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Journal of Sociology

Gouldners child?: Some reflections on sociology and participatory

action research
Yoland Wadsworth
Journal of Sociology 2005; 41; 267
DOI: 10.1177/1440783305057079
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Gouldners child?
Some reflections on sociology and
participatory action research
Yoland Wadsworth
Institute for Social Research, Swinburne University of Technology and National
Centre for Epidemiology & Population Health, Australian National University1

The article commences with a personal reflection on reflexive sociologys
methodological emergence from the critique of scientific positivism that took
place in the late 1960s and early 1970s. These paradigm wars reached something of a zenith around the time of the final opus of a key proponent, Alvin
Gouldner, in 1979. An uneasy truce was then reached under new conditions
of growing economic rationalism. While mainstream academic sociology
plunged into the coming crisis foretold by Gouldner, a number of its graduates continued to develop reflexive sociology, particularly in non-academic
workplaces. Initially called after Kuhn the new paradigm or critical interpretivism, it is now known by many names. Most common descriptors would
be participatory or action research, action learning or socio systems-thinking.
The approach has gradually achieved surprising critical mass in enormously
diverse organizational, workplace and community settings worldwide. The
article concludes by noting that many new paradigm assumptions have
begun to enter mainstream social research, which may be beginning to reengage with the action research field originally the offspring of sociological
thinking three decades earlier.
Keywords: action research, epistemology, history of ideas, paradigms, sociology of sociology

The rise and fall of the great paradigm wars

As a young State Government research sociologist in the 1970s and early
1980s, I returned for postgraduate studies to reflect on the epistemological
battles in which I and other researchers like me were then caught up. Many
Journal of Sociology 2005 The Australian Sociological Association, Volume 41(3): 267284

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268 Journal of Sociology 41(3)

of us were working outside the academy, using research to inform the many
transformations of health, community and human service institutions taking place in the rigidified social order of a post-war welfare state. Back in
the academy I found a sociology that had come alive to the great paradigm
wars between positivism and reflexive interpretivism (Blaikie, 1993; Burrell
and Morgan, 1979; Cicourel, 1964; Ford, 1971; Giddens, 1976; Kuhn,
1973; Reinharz, 1979).2 It was a boom time for sociology engaging outside
universities. In 1976, the annual sociology conference counted its attendance in four figures and an unprecedented (and since unsurpassed) number of non-academics attended. The context for our work was the
culmination of a long economic boom, and a period of intense change.
Expanded government funding of new services was taking place in response
to changing community needs. Women, for example, had emerged from
the post-war home, seeking educations and jobs. People instutitutionalized
for their differences were demanding to live in ways others took for
granted. Manufacturing industry was moving off-shore and the economy
structurally readjusting. And new waves of non-English-speaking settlement communities from Turkey, Egypt, South America and Asia were
facing difficult futures and uncertain employment.
New forms of research were becoming popular that could work in and
with these conditions of change, diversity and complexity. These were being
applied, first, to attain richer, more meaningful understandings of localized
lived realities and critical analyses (including actors discomfort with
them), and, second, to assisting those actors draw new theory-informed
conclusions, and try out new practices generated from those conclusions as
part of the research.
In Table 1 I briefly revisit the comparative logic of the two paradigms
(Kuhn, 1973) as a way of identifying some of the significant epistemological roots of participatory action research3 a key contribution of sociology
to those debates.
It was difficult and often politically contested work, but seemed
inevitably so if one took up the challenge of sociological research in a constantly dialectical world of Mills private troubles and public issues
(1970). Indeed, the very dualities to which the new paradigm had initially
responded (van Krieken, 2002: 2678) began to dissolve. Distinctions such
as individualorganization, theorypractice, selfother and researcher
researched, continued to be radically re-understood as we action research
practitioner-theorists came to realize our apparent simultaneous separateness and connectedness within a living system or whole field. In some
ways it was a peculiarly postmodern epistemology, although one which
refused a nihilist relativism in its forms of active engagement.
When I wrote about the basics of what we were doing (1984, 1991), I
saw us as working in the mainstream of new paradigm social research. Like
much of my cohort, I seemed pretty much a child of Gouldners thinking

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Wadsworth: Gouldners child? 269

about the inevitable implication of the observer in the construction of the

observed, and the consequences for a reflexive sociology (1971, 1979).
Table 1: A brief summary of the contenders in the great paradigm wars
Key features of positivist assumptions

Key features of the critical

constructivist critique


The subject-matter to be studied

social life is taken to be
objective, factual, true, external
and independent of the observer;
and determining or causing
further patterns of social
behaviour. (Durkheim, 1970: 38)


The subject-matter consists of

intersubjectively and socially
constructed relational realities
(Berger and Luckmann, 1967:
438; Habermas, 1974: 253).
Objectivity may be thought of as
achieved facticity; truth as a
truth, truths or truthful for this
situation or purposes.


