This is a book summary of First Person Action Research: Living Life as Inquiry by Judi Marshall (Amazon).
Premium members have access to the companion post: 🔒 Living Inquiry Synthesis: 20 Characteristics of Living Life as Inquiry (+ Infographic)
- All content in “quotation marks” is from the author (otherwise it’s paraphrased).
- All content is organized into my own themes (not the author’s chapters).
- Emphasis has been added in bold for readability/skimmability.
Book Summary Contents:
- About the Book
- Characteristics of Living Life as Inquiry
- Action Research & Systemic Thinking
- Writing as Inquiry
Living Life as Inquiry: First Person Action Research by Judi Marshall (Book Summary)
About the Book
“In this book I offer a notion of research that is thoroughly integrated into everyday life, through which I seek to live with integrity in potentially challenging times.”
- “I have not distinguished readily between ‘research’ and the rest of my life, experimenting with the translation processes between the two, with how they are interwoven and inform each other.”
- “In many ways this approach to life is nothing special; it is how people live step by step, trying to be aware of those steps, as far as we are able – an important qualification. But it represents also a challenge, an invitation, of seeking to live a mindful life and learn as we go along.”
- “This book is especially offered as a contribution to action research. It explores principles and practices of first person inquiry and issues we encounter as we go about doing it.”
Characteristics of Living Life as Inquiry
“I have come to term this approach ‘living life as inquiry,’ cautiously expressing my tacit knowing of the processes involved as: a range of beliefs, strategies and ways of behaving which encourage me to treat little as fixed, finished, clear-cut. Rather I have an image of living continually in process, adjusting, seeing what emerges, bringing things into question … attempting to open to continual question what I know, feel, do and want, and finding ways to engage actively in this questioning and process its stages.”
- Experiments & Explorations: Continually exploring takes energy, attention and often courage in some form as we seek to keep alert to new experiences and perspectives, to be ever open to learning of some kind. Each person creates their own version of first person inquiry as an ongoing experiment (drawing on our own distinctive array of influences and interests). Living life as inquiry is at the same time philosophy, orientation and practice, seeking to treat all I think, feel, say and do as experiment. When I adopt living life as inquiry as an active approach to experimentation, I can take a preoccupation which is not worry or tension necessarily, but is interesting enough to puzzle about, and experiment, turning it into a ‘project’ of some kind, engaging in cycles of learning, as I seek to understand more and flex my behaviour out in the service of doing so. Often these explorations are in the service of acting more effectively in some way, reflecting too on what that might mean. Inquiry includes, for me, experiments in being, although the term action research may mask the importance of this. It could entail, for example: experimenting with a shift in perspective; deliberately not-talking at a meeting; reviewing and changing my assumptions or expectations when something does not turn out as hoped; accepting a pattern of relationship as it seems to be, rather than pushing to develop it; and being kinder to myself. All of these can be experiments in living as inquiry.
- Learning & Attention: Living live as inquiry is a craft adopted as continuous learning. I am always seeking fresh learning, including to enhance my skills of inquiry. Engaging life in this way can, at different times, be a steady approach to learning, exciting, or feel vulnerable and potentially unbounded. A motif, a dynamic, shifting image of possibility, an invitation to pay attention to and respect what is, rather than to live by projecting, perhaps protecting, what should be. One of my images of inquiry is that of continually weaving between inner and outer arcs of attention, as I seek to reflect and act fluidly in context, and to maintain curiosity about what is happening and what part I am playing in creating and sustaining patterns of action, interaction and non-action. Identifying issues for inquiry is inquiry in itself, an iterative process of noticing, working with, shaping, testing out, revising. Inquiries can start in many different ways, deliberately or unintentionally.
