Participatory Action-Research, Inclusiveness, and Empowering Community Action (by Bilorusky, Lunsford and Lawrence), continued


The teaching and learning of “action-research” has been a theme at the alternative, community-oriented university, the Western Institute for Social Research (WISR), since WISR’s inception in 1975. We have believed that research should be inclusive by eliciting participation from many of the people involved in any action effort. As learners—in the roles of students and educators—we have learned that such participatory action-research has great potential for the creation of imaginative and powerful insights, for empowering participants, and for bringing about tangible community improvements and by contributing to our social change efforts on behalf of such larger ideals as social justice and the greater realization of human potential.

Our earlier involvements. Some of our earlier, most significant involvements grew out of the culture of social change in the late sixties and early seventies when we were young adults. We were graduate students and young educators, and looking for new ways of learning. How could learning and inquiry, activism and social change, be honored—and not as separate endeavors, but through a praxis of interconnectedness? One of us was a young school teacher, committed to learner-centered alternative education, multicultural inclusiveness and feminism. In keeping with these commitments, she embraced an unwavering confidence in the abilities of all children to learn when adults provide them with support and guidance that affirm their strengths, interests and cultures. Two of us collaborated in teaching an interdisciplinary social science course on social theories and their uses at UC Berkeley. In that course, we emphasized that ideas matter in social life, and students were encouraged to study and critique social theories, especially in light of their personal concerns and interests in social change. For example, we emphasized to students that science and the pursuit of knowledge grow out of the endeavors of human beings, individually and collectively, and that fruits of those endeavors are based on the many strengths and limitations that the participating human beings contribute to those efforts. To underscore this point, we used T.S. Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which shows how the history of science is a history of changing paradigms, of cycles of stability, crisis and revolution growing out of the agreements and conflicts, and the insights and blinders among the members of a scientific community.

Building on this belief about the potential of combining intellectual pursuits with personal experience and commitments, one of us taught a class on experienced-based social theories. Soon, thereafter, he collaborated with other faculty and students at the University of Cincinnati in creating an innovative, Individualized Learning Program, in a College of Community Service. That program focused on creating a learning structure or “script” which would enable, and indeed, encourage, the participating learners to “improvise,” rather than being wedded to dominant paradigms of their intended professions [for more information see Bilorusky and Butler, 1975]. Subsequently, one of us became the head of a new graduate university without walls program in a small, alternative institution. Another became the head of a field studies program at the University of California at Berkeley, and yet another one of us joined the faculty in teacher education at the University of California at San Diego, and was primarily involved in preparing students to teach in multicultural and learner-centered (and often, alternative) school settings. In these various involvements, all of us were concerned with how learners could come to appreciate their potentials for creating ideas and knowledge, on their own and with others, and from their own insights and experiences. Through such awareness and appreciation we saw how, quite often, learners could develop the confidence and capacity to not only build on the ideas of established theories and thinking, but also to critique and even go beyond existing knowledge.

We identified ourselves as “activists,” and as “educators,” and even, we have to confess, as “intellectuals.” We knew that all too often some intellectuals were giving intellectual pursuit a “bad name” by carrying on the pretense of aloof, abstract and value-neutral inquiry. In our view, many activists conveyed the image that activism is anti-intellectual, spontaneous, ill-considered action. We lamented these dichotomies. Our circles of friends spanned these various groups, and we often found ourselves in friendly disagreement with many, and in heated debate with many. It is not surprising that we gravitated toward one another, because, despite the diversity of backgrounds represented by the three of us, and others with whom we developed close associations and collaborations, we were very much united by some important shared ideals.

Our shared philosophy, intellectual allegiances, and growing curiosity. We believed that knowledge and inquiry is important to social change. In this regard, we still believed in some of the principles of the “Enlightenment” (despite the contradictions and hypocrisies in the actual actions of such famous men as Thomas Jefferson). We were intrigued by the critical perspective brought to understanding the history of oppression by Marx and others who followed his thinking. We valued the insights and also understood limitations of prominent Western philosophers from Plato and others through the centuries to the early twentieth century progressive social theorists, like John Dewey. In their own different ways, these philosophers wrote about and valued the connections between thought and action. And now, in this era of the sixties and seventies, there were new emerging perspectives of feminism, of Black Power, of widening appreciations for non-western ideas, and the challenges posed by the “counter-culture.” All of this was more than a little food for thought, and at the very least, we were reminded, continually and tangibly, that worthwhile knowledge can grow out of very different kinds of experiences and from quite disparate perspectives.

As mentioned earlier, from the standpoint of scientific inquiry, Thomas S. Kuhn, in his Structure of Scientific Revolutions, emphasized how, through the centuries, “science” is a complex, collective process of change, where by groups of people wrestle with competing ideas, debate their relevance and usefulness, and use their collective experience to bring about, at least intermittently, “scientific revolutions.” Related to this view of ideas as always being emergent and “in process,” we had developed a keen appreciation for how symbolic-interactionism (see for example, writings by Herbert Blumer and Howard Becker) emphasizes “qualitative” and “naturalistic” social research. Such writings supported and informed our belief of the importance of understanding social life from the perspective of the meanings and experiences of the people who are actually involved in or implicated by the particular social processes being studied. Further, these perspectives on social research reminded us that ideas about social change efforts, and indeed, about all social dynamics, are organic and even always in need of change. That is to say, ideas always need to be critiqued, evaluated, and revised in light of further experiences and insights. Indeed, such “further experiences” should include efforts to reach out to and involve others, to learn from their experiences, to solicit their participation and insights, and to continue to add to our own insights from many ways of being further involved with others in our social change efforts.

