Encyclopedia of Sustainability in Higher Education

Living Edition
| Editors: Walter Leal Filho

Action Research on Sustainable Development

  • Karin TschiggerlEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-63951-2_158-1


Action research (AR) can be defined as a systematic type of research enabling “people to find effective solutions to problems they confront in their everyday lives” (Stringer 2013). Based on a reflective process on a cycle of actions, a particular problematic situation can be addressed. The idea behind is that by doing so changes occur within the setting, the participants, as well as the researcher (Herr and Anderson 2005).


Since the rise of the international discussion starting with the publication of the Brundtland report “Our common future” in 1987 (WCED 1987), many approaches and programs have been initiated toward a sustainable development. “Sustainable development is a process with the clear vision to change our societies from unsustainable to sustainable” (Baumgartner 2011). Nonetheless, many sustainability-related problems are still existent or even faced by increasing negative impacts. This leads to the assumption of a lacking awareness, ability, and/or willingness to adopt the necessary change. In this context, Wilber (2000) provides an analysis of factors that limit change: (1) individual subjective factors (values, worldview, etc.), (2) individual objective factors (sociodemographics, knowledge, etc.), (3) collective subjective factors (culture, shared norms, etc.), and (4) collective objective factors (political, economic, technological, etc.). Given the necessity of change by overcoming these barriers, Ballard (2005) identifies three conditions that are required in responding to the challenge of sustainable development: (a) awareness of what happens and what is required; (b) agency, which means responding in a subjective meaningful way; and (c) association or collaboration with others. To implement change it is necessary to work across all of these conditions, whereby this requires the key process of (d) action and reflection. In the light of permanent learning needs for sustainable development, action and reflection processes are seen as central factors.

Sustainable development can be seen as a complex, dynamic process of further development and learning toward better solutions for existing challenges, whereby the creation of awareness for sustainability leads over a deep individual and organizational change (Tschiggerl and Fresner 2008). As change concepts can be manifold, Egmose (2015) considers sustainable change as equally radical and democratic, which means that unsustainable current ways of living have to be transformed by “democratic experiments” that transcend present realities. Baumgartner and Korhonen (2010) state that there is an urgent need for taking actions for sustainable development. In this context science is required to help society to identify and solve sustainability problems using adequate research approaches.

Considering these limitations and aspects to implement actions for sustainable development, this entry presents action research as a viable method toward solving sustainability-related issues. Therefore, it is important to understand the methodological basics of action research (AR), which will be presented and discussed regarding potential difficulties and critics. Especially the AR process will be explained in detail to retrace how change can be achieved. Following, several examples of action research applied to sustainability-related issues will be presented to recognize the usefulness of this type of investigation. The last chapter concludes why action research can help to foster and implement real change toward sustainable development.

Action Research as a Collaborative Approach Towards Sustainable Development

As stated by several authors (Ballard 2005; Reason and Bradbury 2006; Park 2006; Zuber-Skerrit 2012; Egmose 2015), the action research methodology offers a useful approach for understanding and working with complex socio-ecological systems to encourage collaborations and participation aiming at intervention, development, and change (Manring 2014). Therefore, traditional research and development strategies have to be supplemented by human initiatives, innovations, and actions resulting from participative and democratic processes that allow new knowledge creation to solve problems (Zuber-Skerrit 2012).

Zuber-Skerrit et al. (2013) describe the democratic values of collaboration and participation as the essential objectives for action research. Therefore they propose a framework of participatory action learning and action research (Fig. 1) to explore possible ways to reach a transformation toward sustainable development.
Fig. 1

Action research for sustainable development. (Source: Adapted from Zuber-Skerrit et al. 2013)

According to the authors, democratic values can lead to wisdom, which can be seen as a social construct of deep understanding of relationships and the ability to identify the most meaningful action to solve problems and challenges. To achieve a reformation and transformation of current (unsustainable) practices, it requires the extension of wisdom to creativity and innovation. This can be generated by transformed – in the sense of aware – individuals or groups participating in action research processes (Zuber-Skerrit et al. 2013).

