Approaching an action research
thesis: an overview
This is a resource file which supports the regular public program "areol" (action research and evaluation on line) offered twice a year beginning in mid-February and mid-July. For details email Bob Dick email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
... in which the use of action research for theses is considered, taking into account its dual aims of action and research
In this document:
A colleague Paul Ledington (quoting his PhD supervisor Peter Checkland, I think) defines a thesis as something "with a new sentence in it". The rest of the thesis is necessary to support the new sentence. In fact, there will be more than one new sentence. But I think Paul neatly defines what theses are required to do: they are supposed to add in some way to the body of understanding and knowledge.
Denis Philips, quoting John Dewey, claims that all that research can do is to make a "warrantable assertion". Truth is elusive; but research, well-conducted, can provide a warrant, an adequate assurance, for the assertion which we eventually offer. We may not be able to claim that we have pinned down the truth. But if we can say that our methodology and evidence allow a reasonable claim to be made, then that is as much as anyone can reasonably demand.
Taken together, these two ideas define a good PhD as one which is
- able to claim its methodology as appropriate to the situation, and
- able to support a claim of some warrantable addition to knowledge.
This can provide a starting point for thinking about a good action research thesis.
As the name implies, action research is intended to produce both change ("action") and understanding ("research"). These two dimensions, change and understanding, can usefully be considered for each aspect of a research proposal.
The section which follows can function as a checklist when you are choosing an approach to action research. Later sections describe the methodology and ways of using it to conduct the research, and how the research can be reported in the eventual thesis.
Choosing an approach
In deciding if your topic is viable, and later in reporting it, the two outcomes of action and research are important in their effects on choice of situation, participants, methodology and literature.
Justifying the research
It is usual for a proposal, and the eventual thesis, to offer reasons which explain why the research as worthwhile. This is most typically because it addresses research questions which are topical and/or have theoretical or practical importance.
Action: Is the intended change worthwhile?
Research: Will the study add to understanding of a worthwhile research question?
The purpose of the methodology is to allow both an assured contribution to knowledge, and successful change. In the thesis you want to be able to claim that your conclusions, and the data you base them on, have survived your attempts to disprove them and find other alternatives. An appropriate methodology is what enables you to make this claim. A later section describes this in more detail.
Choosing an action research methodology requires you to offer a justification for that choice. This is most easily done on the grounds that both action and research are intended outcomes, and that action research provides the flexibility and responsiveness that are needed for effective change at the same time that it provides a check on the adequacy of data and conclusions.
Action: Will the methodology assist effective change?
Research: Are data and interpretations adequately assured by the methodology?
Social research, of whatever form, deals in some way with people. They function at least as informants, directly or indirectly (for instance, by being observed). This is the least participative end of a continuum. A much more participative approach may involve them as co-researchers. The level of participation, and the means used to achieve it, determine the effectiveness of both the action and the research.
Action: What is done to involve those who can influence the desired change? To what extent are all stakeholders involved, and by what means?
Research: Are all relevant informants sampled? Are the processes which are used suited to validating the information collected or contributed?
Accessing the literature is more difficult, in some ways, than it is for other research.
First, there is a greater need to access the methodological literature. Without this, it is harder to offer a sufficient justification for your choice of paradigm and methods. To complicate matters, there are two methodological literatures. One is directed towards bringing about change. The other is about qualitative research, and action research in particular.
Second, the content literature (the literature about your topic) may have to be accessed twice. If you start with a research question, you will have to identify and understand the literature most directly relevant to that research question. When you have begun to collect and interpret the data, you will find that more specialised literature is likely to become relevant. You then have to identify and understand it. It allows you to refine and further guarantee your conclusions.
The purpose of the methodological literature is therefore to justify your choice of action research as the over-arching paradigm, and your particular methods as suited to the situation.
Action: Have you taken into account the literature on bringing about change in the situation you are researching?
Research: Have you also addressed, in your methodology, the challenges to validity of results which the literature identifies? Have you used processes which are consistent with the accepted procedures of the current methodological literature?
