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Participatory Action-Research

Readings on Action-Research Methods, the “WISR Way”

Here, we highlight and briefly discuss readings that may be useful to promote thought and action that is informed, critically-minded and creative.  These readings are likely of interest both to WISR learners, and others interested in learning about action-research “the WISR way.”

Note: These articles have been written by WISR faculty over the past 30+ years, and they include general perspectives as well as specific tips on how we all can do meaningful action-inquiry and then do writing about our action-research endeavors, in order to better share our knowledge with others. These abstracts are meant as overviews and guides to the accompanying articles, not as substitutes for reading the articles in the entirety. Links are provided so that you may read and use each article in its entirety.

One strongly recommended and key overview article of WISR’s perspective on research—its main emphases and qualities, how we developed our perspective, as well as ways that it differs from conventional research in the social sciences, while still being quite similar to the best, cutting-edge research in the “hard” natural sciences–is the article,

“Participatory Action-Research, Inclusiveness, and Empowering Community Action at the Western Institute for Social Research”

https://www.wisr.edu/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/Participatory-Action-Research-Inclusiveness-and-Empowering-Action-at-WISR-1.pdf  written by long-time WISR core faculty, John Bilorusky, the late Terry Lunsford, and Cynthia Lawrence.

This article appeared in Democracy Works: Joining Theory to Action to Foster Global Social Change, edited by Torry Dickinson and Terrie Clark, with Summer B.C. Lewis, Boulder: CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2008. It appears on this website for use by WISR learners and others wishing to learn about WISR’s approach to action-research by special agreement with and appreciation to Paradigm Publishers.

40th Anniversary w-out 2015

Suggestions on Doing Theses at WISR by WISR Faculty Member, John Bilorusky 


This is an especially important article for WISR students to read before they begin working on, or even planning their thesis. This article notes important distinctions between doing theses at WISR, as compared to the widely held images people have of theses typically required by more conventional academic institutions. At WISR, we emphasize substance over form, and we want the thesis to be meaningful to the student conducting the inquiry as well as a significant, even if only modest, contribution to others. We are not interested in the thesis being pretentious or on an esoteric, seldom-heard-of topic (unless that is the student’s sincere desire). We want the student to gather some original (usually qualitative and/or action-oriented) data and evidence, to explore and inquire seriously about something that matters to them, and that may help them to build an important bridge to the next activities and priorities in their lives. Read this article for more details.

This article gives WISR students some tips on the priorities to think about when planning and writing a thesis at WISR. Theses can take many different forms at WISR, and this means that may not “look like” conventional theses in many cases. In particular, students are encouraged to use detailed examples and stories from their experiences and the experiences of others, as part of their original “data gathering” based on peoples’ first-hand experiences. Each thesis should have a “research methodology” chapter where the student discusses how she or he would do the research differently if they had the time to do the research again, or to extend the research further.

Asking Questions about the Immediate Task and the Bigger Picture Discussion paper on “THE IMMEDIATE TASK AND BIGGER PICTURES”

—originally written for a seminar on May 28, 1981 by Terry
Lunsford and John Bilorusky as part of WISR’s project on “Extending the Teaching, Learning and Use of Action-Research Throughout the Community,” funded
by the US Department of Education’s Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education, 1980-83. (with updated edits, May 2011)

This article discusses the importance of asking questions, and suggests ways to become more engaged in fruitfully and creatively asking questions. Furthermore, this article calls attention to asking questions about two different, but each important in their own ways, arenas of concern where change is often very much needed: the immediate tasks that confront us in our work and agencies, in our communities, in our everyday lives, as well as the “bigger picture” and sometimes hidden beneath the surface, less obvious forces and circumstances that underlie many everyday problems and which are essential to address in order to create a better world in the long-run.

The Importance of Sharing Stories and the Details of the Complexities of Our Lived Experiences and Inquiries—in Writing and Telling Others about Our Emerging Knowledge and Expertise, by WISR Faculty Member, John Bilorusky (2-21-12)


In fine-tuning and improving one’s research and writing, getting additional evidence is always a good idea. All evidence is soft, to the extent that needs to be verified by other, persuasive evidence. A challenge is to piece together a variety of types of evidence to see to what extent the different types of evidence tend to confirm one another and/or raise further questions.

At WISR we have previously written about a number of important, guiding principles to use in doing research and writing: be concerned with the bigger picture; tell and listen to stories and examples; be concerned with values and social justice; take one’s own experiences and insights seriously; still, look beyond oneself for information and insights, as well; write and rewrite in our own voice. Given our concern with “messy,” real world research, our findings and conclusions will often evolve gradually over time. The author suggests that in writing or telling others about our inquiry, we should, honestly, unapologetically put ourselves in the “middle” of the picture of the entire story of the research process. Then, our readers/listeners can identify with our experience and thought processes, and with how we struggled to make sense out of conflicting evidence and viewpoints, and then finally, arrived with our current conclusions and/or questions.