The following chapter describes the methodological aspects of action research and gives an overview of characteristics, the research process, and criteria to assess the quality of AR studies.

The Methodology of Action Research

Action research is a research approach that aims at the execution of an action and the generation of knowledge and a theory about it while the activity evolutes. The results are as well action and research outcome, whereas the objective of traditional approaches is solely the creation of knowledge (Coghlan and Brannick 2014). Action research can be explained as a cyclical process of diagnosis, action planning, action taking, evaluation, and specified learning. The focus is rather on active research than on research about action, where the members of the system being investigated are actively participating in the process (Middel et al. 2005). Greenwood (2007) describes the approach as follows:

Action research is neither a method nor a technique; it is an approach to living the world that includes the creation of areas for collaborative learning and the design, enactment and evaluation of liberating actions … it combines action and research, reflection and action in an ongoing cycle of cogenerative knowledge.

The origins and the basic idea can be traced back to the psychologist Kurt Lewin. He proposed a participative action research paradigm where the attendees not only generate but also apply knowledge during the research process. Thus, AR can be seen as a democratic process (Skinner 2017).

To classify research as action research, the following five elements should be contained (Meyers 2013):
  1. 1.

    Aim and benefit: While scientific investigations aim at the expansion of general knowledge, AR targets the knowledge acquisition and solution of a practical problem. The focus is on transformation and change toward a positive value for the society.

  2. 2.

    Contextual focus: As the action researcher deals with real-life problems, the context has to be broader than in case study research.

  3. 3.

    Data relying on change and construction of knowledge: AR is change oriented; thus, it requires data that detect the consequences of an intended change. Action researchers need therefore continual and systematic collected data, which further require an interpretation to generate knowledge from it.

  4. 4.

    Participative research process: AR demands the active participation of those affected by the real-life problem and who “own” it. As AR is collaborative, the concerned should at least be involved in selecting the problem, identifying solutions, and validating results.

  5. 5.

    Knowledge dissemination: AR has to be documented and disseminated according to accepted scientific practices to be considered as research. This means that a research topic has to deal with existing literature to generate general knowledge. This falls to the action researcher.


Types of Action Research

Zuber-Skerrit and Perry (2002) as well as Skinner (2017) distinguish between three types of AR: Type 1 requires an external expert as support due to the complexity of a problem. Type 2 can involve a facilitator, but the focus is on individual power of equal participants. In type 3 the power is completely within the group. Table 1 gives an overview of AR types and their main characteristics.
Table 1

Action research types and their main characteristics. (Source: Zuber-Skerrit and Perry (2002))

AR type


Facilitator’s role

Relationship between facilitator and participants

Type 1 “technical”

Effectiveness/efficiency of professional practice

Professional development

Outside “expert”

Co-option (of practitioners who depend on the facilitator)

Type 2 “practical”

As type 1

Practitioner’s understanding

Transformation of their consciousness

Socratic role, encouraging participation, and self-reflection

Cooperation (process consultancy)

Type 3 “emancipatory”

As type 2

Participants’ emancipation from the dictates of tradition, self-deception, coercion

Their critique of bureaucratic systematization

Transformation of the organization and of its system

Process moderator (responsibility shared equally by participants)

Collaboration (symmetrical communication)

The system boarders between formal (technical) and practical action research are stringent; only emancipatory AR uses all technical and organizational competences. Thus, this type relates most to organizational learning (Zuber-Skerrit and Perry 2002). According to Carr and Kemmis (1986), only type 3 can be marked as real AR as it fulfills the minimum requirements: strategic action determines the content; the proceeding includes planning, action, observation, and reflection; all phases of research activities integrate participation and collaboration.

Independent from the type of AR, three basic topics are handled in every definition and classification: empowerment of participants, adoption of knowledge, and social change (Masters 1995). However, contemporary action research is affected by a great variety (Meyers 2013).

The Action Research Process

In its simplest form after Lewin (1997 [1946]), the AR process contains a pre-step and three core activities: planning, action, and detection of facts. The objective is defined in the pre-step. Planning includes in general that there is a plan and the decision regarding the first step. Acting means to conduct the first step, and detection of facts deals with the evaluation of what was learnt. This builds the basis for the next step and an ongoing spiral of planning – acting – evaluating.