The content literature guides you (and, probably, the participants) in deciding which issues to address. It also provides a check on the adequacy of your conclusions.
Action: Does the literature cover relevant aspects of the situation, and of change in that situation?
Research: Is relevant theoretical and research literature on the situation adequately covered? Are all claims tested against the more specialised research literature?
In its pursuit of understanding and change, and its use of participation, action research is unable to use the methods of experimental research to develop a warrant for its assertions. It requires a different approach.
Action research achieves this in the first place by being critically reflective within a cyclic process. In addition, at all stages, the researcher attempts to find exceptions to the data so far collected, and to disconfirm the emerging interpretations.
There are many ways of describing the cycles. Kemmis and McTaggart, for example, describe each as having four elements: plan, act, observe, reflect. The important characteristic of each cycle is that the researcher plans before acting, and reflects on the findings and the method after acting. The reflection at the end of each cycle feeds into the planning for the next cycle.
A typical cycle may look something like this:
1a Decide which questions you wish to have answered; if this is the first step in the process, it may be a very broad question: "How does this system work?", perhaps.
1b Decide who to ask, and how to ask them. (This and the previous step are both "plan".)
2 Ask. (This is the "act" component.)
3a Check the information you collected; devise ways of testing it in the next cycle.
3b Interpret the information -- what does it mean? Deviseways of testing your interpretation in the next cycle.
3c Check the adequacy of your choice of participants and way of collecting information. Amend them for the next cycle if desirable.
3d Check your data and interpretation against the relevant literature; you may not do this for every step, but may limit it to every few cycles. (This and the three prior steps are part of reflection.)
and return to step 1a of the next cycle with an improved methodology, questions, and sample of participants.
The planning and reflection, and perhaps the data collection, will probably be carried out with the help of participants from the client group.
In fact, there are cycles within cycles. If you are using interviews for data collection, each interview is a cycle. The sequence of interviews forms another cycle, as do the other forms of data-collection you use. In turn, they are part of the still larger cycle of the overall project.
Triangulation or dialectic
I have referred to other forms of data collection. You can better assure your data and interpretations if you use varied informants, several different methods, different ways of asking the same question, and so on. Comparison between them provides part of the check on their adequacy.
This is commonly called triangulation. However, the term is coming to be used more often to mean the use of multiple methods. I will therefore use the term "dialectic". As far as possible the intention is to use multiple data sources within each cycle. A comparison of the two or more sources of data then enables you to focus on agreements and disagreements. Information which is unique, provided by only one person, can then often be discarded. You need carry forward only your interpretations.
(Most qualitative research accumulates such large bodies of data that a practitioner cannot be expected to find the time to deal with it. Action research offers an economy in that only the interpretations need be carried from cycle to cycle.)
In comparing two or more sources of data, then, I am suggesting you give your attention to topics which are mentioned more than once. Your sources then either agree or disagree about the topic:
If they agree, search for exceptions to this in the next cycle. You might do this, for example, by asking questions which probe specifically for exceptions.
If they disagree, search for explanations. You might do this, for example, by asking questions which probe specifically for explanations.
In this way, your questions and methods, and your data and interpretations, become more focussed as you proceed.
For thesis purposes, you will also find it desirable to ensure that you document your procedures as you go. In particular, you will want to keep a record of:
- the emerging interpretations, and any changes in these
- the changing methods, any refinements in them, and any conclusions you can therefore draw about them
- the literature you access, and any confirming or disconfirming information you obtain from it
- quotes from raw information which capture well the interpretations you are developing.
Without adequate documentation, it will be very difficult to reconstruct this when you prepare the eventual thesis. It is much easier to keep good, if selective, records as you proceed.
Your own reflection
Chad Perry and Ortrun Zuber-Skerritt suggest a further cycle if you are doing the research for thesis purposes. They mention the objection that, if you are using a participative approach, you may be challenged on the grounds that the thesis is not your own work. They offer a way around this problem.