- Inner & Outer Attention: One of my images of inquiry is that of continually weaving between inner and outer arcs of attention. Through scanning inner arcs of attention I seek to notice myself perceiving, framing issues, interpreting, making choices about action and so on. I want to glimpse my assumptions and purposes; am curious about potential patterns, repetitions and themes; and notice my feelings and energy and how these shift. I also wonder what and who I am not attending to, what I might be missing. Simultaneously, I am seeking to engage in outer arcs of attention, by which I mean acting and sensing outside myself. This includes questioning others, raising arising puzzles for mutual exploration, and taking experimental action. I might thus seek to test out any interpretations I am developing, always seeking to hold these lightly. I often try to transpose what might be concerns or dilemmas into cycles of active inquiry, devising these to address issues and hoping to move my understanding of them on. I might overtly frame my attempts to others as inquiry, learning more about others’ positioning through mutual conversation. Engaging simultaneously in inner and outer arcs of attention is an attempt at a discipline, but not about perfection, or about claiming pure access to a stream of consciousness as this is impossible.
- Curiosity & Fun: Often inquiry arises from following curiosities, interests. I notice a repeated fascination or puzzle; I want to pay it more attention. Treating an issue as inquiry is not about giving priority to trying to make something happen. It is holding an attitude of curiosity as I go about trying to make things happen. I include myself in the circle of curiosity, and so I am seeking always to be open to reviewing purposes, strategies and behaviours as well as apparent effects. I see living life as inquiry as a floating choicefulness, always seeking to be self-reflexive. It is a practice for being curious. Mostly it is fun. As I probe away at something, allowing that all ‘outcomes’ are interesting and can be worked with in some way, I feel more resourceful. I can treat disappointment, say, with curiosity, be kind to myself and see what then arises. I do not have to try hard to influence for specific outcomes, as what emerges is way beyond what my efforts alone can achieve, and will be interesting systemic data.
- Perspective & Self: Ongoing experiments in being, which involve continual active attention whilst not seeking to unduly shape or jeopardise unfolding action. Often the ‘outcome’ of living life as inquiry is a shift in someone’s sense of self, rather than some ‘achievement’ in terms of action. Living life as inquiry can sound like an heroic quest, and can sometimes, choicefully, have these qualities. But there is also something paradoxical about highly goal-directed inquiry that is agentically trying to resolve issues. Striving for an outcome is incongruent. Often what arises is not what we expected, but is what ‘needs’ in some ways to occur next.
- Meaning & Purpose: Inquiry that lacks meaning is not so likely to thrive, will become arduous and empty to maintain. The broader purpose is to have a richer existence rather than to sort life out and reduce its variety.
- Conceptual & Perceptual: I make conceptual sense differently because I have allowed research to become multi-dimensional. I seek to track perceptions, sensations – potentially fleeting, potentially recurrent – and to avoid them becoming static, habituated.
- Stories & Feedback: Seeking to pay attention to the ‘stories’ I tell about myself and the world, appreciating that these are all constructions, glimpses perhaps of transitory purposes and perspectives, and of social discourses within which meanings unfold. I can ‘listen’ to them with interest, noticing what shapes they take and whether I seem attached or not to their rhetorics. Always I rely on the protection that I do not have to ‘get it right’, that I can treat any move, including a much cherished viewpoint, as an inquiry that can be open to feedback and reviewed as I proceed. Inquiring is not about getting something ‘right’, but about noticing what is.
- Personal & Relational: Each person has to generate their own forms, ways, times of and for inquiry. However, finding some time and space for reflection and styles for this that suit you are key. People do this differently. And for different purposes. Can be used to develop as a person, address how one is in the world, operate more effectively and gain a sense of agency in a situation that seems potentially over-powering. Also a thoroughly relational notion, with alignment to social constructionist and critical theory approaches. Processes in and through which we live and make sense are also social. A person is always in context, inquiring in ongoing action, curious about connections, interfaces, boundaries and how these are being created. Whilst it might imply intense personal process, living life as inquiry is not something we often do well alone. It benefits from ‘friends willing to act as enemies’, those who will question our patterns, assumptions, actions and cherished beliefs, as well of course as from ‘friends willing to act as friends’, who support us to unfold who we might become. I want to advocate yet again that we should hold bold intentions for living life as inquiry lightly, work with them dynamically, let ourselves be surprised. And, whatever first person inquiry means for each of us, we need also to take care of ourselves.
