Notes for an interactive panel discussion on how action research contributes to the public's best interest in terms of personal, professional, community, and social change.


A contribution to the Action Research SIG Business meeting on 8th April 2006 at AERA in the Moscone Centre, San Francisco.


Jack Whitehead, Department of Education, University of Bath.




In my understanding of action research the action researcher engages in enquiries of the kind, 'How do I improve what I am doing?' and/or 'How do we improve what we are doing?' and studies her or his own enquiry learning with the intention of improving what is being done and of understanding what is being done in the social context of the activities. So, in this contribution, to what I hope is an on-going educational conversation, I will relate my understandings of what action researchers are doing to what I see as the public's best interest in terms of personal, professional, community and social change.


What I see action researchers doing in terms of their knowledge-creation is influenced by my understandings of the explanations they are producing. In my action research I generate explanations for my educational influences in my own learning, in the learning of others and in social formations. I call these explanations living educational theories. These are explanations generated by individuals to explain their own lives. I call them living educational theories to distinguish them from the explanations that can be generated by traditional forms of propositional theories to explain what individuals do. I found it necessary to develop the idea of living educational theory to explain my educational influences in learning because no existing theory proposed by others to explain what individuals do, either on its own or in any combination with other theories, could explain my educational influences in learning.


Hence my response to the question is focused on providing evidence from the living educational theories of action researchers that they are contributing to the public's best interest in terms of personal, professional, community and social change.


1) The public's best interest in terms of personal change


In thinking that the public's best interest is being served by personal changes I am thinking of changes in ourselves that bring more fully into the world the values, skills and understandings that carry hope for the future of humanity. Each one of us will have our own unique constellation of values, skills and understandings that we use in constituting our sense of identity. In my constellation I associate hope with life-affirming energy, love, pleasure, care, compassion, respect, justice, freedom, material emotional and spiritual well-being, a productive life and democratic forms of governance. This is not an exhaustive list but I think it will serve to emphasise my point about personal changes bringing these values more fully into the world and that these changes are in the public's best interest. Sharing understandings of such personal changes, in life-histories of learning, is one way in which the learning can be communicated and offered to others in the hope that it has use-value to the other as they construct their own forms of life.


For over 30 years I have had the privilege of working with action researchers whose enquiry learning and knowledge-creation have shown how personal changes in terms of their learning in their action enquiries have brought these values more fully into the world. You can access these outstanding contributions the advancement of knowledge in the doctoral theses of action researchers accounts at and in masters programmes at:


2) The public's best interest in terms of professional change


I see the public's best interest being served by professional changes that enhance the values, skills and understandings of professional-knowledge bases. I am thinking here of a wide range of professional contexts in schools, colleges, universities, health, the police, industry and politics as well as in our community of educational researchers. One of the professional changes that is in the public's best interest is the enhancement of the public's learning about the expert knowledge of professionals. The more public understanding there is, of a range of issues in education, health and other professional practices, the more the public can make informed choices. In a Presidential Address to the British Educational Research Association in 1988 (Whitehead, 1989) I advocated the development of research-based professionalism in education that was grounded in action research. I stressed the importance of sharing the accounts of action researchers in which they explained their own learning in relation to their values. The Appendix of the address contained a list of such accounts. The Presidential Address was given before any living theory doctoral theses had been legitimated. The first of these by Mary Gurney and Jean McNiff were awarded late in 1988 and in 1989.  The main change in perception, in encouraging professionals to research their own practice and produce validated accounts of their educational influences in their learning, is that professionals can include within a perception of themselves as 'expert knowers' their practices as enquiring learners.


By sharing their accounts of their learning through publicly accessible web-space, professionals are enhancing the possibilities of more public awareness and understandings of their professional practices. The argument supporting the value of doing this in the public interest is similar to that used above to advocate the sharing of accounts of personal change. As part of a life most individuals become productive members of their society. Many take on professional responsibilities in their workplaces. All the living theories flowing through web-space from are stories of professional learning. Individual professionals are accepting responsibility for researching their own learning as they seek to live their values more fully in their practice and to develop their understandings.


My reason for claiming that it is in the public's best interest for professionals to make public their stories of their professional learning, is that they can help the public to enhance their own understandings and sense of responsibility for their own well-being in relation to the professional's sphere of activity.


3) The public's best interest in terms of community change.