Susman and Evered (1978) describe AR as cyclical process with five steps: diagnosis, action planning, implementing action, evaluation, and definition of learnings (Fig. 2). The infrastructure within a client system, which can be described as the research context, and the action researcher facilitate and regulate some or all phases together.
Fig. 2

Cyclical process of action research. (Source: Susman and Evered 1978)

Coghlan and Brannick (2014) propose an AR cycle consisting of a pre-step (context and aim) and four basic steps: design, action planning, action taking, and evaluation. The emphasis is on the first step regarding the design where stakeholders construct the problem and relevant questions in the form of a dialogue. They have to be articulated carefully as they are as well practical and theoretical foundation for the actions. After planning and taking those actions, the results should be evaluated regarding the following questions:
  • Was the initial design adequate?

  • Did the conducted actions correspond to the design?

  • Were the actions conducted adequately?

  • What will be implemented within the next cycle of design, planning, and action?

In this manner the cycles will be continued and form a spiral, as illustrated in Fig. 3.
Fig. 3

Spiral of action research cycles. (Source: Coghlan and Brannick 2014)

In every AR project, two cycles are running in parallel. The first cycle stands for the before mentioned, while the second one is a reflection cycle, evaluating the original AR cycle (Coghlan and Brannick 2014). Zuber-Skerrit and Perry (2002) describe this as the core and the thesis AR cycle. This means that as well the design, planning, implementation, and evaluation regarding the proceeding and learning within the project have to take place. Herewith, the action researcher can evaluate how steps are conducted and, if they are consistent, how the following steps shall be executed. Argyris (2003) argues that the investigation of AR cycles itself is essential for the development of applicable knowledge. It’s the dynamic of recurrent reflection that generates the learning process of the AR cycle. Thus, AR goes beyond trivial problem-solving and enables learning about learning, the so-called meta-learning. Coghlan and Brannick (2014) relate to three kinds of reflection in the AR process: reflection regarding the content, the processes, and the premises. Figure 4 illustrates the connections of reflection types as meta-cycle of core AR.
Fig. 4

Meta-cycle of action research. (Source: Coghlan and Brannick 2014)

Reflection regarding the content analyzes the framework, the planned and the implemented, as well as the evaluated. The design and how it is carried out in planning, implementation, and evaluation are the critical focus of the process reflection. Finally, reflection of premises analyzes unformulated and unconscious assumptions that affect the attitudes and behavior of participants. Hence, this meta-cycle is the continuous monitoring conducted in every cycle, whereby continuous learning will be enabled (Coghlan and Brannick 2014).

Quality of Action Research

Action research requires its own quality criteria and cannot be assessed according to those of positivist research. According to Coghlan and Brannick (2014), high-quality AR includes three relevant elements: a good story, thorough reflection, and the extrapolation of useful knowledge or theory by reflecting the story. Not more than with other research methods, also AR faces a risk regarding validity. To guarantee a valid proceeding, the action researcher has to implement the AR cycles and test own assumptions and inputs from a critical public. Thus, action research has to combine advocacy and investigation; in other words, it has to integrate conclusions, attributions, perceptions, and openness for evaluation and critics. This combination includes deductions from observable data and the creation of deductions that can be evaluated, with the aim to enable learning (Coghlan and Coghlan 2002).

In the context of sustainable development, Egmose (2015) argues that a methodology focusing on change requires notably a reflection on how to implement change in real life. Thus, the demands regarding reflexivity are particularly high as the challenge of sustainability exceeds perceived boundaries and classifications. This means, the simplifications made to categorize actual situations may hinder a comprehensive assessment of sustainability issues and its impacts.

Applying Action Research to Sustainability Issues

Zuber-Skerrit (2012) puts the aspects relevant to sustainable development down to those that are as well inherent to action research:
  • Engagement: The problem has to be identified and a need for change has to be observed.

  • Value-driven agendas and planned interventions: Actions have to be specified and planned.

  • Need for practical and sustainable change: Actions have to be implemented and reflected regarding their effects and impacts.

