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Mindful Inquiry and Action Research

Given this enormous challenge, how can scholar-practitioners make the best and most productive use of the available information? Bentz and Shapiro suggest that knowledge of social science inquiry methods and theories for interpreting results and data will help practitioners evaluate the quality of the information and make intelligent choices. (Bentz and Shapiro, 1998 p. 36).

As we get into a discussion of the major cultures of inquiry that researchers immerse themselves in, an important distinction needs to be made between what constitutes a “culture/tradition” of inquiry and what can merely be thought of as a “method” of inquiry. Many of us use these terms interchangeably, and it was therefore important for this author to make sense of what appears to be a general controversy. As a matter of fact, Bentz and Shapiro, may have, either inadvertently, or possibly by design, introduced an element of confusion when they make the following suggestion in their book: “Mindful inquiry has elements of hermeneutics, phenomenology, and critical social science, which we will explain briefly in this chapter. Later in this book, we discuss these approaches in some detail as cultures of inquiry—that is, as three specific traditions among a number of others, such as quantitative and behavioral science, ethnography, and action research, within which research is currently carried out in the human and social sciences.” (Bentz and Shapiro, 1998, p.37).

I always consider ethnography, quantitative/qualitative methods, and action research as “research tools and methods”, rather than cultures or traditions of inquiry. They each fall within the purview of a larger, more encompassing discipline. It is important to separate a “culture of inquiry” from a “method of inquiry”, if only to reduce the blurring of boundaries, notwithstanding the fact that social science research is quite multidisciplinary in nature. It is this multidisciplinary and eclectic nature of our social sciences research that has continued to draw a lot of fire from rationalists and positivists, who rely heavily on observed experience and empirical research that is steeped in facts, figures, and quantitative data. They often consider that to be “pure” and objective research.

The “subjectivity” of the human experience is sometimes considered by them as a research contaminant. As we get more involved in this discussion, we will discover that the subjectivity of both, the researcher and the research participant is a critical factor in social science research and cannot be discounted as either non-existent or inconsequential. It often determines the quality of data we will be able to gather in our field work, if we work in the hermeneutic culture of inquiry, as do these authors.

The implementation of conceptual structure assessment in many thesis takes hermeneutical approach. Hermeneutics is especially important in this aspect of the project because of the complexity of the ideas, conceptions, and theories that are incorporated into the discussion of for example adult learning in distance education in new social movements. One main contribution is to “allow the movements of understanding to happen on their own time” (Bentz and Shapiro, 1998 p. 51). Hermeneutics rejects both foundationalism and nihilism (noddings, 1998). All of these characteristics point to the value of this approach for a theoretical inquiry that wants to analyze, synthesize and evaluate threads of thought.

Bentz and Shapiro suggest that hermeneutics is the study of texts and related theories for their “interpretation.” Everything that we experience is interpreted through our existing filters (culture, language, symbols, and concepts). Originally used by theologians as a means of understanding and interpreting religious texts such as the Bible, the field has been extended to make sense of just about any system, using several layers of interpretation. In a reciprocal interpretative process, hermeneutics studies present day texts in a historical context, and vice-versa.

They have done a nice job of drawing a parallel between the twists and turns of each culture of inquiry, and a mechanical spring. One can experience different things as one travels along the twists and turns of the spring. It is particularly this experience of new revelations and insights that make social science research particularly intriguing. In action research, it is taken as axiomatic that the inquirer is connected to, embedded in, the issues and field they are studying. This is particularly evident when the ‘‘personal is political’’, as in inquiry into race, gender or deprivation of some sort, and when our studies take us beyond dominant frameworks and assumptions. However, we suggest that all researchers can benefit from exploring the ways in which they are connected to their research – in terms of topic and methodological approach – and how these connections influence their theorizing and practice.

Research is always carried out by an individual with a life and a lifeworld . . . a personality, social context, and various personal and practical challenges and conflicts, all of which affect the research, from the choice of a research question or topic, through the method used, to the reporting of the project’s outcome (Bentz and Shapiro, 1998, p. 4).

Recognising that research is an engaged human, social and political activity invites and requires us to seek to account for these aspects in our research and role.

