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Theoretical Pluralism in Systemic Action Research

Abstract

It is now largely accepted as uncontroversial amongst systemic action researchers that there is practical value in theoretical pluralism: seeing through multiple theoretical ‘lenses’ that bring different (sometimes contradictory) assumptions into play. However, the practice of theoretical pluralism is paradoxically often justified with recourse to a single foundational epistemological theory: i.e., a theory of the nature of knowledge, accepted as universally true, which explains how it is that human beings can accept multiple theoretical perspectives. Justifying theoretical pluralism through the use of a foundational theory carries two risks. First, because the foundational theory is viewed as such a basic truth, it can become hard to accept other theories that may contradict it. Therefore, researchers may slip from an initial, strong commitment to theoretical pluralism to a more limited version that eliminates the use of theories that contradict the foundational one. The second risk is that the researcher’s understanding of his or her practice may come to be both constructed and evaluated using a single theoretical lens, so disconfirming evidence of the utility of that lens is never seen. Following an explanation of these risks, an alternative systemic approach to the philosophical justification of theoretical pluralism is advanced, and it is argued that this is less likely to introduce unwitting theoretical restrictions into action research practice than establishing a foundational epistemology. Finally, five consequences of this systemic perspective on theoretical pluralism are proposed: (i) knowledge cannot be regarded as universal and cumulative; (ii) theories are more or less useful depending on the purposes of intervention that are being pursued; (iii) we can think pluralistically about the agency and choices of the researcher; (iv) while it is impossible to produce universal standards for choice between theories, it is nevertheless still possible to generate standards of relevance to particular contexts; and (v) given that different theories inform different methodologies and methods, methodological pluralism (drawing upon methods from different paradigms) becomes a useful partner to theoretical pluralism.

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