This is part of a series of chapter summaries of the Handbook of Participatory Research and Inquiry.
This chapter discusses cooperative inquiry (CI), a group-based participatory methodology first described by John Heron in the early 1970s. CI informs many participatory research processes described in the Handbook. The thinking that underpins its dialogic process has contributed to participatory research design and our understanding of validity and quality in participatory research.
In this summary, we explain why to use CI, its key steps, and the role of dialogue in the process. The full detail of the two case studies - one in Uganda and another in the USA – can be found in the Handbook chapter. Both inquiries relate to social justice issues, and both cases enable reflection and action with relation to these issues.
Key principles of the methodology
CI is useful for working with people who experience injustice in their everyday lives, and/or people who are working to address these injustices. Its process enables inquiry into personal experience of the issues, with emphasis on the group reflecting and learning together in order to change something: their own perspective or practice, or addressing an external problem. The method allows participants to become ‘co-inquirers’ from the outset: they participate in forming the inquiry question, designing the process, generating data, conducting analysis and communicating findings.
CI is rooted in Heron’s (1992) ‘extended epistemology,’ which means knowledge that is generated in four ways: through experience (this knowledge may be tacit), through presentation (e.g. artistic and other forms of expression), through proposition (i.e. using logic to organise ideas) and through practice (knowing ‘how to’). The CI therefore enables these four ways of knowing to be expressed and critically examined, which happens through dialogue in the group. Together, these ways of knowing generate praxis, that is, reflection and action for transformation.
Dialogue is about careful listening and careful responding, and being mindful about one’s assumptions. The CI provides structured space for dialogue, allowing co-inquirers to share experiences (presentational) and perspectives (propositional), be in touch with the tacit knowledge that each carries through their experience, and consider the validity of these forms of knowledge as they are brought together. The CI process goes through cycles of action and reflection that enable both divergence (i.e. recognizing difference) and convergence (i.e. finding commonalities).
We describe 4 ‘macro’ cycles in a CI: 1) the initialization cycle; 2) The Data Gathering and Meaning Making Cycle; 3) Finalizing the Learning and 4) Presenting to Relevant Audiences.
The first cycle is critical because it sets the tone for the rest of the process. Participants start to discuss their views of the inquiry question, and in doing so are learning about the perspectives of their co-inquirers. The perspectives are divergent, and the group learns to listen to different ways of knowing in order to reach a common (convergent) understanding of the question they are researching together.
The second cycle is concerned with gathering data and sharing experiences, and analysing these collectively through dialogic and other participatory practices. It can involve one or more meetings, and can be extended into mini cycles of action and reflection as the group deepens understanding and makes meaning.
The third cycle is concerned with preparing to present what has been learned, reframing the knowledge for a wider audience and taking action to communicate the findings.
The fourth cycle is communicating with the wider audience and taking relevant actions for change either collectively or each inquirer in their own setting.
The CI case in Uganda is part of a larger project supported by the Institute of Development Studies, in partnership with the Participate network. The project used participatory action research to understand marginality and build capacities and pathways for accountability. In this CI case, the local partner SOCAJAPIC brought together members of 5 vulnerable groups (women, elderly, people with disabilities, people living with HIV/AIDS, youth) in Teso region of Uganda.
Participants were invited to attend a 4-day workshop to define and clarify their inquiry question. They shared individual stories, and identified similar experiences of discrimination and stigma, which helped to overcome their initial lack of trust towards others that they perceived as different. They developed a sense of agency through becoming a group with a common purpose, and identified themselves as ‘community-based facilitators’. They received training to collect data on experiences of marginalisation from other community members belonging to the vulnerable groups. In the data gathering phase, they collected stories and reconvened several times to share and discuss the stories and plan next steps. They met again to plan and prepare engagement actions at the barazas (public forums), including engaging with a theatre group to present their concerns via community theatre. They presented the findings of their inquiry at the barazas to the wider community, local authorities and service providers.
The CI case in the USA is part of the research and documentation component of the ‘Leadership for a Changing World’ (LCW) led by NYU/Wagner’s Research Centre for Leadership in Action. It brought together and supported grassroots leaders working in social change organisations.
As part of the participatory research these leaders were invited to organise and inquire into a ‘burning question’ related to their social change practice. This particular CI included a diverse group of eight leaders from various domains associated with human rights and ecological sustainability and with various social identities (3 African American, 1 Native-American, 2 White women; one white man and one Latino from Puerto Rico). They came together to inquire into the reality that– although they all held similar political views regarding the need for social change actions– their domains of practice separated them, creating barriers to collaboration. Diverse areas of practice and personal experiences generated different mindsets and approaches to taking action.
