Peter Reason

This book is about research as a participative process, about research with people rather than research on people. It is about inquiry as a means by which people engage together to explore some significant aspect of their lives, to understand it better and to transform their action so as to meet their purposes more fully. The book takes forward the work on the paradigm of co-operative and experiential inquiry, and is a companion to Human Inquiry: a sourcebook of new paradigm research (Reason and Rowan, 1981) and Human Inquiry in Action (Reason, 1988).

Since my early involvement with human inquiry I have continued to work with participative forms of inquiry. I have developed the methodology of participatory research—starting from my own work with co-operative inquiry I have compared this with action inquiry and participatory action research and taken some steps to integrate theory and practice. I have reflected on the consequences of a participatory methodology for our understanding of ourselves in our world—concerns for emerging patterns of thought and belief, for ontology and epistemology. And I have worked as a teacher and supervisor of graduate students who have taken the ideals and practices of human inquiry into both their work and their lives.

As I have pursued these questions of method and practice I have realised that a participative methodology needs to rest on a participative world-view. It is not possible simply to tag co-operative inquiry or participatory action research onto a worldview that is primarily forged in a positivist or modernist perspective, with its deep rooted assumptions about the separation of knower from what is known; this would result in an untenable situation, with methodologies which demand a collaborative ethos and practice resting on assumptions that demand separation. This issue became particularly clear to me when I started to ask questions about quality and validity in collaborative research. Of course, I was not alone in these developments: over the past twenty years many people have contributed to the development of a participatory world view, both in writing and in practical ways. There is a strong argument that we are at a critical turning point in our understanding of ourselves in relation to each other and our planet (see, for example, Tarnas, 1991).

So this book attempts to explore two themes which, while quite distinct, are highly interconnected and in the end inseparable. One question asks, "How do you practice research in a collaborative fashion?"; and the other asks, "How can we articulate a worldview which fosters an experience of participation with each other and with our planet?" I cannot tell which question comes first: considerations of method raise questions of worldview, while the emergent worldview interrogates, informs and support our practice.

In Part One I address the broader question: the western worldview is, I believe, changing toward a realisation that our existence is based on participation and communion rather than separation and competition. I explore this theme through theory, imagery, myth and archetype, starting in Chapter One with a discussion of the alienation and fragmentation which seems so strongly to characterise the Western world at the present time, and by offering an alternative image. Then in Chapter Two I seek to understand participation as an aspect of human consciousness, exploring first the deep sense of identification and participation that, as far as we can tell, characterised early human consciousness; and moving on to look at the emergence of an autonomous self experienced as separate from environment and the consequenct loss of awareness of participation. This development brought much in terms of clarity, control and understanding, and yet brought also in it wake the dislocation and fragmentation of modern times, and I draw on feminist and indigenous scholarship to ask whether this alienation was inevitable in the development of human consciousness, and to look briefly at alternative visions of human development. In Chapter Three I argue that a future form of reflective participative consciousness is emerging dialectically out of the contradiction between deep participation and the alienation of modernist consciousness. In Chapter Four I show how the practice of human inquiry is a discipline which can contribute to this development: my thesis is that participative forms of inquiry are one potentially critical linchpin in the transformation of consciousness through which we in the west are moving and need to move.

In Part Two these broad themes are brought down to earth with examples of participatory research which illustrate how we can realize these alternative forms of inquiry in practice. When you or I, espousing this participatory ethos, sit down with a group of people intending to develop collaborative relationships we are confronted with all the practical issues of how to actually do it, how to engage together, to meet each other, to respect each other's differences, and to work together on a common task. As soon as we touch upon the question of participation we have to entertain and work with issues of power, of oppression, of gender; we are confronted with the limitations of our skill, with the rigidities of our own and others behaviour patterns, with the other pressing demands on our limited time, with the hostility or indifference of our organizational contexts. We live out our contradictions, struggling to bridge the gap between our dreams and reality, to realize the values we espouse. So while we need the sweep of a participatory world view, it is not enough: we need also to learn the practice of participation. One of the questions I have been asked repeatedly as I have talked with groups of people about collaborative forms of inquiry was, "How do you actually do it?" It is as if many people feel intuitively that a participatory approach is right for their work, and are hungry for stories and accounts that will provide models and exemplars.

I believe strongly that a book on participation in human inquiry needs to address both these levels. It needs good stories, good accounts that show a range of approaches to participatory inquiry. It also needs to invoke a participatory worldview. For those of us committed to human inquiry, to research as a participatory endeavour, live in this gap between vision and actuality, always on the edge of what is truly possible. The accounts of participatory inquiry projects contained in Part Two of this book are written by people who live on this edge. They started with a vision of what might be possible, and spent months and even years of work preparing the ground. They gathered people together, negotiated organizational contexts, facilitated a process of group development, so that in each of the inquiries the participants learned to work together in ways that were more fully collaborative. I believe that through this kind of work special times are created, new possibilities are dreamed and brought into reality, so that for a moment the world is re-aligned toward a new form of participative reality.