Each cycle of your research, which may be participative, becomes the "act" component of an individual reflection. In other words, after each cycle, you critique the planning, the action, and the reflection. This may be done as you check the ongoing documentation.
As you do this, you will probably find it useful to keep a record of what you learn. This might take the form of a diary. Your learning may be about the client system, or about people and systems generally, or about change, or about yourself and your approach to change. Increasingly in qualitative research, it is being regarded as appropriate to discuss yourself and your learning as part of your thesis.
Writing up the research
If you attempt to write up a thesis using a format appropriate to an experimental study, it will probably be a long and repetitious thesis. Instead, I suggest structuring it around the contribution to knowledge that your study has made.
Early chapters will be more conventional. They are likely to include:
- some justification for the study, explaining why it was worth doing
- some justification for the approach (that is, for your choice of action research, participation, and qualitative data)
- a description and justification for the particular methods used for data collection and interpretation.
To the extent that you can identify relevant literature for the thesis topic, there may be a literature review. However, much of the more specialised literature will be accessed only as the study progresses, and reported adjacent to the relevant findings.
The later parts of the thesis then include the findings -- the contribution to knowledge. The contributions may be about any (or all) of the following.
- The specific client system, and (to the extent that you can generalise) about similar client systems. You probably cannot generalise directly from a single system. But the literature may enable you to make claims about the extent which your findings apply to other systems.
- People, systems, and change.
- The methodology you used. Of importance here may be the variations you introduced to deal with the unexpected. Some of these variations may be novel, and useful additions to the methods available.
As you plan, and conduct, and report the study, it will help to keep in mind the end product -- a new sentence (or, more probably, several), and evidence that it is new and worth claiming.
At then end, you want to be able to say something like the following:
"These are the contributions to knowledge which survived my vigorous attempts to disconfirm them, first in later action research cycles, and then from the literature."
The design, conduct and reflection in each cycle, and the records that you keep, can be directed to achieving this end.
Kemmis, Stephen, and McTaggart, Robin, eds. (1988) The action research planner, third edition. Victoria: Deakin University.
Perry, Chad, and Zuber-Skerritt, Ortrun (1992) Action research in graduate management research programs. Higher Education, 23(2), 195-208.
Phillips, Denis C. (1987) Philosophy, science, and social inquiry: contemporary methodological controversies in social science and related applied fields of research. Oxford: Pergamon Press.
Copyright (c) Bob Dick 1995-2000. This document may be copied if it is not included in documents sold at a profit, and this and the following notice are included.
This document can be cited as follows:
Dick, B. (1997) Approaching an action research thesis: an overview [On line]. Available at http://www.uq.net.au/action_research/arp/phd.html
Three little-known keys to writing a thesisExperience and research have uncovered three keys to writing a thesis, as the following quotations (with emphases added) show.
- Have a `thesis' of the thesis
- Have a research problem which is gradually refined as the thesis is written
- Start writing a first draft early, based on preliminary conceptual maps
A review of 139 examiners' reports ... revealed that rarely were theses criticised for `bad writing' in the sense that most people understand that phrase. That is, theses were acceptable in terms of the mechanics of presentation: sentence structure, paragraphing, spelling, grammar, etc. They also were not criticised for failing to conform to conventions of the discipline about referencing or presentation of data. What frequently was criticised was the students' failure to take a clear philosophic stance or to reach a conclusion. Examiners called upon students to state clearly their hypothesis and their conclusions. If students adequately communicate the `thesis' of their dissertations, they usually avoid unnecessary length, lack of coherence, repetitiousness and confusion in their writing.
