An action research-based intervention to tackle intergroup conflict: A case study of work with educators in a South African secondary school


Inter-group tensions have long and complex history in South Africa (SA) and appear to flare up particularly at times of increased societal discontent. The limited recent redress of profound race-based economic inequalities, compounded by a decade of incompetent service delivery and seemingly widespread governmental corruption, have led to a resurgence of expressions of race-based conflict. These are also somewhat fuelled by the global economic downturn, along with the conservative and authoritarian turn evident in a number of countries.
Action Research (AR) is valuable in conflict situations, though its utility in applied psychology has been somewhat under-reported. It provides a framework for communication about different perspectives and power differentials; aspiring towards active negotiation, changed interpersonal relationships and structures. This paper explores the unfolding processes in a case study involving secondary school educators and two trainee psychologists; including reflections to promote deeper understanding. We were invited to work with the head teacher and her staff members in a secondary school in the Eastern Cape, to address conflicts between two groups of educators. These appeared to be race-based tensions. In order to work collaboratively with the educators, AR was employed, to explore some solutions and improve relationships. This article describes the shifts that occurred and the challenges of translating ideals into practice.


Keywords: action research, inter-group conflict, conflict resolution, peace-building, community-based practice


Ahmed, R., & Pillay, A.L. (2004). Reviewing clinical psychology training in the post-apartheid period: Have we made any progress? South African Journal of Psychology, 34, 630-656. doi:10.1177/008124630403400408

Akhurst, J. (2017). Student experiences of community-based service learning during Masters’ level training, as related to critical community psychology practice. Journal of New Generation Sciences, 15, 1, 1-20. Retrieved from:

Akhurst, J.E., & Kelly, K. (2006). Peer group supervision as an adjunct to individual supervision: Optimising learning processes during psychologists’ training. Psychology Teaching Review, 12, 1, 3-15. Retrieved from:

Akhurst, J., Solomon, V., Mitchell, C., & van der Riet, M. (2016). Embedding community-based learning into psychology degrees at UKZN, South Africa. Educational Research for Social Change, 5, 2, 136-150. Retrieved from:

Bantjes, J., Kagee, A., & Young, C. (2016). Counselling psychology in South Africa. Counselling Psychology Quarterly, 29(2), 171–183. doi:10.1080/09515070.2015.1128401

Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2006). Using thematic analysis in psychology. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 3, 2, 77-101. doi:10.1191/1478088706qp063oa

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1994). Ecological models of human development. International Encyclopaedia of Education (pp. 37-43). Oxford, UK: Elsevier.

Carolissen, R. (2006). Teaching community psychology into obscurity: A reflection on community psychology in South Africa. Journal of Psychology in Africa, 16, 177-182. doi:10.1080/14330237.2006.10820120.

Center for Victims of Torture. (2019). Professional quality of life measure (ProQOL). Retrieved from

Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation. (2019). Retrieved from

Fals Borda, O. (1995). “Research for social justice: Some North-South convergences”, Speech from the Plenary Address at the Southern Sociological Society Meeting, Atlanta, GA.

Freire, P. (2005). Education for Critical Consciousness. New York, NY: Continuum International Publishing Group.

Gibbs, G. (1988). Learning by Doing: A Guide to Teaching and Learning Methods. Oxford, UK: Oxford Further Education Unit.

Gilbert, A., & Sliep, Y. (2009). Reflexivity in the practice of social action: From self- to inter- relational reflexivity. South African Journal of Psychology, 39(4), 468-479. doi:10.1177/008124630903900408

Gobodo-Madikizela, P. (2014). Dare we hope: Facing our past to find a new future. Cape Town, South Africa: Tafelberg.

Gobodo-Madikizela, P. (2016). Introduction: Breaking intergenerational cycles of repetition. In P. Gobodo-Madikizela (Ed.), Breaking intergenerational cycles of repetition: A global dialogue on historical trauma (pp. 1-11). Cologne and Leverkusen, Germany: Budrich Academic Press.

Harris, G. (2017). Building peace via action research: challenges and potential. In S. Kaye & G. Harris, G. (Eds.), Building Peace via Action Research-African case studies (pp. 139-144). Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: University for Peace Africa Programme.

