Hilary Bradbury: How to Do Action Research for Transformations At a Time of Eco-Social Crisis (2022)

Photo by Cole Keister

It is becoming increasingly clear what the challenge is in system change. It’s not the problem out there. It’s us. It is heartening to see that the truth of that insight is spreading far and wide into the field of systems thinking in practice. Transformation at the level of communities or societies demands personal transformation.

We need to stop playing hide-and-seek with our fears, traumas and addictions. We need to soberly start acknowledging that we, as a planetary society, are in hot water and that the likelihood that we will be saved by a technological fix is close to zero. We need to be able to experience this as an invitation to manifest our deepest desires for the common good. We need to be able to see eye to eye with our sometimes reluctant partners in change, and establish genuinely generative relationships. It all starts there, in what Hillary Bradbury calls microworlds: ourselves, our families, teams, network of partners. Meaningful, benign change emerges from these benevolent seeds of action-oriented potential, not from corporate boardrooms, military headquarters or ministerial cabinets.

Hilary Bradbury is an authority in the field of action research. In collaboration with luminaries such as Peter Reason, Bill Torbert and others she has contributed significantly to the field. I would qualify this book as a summa, as a wise but no-nonsense condensation of a long and intense experience in her professional field. We are getting to the core of transformative action research here, unobscured by academic grandstanding.

Bradbury lays out a practice field at the intersection of three spaces: a relational, conceptual and an experimental space: “In the relational space we see change leaders convene stakeholders to grapple tangibly with complex sustainability demands. In the conceptual space we see how inquiry informs and transforms thinking. In the experimental space we see tangible change results through proliferation of actionable knowledge.”

Distinctive for the Action Research for Transformations (ART) approach is the strong emphasis on the relational process. “One might say that the enhancement of the relations among participants represents as much a goal of inquiry as the specific transformational consequences.” The quality of the relations and depth of engagement between changemakers is the fuel that drives any meaningful transformation, large or small.

The conceptual space in ART is loosely knit. There is no fixed method, merely a set of reflective ‘choicepoints’ (or questions) to animate a fluid and conversation-driven process of action and reflection. ART is a meta-methodology rather than a toolbox.

Finally, as far as the experimental space is concerned, ART is very upfront about the aims to which it wants to contribute: “The world is indeed confronting a state of eco-social crisis, and while most research practices do not specify the socio-political aims to which they can be put, with ART they are front and center.” The ARTist’s intention is to support people toward a desirable, sustainable future.

The book is structured in three parts.

  • Part I presents the meta model of spaces and choicepoints within the wider tradition of participative action research.
  • Part II is presented as a theory of adult development, which hides a progressive shift in foundational ontology. As we move from developmental edge to edge, we learn to see the world not in terms of ‘things’ and ‘causes’ but as a web of relationships, fluxes of energy and pockets of potential.
  • Part III speaks to the ways in which particularly formal institutions of learning can create space for ART and attune themselves to the consilience of objectivity and subjectivity that this practice entails.

The focus in this book is squarely on the why and how of a generative relational space. This is the foremost practical question for an ARTist starting out. This is a developmental rather than a methodological challenge. The key challenge is “to find our way back to our full-spectrum selves”. As a result the book is very light on methodology. (An exception is Chapter 11 which outlines Bradbury’s ‘Math and Circus’ take on injecting role playing elements in collaborative action inquiry.)

A vibrant relational space is animated by developmental friendship and reflexivity. To my mind the foregrounding of the concept of developmental friendship is one of the important contributions of this book. It is not a thing but a process of growing out of our reflex for self-protection into a disposition of friendliness, open-heartedness, and genuine curiosity for our partners’ intentions and offerings. Developmental reflexivity — developmental friendship with oneself — underpins it: “Developmental reflexivity concerns the extent to which we take a personal, involved and self-critical stance on the knowledge-creation role throughout the ART process. It means we address the context of our research, how it relates to our own identities and biases and how we might be received by others. Issues of power (and inquiry) are especially pertinent (…) Developmental reflexivity is a dynamo for deepening inquiry from one cycle of action into the next cycle.”

Beyond dynamism, there is a tremendous emphasis on taking time to pause in a process. Pause is an opportunity for reflection and self-examination, for careful listening, for sensing interdependence and for questions to find their appropriate form. It is one of the most difficult things to do, because we are afraid of appearing incompetent if we just let energies drift for a while.

