Action Research and Music Therapy: Group Music Therapy with Young Refugees in a School Community

The origins of Action Research can be traced back to many different arenas and several theoretical orientations have influenced its development. In a broad perspective, Action Research is concerned with producing and expanding collective knowledge in order to create social change within communities for the benefit of human society and ultimately achieving ideological change. On a more tangible level, Action Research can be applied to a small, contained arena where researchers work towards change within an individual and the production of knowledge for the direct benefit of that individual.

Music Therapy is an intervention that is used in social contexts and often in situations where it is culturally context bound. As music therapists we have an impact on the people and their communities with which we work. I believe that we need to be aware of the social impact that we are having when conducting music therapy, and especially when researching, to ensure that the clients, who are affected by the practical knowledge being produced, are able to realise their rights and choices in the process. Action Research is a framework that encourages this to happen.

The literature shows that the experience of being a young refugee is a complex one, influenced by traumatic experiences prior to, and during, flight from their home and then stigma, isolation, rejection and racism in the host society (Bashir, 2000; Brough, Gorman, Ramirez, & Westoby, 2003; Devereux, 2004; Dokter, 1998; Raper, 2002). This experience is disempowering and often results in the young refugee lacking feelings of belonging. As I became more interested in the plight of this group of people, I wondered if music therapy could be used to empower them to foster feelings of belonging in the community. Furthermore, I asked myself how I could research this in the most appropriate way. I felt that Action Research would be an ideal method for this research.

Definition of Action Research

Action Research is a method that focuses on creating social change and expanding the collective knowledge by empowering the participants to take ownership of the project and re-ignite their voice so that they can continue this change (Greenwood & Levin, 1998; Reason & Bradbury, 2001; Stige 2002).

In Action Research "there is less focus on collection and analysis of data, however it remains important, and more openness for creativity and critical interpretation in the research process" (Stige, 2002, p. 285). Action Research is about working with the wider community and creating social change within that community but it is also about the individual and social change within an individual. After all, change can only begin with the individual.

Influential People in Action Research

There are several people who have been influential in the development of Action Research but for me there are three names that stand out - Kurt Lewin, Karl Marx and Paulo Freire.

Kurt Lewin, a German/American social psychologist, presented the first theory of Action Research in the early 1940s (Greenwood & Levin, 1998; Stige, 2002). Lewin argued that research that resulted in books and articles was not enough; research must contribute to the wider picture (Stige, 2002). Much of Marxist dictum has contributed to the development and shaping of the fundamental principles of Action Research. The focal point of Marxism's influence on Action Research is the idea that the important thing is not to understand something but to try and change it. Marx said "the philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it" (Macey, 2000). Kurt Lewin also believed in this sentiment saying that "if you truly want to understand something then try and change it" (Stige, 2002). Marxism provided ways to develop political ideologies that worked towards an equal society for all (Macey, 2000) which is the aim of Action Research.

Although he has not been widely referenced in Action Research literature, I have found the work of Paulo Freire to be influential and relevant to the ideals of Action Research. Freire worked in the educational realm and campaigned for the rights of the oppressed and the poor in order for them to be educated, gain knowledge, and break away from the government ideology oppressing them. He worked towards empowering people to change the world to a more equal and just world (Freire, 1993). His educational work, ideas and theories, developed while working with oppressed populations, influenced Action Research (Freire, 1993; Reason & Bradbury, 2001).

Theoretical Orientations of Action Research

Action Research is influenced by several different theoretical orientations. Many authors cite different theoretical influences (Greenwood & Levin, 1998; Park, 1993; Reason & Bradbury, 2001; Stige, 2002). However, four main theoretical influences stand out in Action Research. These are:

  • Critical Theory
  • Feminist Theory
  • Humanist Perspective
  • Postmodern Connection

Critical Theory and Action Research

Critical Theory is one of the most influential theoretical orientations of Action Research. Critical Theory emphasises the empowerment and emancipation of people in social contexts. Critical Theory promotes the development of a free and just society by dispelling the illusions of ideology (Macey, 2000) "Critical theorists advocate that social researchers should focus upon the social conditions connected to the production and application of knowledge" (Stige, 2002).

