ones are so far distanced from their realities that they have no use to society. In my thesis I wrote about how the action research stimulated this constructive group learning process, and what I learned from this regarding the role of action research and science in society. However, next to the thesis, the final goal was to serve the participants, so we made sure that the platform did not have to end when we had gathered our data. So we created a business plan together, and now many activities have arisen out of the platform that hopefully will continue. What I like about action research is that you do not need to know where things will end up in order to start with it; all you need to do is just start.
In my eyes, the project has proven that indeed action research is a way of doing research that is much closer to society. Because you do research together with the participants, you feel much more responsible. You feel responsible to get findings that the research participants can identify with and see relevant in their daily lives. It also means you have to translate science in a way that non-scientists can understand it, which I think should be an aim of science in general, not just within action research. With science you can come up with beautiful theories and ideas, ‘this is what the people need’. But the fruits of your labor should be visible in the field. It’s not about the researcher trying to finish a degree and being accepted by other researchers, science should be about supporting society.