Expert knowledge, at the highest levels, and the most profound depths, is best articulated not just by rules, techniques and concepts, but also by sharing one’s reservoir of experience—which involves telling/sharing stories as well as commentaries/analyses of what those stories suggest—what insights one can gain from those stories. Expert knowledge must draw on extensive experience, which cannot be boiled down to or substituted by rules or algorithms, no matter how well developed.

For this reason, those trained by experts are very, very rarely even close to as skilled and expert as the experts who have trained them. Experts become expert because of the experience they gain over time combined usually drawing on some intangible qualities of creative thinking, dedication, critical-mindedness, curiosity and more. Therefore, it is ideal for the apprentice to be with the expert while the expert continues to be engaged in her or his process of becoming more expert. The expert still scratches his or her head, runs up against problems, sometimes feels undecided, and the process of fine-tuning and creating knowledge and expertise is always ongoing.

In summary, as we write about our research findings, we should try to engage our readers, or listeners, in “being with us” as we think about and wrestle with the insights we have come to through our experience (that is, through our research). To best do this, we need to include lots of examples and stories, and to invite our readers/listeners to be engaged with us, in the process of “becoming more expert.”

WISR Alumni panel, discussing their action-research: Vera Labat, Osahon Eigbike, Suzanne Quijano and Lydell Willis

WISR Alumni panel, discussing their action-research: Vera Labat, Osahon Eigbike, Suzanne Quijano and Lydell Willis

Discussion paper on Communicating What We Know to Others—written on 5-7-81 by WISR faculty members, Terry Lunsford and John Bilorusky, as part of WISR’s national demonstration project on teaching and learning action-research (funded by the US Department of Education’s Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education).

This paper discusses why and how we can communicate the insights derived from our research to others. We suggest we should consider writing to and for ourselves first, including jotting down rough and spontaneous notes. Then, as we get our ideas down on paper, we can begin to think about our audiences, and what it is that we can, and should, communicate to them, as well as how to write using words and styles that will be understandable to your audiences.

It is especially important that we remove technical jargon and academic lingo from writings that are to be read by lay people and by varied audiences. It is important to do more than simply report on our research “findings”—we should learn how to educate our audiences and engage them in thinking with us about the implications of research findings. One approach to writing about our research is to describe for our audience the process of our inquiry—to tell the “story” of what we did and how we came to the insights, conclusions, and questions that we feel are the important outcomes of our inquiry.

Techniques and Uses of Note-Taking
This short handout on “Note-Taking Methods and Ideas for Community Agencies” was developed by Terry Lunsford and John Bilorusky, of the WISR faculty, in 1981, as part of WISR’s Federally-funded FIPSE project on teaching and learning action-research. It briefly outlines some ways of taking notes by spending just a few minutes every few days, and then over time, using these notes for one’s research and writing projects.


Some Ideas and Suggestions about Writing
by WISR Faculty members, Cynthia Lawrence and John Bilorusky, June 2, 2006


This article was written for a WISR seminar, to help WISR students get some ideas and tips on how to “get started” in doing writing for their various projects. Emphasis is on finding manageable ways to write a little at a time, in small chunks, as part of our everyday living. Emphasis is also on letting go of the inhibiting factors that have influenced us in the mis-education that is usually experienced as we have gone through conventional schools and colleges. There are also some suggestions for writing meaningfully, clearly and in your own voice in the latter stages of the writing process.

Action Research Seminar: ‘Writing in Your Own Voice’
by WISR Faculty Member, Cynthia Lawrence


Although mechanics, punctuation and spelling should be of some concern, they should not inhibit writing, and many other qualities are much more important. We, at WISR, accept and legitimate, validate and honor your subjective voice. We expect that you write, not to show you’re right but to show that you have a legitimate position. Writing is . . .
• The preservation of thought
• The way to record filed notes, ethnographies, theories and concepts
• The clarification of thought
• The encouragement and communication with others
• The format for dissemination
• The content that adds to society’s body of knowledge
• The proof of what one learns
• The validation of personal knowledge
• The commitment to paper—ideas, values, philosophy

All too often, some elementary and secondary English classes end up inhibiting and blocking the writing growth of many students rather engaging students in writing more freely. Because most of us have experienced a more threatening approach to writing improvement, it may be hard to trust our voice, our style, our emotional self, our values, our intellect and more. In this blurb on our seminar, you are hearing only my voice, the richness of other voices in the seminar is missing but I have recorded some of the ideas from the seminar. As I said, write it down!