Concurrent with our own developing endeavors in these regards, we became aware of others who shared these concerns. Paulo Freire’s book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, appeared during this period, and we found further support and encouragement from his ideas about involving others in collaborative participatory-inquiry aimed at social change. Around the world, in many different communities, others began to speak of and make efforts to practice what came to be known as “participatory research.”

We were developing these intellectual perspectives, social commitments, and involvements in educational reform at a time when most others in academia were very committed to research defined by very formal criteria—precisely specified procedures of investigation, statistics and usually an attitude of aloofness toward social action and values. These research procedures allowed little room for improvisation, intellectual imagination, social action or respect for the experience and participation of others in the larger community. Some of our social activist friends and colleagues felt that we should mostly attend to taking action, and they felt that “research” could just as well be ignored as socially irrelevant. Our view was, and is, that although the use of conventional academic research methods may sometimes yield useful insights, these insights are often limited and sometimes quite inaccurate. Moreover, in any case, the insights need to be continually re-evaluated in light of further, and ongoing, processes of inquiry that involve opportunities to test out these insights in light of the experiences of those outside academia, and to grapple with the practical and ethical implications involved in the use of the research “results.”

From our earliest efforts, and the curiosity stimulated by the period in history when we were young adults, we came to realize that qualitative research methods often bring to light profound insights–from interviews, personal experience and observations, and everyday action—that cannot be so easily discerned from quantitative and standardized methods of inquiry. In our early efforts to formulate our views about inquiry, what we meant by action-research was not a precisely defined set of methods but a collage of attitudes, frames of mind, and orientations to inquiry, learning and action. The “qualities” in action-research as we have come to talk about “it” with students over the years are evident in the flow of one’s everyday job and community activities, as well as in more formal undertakings (ranging from dissertations and theses, to efforts to do a major evaluation of an existing program, to the conduct of a needs assessment or the creation of a new program or community agency). “Action-research” as we promote it can certainly include specific techniques, such as strategies of note-taking or interviewing, but it is much, much more than a set of techniques or methods.*

Creating an institution of higher learning dedicated to participatory inquiry. It is not surprising, then, that we soon found ourselves involved in founding (in 1975) and nurturing an alternative institution of higher education, the Western Institute for Social Research (WISR), and from the beginning one of our main purposes at WISR has been to promote of the kinds of participatory and action-oriented inquiry discussed in this article.* In a larger context, WISR was founded in part as an attempt to improve on both conventional and alternative higher education as they had evolved into the 1970s. At that time, in the aftermath of the sixties, many educators and students were debating the merits of the university’s role in the community and in social change, the “relevance” of the curriculum, and generally, the values served by higher education. WISR was founded partly as our modest but concerted response to some inadequacies in conventional education—for example, the absence of emphasis on personalized education, multiculturality and social change. It was founded partly in response to the limitations of alternative programs of the seventies, which oftentimes were too preoccupied with simply “looking different” from the conventional.

Our commitment and perspective on “action-research” and participatory inquiry is reflected in our approach to learning:

“WISR’s programs are designed to provide community-involved adults with high-quality learning opportunities, combining academic theory and research with experience-based knowledge and insights, to help people develop satisfying personal careers while providing leadership toward educational innovation, community improvement and constructive social change.
Higher education should help community-involved adults become aware of their intellectual strengths, of what they already know and can do, by thinking, talking, and writing about those strengths, and applying them to problems that the students are personally concerned about. Higher education should help adults assess their personal goals, and the kinds of further learning that they need to pursue those goals and attain them. All students should be encouraged to stretch themselves, to become broadly acquainted with fields of knowledge and intellectual methods that are relevant to their areas of interest.
We believe that facts and methods of analyzing are best learned as parts of a broad, developmental approach to knowing, as a natural, dynamic process that all of us engage in throughout our lives. Critical inquiry can be a focal process in the education and self-development of community- involved adults.
We believe that all learners’ intellectual interests are ethically and politically informed, and that these aspects of knowledge should be openly and hospitably explored in the educational process.
Intercultural understanding and multicultural learning experiences are important to adult learning in today’s world, especially between members of different genders, economic classes, and ethnic and racial groups. Every student should understand how the most basic facts and ideas that we know are shaped by our individual experiences and the group cultures in which we take part.
We believe that adults learn best when their study is closely connected to their own personal and group interests, and connected as well with work in which they are actively engaged. We believe students should be encouraged and supported in doing work that contributes not only to their own advancement but also to the improvement of their communities, and to long-term social change for the benefit of all peoples.” [From page 3 of the current WISR Catalogue.]

*Moreover, in 1980, WISR was one of about 80 institutions of higher education nationally to receive a major grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education to do a nationwide demonstration project on some aspect of the improvement of higher education. Our project was funded for three years and focused on “Extending the Teaching, Learning and Use of Action-Research Throughout the Larger Community.” As part of that project’s efforts, Terry Lunsford and John Bilorusky conducted a series of seminar/workshops for WISR students and others in community agencies, and wrote some learning materials on action-research to serve as a basis for discussions in those seminar/workshops. Copies of the articles written for that series, as well as a few other learning materials written over the years are available for students to borrow, and eventually, they will be available to others on WISR’s web site. Since then, Cynthia Lawrence, John Bilorusky, Terry Lunsford and other WISR faculty have continued to write articles on action-research, some of which are available at


Although “action-research” as pursued by faculty and many students at WISR can take varied forms, there are some qualities which tend to characterize what we see to be some of the more compelling and promising visions of action-research.

