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Framing participatory inquiry in terms of ‘reflexivity’

William Adlong

Charles Sturt University, Email


According to Giddens (1984) actors are continually reproducing social structures – norms, power and meaning – in their communication and interactions. Quite clearly social norms and patterns of action in many cases are not leading to adequate changes of practice or responses to problems and may actually be perpetuating a problem. How then can we facilitate ‘reflexivity’, the ability to focus attention on the reproduction of social structures in our activity, interaction and communication so that there is greater opportunity to question and transform them? This paper describes a participatory research design, part of a PhD project, that attempts to cultivate reflexivity with the aim of facilitating a community’s response to climate change and the need for greenhouse gas abatement. Drawing from theories such as those of ‘reflexive modernization’ (Beck 1997), ‘social movements’ (Touraine 1981, 2000) and ‘critical discourse analysis’ (Chouliaraki & Fairclough 1999) this paper suggests that feeding back social analysis into the participatory process may enhance it. The paper will include discussion of how consideration of the qualities of a group’s dialogue might provide insights into the nature of the learning process occurring in the group.

Three key learnings: (1) there are ways of framing extension as research that may enhance the effects of extension; (2) some forms of social analysis may catalyse the transformative nature of participatory processes; (3) attention to the quality of dialogue may provide insights into participatory processes.

Key Words

reflexivity, participatory inquiry, practice change


Participatory inquiry groups, in which members are discussing, collecting information, planning and taking action in relation to some issue, can be of importance, when suitable, to extension. Such groups can be a way of bringing about changes of practice, such as in agricultural development, that are likely to be sustained (Kilpatrick 2002). Participatory inquiry groups fall under the ‘group facilitation/empowerment’ model of extension that Coutts et al (2005) regard as a central rung of the capacity building ladder. The power of such groups for effecting a change of practice was recognised by Lewin (1952); such groups may often be considered ‘action research’ groups. This paper draws from some theoretical sources to suggest ways of backgrounding and conceiving of the participatory processes that many extension officers would be familiar with and may often facilitate in largely intuitive ways. The paper presents ideas from Giddens, Touraine, critical discourse analysis and ‘multi-stakeholder learning dialogues’ that are related to the theme of ‘reflexivity’. A PhD research design arising from consideration of these is briefly described. A fascination with how learning, agency and identity develop in groups oriented to change and a passion for “sustainability” are two of the drivers of the research. It is hoped that the paper will stimulate ideas about tools or approaches useful to facilitators of such groups.


Societal structure both shapes individuals’ thought, decisions and actions and is shaped by agents’ thoughts, decisions and actions. Anthony Giddens’ theory of structuration recognises the dual nature of structure, which both shapes, and is shaped by human agency (Giddens 1984). Societal structure is constituted, at least in part, from the fact that we depend upon certain shared (e.g. cultural, institutional) meanings in order to be intelligible to one another (Giddens 1984, pp. 331-333). This means that societal structure is continuously being reproduced, but also amended through human words, thoughts and relationships. Structure enables (e.g. communication, interaction) as well as constrains (Giddens 1993, p. 169). Bourdieu and Wacquant (1992, p. 12 quoting Bourdieu 1989a, p. 7) point out that there is “‘a correspondence between social structures and mental structures…’”, which is part of the strong tendency for societal structure, with its norms, roles & relationships, to be reproduced.

Structuration and the use and method of social analysis

Giddens (1993, p. 170) asserts that the primary task of sociological analysis is interpretive explanation mediated by the metalanguage of social science with a focus on how agency produces and reproduces society. Immersion in a practice is necessary (Giddens 1993, p. 169) for an observer to produce interpretive explanations that characterise a practice (Giddens 1993, p. 163). Thus social analysis which recognises that institutions are socially reproduced and concentrates on “how actors reflexively monitor what they do” (Giddens 1984, p. 373) can have a significant impact. “Studying practical consciousness means investigating what agents already know, but by definition is normally illuminating to them if this is expressed discursively in the metalanguage of social science” (Giddens 1984, p. 328). In order to describe social activity, we need to be able to know “what its constituent actors know, tacitly and discursively” (Giddens 1984, p. 336). Giddens (1984, e.g. p. 348) points out that, unlike natural sciences where theories do not affect the behaviour of the object of the theory, social sciences theories and explanations often do affect behaviour.

In terms of participatory inquiry groups this means that if a facilitator or researcher can provide an explanation of what participants know in the language of social theory, there is potential to enhance and deepen the processes and interaction of the group. Social science used in these ways can be an instrument of “expansion of autonomy of action” (and hence agency). Actors can realise that structures are their own products (i.e. are products of agency) and recovery practical control over them (Giddens 1993, p. 132). Giddens (1993, p. 167) warns, however, that social science can also be an instrument of domination.

