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Co-operative inquiry and participative reality

John Heron

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

Inquiry paradigm

Co-operative inquiry rests on an inquiry paradigm of participative reality. This holds that there is a given cosmos in which the mind creatively participates, and which it can only know in terms of its constructs, whether affective, imaginal, conceptual or practical. We know through this active participation of mind that we are in touch with what is other, but only as articulated by all our mental sensibilities. Reality is always subjective-objective: our own constructs clothe a felt participation in what is present. Worlds and people are what we meet, but the meeting is shaped by our own terms of reference. (Merleau-Ponty, 1962; Bateson, 1979; Reason and Rowan, 1981c; Spretnak, 1991; Heron, 1992; Varela et al, 1993; Skolimowski, 1994; Reason, 1994a).

In meeting people, there is the possibility of reciprocal participative knowing, and unless this is truly mutual, we don’t properly know the other. The reality of the other is found in the fulness of our open relation (Buber, 1937), when we each engage in our mutual participation. Hence the importance of co-operative inquiry with other persons involving dialogue, parity and reciprocity in all its phases.

This participative paradigm has two wings, the epistemic introduced above, and the political. The epistemic wing, concerned with truth-values, is formed by:

The political wing of the participative paradigm, concerned with being-values, is formed by an axiology, a theory of value which holds that:

Co-operative inquiry seeks to integrate these two wings by using participative decision-making to implement the methodology. Also by acknowledging that the quest for validity in terms of well-grounded truth-values, is interdependent with another process which transcends it. This is the celebration of being-values in terms of flourishing human practice.

The poststructural antiparadigm paradigm

Over against this and any other paradigm, there is to be considered the antiparadigm stance of extreme poststructuralism (Denzin, 1994; Lincoln and Denzin, 1994). From this position, any metaphysical paradigm, with the epistemology that follows from it, is an attempt to set up rules outside a piece of research, so that these rules can then be called up to validate it. And these rules are only a mask for the researcher’s desire for political authority, a desire to assert power over the reader and the wider world. Poststructural thought, deriving from the deconstruction of Derrida (1976, 1981), rejects the view that any text can have any kind of claim to epistemological validity, on the grounds that ‘any text can be undone in terms of its internal structural logic’ (Lincoln and Denzin, 1994: 579).

This account is itself is a paradigm, a sceptics’ paradigm, a poststructural antiparadigm paradigm (PAP), which asserts that all claims to truth in a text can be undone and thus all claims to truth are disguised bids for power over the reader. The trouble is that this statement of PAP presumably applies to itself. Any truth that it claims to have can be undone and exposed as a hidden bid for power. Hence it is suicidal and nihilistic, reducing itself and all other forms of textual discourse to competing bids for raw, purposeless power. Kincheloe and McLaren point out that while all claims to truth are implicated in relations of power, truth cannot simply be equated with an effect of power:

Otherwise, truth becomes meaningless and, if this is the case, liberatory praxis has no purpose other than to win for the sake of winning. (1994: 153)

And Culler (1982) has asserted that deconstruction does not reject propositional truth but just stresses its contextuality. Wilber, too, has recently had his say on the matter:

The postmodern poststructuralists, for example, have gone from saying that no context, no perspective, is final, to saying that no perspective has any advantage over any other, at which point they careen uncontrollably in their own labyrinth of ever-receding holons, lost in aperspectival space. (1995: 188)

Poststructural social science seeks its ‘external grounding…in a commitment to a post-Marxism and a feminism with hope’ (Lincoln and Denzin, 1994: 579), in ‘morally informed social criticism’ (Denzin, 1994: 511). This presupposes moral principles which inform the commitment and the criticism. If moral principles constitute ‘external grounding’, this means they are somehow valid, justifiable, not arbitrary. So the issue of epistemological validity has simply moved over from scientific discourse, where it has been rejected, to moral discourse, where it is tacitly invoked.

Poststructural social science still has to answer the question how it can justify, validate, find worthy of belief, the moral principles which inform its commitment to social justice and empowerment. The problem here is that any answer it gives will be subject to demolition by its adherence to PAP, and then morality as well as science will have been crushed in its nihilistic grip.

Truth, validity and beyond

Terms like ‘truth’ and ‘validity’ have an excellent and healthy standing in ordinary discourse, and I do not see why they should be abandoned and turned into bogeymen in social science, just because they have been given a limiting definition and application by positivism, and politically used for unacceptable purposes of social control. This is to confuse their meaning with the abuse of their meaning.

Truth and validity degenerate in meaning when they are defined in objectivist terms, and then used to rationalize the pursuit of power, to provide a mask for political propaganda. But they are not intrinsically to do either with objectivism or with power and rationalization. They are to do with human reason, and other ways of knowing. They provide the preconditions of intelligent inquiry in any domain. And they cannot be reduced without remainder to central terms within any one particular realm of discourse. Any attempt to do so has to presuppose they have a meaning outside the terms of the reduction. Then they creep back into the argument in tacit, unacknowledged form, causing all kinds of logical and political trouble.

The challenge after positivism is to redefine truth and validity in ways that honour the generative, creative role of the human mind in all forms of knowing. This also means, I believe, taking inquiry beyond justification, beyond the validation of truth-values, toward the celebration and bodying forth of being-values, as the transcendent and polar complement to the quest for validity.


For details of the references in this extract, look in 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.