Posted February 4th 2010 at 1:01 pm by
in CoLab Philosophy

Action, Research, or Action Research?

DUSPSS Dayna Cunningham

Dayna Cunningham starts the Action Research debate

On February 3rd, CoLab hosted a unique experience at DUSP – a dialogue designed to tease out not only the who and why of urban planning practice, but also a balanced how.  Under the umbrella of reviewing the history, execution and future of action research, the packed room of faculty, students, alumni, Mel King community fellows and other friends from the community brought both a wealth of experience and opinions to the table.  In a lively conversation, participants unpacked the idea of action research as a practice rooted in the grassroots reality of our cities.

Like the curriculum of most of courses, the dialogue started with defining the terms and the context, then considered the most effective and appropriate starting point to act. Larry Susskind described the origins of action research in DUSP as a moment of students coming forward and saying,

“I want to DO something.”

Beyond the limited client-centered relationships in studios, fieldwork, and funded faculty research projects, students longed for more complex dives into neighborhood challenges.  Susskind and other faculty, including Tunney Lee and Ceasar McDowell, described the early days after the 1960’s when the flow of knowledge became multi-directional through visiting community fellows, and the work became more focused through Donald Schon’s brand of reflective practice.

The discussion revealed that no single definition of action research is universally accepted or understood.  Some of this tension was rooted in the value of expertise or scientific method versus the ‘gut’ instincts planners need in a constantly evolving communities.  Early on, Susskind asserted that despite our history of encouraging action research, the department is “still vague on a theory of how you learn from your own experience, your practice, your engagement.  Faculty Alice Amsden later defined effective action research through the “re” of tested replicability, while professor Phil Thompson countered that no community meeting is ever like the last, and insight and analytical skills learned through action are more salient than replication.  Both Masters in City Planning student Marianna Leavy-Sperounis and DUSP department head Amy Glasmeier pointed out that action research didn’t need to be either action or research, but wondered where we could find balance between both academic and practical value in these pursuits.

DUSP Speaker Series - Leyton

CoLab Mel King Fellows Jacquie Kay and Juan Leyton

One point of consensus centered around action research as one valuable tool in a planning student’s arsenal, a unique tool rooted in real-time experiences within a long-term relationships between the academy and a community.  McDowell advised that this tool should build from lessons learned through collective problem-solving, and be couched in long-term engagement with specific neighborhoods, like Springfield.  Dennis Frenchman agreed that staying in one place, like his work in China, creates an efficiency that negates the “enormous amounts of energy to do this work.”  Bill Traynor, of Lawrence Community Works, cited the ease of bringing Lawrence’s first Dominican mayor to MIT to tap MIT@Lawrence’s years of collective reflection:

“It’s about access to body of knowledge, but also access to a process where that body of knowledge is constantly refreshed.”

In the end, several students called for the department to return to MIT’s community serving roots as a land grant university by improving its articulation of action research as a methodology.  Building on the department’s rich history, students could now use action research as a tool to focus on, as Masters in City Planning student Bernadette Virginia Baird-Zars described, ‘middle lessons’ that help us move beyond doubt to confidence.  In fact, student Eric Mackres suggested that we focus more forward than backward:

“We need the ability to anticipate the future, to do ‘pre-search’…[we need to learn] how you approach communities with humility and develop confidence to propose solutions.”

For more details on this event, complete with suggested readings on several of the themes, check out these notes from PhD student Annis Whitlow Sengupta.  Also, check out reflections and the syllabus from CoLab’s recent IAP course.

Whether you were able to attend this great event or not, what do you think?  We encourage you to keep the lively conversation going here by posting your comments and reflections below.

7 responses to “Action, Research, or Action Research?”

  1. alexa mills says:

    As an advocate for action research, I wonder if this discussion really teased out the opposition to action research. I think action research often has to defend itself at a place like MIT. As a student, I always sensed a sentiment that actual work with a community – especially one characterized by mutual respect for the knowledge each party offers – wasn’t as valid as traditional research.

  2. Ana Rose says:

    I appreciate community engagement, and believe that urban planning students, especially, should be engaged, but I have to question whether the words action and research really go together. Universities are supposed to deliver knowledge. How does engagement deliver knowledge?

  3. justin says:

    I’m still confused about Glasmeier’s assertion that “action research didn’t need to be either action or research.” If your action research project involves neither action nor research, then what exactly does it involve? Spirited conversation? Guessing?

  4. RalfLippold says:

    I see the collective knowledge of citizens as the genuine driver for the change we talk about.

    Within the body of the citizenship there are all professions, views, experiences of life embedded. In general -due to silo-ism (everybody is more focused on his/her close environment- this is yet not surfaced.

    When the collective voice of the citizens is brought together there is tremendous power for moving things for- and upward:-)

    As we are always part of this citizenship body in our community, we have the chance to act from within the collective body (even though the direct impact on the whole takes sometimes some time to be seen;-))

    Thanks for sharing the ideas and thoughts with the open audience (via the web)!

    Best regards, Ralf (Dresden, Germany)

  5. Anonymous says:

    Alexa, if that’s true, that’s pretty messed up. It’s like saying that cooking at a culinary school isn’t respected! Or how about a residency for medical students! Yes, a world in which the premier urban planners (MIT’s urban planning department is #1 in the country…) have only approached the questions of urban planning from a traditional researcher’s perspective is frightening. Top schools should employ the best methods for training students–even if they don’t result in published journal articles.

  6. Lorlene Hoyt says:

    Do the words ‘action’ and ‘research’ go well together? This question was also raised during the round table discussion. Our own (then prof at MIT) Kurt Lewin introduced the idea of ‘action research’ in a seminal paper published in 1946 where he pointed to the need for research “leading to social action.”

    I agree that the primary role for institutions of higher learning in our society is to generate and disseminate knowledge. Doing so via engagement challenges the traditional model of research in that it values the production of practical knowledge and includes people outside the university in the discovery process.

    During the discussion, it struck me that within the department (of urban studies and planning) there exist many instances of what I call “sustained engagement” whereby faculty, staff, and students have forged long-term learning relationships with people outside the academy (in Lowell, Lawrence, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Beijing, and Cartagena, for example, though there are more). Based on my experience working in collaboration with the people of Lawrence, Massachusetts, I believe that the ability to co-generate and co-disseminate knowledge is enhanced through such relationships because it takes time to build the trust necessary to co-create ideas, plans for action, methods of reflection, and publications.

    I like the term action research. It challenges the dominant epistemology of universities. It suggests there are other norms worthy of exploration.

  7. Rob G says:

    Alexa, I agree with you the perspective of the social sciences wasn’t brought out as much in the discussion as it could have been. However, I don’t think it’s because they weren’t there. I think different ways of thinking and acting overlap in each individual – I’m sure almost everyone at the event has worked on a study or project with several contrasting approaches to research, action, and knowledge.

    Before attending this event I did a reading for the Engaging Community class published in JAPA in 1970 featuring the views of many DUSP faculty at the time. It was amazing how many of the issues and debates on how to do teaching and research in the field are the same. I think these debates go back to how the department is structured – a fusion of planning (the art of creating plans and recommendations informed but not dictated by social science) and urban studies (which draws on multiple fields with varied and conflicting epistemologies and research approaches).

    In addition to the books that were mentioned at the session another I think is relevant is Making Social Science Matter, by Bent Flyvbjerg, and the corresponding debate it has provoked.