Social movements

Social movements can be conceived of as “‘collective enterprises to establish a new order of life’” (Giddens 1984, p. 204, quoting Blumer 1951, p. 199). Instead of reproducing the roles of the social order as in associations, social movements use reflexive self-regulation to change the social structure and its roles and perceptions. Giddens regards social movements as a key phenomenon in bringing a moral and environmental orientation to the ‘juggernaut’ of modernity (1991).

A sociologist renowned for his work with social movements is Alain Touraine. Touraine’s work, like Giddens’, is based on an understanding of the dual nature of structure (and agency):

All social relations are limited on two sides: one is never free to do absolutely anything; there exists no society without limits, norms and institutions…But, at the same time, behaviour is not determined (Touraine 2000, p. 901).

Touraine sees sociology as moving from a systems-orientation, in which individuals or ‘actors’ are defined in relation to the status, roles and circumstances affecting their action, to an actor-orientation, in which the actor can use their imagination to mentally reframe a situation and their identity in relation to it.

Hence, we must imagine other methods in order to reach the actor as an autonomous being, as an agent of transformation of his [/her] environment and of his [/her] own situation, as creator of imaginary worlds, as capable of referring to absolute values… (Touraine 2000, p. 900).

Thus Touraine is interested in the actor as someone who is able to move beyond existing norms.

Touraine conceives of sociology as interventionist. He states that the “sociologist’s aim must be to unveil or to reinforce behavior and practices that are latent or reduced to biased expressions” (Touraine 2000, p. 904). When we consider that the extension officer’s aim is often to promote changes of practice from prevailing norms, we can see an overlap between the role of the extension officer and that of a ‘sociologist’ as defined by Touraine. While Touraine (1981) recommends a method involving teams of researchers, there are still aspects of his methods that can be borrowed by the individual researcher/facilitator.

In Touraine’s approach, the researcher, after a period of involvement with a group, forms a hypothesis about the group and its action and then communicates that hypothesis to the group. The test of the hypothesis is whether it increases or decreases the group’s understanding of its situation and its capacity for action (Touraine 2000, p. 913). Depending on the effect of the hypothesis and the reaction of the group, the hypothesis is amended. Touraine also describes the researcher’s role as assisting the group in their ‘self-analysis’ (Touraine 1981). This brings about a cycling of research, where the conceptualisation formed in the research actually becomes part of the intervention. As a result of being part of the intervention, and so tested, the conceptualisation is further developed.

As Mitchell (2004, p. 214) describes, Touraine’s methods place the “issue of reflexivity front and center”. Part of the role of the research team involved with a potential social movement is also “reintroducing certain of the group’s earlier statements or reaction” (Touraine 1981, p. 193). Much of the purpose of the intervention of the sociologists is for a group to identify “the broader cultural and social stakes under contestation” (Mitchell 2004, p. 215), which is key in a group becoming a social movement. Touraine (1981, p. 145) states that the aim of sociological intervention is raising the “capacity for historical action”.

Critical Discourse Analysis

A tool or approach that can assist the analysis and self-analysis of Touraine’s method is ‘critical discourse analysis’ (CDA). CDA attempts to make visible the dynamics which reproduce the status quo. Its analysis is not just confined to text, but considers material practices, institutional rituals and sociological and historical contexts (Woofitt 2005; Chouliaraki & Fairclough 1999). It has an emancipatory aim while it explores “the role of discourse in the production and reproduction of power relations within social structures” (Woofitt 2005, p. 138). CDA “analyses power relationships and disordered discourses to promote reflection that creates ‘critical agents who query underlying assumptions of structures in our society”’ (O’Connor 2003, p. 224 quoting Wodak 1996a)

CDA, like structuration and Touraine’s approach to sociology, appreciates the mutually constitutive relation of structure and agency. On the one hand it recognises that discourse is shaped and constrained by social relations, systems of classification, by “norms and conventions of both discursive and non-discursive nature…” (Fairclough 1992, p. 65). On the other hand it recognises that discourse constitutes “social identities, social relationships, systems of knowledge and belief…” (Fairclough 1992, p. 65), either reproducing or transforming them.