The method of coming to know

social life is taken to require
detached acts of pure perception
whereby these external realities
the facts may be observed
directly and empirically (including
unobtrusively). In this way the
observing scientist is a neutral
instrument of technique, picking
up truth from the data (from
the Latin, thing given). The
literal meanings of factual
data/truths are seen as relatively


The method of coming to know

social life is taken to require
engaged acts of perception,
conversation and meaning-making
to understand how people
construct their realities or takenfor-granted worlds. These rely on
the reflexive relationship between
the researcher/s, the researched,
and the researched-for, mediated
by their questions, worldviews
(experiences, beliefs, values,
interests, desires), theories of
everyday practice (capta from
the Latin, thing taken).

(iii) These external realities display

inherent or intrinsic patterns,
which can be discovered when
quantified and statistically
analysed. The researchers task is
to listen to the facts (as they
axiomatically speak for
themselves), and read off ideally
law-like predictive generalizations.
Probabilistic generalizations can
be calculated for application

(iii) The researcher/s construct

theories, themes, trends or
regularities in the practices
observed, reading into the
material contextualized
generalizations, i.e. speak/s for the
facts (Glaser and Strauss, 1967).
Meanings of observations are not
self-evident and must be checked
through communication.
Possibilistic generalizations can be
offered for practical trial

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270 Journal of Sociology 41(3)

Table 1: Continued
Key features of positivist assumptions

Key features of the critical

constructivist critique

(iv) Mathematical language is assumed

to correlate most closely with the
phenomena, can more easily show
logical inconsistencies, is explicit,
unambiguous, universal and valuefree, and enables statistical
manipulation of abstracted
variables. Verbal language is
considered inferior on these

(iv) The focus of most technique is

on talking to and with, or other
forms of communication. As all
language embeds assumptions,
then any quantification is
recognized as also embedding such
socially constructed meanings and
interpretations and their contexts,
including all the uncertainty
attaching to verbal language.



Since the task is to apprehend

reality as it really is, the
successful end product is pure
unbiased information, knowledge,
explanations and law-like
generalizations, ideally free of
value judgments, and hence not
implying statements of ought. To
know how social life is
determined or caused is to be able
to predict and potentially control
future social life. However the
scientist as scientist claims to have
no hand in or responsibility for
actions or consequences of the
knowledge attained.

(vi) This kind of science can be

thought of as proceeding in a
straightforward linear and finite
fashion starting from either
observations or hypotheses,
through fieldwork or testing, to
the generation of data, the
acceptance or refutation of the
hypotheses, and ending with the
writing up of results.

Since the first task is to understand

and explain, and since this implies
some kind of purposes,
consciously articulated or not (to
understand this or explain that,
and in this way rather than that
way), then the successful product
is always in some sense applied
or value-driven (value-directed if
consciously articulated; biased if
not). Thus the researcher/s are also
implicated in the field of
consequential actions (though not
simply deterministically so), and
the future is made not predicted
(Applebaum, 1977).

(vi) This kind of social inquiry can be

thought of as proceeding more in
a ongoing fashion, nominally
starting at any point. While the
sequential logic is comparable to
that of positivism, it can better be
thought of as continuing cycles
(or a spiral), as research into
social action derived from a
previous cycle, will, in turn, be
followed by further cycles of
questioning, observation,
theorizing, conclusions, testing
action, further reflection, and so
on. Change and causality are
complex and non-linear.

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Wadsworth: Gouldners child? 271

Table 1: Continued
Key features of positivist assumptions

Key features of the critical

constructivist critique

(vii) The arbiters of the success of this

kind of science are other scientists
(the community of science)
whose discourse is privileged over
everyday lay discourse (resulting
from an extended period of
tertiary education and certified by
the award of a credential).

