Practice of Co-operative Inquiry: Research 'with' rather than 'on' people
John Heron and Peter Reason
Co-operative inquiry is a way of working with other people who have
similar concerns and interests to yourself, in order to: (1) understand your
world, make sense of your life and develop new and creative ways of looking
at things; and (2) learn how to act to change things
you may want to change and find out how to do things better. Research is
usually thought of as something done by people in universities and research
institutes. There is a researcher who has all the ideas, and who then
studies other people by observing them, asking them questions, or by
designing experiments. The trouble with this kind of way of doing research
is that there is often very little connection between the researcher's
thinking and the concerns and experiences of the people who are actually
involved. People are treated as passive subjects rather than as active
We believe that good research is research with people rather than on
people. We believe that ordinary people are quite capable of developing
their own ideas and can work together in a co-operative inquiry group to see
if these ideas make sense of their world and work in practice.
A second problem with traditional research is that the kind of thinking
done by researchers is often theoretical rather than practical. It doesn't
help people find how to act to change things in their lives. We believe that
the outcome of good research is not just books and academic papers, but is
also the creative action of people to address matters that are important to
them. Of course, it is concerned too with revisioning our understanding of
our world, as well as transforming practice within it.
So in traditional research on people, the roles of researcher and subject
are mutually exclusive: the researcher only contributes the thinking that
goes into the project, and the subjects only contribute the action to be
studied. In co-operative inquiry these exclusive roles are replaced by a
co-operative relationship, so that all those involved work together as
co-researchers and as co-subjects. Everyone is involved in the design and
management of the inquiry; everyone gets into the experience and action that
is being explored; everyone is involved in making sense and drawing
conclusions; thus everyone involved can take initiative and exert influence
on the process. This, as we have said, is not research on people or about
people, but research with people. We summarize the defining features
of co-operative inquiry - on which we elaborate as the chapter proceeds - as
follows: All the active subjects are fully involved as co-researchers in all
research decisions - about both content and method - taken in the reflection
- There is intentional interplay between reflection and making sense on
the one hand, and experience and action on the other
- There is explicit attention, through agreed procedures, to the
validity of the inquiry and its findings. The primary procedure is to
use inquiry cycles, moving several times between reflection and action.
- There is a radical epistemology for a wide-ranging inquiry method that
integrates experiential knowing through meeting and encounter,
presentational knowing through the use of aesthetic, expressive forms,
propositional knowing through words and concepts, and practical
knowing-how in the exercise of diverse skills - intrapsychic,
interpersonal, political, transpersonal and so on. These forms of
knowing are brought to bear upon each other, through the use of inquiry
cycles, to enhance their mutual congruence, both within each inquirer
and the inquiry group as a whole.
- There are, as well as validity procedures, a range of special skills
suited to such all-purpose experiential inquiry. They include fine-tuned
discrimination in perceiving, in acting and in remembering both of
these; bracketing off and reframing launching concepts; and emotional
competence, including the ability to manage effectively anxiety stirred
up by the inquiry process.
- The inquiry method can be both informative about, and transformative,
of any aspect of the human condition that is accessible to a transparent
body-mind, that is, one that has an open, unbound awareness.
- Primacy is given to transformative inquiries that involve action,
where people change their way of being and doing and relating in their
world—in the direction of greater flourishing. This is on the grounds
that practical knowing-how consummates the other three forms of knowing
- propositional, presentational and experiential - on which it is
- The full range of human capacities and sensibilities is available as
an instrument of inquiry.
A co-operative inquiry cycles through four phases of reflection and
action. In Phase 1, a group of co-researchers come together to explore an
agreed area of human activity. They may be professionals who wish to inquire
into a particular area of practice; couples or families who wish to explore
new styles of life; people who wish to practise in depth transformations of
being; members of an organization who want to research restructuring it; ill
people who want to assess the impact of particular healing practices; and so
on. In the first part of Phase 1, they agree on the focus of their inquiry,
and develop together a set of questions or propositions they wish to
investigate. Then they plan a method for exploring this focal idea in
action, through practical experience. Finally, in Phase 1, they devise
and agree a set of procedures for gathering and recording data from this
experience: diaries, self-assessment rating scales, audio or video
recordings, feedback from colleagues or clients, etc.