To further our discussion here is the beginning of a list. Action-research . . .
• Is exploratory (rather than narrow or habitual)
• Is reflective (rather than rote or unthinking)
• Promotes engagement (rather than aloofness)
• Is inquisitive (rather than disinterested or accepting)
• Is collaborative and participatory (rather than disconnected from dialogue and participation with others)
• Is emergent (rather than formulaic or mechanistic)
• Is concerned with the “bigger picture”—with other theories, readings, larger societal issues and implications (rather than focusing on trees to the exclusion of the forest and the landscape beyond the forest)
• Promotes telling and listening to stories and tangible examples (not just abstractions)
• Is concerned with human values and social justice (not with so-called value-free research, or with research and efforts which only serve the status quo)
• Involves taking one’s own experiences and insights seriously, as a basis for thinking, writing, conversations with others, and larger action (rather than relying only on the knowledge from books and the ideas embedded in existing policies and practices within organizations)
• Involves looking beyond oneself, as well—as in doing reviews of literature and interviews with others (rather than assuming we can’t learn from others, even those whose thinking or purposes we believe to be flawed in important ways)
• Involves writing and rewriting in our own voice—to think out loud with oneself, to communicate and share with others, to stimulate collaboration and participation with others, and to refine ideas and strategies (writing is part of an ongoing creative process, rather than an end point or an opportunity to set knowledge “in stone”). [Bilorusky and Lawrence, 2003]

. . . Consider as one example the action-research project of a student who is the director of a large, multipurpose agency serving homeless families. She wanted to interview homeless mothers and service providers in other agencies serving homeless. Her concern is: how do these clients experience the rules imposed by the agencies serving them? In particular, she is concerned that although the rules are well-intended, the homeless mothers often experience the rules established by the service providers, who have considerable power over them, as a retraumatizing event, as one that reminds them of an experience with say, a battering partner. The result is that these mothers take their children and flee the very places that have been created to shelter them. This project has been a relatively small-scale and exploratory one, but she has already learned much more than she thought she would. Further, the homeless mothers interviewed have experienced the interviewing process itself as very empowering and esteem building. Other service providers have become curious about her interviewing efforts, and now want her to interview them and their clients. She has begun to consider having some mothers discuss these issues directly with service providers, or help her in conducting some interviews. This project is a good example of how good action-research and empowering inclusiveness can go hand in hand. With this in mind, let’s consider some ideas about how to elicit ideas and information from others. [Bilorusky and Lawrence, 2003]


Over the years, in working with many different community people, community agency staff, and educators, we have found that most of us know a great deal more than we realize. Frequently, we can turn our knowledge into useful “data” which can contribute to the improvement of our communities. Through the use of interviewing, techniques of note-taking and observation, and analytical discus¬sion methods, we can sharpen and make fuller use of our natural abilities for observing, recording, understanding, and communicating about the world in which we live.

For example, people in community agencies, community activists and educators working in either formal institutions or community settings can use such techniques to gather useable data in the course of our regular work, to put the fruits of careful observation and reflection into writing, and into practice in our daily activities. Some specific uses of these techniques might be:

• To use our own activities and experiences as important sources of data and knowledge;
• To learn from our successes as well as our failures, and from unusual experiences as well as from more typical and recurring events;
• To probe beneath the more obvious, surface facets of problems that concern us, in designing more effective strategies;
• To communicate what we know to coworkers, to others working on similar problems, and to funding agencies.

Further, as we elicit ideas and information from others, we can achieve other, important outcomes along the way. Methods of note-taking, interviewing and analytical discussion can serve as vehicles:

• For dialogue among grassroots community workers, community service professionals and community-involved educators;
• To mobilize people to take action on community problems, where such research activities as interviewing can themselves be part of community action;
• To stimulate thinking and re-energize people;
• To facilitate networking among people from the same community, from neighboring communities, and from different professional backgrounds and areas of community problem-solving; and
• To “hold a mirror up to ourselves” and to the problems with which we are involved, to get fresh insights and perspectives.

For example, the Director of one community-based agency interviewed a number of coworkers as an initial step for program evaluation, and noted these positive side-effects: 1) It gave him an opportunity to think about what they are doing in a way that put value on their efforts. 2) It gave him the opportunity to hear from less vocal staff. 3) It resulted in some specific ideas and insights from staff that could contribute to program changes. 4) He was impressed with the depth of his coworkers’ thinking, and he thinks they may also have been impressed with their own thinking when they heard themselves, since some good ideas came out that rarely come out in such an organized fashion. 5) People left the room (after the interviews) with better feelings about their work.


Although it’s not usually thought of in this way, group discussion can be used very effectively as a tool of analysis, of building new knowledge about a problem, of finding new ways of understanding issues. Community groups that use it in this way sometimes find they have a tool at their command that they hadn’t realized could be so useful. Moreover, the goals of broad-based inclusive participation and empowerment can be furthered.
Group discussion helps in analysis:

Because we all have much more knowledge about the places where we work and live than we usually realize–about the abilities of people, their typical ways of thinking, the things they have accomplished, the problems an organization has faced, the things that have been tried and that have worked–or failed–and about many other things. Discussing current problems can help to bring out some of this existing knowledge and find its relevance to the present; it helps facts and ideas to “just occur to us.”

