Cooperative Inquiry

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Co-operative inquiry = A radical peer-to-peer research method, also called collaborative inquiry

Submitted by John Heron, March 28, 2006 (augmented since)


1. John Heron:

"Co-operative inquiry involves two or more people researching a topic through their own experience of it, using a series of cycles in which they move between this experience and reflecting together on it. Each person is co-subject in the experience phases and co-researcher in the reflection phases." (


A radical peer-to-peer research method, also called collaborative inquiry, originated by John Heron between 1968 and 1981, and now regarded as one of the most well-developed of the family of action research approaches. It has been applied in a wide range of contexts: in medical practice, nursing, midwifery, social work, management, organizational development, community development, adult and continuing education, living together, human spirituality, co-counselling, obesity, diabetes, racism, gender, women in mid-life, social justice leadership, and more.

Overview of the method:

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 of bilateral initiative and control, so that all those involved work together as co-researchers and as co-subjects. They both design, manage and draw conclusions from the inquiry, and undergo the experience and action that is being explored. This is not research on people, but research with people.


John Heron:

"The defining features of co-operative inquiry are:

  • All the subjects are as fully involved as possible as co-researchers in all research decisions – about both content and method – taken in the reflection phases.

  • 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 appropriate procedures to the validity of the inquiry and its findings.

  • There is a radical epistemology for a wide-ranging inquiry method that can be both informative about and transformative of any aspect of the human condition. It involves a congruence of four forms of knowing: propositional, practical, presentational, and experiential:

o Propositional knowing, or knowing that, is expressed in statements. o Practical knowing, or knowing how, is expressed in the exercise of a skill. o Presentational knowing, or intuitive knowing of significant pattern, is expressed in graphic, plastic, moving, musical and verbal art-forms. o Experiential knowing, or knowing by acquaintace, is manifest as imaging and feeling the presence of some energy, entity, person, place, process or thing.

  • There are, as well as validity procedures, a range of special skills suited to such all-purpose experiential inquiry.

  • The full range of human sensibilities – a transparent body-mind with an open and unbound awareness – is available as an instrument of inquiry."


Phases (stages) of Inquiry


Co-operative inquiry can be seen as cycling 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 examine in depth certain states of consciousness; 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.

In Phase 2 the co-researchers now also become co-subjects: they engage in actions agreed; and observe and record the process and outcomes of their own and each other's experience.

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 original ideas.

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 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 it 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.

In Phase 4, after an agreed period in Phases 2 and 3, the co-researchers re-assemble to share the experiential data from these Phases, 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. This cycle between reflection and action is then repeated several times. Ideas and discoveries tentatively reached in early phases can be checked and developed; investigation of one aspect of the inquiry can be related to exploration of other parts; new skills can be acquired and monitored; experiential competences are realized; 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 unaware projection and consensus collusion; others monitor authentic collaboration, the balance between reflection and action, and between chaos and order.

2. David Hiles:

"Co-operative inquiry is Heron’s basic research tool for a participatory inquiry paradigm. “In co-operative inquiry the exclusive roles [. . of researcher and subject] are replaced by a co-operative relationship of bilateral initiative and control, so that all those involved work together as co-researchers and as co-subjects”. . “This is not research on people, but research with people” (Heron, 1998, p. 234).

“Co-operative inquiry . . involves two or more people researching a topic through their experience of it, using a series of cycles in which they move between this experience and reflecting together on it” (Heron, 1998, p. 235).

This participatory approach to research, adapts the action research model, involving repeated cycling through four steps:

  • Step 1: Agreeing, planning and devising a focus of inquiry
  • Step 2: Action phase – observing and recording experiences
  • Step 3: Reflection – immersion engagement with experience
  • Step 4: Evaluation – sharing, reframing, validating, for the next cycle."

- Participatory Perspectives on Counselling Research. By DAVID HILES: Summary of paper presented at NCCR Conference, Newport, November 22, 2008.

3. John Heron:

"An outline of inquiry stages

Stage 1 The first reflection phase for the inquirers to choose:

   * The focus or topic of the inquiry and the type of inquiry.
   * A launching statement of the inquiry topic.
   * A plan of action for the first action phase to explore some aspect of the inquiry topic.
   * A method of recording experiences during the first action phase.