For example, a group of health visitors in south west England were
invited by one of their colleagues to form an inquiry group to explore the
sources of stress in their work (Traylen, 1994). After much resistance to
the idea that they could be ‘researchers’, the group decided to explore
the stress that comes from the ‘hidden agendas’ in their work – the
suspicions they had about problems such as depression, child abuse, and drug
taking in the families they visit which are unexpressed and unexplored.
In Phase 2 the co-researchers now also become co-subjects: they engage in
the actions they have agreed; and observe and record the process and
outcomes of their own and each other's action and experience. They may at
first simply watch what it is that happens to them so they develop a better
understanding of their experience; later they may start trying out new forms
of action. In particular, they are careful to notice the subtleties of
experience, to hold lightly the conceptual frame from which they started so
that they are able to see how practice does and does not conform to their
The health visitors first explored among themselves their feelings about
their ‘hidden agendas’ and how they were managing them at that time.
They then decided to experiment with confronting them. Through role play,
they practised the skills they thought they would need, and then
agreed to try raising their concerns directly with their client families.
Phase 3 is in some ways the touchstone of the inquiry method. It is a
stage in which the co-subjects become full immersed in and engaged with
their action and experience. They may develop a degree of openness to what
is going on so free of preconceptions that they see it in a new way. They
may deepen into the experience so that superficial understandings are
elaborated and developed. Or their experience may lead them away from the
original ideas into new fields, unpredicted action and creative insights. It
is also possible that they may get so involved in what they are doing that
they lose the awareness that they are part of an inquiry group: there may be
a practical crisis, they may become enthralled, they may simply forget. It
is this deep experiential engagement, which informs any practical skills or
new understandings which grow out of the inquiry, that makes
co-operative inquiry so very different from conventional research.
The health visitors' experience of trying out new ways of working with
clients was both terrifying and liberating in ways none of them had
expected. On the one hand they felt they were really doing their job; on the
other hand they were concerned about the depth of the problems they would
uncover and whether they had adequate skills to cope with them. In
particular, the woman who had initiated the project in particular was
anxious and had disturbing dreams. The group members found they had to keep
in good contact with each other to provide support and reassurance as they
tried out new behaviours.
In Phase 4, after an agreed period in Phases 2 and 3, the co-researchers
re-assemble to share—in both presentational and propositional forms—their
practical and experiential data, and to consider their original ideas in the
light of it. As a result they may develop or reframe these ideas; or reject
them and pose new questions. They may choose, for the next cycle of action,
to focus on the same or on different aspects of the overall inquiry. The
group may also choose to amend or develop its inquiry procedures - forms of
action, ways of gathering data - in the light of experience.
The health visitors came back together and shared their experience,
helping each other understand what had taken place and developing their
strategies and skills at confronting hidden agendas. After several cycles
they reflected on what they had learned and wrote a report which they
circulated to their managers and colleagues.
So the cycle between reflection and action is repeated several times. Six
to ten cycles may take place over a short workshop, or may extend over a
year or more, depending on the kind of questions that are being explored.
These cycles ideally balance divergence over several aspects of the inquiry
topic, with convergence on specific aspects, so that there is a refined
grasp of both the whole and its parts. Experiential competencies are
realized; presentational insights gained; ideas and discoveries tentatively
reached in early phases can be checked and developed; skills are acquired
and monitored; investigation of one aspect of the inquiry can be related to
exploration of other parts; the group itself becomes more cohesive and
self-critical, more skilled in its work.
Repeat cycling enhances the validity of the findings. Additional validity
procedures are used during the inquiry: some of these counter consensus
collusion and manage distress; others monitor authentic collaboration, the
balance between reflection and action, and between chaos and order. We
discuss these below.
Some examples of co-operative inquiry groups
Examples of co-operative inquiry practices can be found in Mark Baldwin,
Marcia Hills, Penny Barrett’s chapter in this Handbook, as well as in John
Heron’s separate chapter on transpersonal inquiry. Here we sketch some
other examples to show the potential breadth of the approach.
A group of general medical practitioners formed a co-operative inquiry
group to develop the theory and practice of holistic medicine (Heron and
Reason, 1985; Reason, 1988c). They built a simple model of holistic
practice, and experimented with it in practice, exploring a range of
intervention skills, power sharing with patients, concern for the spiritual
dimensions of doctoring, as well as attention to their own needs as medical
practitioners. Each reflection phase took place over a long week-end, after
six weeks of holistic practice, the whole inquiry lasting some eight months.