Because together we know more than anyone of us knows. If we pool our knowledge and ideas, and someone (or several among us) take(s) notes and pull our shared thoughts together, we may end a group discussion with a new plan, or the factual basis for one, or a clarified problem that is easier to work with

Because discussion can bring out more than existing knowledge or ideas–it can stimulate new thoughts, new insights, new slants on old issues. When done right, discussion is a relaxed but very active, engaged kind of work with others; it flows, and swirls, and jumps back and forth in very spon¬taneous, fresh ways that feel “natural”–but it goes somewhere, something happens, there is progress and a product at the end to look back on feel good about. There may be many kinds of products, in fact, such as a group agreement, new individual understandings, a changed background of feeling within the group as a working unit, and so on.

But for group discussion to work well, some things are required. There isn’t any “scientifically verified” version of just how to do it right, but there are some things that are known from experience to make big differences. For example:

• Willing, comfortable participation. Discussion can be disappointing if a few people carryall the effort, or dominate the process, or there is a feeling of being forced or bored or afraid of speaking up.

• Implicit ground rules that support and encourage openness and risk-taking by members of the group. “Brainstorming” can be very productive, for example, in creating new and un-thought-of approaches to old problems–but only if “silly” and “absurd” ideas are welcomed from anyone, and there is a rule against scorning or putting down anyone’s contribution. Other forms of discussion may have different rules, but all need to support diversity and openness in trying out ideas, at least as far as expressing them.

• There are steps beyond the initial collection of ideas that come from the discussion that become valuable when the group judges the appropriateness of the inclusion of a certain point or concept. Critical thinking often comes from one having to explain or defend their point of view.

• Purposiveness. The opposite side of free-flowing participation is unspoken agreement that contributions need to be somehow relevant to the issue or issues “under discussion.” These can change and become fuzzy at times, but working with and around some such focus is very different from having a casual discussion, where free expression of anyone’s random thoughts is acceptable. Helping others in the group feel okay about the process is a broader issue, but staying on the subject, or close to it, can do a lot in that direction.

• Leadership. A skillful, comfortable leader (or leaders) can sometimes do a lot to help a group use discussion productively. There are specific things one can learn about discussion leading, such as asking evocative questions, helping others to participate, and guiding the discussion’s flow.. Best of all is when everyone helps these things to happen, with one or two people taking leadership when and where it’s needed.


When we are embarking on a new project, it is often useful for us to stop and ask ourselves, what can we learn from others? What kinds of things might we find out from others, who, by virtue of their special experiences or insights, might be able to help illuminate the action and/or research we are contemplating? For example, we can often learn a lot from the successes and failures of others. Are there some projects, which are similar to ours? What problems did they encounter? Are there one or two that seemed to have some special noteworthy success where others failed? We will not necessarily want to copy the methods employed by those who were successful, nor will we necessarily decide to avoid all the practices pursued by those who “failed” or had difficulties. However, consideration of related efforts made by others can be very informative, and can point the way to some of the issues and concerns of which we will want to be very much aware as we proceed.
The traditional version of this concern for learning from others sometimes takes the form of a “review of the literature. However, it is not necessary to do a review of the literature before “beginning” to do research. Sometimes this may be very appropriate and helpful, and at other times, it may be best to start by immersing oneself in the project, by going “where the action is” and then later comparing one’s observations and experiences with what others have to say in their writings.

Of course, books and papers are not the only source of learning from others. One may choose to do formal or informal interviews with others who have been involved in related projects. Or, one may collect oral histories from people who have experienced a particular situation or set of social conditions for an extended period of time. If, for example, we are going to study how to promote health, we might wish not only to review professional health journals, but also perhaps to take oral histories of people who have lived long and healthy lives. What have their lives been like? What have been their health practices, the conditions in their environment and social surroundings, etc.? Or, we may wish to interview people who themselves have been involved in successful and not so successful programs aimed at health promotion. From such combinations of reading and talking with others, we may be able to develop a number of interesting case studies–about individual people, about groups of people, about special programs. These case studies may point out issues which we can consider as we continue to pursue our own action-research efforts.

Very often, it is quite informative to consider the experiences of people in different cultures, or in strikingly different social circumstances. By trying to learn from experiences from markedly different contexts, we may get important insights from the similarities and differences among those experiences. For example, if we consider health promotion efforts in different countries, or patterns of health care and health promotion among wealthy vs. impoverished classes of people in our own society, we may learn a lot about the nature of health promotion.

Collaboration, or learning with others, is of course a more intense kind of involvement and a more fully cooperative effort than the learning from others described above. Collaboration is especially suited to co-workers and activist colleagues. One can use ongoing, informal dialogue and conversation with one’s coworkers and colleagues as an integral part of action-research. It is possible to compare observations with each other, to test out hypotheses, to discuss each other’s evaluations of actions taken, and so forth.
Part of the success of this kind of ongoing informal collaboration depends on the nature of the day-to-day working and interpersonal relationships. If there is a spirit of trust and cooperation, a genuinely shared desire to learn from each other (and therefore to learn with each other), then much can be accomplished informally. But it is still necessary to exert the effort and take the time to discuss issues of mutual interest on a regular basis, and to exert the self-discipline to question one another, to raise issues and challenge each other in a supportive atmosphere. It’s much like the self-discipline of cross-country running–two teammates run together and practice together, not so that one can outdistance the other, but so that each will push and encourage the other to go faster and to exert more effort. A significant difference, of course, is that action-research involves striving for qualitatively deeper insights, not just a quantitative increase in effort or “output.” Still, it might be added that people often enjoy the experience of running with a friend, and indeed, collaboration in many areas can be quite stimulating and enjoyable. Vygotsky talks about how when two people come together, each person brings some specific knowledge about the subject at hand. But it is only in the situation when two of us come together that a third additional body of knowledge emerges that builds on and goes beyond each person’s initial knowledge.