- Self-Question & Self-Reflection: My intention is always to hold any ideas I use lightly, to adopt them within a frame of inquiry, as cues to rich questioning. We owe it to our fellow creatures to engage in some form of self-questioning, seeking to pay attention to our purposes and patterns, and inviting challenge from others in these terms. Living life as inquiry is generally not self-reflection for its own sake, but is adopted to inform action in the world around issues people think matter. As some of us go about trying to make the world a better place (amidst ongoing questioning of what that might mean), adopting some form of self-reflective inquiry practice is a responsibility, despite the impossibility of doing this ‘perfectly’. How to conduct myself, which issues to pursue and how, are important, continually live questions. A potential contribution to the world of reflective inquiry (in various realms of research, reflectiveness or reflexivity of some kind are increasingly advocated and integrated).
- Persist & Desist: Wondering whether to persist or desist is a key conundrum of living life as inquiry. Questioning when to persist and when to desist. How do I know if/when to persist (especially with what seems impossible or futile) or to desist, as letting go means fresh shape might then emerge – or at least I will not spend my energies in futile trying?
- Good & Bad: In the forms of inquiry I am outlining, little can be clearly categorised as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Many processes have the possibility of leading to outcomes which contribute to ecological and human flourishing in some way. But all initiatives always also come with a question mark, especially as processes unfold over time. What might have seemed ‘generative’ can prove damaging in the longer-term. Quality is always in process, requiring ongoing attention, discipline, review and creativity. Treating what emerges as ‘data’, as potentially valid information, rather than as getting things right or wrong; Being non-judgemental (people are doing the best they can, I am doing the best I can), noticing how challenging this can be.
- Articulation & Unknown: Framing inquiry may appear instant. Sometimes the rich question arises clearly for us to articulate and enact. But often it is a slower, more emergent, process with tantalising glimpses of what might be interesting and have energy that then take time to form a shape we can work with. Inquiry cannot be known, or spoken, fully. And we have to live with, and seek to speak from this, without pinning dynamic processes down into things. Living life as inquiry is an integrated approach which can be qualitatively developed through practice, and can involve shifts in our framing on the world. Inquiry might thus become more challenging and disruptive with experience, as a sense of expanding competence encourages us to choose to make ourselves more vulnerable, to seek deeper engagement and learning. Living life as inquiry inherently incorporates vulnerability. If what I am doing has no edge of (twinned) excitement and fear perhaps I am just going through the motions without placing myself fully available in the process. Unless I am willing to accept this I do not have much faith in inquiry. If it is not going to open me to learning then why would I do it?
- Change & Politics: Change can be considered the way life is. Seeking to act for change in a changing world. Living life as inquiry is personal and life process, and it is also political process in various ways. How issues are framed, researched and depicted is influenced by multiple dynamics of power. What voices count and are discounted, what issues can be raised or are muted, what forms of knowing are considered legitimate and illegitimate are reflections of the politics of epistemology. In living life as inquiry I am always engaged in some way in any dynamics I seek to understand, if only through my interest. Typically I am entangled in organisational and other patterns, even those I decry. In seeking to understand I must appreciate the functionality of current forms, that we are all ‘doing our best’ and that I may well be helping to keep things the same. Also I have to live with incompleteness; I cannot know any situation wholly, from all perspectives.
Note: Aliveness & Completeness
Action Research & Systemic Thinking
“Living life as inquiry is my attempt to act with integrity, context-sensitivity and agency in an ever-unfolding, complex, always largely unknowable world. This approach draws on principles and practices of action research. It is always lived out in context, in ongoing inquiry into connections, interfaces, and emergent action. It is therefore thoroughly informed by notions of systemic thinking.”