The experience of this inquiry contributed to the formation of the
British Holistic Medical Association. The study was taken forward when a
group of general and complementary medical practitioners worked together in
a further inquiry group to explore how they might effectively work in an
interdisciplinary fashion (Reason, 1991; Reason et al, 1992).
A group of co-counsellors met to refine, through aware practice together
over several week-ends, a description of the experiences and practices of
the self-directed client (Heron and Reason, 1981). Another group met for
five hours once a week to reflect together on effective skills, practised
during the week in their daily lives, for handling irrational responses to
life-situations arising from past trauma and conditioning (Heron and Reason,
A group of obese and post-obese women explored their experience together,
looking in particular at how they were stereotyped in society, and how it
was difficult for them to obtain appropriate attention from doctors and
other medical people (Cox, 1996). We think there is great potential for
inquiries in which groups of people with a particular physical or medical
condition work together to take charge of how their condition is defined and
treated. For example, an inquiry is being initiated with people with
diabetes to explore their relationship to the services designed to support
Two black social work teachers established inquiry groups
of black social work students, practitioners and managers to explore their
experience. They looked at relationships between black people at work,
particularly the experience of black managers and subordinates working
together; and how a creative black culture could be generated (Aymer, in
preparation; Bryan, in preparation)
Other groups have formed to explore questions of gender, in particular
the experience of women and men at work. One inquiry looked at how black
women might learn to thrive, as well as survive in British organizations
(Douglas, 1999). A woman management undergraduate student used co-operative
inquiry in her coursework to explore the experience of young women managers
in primarily male organizations (Onyett, 1996), stimulating a continued
co-operative inquiry at the University of Bath (McArdle, in preparation).
Another inquiry has recently been started to explore questions of
masculinity and leadership within the police force (Mead, in preparation).
Different forms of co-operative inquiry
Some groups are convened by one or two initiating researchers, familiar
with the method, who choose an inquiry topic, invite others who are
interested to join, and initiate these co-opted members into the inquiry
procedures. Others are bootstrap groups, who learn of the method through the
literature, and engage in a peer initiation process.
Some initiating researchers may be internal to the inquiry topic, that
is, they are fully engaged with the field of study. As a black woman living
and working in UK organizations, Carlis Douglas is clearly fully engaged
with the inquiry topic; and in an inquiry by youth workers into how people
learn the initiator was herself a youth worker (DeVenney-Tiernan et al,
In other cases, initiating researchers are external to the particular
culture or practice that is research focus of the group, and so cannot be
full co-subjects. There are, however, certain to be important areas of
overlapping interest and practice, which enable them, to a greater or lesser
degree, to be analogous or partial co-subjects. So the initiating
researchers of the holistic medicine inquiry were not doctors, but they were
both at the time practitioners in psychotherapy, and became analogous
co-subjects, in the action phases, in this form of practice (Heron and
Reason, 1985; Reason, 1988c). The initiators of an inquiry into an
organizational culture were not members of the culture, but were academics
with a lot of experience in the field, and were partial co-subjects as
participant, ethnographic visitors to the culture (Marshall and McLean,
Many inquiries focus on practice within a given social role. A same role
inquiry is one in which co-inquirers all have the same role, such as doctor
or health visitor, and are researching aspects of their practice within that
role. In a reciprocal role inquiry, the co-inquirers are two or more people
who interact intensively within a role of equal status, such as spouse,
partner, friend, colleague, and inquire into that interaction. Peer
relationships of this kind can readily be turned into ongoing co-operative
inquiries, thus entirely closing the gap between research and everyday life.
A counterpartal role inquiry is one in which the co-inquirers include,
for example, both doctors and patients, or health visitors and some members
of the families they visit, and the inquiry is about the practitioner-client
relationship and what it is seeking to achieve. We have not yet heard of any
full counterpartal role inquiries (although Marcia Hills was developing a
proposal for elders to work with their physicians, and for an example of a
consultant surgeon’s attempts to turn outpatient consultations into
mini-inquiries, see Canter, 1998), but they are extremely promising and are
bound to occur sooner or later in the interests of client empowerment and
A mixed role inquiry is one that includes different kinds of
practitioner. If they don't work together, then they may explore
similarities and difference in their several modalities of practice. If they
collaborate, then they may focus on aspects of this, as in the inquiry
involving general medical practitioners and various complementary therapists
exploring issues of power and conflict involved in their collaboration
A further distinction depends on where the action phase is focused.
