Data Collection Tools in Action Research

Data Collection Tools in Action Research


Content Outline

  1. Introduction
  2. Participatory Action Research (PAR)
  3. Action Research and Participatory Action Research in Social work settings 
  4. Summary


The research diary is a useful tool for an action researcher. The research diary is a record of the research process, of events, reflections and thoughts as experienced by the researcher. It helps the researcher keep track of changes that occur inside of him/her as a result of the research. The research diary could also be a record of new ideas that emerge from the literature review and from the actual research process. Maintaining a research diary would make the process of reflection easier for the researcher (Silverman, 2000).

Other methods of data collection include:
  • Observation guides: These are used to assist observation of clients or the practitioner/researcher in action;
  • Audio and video tape recording: These offer better evidence which can be analysed at a later point and are extremely useful when it comes to observing one’s own work; 
  • Structured or semi-structured interviews: These are commonly used tools of data collection and have been covered in detail in previous modules on developing tools of data collection; 
  • Case records: These refer to records of individual clients maintained by the organisation which could also be used for analysis;
  • Statistical data which may help provide further evidence to support the analysis of one or more of the above; 
  • Field notes: These are notes taken by the practitioner researcher when conducting field visits or home visits can be treated as data and subject to analysis; 
  • Photography: Photographs are used as data and can be analysed in a variety of ways and 
  • Questionnaires: These are extremely common tools and have been discussed in detail in previous modules.  

Participatory Action Research (PAR)

There are a number of definitions for Participatory Action Research. Some are as follows:
  • Participatory Action Research is a new paradigm research that entails doing research with and for people rather than on people (Lofman,Pelkonen,andPietila ,2004p. 333).
  • Participatory Action Research is a real world research that adopts and employs critical approaches (including critical reflection) with focus on improving human life (Dick,2006).
  • Participatory Action Research is a form of action research in which professional social researchers operate as full collaborators with members of organizations in studying and transforming those organizations. It is an ongoing organizational learning process, a research approach that emphasizes co-learning, participation and organizational transformation (Greenwood et al, 1993).  
Based on the above, we can list out the unique features of Participatory Action Research as follows:
  • It focuses on change 
  • It is context-specific 
  • It involves collaboration, partnership and shared ownership. The beneficiaries are invested in the research. 
  • Generates knowledge or data through shared/collective/collaborative efforts 
  • Is based on the action research cycle plan-act-observe-reflect 
  • It assumes that knowledge is relative, uncertain, evolving, contextual, and value-laden (Bradbury & Reason, 2003; Ozanne & Saatcioglu, 2008; Borda, 2008). 
  • It explains causality in terms of local realities and macrostructures (Fook, 2006; Suarez, Newman, and Reed, 2008).
However, Participatory Action Research is not without its dilemmas and problems. Some of the ethical dilemmas in Participatory Action Research projects as discussed by Manzo and Brightbill, (2007) are:
  • It is difficult to maintain anonymity of respondents since control and ownership is shared 
  • It can create discomfort in the lives of the respondents and participants by empowering them
  • Ensuring free consent may be a problem since the researcher is a participant and an insider; other participants may feel coerced due to the power relationship.
  • There may be difficulty in involving other participants in the data management processes (entry, and analysis) as well as documentation processes. The reasons for this could include time related issues, the lack of analytical skills amongst the other participants / respondents as well as an acceptance or recognition that full participation in analysis could enhance vulnerability in the group which in turn could be damaging. Moreover, in many cases the practitioner-researcher is equipped with better skills and knowledge to carry out the analysis and documentation. 
  • The focus of Participatory Action Research is on generating localized knowledge to benefit the participating group/community and not contributing to theory building or development which is the focus of most academic research. New theory may emerge from new knowledge of local systems, but that is not the primary goal of Participatory Action Research. 
  • Participatory Action Research projects may, at times, face criticism from academicians.  
The data collection tools used in Participatory Action Research projects are similar to those used in other research studies and include: 
  • Surveys 
  • Participant observation 
  • Interviews 
  • Community Mapping and
  • Group discussions 

Action Research and Participatory Action Research in Social work setting

Action research and participatory action research lends itself to social work settings because it is in keeping with social work values as can be seen from the following:
  • Action research and participatory action research are people oriented 
  • Both, action research and participatory action research lay emphasis on participation. In both, the researchers are part of their research studies; the researchers are located within the research. 
  • Action research and participatory action research are usually collaborative efforts. The researchers work with and not for the people in their research. Ownership is shared and hence clients are seen as co-researchers.


  • The research diary is an important tool of data collection in action research and participatory action research. 
  • Action research and participatory action research are well suited for social work settings because they are people oriented, emphasise participation and involve collaborations. 


  • Bradbury, H., and Reason, P. “Action research: An opportunity for revitalizing research purpose and practices.” Qualitative Social Work 2 no. 2 (2003): 155-175. 
  • Cahill, C. “Participatory Data Analysis” in Participatory Action Research Approaches and Methods: Connecting People, Participation and Place (Routledge Studies in Human Geography) edited by Sarah Kindon, Rachel Pain & Mike Kesby. London: Routledge, 2007. p. 181- 187 
  • Carr, W. and Kemmis, S. Becoming Critical. Education, knowledge and action research, Lewes: Falmer, 1986 
  • Chambers, R. Challenging the Professionals: Frontiers for Rural Development. London: Intermediate Technology Publications, 1993 
  • Dick, B. “Action research literature 2004 – 2006: Themes and trends”. Action Research 4 no. 4 (2006): 439-458. 


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