There are numerous illustrations of where action research has contributed to community change in the public's best interest. Perhaps some of the best illustrations have been provided by participatory action research in developing countries where action research processes are helping to develop more democratic practices in support of social justice and well-being. In relation to PAR Orlando Fals Borda writes:


An acute sense of justice and ethics from dominant groups and institutions is indispensable for creating stable better living conditions in the South as well as a better world for everyone.As for pertinent methodological aspects, studies presented at the 1997 PAR World Convergence Congress showed solutions in at least three significant directions: (1) to recognise the role of combining people's knowledge and academic knowledge in popular struggle and in other activities, which may furnish the basis for a new and useful scientific paradigm; (2) to practice in such a way that it gives a moral and humanist orientation to the work of the activist/researcher; and (3) to gain a sense of personal commitment that combines the logic of action and the logic of research. In short, an urgent need to resurrect altruism and solidarity as dominant ways of life was felt in the South as well as in the North, and to build a new brand of ethnogenesis to provide for greater happiness (Fals Borda 1998: 218-219). Survival for the pursuit of Liberty and Happiness involves less inconsistencies, less arrogance, and more than instrumental reason. Generosity and a political will are also needed. The situation calls for the heart as much as for the head of the rich and poor.Hands and minds should move in tandem in a new world alliance to reconstruct societies through humane globalising initiatives.

(Fals-Borda, 2000, p. 633)


In relation to changes in communities of educational researchers that are in the public's best interest I focus on changes in the standards of judgement we use in the Academy to decide what counts as valid and legitimate educational knowledge and theory (Whitehead, 2004). The major change I have in mind is the change in perception from the discrete meanings in standards of judgement carried in statements. I am thinking of statements that abide by the laws of contradiction and excluded middle. I have in mind the change from these meanings to the inclusional meanings in living standards of judgement carried through video-narratives that are open to the possibilities that life itself permits. This change is related to the logics through which we make sense.


In the dominant logic of academic discourse, The law of excluded middle states that everything is either A or not-A. The law of contradiction excludes the possibility of two mutually exclusive statements being true simultaneously. The sense I make of my experience confounds these two laws. In my relationally dynamic awareness of space and boundaries (Rayner 2006) something significant for my existence exists in the space between boundaries that is being excluded in the belief that everything is either A or not-A. In my experience I can hold together simultaneously, knowledge of my values and their negation in saying to myself, for example, I am free and I am not free.


I am suggesting that the major change in the public's best interest, produced in our community of educational action researchers, is the nature of the standards of judgement we can use to judge what counts as a valid and legitimate contribution to educational knowledge and theory.

You may not wish to go as far as Polanyi (1958) in seeking to strip away what he called the crippling mutilations of centuries of objectivist thought. You may not wish to accept Rayner's (2006) point that the dominant epistemology in the Academy has become dangerously addicted to the Law of the Excluded Middle, that creates a view of the world as constituted by discrete and independent objects. The idea that the dominant ways of understanding the world in our writings in our educational research communities might be part of a dangerous addiction that is undermining our capacities to develop relationally dynamic and living standards of judgement, does not sit comfortably with the idea that our writings and research are contributing to the public's best interest. However, I am advocating that we take the idea seriously. 


Taking note of Eisner's (1993, 1997) points about extending the forms of representation in educational research I have been advocating the use of multi-media representations in action research accounts and contributed to the 2004 change in the regulations governing the submission of research degrees at the University of Bath to allow the submission of e-media.


Marian Naidoo (2004) was one of the first doctoral researchers to submit a video-narrative in her thesis on the emergence of a living theory of inclusional and responsive practice. Marian needed visual data to communicate the meanings of a passion for compassion in a health care setting:


This narrative self-study demonstrates how I have encouraged people to work creatively and critically in order to improve the way we relate and communicate in a multi-professional and multi-agency healthcare setting in order to improve both the quality of care provided and the well being of the system. (Naidoo, 2004, Abstract)


You can access this thesis (without the accompanying DVD) from and can judge for yourself whether you agree that it is an outstanding contribution to the advancement of knowledge in the public's best interest.


4) The public's best interest in terms of social change


I see the public's best interest being served by social changes that are linked to cultural artefacts of well-being. I see the sociocultural artefacts being produced by action researchers as their living educational theories flowing through web-space and that are helping to constitute their well-being in life and work. I use the idea of enhancing well-being in understanding how action research can serve the public's best interest in terms of sociocultural change. To help with the clarify of my communication here is how I am using the words social and culture. Drawing on Wikipedia (2006) I understand that the term social is derived from the Latin word socius, which as a noun means "an associate, ally, companion, business partner or comrade" and in the adjectival form socialis refers to "a bond between people" (such as marriage) or to their collective or connected existence. I use the word culture in the sense expressed by Said:


As I use the word, 'culture' means two things in particular. First of all it means all those practices, like the arts of description, communication, and representation, that have relative autonomy from the economic, social, and political realms and that often exist in aesthetic forms, one of whose principal aims is pleasure. Included, of course, are both the popular stock of lore about distant parts of the world and specialized knowledge available in such learned disciplines as ethnography, historiography, philology, sociology, and literary history....