Inside inquiries are those in which all the action phases occur in the same
place within the whole group: they include group interaction inquiries and
group-based inquiries. A group interaction inquiry looks at what goes on
within the inquiry group: members are studying their individual and
collective experience of group process. Thus one of us launched a three-day
inquiry into the phenomenon of group energy (Heron, 1996a). A group-based
inquiry is rather more varied in its format. All the action phases occur
when the whole group is together in the same space, but some phases may
involve each person doing their own individual activity side by side with
everyone else; or there may be paired or small group activities done side by
side. Other action phases may involve the whole group in a collective
activity. A transpersonal inquiry used this sort of combination: of the six
action phases, two involved people doing individual activities side by side,
and four involved collective activity (Heron, 1988b).
An outside inquiry is about what goes on in group members' working and/or
personal lives, or in some special project, outside the group meetings. So
the group come together for the reflection phases to share data, make sense
of it, revise their thinking, and in the light of all this plan the next
action phase. Group members disperse for each action phase, which is
undertaken on an individual basis out there in the world. In the example of
the social workers inquiry reported by Mark Baldwin in Chapter 26, the group
members, having agreed on the aspects of their practice they would explore,
attended to their experience in everyday work situations, bringing their
observations back to the inquiry group for reflection and sensemaking on a
Inquiries can be further distinguished by their having open or closed
boundaries. Closed boundary inquiries are concerned entirely with what is
going on within and between the researchers and do not include, as part of
the inquiry, interaction between the researchers and others in the wider
world. Open boundary inquiries do include such interaction as part of the action
phases of the inquiry. The youth worker inquiry into how its members
learn had a closed boundary: the inquirers focussed exclusively on their own
learning processes in subgroups and the whole group (De Venney-Tiernan et
al, 1994). The inquiry into health visitors' practice in working with
families had an open boundary (Traylen, 1994), as did the holistic medicine
inquiry in which GPs were engaged with the practice of holistic medicine
with their National Health Service patients (Heron and Reason, 1985; Reason,
The main issue for open boundary inquiries is whether to elicit data and
feedback from people with whom the inquirers interact in the action phases,
but who are not themselves part of the inquiry. If no data is generated, a
valuable source of relevant feedback and information is ignored. If the data
is generated, but the people by whom it is generated remain outside the
inquiry and have no say in how it is explained and used, then a norm of
co-operative inquiry is infringed. The radical solution is to include some
of them, or their representatives, within the inquiry group. A second is to
engage with them in dialogue, creating as it were a series of
mini-co-operative inquiries, as occurred to some extent in the teachers’
inquiry reported by Marcia Hills in Chapter 33. A third approach is for the
co-operative inquiry group to take initiative to establish one or more
"sibling" groups, as for example the midwives’ group, reported
by Penny Barrett in Chapter 27, whose experience of establishing a
supportive group suggests how useful such a group would be for early
Some inquiries have an open boundary in the reflection phases. In
the holistic medicine inquiry we invited visiting luminaries to several
reflection meetings to give a talk to the whole group, to participate in the
reflection process and give us feedback on it. These luminaries were invited
'to inject new perspectives, refresh our thinking, contribute to our
programme design, and challenge the limitations of our inquiry' (Reason,
With external participation, it is possible to avoid several of the
implicit dangers of collaborative inquiry. Participants are not assumed to
fully resource their own inquiry but are able to draw on knowledges beyond
the group. External voices can also present a challenge to the paradigms
within which the inquiry/co-researchers are located. (Treleaven, 1994:
We have found it useful to distinguish between two complementary and
interdependent inquiry cultures, the Apollonian and the Dionysian (Heron,
1996a). Any effective inquiry will have some elements of both cultures, even
when the emphasis is tilted toward one pole rather than the other. The
Apollonian inquiry takes a more rational, linear, systematic, controlling
and explicit approach to the process of cycling between reflection and
action. Each reflection phase is used to reflect on data from the last
action phase, and to apply this thinking in planning the next action phase,
with due regard to whether the forthcoming actions of participants will be
divergent or dissimilar and convergent or similar. The whole person medicine
inquiry is a classic example of this genre (Heron and Reason, 1985; Reason,
The Dionysian inquiry takes a more imaginal, expressive, spiralling,
diffuse, impromptu and tacit approach to the interplay between making sense
and action. In each reflection phase, group members share improvisatory,
imaginative ways of making sense of what went on in the last action phase.