Systemic change in the relationships and boundary dynamics of schools in­volves a call for more qualitative research within school communities. Action research influences system change via participation, self-determination, and knowledge generation (Bentz & Shapiro, 1998).

As we have indicated, the term ‘action research’ can be interpreted quite broadly. Its history is of relevance: Bentz and Shapiro (1998) traced its origin to ‘two independent sources – Kurt Lewin, a person of science, and John Collier, a person of practical affairs.’ They emphasised different aspects of inquiry. Lewin (1946) argued that ‘realistic fact finding and evaluation are prerequisites for any learning’, whereas Collier (1945) stressed ‘the requirement for cooperation among the administrator, the scientist and the layperson’ (Bentz and Shapiro pp.127-128). Bentz and Shapiro comment that ‘early studies … were more concerned with changing the behaviour of persons or organisations in a specific direction than in using action research as a means of participant problem solving.’

They held that it was Paolo Freire who later ‘developed a form of inquiry he called “participatory” action research.’ The authors provide examples of this sort of work where the researcher: ‘…act[s] as a facilitator of a process of inquiry involving as many stakeholders in the situation as wish to be involved. Ideally, these stakeholders will be involved in the research design, data gathering, data analysis, and implementation of action steps resulting from the research. (Bentz and Shapiro,1998, p.128).

It is generally recognised that there is no one method that is ‘right’ for action research. Any method could be used. What makes a piece of research ‘action research’, as opposed to mere audit or evaluation, is the commitment to change. As Bentz and Shapiro (1998) state:

‘Action research is less a separate culture of inquiry than it is a statement of intention and values. The intention is to change a system, and the values are those of participation, self-determination, empowerment through knowledge, and change.’ (p.127).

Given this as the broad aim, the choice of method may be more to do with the nature of the problem that one is seeking to understand and explain. For example, if there is genuine uncertainty about two approaches to do research, it may be appropriate to set up an experiment where one group of participants is treated by one method and the other by another.

The guest lecturer, Dr. Sayyed Mohsen Fatemi, explained about quantitative and qualitative research. Every science has its own ontology, epistemology and consequently its own methodologies. Ontology defines the fundamental categories of reality. Domain ontology as distinct from formal ontology is related to focus of study. Each research field has its own ontology. A biologist, who studies plants, differentiates the plants’ specific constituent parts, actions and contexts. Similarly a sociologist will have implicit and/or explicit presuppositions about categories of reality that are fundamental and related in the human and social systems he studies. Where formal ontology inquiry is to say something general about reality, domain ontology says something specific about different areas of reality. Epistemology defines how we can know and reason that reality. As for domain ontology, each research field has its own epistemology: The maps applied by the biologist studying plants, are traditionally different from the maps applied by the sociologist in his studies of interacting humans. The methodologies of each of these two scientists have followed as different systems of investigative techniques within their focus of study. The biologist and the sociologist traditionally apply different procedures for accomplishing and approaching the phenomena they focus on. They use different scientific methods studying different domains with different epistemology and ontology.

Dr. Fatemi also described the act of creativity. It is not searching for the sameness, is not in pursuit of congruence or compatibility, and is not moving towards convergence. Creativity is not bound to coherence, cohesiveness, conformity, correspondence or consistency in a sign oriented paradigm. Creativity may represent an act of revelation where things are revealed in light of creativity and unconsciousness as it can be an act of disclosure where things are cryptically and yet creatively presented. Creativity is not dutifully at the service of the recognized order as it is not respectful of the relationships and their establishment within the government of signs. Creativity may bring chaos and disorder but this chaotic situation is only as a result of a comparison between the act of creativity and the previously identified system of order within the plane of signs.

Moreover, Dr. Fatemi explained how to understand symbols and their implications. It would provide moments of inspiration where numerous possibilities unfold symbols. It facilitates the process of creative thinking and novel expressiveness.


Bentz, V. M., & Shapiro, J. J. (1998). Mindful Inquiry in social research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Noddings, N. (1998). Philosophy of Education. Boulder: Westview Press.

Categories: Journal
  1. June 28, 2010 at 10:35 PM

    I would agree, considering action research, quanitative/qualitative, and ethnography as tools and methods. I will be working on my dissertation for my doctorate and I probably will use the qualitative method.

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