I close my review of this valuable resource with a few mixed observations.

  • Some of the language used in the book feels dated and out of tune with its general tenor. Why not move on from ‘stakeholders’ (literally people holding a stake) to ‘learning partners’ or something to similar effect? Even the talk about ‘change’ and ‘leaders’ I find somewhat grating and old-fashioned.
  • How to deal with issues of power, primarily considered through a gender and minority lens, is an important theme in the book. Nevertheless, I, as a member of the hyper-privileged class, remain unsure about an appropriate disposition. We can be genuinely friendly and respectful, but is it going to be enough to lighten the shadow of historical iniquity?
  • ART is messy and time-consuming. “To be clear, the more relational the more time-consuming.” However, time is the scarcest of resources in this line of work. And it becomes ever more harder to come by. The covid-driven shift to the easy-going efficiency and discipline of on-line group processes makes it even harder to persuade people to make time to travel and sit down, face-to-face. How to deal as a practitioner with this double challenge of shrinking time and space for real-life texture of collaborative inquiry?
  • Conceptual space’s architecture in terms of fluid choicepoints creates plenty of space for the craft and creativity of ARTists. And it counters practitioners’ obsession with tools. That is very welcome. However, the opposition between ‘flexible choicepoints’ and ‘rigid methods’ may obscure the value of rich and generative action research methodologies such as Soft Systems Methodology or scenario planning (Bradbury’s own version of the scenario technique, foregrounded in Chapter 11, strikes me as a very banal demotion of this sophisticated approach to group-based inquiry). There is more under the sun than World Cafés and focus groups. We shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.
  • This book is a valuable resource for participatory action learners. It is a pity that it only found a home with an academic publisher that charges prohibitive prices for physical copies. I acquired a more favourably priced electronic version via the e-textbook platform Kortext, but I found the reading experience less than stellar.

More to read in the Systems Library:

Vol. 26: Francis Laleman: Resourceful Exformation (2020)

Vol. 25: Keller Easterling: Medium Design(2020)

Vol. 24: Ian Cheng: An Emissaries Guide to Worlding (2018)

Vol. 23: Janis Birkeland: Positive Development (2008)

Vol. 22: Michel Serres: The Natural Contract (1990)

Vol. 21: Henk Oosterling: Resistance in Times of Ecopanic (2020)

Vol. 20: Ray Ison & Ed Straw: The Hidden Power of Systems Thinking (2020)

Vol. 19: Andreas Weber: Enlivenment (2019)

Vol. 18: Luc Hoebeke: Making Work Systems Better (1994)

Vol. 17: Donella Meadows: Thinking in Systems (2009)

Vol. 16: Lois Holzman: The Overweight Brain (2018)

Vol. 15: Hanne De Jaegher: Loving and Knowing. Reflections for an Engaged Epistemology (2018)

Vol. 14: Judi Marshall: First-person Action Research: Living Life as Inquiry (2016)

Vol. 13: Jocelyn Chapman (Ed.): For the Love of Cybernetics (2020)

Vol. 12: John Morecroft: Strategic Modelling and Business Dynamics (2007)

Vol. 11: Antoine de St Exupéry: Flight to Arras (1942)

Vol. 10: Edgar Schein: Humble Inquiry (2013)

Vol. 9: Peter Block: Community. The Structure of Belonging (2008)

Vol. 8: Valerie Ahl & Timothy Allen: Hierarchy Theory (1996)

Vol. 7: Herbert Simon: The Sciences of the Artificial (1969, 1998)

Vol. 6: Donald Schon: Beyond the Stable State (1971)

Vol. 5: Barry Oshry: Seeing Systems (2007)

Vol. 4: Béla Bánáthy: Guided Evolution of Society. A Systems View (2000)

Vol. 3: Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh: The Path (2016)

Vol. 2: Stafford Beer: ‘Designing Freedom’ (1974)

Vol. 1: John Law and Annemarie Mol (Eds.): ‘Complexities’ (2014)

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Philippe Vandenbroeck

Philippe Vandenbroeck

Facilitator @ shiftN ⎹ Post-disciplinary researcher @ Newrope, ETH Zürich ⎹ How to create spaces were life is able to unfold, and is experienced as life?