The implications of this sharing for future action are not worked out by
rational pre-planning. They gestate, diffuse out into the domain of action
later on with yeast-like effect, and emerge as a creative response to the
situation. A Dionysian inquiry is described by John Heron in Chapter 32;
sand the Dionysian spirit is explored in relation to chaos and complexity by
Reason and Goodwin (1999).
A more fundamental cultural distinction, is whether it is informative or
transformative. Will the inquiry be descriptive of some domain of
experience, being informative and explanatory about it? Or will it be
exploring practice within some domain, being transformative of it? The
descriptive and the practical are interdependent in various ways. Holding a
descriptive focus means you have to adopt some practice that enables you to
do so. Here the information you are seeking to gather about a domain
determines what actions you perform within it. Having a practical focus
throws into relief a lot of descriptive data. Here the transformative
actions within a domain are your primary intent and the information you
generate about their domain will be a secondary offshoot of them.
If the inquiry is mainly descriptive and explanatory, the primary
outcomes will be propositions and/or aesthetic presentations about the
nature of the domain. Secondary outcomes will be the skills involved in
generating the descriptive data. If the inquiry is mainly practical, the
primary outcomes will be practical knowing, the skills acquired, plus the
situational changes and personal transformations they have brought about.
Secondary outcomes will be propositions and/or aesthetic presentations; and
the propositions will (1) report these practices and changes, and evaluate
them by the principles they presuppose; and (2) give information about the
domain where the practices have been applied, information which is a
consequence of this application. And of course an inquiry may aim to be both
informative and transformative, one before or after the other.
Our view, based both in experience and in philosophical reflection (Heron
1996a, 1996b; Heron and Reason 1997) is that, if your primary intent is to
be practical and transformative within a domain, you will get richer
descriptions of the domain than you will if you pursue descriptions
directly. Practical knowing consummates the other three forms of knowing and
brings them to their fullness.
Ways of knowing and the inquiry process
Among the defining features of co-operative inquiry listed at the outset,
we mentioned a radical epistemology involving four different ways of
knowing. We also call this an ‘extended epistemology’—a theory of how
we know, which is extended because it reaches beyond the primarily
theoretical, propositional knowledge of academia. Experiential knowing is
through direct face-to-face encounter with person, place or thing; it is
knowing through the immediacy of perceiving, through empathy and resonance. Presentational
knowing emerges from experiential knowing, and provides the first form
of expressing meaning and significance through drawing on expressive forms
of imagery through movement, dance, sound, music, drawing, painting,
sculpture, poetry, story, drama and so on. Propositional knowing ‘about’
something, is knowing through ideas and theories, expressed in informative
statements. Practical knowing is knowing ‘how to’ do something
and is expressed in a skill, knack or competence (Heron, 1992, 1996a).
In co-operative inquiry we say that knowing will be more valid if these
four ways of knowing are congruent with each other: if our knowing is
grounded in our experience, expressed through our stories and images,
understood through theories which make sense to us, and expressed in
worthwhile action in our lives. This was so for the doctors, the health
visitors, the women in academia, and others, in their lived inquiry
We have found it valuable, in the reflection phases when the co-inquirers
are busy with sense-making, to use the expressive forms of presentational
knowing—both verbal and non verbal symbols and metaphors—as a first step
to ground descriptive and explanatory propositional knowing more fully in
what has gone in the prior action phase (Reason and Hawkins, 1988).
