A Call for Learning Spaces and Enclaves as 3rd Person Action Research

Categories: Action Research, Instruction, Other, Teaching

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The MethodSpace focus for October is on Action Research. Our Mentors-in-Residence this month are Ernie Stringer and Alfredo Ortiz Aragon, co-authors of a new edition of the text Action Research. You can find the unfolding series of posts through this link.

The post below complements an article, “Self-in-Field Action Research in Natural Spaces of Encounter: Inclusion, Learning, and Organizational Change” in the special issue on Participatory Action Research: International Perspectives and Practices. We were able to make this issue of the International Review of Qualitative Research open access for the month of October.


Young Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel often meet for the first time in academia and this encounter is usually one of avoidance and alienation, at best, or tension and conflict, at worst. Our paper—Self-in-Field Action Research in Natural Spaces of Encounter: Inclusion, Learning, and Organizational Change—was written by eleven faculty members of a college in Israel involved in a bottom-up action research project aimed at transforming the college as a “field” of Jewish and Palestinian Arab encounter.  Drawing from an outside source for funding small programs, we encouraged faculty, students and administrators to initiate programs within the college to address this issue in any way they wanted.  Seventeen projects emerged, all with different methods and approaches, involving over 30 faculty and student intrapreneurs (i.e. internal entrepreneurs), and hundreds of participants including students, academic faculty, and administrative staff.

Two or three times a semester we invited the intrapreneurs to come together to reflect and learn from each other.  This “learning space” linked the different activities into a loosely coupled whole but not in a hierarchical, bureaucratic way.  Active reflective processes in the learning spaces created a consciousness that we were sharing something bigger than our individual programs and bridged the considerable differences among us.  This shared consciousness developed into an alternative social space, what we call an “enclave,” which was alive and growing within the larger organization.  Although we did not fully anticipate it, we were not just trying to improve intergroup relationships, but also challenging the normative academic culture that was an obstacle to equality, dialogue, learning, the expression of emotion, and cooperation. It was a liberating and empowering experience for those of us involved.

Action research is intended to leverage past learning to inform future action.  Looking beyond this particular case, I want to suggest that creating learning spaces and enclaves constitutes a form of “3rd person action research”, which goes beyond personal reflection and learning (1st person), and small-scale projects (2nd person), to create wider impact on, and transform, systems.

In almost any field of social action there are many different individuals, programs, and organizations working towards change.  While they are often pointing in roughly the same direction, they sometimes are divided by different ideologies, goals, methods, and even competition over limited sources funding.  This fragmentation weakens our ability to effect change. Addressing this is not easy, however, as cooperation and coalition building are often difficult and fragile, because they require overcoming disagreements on fundamental issues.

I suggest that framing cooperation in terms of learning, however, enables us to think of difference as an opportunity rather than an obstacle to be overcome.  In other words, there may be more opportunities to bring diverse actors together if the goal is simply to dialogue and learn, and not necessarily come to agreements.  Learning means approaching differences from a standpoint of inquiry and curiosity rather than the necessity to come to consensus or agreement.  I believe that we can create a higher level (“meta”) connection and a consciousness of a larger “whole” if we focus on learning with and from each other, rather than on agreement.

Many action researchers have the skills to initiate and nurture learning spaces that address specific issues such as sustainability, climate change, poverty eradication, racism, peace building, etc. I want to advocate the creation of learning spaces in which individual and organizational actors in specific fields come together regularly to learn from and with each other. Such learning spaces would be much more creative and productive than traditional academic conferences, which are still mostly about one-way presentation.  Through initiating this kind of 3rd person action research, we can help activists—who themselves might not be action researchers—create enclaves that have a greater impact on their particular fields. 

We are only at the beginning of learning how to nurture learning spaces—how to enable enclaves to emerge and thrive in often hostile environments.  However, I see this approach as a way of posing strong and sustainable challenges to the status quo without requiring agreement or hierarchical organization.   These kinds of enclaves (there are others) can lead to the emergence of new action without necessarily having to coordinate them in a centralized way. 

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