From David Yamada’s dissertation: Action research and social change

My dissertation (Yamada, 2009a) incorporates various forms of research, ranging from traditional forays into books, journal articles, and reports, to personal experiences and observations. This chapter is based on my dissertation’s Appendix, slightly edited for clarity and with small corrections, and is on “Action research and social change” and discusses the role of action research in shaping the dissertation and the social change initiatives discussed within it.

WISR and action research

In a 2002 seminar paper, WISR co-founders John Bilorusky and Cynthia Lawrence articulated a working definition of action research this way:

Action research ...

Is exploratory (rather than narrow or habitual).

Is reflective (rather than rote or unthinking).

Promotes engagement (rather than aloofness).

  • • Is inquisitive (rather than disinterested or accepting).
  • • Is collaborative and participatory (rather than disconnected from dialogue and participation with others).
  • • Is emergent (rather than formulaic or mechanistic).
  • • Is concerned with the “bigger picture”—with other theories, readings, larger societal issues and implications (rather than focusing on trees to the exclusion of the forest and the landscape beyond the forest).
  • • Promotes telling and listening to stories and tangible examples (not just abstractions).
  • • Is concerned with human values and social justice (not with so-called value-free research, or with research and efforts which only serve the status quo).
  • • Involves taking one’s own experiences and insights seriously, as a basis for thinking, writing, conversations with others, and larger action (rather than relying only on the knowledge from books and the ideas embedded in existing policies and practices within organizations).
  • • Involves looking beyond oneself, as well—as in doing reviews of literature and interviews with others (rather than assuming we can’t learn from others, even those whose thinking or purposes we believe to be flawed in important ways).
  • • Involves writing and rewriting in our own voice—to think out loud with oneself, to communicate and share with others, to stimulate collaboration and participation with others, and to refine ideas and strategies (writing is part of an ongoing creative process, rather than an end point or an opportunity to set knowledge “in stone”).

Two forms of research—action research in the way of personal experience, observation, and inquiry on the one hand, and tapping into an array of multidisciplinar)' sources on the other—have served as mutually reinforcing components towards building this dissertation. For this ideal pairing I must credit my experience in the WISR PhD program. I first discovered WISR in the mid-1980s, when I read a short profile about it in a popular guide to alternative degree programs. I sent away for information and was intrigued by what I received. I had recently graduated from New York University School of Law and was working as a Legal Aid lawyer in New York City at the time, and WISR’s social change emphasis was enormously appealing. However, in terms of life experience and maturity, I was not ready for WISR. And fortunately for me, WISR was not as ready as it was when I eventually enrolled to work with students outside the Bay Area.

But by the fall of 2000, however, WISR was the right opportunity at the right time. It has taken me a long time to finish this degree, but the extended association has been enlightening and affirming. My learning projects have reflected a slow, occasionally halting, but mainly steady progression of uniting “mind and soul” in a way that runs counter to traditional academic culture. Not until late into my doctoral program did I realize that I wanted to write my dissertation on workplace bullying, but once I did it seemed like a perfectly natural decision. It has taken the progression of my WISR experience to understand the centrality of this work to my own life’s purpose and to envision how this dissertation can serve as a springboard to future scholarly, public education, and advocacy efforts towards addressing this problem.

WISR’s community-based focus also has supported my inclinations to reach beyond the walls of academic institutions to learn and grow. I have noticed that all too many academicians are willing to interact with practitioners and the public-only to the extent where they “hand down” the results of their research or solicit people to be part of their studies. The idea that there may be a mutually beneficial and enriching exchange of information, opinion, and insight seems foreign to many of them. By contrast, I have found myself grateful for what I have learned about workplace bullying from those outside of academe. Without that benefit, my work would be more removed from the real world and lacking in necessary understanding and insight.

Nonetheless, it took me a long time to internalize the practice of action research into my degree program. Trained as a lawyer and legal academician, my road to tenure as a law professor was paved with long, heavily footnoted law review articles emphasizing the analysis of law and public policy, often lacking in personal voice. I believe there is a usefol role for that type of scholarship, and it has contributed greatly to the work I have done. However, that mode is now complemented by an action research orientation that is evident in this dissertation and even more prominent in other work that I am doing concerning workplace bullying, employment law, and employment relations.

Consider the essential terms from the Bilorusky/Lawrence characterization of action research: exploratory, reflective, engaging, inquisitive, collaborative, and participatory, emergent, concerned with the “bigger picture,” storytelling, values-oriented, experiential, interactive, and personal. My work in my WISR degree program led to a dissertation that, while incorporating a considerable amount of traditional research, has embraced all of these qualities:

  • • This dissertation is deeply personal and values-oriented. I have been changed by involvement in this work; it has become a central part of my life’s work.
  • • Qualities of exploration, reflection, engagement, inquisitiveness, and emergence are explicitly and implicitly present in this dissertation. Workplace bullying was a new topic for American employment relations when I first became familiar with it in 1998, and it has not yet fully entered the mainstream. The work that I and others are doing remains on the cutting edge, involving recurring cycles of thinking, planning, doing, and evaluating.
  • • Although my dissertation has been completed in a more conventionally solitary mode, the underlying work I have been doing concerning workplace bullying has been collaborative, participatory, and interactive, involving scholars, practitioners, and activists across many fields and from around the world. Conferences, roundtables, meetings, email and blog exchanges, letters, phone calls, and sharing of drafts and published work are regular pieces of this ongoing fray.
  • • The stories of severely bullied workers have inspired this dissertation and continue to drive my work. Individual stories have taught me more than research studies (however valuable) about the acute suffering caused by this form of abuse. Only considerations of privacy and confidentiality have precluded me from sharing them in this dissertation.
  • • More implicit than explicit in this dissertation is its experiential dimension. My grasp of workplace bullying, employment relations, and organizational behavior has been enhanced immeasurably by my experiences as a worker. I could not have written this dissertation some 25 years ago; my understanding of the experience of work would have been too shallow.
  • • Considerations of the “big picture” have infused this work. They have directed me to take a multidisciplinary approach in defining the subject-matter parameters of this dissertation. They have inspired me to delve more deeply into how employment law and legal practice in general can affinai the importance of psychologically healthy workplaces.
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