In seeking out the insights from others and in trying to learn from their experiences, we should always be mindful of the importance of trying to look beneath the surface. What people first say in an interview, or what they first talk about isn’t always a good reflections of their most deeply felt concerns and insights. Let’s apply our concerns for learning from others and looking beneath the surface to how we might approach the task of doing a community needs assessment.

Very often the idea of doing a “needs assessment” conveys the image of developing a questionnaire which will then be circulated among a number of community people, followed by a statistical compilation of the results. This may lead to findings like: 40% of our clients need jobs, or 25% have high blood pressure, or 65% have children and of these 70% need day care services. That is, the findings may document problems facing the people surveyed, or specify some of the services they need.

These kinds of findings can be very useful, but quite frequently they tell us those things we already know; of course many of our clients need jobs, we know they are under stress and that many of them have high blood pressure, and because almost all parents are working to make a living and have young children, day care services are critical. It can be important to test out the conclusions we have arrived at from experience, and it is useful to be able to document these needs by a “scientific” survey, which can then be presented to funding agencies and other organizations to which our agencies may be accountable. But, how can we do needs assessments in creative ways which will do more than tell us things we already know?

First, it is important to begin by asking, what are our purposes in doing a needs assessment? The specific answers to this question will of course depend on the circumstances of the particular group or agency, and on the concerns and values of the people doing the assessment. Some general purposes include: 1) to help the activist group or community service agency set priorities and make decisions about which unmet needs should be focused upon; 2) to identify target groups and populations to be served, mobilized and/or engaged in participation; 3) to generate ideas for new programs; and 4) to formulate refinements and improvements in existing programs. When serving such purposes, needs assessments involve not simply gathering data but also coming up with new insights and ideas. This is a process by which we can also organize and clarify information for external agencies, such as for example, in presenting a grant proposal to a foundation.

However, needs assessments can be seen in another light, as well–especially when they are done through direct contact and dialogue with community people, for example, through interviews, conversations, and meetings. They can be seen not only as research, but also as “action.” Some general purposes of needs assessments which emphasize their action-oriented potential. include: 1) serving as an outreach tool for contacting community people (e.g., for making one’s service agency or activist group visible, for recruiting potential clients and group members, and for networking with people from other community groups); 2) using the dialogue involved with the needs assessment as a way of educating community people and getting them involved in thinking about their own needs and also about the needs of others in their community; 3) using the needs assessment as an opportunity to organize community people to become involved in taking action on their own behalf (empowerment); and 4) using the needs assessment as a way of helping activists or agency staff to come into contact with community people outside their usual roles. By participating in these kinds of needs assessments, agency staff and community participants, alike, have opportunities to build skills of inquiry, action, and collaboration.

These are just a few of the purposes, which can be aided by needs assessments, and, of course, a creatively designed needs assessment may effectively serve a number of different purposes. We have learned of the important advantages of assessment methods which involve direct contact with community peop1e–for example, interviews, group interviews, meetings, informal conversations (as contrasted with questionnaires or telephone surveys):

• to adapt the specific questions asked of each person or group to the comments they make, to the information they have given, and to the concerns they express;
• to develop a positive rapport, to demonstrate that we genuinely care about what they have to say, and that we can be trusted; and
• to provide them with information that will make them aware of what kinds of alternatives are under consideration, and in doing so, to help them in answering the questions.

For example, many people often assume that their “wants” are not valid needs, or that their needs and wants cannot be feasibly addressed. If they get a questionnaire from a community health center, they may comment on the kinds of needs they would expect to be addressed by a health center. But perhaps the center could respond to other needs, as well, such as the need for emotional support through contact with other people. In the absence of the kind of exchange of ideas which can take place in a conversation or an interview, the community person might give us only the kind of information he or she assumes we are looking for.

Through dialogue, we can help people to stretch their imaginations, and their images of what’s feasible and possible. In other words, we can help each other to look beneath the surface, and to be concerned not only with what appear to be the most obvious immediate tasks but also with the “bigger picture.”

Sometimes, needs assessments may effectively create broader based participation and improve the quality of the research by involving community people as “action-researchers” who are conducting the needs assessment. Group interviews may sometimes be used as a way of eliciting dialogue among community people, so that they can compare their points of view with one another and comment on each other’s comments. Through such methods, community people may be encouraged to reflect more critically on their own needs, and also to think about the needs of others in their community.

In the process of doing any needs assessment, there are important questions about who are the “community people” with whom we are concerned? What is the definition of the population of people whose needs are to be assessed? How can we decide whose needs to assess? The answers to such questions depend in large part on our purposes in doing the needs – assessment, the goals of our agency or group, and our social and human va1ues.