Jurgen Harbermas has had the most contemporary influence on Critical Theory and comes from the Frankfurt school of thought. Harbermas developed influential ideas about the relationship between thought and action that is linked to knowledge and human activities. He suggests that social research should be free from restraint and tradition and be political and critical (Stige, 2002). Action Research began to gain more strength in the 1960's when many of society's conformist ideals were being questioned and the influence of Critical theory of the Frankfurt school became much more influential (Stige, 2002).

Feminism in Action Research

Another important theoretical influence that has informed the fundamental ideology of Action Research is Feminist Theory and the movement towards liberation of gender and race in a feminist perspective. (Maguire, 2001) Maguire (2001) states that many action researchers have been inspired by feminist theories and methodologies and have grounded their research in this ideology. The way that feminism challenges domination and structures are elements that can be related to Action Research (Reason & Bradbury, 2001).

The Humanist Perspective

The Humanist Perspective in Action Research considers the interactions between human beings and their influences on each other. It does not exclude the researcher from the research process and treats the research participant more as a human being than a subject. It promotes a view that emphasises researchers not hiding behind a role (Rowan, 2001) I think John Rowan best illustrates the Humanist Perspective approach to Action Research in the Handbook of Action Research (2003 p118).

Figure 1: (Source: Rowan, 2001)

Figure 2: (Source: Rowan, 2001)

Figure 3: (Source: Rowan, 2001)

Rowan (2001) provides three very helpful diagrams to explain different types of research. Figure 1 shows a quantitative empirical research cycle where the researcher is alienated and role bound (represented by the dotted lined circle) and the subject (the dotted line) only encounters the researcher during one aspect of the research such as the experiment, observation or survey.

Figure 2 represents research where the researcher is still role bound but not alienated from the subject although the two only meet at one point. The researcher is genuinely open to the subject but does not include them in the whole research process.

In Figure 3 Rowan is explaining that alienation of the researcher varies depending on the people involved and the social context. However, the important difference is that the research subjects are involved in the whole process. This is an emphasis that has been embraced by Action Research.

The Postmodern Connection

Much of the philosophy of Action Research has been influenced by postmodern ways of thinking. Post modernism provides us with many different ways to analyse situations and see through the myths of modernism. However, it can be construed as doing so without suggesting a solution or being able to move beyond the problems analysed (Macey, 2000). Action Research provides us with a way to develop solutions and move beyond the identified problems to create social change for a more humane and just world.

The postmodern perspective places emphasis on deconstructing ideas, thoughts and values and therefore being able to move on from assumptions and habits. Postmodernism identifies an intricate relationship between knowledge and power (Reason & Bradbury, 2001). The relevant idea is that the expansion and gaining of knowledge will in turn lead to more power. However, expansion of knowledge is highly influenced by cultural and political forms, which Reason and Bradbury (2001) say, favours those already in power.

Considering all these facts it is fair to state that Action Research acknowledges the importance and power of knowledge and is concerned with the development of language within this context (Reason & Bradbury, 2001).

Figure 4.

A Participatory Worldview in Action Research

Taking into account these four theoretical orientations, at the core of Action Research is a participatory worldview. "As part of the current shift from modern to a post modern world we need to engage with current debate about world views and paradigms" (Reason & Bradbury, 2001, p.4). This quote can be explained by looking into the way Action Research looks at the world. The participatory worldview uses the exact sciences and the humanities to look at the world using democratic forms of inquiry. It relies on relationships and the participation of all to look into the problems of communities and emphasises people's right to be involved and have a voice about decisions which affect them and which claim to generate knowledge about them (Reason & Bradbury, 2001).

In current times Action Research is being used more widely and the practice can be found in many different areas including: community development; education; healthcare; medicine; social work; the human social sciences; psychological and transpersonal sciences (Reason & Bradbury, 2001). As social and human researchers search for deeper ways of understanding the process and forces that guide our society and communities, Action Research has the potential to be used more and more.

Action Research is a very appropriate method to use when researching the effects of music therapy, especially when researching in culturally sensitive areas.

Action Research and Music Therapy with Young Refugees

There is very little research on the use of music therapy and refugees. However, the literature that is available emphasises that there are many considerations to take into account when using music therapy with refugees; for example, being aware of the refugees' cultural background and the impact this may have on their response to the therapeutic relationship, the environment and the music itself (Bradt, 1997; Darrow, 1998; Dokter, 2000; Moreno, 1988; Pavlicevic, 1994; Wong, 2000).