Supervisors need to emphasise throughout students' candidacies that they are striving in the thesis to communicate one big idea; that there should be a `thesis' or centre to which everything in the document contributes. (Nightingale 1992, p. 174)
Educational research and our own experience ... suggest that it is extremely important for the beginning researcher to define the research problem at a very early stage in the research process. Defining a research problem is often found to be a most difficult and frustrating task. The reason for this lies primarily in the fact that undergraduate students are by and large not compelled to define the problems they work on; such problems are presented to them by lecturers, and the notion that defining and articulating a problem is a demanding intellectual process in its own right is often poorly developed amongst undergraduate students. Yet it is a crucial preliminary step in the research process, and one which the postgraduate student, who has recently emerged from the security of undergraduate life where problems appear to exist self-evidently, must confront and overcome. It if is not, and the research proposal remains vague and ill-defined, the student's subsequent activities of researching and note-taking will lack focus, be more time-consuming than is necessary, and largely ineffective. (Zuber-Skerritt & Knight 1992, p. 196)
Another crucial phase in the research process is the transition from analysis to synthesis; that is, from the collection and analysis of literature or data to the writing of the first draft. Many postgraduate students attest to the psychological difficulties they must overcome before writing of the first draft can proceed; for many the task appears insuperable, and much time can be wasted at this point as the student prevaricates and justifies this prevarication by asserting the need to continue the phase of analysis. Most supervisors have heard the plaintive cry: 'I still haven't read enough!'; this is frequently a symptom of nerves as the awesome moment approaches when the student must lay aside the security of index cards and plunge into the writing phase. Our experience suggests that problems particularly arise when the postgraduate student is unaware of the stages and steps through which research and writing normally proceed. This manifests itself as an attempt to write a final draft without the intermediate steps of constructing a flowchart of ideas (or a conceptual map), writing a first rough draft, revising and editing, and then rewriting. In the attempt to move immediately to writing the final draft, the student becomes preoccupied with the fine details, stylistic niceties and attractive presentation, often at the expense of development of ideas or argumentation; as a result, the writing process is inhibited, and the product is often characterised by unevenness of thought and argument. (Zuber-Skerritt & Knight 1992, p. 200) [That is, constructing drafts of a flowchart of the sections of a chapter or the subsections of a section is useful early in the process of reading the literature, with several consequent revisions. Rarely has a student not read enough to start writing the first draft of these frameworks.]
Another trap for student writers is that they believe they need long periods of time if they are going to try to write anything. Waiting for the significant piece of free time to come along makes procrastination easy. Two helpful strategies are to encourage students to set attainable sub-goals so they use short periods of time efficiently. For instance, rather than trying to write the whole section on methodology, a student could set the sub-goal of writing only the description of a key piece of equipment. Of course, if she or he had been writing all along, there would be at least a rough draft of this which would simply need to be refined.
Another helpful strategy for writers who often face interruptions to their work is to leave themselves `pick-up points'. This means that they do not work until they are at the absolute end of something, but quit when they can still see what will come nest. They jot down a few notes about what they expect to write next, and when they come back, there is no blank page facing them.
Finally, supervisors who have several research students or whose departments have a group of novice researchers should encourage them to exchange drafts of their work frequently. The more commentary, the more often a student is asked, `What did you intend to say here?', the better the chances of a well-constructed thesis.(Nightingale 1992, pp. 176-177)
Research proposal structure keyed to the thesis structureAt many universities, candidates in PhD programs are usually required to present a research proposal during or at the start of their candidature. This note provides a suggested outline for a proposal that fits with the structured approach to presenting theses, based on experience and Poole (1993) and Krathowl (1977). The centre headings in capitals are required by QUT, with the recommended side headings being my interpretation of what is required.
As a rule of thumb, the proposal should be a minimum of about two or three pages and a maximum of about seven to ten pages in length (with the list of references and any appendices of support material not being included in this page count), so the estimates of word and page lengths given below are very tentative. The proposal could have about twenty or so references. Sometimes a QUT proposal requires details of a `coursework' unit and an example of a tailored one is provided in a note at the end of this appendix. Please remember to check spelling and to provide page numbers at the middle top of each page.
Any research proposal should be carefully tailored to the organisation asking for it, so the format should below always be adjusted to suit other requirements.
OBJECTIVES OF THE PROGRAM
1 IntroductionThe introduction is a five- to ten-line picture of the whole research, showing the major controversies or gaps in the literature which leads to the research problem. This description may become section 1.1 in the final thesis.