Our emphasis on knowledge-building and inquiry at WISR is aimed at demystifying science and helping people to learn that science and scientific methods are not fixed abstractions but works in progress that grow out of the efforts of real human beings, with all the strengths and limitations that we as human beings bring to science and inquiry. We are not anti-science, but against the one-dimensional stereotypes of science that suggest that hard science is good because it is aloof and “objective” rather than human and open-ended.

In ways that are very good and important, science at its best is messy and requires the active engagement of learners (including those learners who are famous scientists) rather than an aloof stance of pseudo-objectivity, as students are often taught to believe. One of us completed a BA in physics and interned in high energy physics and mathematical physics before being pulled to social activism and the field of higher education reform in the late 60s. This understanding of some of the strengths and limitations of the hard sciences from the inside out has contributed to our writing and our teaching about action-research, participatory research, the philosophy of knowledge and inquiry in the social sciences.

More and more, people are coming to realize the severe limitations of mechanistic, formulaic versions of science which overemphasize numeric manipulations, rigid protocols and aloof, unimaginative research designs and interpretations of data. One of us once interviewed a professor of physics at the University of California who had been identified by students and colleagues as a very distinguished teacher. This professor (who was also well-respected as a scholar in the field) said that one of the challenges he had in educating his graduate students was to help them develop what he called a “qualitative understanding” of physics. To illustrate his concern, he told about a common pitfall he observed among many students when they are problem-solving. Inevitably, even the best of students will sometimes make a numeric mistake of computation, but the mistake is not recognized because the student doesn’t have a good intuitive, qualitative grasp of the relationships that they were trying to study. If they had a qualitative understand, then they would be able to perceive when their computation doesn’t make sense, but instead they will often proceed by unreflectively plugging numbers into a formula.

Recently, in continuing to pursue our interest in science and inquiry, one of us was reading Robert Hazen’s book, Gen-e-sis, which conveys vivid stories of the exciting, imaginative, painstakingly thorough, and also messy, emotional and contentious processes of inquiry involved with cutting-edge research in the “hard” sciences. Hazen goes into great detail to paint a picture for us of a number of the currently debated, alternative hypotheses and ideas about the origins of life on earth. Many of these ideas are quite different from what the members of our generation were taught in the 50s and 60s about the likely “facts” surrounding the origins of life over a billion years ago on our planet. In the past decade or two, cell biologists have joined with chemists, geologists, astrobiologists and others in a transdisciplinary endeavor. This collective endeavor among many of the “best and brightest” of today’s natural scientists is much messier than we might imagine. Scientists cooperate, and they maneuver against one another to win converts to their point of view. They scratch their heads together. They collaborate to formulate carefully designed studies, and they emotionally debate divergent view points, and envision new theories worthy of further examination.

The social reality of these scientists is quite open-ended, uncertain, imaginative and sometimes even contentious. It should perhaps not be surprising then that many of these scientists are intrigued by theoretical and analytical perspectives that are quite complicated and not at all mechanistic or linear. Most notably, many scientists and scholars have become quite interested in “Complexity Theory” and the “Theory of Emergence.” These theories are not static statements that outline the “laws” which govern natural or social phenomena. Rather, they guide us and sensitize us to the ever-changing qualities—to study the continuing dance between order and chaos–of the myriad of social and natural phenomena in our worlds of experience. Indeed, one of the authors has been striving to learn more about Complexity Theory over the past two decades, and it is fascinating to see how this approach has been increasingly used by many cutting edge thinkers in such diverse fields as cardiology, meteorology, biology, physics, stock market behavior, and anthropology.**

**Examples of clear and illuminating readings on Complexity Theory are Roger Lewin’s Complexity: Life at the Edge of Chaos and John Gribbin’s Deep Simplicity: Bringing Order to Chaos and Complexity.


Like our view of participatory action-research, Complexity Theory, affirms the open-ended, interconnected, multifaceted, and always changing and uncertain qualities of most any phenomenon with which one might be concerned. Complexity Theory points to how all sorts of phenomena (our weather, the evolution of life, political movements, and more) seem to have a life of their own, and yet are also quite interconnected with other phenomena. Further, when we take note of most any large-scale, recurring phenomenon, we can eventually discern some emerging patterns co-existing with unexpected twists and turns of development within the phenomenon as it changes over time. Meteorologists see patterns in the weather, and yet, it remains continually unpredictable in its day to day details. Moreover, even the long-term, large-scale manifestations of the weather are unpredictable, especially to the degree that the weather is interconnected with phenomena that do not originate from the weather itself—for example, as in the way in which the ever-intensifying use of fossil fuels is contributing to global warming. Or, to take a very different example, one of our African-American colleagues, WISR faculty member, Vera Labat, recently noted how one negative, unanticipated consequence of racial integration has been to limit natural and visible avenues for grassroots African American leadership to emerge in predominantly African American communities. The larger context of African American communities was changed, and along with this, the patterns, and the unanticipated twists and turns, of the dynamics within the communities were changed: fewer visible positive role models, successful professionals moving out of the predominantly African American communities, for a few the reality of increased opportunities and for many the frustration and despair that in many ways things are becoming worse. Today, there are higher rates of unemployment among youth and young adults, increased rates of incarceration among African American males, and extended families that were once crystals of support, learning and hope have been dissolving in the solution of a more integrated but still oppressive society. None of these observations, however, suggest a critique of the plans or agendas of civil rights leaders.