Techniques that have been used with young refugees are similar to those used with all adolescents. As well as being refugees, these young people still experience the same issues as all young people - such as identity formation and peer acceptance, as well as cultural differences and the experience of being a refugee. Techniques that have been identified in the literature that have been particularly beneficial include (Amir, 1998; Day, Jones, & Baker, 2004):

  • Improvisation.
  • Song singing.
  • Music and movement.
  • Song writing using hip hop and rap.

The theme of the research in discussion is "Music Therapy and Action Research: Empowering young refugees to foster feelings of belonging in the school community". The researcher will be working with a group of young refugees aged between 12 and 15 who attend an English as a Second Language school in Melbourne, Australia. The school acts as a transition school between the arrival of the young refugees in the country and the time when they can attend a mainstream school. At the school they have intensive English instruction as well as learning other academic subjects.

When utilising an Action Research framework the research begins at the first contact with the community. The fundamental principles of Action Research have been used to inform all interactions with the school community so far and to plan the music therapy.

Action Research as a Framework

As mentioned earlier, Kurt Lewin constructed a theory of Action Research in the 1940's. This theory consists of a spiral approach incorporating a process of planning, action and evaluation. (Stige, 2002) The whole process is guided by an overall problem, identified at the outset, and works towards finding a solution to the problem to ignite change. It may be useful to imagine an image of a spiral with these steps incorporated in it starting from the top and moving down (Law, 2004; Stige, 2002):

  1. Definition of object/ problem identification.
  2. Fact finding.
  3. Making of an overall plan.
  4. Action/data collection.
  5. Evaluation/data analysis.

When this process has been completed once, the process may begin again from a more informed and knowledgeable position.

Fundamental Principles of Action Research

There are several fundamental principles of Action Research that need to be outlined and that will guide the project being conducted as a Research Masters degree through the University of Melbourne. These are:

  • Encourage and stimulate communication, democratic dialogue and development.
  • Democratic participation.
  • Practical Knowledge.
  • Empowerment of people.
  • An emancipatory form of research.
  • Providing choices

Encourage and Stimulate Communication, Democratic Dialogue and Development

The first step in Action Research is the formation of a communicative space which can be developed, grow and maintained (Reason, 2003). Communication and democratic dialogue are essential principles when working towards an equal and democratic society and Action Research works towards opening up these channels.

In a school setting there is inevitably a hierarchal system in place and rules and regulations are imposed for the benefit of the students. Freire (1993) says that education must be a democratic process; otherwise the student is only learning the ideology of the government/leader in power. Therefore in order to empower someone he or she must first be given the opportunity for democratic dialogue. With this in mind, open dialogue, communication and democratic processes have been a focus when working with members of the school community.

The five steps of Action Research, outlined below, are used to guide interactions with the School community and development of the project. The project is currently at stage four.

The five steps:

  1. Definition of object or problem identification - from the literature, difficulties that young refugees face when entering a new community were identified. These difficulties include language barriers, lack of prior education, having endured traumatic experiences that lead to a feeling of disempowerment and little sense of belonging.
  2. Fact finding - In the second step organizations that work with young refugees were approached. Soon after, close work began with one, an English as a Second Language School. From the initial contact with the school a team of co-researchers emerged. The team consists of the school Principal, the School Social Welfare Officer and the Secondary Sector Co-ordinator. The team of co-researchers investigated the identified problem more closely and began to develop ways to go about the research. In the initial stages the difficulties experienced by young refugees, as identified in the literature, were identified as a "problem". This was discussed and confirmed by the school community. If the team of co-researchers had identified different needs then the project would have been shaped and modified accordingly.

    Following this development, and before stage four begins, students from the school will be invited to participate and join the team as co-researchers. In Action Research all participants and community members involved become co-researchers. Students who will be approached to volunteer as co-researchers will be:

    • Refugees.
    • Adolescents.
    • Regularly attending school.
    • In the middle years of the school.
    • Having attended the school for more than six months.
  3. Making of an overall plan - Initial meetings involved democratic discussion and decision making on a range of topics, such as:

    Participant involvement:

    • How to go about inviting volunteers.
    • Developing the consent and plain language statement.
    • Session times and length of session.
    • Support for participants if issues arise.