The research problem is presented at the end of this section, in italics and indented. Note that readers of a research proposal cannot be expected to know the jargon of every discipline, and so the title and research problem should be expressed in as simple terms as possible, and any specialist terms should be defined in this section as they are introduced.
2 Justification for the researchThis section is about one page and justifies the research, usually on four dimensions:
- size of the industry involved,
- gaps in the literature (provide several references in support and refer to section 3 below),
- unusual methodology to be used (provide several references in support and refer to section 4 below), and
- possible benefits of outcomes for policy and for practice.
RELATION TO PREVIOUS RESEARCH
3 Preliminary literature review and theoretical frameworkIn about two pages, show the major issues and schools in the literature and the gaps in the literature, and then briefly justify some likely research questions (for qualitative research) or hypotheses (for quantitative research) arising from the gaps which may be the focus of data collection and data analysis. A model of the theoretical framework along the lines of Sekaran (1992, chapter 3) would be impressive. This section becomes the later parts of chapter 2 in the thesis. Define key terms as the section progresses or have a definition sub-section.
Incidentally, having read a completed PhD thesis similar to the planned one is a good inspiration and guide for the task ahead.
4 Contribution of the researchA contribution is a change to a body of knowledge created by a research project. This section complements section 2 above about the justification for the research. This section describes the specific outcomes of the research developed in chapter 5, and describes their importance. For example, it discusses a model which will be developed to fill the gaps in the body of knowledge noted in section 2, or a checklist which will be developed for managers who have no guides at present. In brief, this section is specific about likely outcomes and their importance. A candidate could also mention a conference at which a paper about the research could be presented, such as the annual conference of the Australia and New Zealand Association for Management (ANZAM) or the Marketing Educator's Conference. As well, the title of a journal which might publish an article about the research could be mentioned.
5 LimitationsOutline and justify the major limitations that will be placed on the research, for example, industry, level of management, states, etc. No claim for generalisability will be made beyond these limits. This section could be kept to about one third of a page. This section becomes section 1.7 of the thesis.
6 Background of researcherThis is a brief section outlining any pilot studies that the researcher has done, and his or her research qualifications and experience, for example, titles, methodologies and word lengths of dissertations.
RESEARCH METHODS AND PLAN
7 MethodologyThis section would be between one half and one page in length. It should be both comprehensive and concise, with references to support its judgements. The methodology usually does not need to be described, merely justified. But again, avoid jargon that non-specialists might not know, or explain or describe what is meant by specialist terms. Topics could include:
- justification of a quantitative or qualitative paradigm;
- justification of the methodology within that paradigm (with preferably an explanation why some alternative methodologies were not used), using terms such as correlational/causal, field studies/field experiments/lab experiments, cross sectional/longitudinal (Sekaran 1992, chapter 4), instruments and especially the unit of analysis, the dependent variable and how it will be measured, sampling frame and size of sample;
- arrangements for access to the data, for example, agreements from people to be interviewed; and
- possible ways of analysing data, for example, conjoint analysis with SPSS or the matrix method of analysing qualitative data suggested by Miles & Huberman (1985).
This section becomes chapter 3 in the thesis.
8 Thesis outlineOne or two lines per chapter should suffice, especially if the standard five chapter structure will be used. This section becomes section 1.5 of the thesis.
9 TimetableThe timetable could be shown for each chapter, for convenience. The same rules of thumb could be used for time as for length, that is, 5, 30, 20, 25 and 20 percent of the desired word length; for example, chapter 2 would take about 30 percent of the available time - but allow two months at the beginning for settling in and at the end for putting the finishing touches to the whole thesis, and an extra couple of months if there is a lead-in or follow-up study to the main methodology. Table II.1 is a rough guideline for a minimum time PhD which follows these principles. Phillips & Pugh (1987, p. 74) also have a usual timetable for a PhD program which is not very much different to table II.1's. This section and the next ones are in the proposal only and are not in the completed thesis.
