search expand

Co-operative inquiry and related forms of research

John Heron

An extract from Chapter 1, Co-operative Inquiry, London, Sage, 1996.

The overlap with other forms of participative research with people

The most obvious overlap is with action research, stemming from the work of Kurt Lewin. It had its apogee in the 1960s and 1970s, but has been continuously applied in several fields ever since, especially in higher education. It involves repeated cycles of planning, acting, observing, reflecting, replanning, and so on. It requires in its advanced forms, such as emancipatory action research (Carr and Kemmiss, 1986), a full degree of participation and collaboration.

In action research, all actors involved in the research process are equal participants, and must be involved in every stage of the research process…Collaborative participation in theoretical, practical and political discourse is a hallmark of action research and the action researcher. (Grundy and Kemmis, 1982: 87).

Nevertheless there are very clear differences, of a friendly and non-competitive kind. Action research is research into current, ongoing practice by practitioners for practitioners (Zuber-Skerritt, 1992: 11-17). Its focus is on problem-solving in existing professional performance and related organizational structures. It disregards theory-building and the generative power of theory (Cooperrider and Srivastva, 1987). It is not a wide-ranging research method for inquiring into any aspect or any theory of the human condition. It has not developed an extended epistemology which enables it to do this. Nor does it view the full range of human sensibilities as an instrument of research. And it has not articulated a set of validity procedures and special skills required for radical, comprehensive experiential inquiry. It does not work with the complementarity of informative and transformative engagement with the inquiry domain. In all these fundamental respects, co-operative inquiry goes beyond the area of overlap.

A related kind of action-oriented research, subject to the same qualifications, is in one wing of feminist qualitative research, where some feminists do not want to exploit women as research subjects, but prefer to empower them to do their own research on what interests them (Olesen, 1994). In the most developed form of this approach, women participants become full co-researchers working together with the initiating researchers on all phases of the project (Light and Kleiber, 1981; Cancian, 1992; Craddock and Reid, 1993). This openness to explore women’s reality through co-research, to deal with issues of honouring the diversity of women’s views about women (Hess, 1990), and of giving participants full voice in any account (Fine, 1992), makes for a unique approach to participative inquiry.

Appreciative inquiry (Cooperrider and Srivastva, 1987) proposes re-awakening collaborative action-research so that it is grounded on a deep kind of participative, intuitive and appreciative way of knowing, and so that it includes generative theory as a prime move in organizational innovation. This certainly brings it closer to co-operative inquiry. Yet its epistemology, though extended, is still relatively underdeveloped. It is restricted to research into organizational life. And it lacks the several features I have mentioned requisite for wide-ranging human condition inquiry.

Participative action research is also an area of overlap. This phrase is used for liberationist inquiry in underprivileged parts of the third world and of the developed world. Its task is the ‘enlightenment and awakening of common people’ (Fals-Borda and Rahman, 1991: vi). It wants to help people grasp the role of knowledge as an instrument of power and control: it provides people with knowledge useful for the immediate empowering of their own action, and raises their consciousness about the way established authority uses its knowledge for purposes of oppression.

Co-operative inquiry differs from participative action research in the same respects as it does from ordinary action research. Also PAR uses improvisatory processes of developmental dialogue and collaboration, rather than any formal cycles of reflection and action. The animator or initiating researcher is highly educated and motivated, the participants are relatively uneducated and unmotivated and this affects the whole nature of their collaboration.

A further difference is that co-operative inquiry is complementary to participative action research on the issue of social oppression and disempowerment. The initiating researcher in participative action research goes out from a privileged setting to co-operate with and help to liberate people in an underprivileged setting, and leaves his or her own privileged setting unchanged. Co-operative inquirers who are exploring the first steps in living in a self-generating culture see their privileged setting as deformed and seek a transformation of it.

Co-operative inquiry overlaps with action science (Argyris and Schon, 1974, 1978; Schon, 1983; Argyris et al, 1985), developed as action inquiry by Torbert (1991). Action inquiry, which I describe in chapter two, is concerned with increased intentionality, cognitive reframing and holistic awareness in the midst of individual action. As such, it is precisely what is needed in the action phase of a co-operative inquiry, when each person is busy implementing some action-plan decided on in the prior reflection phase. The skills of action inquiry are thus a fundamental component of co-operative inquiry, but they also reach far beyond it, and have a challenging claim on anyone at any time whether they are part of a co-operative inquiry or not.