  • Support of organizations and individuals to ensure continuation of the process: The new generated knowledge has to be identified and experienced as a learning outcome that affects future problem-solving capabilities.

In that sense, both sustainable development and action research aims at identifying a need for change and to support it with both rigor and relevant research to enable practical solutions (Baumgartner 2011; Zuber-Skerrit 2012).

Literature shows a broad range of applications where an action research approach was used to answer various research questions resulting from “real-world” problems in different stakeholder environments. Table 2 gives an overview of selected cases from recent years where action research was chosen as the research method. The review of the selected literature includes the identified “real-world” problem, where a need for change of the current practice was identified. The action level specifies the involved actors, which can be described as the “owners” of the problem. As action research aims at generating a practical solution for a specified group or community and generating new knowledge, also the outcome expanding actual theory will be illustrated.
Table 2

Examples of action research applications to sustainability-related issues

Reference sources

“Real-world” sustainability issue

Action level

Theory outcome

Anderson (2015)

Improvement of the livelihood and empowerment for initiating problem-solving actions of rural communities

Local community/farmers from two rural municipalities in Guatemala

New knowledge relevant to farming practices and environmental conditions and identification of change agents/promoters

Bolwig et al. (2008)

Integration of poverty, gender, and environmental aspects into value chain analysis

Actors in agro-food value chains in South Africa

Conceptual framework to integrate the “vertical” and “horizontal” aspects of value chains that affect poverty and sustainability; set of tools for action research in value chains

Bratt (2011)

Improvement of criteria development processes within eco-labeling and green procurement to make these instruments more supportive of sustainable product and service innovation

Swedish eco-labeling programs and governmental expert body for green procurement

Criteria development prototype widening the scope from currently known product impacts to long-term objectives toward sustainability

Burns (2016)

Development of sustainability leadership in a graduate leadership course

Students and pedagogues at higher education institutions

Key pedagogical elements to support the development of sustainability leadership in higher education courses

Hallstedt and Isaksson (2017)

Assessment of the material criticality in the early phases of sustainable product development

Product design team at an aerospace company in Sweden

Material criticality method to assess criticality from an availability and sustainability perspective

Hasan et al. (2017)

Identification of the potential of information systems (IS) to impact, support, and transform the planning and execution of climate change adaptation activities

Climate change working group (CCWG) of the state government of New South Wales, Australia

Mediating role of IS tools and techniques in climate change adaptation

Richert (2017)

Closing the energy efficiency gap in SMEs

Management and environmentally aware employees of a car service and retailing company in Germany

Six-step energy management framework to implement energy efficiency practices in SMEs

Robèrt et al. (2017)

Sustainable transport system development with a focus on electric vehicles

Diverse stakeholders with various competences from the transport sector in Sweden

Process model for transport planning and electric vehicles; applicable for sustainable community planning in general

Shapira et al. (2017)

Integration of strategic sustainable development perspectives throughout design thinking processes

Experts in the field of design thinking

Sustainable design thinking prototype suggesting a process for integrating sustainability aspects on different levels

Tschiggerl and Topic (2018)

Closing the energy efficiency gap in energy-intensive industries by the identification of efficiency potential

Management and energy managers from the foundry industry in Austria

Transdisciplinary energy management model to identify energy efficiency potential in energy intensive industries

Velenturf and Purnell (2017)

Improvement of the way that waste is valued as a resource based on a system approach

Diverse stakeholders from academic, industry, and government partners from the resource recovery from waste program in the UK

Knowledge creation regarding stakeholder engagement for waste and resource management programs

The essence out of these studies can be illustrated by a statement from Bradbury (2001): “Action research can be of significant value in building capacity for, and in the study of, efforts in support of sustainable development. Action researchers can help further the conversations already underway through giving a common language to many of the trans-sectoral initiatives that include people from the cultural and economic realms, and then further telling these stories, be it through publication channels (which require further theoretical reflection) or through convening forums for public conversation.” There are manifold shapes of problems and questions related to sustainable development. Documented approaches on how to develop solutions and implement them, while expanding existing knowledge and theory, can help to improve not only current practices but also transform systems in a wider sense toward sustainable development.