(vii) The arbiters of the success of the

research are those who it is
intended to help (understand their
situation or inform their practice).
A community of experienced
researchers may act as a resource,
e.g. facilitation of inquiry by this
new community of scientists.

(viii) Since knowledge is considered to

constitute a picture of universal
law-following reality, it can be
added to over time, with the
ultimate goal of accumulating a
complete body of knowledge. As
the body of knowledge is social
context-free it is valued in and of
itself. It is seen as still early days
for social science, so its body
cannot be expected to be as large
as that of natural science (which
has been accumulating for

(viii) Since understanding and

explanation represent situated
accounts of historically and
socially-constructed realities at
the intersections of particular
economic, political and cultural
conditions, the only sense in
which such knowledge is
cumulative is as an infinite
collection of successive historical
versions that bear more or less
of a relationship to each other.
Given that knowledge develops,
it can be seen as being with
reason, purpose or consequences
(intended or unintended).

(ix) Transmission of research results

consists of a teacher transferring
the existing body of knowledge to
students, and conveying technical
skills to enable them to add to it.
This banking model of
education, involves the teacher
making deposits which the
students receive and memorize
and which the teacher later
withdraws at exam time (Freire,
1972: 4559).

(ix) Facilitating learning consists of all

in a community-of-inquiry
enabling each other to exercise an
assumption-critical perspective
and a range of methods to explore
the conditions for social life. This
problem-posing education uses a
teacherlearner model based on
mutual discussion, interpretation
and learning for critical purpose
(Freire, 1972). This is seen as the
same model for carrying out

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272 Journal of Sociology 41(3)

Table 1: Continued
Key features of positivist assumptions

Key features of the critical

constructivist critique



When social scientists carry out

research for non-academic
sponsors, they are supplying mere
technique, and factual
information and knowledge to
their employers/clients. As values
and oughts are outside the realm
of the social scientist as social
scientist, these are supplied by
employers/clients. Researchers
apply themselves to investigating
these given practical problems.
This kind of applied knowledge
contrasts with the pure valuefree knowledge accumulated in
the academy for its own sake.
When social science applies itself
to value questions, it risks bias
and contamination of the facts to
which pure science in the
academy is less vulnerable.

When researchers use a critical

sociological perspective to
facilitate or coordinate research
for sponsors/clients, they are
assisting the efforts of a new
community of science. Values and
oughts lie within the realm of all
the co-researchers (researchers,
researched and researched for),
and the extent to which these
align with those of
sponsors/clients becomes a crucial
condition for carrying out the
research. All research inevitably
applies itself to value questions
(whether researchers are aware of
this or not). Bias and
contamination are yet more
ways of seeing to be surfaced
and studied for meaning, and
explored for critical absences.

And, so it seemed, increasingly, was the rest of the world, where something like a popular sociological imagination was giving substance to the
old argument that this was indeed a science that could be exercised by
others in their daily practice on the run (Wadsworth, 1984, 1991, 2001).
Indeed there has been an explosion of popular social practice-theorizing in
areas as diverse as architecture, business and management, land care, ecology, geography/environment, media and communications, indigenous and
cross-cultural work, public health, politics, anthropology, world development, religion, in child care centres, marriages or psychiatric wards, the
local chemists shop and womens magazines. It may arguably be in part a
lasting legacy of the era of popular sociology.
Yet, at exactly the point where the new paradigm seemed moderately
victorious, the long post-war boom gave way to recession. Throughout the
1980s, Government razor gangs terminated the glorious experiments with
funding the meeting of human needs (e.g. through a Guaranteed
Minimum Income, child care for all who needed it, universal health services
and an end to poverty). Critical social research faced an era of cutbacks and
competitive commercialization as the economic rationalist agenda took

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Wadsworth: Gouldners child? 273

shape. Giving voice to problematic, dangerous or undiscussable matters

became increasingly circumscribed when confronted with either the apparently unanswerable logic of deficit budgets, or the sheer threat of loss of
credibility or a job. As Gouldners (1971) crisis of western sociology
arrived, sociology in general began to contract dramatically in size (notably
in contrast to ascendant psychology),4 besieged in the academy where it was
often no longer even allowed to call itself sociology any more. As sociologys traditional object, society, was deemed officially to no longer exist,5
whether by a British government leader or some postmodern theorists, sociology began to splinter into its own diverse but separate fragments of business as usual survey empiricism, mild-mannered interpretivism,
neo-Marxist structuralism, post-structuralism, feminism, cultural studies,
radical subjectivism, critical realism and postmodernism. Elsewhere, an
uneasy truce to the paradigm wars was being reached in the new rules of
social research, which compelled research to be balanced by being both
quantitative and qualitative regardless of the questions or purposes.
Even a struggling new paradigm, which was attempting to research wider
realms of human experience, and do so within movements for change, was
summarily dismissed as postmodern sociology (Bauman, 1989).