Approximate guidelines for writing a minimum time PhD thesis
|Chapter or section||Topic||%||Words||Months|
|5||Conclusions and implications||20||14,000||6|
10 Resource requirementsA tentative estimate of direct funding requirements is required, for example, postage for survey mailings. Justifications and sources of estimates are required for each expense item, for example, the date a quote was received from Qantas or a price list of a computer supplier. Printing costs of questionnaires will require estimates of their length and the price per page to print. There should be no surprises in the budget items, for they should flow naturally out of the earlier sections about the aims and design of the research. For example, car hire should not be just costed, but why car hire was necessary rather than public transport should be explained and its use related back to overall aims of the research.
This estimate is not the formal request for the funding, and acceptance of the proposal does not include approval of funding. If outside funding is being used, make it clear that academic integrity will not be jeopardised.
11 EvaluationMany research proposals require details of how the project will be monitored and evaluated, but these details are not necessary for a PhD proposal. If you want to gild the lily of your proposal by adding an evaluation section you might to mention that `The research will be monitored through weekly or fortnightly meetings with the supervisor and at regular thesis-in-progress seminars. The thesis will be evaluated through normal examination procedures which will be organised by the supervisor.'
List of referencesKrathwohl, D.R. 1977, How to Prepare a Research Proposal, University of Syracuse, Miles, M.B. & Huberman, A.M. 1985, Qualitative Data Analysis, Sage, New York. Phillips, E.M. & Pugh, D.S. 1987, How to Get a PhD, Open University Press, Milton Keynes. Poole, M.E. 1993, `Reviewing for research excellence: expectations, procedures and outcomes', Australian Journal of Education, vol. 37, no. 3, pp. 219-230. Sekaran, U. 1992, Research Methods for Business: a Skill-Building Approach, Wiley, New York.
NoteAdding a `coursework unit' to a proposal is supposed to force the candidate and supervisor to think about what will happen after the proposal is approved. One appropriate unit is an `advanced readings' unit in one or two of the bodies of knowledge which the PhD will cover. The example below of a tailored unit covering the two parent disciplines of market segmentation and advertising illustrates the core elements involved ranging from aims, through objectives, and a program of topics, to assessment details and criteria. The topics are usually selected from a modern, authoritative textbook and recent review articles.
Doctoral Research - Coursework UnitCoursework unit. Independent readings in the areas of marketing segmentation and advertising.
- To review the review of literature and identify major themes about:
- the process of marketing segmentation, targeting and positioning
- the bases for marketing segmentation, with particular reference to the use of age as a segmentation base
- identification and measurement of market segments
- the use of segmentation in developing marketing and advertising strategies
- advertising appeals and their relationship to geographic, demographic, behaviouristic and psychographic bases of segmentation.
Areas.Topic No. Week Topic Section 1: Developing market segments 1 1 Mass marketing versus marketing segmentation 2 2 Introduction to factors used to form segments 3 3 Segmenting consumer and industrial markets 4 4 Requirements for effective segmentation in marketing (these requirements in advertising are covered in section 3.) Section 2: Describing, measuring and choosing segments; implementation 5 5,6 Describing segments - customer profiles, size and growth estimates 6 7 Evaluating market segments 7 8 Selecting market segments 8 9 Positioning strategies 9 10 Choosing and implementing a positioning strategy Section 3: Marketing segmentation and advertising 10 11 Appeals used by advertisers 11 12,13 Advertising appeals and their relationship to bases of segmentation 12 14 Advertising effectiveness: measurement and evaluation Outcomes. A 3000-4000 word report on each section, upon completion of each. Assessment. The supervisor will give a grade for each report. The criteria used for assessment shall be:
- breadth of reading
- ability to group core ideas in the literature
- ability to synthesise ideas into a new and coherent framework
- ability to communicate and present the report to the reader.