CDA closely examines text, including speech, even noting such elements as verb tense, choice of words, and sentence structure, in order to understand how such things as the beliefs, perceptual categories and assumptions of the wider society are constituting the discursive act. Through such analysis it aims to make people aware of the arbitrary nature of their enculturated habits of thought, relation and action; it aims to help people become aware of habits that have become naturalised. With such awareness actors have an opportunity to “make and remake their lives…” (Chouliaraki & Fairclough 1999, p. 4). In other words, CDA can assist with an awareness of elements of practice in order to enable changes of practice. Drawing from the CDA approach, transcripts of the discussions of participatory inquiry groups can be analysed to provide that interpretation mediated by the metalanguage of social science (Giddens 1993, p. 170) which can be illuminating and transformative to participants.

Cohen’s (1989) discussion of structuration theory suggests methods such as those of CDA. He states that the most appropriate way of discovering and describing subtle, yet highly significant, aspects of practice and reproduction is a ‘finitist’ concentration on individual instances of production (Cohen 1989, p. 40). Such studies, even of “matters of sequencing and timing of conversational procedures” can deepen understanding of a practice and hence understanding of potential changes to that practice (Cohen 1989, p. 40).

CDA advocates a critical awareness of language as a fundamental element in a democratic society (Chouliaraki & Fairclough 1999, p. 9). Fairclough (1992) calls for education in “critical language awareness” (CLA) for all children. His reasoning of the aims and benefits of CLA applies to adults as well as to children.

CLA aims to draw upon learners’ own language and discourse experience, to help them become more conscious of the practice they are involved in as producers and consumers of texts; of the social forces and interests that shape it; the power relations and ideologies that invest it; its effects upon social identities, social relations, knowledge, and beliefs; and the role of discourse in processes of cultural and social change (including technologization of discourse) (Fairclough 1992, p. 239).

Fairclough (1992, p. 239) asserts that CLA would enable actors to initiate change in their own and their community’s discourse practices and to engage in emancipatory language practice. Thus CDA may provide tools of reflexiveness, or an orientation to drawing out tacit meanings from close analysis of text, that may assist extension officers facilitating changes of practice.

Patricia O’Connor (2003) used CDA, or ‘critical discourse linguistics’ in her study of prison inmates. In her interviews with inmates she noted ‘frame breaks’, moments when inmates redefined their history and identity as they told their stories. She concluded that, "elements of agentive discourse are clustered in sites of reflexive language, particularly in frame breaks and in meta-talk or evaluative references to one's knowledge state” (O’Connor 2003, p. 224). Noting such sites of reflexive language may be of value to a group facilitator.

Reflexive modernity

Beck’s reflexive modernization is worth considering since it highlights on a larger scale the phenomenon of reflexivity that is of importance in individuals and groups. By doing so it enables better perception of naturalised elements of structure, and hence may help “raise the capacity for historical action” (Touraine 1981, p. 145). Beck (1997) describes how modernity has been formed by a questioning of authority, and a questioning of ways of doing things, associated originally with the Enlightenment. This made way for industrial modernity. But the assumptions of industrial modernity, e.g. about economic growth and industrial/technological ‘progress’, were not also reflexively questioned until recently when the risks and hazards created by industrial modernity have come back to affect those enjoying its benefits (Beck 1997). Industrial modernity began to erode with the environmental issue, which “called into question basic premises of European thought and activity – the notion of limitless growth, the certainty of progress or the contrasting of nature and society” (Beck 1997, p. 12). Confronted with the hazards of the ‘risk society’ that industrial modernity has created, society is forced to see industrial modernity’s limitations and fallibility (Beck 1994; 1995).

Questioning assumptions

The ecological crisis has metamorphosized into "a profound institutional crisis of industrial society itself" (Beck 1994, p. 8). Hazards need to be seen against the background of risk society so we see the necessity of a new reflexive self-determination, which is, in part, "self-reflection on the foundations of social cohesion and the examination of prevailing conventions and foundations of 'rationality'" (Beck 1994, p. 8). Beck (1997, p. 37) declares that the modernity of our society must be “inquired into, determined, fought for and obtained by interpreting and reinterpreting past, present and future.”

Part of the ‘rationality’ to be questioned is the scientific episteme (Beck 1995, p. 161), which underlies much of Westerners’ thinking. Beck (1995, p. 167) notes the signs of such mental/social structure in “the forced scientization of the everyday” and in the fact that “the whole world lives and thinks in a terminology connoting technological mastery and economic utility”. Awareness of such underlying currents of thinking enables the epistemic awareness that Bawden (2005) places as a central issue in his review of his lessons from Hawkesbury.

Reflexivity can lead to a state in which the society is aware of itself and its assumptions, and is critiquing itself (Beck 1995). “Much is needed, particularly a type of active thinking that will open our eyes to fundamental alternatives” (Beck 1997, p. 7). Participatory inquiry groups can become seeds for this rethinking of society and orienting to practices that minimise ecological and other risks.