Stage 2 The first action phase when the inquirers are:

   * Exploring in experience and action some aspect of the inquiry topic.
   * Applying an integrated range of inquiry skills.
   * Keeping records of the experiential data generated.

Stage 3 Full immersion in the action phase with great openness to experience; the inquirers may:

   * Break through into new awareness.
   * Lose their way.
   * Transcend the inquiry format.

Stage 4 The second reflection phase; the inquirers share data from the action phase and:

   * Review and modify the inquiry topic in the light of making sense of data about the explored aspect of it.
   * Choose a plan for the second action phase to explore the same or a different aspect of the inquiry topic.
   * Review the method of recording data used in the first action phase and amend it for use in the second.

Subsequent stages will:

   * Involve, including the first, from five to eight full cycles of reflection and action, with varying patterns of divergence and convergence, in the action phases, over aspects of the inquiry topic.
   * Include a variety of intentional procedures, in the reflection phases, and of special skills in the action phases, for enhancing the validity of the process.
   * End with a major reflection phase for pulling the threads together, clarifying outcomes, and deciding whether to write a co-operative report.
   * Be followed by post-group collaboration on writing up any agreed form of report."


Special Skills, Validity Measures, & Distinctions

It is more obvious how Heron's model varies from most qualitative and status quo research methodologies, but in "Cooperative Inquiry", he explains how Cooperative Inquiry goes beyond (Participatory) Action Research model(s) in that it contains a radical epistemology for exploration into all facets of the human experience and the necessary special skills and validity measures necessary to do so. Further distinctions are detailed below.

Special Skills

Informative Inquiry

  • Being present - Empathy, meeting & feeling presence of people, entities and world, harmonic resonance & alignment, participating in the inner experience of people, their modes of awareness & their ways of giving meaning & being affected, prehension
  • Imaginal openness - being receptive to meaning inherent in total process of shaping people and a world by perceptually imaging them with (non)sensory imagery => enact & participate in their appearing and intuiting its meaning. Skill for imaginal grasp, the intuition of pattern-meaning. Perceiving from sensory to subtle.
  • Bracketing - manage conceptual labels & models embedded in process of perceiving people and a world. Skill is about suspending classifications & constructs we impose on our perceiving so we can be more open to its inherent primary, imaginal meaning
    • Bring everyday frameworks of belief, norms, values, & social structures into explicit view in order to peer past & regenerate vision
    • [Related skill] Divesting conventional belief-systems of the effects of early childhood trauma taht may distort or fixate them with dark emotional loading
      • everyday perception may be charged with threat, negative expectation & disempowerment ← clear human instrument for graceful self-reflection
    • Bracketing Launching Statement: Launching Statement = outline of revisionary belief-system
      • Innovative lens to see inquiry domain in new light
      • but worn lightly; frequently remove/include lens for compare/contrast
  • Reframing - or conceptual revisioning in perceiving a world; not only suspending constructs, but also trying alternative ones for their creative capacity to articulate an account of people and a world; be open to reframing the assumptions of any conceptual context or perspective. “Self-reflective mind learns to attend its own processes”

Transformative Inquiry

  • Dynamic congruence - practical knowing, how to act; being aware, while acting, of the bodily form:
    • of its strategic form and guiding norms,
    • of the behaviour (by which strategy’s implemented)
      • & it’s style and competence {fittingness, sensitivity, clarity}
    • of its purpose or end and underlying values,
    • of its motives,
    • of its external context and supporting beliefs, and
    • of its actual outcomes.
    • At the same time, it means being aware of any lack of congruence between these different facets of the action and adjusting accordingly… this is the interface between conceptual-reflective & intuitive-imaginal praxis.
    • Mind action pattern’s intentional, behavioural, social & environmental dimensions
  • Emotional competence - identify and manage emotional states; keep action free from distorted reactions to current events that are driven by the unprocessed distress of earlier years and from limiting influence of inappropriate conventions acquired by social conditioning.
    • Central skill: expressing love, regard, affection, delight
    • Autonomous action presupposes the agent is in touch with emotional value of their preference of the options available
    • Free of self-assault: it honors what it deals with. Choosing not to act on certain emotions by switching attention off them without repressing them
      • Latter done by changing arousal level (e.g. going for a run when sad; deep relaxation when angry) Or by cognitive restructuring (see sit. in new light)
  • Non-attachment - ability here is to wear lightly and without fixation the purpose, strategy, form of behaviour and motive which have been chosen as the form of the action. not investing one's identity & emotional security in the action, while remaining fully intentional about it and committed to it.
  • Self-transcending intentionality - willingness to adopt alternative strategies (good to previously have in mind) while busy with one overall form of action, and consider these alternatives’ possible relevance & applicability to total situation. Analogous to reframing.

