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Emerging from the swamp: an autoethnography on the legitimacy of action research

Natalie Smith (Business School, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia)

International Journal of Managing Projects in Business

ISSN: 1753-8378

Article publication date: 10 December 2020

Issue publication date: 21 January 2021




The pressure on the academic community to demonstrate impact, bridge theory to practice and solve practical problems is persistent. Action research has the potential for bridging the rigour–relevance gap, but has struggled for legitimacy. The purpose of this paper is to better understand the impediments to action research legitimacy.


An analytic autoethnography of a PhD candidature, utilising legitimacy theory.


The study finds that a self-perpetuating cycle is hampering the quality of action research and provides a comprehensive list of impediments to action research legitimacy. It predicts that legitimacy can be improved through differentiating and improving guidance to theoretical contribution and considering a broader range of stakeholders for research funding and execution.

Research limitations/implications

Provides a more comprehensive understanding of the type and form of legitimacy issues for action research, which informs the actions likely to improve legitimacy. Provides clarity into limitations and variants in legitimacy theory. As the perspective of one PhD candidate, the study has the potential for bias and limitations to generalisability.

Practical implications

Improving the legitimacy of action research helps practice-based disciplines. The findings assist practitioners contemplating an academic pursuit to solve intractable business problems.

Social implications

Research that is both rigorous and relevant contributes to one’s ability to solve complex societal problems. This study provides insights into how research rigour and relevance could be improved.


This research provides unique perspective and insight into the reasons action research continues to struggle for legitimacy



Natalie Smith received a PhD top-up scholarship from Digtial Health Cooperative Research Centre.


Smith, N. (2021), "Emerging from the swamp: an autoethnography on the legitimacy of action research", International Journal of Managing Projects in Business, Vol. 14 No. 1, pp. 231-252.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2020, Emerald Publishing Limited

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