Their inquiry question How Can We Integrate Human Rights, Social Justice, and Ecological Sustainability? led to transformative personal insights, changes in their practices and a final report that included a manifesto for action. Six CI meetings over the course of fourteen months generated these learning outcomes; each meeting was for 2 or 2.5 days and took place in different locations, each relevant to the social change actions of one or more of the members. Site visits stimulated the CI dialogues. Two experienced CI inquirers introduced and facilitated the CI process and learning (offering coaching on CI practices), while the participants themselves led the inquiry into their question and the cycles of action-reflection that followed.
The methods used in the 2 CIs were effective for building group capacity, and for co-inquirers to negotiate their differences and build relationships, where they had felt socially isolated. For example in the Participate case, co-inquirers who experienced different forms of discrimination, reached a point where they felt connected by their shared experiences of stigma and agreed to act together; in the LCW case, participants were able to understand better the sources that prevented collaboration.
Creative methods (e.g. drama, poetry, storytelling) enabled different ways of knowing to be brought into dialogue. This produced a shift in individual perception e.g. of the internalized stigma felt by different members of the group (Participate); and deeper understanding of their diverse practices and underlying common values (LCW).
The CI processes enabled a shift in collective capacity: the LCW group embraced collectively their manifesto; the Participate group chose a group motto. This facilitated collective action, e.g. the Ugandan co-inquirers felt able enough to speak out on behalf of the group and of their communities at a public meeting; the US co-inquirers delineated a collaborative path toward strategic action.
Learning about dialogue
It is important to have mindful facilitation – the co-researcher’s role is to create a space which enables trust to be built and different views and experiences to be heard and respected. The facilitator needs both to help participants to deepen their individual stories, and also to enable dialogue across co-researchers’ different perspectives, i.e. allowing divergence before convergence and group identity can be built.
Which methods to use will depend on context, as they should be appropriate so that participants feel able and encouraged to express and engage with the different ways of knowing. Stories may be useful, both for accessing experiential knowledge but also as useful sources of evidence e.g. in the Participate CI stories helped to open up pathways to accountability. In the LCW case, storytelling was also central (oral and pictures), to facilitate deeper understanding of each other’s culture and practices.
Dialogue can lead to a decision to take action together. This takes the first- and second-person inquiry of the CI into a third person space – sharing learning with others, inviting them into a new dialogue, or holding them to account. It is important to give time so that co-inquirers can reflect, consider risks and take decisions on action. In the Participate case, reflecting on engagement beyond the CI group (i.e. third person), allowed them to identify which actors could be allies, to agree and take action, and return to the group to reflect and plan the next cycle of action research. In the LCW case, the Manifesto for Action was shared as an invitation for the broader LCW leaders to embrace and use in their own social change work.
The CI process enables individual knowledge to be surfaced, giving value to the different ways of knowing, and brings this knowledge into dialogue with the knowledge of other co-inquirers.
CI can contribute to democratizing research institutions by fostering collaboration and mutual learning between researchers based in research institutions and universities, and groups which may not be able to access these. Such collaborations contribute to co-producing knowledge that is actionable and relevant. Inquirers outside universities can also become facilitators and support CIs in communities once they experience the process and learn the core assumptions, practices and research requirements (such as validity considerations and techniques).
CI comes with important ethical considerations, which need to be discussed and embedded into the rules that are agreed for working together during the CI and returned to regularly. Important elements to consider include confidentiality and consent, but also careful listening, witnessing, reflexive practice, etc.
CIs face the challenge of scaling up from transformation at the individual and small group level to achieve a wider impact. We have reflected that one way is to build out the CI into multiple or parallel streams of inquiry with different actors, and design multiple spaces to bring the separate CIs into dialogue with each other.
CIs are dialogic, democratic and iterative processes. They enable participants to inquire into their own experiences and bring these into dialogue with the experiences of others. The cases discussed in the chapter demonstrate that participation has value for the participants, helping them to reflect on and overcome barriers (such as damaging social norms or barriers to collaboration) and different perspectives, through dialogue together. The cases also show that CI opens up the possibility of collective action to address injustice.
Howard, J., Ospina, S. and Yorks, L. (2021) Cooperative Inquiry as Dialogic Process. In Burns et al. (eds) The Sage Handbook of Participatory Research and Inquiry. Vol 1, pp.417-433.
Heron, J. (1996). Co-operative Inquiry: Research into the Human Condition. London: Sage.