“Action research of some kind provides ways of being and behaving in uncertain and potentially dangerous times, offers disciplines for living conditionally and open to review, and potentially for acting for change … First person action research involves a person cultivating an approach of inquiry to all they think, feel and do, including being curious about their perspectives, assumptions and behaviour. Their intent would be to develop their awareness, practice, choices and effectiveness in context, through developing their abilities to bring inquiry into the heart of ongoing action.”
Characteristics of action research:
- Experimenting & Learning: Research in this frame is not about having an initial idea that then needs proving, or about ‘getting it right’. Rather it is about experimenting, encountering tensions and dilemmas, and learning more about these as facets of the issues being explored. Engaging requires allowing immersion to inform and expand the learning. Treating action as always experimental, open to review and learning.
- Engagement & Participation: Involves engagement and being part of the action, with an interest in contributing to change. Often seeks to promote participation and collaboration – although not all action research is participative co-action.
- Both/And: There is the both/and-ness of seeking to surrender oneself to what the inquiry needs to be and also the sense of needing to contain or focus it enough to achieve a depth and quality of engagement about issues that really matter. This involves integrating broadly based scanning with selective tracking, lest I become swamped by trying to take on everything.
- Reflecting & Questioning: Often operates through cycling between action and reflection. The repeated questioning in relation to each dimension as the research unfolds is: In what ways is this inquiry? This is an important reminder to those who are undertaking research with an intent of contributing to change, as advocacy can take over, can reduce the potential for learning, mutuality and perhaps for systemic impact. We can, of course, always inquire with critical reflection into our attempts at advocacy. The notion of engaging in cycles of action and reflection is axiomatic to action research. At its most basic, this cycling means I alternate between taking action and reflecting on this in some way. My reflection informs a next phase of action.
- Disciplined & Emergent: There is something here about the paradoxical nature of living life as inquiry. It might pull me/you into continually seeking to rectify things. But it needs a light touch, to allow the process to be both disciplined and emergent. And for me or you to be able to be surprised. The purpose of inquiry, then, is to have a greater capacity to operate rather than to reach an end goal. My image is of inquiry through fleeting glimpses and moments, of allowing interests to arise, change shape and fade as appropriate. I need the disciplines of first person action research for approaching openly, interpreting and then acting/inquiring again. Both adopts chosen disciplines and respects and works with emergent process. The dimensions are interactive, always open to revision as learning develops. Inquirers generate and refine questions or issues and find appropriate ways to explore them. Learning is fed from one phase of inquiry into new questions and inquiry processes for the next phase, in emergent, strategic design. Working with both intention and emergence.
- Convergent & Divergent: Engaging in research cycling of some kind, I can pay attention to how I use and blend convergence and divergence as a quality process. Convergent inquiry travels territory I have already explored, deepens, enhances understanding, may seek saturation as a cue to completeness of some kind. Alternatively, I can follow divergent pathways, checking out boundaries, following new leads, going off at apparent tangents, enriching through juxtaposing multiple images.
- Knowledge & Knowing: Concerned with knowledge in and for practice. Respects and works through multiple forms of knowing, being cautious about inappropriately privileging intellectual, analytic knowing. Inquiry is a whole person, embodied experience, respecting, working with and expressing multiple forms of knowing.
- Context & Framing: Is sensitive to context and to timing, judging whether it is beneficial in a given situation to blend with or challenge prevailing ways of being and social practices. How the research is conducted is significantly influenced by the research paradigm(s) with which you are working. How the research is framed is also influenced by the specific context within which it is conducted, and the issues of power that operate across it.
- Values & Power: Is values-aware, rather than espousing objectivity or neutrality, wishing to contribute to human and ecological flourishing in some way. Pays attention to issues of power, in multiple ways.
“First person action research is always lived out in context, in ongoing inquiry into connections, interfaces, and emergent action. In my interpretation it is therefore thoroughly informed by notions of systemic thinking … Systemic thinking is an integrated strand in my everyday behaviour and a key dynamic in living life as inquiry … Living life as inquiry integrating systemic thinking is an aspiration to continual engagement, holding any emergent sense-making as provisional and reviewing this as action, reflection, feedback and fresh encounters with alternative perspectives unfold.”