My colleague Peter Reason has written a lucid account of co-operative inquiry, participatory action research and action inquiry, and of the relations between them. It concludes with an account of their possible integration, in which a group of PAR animators constitute a co-operative group inquiring into their PAR practices, each member of the group engaged in their own local PAR, and each scrutinising their individual practice through action inquiry, the data from which would be shared with, and reflected upon in, the co-operative inquiry group (Reason, 1994b).

Participants’ involvement in the research process may also be found in varying degrees in empowering evaluation (Guba and Lincoln, 1989; Fetterman, 1993), intervention research (Fryer and Feather, 1994), critical worker research (Kincheloe and McLaren, 1994), some phenomenological studies (Moustakas, 1994), and some forms of clinical research (Miller and Crabtree, 1994).

It is essential, in discussing the overlap between co-operative inquiry and other forms of participative research, to distinguish between the democratization of content, which involves all informants in decisions about what the research is seeking to find out and achieve; and the democratization of method, which involves participants in decisions about what operational methods are being used, including those being used to democratize the content. The overlap is usually restricted to democratization of research content. It is rare to find any full-blown commitment to collaboration about research method, although Guba and Lincoln strongly commend it (1989: 260). In practice, it may be reduced to no more than seeking fully informed consent of all informants to the researcher’s pre-existent or emerging operational plan, and to modifying the plan in order to obtain such consent.

The relation with qualitative research about people

Qualitative research, using multiple methodologies, is about other people studied in their own social setting and understood in terms of the meanings those people themselves bring to their situation (Denzin and Lincoln, 1994: 2). To say that it is about other people in their own setting is to say one central thing: the researcher in mainline qualitative research does not involve informants in decisions about research methodology, about the design of operational procedures. He or she only seeks to negotiate, with the people being studied, (1) access to their setting, (2) issues involved in ongoing management of the research, and (3) the interpretations arrived at.

Co-operative inquiry by contrast does research with other people, who are invited to be full co-inquirers with the initiating researcher and become involved in operational decision-making, and is committed to this kind of participative research design in principle, both political and epistemological. The co-inquirers are also fully involved in decisions about research content, that is, about the focus of the inquiry, what it is seeking to find out and achieve.

Qualitative research is a social science, about other people in their own social setting; whereas co-operative inquiry is a wide-ranging science about any aspect of the human condition which a group of co-researchers choose to explore through the instrumentality of their own experience. It certainly includes important social topics, such a revisioning social roles, professional practice and organizational life. It also includes innumerable others, such as: art as a mode of knowledge, intentional self-healing, participative knowledge of organic and inorganic forms, altered states of consciounsess and many more.

Finally, there is the matter of underlying paradigms. Guba and Lincoln (1994) propose four basic inquiry paradigms: positivism, postpositivism, critical theory and constructivism. They have espoused the last of these and have written widely about it (Lincoln and Guba, 1985; Guba and Lincoln 1989, 1994). Following their lead much qualitative research today is construed as interpretive science within a constructivist paradigm.

Their constructivist ontology is possibly idealist, certainly pluralist and relativist. The real is a mental construct of individuals and such constructs ‘do not exist outside of the persons who create and hold them’ (1989: 143); thus there can be many such constructed realities; and they may be conflicting and incompatible. Truth is a local consensus about the most sophisticated and informed construction around and is relative to a given group of people at a given time and place.

There is an immediate difficulty with the idea that reality is a construction within an individual mind. It raises the problem of solipsism, which is an ironic problem for a science of the Other. For if reality is nothing but an internal mental construct, no warrant can be given for supposing that the other people being studied actually exist, let alone for supposing that the researcher’s view of them adequately represents their own view of their situation. However, Guba and Lincoln are ambiguous in their account of constructivism. They also say that the mental constructions are related to ‘tangible entities’, which would thus appear to have some reality independent of the constructions (Schwandt, 1994: 134). So their explicit idealist stance seems to rest on an implicit realism, and leaves the paradigm in a state of wobble.

Co-operative inquiry rests on a related, but distinct, fifth inquiry paradigm, that of participative reality, which I discuss in a paper on co-operative inquiry and participatory reality.


For details of the references in this extract, see Heron, J. Co-operative Inquiry: Research into the Human Condition, London, Sage, 1996. See author’s blurb for information on this work and how to order it.