Towards societal engagement: ‘Ethics work’ in action research

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The importance of closer connections between science and society is increasingly recognized, in the Netherlands as well as abroad. Examples are manifold. EUR’s Strategy 2024 ‘Creating Positive Societal Impact: The Erasmian way’, presents societal engagement as central to addressing contemporary societal challenges.

Towards societal engagement: ‘Ethics work’ in action research

Member for

1 year

Societal engagement is believed to benefit science in different ways. Facilitating dialogue among stakeholders such as policymakers, citizens, business and civil society may help to disclose ambiguities and the conflicting needs of stakeholders, while engaging them in the co-creation of knowledge. This allows science to incorporate differing and often excluded views, manage confrontations and seemingly incompatible tensions, and make sense of complex situations (Alvarez-Pereira, 2019). As such, it is believed that science is better able to contribute to addressing pressing challenges such as climate change, poverty, displacement and conflict.

‘Action research … challenges researchers to invest in reciprocal relations with stakeholders and engage in unpredictable learning processes.’

One way to embed societal engagement in research practices is through action research. Action research relates to ‘a participatory process concerned with developing practical knowing in the pursuit of worthwhile human purposes. It seeks to bring together action and reflection, theory and practice, in participation with others, in the pursuit of practical solutions to issues of pressing concern to people’ (Reason & Bradbury, 2008:4). It challenges researchers to invest in reciprocal relations with stakeholders and engage in unpredictable learning processes.

Besides placing specific demands on researchers, due to its interactive and collaborative nature, action research is characterized by certain specific ethical considerations. It is a normative endeavour, founded on ideals such as mutual learning and social inclusion, with the principle of beneficence as its ethical starting point. While it is a moral responsibility of the researcher towards action research participants to explicitly incorporate ethical considerations in research practice, it also helps to safeguard the reliability and integrity of science and may facilitate protecting and maintaining healthy relations among action research participants.

However, simply capturing ethics in protocols is usually insufficient, because this overlooks the dynamic and messy ways in which ethical issues tend to emerge throughout the research process. Rather, ethical considerations require continuous attention and tailormade approaches once they reveal themselves. To emphasize the everyday and situated nature of ethics, and based on my own experiences with action research, I refer to the incorporation of ethical considerations as ‘ethics work’ (Abma, 2020). I identify four points of attention when engaging in ethics work. I hope these contribute to a dialogue, so that the collective journey towards more societal engagement remains mindful of ethical considerations. The issues I identify here are loosely based on Davidson et al. (2021) and Abma (2020) and illustrate some of my own struggles with ethics work.

The first point is collaboration. Action research fundamentally requires collaboration to ensure that actions proposed are acceptable to those involved. Research activities may bring forth significant costs for participating actors or may lead to tensions among participants. Therefore, to facilitate a smooth and fair process, the researcher has to give up their - privileged - position of control over the research. This requires the researcher to accommodate the wishes and needs of research participants, while simultaneously safeguarding quality standards of academic research. The researcher thus needs to navigate in ways so that activities are accepted by all participants. This is not always easy. Once, a colleague and I introduced a theoretical framework we considered suitable to track the development impact of a partnership. Although we sensed hesitation from the participating business and civil society partners, they accepted the framework and we continued working with it. Throughout the process we experienced how partners failed to embrace the framework, most likely because the underlying view of what development entails was not shared by all parties. We ultimately did not manage to create ownership of the framework with the partners, who neglected it in their own activities such as annual reporting.

Action research in action workshop - table

The second point is competence. Action researchers have a duty to develop cognitive competence regarding the social and historical context of the research in question. Even more so than in other research approaches, the action researcher needs to invest in understanding the context and experiences of participants, to speak their language in order to have sensible conversations with participants. Not being adequately prepared means wasting participants’ time while being insufficiently able to interpret information. Limited competence may risk compromising the image and credibility of the researcher and hence the quality of research process and results. Action researchers therefore need to prepare accordingly. In a recent action research project, the research team planned a preparatory learning phase prior to the kick-off to prepare and get the required competence.

The third point of attention is adaptability. While resources may be limited, the researcher has a responsibility to stick to the project, usually until project completion, while demonstrating flexibility to adapt to changing project timelines. When engaging in action research, the researcher has a duty to provide information and input at key moments in the project, in forms digestible by participants.

‘…the researcher [needs] to accommodate the wishes and needs of research participants, while simultaneously safeguarding quality standards of academic research.’

Besides a moral responsibility, it is an opportunity to demonstrate the value of the research. Such information-sharing may not always be according to contract or may conflict with the timeline and deliverables of the researcher. For instance, whereas academic publications are usually desirable deliverables from the perspective of the academic researcher, other participants might not benefit from nor see the value of these outputs. One way I have dealt with this is to organize presentations and workshops on an on-request basis, to inform participants of the research progress and address any burning issues. Researchers may use such moments as an opportunity to triangulate and validate insights. Furthermore, instead of spending significant time on preparing a glossy report, a much quicker presentation and accompanying slide deck usually serves participants’ demands.

A fourth area of attention is consent. Action researchers tend to have continuous and repetitive exchanges with participants in research. They speak with many people, in differing settings, at different times. All this information is used, either explicitly in reporting or as background information. Thus, a key concern in action research is stakeholders’ informed consent to participate. In research projects that I am engaged in, project managers and donors usually formally agree to engage in action research, but their consent obviously does not extend to other potential participants. All participants need to be informed about the research, must have the option to remain anonymous and must be able to withdraw from the research whenever they want. Considering the unequal power relations between and among participants, this is easier said than done. Target audiences of development projects are unlikely to decline participation in studies conducted with stakeholders on whom they are dependent for support. Professional and/or dependency relations as well as feared consequences of withdrawal may all affect consent. I do not have an easy solution and my main point would be to remain continuously aware of the issue of informed consent. Some obvious measures include explaining the study, documenting (verbal) consent and clarifying that (refraining from) participation has no consequences. It may be helpful to ask for consent again at the closing of a project, so that participants may opt out from the study without this being noticed by others. In several action research projects that I was engaged in, the researchers organized opening and closing events with as many participants as possible to convey the research objectives and findings and provide people the opportunity to ultimately withdraw from the research.

‘…when researchers engage in ethics work, this may clash with the demands that science usually places on researchers.’

Everyone will endorse the importance of ethics work. However, the above points show that when researchers engage in ethics work, this may clash with the demands that science usually places on researchers. Academic structures may inadvertently compromise ethics work if these place strict requirements and demands on researchers. The ‘commoditization of research’, with its focus on publications, may complicate the researcher’s adaptability to participants’ knowledge needs. Funding structures may require ‘key performance indicators’ and assume linear research processes, whereas ethics work requires appreciation of adaptive and flexible research processes. Hence, I hope these four areas of attention may serve not only as a starting point for an open discussion among action researchers around ‘ethics work’ in action research, but also show that academic structures need to provide flexibility for action researchers to engage in ethics work, to enable meaningful and morally sound societal engagement without compromising researchers’ careers.


  • Abma, T. (2020) Ethics work for good participatory action research. Beleidsonderzoek online. September 2020, DOI: 10.5553/BO/221335502020000006001
  • Alvarez-Pereira, C. (2019) Emerging New Civilization Initiative (ENCI): Emergence from emergency. Cadmus, 1(4), 1-13.
  • Davidson, R.M., M.G. Martinsons & L.H.M. Wong (2021) The ethics of action research participation. Information Systems Journal, 32(3), 573-594.
  • Reason, P. & H. Bradbury (2008) The SAGE Handbook of Action Research: participative inquiry and practice, 2nd edition. London: SAGE Publications.