Action Research in a Time of Global Crisis

By Lonnie Rowell

    Action Research in a Time of Global Crisis

    About the Author

    Lonnie Rowell
    (Ret.) Professor
    Rio Rancho, NM, US
    3 Articles Published
    Lonnie Rowell

    Dr. Lonnie Rowell has been an educator for 50+ years. He is a retired professor at University of San Diego, where he directed the Counseling Program. The collaborative action research model he created for school counseling has been widely cited in school counseling literature. He has supervised and consulted on more than 120 action research projects. Working with students he established the San Diego Action Research Conference, a leading event for action researchers in North America from 2004-2012. Dr. Rowell was Program Chair (2012-2014) for the Action Research Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) and co-founded the Action Research Network of the Americas (ARNA). He Co-Chaired ARNA’s 2017 1st Global Assembly for Knowledge Democracy in Cartagena, Colombia. He is an Editor for Educational Action Research and co-edited a two-part Special Issue on Knowledge Democracy. He is lead editor of the Palgrave International Handbook of Action Research (2017).

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    This is the text of the keynote address I gave at the CARN-ALARA Conference in Split, Croatia, on October 18, 2019. I spoke on the role of action research in relation to the current global crisis. My talk developed ideas shared at the 2018 conference of the Action Research Network of the Americas (ARNA) regarding the role of the global action research community in responding constructively to the need for knowledge democratization and the development of a progressive agenda for social change.  


    This address was written as my contribution to a Keynote Session for the 2019 conference of the Collaborative Action Research Network (CARN) in Split, Croatia. I was invited to speak on the future of action research and decided to build on a keynote address delivered at the 2018 Conference of the Action Research Network of the Americas (ARNA) by Professor Necla Tschirgi of the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies at University of San Diego. In her speech, Prof. Tschirgi acknowledged the crucial role for action research in the current global crisis, and I wanted to begin examining more concretely what that role might be in relation to knowledge democratization and the crafting of a progressive agenda for social change in the face of the crisis. Although evidence of the impact of action research can be found all over the world, the global action research community has lacked a clear sense of direction in relation to key components of the current crisis, including climate change, attacks on democracy, decolonizing knowledge production and enacting knowledge democracy, and countering authoritarian populism.

    I wanted this address to set out some pathways for global action researchers to consider in the coming years. My view is that In addition to being responsive to localized priorities for seeking creative solutions to social problems, action researchers need to take a broader view in the context of trans-national and trans-cultural knowledge dissemination dialogues and practices. Such dialogic spaces, in relation to action research, cannot rely on simplistic efforts to find ‘generalizability’ of findings but must be socially constructed as determined efforts to decolonize epistemological frameworks for policy making and social action. The urgency of this work is tied to projections of the 25 years we humans have to address climate change in a substantive and sustainable manner.

    Action Research and the Current Global Crisis: A Keynote Address

    In my brief talk I will share some thoughts on the bigger picture of action research in relation to the current global crisis. As we all are aware by now, we are living in a crisis of immense proportions and deep existential stakes. Looking across this highly unstable landscape, scholars (e.g., Tschirgi, 2018, have spoken of  the crisis largely as two sets of interwoven problems.

    The first set includes what are called “problems without passports.”

    The second set involves problems of governance.

    The problems without passports are the socio-economic-environmental issues that pose serious threats to human well-being across the globe. These problems extend beyond national boundaries and include deepening poverty and rising inequalities, corruption, the heightened demographic pressures of mass migration, growing militarization, violent conflict, organized crime, terrorism, and climate change.

    The second set, problems of governance, in essence, have to do with how societies approach solving their problems and pursuing the common good. In the current historical era, governance is marked by growing polarization, rising authoritarian populism and increasing xenophobia and corruption. At the same time, internationally there are deep splits and conflicts among countries, and a retreat from universal human rights and multilateral approaches to addressing global issues has gained ground.

    This, then, is the background – the troubling context in which those of us drawn to action research find ourselves working. I will address the positioning of action research in relation to this crisis in a very brief form given our timing today, so what you will hear is, by necessity, a very broad overview. There are many specifics that could be shared, and I am happy to do that in conversations during the conference. I ask that you not mistake my brevity now for a belief that anything I address in this talk will be easy to do. I recognize fully that the issues are complex and the solutions will not come easily.

    So, how might action research be positioned in relation to this global crisis? In her keynote address at ARNA’s 2018 Conference in San Diego, California Professor Necla Tschirgi of The University of San Diego’s School of Peace Studies, and former consultant/senior policy advisor with the Peacebuilding Support Office at the U.N. Secretariat, recommended two functions for action research during this time of global crisis: (1) Democratizing knowledge as a basis for public discourse and public policy and (2) Helping to shape a progressive political agenda that is inclusive and humanistic. My talk examines embracing these two functions.