If the primary focus in co-operative inquiry is on action, on
transformative practice that changes our way of being and doing and
relating, and our world, then it follows that the primary outcome of an
inquiry is just such a transformation, that is, our practical knowing, our
transformative skills and the regenerated experiential encounters to
which they give rise, together with the transformations of practice in the
wider world with which the inquirers interact. The emphasis, with regard to
research outcomes, shifts from the traditional emphasis on propositional
knowledge and the written word, to practical knowledge and the manifest
Inquiry skills and validity procedures
Co-operative inquiry is based on people examining their own experience
and action carefully in collaboration with people who share similar concerns
and interests. But, you might say, isn't it true that people can fool
themselves about their experience? Isn't this why we have professional
researchers who can be detached and objective? The answer to this is that
certainly people can and do fool themselves, but we find that they can also
develop their attention so they can look at themselves—their way of being,
their intuitions and imaginings, their beliefs and actions—critically and
in this way improve the quality of their claims to four-fold knowing. We
call this ‘critical subjectivity’; it means that we don't have to throw
away our personal, living knowledge in the search for objectivity, but are
able to build on it and develop it. We can cultivate a high quality and
valid individual perspective on what there is, in collaboration with others
who are doing the same.
We have developed a number of inquiry skills and validity procedures that
can be part of a co-operative inquiry and which can help improve the quality
of knowing (Heron, 1996a). The skills include:
Being present and open. This skill is about empathy, resonance and
attunement, participating in the way of being of other people and the
more-than-human world. And it is about being open to the meaning we give to
and find in our world by imaging it in sensory and nonsensory ways.
Bracketing and reframing. The skill here is holding in
abeyance the classifications and constructs we impose on our perceiving, so
that we can be more open to its inherent primary, imaginal meaning. It is
also about trying out alternative constructs for their creative capacity to
articulate an account of people and a world; we are open to reframing the
defining assumptions of any context.
Radical practice and congruence. This skill means being aware, during
action, of its bodily form, its strategic form and guiding norms, its
purpose or end and underlying values, its motives, its external context and
defining beliefs, and of its actual outcomes. It also means being aware of
any lack of congruence between these different facets of the action and
adjusting them accordingly.
Non-attachment and meta-intentionality. This is the knack of
not investing one's identity and emotional security in an action, while
remaining fully purposive and committed to it. At the same time it involves
having in mind one or more alternative behaviours, and considering their
possible relevance and applicability to the total situation.
This is the ability to identify and manage emotional states in various ways.
It includes keeping action free from distortion driven by the unprocessed
distress and conditioning of earlier years.
The co-operative inquiry group is itself a container and a discipline
within which these skills can be developed (Reason 1994a, 1999a). These
skills can be honed and refined if the inquiry group adopts a range of
validity procedures intended to free the various forms of knowing involved
in the inquiry process from the distortion of uncritical subjectivity.
Research cycling. It should be already clear that co-operative
inquiry involves going through the four phases of inquiry several times,
cycling between action and reflection, looking at experience and practice
from different angles, developing different ideas, trying different ways of
behaving. If the research topic as a whole, and different aspects of it
singly and in combination, are taken round several cycles, then experiential
and reflective forms of knowing progressively refine each other, through
two-way negative and positive feedback..
Divergence and convergence. Research cycling can be convergent, in
which case the co-researchers look several times at the same issue, maybe
looking each time in more detail; or it can be divergent, as co-researchers
decide to look at different issues on successive cycles. Many variations of
convergence and divergence are possible in the course of an inquiry. It is
up to each group to determine the appropriate balance for their work.
Authentic collaboration. Since intersubjective dialogue is a key
component in refining the forms of knowing, it is important that the inquiry
group develops an authentic form of collaboration. One aspect of this is
that group members internalize and make their own the inquiry method so that
an egalitarian relationship is developed with the initiating researchers.
The other aspect is that each group member is fully and authentically
engaged in each action phase; and in each reflection phase is—over time—as
expressive, as heard, and as influential in decision-making, as every other
group member. The inquiry will not be truly co-operative if one or two
people dominate the group, or if some voices are left out altogether.
Challenging consensus collusion. This can be done with a simple
procedure which authorizes any inquirer at any time to adopt formally the
role of devil's advocate in order to question the group as to whether one of
several forms of collusion is afoot. These forms include: not noticing, or
not mentioning, aspects of experience that show up the limitations of a
conceptual model or programme of action; unaware fixation on false
assumptions implicit in guiding ideas or action plans; unaware projections
distorting the inquiry process; and lack of rigour in inquiry method and in
applying validity procedures.