The academys unease with action research

Much academic interrogation followed the paradigm wars as the tension
continued to be explored between differing notions of knowledgeconstituting relations, of the political itself, of the relationship between
knowledge and practice, and of how researching change in practice could
(or could not) be separated from cultural critique and discursive analysis
with respect to local and global social formations.6
On the one hand, in academic sociology there had always been a tradition of going beyond being merely interested or fascinated in the way
things are in the world, to problematizing them and wanting to use
research to work out the ways things could alternatively be particularly
in feminism, or in work intensely engaged with or by external communities.7 Most recently, the British Sociology Associations conferences theme
Sociological Challenges: Conflict, Anxiety and Discontent re-invoked the
idea of the sociological imagination being animated by issues of social division, economic hardship, cultural disadvantage and political oppression
(quoted in <http//> BSA website, accessed 11 September
2003). Clifford Geertz (2001), reviewing the urban planner Bent Flyvbergs
Making Social Science Matter: Why Social Inquiry Fails and How it Can
Succeed Again (2001), noted Flyvbergs argument that key social theorists
were seeing the social world as better understood as intersubjectively constructed, contingent and dialogical, rather than as objectively given, fixed
and contained. Giddens double hermeneutic (self-reflexive interpretation),

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274 Journal of Sociology 41(3)

Bourdieus critique of structuralism as detached, schematic and neglectful of

context, and the power-knowledge critique of value neutrality advanced by
Foucault, all reflected these new paradigm assumptions. Eco-feminists have
drawn the same conclusions.
However, while prominent sociological commentators such as Tony
Giddens believe positivism to be a spent force,8 in Australia Hugh Stretton
long continued to insist that positivism survived and that there were plenty
of readers of Gouldner who have still done very little to carry the message into their actual teaching and working practice.9 Indeed, positivist
assumptions arguably remain widespread and even newly resuscitated
with the popularity of the evidence-based movement sweeping through
medicine and most other areas of publicly-funded intervention.
Certainly academic researchers continue to be under pressure to invite
subjects to participate in academic research (where the academic is expected
to theorize and author publications), rather than wait to be invited to assist
knowing subjects to carry out their own research, possibly theorized and
authored by them. Academic research funds and ethics systems do not work
in favour of action research despite the irony of the approach being
desired by many in the non-academic, community or industry settings that
are courted by academe. Formal journal research articles routinely end with
expressions of hope that the research will make a contribution, but stop
short of following the conclusions and implications into experimental reallife practice.
As well, many sociologists and postmodernists concluded that academic
theorizing about the social, and critiquing how things are, was a form of
political practice per se, without necessarily engaging actively in research
that works with the knowledge and change processes towards how things
might alternatively be.
Action researchers, however, work from a theory of political change that
involves consciously theorizing within a community of practice or a field of
constitutive relations where the relevant participants are together
researching, theorizing and acting (consciously intervening) in that
social field or discourse of substantive practice.
But an unexpected thing was happening alongside the atrophying of talk
of a new paradigm in academic sociology. Mostly outside the academy,
action research in myriad locations and variants,10 including participatory
and collaborative inquiry, action learning, action science, social ecology or
socio systems-thinking11 began unexpectedly to take off. And with a surprising degree of popularity.