    Democratizing Knowledge

    Knowledge democracy has been on the minds of action researchers and participatory action researchers for 50+ years. It has been a beacon in breaking the hold of intellectual colonialism and the monopolizing effects of positivistic research paradigms. Action research and PAR are grounded in emancipatory paradigms in which addressing injustice includes demystification of knowledge production, including notions that only certified experts can find creative solutions.

    The risk of ideological rigidity in political programs for liberation has been balanced by an emphasis on the specificities of context – the varying and evolving socio-cultural, historical, economic and political forces at work in specific times and places – in posing good questions and pursuing honest answers. So, we have a rich history of fostering knowledge democratization in public discourse.

    The recent two-part special issue of EARJ (Educational Action Research Journal) on knowledge democracy examines some contemporary issues of context (Feldman & Rowell, 2019; Rowell & Feldman, 2019). For example, Percy-Smith, McMahon, and Thomas (2019) analyzed 18 action research projects examining young people’s political, social, and civic participation in 8 European cities. They describe civic participation in contexts of varying styles and social spaces in which young people create forms of democratic engagement often not understood by adults. The authors suggest broadening conceptualizations of civic engagement to develop more inclusive democratic societies. Cook, Brandon, Zonouzi, and Thomson (2019) examined challenges of making claims about democratizing knowledge in relation to PAR. Even the best intentions for knowledge democracy and inclusivity, they found, can be undermined by internalized assumptions about knowledge production and existing hierarchies of professional practice. The authors identified “disruption” as a critical element in facilitating authentic knowledge democratization. Implied is that aligning PAR and knowledge democracy means not only accepting disruptive discourse, but inviting it and learning how to work with it constructively. I was reminded of work by Mexican philosopher Luis Villoro (1922-2014) (cited in Pappas, 2017) and his assertion that progressives must be “critical in reflection and disruptive in action” with disrupting present social reality gradually giving way to transformational practices enhancing life.

    Both articles highlight the need for diverse social practices linking knowledge production, democratic discourse, policy making, and socio-cultural infrastructures supporting these practices. We need experimentation with alternative frameworks for these links, such as neighborhood-based open forums, community research and action clubs, and PAR interactive arts initiatives. In these spaces, action research can demonstrate and document the potentials of knowledge democracy in relation to disrupting injustice and building transformational practices for social justice.

    Shaping a Progressive Political Agenda that is Inclusive and Humanistic

    I believe the function of action research in constructing a progressive political agenda involves two priorities: (1) developing the people’s knowledge and (2) strengthening civic literacy. As Orlando Fals Borda (1991) saw it, stimulating popular knowledges was necessary in correcting unequal relations of knowledge. While scientific understanding is a component of a diverse global epistemological framework, it is not the only component. To ignore popular knowledge, as we see over and over again, invites socio-political problems that increasingly explode into street violence and deep fissures.

    The U.S., now spiraled down into the status of a rogue state in the hands of a corrupt, would-be dictator, provides a troubling example. As UCLA Professor Robin Kelley (2017) puts it: “Most Americans are living under a cloak of ignorance, a cultivated and imposed state of civic illiteracy . . . These are dark times because the very fate of democracy is at stake.” Civic illiteracy is bred in part by drumming into people’s hearts and minds a false consciousness that they cannot “do anything” regarding their feeling of dis-ease about the conditions around them and the forces that seem to produce those conditions and that the source of their frustrations is “others” who look, believe, and act differently. Breaking out of the bubble of false consciousness requires consciousness-raising grounded in dialogue and co-construction of social solidarities. Action research has great potential here, with the grip of experts loosened and ordinary citizens supported in finding a critical voice regarding injustice and the search for creative solutions.

    Action research-oriented civic literacy campaigns on a massive scale can counter the harmful effects of propaganda, lies, and mis-information and break the hold of false consciousness. While de Sosa Santos (2014) advocates stimulating popular knowledges as part of ending the “epistemicide” inflicted on the Global South by the Global North, the challenges we now face are not limited to a North-South divide. Yet, to be inclusive, the action research community must address the de-coloniality movement advanced by Latin American scholars. If the global crisis calls for a global response, then pathways towards reconciliations and convergences in relation to the most painful fractures must be found, including epistemological fault lines. To put it simply, what other alternative is there? We need action research and PAR projects in both the Global North and South that are aligned with alternative conceptualizations of a more egalitarian and sane future. The challenge seems to me to be two-fold: (1) strengthening links between big-picture alternative conceptualizations of economic development, human rights, and social justice and the production and dissemination of new common knowledges relevant to a progressive agenda, while simultaneously deepening the capacity of communities to generate creative solutions in practical terms and (2) creating infrastructures for intercultural translation zones, so that understandings and convergences replace divisiveness, suspicions and distrust, and ideological rigidity. In addition, concrete alignments with the powerful activism now at work around the world must be established and nurtured. As Tschirgi (2018) puts it, “For every autocrat who wants to silence dissent, repress human rights or deny shelter to people fleeing brutal violence, there are thousands of people who gather to defend the vulnerable, to provide shelter, [and] to resist repression.” There is much the action research community can do in solidarity with this activism.

