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The importance of working on the inside

At a recent conference on Qualitative Research methods I asked a speaker about whether PAR ultimately required a researcher to already be an accepted member of the community contemplating research. The response was that this is the ideal situation and in their experience participatory methods are most effective when the researcher has built strong relationships and trust and this can often take many years. Not having many years to work with (!) I decided to investigate further what some refer to as ‘insider action research’ – where researchers are complete members of the organization or community – to understand its particular advantages and its possible drawbacks.

According to David Coghlan* insider action researchers are “immersed experientially in the situation”.   The advantages are:

  • the opportunity to acquire “understanding in use” rather than “reconstituted understanding”;
  • knowledge of an organization or community’s everyday life – its rules and norms;
  • researchers can use the appropriate “internal jargon” and draw on their own experience in asking questions and interviewing;
  • they can participate in discussions or merely observe “what is going on without others necessarily being aware of their presence”.

“They [insider action researchers] can participate freely, without drawing attention to themselves and creating suspicion”.

Trouble on the inside

Coghlan does, however, identify some drawbacks for “insiders” including:

  • when interviewing they may assume too much and not probe as deeply as outsiders;
  • they can find it difficult to gain access to relevant data because of their roles within internal hierarchies;
  • they can suffer role conflict and find themselves caught between “loyalty tugs, behavioural claims and identification dilemmas”;
  • the research project might be considered subversive and is political.  Coghlan cites cases of researchers that were misunderstood (staff perceived the researcher was using the project in order to be promoted) and unprepared for the problems of surfacing “undiscussables” (one “insider” resigned as they were unable to balance the roles of researcher and senior executive, and another insider “reports how he was accused of spying as his research notes were pilfered from his computer and circulated amongst his antagonists”.

Coghlan argues that these issues depend in part on the type of action research being conducted and proposes two types – mechanistic and organic.  Mechanistic-orientated action research is instrumental with research framed in terms of managing a specific change or a particular problem.  Coghlan argues that PAR is a mechanistic-orientated approach.  In contrast, organistic action research sees the inquiry process as having value in itself where the focus is less on the outcomes and more on “what is being learnt and how the process of inquiry challenges values and ways of working and enacts a transformation of being”.  Coghlan suggests that insider organistic research is potentially more difficult in political terms than mechanistic action research.

“As mechanistic action research is directed toward a pragmatic outcome, the benefit for the organization may be clear and more acceptable, whereas organistic action research is potentially more subversive as it addresses underlying assumptions and defensive routines that members of an organization may feel uncomfortable about being exposed and then may oppose and subvert”.

Some thoughts

It seems that being an insider may have some distinct advantages in terms of initiating a PAR project but over time it may become increasingly difficult to occupy multiple roles especially if the project generates controversial findings. It may prove impossible to convince other participants that the researcher’s motives are “pure” – to secure collective rather than personal benefits. In addition, there are obvious ethical issues for insiders – when, for example, do they need consent to observe their colleagues? In this light the “friendly outsider” researcher has some advantages. Their identity and motivations to participate may be simpler for participants to understand – eg to assist in solving a community problem and generate theory for an academic audience. So there may be hope for those outsiders who are considering PAR!

In terms of mechanistic and organistic orientations and the impact on insider effectiveness, I suspect that it might also depend on how an action research project is initially framed and the skills of the participants to manage change without provoking sanctions.  I’m not sure if I see PAR as solely mechanistic – perhaps because the term ‘mechanistic’ suggests a stability and organizational order (eg Burns and Stalker, 1961) that need not be associated with having a clear goal.  I also suspect that PAR within an organization may require a mix of both organic and mechanistic action research to both generate new ways of thinking and find concrete ways to express them.

Coghlan, D. (2003). Practitioner Research for Organizational Knowledge: Mechanistic- and Organistic-oriented Approaches to Insider Action Research. Management Learning. 34, 451-464.


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