Managing distress. The group adopts some regular method for surfacing
and processing repressed distress, which may get unawarely projected out,
distorting thought, perception and action within the inquiry. The very
process of researching the human condition may stir up anxiety and trigger
it into compulsive invasion of the inquiring mind, so that both the process
and the outcomes of the inquiry are warped by it. If the co-researchers are
really willing to examine their lives and their experience in depth and in
detail, it is likely that they will uncover aspects of their life with which
they are uncomfortable and which they have been avoiding looking at. So the
group must be willing to address emotional distress openly when it arrives,
to allow upset persons the healing time they need, and to identify anxieties
within the group which have not yet been expressed. (see in addition the
several chapters in this Handbook which explore 'first person' inquiry
practices: Bill Torbert in Chapter 23, Gloria Bravette in Chapter 30, Peter
Reason and Judi Marshall in Chapter 42 , Yoland Wadsworth in
Chapter 43, Judi Marshall in Chapter 44).
Reflection and action. Since inquiry process depends on alternating
phases of action and reflection, it is important to find an appropriate
balance, so that there is neither too much reflection on too little
experience, which is armchair theorizing, nor too little reflection on too
much experience, which is mere activism. Each inquiry group needs to find
its own balance between action and reflection, and, within the reflection
phase, between presentational and propositional ways of making sense. The
appropriate balance will largely depend on the topic being explored.
Chaos and order. If a group is open, adventurous and innovative,
putting all at risk to reach out for the truth beyond fear and collusion,
then, once the inquiry is well under way, divergence of thought and
expression may descend into confusion, uncertainty, ambiguity, disorder, and
tension. When this happens, with most if not all co-researchers will feel
lost to a greater or lesser degree. So a mental set is needed which allows
for the interdependence of chaos and order, of nescience and knowing, an
attitude which tolerates and undergoes, without premature closure, inquiry
phases which are messy. These phases tend, in their own good time, to
convert into new levels of order. But since there is no guarantee that they
will do so, they are risky and edgy. Tidying them up prematurely out of
anxiety leads to pseudo-knowledge. Of course, there can be no guarantee that
chaos will occur; certainly one cannot plan it. But the group can be
prepared for it, tolerate it, and wait until there is a real sense of
Initiating an inquiry group
Many inquiry groups are initiated by one or two people who have
enthusiasm for an idea they wish to explore, and who recruit a group by some
form of circular letter: for example the black social workers mentioned
earlier invited social work managers, practitioners and students to a day
long meeting to discuss mutual interests and propose the establishment of
inquiry groups. Groups of up to twelve persons can work well. A group of
fewer than six is too small and lacks variety of experience.
When experienced co-operative inquiry researchers initiate an inquiry
there can be no absolute parity of influence between them and their co-opted
inquirers. They can move from appropriately strong and primary influence to
significant peer consultant influence; and on the way may degenerate into
either over-control or under-control. It is a mistake to suppose that there
can be a simple parity of influence and to try to achieve it; or to imagine
that parity has ever been fully achieved in an inquiry involving from five
to eight full research cycles. What undoubtedly can be achieved as the
inquiry proceeds is a sufficient degree of non-dependent collaborative
reflection and management, for the research to be genuinely with
people, and not about them or on them.
The initiating researchers have, from the outset, three closely
interdependent and fundamental issues to consider:
- The initiation of group members into the methodology of the inquiry so
that they can make it their own;
- The emergence of participative decision-making and authentic
collaboration so that the inquiry becomes truly co-operative;
- The creation of a climate in which emotional states can be identified,
so that distress and tension aroused by the inquiry can be openly
accepted and processed, and joy and delight in it and with each other
can be freely expressed
The first of these is to do with cognitive and methodological
empowerment, the second with political empowerment, and the third with
emotional and interpersonal empowerment. Initiating researchers need some
skills in all these three ways of empowering others (Heron, 1996a).
At the induction meeting, the initiating researchers will be wise to make
clear that the three strands are basic to the inquiry process, and to invite
only those to whom the three strands appeal to join the project. Then they
seek a contract in which everyone who wants to join makes a commitment to
bring the strands into being. It is pretty important that this contract is
not the result of either rapid conversion or persuasive coercion. It needs
to be a fully voluntary and well informed agreement to realize the values of
autonomy, co-operation and wholeness which underlie the three strands. A
co-operative inquiry is a community of value, and its value premises are its
foundation. If people are excited by and attuned to these premises, they
join, otherwise not. Getting clear about all this at the outset makes for
good practice later (Reason, 1995, 1997).