The notion of participation carries strong positive connotations for many people; it is often seen as "a good thing". It is very easy to espouse participation and yet at times incredibly difficult genuinely to practice. When Bob Hardiman (one of our graduate students) heard about this book he wrote a paper called On becoming a Participant: a view from an iconoclast—an iconoclast being one who destroys images and attacks established beliefs. He wrote

I believe there is an implicit belief, amongst some of the new paradigm research community, that if only we were all doing participatory research, the world's problems would be solved. There is certainly a part of me that believes that. There's a part of me... that believes that I ought to participate fully with friends and colleagues in everything I do, and that all such participation should be wonderful and easy, and that all of us participants will smile and be nice to one another. These are the established beliefs that this iconoclast is attacking.

After exploring his own experience of participating through several examples with family friends and colleagues he concludes

This is all difficult stuff, and that's what I wanted to say in this piece of writing. If, like me, you find yourself passionately attracted to the idea of a form of research that is participatory, that doesn't do damage to the world, or those upon whom or with whom it seeks to research, then don't imagine it will be easy. It's much easier to be fascist about research, to decide what you want to know, to design the methods, recruit the subjects, run the experiments, draw your own conclusions and write up your own results... I have a horrible feeling that it is all too difficult...

While it may be difficult, it is certainly not too difficult. Part Two of this book is made up of stories which tell how the people who initiated the projects found different ways of collaborate with others—how they transformed the people who in orthodox research would be their "subjects" into co-researchers. You can read how this was accomplished by those with professional training as group facilitators, and how it was done by relative newcomers to working in groups. You can read about projects that were fully funded as part of organizational training and development, and about projects which were taken on the informal initiative of a group of people. I hope that these examples show some of the very different ways in which people actually practice participatory or collaborative research, and that they will inspire those who read them to develop their own approaches. For the stories show that there is no one right way to go about it: each research situation is unique and will respond to different approaches in different ways.

The inquiry accounts in Part Two cover a range of activities. You can read about:

how health visitors in the British National Health Service explored ways in which they could confront hidden agendas in their practice, the unmentionables such as depression and child abuse which haunt their work;

how participatory research was used to evaluate a prenatal programme for single mothers—with some of the mothers actually doing the research.

how a diverse group of professionals worked together to improve the child protection process in their area;

how a group of youth workers explored the process of learning from experience which is contribution to the design of new forms of training and accreditation;

how collaborative inquiry was used to develop a woman-centred form of staff development which challenged the masculinist culture of an institution;

how collaborative research can become a partnership between academic and organizations in the interest of improving service delivery.

These examples draw quite widely on different approaches to participative inquiry: they are informed by co-operative inquiry, participatory action research, and action research. They present diverse ways in which groups are formed and developed, and diverse relationships between the intitiating researchers and the participants. I have drawn out some of these comparisons in Chapter Ten.

How to read this book

It should be clear that this book does not tell you "how to do it" in the sense of providing check-list or clear guidelines. Rather, by providing both a theoretical perspective and a set of examples it is intended to open a range of possibilities to a would-be participative researcher, so that their choices may be better informed. It should also be clear that you as reader may be more interested in one part of the book than the other: you may wish to start at the beginning and read through to the end, but there is no reason why you should do! You may prefer to start with the examples, and move from them to the more abstract theory of participation. If you want a brief introduction to some participative inquiry methods you will find this in the Chapter Four. But I hope that in time you will move between both parts of the book, and that the contrast between them will suspend you at that difficult edge between the vision of a participative worldview and the practice of participation in human inquiry.


My first thanks go to those who wrote the chapters which make up Part Two of the book—Hilary, Bessa, John, Sara, Moira, Annette, Lyn, Nancy, Lesley T, Lesley A and Dorothy—who have accepted my comments on their earlier drafts with grace and were so responsive to my requests. And quickly on their heels I offer thanks to all those who were involved in the inquiries reported whose experience contributes so much to our understanding of the human inquiry process.

Several people helped me with my own contributions to the book, notably Judi Marshall and David Sims, who twice took time from their own research to read and comment in detail on my drafts. I am extraordinarily lucky to have such colleagues! My dear friend Philip Raby read the drafts and provided a non-academic perspective and critical comments on my English. And Bill Torbert and Sue Jones provided helpful criticism of an early draft.

In addition to those who contributed directly are all those who provide the context for my work. The postgraduate research students at the University of Bath have been delightful companions and provided immense stimulus for the development of my ideas. Further afield I have held seminars with faculty and graduate students at the Universities of Keele, Boston, Cornell, Boston College, Brandeis, Case Western Reserve, Pennsylvania, Western Sydney at Hawkesbury, and Teachers College, Columbia at which exciting conversations have provide new questions and insights.

I am blessed with many good other friends and colleagues. Thank you all.

Peter Reason


March 1994