Preliminary coursework reading listAaker, D.A., Shansby, J.G. 1982, `Positioning your product', Business Horizons, May- Jun, pp.56-62. Aaker, D.A., Stayman, D.M., Hagerty, M.R., 1986, `Warmth in advertising: measurement, impact, and sequence effects', Journal of Consumer Research, vol. 12, Mar, pp.365-381. Abrams, B. 1982, `Middle generation growing more concerned with selves', Wall Street Journal, Jan 21, p.25. Albright, J. 1992, Creating the advertising message, Mayfield, Mountain View. Bertrand, K. 1989, `Market segmentation: divide and conquer', Business Marketing, Oct, pp.48-54. Burnett, J.J. 1981, `Psychographic and demographic characteristics of blood donors', Journal of Consumer Research, Jun, pp.62-66. Bonoma, T.V., Shapiro, B.P. 1983, Segmenting the Industrial Market, Lexington Books, Lexington, Mass. And so on for a total of 28 references.
Action research in a PhD thesisAction research as a methodology for management PhD research is relatively rare (Perry 1991). Moreover, although action research has the potential to overcome many deficiencies in social science research, its results are generally viewed as not generalisable (Heller 1986). This appendix reviews a number of issues which candidates using action research might consider when writing their PhD thesis. The appendix attempts to ensure that action research is no longer a marginal backwater depending sometimes on very carefully selected examiners, but becomes a part of the river of PhD research. Action research is outlined in Kemmis and McTaggart (1988a), and Zuber-Skerritt (1991).
Firstly, it is wise to consider the thesis as something distinctly separated from the action research project, that is, the candidate will have two projects - the action research project and the thesis project which uses data from the action research project (Perry & Zuber-Skerritt 1992). The philosophy and processes of action research are broader and more complex than those implicit in most PhDs. In particular, the action research project is relatively unfocused, emphasises practice and has outcomes of reflections which include propositional, practical and experiential (group and personal) knowledge. In contrast to action research, a PhD thesis project usually emphasises an individual candidate's additions to propositional knowledge published in the literature of a discipline. In brief, in the action research project, action research may be an ideology, but in a PhD thesis it is merely a methodology. Writing a PhD thesis about an action research project without acknowledging differences between the thesis and the action research project is difficult.
Provided these differences are acknowledged, the structure of a five chapter PhD thesis can be adapted to PhD research using the action research methodology. For a start, the 'research problem' in chapter 1 of the thesis could be different to the 'thematic concern' (Kemmis & McTaggart 1988b, p. 9) of the action research project; the research problem necessarily refers to practices of a workgroup and is written in terms of the literature of a discipline, but the thematic concern is less restricted. For example, a research problem could be 'How can the senior management team at an open-cut coal mine integrate marketing, operations and financial subsystems in the planning of inventories of mined coal?', and the thematic concern of the senior management group at Pacific Coal could be 'How can our inventory management procedures be improved?' The action research project will probably require multidisciplinary solutions, but it is advised that the thesis should concentrate on only one or two disciplines, to facilitate its examination.
Chapter 2 of the thesis written about an action research project would refer to some unresearched areas of propositional knowledge which are the foci of the data collected from the action research project. However, to be true to the spirit of action research, these propositions should not have been finalised before the action research project began - unlike PhD research using some quantitative methodologies, when the hypotheses should be crystallised before the data collection project begins. Furthermore, chapter 2 could outline the boundaries of practical and experiential knowledge which existed at the start of the action research project. Alternatively, the discussion of practical and experiential knowledge might be restricted to an appendix, if likely examiners are not expected to be familiar with action research methodology.
Chapter 3 could be used to describe the action research project - not to allow replication of the experiment, but to demonstrate the researcher's competence in the action research methodology. The chapter could have sections or refer to appendices which contain the following details of the action research project (Kemmis & McTaggart 1988b):
- the names of group members;
- the group's thematic concern;
- details of the multiple sources of data, for example, dates of meetings and their attendees and matters discussed, reports and letters;
- the distinctions between the stages of the project through its one or more cycles of plan-act-observe-reflect;
- the group's published report of the project - which is written before the thesis is completed and for a different audience from the thesis, for example, this could be a short narrative or a management report;
- the evidence that the group has reflected on processes as well as content, which might be recorded in the group's published report noted above but does not have to be; and
- the nature of the action research, that is, technical, practical or emancipatory (Carr & Kemmis 1986).