    All decisions made with the school community so far have been done so democratically. As a result they are understanding, enthusiastic and respectful of the music therapy process. They are also very interested to see what the outcomes will be.

    From this experience, developing the relationship with the community with which one is working is of vital importance in Action Research.

    The action phase is characterised by putting the plan into action. The difficulty with Action Research is that there is no definitive end or method of data analysis therefore it needs to be modified. Stige (2002, p. 285) states "there is less focus on collection and analyses of data, however it remains important, and more openness for creativity and critical interpretation in the research process."

  4. Action/Data collection

    This stage is currently being conducted.

    The Music Therapy Phase: A group of young refugees will participate in weekly music therapy sessions for ten weeks. As the sessions progress the young refugees are expected to become more familiar with the music therapy space. They will be encouraged to take ownership of the process and to lead the music therapy by making decisions such as:

    • Techniques used in each session.
    • Style of music played.
    • What to create as an end product (i.e. a performance, a recorded song).

    In the music therapy space, communication and dialogue via verbal and non-verbal means will be encouraged and facilitated by the music therapist using music therapy techniques. As many young refugees do not have a good grasp of the English language, they may not be able to participate in democratic verbal dialogue to begin with, but will be able to participate in the communicative space provided by the music in music therapy.

  5. Evaluation/data coding and analysis

    In this phase of Action Research, roles and responsibilities of co-researchers maybe redefined. Although all co-researchers will be involved in the evaluating process, the roles may be different to the implementation phase. However, there will always be a focus on democratic decision-making.

    As stated earlier, a limitation of Action Research is that there is no definitive end or method of data analysis. Therefore, in order to fulfil the requirements of a Masters by research degree, a method of data analysis has been devised.

    In addition to the ten music therapy sessions being audio recorded, one final piece of music may be recorded for the purposes of analysis. In accordance with Action Research principles and in order to keep this decision in the hands of all the co-researchers, five options for the data analysis have been developed, with the fifth allowing for an original idea that emerges from the group.

    Five options:

    1. To record a final piece of music or a song that has been written by the group during music therapy.
    2. To perform a piece of the group's music or a song to the school community.
    3. To use one improvisation that the young refugees choose. The improvisation they choose may have particular meaning to them or represent a pivotal session.
    4. To compare session 2 and 10, looking for differences in the music (first session not considered due to it being an introductory session).
    5. To let the group decide on a fifth option.

    The young refugees will be consulted and will decide democratically what option will be used for evaluation and data analysis. The song, improvisation or piece of music that is chosen will be analysed using McFerran's Music Therapy Group Improvisation Group listening model (McFerran & Wigram, 2005), which has been modified for song creations in music therapy.

Democratic Participation

Already mentioned in this essay is the importance of democratic participation in the action research process. In Action Research, members of an oppressed group or community may identify a problem, collect and analyse information and then evaluate it in order to find a solution.

Although the members of the community of young refugees or the school community did not approach the researcher with a problem, literature (Bashir, 2000; Dokter, 1998; Wong, 2000) substantiates difficulties faced by refugees in Australian communities. It is an informed assumption that there are many problems being faced by schools in addressing the issues of young refugees. From the first contact with the school where this project is being held, equality in the process and democratic decision-making has been the focus.

Practical Knowledge

Action Research is undertaken to produce practical knowledge that is useful to people's everyday lives. Action Researchers wish to contribute to humanity through increasing practical knowledge for the purpose of enhancing the well-being of people and communities in the areas of economics, politics, psychology and spiritual (Reason & Bradbury, 2001).

As an example, the research being discussed here will generate knowledge on how music therapy can be used with young refugees. The knowledge created from this project may be able to inform other schools in Australia regarding how music therapy can be implemented into the education curriculum of English as a Second Language schools. It may in turn provide practical knowledge from a young refugee's perspective on:

  • The issues faced by young refugees in schools.
  • The issues faced by young refugees in the community.
  • How young refugees use tools provided to them, i.e. music therapy.

This project will also provide valuable knowledge for other health professionals and educators about working in a culturally bound context where the therapist or teacher has the potential to learn from the participants in regards to cultural identity. In Action Research the researcher commits to learn with the participants (Law, 2004) as they will often know more about their cultural context. As Stige (2002) explains, a music therapist engaging in action research is opened to an opportunity for learning from the participants.

