How do you actually do action research?

By Caitlin Finlayson, PhD Candidate with the Institute for Human Security and Social Change, gives us an insight into her first few months working in an action research collaboration with Oxfam NZ.

Caitlin and Rachael Le Mesurier, Executive Director, Oxfam NZ at the Auckland office
Copyright @ Artur Francisco

Academic researchers and international non-government organisations (iNGOs) working together is already a widely debated topic. Developing effective collaborations are possible but requires both actors to think and work in different ways.

My research looks at how iNGOs are taking development thinking and practice in new directions. This blog looks at the initial stages of that research in terms of how to set up an action research collaboration with myself as the action researcher and Oxfam NZ as the practitioner partner.

What is action research?

An action research approach has framed the collaboration. It provides scope for joint work, for sharing networks and accessing learning opportunities, and for tackling issues together as they arise. There are mutual benefits. Oxfam NZ gain a credible independent perspective on its work, and an ability to present its work in different ways to different audiences. As a researcher, I gain a credible practitioner partner and case study. Both of us gain a like-minded critical friend to support the development of our work.


Neither party in this instance had worked in such a way. We discussed our collaboration in terms of principles, contributions, ambitions and risks. This required honest conversations. Some key question that came up: Do we have the capacity to follow through in a resource constrained environment? Who owns the intellectual property of the work we produce together? Who and how do we manage the collaboration, particularly if it is long term? Should the researcher have access to internal organisational systems?


Researchers can be viewed by iNGOs as only interested in pursuing their own research agenda. A key step was aligning on the themes that we wanted to explore together which were relevant for both Oxfam NZ and the research interests of myself and the Institute for Human Security and Social Change. These centre around developing new narratives for iNGOS and putting into practice ideas from the literature on doing development differently, thinking and working politically and positive deviance.

Getting started

Unlike an employee/employer scenario there is no hand over from a previous action researcher. There is no booklet to tell you how this all works in practice. In this case, we are paving new paths and learning by doing. The positive side is that as a researcher you can create your own style of work. The staff at Oxfam NZ have also given me open access to the organisation. I have been ‘invited in’ by staff to meetings, workshops, staff days and events.

Multiple roles

Observer? Consultant? Expert? Insider? Outsider? As an action researcher, you play multiple roles and are no doubt perceived in various ways. There are ebbs and flows to navigate just like any organisation. I find balancing time inside and outside the organisation is helpful. Stepping out for longer periods also helps to gain perspective although a significant length of time away can hinder the development of relationships. Talking to outsiders who know the organisation is also a way to test views and understandings.


It takes time to feel comfortable as the professional stranger and for the organisation to get used to you, see how you fit and invite you in. Development professionals and iNGOs are busy too so you need to think strategically about who to engage with and in what ways. It also takes time to learn about the processes and norms of the organisation. Oxfam NZ, being part of a confederation, is complex and diverse. This is okay as learning and knowledge grows throughout. Not knowing everything about the organisation is also a learning opportunity. The goal is to apply lessons to action.

Being a critical friend

Tone and language are particularly important to being a critical friend. One suggestion is to pose questions rather than judgements. As an action researcher, your job is to try to get your partner to think outside of the business as usual approach. A critical friend is also open to criticism themselves. Are you listening to staff in the organisation? Are you talking to all staff? Whose questions are you asking? Plan in regular reviews to check-in and see how the collaboration is going.

Further blog posts to come from this collaboration including a co-designed piece of research on the topic of partnerships.

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