The rise and rise of action research

As conceived by Gouldner, reflexive sociology had identified not so much
with Marxs dualistic eleventh thesis (1977) that sociologists have so far

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Wadsworth: Gouldners child? 275

only theorized about the world, the point is to change it but rather: if sociologists want to understand how the world changes, they must theorize in,
with and through its actual and always-changing practice (and practitioners).
This was the conclusion also of Kurt Lewin (1946), credited with coining the term action research, when he said the best way to understand an
organization was to change it, and that there was nothing so practical as a
good theory (Greenwood and Levin, 1998: 19). This was less a matter of
engaging in the field until one understands it (and possibly risking going
native or uncritically reproducing the same knowledge relations as before).
Instead, it was more like engaging actively and inevitably politically in the
field of knowledge-practice relations until they are understood through the
test of that engagement. This encompassed the inquiry process itself (and
the inquirers), as the line blurs between everyday knowing subjects who
think about their own and others social practice, and researchers who do
so too.
In the middle of the great paradigm wars era, in London in 1972, I
myself had first encountered the term participatory action research (PAR)
being used by some inner city urban social researchers. I had returned to
Australia to use this approach more explicitly in outer suburban community research of my own, and then with nurses across Victoria for the nursing union. Later I worked with a large group of consumers and staff in a
long sequence of collaborative inquiries into establishing consumer evaluation in acute psychiatric hospital practice. Eventually I and others like me
found we needed to look elsewhere than sociology to develop our
approach, and found a new, vibrant and growing international participatory action research community-of-practice (Wenger, 1998). Some of the
early key players in this were the Cornell University PAR Network, the
international PAR community focused in the decolonizing south, and the
World Congresses sponsored by the ALARPM Association (Action
Learning, Action Research and Process Management Association).
Ironically we were finding that business was experiencing its own forms
of complexity, change, conflict and uncertainty. To respond more effectively
to demands as diverse as those of unions and women workers, diversification and developing overseas markets, many were embracing variants of
action research (such as soft systems or quality improvement).
Old paradigm statistical population surveys and private consultants
expert reports remained the dominant methodology of choice for central
managerial governments and business. However, as the new economy
looked (albeit gingerly) to non-positivist forms of social research to work
more responsively and in bottom up ways, a growing and contradictory
space opened up for continual cycles of self-research and localized forms of
inquiry and change. This was potentially dangerous terrain for managers
and professionals in terms of retaining control, yet paradoxically made it

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276 Journal of Sociology 41(3)

easier to argue for more critical forms of participatory action research, as

the involvement of multiple stakeholders became a compelling requirement.
Barry MacDonald (1976) a British action research theorist in education,
critically characterized these contrasting forms and uses of action research
as autocratic or bureaucratic (both instrumental), and democratic (or emancipatory). Yet in practice these were often complex, and have manifested
increasingly as hybrids. For example, bureaucratic forms of action research
such as the quality movement, could also be experienced as opening up
valuable space for speaking out by hitherto suppressed voices such as service-users or consumers. On the other hand, some theoretically emancipatory action research could be experienced as manipulative and
presumptuous by an oppressed community that did not want to be emancipated in ways brought from outside by often well-meaning sponsored
and even academic researchers. Instrumental autocratic action research,
such as that used to implement new work practices or policy, also always
ran the risk for command and control structures of opening a dialogue in
which participants would become both informed about the issues at hand,
and able to join together for further organized activity. Even the humble,
usually well-controlled, one-off focus group could morph into an ongoing
more active group of participants. And, more contradictory still, it could
even be in the interests of the commissioning agency that this should happen, whether to be able to tap opinions later, or to ensure a community
group voice in multi-stakeholder meetings.
Thus reflexivity about the politics of knowledge-production relations
continued often from harsh necessity to be foregrounded in participatory action research. Nevertheless, stakeholder-inclusive forms of collaborative inquiry or participatory action research were becoming
commonplace in school classrooms, adult, community and higher education, human resources and organizational development, in nursing, hospitals and health services, community services, social entrepreneurialism,
youth work, family therapy, immigration and settlement work, architecture
and design, in business and industrial product-development, quality assurance (such as total systems intervention and continuous improvement),
developmental evaluation, adverse incident strategies, conflict-resolution
and mediation processes, restorative justice, farmer-led change to agricultural practices, information technology, and environmental, indigenous,
feminist and consumer activism, and international development
(Wadsworth, 1997, 2002: 6). In 1997, in Cartagena, Colombia, Orlando
Fals Borda and his co-organizers had seen this emerging trend in their
choice of theme Convergencia (Convergences) for the joint World
Congresses of action learning, participatory and action research and process management, attended by 1300 people.
In Australia there were half a dozen prominent centres, groups and associated figures practising participatory and action-oriented forms of research

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Wadsworth: Gouldners child? 277