Hart, A., & Akhurst, J. (2016). Community-Based Learning and Critical Community Psychology Practice: Conducive and Corrosive Aspects. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, 27, 3–15. doi:10.1002/casp.2287

Higson-Smith, C. (2002). Supporting communities affected by violence: A casebook from South Africa. Oxford, UK: Oxfam Great Britain.

Jordan, S. (2003). Who stole my methodology? Co-opting PAR [1]. Globalisation, Societies and Education, 1(2), 185-200. Retrieved from:

Kagan, C. (2015). Community psychological perspectives and counselling psychology. Counselling Psychology Review 30, 3, 12-21.

Kagan, C., Burton, M., Duckett, P., Lawthom, R., & Siddiquee, A. (2011). Critical community psychology. Chichester, UK: BPS Blackwell.

Kaye, S. (2017). An overview of action research and its relevance to peacebuilding. In S. Kaye & G. Harris, G. (Eds.), Building peace via action research-African case studies (pp.2-15). Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: University for Peace Africa Programme.

Kaye, S., & Harris, G. (2017). Building peace via action research-African case studies. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: University for Peace Africa Programme

Kemmis, S., & McTaggart, R. (2005). Participatory action research: Communicative action and the public sphere. In N. Denzin & Y. Lincoln, (Eds.), The sage handbook of qualitative research (3rd ed) (pp. 559-603). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Kidd, S., Davidson, L., Frederick, T., & Kral, M.J. (2018). Reflecting on participatory, action-oriented research methods in community psychology: Progress, problems, and paths forward. American Journal of Community Psychology, 61, 76–87. doi:10.1002/ajcp.12214

Koshy, V. (2010). Action research for improving educational practice (2nd ed). London, UK: Sage.

Lazarus, S., Bulbulia, S., Taliep, N., & Naidoo, A. (2015). Community–based participatory research as a critical enactment of community psychology. Journal of Community Psychology, 48, 1, 87-98. doi:10.1002/jcop.21689

McIntyre, A. (2008). Participatory action research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage

McNiff, J. (2010). Action research for professional development. Poole, UK: September Books.

McNiff, J., & Whitehead, J. (2011). All you need to know about action research, (2nd ed.). London, UK: Sage Publications.

Mitchell, T. (2008). Traditional vs. critical service-learning: Engaging the literature to differentiate two models. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 14, 2, 50-65. Retrieved from:

Nwoye, A. (2017). An Africentric theory of human personhood. Psychology in Society, 54, 42 – 66. doi/10.17159/2309-8708/2017/n54a4

Pillay, J. (2003). "Community psychology is all theory and no practice": Training educational psychologists in community practice within the South African context. South African Journal of Psychology, 33, 4, 261-268. doi:10.1177/008124630303300409

Reason, P. (1994). Three approaches to participative inquiry. In N.K. Denzin & Y.S. Lincoln (Eds.), Handbook of Qualitative Research (pp. 324-339). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Seedat, M. (2014). Mobilising compassionate critical citizenship and psychologies in the service of humanity. In S. Cooper & K. Ratele (Eds.), Psychology Serving Humanity: Proceedings of the 30th International Congress of Psychology: Volume 1: Majority World Psychology (pp. 1-17). London, UK: Psychology Press.

Seedat, M., & Lazarus, S. (2011). Community psychology in South Africa: Origins, developments, and manifestations. Journal of Community Psychology, 39(3), 241-257. doi:10.1002/jcop.20429

Strain, C.R. (2007). Moving like a starfish: beyond a unilinear model of student transformation in service learning classes, Journal of College and Character, 8, 1, 1-5. doi:10.2202/1940-1639.1150

Visser, M., & Moleko, A.G. (2012). Community psychology in South Africa. Pretoria, ZA: Van Schaik Publishers.

Wilson, T., Davids, S., & Voce, A. (2015). Frontline managers matter: Wellness for effective leadership. In A. Padarath, J. King, & R. English, (Eds.), South African Health Review 2014/15. Durban, South Africa: Health Systems Trust.

Yen, J. (2007). A history of ‘community’ and community psychology in South Africa. In N. Duncan, B. Bowman, A. Naidoo, J. Pillay, & V. Roos (Eds.), Community psychology: Analysis, context and action (pp. 51-66). Cape Town, South Africa: UCT Pre

Full Text: PDF


  • There are currently no refbacks.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribuzione - Non commerciale - Non opere derivate 3.0 Italia License.