Thinking systemically involves:
- Overview: Often holding in mind ideas of connectedness, systemic properties and dynamics, persistence of patterns, and resilience. A view of dynamic patterns unfolding over time; of delays, non-linearities, lack of firm boundaries and so on. Combining inquiry with systemic thinking offers me an orientation in the world and a palette of potential action and being. Acting from these aspirations raises issues of identity. If I see myself as acting in the service of sustainability and social justice, who am I? Where do I belong? How will others see my efforts and probable inconsistencies as I navigate between multiple worlds? I need to be willing to work at margins rather than yearn to be ‘mainstream’. Appreciating inter-relationships, complexity, systemic patterns, and that we cannot know everything.
- Uncertainty & Unfolding: Inquiry that is fully under control is not fully inquiry. I must then often accept and live inquiringly with being ‘radically unanchored’. I approach inquiry partly by having an attitude of acceptance. I am not, despite any sense of intentionality, attempting control, which I see as limited and often degenerative in a complex, systemic world. Respect emergence and unfolding process. Reaching for systemic thinking, complexity science and other such approaches in the face of the limitations of linear cause and effect thinking in a complex world not amenable to our control is, however, inherently paradoxical. We might espouse uncertainty whilst also seeking ways to know things ‘for sure’, or sure enough. For example, we might seek to know how to bring about systemic change. We need to learn the humility that such knowing is not available to us. Thus we must always act from inquiry, with a deliberate learning intent and appropriate individual and collective processes. Processes will unfold, often in what seem perverse ways, and I seek to maintain my abilities to treat this with curiosity, and my own attempts at life with amusement.
- Boundaries (Parts & Whole, Inside & Outside): Inquiry is a vital approach if I wish to learn and act within the unknowable that is wholeness. inquiry is often a whole-life process and boundaries are difficult to draw. It is potentially rich, fascinating but also demanding and challenging. Living this way implies then accepting a looseness of boundaries, congruent with systemic thinking, and not seeking control. So life can seem out of control much of the time, and I notice how my efforts are therefore sometimes directed at creating temporary enough order to keep on going on. Believing that often ‘parts’ cannot change unless there is some kind of shift in systemic pattern, but/and that sometimes ‘parts’ can change and influence change in the wider ‘system’. In systemic thinking there are no clearly delineated ‘things’ or ‘systems’. How we ‘punctuate’ the world we seek to understand and attribute boundaries is open to critical review. We can work with notions of systemic patterns, recurrent flows of behaviour, assumptions and structuring which may be characteristic but shift and change. These may be considered ‘emergent properties’ if this does not unduly fix and cohere them. A sense of apparent order might appear in the moment, only to dissolve the next. In this framing there are no clear boundaries between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’. Analysing systemic patterns is intriguing and can be informative. And we need always to review whether it is legitimate to think of ourselves as ‘outside’ the patterns.
- Integrity & Influence: When I adopt systemic thinking my aim is not usually that of seeking control, however this might be defined, as control is an incongruent aim from a systemic view. Rather I am seeking to live with integrity and some appropriate influence in an unfolding, co-created world, given that I can only perceive, and act by, arcs of circuits of effect. We need also to beware of interpreting or claiming solo impact in complex interactive systems. Some measure of influence might be as bold as is justified. How then can I possibly say that anything I and people I work alongside have done has had an impact? This risks potential arrogance. Some attribution of contribution might just be possible – retrospectively, in a long long-term, accompanied by a challenging conversation about multi-causality, systemic lags, timescales and criteria for what makes a ‘better’ world. Judging that prospectively is difficult, if not foolhardy. And yet we act. So we might seek more proximal indicators of potentially ‘good’ or good-enough process – open, inquiring, inclusive, politically questioning and so on. If we can submit these too to ongoing critical review. Seeking to act with integrity: including judging the appropriateness, in any given situation and time, of trying to fit in, acquiescing to current patterns, critiquing what is happening or contributing to creating new patterns.