Empowerment of People

Action Research is intently focused towards empowering people, especially those of underprivileged and oppressed groups (Reason & Bradbury, 2001). It is focused towards working with those whose voices have been silenced through the experience of being disempowered and allowing them to find a platform from which their voice can be heard.

Refugees have often experienced significant trauma in the lead up to fleeing their country due to violence and detention, war trauma, deprivation during the actual flight and loss of home and family (Dokter, 2000). Young Refugees are often uncertain about asylum in Australia and experience poor social conditions and loss of cultural and personal identity (Dokter, 2000). The experience of being a refugee can distort a sense of self, cause loss of identity, create tension in families due to roles reversal and place a person in a foreign environment threatening their feeling of safety (Austin, 2002; Bashir, 2000; Dokter, 1998; Wong, 2000). These experiences can lead to the feeling of disempowerment and a loss of a sense of belonging. It is an informed assumption that because of their experience young refugees may feel disempowered.

Empowerment is a process or mechanism which is used to gain control of a person's own life or situation, or that of a community and leads to a shift in their feelings from powerlessness to motivation (Daveson, 2001). The act of being in a music therapy group can enhance peer support and encourage group participation while the act of playing music together provides a solid basis for participation and group cohesion. These elements provide the platform for important group processes to occur which may facilitate positive experiences. Through the appropriate facilitation by me as the music therapist, the young refugees will be able to lead the direction of the music in the group and make decisions about how the music will be used. Through this the refugees will begin to take ownership of the music therapy process, which in turn may lead to empowerment. Daveson (2001) proposes that empowerment is intrinsic to and a consequence of music therapy practice. In music therapy both client and therapist experience eempowerment. Equal opportunities and freedom for experiences are provided through which a sense of togetherness often emerges that encourages a client to realise their potential and ability which in turn leads to empowerment (Daveson, 2001; Procter, 2000).

Providing Choices

Action Research is not a hard and fast method. There are many choices to be made in regards to how the research is to be carried out to suit the area and population that the researcher is working with (Greenwood & Levin, 1998). The researcher may work within the parameters of Action Research and adapt them as appropriate. The important element is that all the participants involved are included in the choices being made in the ways that have been referred to in this article.

An Emancipatory Form of Research

By definition from the Macquarie dictionary, "emancipatory" is: "to be free from restraint of any kind, especially of tradition" (Macquarie, 1998). Action Research is different to traditional forms of research and may be viewed by some as less rigorous or definitive than other more traditional forms of research. Action Research in music therapy, Stige (2002) argues, would more specifically examine the concrete possibilities and limitations in concrete situations.


Action Research is influenced by several theoretical orientations and has its origins in many different arenas. It is a method that focuses on creating social change and expanding the collective knowledge by empowering participants to take ownership of the project and re-ignite their voice so that they can continue this change (Reason & Bradbury, 2001, Stige, 2002; Greenwood & Levin, 1998). The experience of being is influenced by traumatic experiences prior to, and during, flight from their home and then stigma, isolation, rejection and racism in the host society. (Bashir, 2000; Brough et al., 2003; Devereux, 2004; Dokter, 1998; Raper, 2002) This experience is disempowering and often results in the young refugee lacking feelings of belonging. Music therapy being used in this setting is culturally context bound and many things need to be taken into account, such as, being aware of the refugees' cultural background and the impact this may have on their response to the therapeutic relationship, the environment and the music itself (Bradt, 1997; Darrow, 1998; Dokter, 2000; Moreno, 1988; Pavlicevic, 1994; Wong, 2000).

As stated earlier I believe that we need to be aware of the social impact that we are having when conducting music therapy, and especially when researching, to ensure that the clients, who are affected by the practical knowledge being produced, are able to realise their rights and choices in the process.

Action Research is a form of research that moves away from traditional research methods and therefore researchers, conducting Action Research may come up against resistance and criticism of this method. Action Research can certainly and effectively be applied to music therapy and is an "interesting context-sensitive alternative for music therapists who want to document the value of their work"(Stige, 2002) as well as be aware of the wider political and social ramifications surrounding the people with whom they work.


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