Thursday, 13 August 2015

Project report update - discussion of theory

Classified as: theory, project update, reflective journal

The project report will include a largely descriptive component, which covers:
  • what the research involved, 
  • the development of the ISEPICH framework, 
  • what participants are doing to promote health, equity and environmental sustainability, 
  • what helps or challenges them in this work.
There will also be a more analytical component, which covers:
  • who said what, were there differences  between participants, why?
  • what are the underlying assumptions and ideas they are drawing on?
  • how does this relate to the context in which they are working and speaking?
  • what are the significant implications from this research so far?
It's not possible to make a hard distinction between description and analysis. For example, there are over 100,000 words in transcripts of interviews and group discussions, so just to make sense of that I have to summarise and select, which always involves analysis: what's relevant to the research questions, what are the key themes, and so on. However I think it's reasonable to make a distinction between mainly descriptive, where I am trying to portray what participants were doing and what they said, and mainly analytical, in which I look at differences and context and assumptions, and use theory to explore these.

Therefore at this point I want to be a bit more specific about the theory and methodology I am drawing on in this analysis.

Action research assumes that we all (once we get beyond very early life, anyway) have theories: ideas about the way the world works and why people do what they do. In an action research project such as this one, however, theories aren't necessarily fully articulated at the beginning. We develop a plan or idea for what we want to do, like the ISEPICH framework in the beginning of this project. The ISEPICH framework did draw on ideas and theories, both from the expert speakers at the first forum and from participants' own experience. The emphasis was not on using experts' theories to tell us what to do, but rather on using those theories, in conjunction with our own ideas and experience, to plan what we should do.

That is to say, theory in action research is grounded: it is not universal theory but rather particular theory about what will happen or should be done in a particular time and place.

Both the expert speakers at the first forum were health promotion experts, so the main theoretical approach they were drawing on was health promotion, as well as drawing on other theories and evidence about equity and climate change.  In devising the original project, I and the other people most involved were also drawing on integrated health promotion theory, particularly as expressed in the Department of Health Integrated Health Promotion Kit, and the Ottawa Charter. This is not to say, though, that all the participants in the project were drawing on the same theory. Most, I believe, shared a common ground of ideas about community development and social inclusion, but within that consensus, there may still have been some significant differences, particularly for the community members in ISEPICH.

The second stage of the research, talking with people in the three PCPs about what they had done and what helped or challenged them in this work, explored the 'action' of action research: this is the stage where theory is tested in practice. The theory that is being tested here is, at one level, the theory documented in the ISEPICH framework. However, the second stage of the research also involved people from other PCPs who hadn't been involved in developing the ISEPICH framework and were working with their own ideas and theories. The key common ground is the theory of integrated health promotion, as above. Beyond that, SGGPCP also have developed their own theory in Climate Change Adaptation: A Framework for Local Action. This was developed before this research project began and was clearly a very influential source for this research. Although it is expressed as being about adaptation, in fact it also addresses mitigation and provides a framework for health promotion drawing on the Ottawa Charter.

Part of the analysis therefore will be looking at those theories and how the findings of the research relate to them. When it comes to looking at context and assumptions, however, I will also draw on broader theories, which participants may or may not share or agree with. Specifically these are:
  • theories of culture and practice, particularly those that attempt to explain how people operate in 'everyday', taken-for-granted contexts
  • critical theory, particularly about the way that capitalist and neo-liberal societies work (these theories were alluded to, directly or indirectly, by participants at certain times)
  • feminist theory, particularly in regard to the tension between between hierarchical, competitive approaches and cooperative, egalitarian approaches, which I believe is a key underlying tension relevant to this research project.
I am currently working on a discussion of these fields of theory as they relate to the research project, and if I have time I will also try to summarise some of that here, before circulating the project report to participants.

I am also presenting on the research at the Population Health Congress in Hobart in September. The two presentations are a 15 minute presentation on 'Health promotion, equity, environmental sustainability and politics in Victoria, Australia'; and a poster presentation 'Ecofeminist theory can help us to counter the marginal political position of health promotion'. Both are on Tuesday 8th September.