Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The Horseshoe Dive: A Model for Transformative Research

Many social and organizational researchers want to improve organizational life or transform some such corner of the world. That seems like a contradiction in terms, for is research not a matter of figuring out how things are and letting others do the changing? Well, yes, that's the classical view. Today, how may we conceptualize social research as an attempt to improve action?

First, it is evident that all kinds of consultants and change agents want to improve action. They see a poor state of affairs and want to change it into something they think is better:

Bad practices -> Better practices

Researchers are typically more concerned with studying the way things are and understanding what lies beneath these appearances. They want to discover hidden assumptions and deep cultural norms, and they want to reflect and theorize and hypothesize about relationships and causes and contexts. Like this (I want to put a vertical arrow between the two, but won't let me, so I make it horizontal):

Existing practices
Underlying assumptions and theories

From the scholar's point of view, a consultant is a shallow guy who stays at the surface level of things and don't think them through. From the change agent's point of view, the researcher never gets to the real point, action; he stays locked up in unproductive theorizing.

A transformative social researcher combines the two: provides some deep thinking that leads somewhere practical. She is not content with exposing the assumptions or formulating the theory underlying the problematic present state of affairs, nor does she rush to superficial action. She proposes theory that is alternative to the theory describing the present, and this better theory now becomes the foundation for her practical action. Like this (imagine that second vertical arrow between 3 and 4 going upwards):

1. Bad existing practices   4. Better future practices
2. Underlying assumptions   3. Better theory

So, doing the horseshoe dive is what the transformative researcher needs to do, going from 1 to 2 to 3 to 4:

1. Get acquainted with a problematic present state of affairs, something ill understood and in need of change

2. Expose the problematic assumptions that underlie practice in this field. What inadequate theories have scholars held about this domain in the past, or what unrealistic or misanthropic assumptions do the field's practitioners subscribe to? Once this has been defined, possibly in an heuristically coarse or caricatured manner, it becomes easier to conceive of...

3. The better alternative theory. Come up with a conceptualization of the domain that will allow its actors to bring out the best in everyone involved. A theory that assumes that something really, reallly good is possible or at least should be strived for. A theory of what the domain would be like if all relevant human potentials were actualized. A theory that will be transformative in the sense that in using it, the field's actors will come to see possibilities and courses of action undreamed of, because previously, they were limited by many negative assumptions about what was possible. We're talking a liberating theory, an empowering theory, a theory that can yield ideas for better practical action.

4. Theoretically sound action for a better domain. While the proverbial consultant acts on impulse and mere personal experience, the transformative researcher will have thouhgt things through, will have collected evidence from other similar research, will build on a stock of relevant experiments and will propose action based on deep reflection etc., making for a more solid intervention - which will be comprenhensible to everyone involved, because its rationale can be explained and understood - and is not just an intervention based on whim, or the strength of a consulantat that leaves when his pay is up, or on blind faith etc. More solid it becomes, so we stipulate.

More is said about this kind of theory in my paper (here) and Chap 9 of my book, Forskning i sammenhænge (both in Danish).


M. said...

Dear Ib,

I'm in thinking of using the tranformative research model for my thesis. Could you help me on were it comes from or have any additional information/background information concerning the horse shoe model?

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