- Power & Politics: Notions of systemic unfolding are appealing, and often appropriate, but they might also be naive if we do not take account of power in its different potential conceptualisations and manifestations, which is always implicated. We need to see our thinking and action within broader perspectives, to be interested in power and politics and the potential questions these pose. Systemic patterns are held in place, challenged and changed through complex and multiple dynamics of power. Attention to potential issues of power and its enactment can be thoroughly interwoven with systemic thinking and thus becomes a further resource informing inquiry.
- Feedback & Consequences: Systemic thinking eschews limited linear, cause and effect notions and talks in terms of feedback loops. Seeking to understand action in complexity our attention is often drawn to ‘unintended consequences’. In systemic thinking the intended/unintended distinction becomes highly questionable. Expecting all consequences to be intended is rather discordant, as if we can be in control, as if messages have clear, unambiguous meanings that are received faultlessly by listeners and so on. Any ‘solutions’ can themselves have further unintended consequences. Also we might wonder if premises on which action is based, and ‘solutions’ are framed, need questioning in order to think ‘upstream’ and operate with more systemic wisdom. Realising one cannot do straight line, control-oriented, interventions, however well intentioned, and that trying to typically leads to so-called ‘unintended consequences’. Putting information into systems where it has not been before and seeing what arises. Connecting up new feedback loops so that chains of consequences become more apparent, and ongoing monitoring and learning are enabled. Living out systemic thinking involves having patience and judging timing; deciding sometimes not to ‘interfere’ and allowing patterns to unfold as they do, so that consequences are experienced by those involved.
Writing as Inquiry
“This book is as much about writing as inquiry, as it is about living life as inquiry … Reflective writing and living life as inquiry become entangled, and feed each other. Surfacing themes and issues through the writing, I may have the potential to see them differently as I encounter them in experience. Sometimes sources of tension dissolve through writing into them. Sometimes they become clearer, more pliable and amenable to reflection and active experimentation, perhaps in mutual conversation with others. The phrases that appear on the page can seem to name or encode potential tendencies in interpretations, behaviours or emotional reactions. Noticing this allows me to stand back a little, explore them both as self-observer and for their enacted dynamic.”
- Identity & Insight: A major dilemma in writing from first person inquiry is whether I can avoid, control, balance out or justify the over-insistent ‘I’. Living life as inquiry is a practice for fitting into the world, for seeking to act with integrity; it is not about focusing attention on myself. And yet the personal, political and systemic are interwoven in inquiry, arising differently in specific biographies. Living life as inquiry is therefore also autobiographical and so some elements of this seem relevant to tell. In first person inquiry it seems perhaps obvious that the voice will be ‘I’. With many others I draw back from the over-insistent ‘I’, but must own my place in the writing. In living life as inquiry my aspiration is not to focus on self, on ego, but to achieve a dynamic sense like a repeated breath or pulsing scanning of attentions, through which I seek to access an extended view or experiencing. There are no easy formulae for depicting this in writing. Through writing as inquiry I am seeking to make the process and resulting text vital and alive with insight and forthright critical analysis rather than deadened and masked.
- Discovery & Development: Writing is often a process of discovery, in which the writer learns as they seek to articulate what they want to say to themselves and to others. The phrase ‘How can I know what I think till I see what I say’ points to this experience and can stand as a motif for both speaking and writing as inquiry. Writing as discovery is about process not product. A key principle of writing as inquiry is to learn from what you say, and to see where this takes you. It is not simply ‘creative’, it is alive, vital, for whatever purposes you are following; it can open up what was not pre-formulated. Text is always in or amenable to transition, becoming what it can. Writing as a method of inquiry becomes an integral, developmental research process.
- Private & Public: Pieces written as discovery and inquiry are not necessarily appropriate for others to see, especially out of context. Inquiry is generally engaged as life process rather than as production. By no means all inquiries require a public life, are intended for dissemination or publication; living life as inquiry does not require indiscriminate exposure. A key aspect of working with writing as inquiry is respect for and curiosity about the form(s) in which it arises.
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