Critical Reflection on Action Research for Sustainable Development

From an epistemological perspective, a focus on sustainability includes scientists to acknowledge planetary boundaries and orientation toward an uncertain future, which has normative implications and is biased. Thus, researchers from both sustainability science and action research for sustainable development are questioned regarding their scientific objectivity. In this sense, action researchers in the pursuit of sustainability are not neutral analysts, whereby they are required to engage in self-inquiry and reflection (Wittmayer et al. 2013). This refers to the meta-cycle of action research which necessitates the careful reflection of the content, the processes, and the premises within projects (Coghlan and Brannick 2014).

One of the critics on AR is the popular belief that this method is nothing else than consulting disguised as research, which faces a serious problem for AR. Gummesson (2000) proposes four ways to distinguish AR from consulting:
  • Consultants working with AR approaches have to conduct investigations and documentations more thoroughly.

  • Researchers rely on theoretical consultants on empirical justifications.

  • Consultants have to work under tense time and budget restrictions.

  • Consulting is linear – order acceptance, analysis, action/intervention, order completion. In contrast, AR is cyclical – data acquisition, feedback to involved persons, data analysis, action planning, intervention, and evaluation followed by a next cycle.

Despite this differentiation, Velenturf and Purnell (2017) see consulting as one method to achieve commitment and collaboration within participatory approaches. Stakeholders should also be engaged in other levels of participation – from informing to full autonomy – which are appropriate to their influence and interest. Further, they conclude that radical and transformative change, as it is required for the transition from unsustainable to sustainable states (see also Zuber-Skerrit et al. (2013)), demands participative processes. This shows several benefits regarding the quality, legitimacy, and efficiency of interventions:
  • Improvement of social inclusiveness and empowerment of stakeholders.

  • Promotion of social learning, whereby the connections between societal segments can be strengthened and adversarial relations can be transformed.

  • The quality of information and solutions can be improved due to their adaptation to specific contexts.

  • The acceptance and commitment to solutions can be increased.

Despite the positive effects of action research, it is a great challenge to researchers to conduct this kind of research approach in terms of their ability to deal with community spaces and possible power differences, ethical dilemmas, and conflicts (Wittmayer et al. 2013).

Conclusion and Outlook

The aim of action research is to improve practice while contributing to theory. Action research does not distinguish between research and action but is research through action. In contrast to traditional research approaches, action research is thus imprecise, uncertain, and possibly more volatile in its application (Coghlan and Coghlan 2002). A great number of applications from literature, as well as the statements of several authors, evidence the relevance of action research on sustainability-related issues. To lead social systems, which may be located at micro- or macro-levels, toward a sustainable development, coordinated change, cooperation, and collaboration are required from multiple actors across society. The role of academia can be to facilitate such processes through participatory action research in all sustainability-related fields (Velenturf and Purnell 2017). As concluded by Manring (2014), there is a clear need to educate and train students to participate as leaders and partners in sustainability initiatives, among others, by action research and practice.

Action research expects us to stop just going through the motions, doing what we’ve always done because we’ve done it, doing it the same way because we’ve always done it that way. Action researchers take a close look at what they are doing and act to make things better that they already are. Taking a closer look is action in and of itself and that research, that knowledge creation – any action taken based on that research – has the potential to transform the work that we do, the working conditions that we sweat under and, most importantly, the people who we are. (Coghlan and Brannick 2014)

Especially in times of upheavals – political, social, economic, and technological – and on the threshold to a fourth industrial era, action research can make great contributions to shape and pursue this change in all its facings for the good of all involved in a sustainable way. The understanding of how this can be realized in the most sustainable way while adopting it in the forms of applied practices is the aim of any action research (Tschiggerl 2017). In the words of Zuber-Skerrit (2012), action research is a solution to and integration for problem-solving and sustainable development in a world of turbulence.



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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Montanuniversitaet LeobenLeobenAustria

Section editors and affiliations

  • Evangelos Manolas
    • 1
  1. 1.Democritus University of ThraceThraceGreece