The development of forms of public discourse that explicitly focus on critical consciousness within the ‘citizenry’ is a fundamental prerequisite for the development of epistemic awareness, which in turn is essential for systemic appreciation (Bawden 2005, p. 157).

Touraine (2000, p. 904) echoes Beck’s perspective on the role of risks when he writes,

the more an actor feels his or her self-esteem threatened, the more norms and institutions appear to him or her unfair or illegitimate. He or she becomes convinced that social norms have not in fact been created for the common good, but rather that they are the expression of a power which endangers freedom, responsibility and dignity of people

So the perception of hazards creates the setting for transformative interaction, as the prevailing social norms are no longer seen as legitimate. People may need tools such as CDA, however, to become aware of those norms, such as basic conceptual orientations, that are powerfully influencing action and perception in the situation.


Beck (1997) considers the promotion of ‘the expert’ to be a related underlying problem in western society. Serviced by ‘experts’, individuals can lose their sense of agency, their sense of being able to effectively learn and act on different issues. As the individual then abdicates their own responsibility and power, decisions are made with less reference to human qualities. Instead, they tend to be made technocratically in relation to the dominant axis of the society, which may well be the advance of technology and economic growth. Lash, Szerszynski, & Wynne (2001, p. 363) write:

hence the fundamental sense of risk in the 'risk society', is risk to identity engendered by dependency upon expert systems which typically operate with such unreflexive blindness to their own culturally problematic and inadequate models of the human.

Participatory inquiry groups can be an opportunity for actors to find agency, define a problem and take responsibility for their involvement in it.


With the changes of modernization, “traditional forms of solidarity…are being diluted and consumed in the wake of continuing modernization” (Beck 1997, p. 43). As collective sources of meaning (such as religious or guild traditions) have broken down, the definitional responsibility rests on the individual (Beck 1994). Participatory inquiry can be a way of building commonality and communal spirit in the midst of diverse and fluctuating individual interpretations and self-interpretations (Beck 1997, p. 43).

Accepting ambivalence (vs certainty)

Beck (1997, p. 168) writes that the “megalomania of the industrial era and its institutions” has been based on the system’s promises of security (technical, social and political). Tied in with this illusion of security has been a desire for certainty. Such a need for certainty actually characterises industrial modernity. There may be a new kind of action and thinking beginning, characteristic of reflexive modernity, that accepts and affirms ambivalence and consciously lives with uncertainty (Beck 1994, p. 12).

Forming cultural symbols for action

The creation of solidarity in participatory inquiry groups may address the disjunction that Beck (1995) points out between perception of environmental despoliation and protest or other action. Beck asserts that knowledge of environmental despoliation does not lead to protest or committed action. “Cultural dispositions to perceive" and "cultural norms", “against a background of unquestioned assumptions", have been profoundly important in deciding that despoliations have been put up with and in making the unacceptable acceptable (Beck 1995, p. 45). Protest and committed action is mediated by cultural symbols (Beck 1995, p. 47). This lack of connection between knowledge and action has been noted by others (e.g. Hsu 2004).

Participation in participatory inquiry groups may, if a significant level of trust is attained, have a ceremonial dimension. Participation and the issue in focus may take on greater cultural meaning. The cultural disposition to perceive may be altered and a new cultural symbol created that moves participants to action. Such changes are closely associated with changes in identity.

Practical uses of ‘reflexive modernity’

Considering reflexive modernity may enhance a facilitator’s recognition of the effects of scientization, underlying assumptions needing questioning and the tendency to grasp for certainty. For example, Beck’s emphasis on the problem of expertism may remind the facilitator to be reflective on their role in a group. Bourdieu & Wacquant (1992, p. 68) argue that good research and theorising, theorises the researcher at the same time. The participatory inquiry group itself may benefit from understanding reflexive modernity as the members can frame their process against a wider background and consciously question the assumptions of industrial modernity identified by Beck.

Research design

Based on literature such as that touched on above, a PhD research project has been developed to work with the emblematic issue of greenhouse gas abatement. The project is titled ‘Facilitating greenhouse gas abatement through collaborative inquiry, reflexive learning and network development’ and will be an action-oriented case study of a rural city’s response to the need for greenhouse gas abatement. Within the overall case study, there will be embedded case studies of two or three collaborative inquiry groups, which will be initiated by the researcher. The study will also include: interviews with key community members, members of environmental networks and representatives of the general community; participant observation of relevant events or programs; and document analysis of information and policy documents of governmental and non-governmental organisations.