It is also really important at the induction meeting that as far as it
possible people have an opportunity to help define the inquiry topic, the
criteria for joining the inquiry, the arrangements for meeting structure and
related matters. The following is a possible agenda for such a meeting:
- Welcome and introductions, helping people feel at home.
- Introduction by initiators: the broad topic of inquiry to be
- People discuss what they have heard informally in pairs, followed by
questions and discussion, leading to possible modifications of the
- Introduction to the process of co-operative inquiry, the three strands
mentioned above, and whether the proposed inquiry is likely to be
Apollonian or Dionysian, and informative or transformative.
- Pairs discussion followed by questions, whole group discussion, with
an airing of views on the three strands.
- Clarification of criteria for joining the inquiry group.
- Practical discussion: number of cycles, dates, times, venues,
financial and other commitments.
- Self-assessment exercise in pairs. Each person uses the criteria to
assess whether they wish to include themselves in the group or not.
We have found that this is a very full agenda for one meeting; it is
better to hold a second introductory meeting to ensure understanding and
agreement than to rush through all the items.
Groups will devise a programme of meetings arranged so there is
sufficient time for cycles of action and reflection. A group wishing to
explore activities that are contained within the group, such as meditation
skills, may simply meet for a weekend workshop which will include several
short cycles of practice and reflection. But a group which involves action
in the external world will need to arrange long cycles of action and
reflection with sufficient time for practical activity. The holistic doctors
group met to reflect for a long weekend after every six weeks of action on
the job, the health visitors for an afternoon every three weeks or so. An
inquiry into interpersonal skill met for a weekend workshop at the home of
two of the participants and then for a long afternoon and evening every
month to six weeks, finishing with another residential weekend workshop.
Once the inquiry is under way, it is helpful to agree early on how roles
will be distributed. If it makes sense for the initiator also to be group
facilitator for the early reflection meetings, this should be made clear.
Later on, the group can decide if it wishes to be fully democratic and
eventually rotate the facilitator role, or if it would prefer one or two
people to facilitate throughout. It may be helpful to identify who has
skills in facilitating the methodology strand, the collaboration strand, and
the emotional and interpersonal strand, and share out roles appropriately.
Inquirers may wish to agree groundrules, particularly to preserve
confidences within the group (Reason, 1988b).
It is helpful to decide early on what the primary outcomes of the inquiry
are to be. For informative inquiries, then the primary outcomes will be
presentational or propositional, or some combination of the two. For
transformative inquiries, the primary outcomes are transformations of
personal being, of social processes, or of the environment, and the various
skills involved. Aesthetic presentations or written reports will be
secondary: the primary outcomes may best be shared by demonstrations or
portrayals of competent practice, or by training others to acquire and get
the feel of such competence.
It is important for co-operative inquirers not to fall foul of the
propositional compulsion of academia: the outcome of inquiries do not have
to be confined to the traditional written report, they can pioneer aesthetic
presentations as informative outcomes, and to find action-oriented ways of
sharing transformative outcomes.
Regardless of the way in which the presented outcome is provided for
others, the group needs to decide who will produce it. Thus if there is to
be a written report or article, a decision is required on who will write it
and on what basis. Will all members of the group contribute to it, edit it
and agree to it before it is sent out? Or is it acceptable for one or two
people to write their own report based on the group experience. While some
form of co-operative report is consonant with the inquiry method, we have
also found it helpful to adopt the rule that anyone can write whatever they
like about the group, so long as they state clearly who the author is and
whether other or not other group members have seen, approved, edited, or
contributed to, the text.
Our individual and separate accounts of co-operative inquiry over
the past 27 years can be found in Heron, 1971, 1981a/b, 1982, 1985, 1988a/b,
1992, 1996a/b, 1998; Heron and Reason, 1981, 1982, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1997;
Reason, 1976, 1986, 1988a/b/c/d, 1991, 1993, 1994a/b, 1995, 1996, 1998a/b,
199a/b; Reason and Goodwin, 1999; Reason and Heron, 1995; Reason and Rowan,
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