(and publishing) from the early period of the 1970s and 1980s.12 These
worked to sustain action research as a form of social science that contested
being circumscribed or trivialized by policy or managerial desires to impose
controls on the outcomes of inquiry processes, or inappropriate boundaries
on relevant stakeholders for inclusion, and remained conscious of the tendency to privilege the academic voice.
Over later decades these pioneer groups and individuals were joined by
thousands of practitioners, and from the late 1980s and early 1990s there
has been a proliferation of activity: State-based and national networks and
organizations, national and international conferences and activities, workplace and community-based projects, reports, articles, books, journals, centres, institutes, formal and informal education courses and higher degrees,
and job descriptions calling for action research.
From a time when individual practitioners may have felt isolated and a
bit up against it in settings where conventional positivist assumptions
about social research continued to prevail, there was now a sense of being
everywhere and in demand (Wadsworth, 2002: 4).

The legacy returns to mainstream social research

Thus the new paradigm appears to be emerging from a time underground
or on the borderlands for those who needed to nurture its standpoint outside ruling relations (Smith, 1990: 1568). Sociologys relationship to
action research may now perhaps be seen as somewhat analogous to that of
organized religions relationship to spirituality. Adherents of the fast-growing new spirituality (Bouma, 2003) had, similar to those of the equally
burgeoning action research, decamped to their own community of practice
with some remaining in (or now returning to seek) dialogue with the greyhaired but experienced and still-valued parent. Having gained in strength
and clarity, the new paradigms contribution may be seen in both extending
the qualitative turn, and in a hybridizing of mainstream social research,
via its adoption of some quintessential characteristics of participatory
action research. For example:
The explicit inclusion of stakeholders on research advisory committees, some of
which are morphing into inquiry groups where their views are becoming seen
as data, and members are invited to themselves reflect, analyse, develop deeper
theory, and guide and observe further action;
The cautious admission of the researchers own personhood and experience as
part of the research conversation (including the now-widespread first chapter
describing the writers journey into the topic);
More complex and open-ended research designs, that unfold and spawn
added elements in response to the earlier phases (including what were, hitherto,
pilot studies, which have grown to become an early iteration of a more sequential or emergent inquiry); and, at the other end of a traditional linear process:

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278 Journal of Sociology 41(3)

more post-research follow-ups or implementation reviews to monitor or test

in practice the thinking generated from the previous cycle of inquiry);
The use of multiple methods, less for triangulation on a one real truth and
more to pick up explicitly differing kinds of views, including ways to overcome
silencing power differentials (e.g. increased use of peer interviewing, journal-writing, appreciative inquiry or auto-ethnography);
Increased use of naturalistic and conversational both-ways dialogue and
other conversational methods, and iterative crossover designs to accommodate
these (for example, the ubiquitous and hitherto anonymous one-off focus group,
beginning to hybridize into locally meeting groupings of people who may know
each other and continue to meet; or traditional one-off consultative efforts being
supplemented by sometimes numerous episodes of briefing, input and feedback,
and involving revised and re-revised analyses and conclusions (such as deliberative polling, most significant change technique, memory work, some forms of
public consultation and open space technology); and
The hybridizing of traditional techniques to enable representation of different
stakeholders or points of view (such as the use of community-of-interest consultants to act as dialogue facilitators, or representatives volunteering or being
voted onto or tendering for places in focus groups).13

Signs of explicit mention of action research practice are more recent in

mainstream sociology. In an issue of the Sociological Review, ONeill and
colleagues explored an innovative action research method, identifying it as
a renewed methodology and hybrid of ethnographic participatory action
research. Including re-representation through live/art-performance, which
they called ethno-mimesis (ONeill et al., 2002).
William Foote Whyte (1991) made the shift to participatory action
research, in his case through collaboration with Cornell Universitys workplace relations study centre and key figures in the Cornell PAR Network
such as Ann Martin and David Greenwood. Egon Guba and Yvonna
Lincoln (1989) were sociologists who became major proponents of the
influential naturalistic inquiry and constructivist or fourth-generation
approach to the fields of evaluation and education.
There are other early signs of engagement. I have now experienced
being asked to deliver my first guest lectures on action research to a mainstream sociology course. And there was a first to my knowledge a
major two-day PAR section at a world congress of sociology (in Brisbane,

A family reunion for Gouldners offspring?

