The implications of field experience in action research for studies of church and community
Trimble, Glen Walker
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"Action research is a pioneering frontier in synthesized and applied social science disciplines. The five-year experience of the Department of Research and Strategy of the Massachusetts Council of Churches is the only systematized attempt to apply this approach to church problems in the community context. The writer has served with the Rev. William J. Villaume, the Director, as one of two professional staff members for the past four years. The dissertation undertakes to provide a survey and critical analysis of that experience together with an ordered summary of present conclusions. Action research is, in essence, the creative synthesis of social research and social engineering and, in the limitations of the present treatment, has its own purpose not only the discovery of facts but help in altering certain conditions experiences by the community as unsatisfactory. The focus of concern is on successful application of action research methodology to church-community studies, in research integrated with and for action, rather than on the broader related field of recent research on action. The three major sections present (1) the historical background of church research and action research in the United States and of the development of this emphasis in the Massachusetts Department of Research and Strategy, (2) the actual study report prepared by the present writer on Boston's West End presented here as a major case study and (3) a final chapter of theoretical working conclusions and particularly relevant techniques developed from five years of field experience. Neither the history of church research or of the action research in this country has received prior systematic treatment in published form. The major part of the material on the history of church research has been drawn from unpublished manuscripts by William J. Villaume, Director of the Department of Research and Strategy, and from acquaintance and extended discussion with H. Paul Douglass, Ross W. Sanderson and other active participants in almost the full span of church research in the United States. Action research, best typified, by the work of the Research Center for Group Dynamics began with the Iowa studies in the late 1930's and, intensively with the founding of the center in 1945. Much of the source material is in scattered mongraphs, articles and dissertations. The scientific approach to problems of church planning and adjustment has its origin in the American social gospel movement. It was and is a tool of reform. One of its basic assumptions is the responsibility of the churches to their communities and the communities' needs. Graham Taylor was a pioneer in church research as in wider applications of emerging social science to institutional religion. The leveling of population, non-Protestant immigration, and the new urbanism gave impetus to church research. Its development was closely linked to developing ecumenicity in the "Federation" movement. The work of the Institute for Social and Religious Research was outstanding. However, diagnostic and participant observer community study methodology achieved little alteration in the patterning and functioning of established churches in local communities and a reaction against such research occurred. Action research is an aspect of the trend toward teamwork among social scientists with background in varied disciplines when confronted with field application and problem-solving. Kurt Lewin has a significant part in the process of "integration of research, training, and action." Some of his special emphases were on synthesis of the social sciences, interdependence in knowledge and in life, the re-orientation of science to the problems of common life, the psychology and structuring of democracy and, finally, action research was cut short by his death in 1947. His students and colleagues in the Research Center for Group Dynamics, first at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and now at the University of Michigan, continued and expanded the use of the new methodology and made the "bringing together in a single cooperative adventure of the skills of men of science and men of action" a central emphasis. A major contribution by the Center has been its laboratory and field experimentation in group functioning and, particularly, in induced change. The original Iowa experimentation in the effect of democratic, autocratic, and laisses faire leadership on group attitudes and productivity and two relatively less-known experimental projects illustrate the importance of this work. The first of the latter is that John. W. Thibaut in 1949 on "the relation of group cohesiveness in inter-group status" and the second is that of Morton Deutsch in 1948 on "the effects of co-operation and competition upon group process." The field experience of the Department of Research and Strategy is a substantial part of the total field experience in applied action research. Their stress on the use of methodology for practical problem-solving, their pattern of field operation with a minimum of super-imposed controls, and their experience with persons and groups close to the "grass roots" of community life are distinctive contributions in the action research field. The study of church community in Boston's West End, conducted by the staff and local study group and reported by the writer, is presented as a major case study illustrating the theory and methodology under consideration. The West End is the portion of old Boston extending from the Beacon Street side of the Common to the North Station. It comprises elite Beacon Hill, the transient back of the Hill and slum areas north of Cambridge Street. The variety of its people and its social problems and needs matches the variety of neighborhoods. Definite social trends are discernable. A typological treatment of the Protestant churches and institutions in the West End divides the total of twelve into four groups: central-city churches, neighborhood social service centers, neighborhood churches and store-front missions. An analysis of each institution is undertaken. The study closes with seventeen proposals for West End strategy drafted by the local study committee composed of ministers and laymen. The concluding chapter presents the status of staff thinking on the basis of five years of field experience. The working hypotheses are structured as three basic presuppositions, four aims, ten hypotheses as to the role of the research technician, three aspects of method, and three conclusions as to the results sought. A full statement of these working conclusions would exceed the bounds of an abstract. Presuppositions include the belief that a community moves toward effectiveness through group acceptance of common goals, that the people concerned are the authors of lasting change, and that therefore an outside expert should be invited and should share in the process, not attempt to dictate it. The most central aim is the creation of conditions which will aid the local groups to release their own creative resources for serving and improving the community life on the highest possible level. The role of the research technician is best characterized as that of a group therapist, using a synthesis of all relavent social science knowledge and techniques in order to help those with whom he works to summon their recuperative and constructive powers of solving the group problems in the community context. The process is closely parallel to that of the relation of the psycho-therapist to the individual patient. The research worker acts as a collaborator and resource; a participating scientist maintaining objectivity and an open-minded relation to all factions. Negatively he does not seek to direct or to force his views. His "facts" are less relavent than the responses of the group. He must yield the aims of maximum perfection and minimum time. Success in achieving institutional adaptation is in direct ratio to the extent and intensiveness of the participation of local persons and groups in the entire study process. The method of spreading interest and participation is one of "rolling a snowball" of interest from a core of one or two to the progressive involvement of a wider and wider circle. A democratic group structure and functioning is essential to the action research process. The emergent plan will not be ideal, but it should be within the group's capacity to carry out, and it will be theirs. The plan is not the major objective, the development of local leadership and group self-reliance is, and these latter translated into improved community conditions and life are the ultimate measures of success. The specific steps of the study process are designed to insure democratic functioning, full participation and substantial action result. The study committee role is central to success. The published report marks the close of the first phase of the process. Specialized use of maps and charts, church questionnaires and other methodological devices have proved effective. Ten major modifications, limitations and obstacles are considered. In summary, applied action research can have a vital relation to the larger battle for survival of fundamental democracy in our world.
Thesis (Ph.D.)--Boston University