    Climate change youth activism represents one example. I recently came across a 2018 journal article by three scholars (O’Brien, Selboe, & Hayward, 2018), two from Norway and one from New Zealand, examining youth activism on climate change. What I long to see are articles written by and with youth activists and speaking to youth activist practice. Just think of the knowledge that could have been gained from debriefing in solidarity with youth activists regarding their organizing of the September 20 Global Climate Strike.

    Knowledge democratization is important because the global crisis cannot be solved by experts alone. Larger publics across the globe must be mobilized. To do this in a humane and inclusive manner, rather than within the bubble of an authoritarian populism fueled by false consciousness, requires engaging with fellow humans in democratic dialogues and experimenting with creative solutions forged through dynamic solidarities. It is in this space that action research can play a crucial role. The development of a progressive political agenda can emerge through experimenting on a variety of scales with strengthening connections between action research, knowledge democracy, public discourse, and community-based activism. I am suggesting that as action researchers we turn our attention to supporting activists in seeing their activism as a critical social practice. Action researchers can support the development of communities of activist practice, and through disseminating the knowledge produced they can contribute to re-imagining democratic practice.

    I also am suggesting that it is crucial to align this work with civic literacy. My concern here is that without civic literacy at the heart of the work, civic discourse too easily becomes another form of domination by experts. What is needed is to stimulate the social imagination regarding democratic engagement. Action research grounded in knowledge democracy is a fine way to do this. Knowledge democracies can be built within varying domains of struggle (for example, knowledge about humanistic responses to the global refugee crisis and knowledge about struggles to overcome social and income inequality), but also across domains (and hence outside of academic silos), taking fuller advantage of non-traditional media and modalities for strengthening the connection of action research with daily living.

    Using action research in the context of democratizing knowledge to build alternative infrastructures for public discourse and policy making is a powerful way to reconstruct civic literacy, and it is in the reconstruction of civic literacy that a progressive agenda will flourish. In a third article in the EAR special issue on Knowledge Democracy, Thomas Stern (2019) reflects on the work of Shiv Visvanathan, the Indian Sociologist, who put it this way: “The universal canon of knowledge and ethics should be replaced by an ecology of diverse knowledges . . . the coexistence and dialogue of different knowledges is essential for the survival of a plurality of cultures and the establishment of global democracy.” 


    Cook, T., Brandon, T., Zanouzi, M., & Thomson, L. (2019). Destabilizing equilibriums: harnessing the power of disruption in participatory action research. Educational Action Research, 27(3), 379-395.

    de Sousa Santos, B. (2014). Epistemologies of the South: Justice against epistemicide. Boulder, CO: Paradigm.

    Fals Borda, O., & Rahman, M. A. (Eds.). (1991). Action and knowledge: Breaking the monopoly with participatory action-research. New York: Apex Press.

    Feldman, A., & Rowell, L. (2019). Knowledge democracy and action research – an exchange [Special issue]. Educational Action Research, 27(3).

    Kelley, R. D. G. (2017). Foreword: We hold the future. In H. A. Giroux, America at war with itself. San Francisco: City Lights Books.

    O’Brien, K., Selboe, E., & Hayward, B. M. (2018). Exploring youth activism on climate change: dutiful, disruptive, and dangerous dissent. Ecology and Society, 23(3).

    Pappas, G. F. (2017). The limitations and dangers of decolonial philosophies: Lessons from Zapatista Luis Villoro. Radical Philosophy Review.

    Percy-Smith, B., McMahon, G., & Thomas, N. (2019). Recognition, inclusion and democracy: learning from action research with young people. Educational Action Research, 27(3), 347-361.

    Rowell, L., & Feldman, A. (2019). Knowledge democracy and action research [Special issue]. Educational Action Research, 27(1).

    Stern, T. (2019). Participatory action research and the challenges of knowledge democracy. Educational Action Research, 27(3), 435-451.

    Tschirgi, N. (2018). Action Research as a Tool for Social Justice and Global Solidarity in a Turbulent World. Unpublished keynote address. Presented at the 2018 Conference of the Action Research Network of the Americas (ARNA). University of California, San Diego, CA.

    To cite this work, please use the following reference:

    Rowell, L. (2019, November 11). Action Research in a Time of Global Crisis. Social Publishers Foundation.

    Copyrighted by Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

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