Included were also some notes taken from a couple of previous writing seminars (1985 and after). The topics were:
• Kinds of Writing (or Purpose of Writing)
• Steps to Writing
• Commitment to Writing
• Standards of Writing
• What Encourages Writing?
• Ways of Maintaining Meaning
• Unanswered Questions

The Role of Collaboration in Action-Research and Inquiry
by WISR faculty member, John Bilorusky


At its best, inquiry not something done by a single person in isolation, but a continuing process that involves cooperation and collaboration between two people, or even many people. It is not surprising that many, perhaps most, Nobel prizes in the sciences are given jointly to two or more people doing cutting edge research in cooperation with one another. At times, “collaboration” involves competing scientists, each trying to get to a break through before one another, but still taking advantage of, and building on, one another’s insights. In this context, one scientist may gain superior recognition, but at least all the scientists progress and learn more, as do the societies that benefit from their breakthroughs.

This article gives some examples of collaboration and its importance. In the realm of social change, community improvement and institutional reform, collaboration not only enhances the quality of the knowledge-building and insights that ensue, but collaboration is often absolutely essential to the putting knowledge into action. Knowledge without active citizen participation is at best limited, unfulfilled potential, and at its worst, worthless. This is the basis for WISR’s vision for community action think tanks, where groups of people from all walks of life would come together to wrestle with challenging problems, in hopes of coming up with new insights for feasible, change-producing actions.

WISR Collage

The Past, Present and Future of Action-Research at WISR, and Why It Matters.
by WISR faculty member, John Bilorusky


This article provides a fairly brief overview of how WISR’s methods of action-research developed and evolved since the1970s. The article provides insights into how our approaches to inquiry are similar to, and different from, other more conventional research methods. The article discusses how our approach is important both to individuals and the larger society, for example, in the respect and importance given to each person’s ability to create new knowledge.

Action-Research: Original
by WISR faculty members, Terry Lunsford and John Bilorusky. 1981 – on.

This a very extensive set of articles on action-research, most of which were originally written in 1981 by Terry Lunsford and John Bilorusky, in conjunction with a long, weekly seminar series. The articles and the seminars were an important part of WISR’s three-year project “to extend the teaching, learning and use of action-research throughout the larger community”—funded by a grant from the US Department of Education’s Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (1981-83). These articles have recently been scanned and converted to an electronic file, so for now, there may be quite a few “typos.”

Judging the Evidence
by Terry Lunsford and John Bilorusky, WISR faculty members, 1981


This article is part of the entire series of articles under “Action-Research: Original.” It is singled out here because is worthy special attention. This article discusses in tangible detail the processes and considerations in “weighing”and “judging” evidence (information or “data”). This process of judging evidence is not mechanical or formulaic, and it is based on the judgements and perspectives of the individuals conducting the inquiry. Matters of “subjectivity” vs. “objectivity” and “biased” vs. “non-biased” are not as simply and straightforward as many textbooks would suggest. Inevitably, reasonable and open-minded people may judge evidence differently.

This article discusses some of these complexities, and the considerations involved in making conscientious efforts to judge the evidence more fully, more wisely, more critically and insightfully. Even with such efforts and an open-mind, one can never be certain of one’s conclusions, but one may have greater confidence if some steps are taken, including especially, reaching out to others for dialogue and collaboration, to obtain the benefit of their insights. Of special note is the section discussing the important research concepts of “validity”and”reliability.”

The Uses and Misuses of Statistics
by John Bilorusky and Terry Lunsford


This brief article is also of special note, and it was part of the entire original series on action-research at WISR. The article attempts to de-mystify statistics by discussing the strengths and limitations of statistics when doing research and trying to understand the world we live in.

Community Knowledge-Building
by John Bilorusky and Vera Labat, February 2003

In a fundamental way, WISR’s approach to action-research centers on the idea that it is crucial that all of us come to see ourselves as builders of knowledge, individually and collectively. Indeed, when we finished our three-year project on “Extending the Teaching, Learning and Use of Action-Research Throughout the Larger Community” (under a grant from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education, U.S. Department of Education, from 1980 to 1983), we titled our final report as “Knowledge-Building in Everyday Life.” In our work with students at WISR, we encourage students to draw on their own experiences, and on the experiences of others with whom they are in contact, to develop ideas and strategies that can make a difference.

Some people call this “participatory research” where “researchers” are the people who are involved in trying to make a difference in the communities in which they live and/or work.


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