These observations and insights do underscore the need for continuing and broad-based participatory action-research. People from all walks of life need to be continually engaged in action-oriented inquiry that aims to discern emerging new patterns, and to reflect on the implications of these emerging patterns on the lives of people—to address emerging problems sooner rather than later, and to try to anticipate in advance some of the possible negative effects of even the most promising societal advances. Furthermore, it insufficient to try simply to be on the lookout for the most obvious forces that would perpetuate injustices and maintain the status quo. Certainly, for example, efforts at social change aimed at equality and justice will probably most always be met the familiar processes of cooptation that help to enable power elites to maintain their positions of authority and privilege. However, our emphasis here, and one that is underscored by recent uses of Complexity Theory in many fields of study, is that many of the multiplicity of emerging circumstances and patterns arising from even the most progressive, just and hopeful types of social change are not so easily anticipated using the “laws” and “principles” heretofore “established” by the social sciences.

Consider this example. Recently, we submitted a grant proposal to a major foundation, requesting support for a community education effort aimed at engaging various segments of the public, especially disenfranchised segments of the population, in learning about some of the many possible future uses of biotechnology. Our concern in formulating this project is that if there is not informed public dialogue about the uses of biotechnology (be it stem cell research, genetic alteration of crops, or the development of new vaccines, for example), crucial social policy decisions will be made without the benefit of broad, equitable, public participation. For example, in the domain of stem cell research, in California, public monies will soon be funneled into the support of stem cell research by universities and biotech corporations, without well-developed provisions for assuring that the general public will benefit financially from the resulting medical advances and that access to these advances will be made equally available to all segments of the population without regard to income or health insurance coverage. A program officer of the foundation informed us that while the proposal fit within the values and mission of the foundation, for example to address health disparities, it did not fit within their agenda, since their agenda only included problems which had already been clearly identified by most communities as problems of concern. This story illustrates a common and interesting predicament, founded in part on a century of mechanistic inquiry in the social sciences. Understandably the program officers in the foundation have to make priority decisions so that the foundation does not spread itself “too thin” among too many initiatives. Unfortunately, however, the decision-makers in the foundation, like most of the best-intended reformers and social activists of our day, look to cut-and-dried explanations for social phenomena and societal ills—that is, they are looking for “problems” which are simply and easily defined. This is like spending money to build more hurricane shelters in the Gulf Coast of the United States as people anticipate a possible intensifying of the hurricane season from one year to the next, while refusing to even consider spending money to combat a more subtle problem, but quite likely the more powerful and basic problem of global warming.

In the early twentieth century, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which is so fundamental in quantum mechanics, underscored that the “observer” (or scientist) is inevitably and inextricably connected with, and part of, the phenomenon being studied. In the “hard sciences” the observer became participant. Now, in the early twenty-first century, scientists involved with the Complexity Theory and the Theory of Emergence are seeing with further, deepened interest and clarity that natural and social phenomena are organic processes. Such thinking gives deeper and more profound meanings to the idea that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts (for example, “life” emerges from non-living things, and new forms of segregation emerge from from the birth of a “desegregated” society). It seems that perhaps the “whole” (be it “life itself,” human consciousness, a social system, a hurricane, a stock market rally, a social movement, or a heart attack, to mention a few very different phenomena) owes its existence to such interesting circumstances as 1) the ability of the whole to be self-organizing, 2) the power of a critical mass or critical density of interacting agents to give birth to a phenomenon that is qualitatively new and different, and 3) a subtle and not at all easily predictable dance where order and chaos move to their own rhythms even while they also move in inevitable, but changing, interrelationship with one another.***

Although it is impossible to know where these most recently emphasized views of the content and process of science and scientific inquiry will take us in the coming decades and centuries, it is clear that wherever they will take us it will be away from the more mechanistic, logical and positivist versions of science that are nevertheless still often taught in school and college texts. It is also quite ironic that so many social scientists still aim to mimic these outdated versions of science, even as the most widely acclaimed and successful scholars in the biological, physical and even social sciences are moving away from the simple, linear, cut-and-dried formulations of science and inquiry.

***For a further discussion of some of these qualities of emerging systems, see Chapter 1 in Robert Hazen’s book, Gen-e-sis, as well as the above referenced books by Lewin and Gribbin.


It is our view that the methods of inquiry responsible for the scientific breakthroughs of the past hundred or so years, are more in line with our approach to participatory action-research than are the most commonly practiced methods of social research used by academicians, policy makers and many social activists, alike. Further, participatory action-research explicitly acknowledges that all members of the society must be part of the process of inquiry. All of us are sources of knowledge, and all of us are in need of further education and enlightenment in order to contribute optimally to inquiry and action. The kind of inquiry we are proposing is both very down-to-earth and also very sophisticated, complicated and demanding.