There may be value in sociology and participatory action research reengaging more explicitly.
Many students are seeking graduate studies for the purposes of reflecting
more deeply on their practice in community or workplace contexts
(Argyris, 1993) hence the increase in popularity of professional placement

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Wadsworth: Gouldners child? 279

or project-based higher education studies. Sociology may gain from working more closely in relation to these richly nuanced settings with actors who
are both generating and testing grounded theory in live practice.
Academic sociologists may find this more satisfying than current more
instrumental efforts to industrially commercialize the academy. These latter
appear to abandon many of the conditions for highly original and creative
thinking by taking a managerial focus on short-term funds acquisition per
se and other goal-displacing performativity and commodity production
As well, just as the paradigm wars fuelled participatory action research
with some deep and critical thinking, action research may again benefit
from exposure to sociological theorizing. In particular, there may be mutual
benefit in comparing sociologys lengthy engagement with theorizing the
social structural with the individual agentic, with participatory action
researchers traditional attention to the complex, systemic hermeneutics of
the social, organizational and institutional writ small as the personal and
Sociologys traditional separation from psychology was long well-justified. Generations of modernist attempts to relate the psychological and the
social (perhaps theorizing within the sound of a return to order) were
driven to see repression as functional within a consensus model of a unitary
society. Bob Connells still-relevant perhaps even premonitory account
of Dr Freud and the course of history noted that:
Freud, above all other psychologists, saw the individual as a differentiated unit,
internally divided, racked by ambivalence, packed to the ears with contradiction
and strife. He utterly failed to see society in the same light (1977: 128)

Yet there are forms of post-Freudian psychology that are doing exactly this
in the hands of critical constructivist action researchers. There is a puzzle
here. Robert van Krieken notes the eclipse of insights by Durkheim and
Weber regarding the real forces of the non-conscious, the psychological,
the personality, habit or habitus (2002: 268) yet describes few writers
as having written them back in after Parsons had written them out. How
did C. Wright Mills classic formulation come to be remembered as from
private troubles to public issues when his actual words were about the
intersections between biography and history within society, the relations
between the two, and the imaginative capacity to move back and forth
between private cherished/threatened values and their transcendent
manifestation in organizations and institutions (1970: ch. 1)? Even the
invention of a sociology of the body and a sociology of the emotions has
seemed to stay resolutely objectified and strangely disembodied.
Action research works with a discourse in which they are systemically
joined, experienced and contextualized in critical theory (joining Marx
with Freud) and contemporary group analytic theory associated with the

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Tavistock Institute of Human Relations and the early group relations

thinkers (Wilfred Bion, David Bohm, John Heron, Isabel Menzies, John
Rowan and Peter Reason), and now by their participatory action research
successors. Key thinkers consider the intrasubjective and intersubjective
construction of objectivity in some wider socio-eco-system, as co-arising
in a participatory creation (Reason, n.d.; Bateson in Brockman, 1977:
245). There are also feminist, Jungian and community psychologists drawing on a critical constructivist epistemology (e.g. Frigga Haugs memory
work [Crawford et al., 1992], eco-feminists such as Ariel Salleh, and the
work of Valerie Walkerdine in Australia), explicitly working to bridge these
gaps in feminist action research.14
Most recently, at the 2003 world congress, and fittingly in the new
South Africa, this whole-systems relationality was repeatedly reflected in
understandings about a divided, contradictory/paradoxical and wholismseeking, interconnected, ambivalent, complex self; within an equally
divided, contradictory/paradoxical, and wholism-seeking, interconnected,
ambivalent, complex world of the social group, organization, institution
or community both stable and unstable, in dynamic equilibrium.

In conclusion
Alvin Goulder could just as easily have been writing in 2005 when he wrote
famously: It is no exaggeration to say that we theorize today within the
sound of guns (1970: vii). The practice of participatory and action oriented
forms of research, with their intellectual debt to sociologys and critical
sociologys contribution to the paradigm wars, offers a way of responding
to this. A reflexive sociology remains:
distinguished by its refusal to segregate the intimate or personal from the public and collective, or the everyday life from the occasional political act . [It] is
not a bundle of technical skills; it is a conception of how to live [while we]
live with the loose ends (Gouldner, 1971: 504, 510)

An initial version of this article was presented at the Research Committee on Logic
and Methodology (RC-33) session on Participatory Action Research, ISA 15th
World Congress of Sociology, Brisbane, Australia, July 2002, prepared with the support of an Adjunct Professorial position at the Institute for Social Research,
Swinburne University of Technology,
I acknowledge with thanks the support of a Public Health Residency at the
Australian National University, which assisted me to substantially rewrite and bring
the work to completion. I particularly acknowledge support and feedback from
Gabrielle Bammer, Wendy Gregory and Dorothy Broom. Finally I thank Bob
Connell for his ever-thoughtful feedback and encouragement.

