Resources for Managing your Identity as an Action Researcher

Learning as identity Management

For Etienne Wenger, learning changes your identity. Learning is a process of social participation in "communities of practice." One negotiates their identity as members of these communities of practice. When you share practices, knowledge and values with a community, you either formally or informally become a member of that community. The process is reciprocal--you help define the development of the community and the community helps to define who you are becoming. If you take up a craft, say carpentry, you become a carpenter. And even if you work alone, you are working with the tools (shared minds made visible) of those in your community. When you make objects, your creative process is influenced by what others have made before you and what you do may well influence what others create in the future. Implicitly you have joined a community of practice.
Wenger (1998) described this process as a “negotiation of meaning” and it describes learning and engagement in communities of practice. This negotiation of meaning consists of two interrelated parts:

  1. Reification: This is the coding of practices or knowledge in a congealed for in documents, symbols, products, or routines. A community can point to practices, or theories or other objects that capture, store, and share common understandings of the community. In school, this might be the knowledge that is reified in textbooks. “But the power of reification – its succinctness, its portability, its potential physical presence, its focusing effect – is also its danger … Procedures can hide broader meanings in blind sequences of operations. And the knowledge of a formula can lead to the illusion that one fully understands the processes it describes.” (Wenger, 1998, p. 61). In action research, one often starts with knowlege products -- research --that others have created.
  2. Participation: Participation is the active part of the negotiation of meaning and requires active involvement in social processes. This is the process of making sense of the text, procedures or symbols. The meaning is not given it is constructed and reconstructed by ever changing groups of people. “we will have to value the work of community building and make sure that participants have access to the resources necessary to learn what they need to learn in order to take actions and make decisions that fully engage their own knowledgeability.” (Wenger, 1998, p. 10). By formulating actiona, one attempts to make social sense of what was read. The action researchers embodies the knowledge in ways that engage them in negotiating the meaning with others in social settings. And this social process of taking action will lead to a new round of reification as that action ressearcher shares learned with others in products.
In Wenger system, the relationships between the shared objects and the social actions is dialectical: together they describe how humans make meaning and through this social process gain membership in communities of practice which then provide a sense of self in relationship to others, an identity. In this way, learning and change is a process of creating and shaping one's identity.

  • Wenger, Etienne (1998), Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 318, ISBN 978-0-521-66363-2

Transformation Learning

Often in doing action research, one experiences a process of transformational learning. Transformational learning is contrasted to incremental learning which adds new ideas or practices without changing what is known. Transformational learning can occur gradually or result from a sudden, powerful experience, but in either case, changes the way people see themselves and their world (Clark, 1993). It is a realignment of one's worldview, a shift in the way a person sees others and more importantly sees themselves. Researchers who have explored experiences that lead to transformational learning, suggest that a social constructivist approach to learning, a sense of personal empowerment, and some level of affective engagement are most likely to be combined in a transformational experience (Freire, 2000; Mezirow, 2000).

In my supervision of action researchers, what I have found leads to transformative experiences is learning to really listen to others. Often action researchers start their project with the fervor of a great idea that they want to implement. However, if the person collects data and carefully listens to those he or she is working with, it will not take long to realize that people are much more motiviated when they are the owners of the "great idea." This realization often accompanies a shift from autocratice leadership approach to more of a servant leadership approach. The most transformative changes that result from doing action research can almost all be traced to shift in orientation from one of confident knowledge about the nature of the problem and the best solution, to one of respect for multiple persepctives with many different ways of understanding and a more nuanced approch to change. Some action researchers come to see themselves as servant leaders.

  • Clark, M. C., (1993). Transformational Learning. In S. B. Merriam (ed.), An Update on Learning Theory. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, no. 57. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Mezirow, J., (2000). Learning to Think Like an Adult: Transformation Theory: Core Concepts. In J. Mezirow and Associates (eds.) Learning as Transformation: Critical Perspectives on a Theory in Progress. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Freire, P., (2000). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. (Revised 20th Anniversary Edition). New York: Continuum.

Servent or Service Leadership

Servant leadership (or leaders who serve their communities) is an idea has existed for a long time. In the fifth century BC, Lao-Tzo described the highest from of leadership as one in which the people are barely aware. This sage leader does not proclaim the plan and dicate what each person must do, he wrote, but instead, this leader knows how to mobolize people to complete the task while believing that they have achieved it themselves. The phrase “servant leadership” is often credited to Robert Greenleaf in a 1970 essay called "The Servant as Leader." He described servant leadership as an approach in which the leader builds the skills and abilities of those he or she leads. A servant leader helps those served to grow as individuals. Those served should become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely to also adopt a servant leaderhip approach. Greenleaf suggested that organizations, as well as individuals could be servant-leaders. Servant-leader organizations could effect positive change in the way work is done carried out and would empower the people. (See more on service leadership at the Geenleaf site:

Action research often places the researcher in the role of servant leader. They are changing their workplace but, hopefull will have learned from attention to what others do and say, that it is a collaborative process.

Action Research Networks to Join:

Action Research is a collaborative process. It is always done with people not on them. But it is also helpful to interact with other action research colleagues as you work through your process. Here is links to neworks that can help you find colleagues with which to work. Most of these groups have yearly conferences and working groups to join.

1) Action Learning Action Research Association(ALARA) based in Australia "brings together people who are interested in using action research and action learning to generate collaborative learning, research and action to transform workkplaces, schools, colleges, universities, communites, voluntary organizations, governments and business. "

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2) The Action Research Network of the Americas (ARNA)is a new and rapidly growing community that supports many working groups that you may want to join.
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3) The American Educational Research Assoc, Special Interest Group in Action Research (AERA-AR-SIG) is another very good community to join. They have
been working hard to develop the community of action research within AERA, the world's largest association of educational researchers.
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4) The Collaborative Action Research Network (CARN) was established in 1975, CARN has been a guiding force in the development of action research in Europe and other parts of the world.

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5) The PRACTITIONER-RESEARCHER hosts a lively discussion board described as for "UK educators and researchers" but they welcome members from all around the world who share their action research concerns, stories and approaches.
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6) The Society for Paticipatory Action Research Network of Asia (PRIA) PRIA's mission is to work towards the promotion of policies, institutions and capacities that strengthen citizen participation and promote democratic governance.

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7) The Latin American Center for Service Learning CLAYSS, founded in 2002 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, contributes to "the growth of a fraternal and participative culture in Latin America through the development of educational social engagement projects".
Convenio Fundación Bica - Clayss
Convenio Fundación Bica - Clayss

8) University-Community Partnership for Social Action Research (UCP-SARnet) is a growing network of above 1400 students, university faculties, community activists, and governmental officials engaged in achieving the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDG) in 75 countries. UCP-SARnet is dedicated to the education of the next generation of community leaders by compiling and housing an interactive online library of resources and facilitating cross-sector collaborations, networking and multicultural dialogues.

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T12 Your Identity as an Action Researcher

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