There are many societal challenges and injustices to be addressed today and in the coming years, and it is our belief that the strategies and directions for social change will not come from simple, linear, “either/or” formulations of problem-solving. For example, mounting violence in low-income neighborhoods is a serious phenomenon, and one of WISR’s forward-thinking PhD students, Shyaam Shabaka, conceptualized “violence prevention” as a public health issue over 20 years ago. This conceptualization went beyond the dualism of on the one hand either blaming the individual perpetrators or victims, or on the other hand, envisioning individual members of the community as impotent and incapable of bringing about the necessary community and social changes. More importantly, for the past 20 plus years, Shyaam’s involvement has been more than his “initial” transformative conceptualization, for he has continued to question and further develop his own insights as he has continued to be actively inquiring and involved in working for systemic social change through a variety of concrete community interventions, some of which might not appear to “directly target” the problem of violence–such as the creation of a sustainable agriculture experiment, Eco-Village Farm, in the very urban, Richmond, California. Meanwhile, over the past couple of decades, others in public health and related professions have eventually come to see violence prevention (in part at least) as a public health issue, and the problem is certainly being examined with greater complexity of insight today than it was by most people 20 years ago. But the consequences of this change in professional perspective are, unfortunately, still somewhat superficial—many well-intended people have agreed with this “newly acknowledged” partial insight into the (in this case, that violence prevention should be a public health issue) without becoming continually involved in the important and open-ended process of action and inquiry. Consequently, we are still far from “solving” this “problem,” or perhaps to state it more insightfully, we are still far from creating the kind of society which would be an inhospitable context for rampant violence.

Unfortunately, people like Shyaam who are engaged in an ongoing process of inquiry and action that is continually transformative are very much the exception rather than the rule. The challenge posed by this absence of a critical mass of engaged, inquiring change agents, is compounded by the reality that the obstacles to solving the “problem” of violence (which is of course not simply an isolated “thing”) are material as well as intellectual. To solve this problem of violence, for example, we must also consider the interconnections with systemic injustices, including racism, and unwillingness on the part of a majority of powerbrokers and elected officials to push for a change in priorities and financial privileges. Nevertheless, an important step in overcoming these material obstacles would be to mobilize the intellectual resources of at least a critical mass of concerned citizens and inspire them to engage in methods of these more transformative versions of inquiry and action. Involvement in this version of the best that science has to offer us to learn about the world around us would free us up to do more than settle for only the most popular explanations that in turn lead simply to pat solutions to what we may incorrectly perceive as “obvious” problems. For example, as noted above, with the best of intentions, foundations are often more interested in funding programs which fit within the currently popular funding fad or agenda, rather than in truly looking for serious and imaginative participatory action-inquiry aimed at coming up with new, unanticipated directions and strategies, which may turn out to be more potent in not only the short-term, but also in the long-run.

However, the good news is that even small numbers of people, working together engaging in serious and imaginative inquiry and action, can sometimes create a new “whole.” Many members of our generation were inspired by the successes of the civil rights movement, and even though the fulfillment of the visions of that movement are not yet realized, and even though there were unanticipated negative outcomes that emerged in conjunction with the positive gains, the world is a qualitatively different place . . . forever, because of that movement. So, the hope and vision in our approach to participatory action-research, is to find ways to stimulate critical masses of people who can learn with one another, as they join with one another to not just “solve problems” but to create new worlds, and to see the creation of new worlds as a continuing and unending process. Hazen and some of his fellow scientists who are diligently and imaginatively striving to develop new insights into the origins of life on earth are now seriously investigating the possibility that minerals were the safe haven and enriching context out of which life may have emerged. Those of us concerned with community improvement and social change may fruitfully remind one another that the kinds of changes we hope for may emerge from highly unanticipated circumstances.

As we strive to nurture broad-based community participation in action and inquiry, we can also work to help ourselves and others to come to appreciate this “bigger picture” of science and inquiry, so that we can all feel more confident about our capacities to contribute to knowledge building, including the kind of knowledge-building that may give rise to a qualitative, fundamentally better tomorrow. Through this kind of action-and-inquiry, we can develop more sophisticated skills–in designing research, gathering and judging evidence, and articulating the insights and questions that grow out of our own insights and practical experiences, and the knowledge and experiences of others. Beyond this, a larger and broader segment of the people in our communities can become motivated to see themselves, as well as their fellow citizens, as active participants who are capable of contributing to knowledge that has the potential to improve our communities and further efforts toward greater social justice.


Bilorusky, John A. and Cynthia Lawrence. “Multicultural, Community-Based Knowledge-Building: Lessons from a Tiny Institution Where Students and Faculty Sometimes Find Magic in the Challenge and Support of Collaborative Inquiry.” In Torry D. Dickinson (ed.), Community and the World: Participating in Social Change. Hauppauge, NY: Nova Science Publishers, 2003. pp. 63-81.

Bilorusky, John and Harry Butler. “Beyond Contract Curricula to Improvisational Learning.” In Neal Berte (ed.), Individualizing Education Through Contract Learning. University, Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 1975. pp. 144-172.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder, 1970.

Gribbin, John. Deep Simplicity: Bringing Order to Chaos and Complexity. New York: Random House, 2004.

Hazen, Robert. Gen-e-sis: The Scientific Quest for Life’s Origins. Washington, D.C.: Joseph Henry Press, 2005.

Kuhn, Thomas S. Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.

Lewin, Roger. Complexity: Life at the Edge of Chaos. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Lunsford, Terry and John Bilorusky. Unpublished curriculum materials on Action-Research, 1981-83. Sponsored by a grant to the Western Institute for Social Research (“Extending the Teaching, Learning and Use of Action-Research Throughout the Larger Community”) from the U.S. Department of Education’s Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education. Articles on Action-Research written by various faculty members (Terry Lunsford, Vera Labat, Deborah Pruitt, Cynthia Lawrence and John Bilorusky) of the Western Institute for Social Research (WISR) in conjunction with seminars for WISR BA, MA and PhD students, as well as an article on action-research written by WISR student, Margery Coffey as part of her graduate studies at WISR.




  1. No comments yet.
(will not be published)

Skip to toolbar