Collaborative Inquiry Groups

The collaborative inquiry groups are expected to be the core of the project. People with an interest in or concern about the issue of climate change, and who wish to take responsibility for their part in the issue, will be sought for recruitment. The information sheet for the collaborative inquiry groups will note that such groups create a context for learning together and for helping one another to plan and develop collective and/or individual strategies of action, as well as provide a context for re-considering habits of thought, action and relating that may unintentionally reinforce the issue in focus. Drawing from authors following Habermas (Kemmis & McTaggart 2005; Mezirow 1991; Saavadra 1996), ‘groundrules’, such as the need for respectful listening, will be given for fostering a democratic and trusting atmosphere conducive to deep consideration of perspectives. As recommended by Touraine (1981; 2000), the researcher will both take a secretarial function with the group and assist in the group’s self-analysis, partly through constructively challenging its views. The researcher may also participate in actions in the community that the group chooses, e.g. information dissemination, advocacy or event organisation.


Interview participants will be asked about e.g. the relevance of climate protection for them, any action they have taken, the obstacles to their action, and the possibilities they see for individual and collective action. Interviews will be treated as meaning making occasions (Fals Borda 1979, p. 295; Fontana & Frey, 2000; Holstein & Gubrium, 1999). Interviews will be conducted with recognition that, because people construct themselves as they tell their story, "the speaker and … [the interviewer] are in an interesting nexus of practice that could effect change” (O’Connor 2003, p. 224).

Cycling of Research Analysis

Information and learning from different parts or phases of the project will be used (as far as confidentiality allows) to catalyse other parts or phases. Transcripts will be made of interviews and particularly the collaborative inquiry groups. Analysis of the transcripts will draw from CDA and will be periodically presented to the groups or interviewees to raise participants’ capacity for action. Analysis of transcripts will give particular attention to those agentic moments and sites of reflexive language described by O’Connor (2003).

Quality of dialogue

Data analysis for the PhD project shall appreciate that the realisation of the transformative potential in a participatory or collaborative inquiry group may depend on the quality of the dialogue (Payne & Calton 2004). Payne and Calton (2004) write about the learning potential in ‘multi-stakeholder dialogues’. They propose that the degree to which dialogue in a group accords with “certain classical and recent definitions of dialogue” (p. 73), may determine the realisation of the potential for the group to bring about practice change, or to “foster critical thinking, creativity, and learning through a sense of relational responsibilities” (p. 73).

Payne and Calton (p. 71) give particular attention to criteria from Isaacs’ (1999) book Dialogue and the art of thinking together, including: “a collaborative orientation with concern for self and others”; “presumption of honesty”; “lack of deceptive positions”; and vulnerability. Appraising the quality of dialogue can include consideration of “What affective changes are occurring with participating stakeholders and how are they perceiving and experiencing such change over time?”(Payne & Calton 2004, p. 75). Dialogue is differentiated from simple discussion of the issues (Payne & Calton 2004, p. 73). Relationship building is associated more with dialogue than discussion. Dialogue is also associated with symmetric practice and interaction.

Payne & Calton (2004) encourage reporting on dialogic processes, particularly where stakeholders participate in the development of the reports and the methodology used. Such reporting could be part of the cycling of research analysis into the participatory process.


Giddens, Beck and Touraine, as well as critical discourse analysis, describe actors as having the potential to change social structure, even while their agency is determined to some degree by structure. Facilitators of participatory inquiry groups may assist changes of practice by drawing from the work of Touraine and working with, challenging and analysing the group in ways that can assist the group’s self-analysis - their reflexivity – and action. Critical discourse analysis can provide lines of sight on the structural reproduction and transformation occurring in a group. The concept of reflexive modernization can also help actors to perceive the more general, and historical, influences affecting them, as well as to conceive of ways of transforming those influences.

Analysis by a group member or facilitator in relation to theorists such as the above can aid in gaining perspective on involvement in a group. Transcripts can provide a snapshot of the group that can be analysed over time to discover norms that had become naturalised. The speech can be more closely considered, with particular attention to sites of reflexive language. Cycling such analysis into the process of the group in some format has the potential to catalyse the development of the group and its action.

Assessing the quality of dialogue also allows a group member or facilitator to get feedback on the parameters or characteristics of a transformative occasion or setting. If there is reflexivity, along with the symmetry of relations, vulnerability and openness to others’ points of view, authentic questioning one’s own perspective, then there is increased potential for transformation, in which the issue in question can take on new meaning to the person and their identity. A new solidarity and commitment can be created.


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