Action research in critical scholarship: Negotiating multiple imperatives

Keywords: Action research, critical scholarship, transformative participation, participatory urban planning, slum upgrading


Critical scholars sometimes accuse action researchers of not being radical enough in their approach, while action researchers often see the work of critical scholars as elitist and not grounded in people’s everyday experiences. This article draws on an action research project with residents in urban informal settlements in Malawi and their partner organizations in the period 2013-2017 to discuss how research can negotiate and achieve its multiple imperatives of being critical and rooted, explanatory and actionable. It shows how the action research approach with its collaborative elements helped the research project avoid what Louis McNay (2014:4) calls “social weightlessness” in political theorizing – “an abstract way of thinking that is so far removed from the actual practices and dynamics of everyday life that, ultimately, its own analytical relevance and normative validity are thrown into question”. The article reflects on the possibilities and limitations of the integrated approach developed in the project and suggests that action research in critical scholarship is a way to avoid ‘social weightlessness’ in theorizing while at the same time responding to some of the critique made against action research for not engaging with structural inequality and systemic change at scale.

Author Biography

Hilde Refstie, Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU)

Phd candidate

Department of Geography



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How to Cite
Refstie, H. (2018). Action research in critical scholarship: Negotiating multiple imperatives. ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies, 17(1), 201-227. Retrieved from