Chapter 4 could be used to categorise the data collected in the action research project (not all of which needs to be included in the appendices referred to in chapter 3). This chapter organises the data from the action research project into patterns. Chapter 4 begins the candidate's own preliminary reflection on the action research project and could be divided into sections according to the propositions of propositional knowledge, and into sections for practical and experiential (personal) knowledge if they are to be included in chapters of the thesis rather than in appendices. So the chapter should be written with the ideas to be developed in chapter 5, in the candidate's mind.
Finally, chapter 5 makes conclusions about the full PhD research, linking the data of chapter 4 to the boundaries of the body or bodies of knowledge outlined in chapter 2. A section in chapter 5 entitled `Reflections on methodology' should be included in a PhD thesis which refers to an action research project . Then sections `Conclusions about the research problem', `Policy implications' and `Further research' will conclude the thesis. In PhDs using other methodologies, a chapter 5 section of reflections on the methodology is not required, because those reflections are incorporated into the `Limitations' and `Further research' sections.
In conclusion, an action research methodology can be used in PhD research, but action researchers should be concerned that their thesis may be messy, inconclusive and be unrelated to propositional knowledge published in the literature of a discipline. Use of the adjusted five chapter format for a PhD thesis which has been outlined in this appendix may allay that concern.
ReferencesCarr, W. & Kemmis, S. 1986, Becoming Critical: Education, Knowledge and Action Research, Falmer, London. Heller, F. (ed) 1986, The Use and Abuse of Social Science, Sage, London. Kemmis, S. & McTaggart, R. (ed), 1988a, The Action Research Reader, (third edition), Deakin University, Geelong. Kemmis, S. & McTaggart, R. (ed), 1988b, The Action Research Planner, (third edition), Deakin University, Geelong. Perry, C. 1991, 'Action research in management education and research', Symposium on Action research at the Annual National Conference of the Australian Association for Research in Education, Gold Coast, November 1991. Perry, C. & Zuber-Skerritt, O., 1992, `Action research in graduate management research programs', Higher Education, vol. 23, pp. 195-208. Zuber-Skerritt, O. (ed) 1991, Action Research for Change and Development, Gower, Aldershot. Acknowledgment: Discussions with Ortrun Zuber-Skerritt, Bruce Frank and Helen Samujh helped clarify some issues in this appendix. However, the views expressed are the writer's.
Frequently referred to pages of Style Manual (Australian Government Publishing Service 1988)Topic Page Adjectival possession 290 Bullet points 226 Contractions and abbreviations 96 Dates 172 Foreign words and phrases (for example, i.e.) 105-106 Harvard referencing style 129-148 He/she and gender issues 121 Headings 220 Hyphens and prefixes 81-86 Lists 226 Names of countries 107 Names of people 107 Omissions using three points 88 Paragraph indentation and spacing 224 Possessive apostrophe 80 Punctuation in quotations 94 Quotations 25 and 230 Spacing between paragraphs 224 Tables 231-237 Titles 51
Writing an abstractAn abstract should contain (based on Brown et al. 1993):
- 1 What did you do?
- 2 Why did you do it?
- 3 What happened?
- 4 What do the results mean?
- 5 What is your work good for?
The research problem, and the hypotheses
Briefjustification for the research problem and the hypotheses
Patterns in the data
Conclusions and implications, with special and explicit consideration of the CONTRIBUTIONS
ReferenceBrown, R.F., Pressland, A.J. & Rogers, D.J. 1993, 'Righting scientific writing: focus on your main message', The Australian Rangeland Journal, vol. 15, no. 2.
Writing the introduction to a journal articleSwales (1984) studied introductions of journal articles and established four major moves or steps were required:
Assert centrality State current knowledge
Indicate a gap Raise a question
State purpose Outline present research An example and an exercise about constructing an introduction are in Nightingale (1992, pp. 110-116).