Why have an Action Research network? Thoughts from New Zealand by Pip Ferguson

I have recently (April, 2014) moved to Ireland from New Zealand, and have been feeling ‘cut off’ from a functioning action research community since my arrival. This is understandable, as I had worked in a staff development context in New Zealand for over thirty years (I am in a similar role here, in Dublin City University). In that role, I had studied action research, done a PhD using action research to help develop a research culture in the institution where I then worked (a polytechnic), and participated in the formation and ongoing work of the New Zealand Action Research Network (NZARN). So it is from that background that I want to reflect on the benefits of such a network, and to raise possibilities of joining or establishing such a network here in Ireland.

The NZARN was the brainchild of Eileen Piggot-Irvine, and its inception in 1992 was supported by Judith McMorland and myself. Eileen and I were doing staff development in polytechnics; Judith was a lecturer in a university. There was no existing action research organisation. We felt that many of those who were likely to be interested didn’t know each other well and some were in institutions in which support for such a venture was likely to be novel and not necessarily well supported (possibly because of the approach not being well known and flying in the face of more established traditions of research). So we decided to offer a network, rather than a formalised, centralised ‘committee’. We kept the subscriptions to $10 per annum, money that was used to print and post newsletters as this was in the days before widespread computerised access and apps. These days, of course, the latter would be used and the subscriptions would not necessarily be needed.

The newsletters provided space for people to write short accounts of work they were doing, using action research in a variety of contexts – social work, policing, agriculture as well as the more usual educational contexts. We included snippets of action research events and developments from around the world, as we became aware of these. New Zealand is a long way from the rest of the world, and people can feel cut off. So the newsletters sought to keep us up to date with action researchers at home and overseas. All work done by the Network was voluntary, but huge energy and commitment was put in by Eileen, whose passion for AR was well known and widely appreciated. The compiling of the newsletters was mainly done by her.

We didn’t have cash reserves to pay for speakers or travel. NZARN aimed to appeal to a broad spectrum of practitioners, although teachers and lecturers were the most prevalent. Increasing costs meant we had to increase the subs to $30 in 2003, and this proved a disincentive to some from continuing.

However, key to the ongoing success of the Network were the annual conferences. There was a registration cost for these, and it helped to fund travel costs and accommodation for keynote speakers. The Newsletters provided continuing connections and information, but the opportunity to meet face to face, and to hear directly from inspiring keynote speakers and each other, was vital. It was very helpful that many of us worked in institutions where at least administrative support and copying costs might be met, if not a contribution to the costs of visiting speakers and the free provision of facilities, which happened in a few cases.

The value of action research networking across countries was demonstrated, in that we were warmly and generously supported with keynote speakers from the then-named Action Learning, Action Research and Process Management group, Australia-based. Eileen and I were both represented on their Committee over a number of years; hence we had quite strong connections with that group. Over the years, we had Profs Robin McTaggart, Yoland Wadsworth and Ortrun Zuber-Skerritt donate their time as keynotes, with just accommodation and travel covered by NZARN. Other keynotes were provided by New Zealand action researchers over the years that the Network was active (its activity declined in 2004, after the Christchurch conference). Over the time that NZARN operated, we did our best to shift the conferences around a long, narrow country. The bulk of our membership was in the North Island, so most conferences were held there, but there were a couple held in the South Island.

There is now a New Zealand Collaborative Action Network operating, affiliated with the CARN group in the U.K. Again, it is supported by colleagues from Australia, with Prof Susan Groundwater-Smith visiting the University of Waikato where I was located last, in 2012 and subsequently. New Zealand’s close action research relationship with Australia continues.

Having come to Ireland, I have been searching for action research connections, and am delighted to have been ‘introduced’ to EARI colleagues by Prof Jack Whitehead, with whom I have worked for a good number of years. We have so far ‘met’ via Skype, and have a face to face meeting scheduled in Dublin in the next two weeks. We are hoping in that meeting to investigate networking of action researchers across sectors and across Ireland. Watch this space!

Dr Pip Ferguson

Teaching and Learning Developer
Teaching Enhancement Unit
Dublin City University


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