In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Action Research

  • Introduction
  • Definition
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • History
  • Exemplars
  • Dissemination

Psychology Action Research
Geoffrey Maruyama, Martin Van Boekel
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 January 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0149


Unlike many areas of psychology, “action research” does not possess a single definition or evoke a single meaning for all researchers. Most action research links back to work initiated by a group of researchers led by Kurt Lewin (see Lewin 1946 and Lewin 1951, both cited under Definition). Lewin is widely viewed as the “father” of action research. Lewin is certainly deserving of that recognition, for conceptually driven research done by Lewin and colleagues before and during World War II addressed a range of practical issues while also helping to develop theories of attitude change. The work was guided by Lewin’s field theory. Part of what makes Lewin’s work so compelling and what has led to different variations of action research is his focus on action research as a philosophy about research as a vehicle for creating social advancement and change. He viewed action research as collaborative and engaging practitioners and policymakers in sustainable partnerships that address critical societal issues. At about the time that Lewin and his group were developing their perspective on action research, similar work was being conducted by Bion and colleagues in the British Isles (see Rapoport 1970, cited under Definition), again tied to World War II and issues like personnel selection and emotional impacts of war and incarceration. That work led to creation of the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations, which has sustained a focus on action research throughout the postwar era of experimental (social) psychology. This article’s focus, however, will stay largely with Lewin and the action research traditions his writings and work created. Those include many variations of action research, most notably participatory action research and community-based participatory research. Cassell and Johnson 2006 (cited under Definition) describe different types of action research and the epistemologies and assumptions that underlie them, which helps explain how different traditions and approaches have developed.


Lewin 1946 described action research as “a comparative research on the conditions and effects of various forms of social action, and research leading to social action” (p. 203), clearly engaged, change-oriented work. Lewin also went on to say, “Above all, it will have to include laboratory and field-experiments in social change” (p. 203). Post-positivist and constructivist researchers who draw their roots from Lewin should acknowledge his underlying positivist bent. They tend to focus more on his characterizing research objectives as being of two types: identifying general laws of behavior, and diagnosing specific situations. Much academic research has focused on identifying general laws and ignored the local conditions that shape outcomes, paying little attention to specific situations. In contrast, Lewin argued for the combining of “experts in theory,” researchers, with “experts in practice,” practitioners and others familiar with local conditions and how they can affect plans and theories, in order to understand the setting and to design studies likely to be effective. A fundamental part of action research that appeals to all variants of action research is building partnerships with practitioners, which Lewin 1946 described as “the delicate task of building productive, hard-hitting teams with practitioners . . .” (p. 211). These partnerships according to Lewin need to survive through several cycles of planning, action, and fact-finding. As action research has evolved and “split” into the streams mentioned in the initial section of this article, it has been interpreted in different ways, typically tied to how researchers interact with and share responsibility throughout the research process with practitioners (Aguinis 1993).

  • Aguinis, H. 1993. Action research and scientific method: Presumed discrepancies and actual similarities. Journal of Applied Behavioral Science 29.4: 416–431.

    DOI: 10.1177/0021886393294003

    Suggests that action research is application of the scientific method and fact-finding to applied settings, done in collaboration with partners. Views action research and the traditional scientific approaches not as discrepant as often they are made out to be. Does a good job of presenting historical development of action research, including perspectives of others contrasting action research and traditional experimental research, as well as presenting his perspective.

  • Cassell, C., and P. Johnson. 2006. Action research: Explaining the diversity. Human Relations 54.6: 783–814.

    DOI: 10.1177/0018726706067080

    This article outlines five categories of action research. Each category is discussed in terms of the underlying philosophical assumptions and the research techniques utilized. Importantly, the authors discuss the difficulties in using one set of criteria to evaluate the success of an action research approach, proposing that due to the different philosophical assumptions different criteria must be used.

  • Lewin, K. 1946. Action research and minority problems. Journal of Social Issues 2:34–46.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1540-4560.1946.tb02295.x

    This article includes Lewin’s original definition of action research listed above, as well as addressing the different research objectives, studying general laws and diagnosing specific situations. This article also appears as chapter 13 in K. Lewin, Resolving Social Conflicts (New York: Harper, 1948), pp. 201–216. Resolving Social Conflicts also was republished in 1997 (reprinted 2000) by the American Psychological Association in a single volume along with Field Theory in Social Science.

  • Lewin, K. 1951. Field theory in social science: Collected theoretical papers. Edited by D. Cartwright. New York: Harper.

    Papers in this volume rarely address action research directly, but lay the groundwork for it through field theory, which recognizes that behavior results from the interaction of individuals and environments, B = f(P, E). To explain and change behaviors, researchers need to develop and understand general laws and apply them to specific situations and individuals. The book is a compilation of his papers, with edits done by Dorwin (Doc) Cartwright after Lewin’s death.

  • Rapoport, R. N. 1970. Three dilemmas of action research. Human Relations 23:499–513.

    Rapoport provides excellent historical background on the work of Bion and colleagues, which led to creation of the Tavistock Institute. Describes links between Lewin’s Group Dynamics center and Tavistock. Describes action research as a professional relationship and not service.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.