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Wadsworth: Gouldners child? 281

1 Initial research for this article was carried out at the Institute for Social
Research, Swinburne University of Technology; substantial completion of the
research took place at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population
Health, Australian National University.
2 The critique of positivism or variants of it (such as realist, naturalistic, objectivist, absolutist or determinist structuralist methodologies, as well as derivative
theories such as structural functionalism) was the subject of extensive thinking
and writing during the 1960s and 1970s. An enormous literature developed
among US and UK writers such as Natanson, Schutz, Cicourel, Douglas,
Filstead, Andreski, Becker, Phillips, Giddens, Gouldner, Rex, Outhwaite, Rose
and Rose, Mulkay and Reinharz. In Australia there was a small but influential
literature reflecting the American and British critiques (for example in the work
of Suchting, Pelz, the Blaikie and Bubble-gum debate in the ANZJS 19778;
Sharp, Bell, Bell and Encel, Hunt, and Jennett and Cordero).
3 Academic terms are critical interpretivism or later, constructivism/constructionism. Note some writers (e.g. Crotty, 1998), reversed the meaning of the latter two, identifying constructivism as more subjectivist, verging-on-idealist,
when previously it had been the more common term used to unite critical poststructural and post-analytic understandings.
4 In a political economy of privatized individualism and embodied emotional
response, psychology ignited a popular desire for self-understanding (as well as
the business urge to efficiently manage), just as two decades earlier sociology
had ignited a popular desire to understand the social structures that held back
collective efforts to counter the dominant culture (as well as the government
urge to efficiently manage). By Christmas 2001, a telling sign in a Melbourne
branch of the multinational bookstore Borders, were the 27 bookcases devoted
to psychology and one to sociology.
5 Although economic rationalism was named by a sociologist who had long got
his hands dirty in the world of government practice, and had now got up close
and personal to the administrators whose myriad micro practices sustained it
(Pusey, 1991).
6 I acknowledge here an anonymous reviewers articulation of this.
7 For example Garry Dowsetts AIDS-related work, Priscilla Pyetts work with the
Victorian Prostitutes Collective, Bob Connells work with organized teachers or
Frank Vanclays farmers research.
8 Anthony Giddens, personal exchange, Cambridge, 1995.
9 Hugh Stretton, personal correspondence, 12 March 1980.
10 Most recently a search for a generic term for all these variants had yielded the
descriptor integration and implementation sciences as a contender at the
Australian National University
11 This systems thinking (or systemic thinking) is characterized by complex
causality, uncertainty and ecological-like feedback loops. It is distinguished in
action research from an older more mechanistic systems theory (or systems
dynamics) characterized by linear, predictable, measurable, structural-functional causality.
12 In Victoria: Deakin Universitys Education faculty and the State and
Commonwealth Education Departments formed a prominent grouping in education action research, policy, teacher development and schools improvement;
the Action Research Issues Association and Action Research Issues Centre, in
health, community development and human services; systems-thinkers, group
relations and organizational development in business, organizations and

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management and also at the ANU Canberra Centre for Continuing Education;
in Brisbane: in higher education, organizational practice and management; in
NSW: the Hawksbury School of Human Ecology in agricultural, rural environmental and farmer uses of action research; in SA in vocational education and
training; and in WA in Aboriginal Studies and the feminist Centre for Research
on Women.
13 This list builds from Wadsworth (2001).
14 See for example the 2001 Boston Bridging the Gap: Between PAR and
Feminisms conference (Brydon-Miller et al., 2004).

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Biographical note
Yoland Wadsworth has worked as a research sociologist practitioner, theorist, facilitator, activist and consultant for 34 years. She has authored
Australias two best-selling social research and evaluation texts, and is
past president of the international action research association(ALARPM).
She convenes an action research programme at the Institute for Social
Research at Swinburne University of Technology, where she is an Adjunct
Professor. Address: ISR ARP, Mail P11, Swinburne University of
Technology, PO Box 218, Hawthorn, Victoria 3122, Australia. [email:]

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