Validity Measures

"[Heron] takes the view that validity itself, concern with the justification of truth-values, is interdependent with that which transcends it, the celebration of being-values, of what is intrinsically worthwhile in our experience"

  • Reflection & Action - equal measures of both.
  • Aspects of reflection - balance between presentational (expressive, artistic) sense-making & propositional (verbal/intellectual) ways... within intellectual domain they quarter into: describing, evaluating descriptions, building theory, and applying what has been learning in one cycle to the mgmt of the next
  • Challenging uncritical subjectivity - any inquirer at any time can adopt formally the devil's advocate role to question as to whether one of several forms are afoot: not noticing/ mentioning aspects of exp. 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; lack of rigour in inquiry method and in applying validity procedures.
  • Chaos and order interdependent - nescience and knowing; tolerate and undergo, without premature closure, phases that are confusing, disorienting, conflicted or inharmonious (tidying prematurely leads to pseudo-knowledge)
  • Managing unaware projections - group adopts regular method for surfacing and processing repressed templates of past emotional trauma, which may get unawarely projected out, distorting thought, perception and action within the inquiry.
  • Authentic collaboration - because intersubjective dialogue is key component in refining the forms of knowing. One aspect of this is that group members internalize and own the inquiry method so that they become on a peer footing with initiating researchers. Other aspect is that each group member is fully & authentically engaged in each action phase and in each reflection phase; and in each reflection phase is fully expressive, fully heard, and fully influential in decision-making, on a peer basis with all others.

Distinctions from other Qualitative Research Paradigms

Action Inquiry or Action Science: Akin to a partial-form of Cooperative Inquiry. "‘A’ (secondary support, partial co-researcher) participates in regular reflection phases, discussing & facilitating ways in which ‘B’ can… make more congruent the interaction of goals, strategies, actions, outcomes, contexts. ‘A’ is not co-subject at all". Also called "supported action inquiry".

Action Research: "Research into current, ongoing practice by practitioners for practitioners. Action Research focuses on problem-solving in existing professional performance & related organizational structures. Disregards theory-building or its generative power; not a wide-ranging research method for researching any aspect or any theory of the human condition. Doesn’t include special skills or validity measures of Cooperative Inquiry. Doesn’t work with complementarity of informative & transformative engagement in inquiry."

Participative Action Research: “For the enlightenment & awakening of the common people” - Understands knowledge as means of power & control; goal is immediate empowerment of participants’ action. May have condescending aspect whereas it is often practiced in 3rd world by people of relatively “more knowledge” and certainly of privilege… Heron suggests that people use Cooperative Inquiry to investigate the distortions of privilege where they are.

- Synthesis of Heron's book published in 1996, "Co-operative Inquiry: Research into the Human Condition". Synthesis [DOC] last modified 08/18/2016.

More Information

  • John Heron, Co-operative Inquiry: Research into the Human Condition, London, Sage Publications, 1996. The basic text which provides a comprehensive account of co-operative inquiry. For a link to an outline of the contents go to
  • John Heron and Peter Reason, ‘The Practice of Co-operative Inquiry: Research ‘with’ rather than ‘on’ People’, in Peter Reason and Hilary Bradbury (eds), Handbook of Action Research, London, Sage Publications, 2001. A useful summary of key features. For a copy of this paper go to
  • Reports and comments on a wide range of co-operative inquiries can be found in:
  1. Peter Reason, (ed) Human Inquiry in Action, London, Sage Publications, 1988.
  2. Peter Reason, (ed) Participation in Human Inquiry, London, Sage Publications, 1994.
  3. John Heron, Co-operative Inquiry: Research into the Human Condition, London, Sage Publications, 1996.
  4. John Heron, Sacred Science: Person-centred Inquiry into the Spiritual and the Subtle, Ross-on-Wye, PCCS Books, 1998.
  5. Peter Reason and Hilary Bradbury (eds), Handbook of Action Research, London, Sage Publications, 2001. Also in the second edition of the Handbook, forthcoming in 2007.