Second, and almost imperceptible, culture is a concept that includes a refining and elevating element, each society's reservoir of the best that has been known and thought. As Matthew Arnold put it in the 1860s... In time, culture comes to be associated, often aggressively, with the nation of the state; this differentiates 'us' from 'them', almost always with some degree of xenophobia. Culture in this sense is a source of identity, and a rather combative one at that, as we see in recent 'returns' to culture and tradition. (Said, pp. xii-xiv, 1993)


As I have said elsewhere in relation to living educational theories as sociocultural artefacts:


In placing the cultural artefact of this presentation in the flow of web-space, as well as having placed in this flow of web-space the living theories of practitioner-researchers at, I feel pleasure in relating to the aesthetic form and content of the accounts through which individuals show their arts of living. I believe that the living theories flowing through web-space are cultural artefacts because they include a refining and elevating element that contributes to society's reservoir of the best that has been known and thought. I am thinking of the contributions to cultural formations and their transformations of living theories that communicate the meaning of good and productive lives that carry hope for the future of humanity. (Whitehead & Delong, 2006).


I am suggesting that one of the most significant contributions from action research in the public's best interest is related to enhancing well-being at work. Drawing on Popadopoulos' (2006) ideas for a life-course analytic framework I agree that well being has to be grounded and  investigated in those embedded interactions and in relation to the changing demands placed upon people during the life course. Popadopoulos moves the relational and experiential aspects of wellbeing into institutional/organisational contexts which he further frames by policies and modes of governance. He advocates a focus upon the importance of work as a key feature in determining well being with the additional contextualisation of the centrality of work within the social context of the individual, who is undergoing transition in the life course that varies and challenges settled models of well being. His research programme includes an individual focus that seeks to understand the dynamics of the individual's constitution of well being in key transitional points such as the move towards and beyond retirement from paid labour.


The living theories flowing through web-space from are the stories of the learning of individuals as they seek to live their values as fully as they can in their life and work. It is this process that I am connecting to enhancing well-being at work. By focusing on enhancing our well-being at work, in seeking to live our values as fully as we can, and on making public our living theories, as sociocultural artefacts in the flow of web-space, I am suggesting that we are contributing to the public's best interest in terms of social change. Such a change will require a shift in the understandings of what counts as making outstanding contributions to the advancement of knowledge. At present, certainly in the UK, such contributions are judged in terms of articles that can be dissemination via established and renowned international refereed journals.  Such a prestigious University as the University of Bath only changed its regulations to permit the submission of e-media in 2004. Because of its multi-media nature a Ph.D. thesis, such as Naidoo's (2005), could not be represented adequately within many established and renowned international referred journal, because such journals do not have a tradition of being produced in a multi-media format. Hence one of the contributions to be made by action researchers is to develop such formats as quickly as we possibly can as is being done through the e-journal AR Expeditions.





Eisner, E. (1993) Forms of Understanding and the Future of Educational Research. Educational Researcher, Vol. 22, No. 7, 5-11.


Eisner, E. (1997) The Promise and Perils of Alternative Forms of Data Representation. Eduational Researcher, Vol. 26, No. 6, 4-10.


Fals Borda, O. (2000) Peoples'SpaceTimes in Global Processes: The

Response of the Local. Journal of world-systems research,vi, 3, fall/winter 2000, 624-634

Special Issue: Festchrift for Immanuel Wallerstein – Part II


Fals Borda, Orlando, ed. (1998). People's Participation: Challenges Ahead. New York: Apex

Press / Intermediate Technology Publications.


Naidoo, M. (2005) I am because we are (A never ending story). The emergence of a living theory of inclusional and responsive practice.


Papadopoulos, T. (2006) The Social Constitution of Well-being in Europe: Developing a Life-Course Analytical Framework. Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences Seminar presentation at the University of Bath, 16th March, 2006.


Polanyi, M. (1958) Personal Knowledge, Oxford; Oxford University Press.


Rayner, A. (2006) Essays and Talks About Inclusionality. Retrieved 28 March 2006 from


Said, E. (1993) Culture and Imperialism, London; Vintage. 


Whitehead, J. (1989) How do we Improve Research-based Professionalism in Education?-A question which includes action research, educational theory and the politics of educational knowledge. : 1988 Presidential Address to the British Educational Research Association. Published in the British Educational Research Journal, Vol. 15, No.1, pp. 3-17, 1989. Retrieved 28 March 2006 from,%201988.pdf


Whitehead, J. & McNiff, J. (2006) Action Research Living Theory. London; Sage.


Whitehead, J. & Delong, J. (2006) Researching connections between the systemic influences of an educational leader and the explanations of teacher-researchers of their educational influences in learning. Presentation at the annual conference of the Invisible College, Moscone Centre, San Francisco, 6th April 2006.


Wikipedia (2006) Social