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Beacon North East Co-inquiry Action Research (CAR) Project

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Who: Beacon North East, Thrive, Centre for Social Justice and Community Action, Durham University and Newcastle University. For a full list of participants please look here (PDF 400kb).

What: Community – university research partnership involving academics from Durham and Newcastle Universities, Beacon North East and community partners.

Why: Beacon North East has had a specific focus on community-university research partnerships and co-inquiry research. The aim of this project was to reflect on the learning from this experience.

When: The project ran from April 2010 to January 2011. 

Where: North East England, with a focus on Durham, Newcastle and Teesside.

Project description

This project was unusual in that it involved a process of co-inquiry to study co-inquiry. The project was funded by Beacon North East and the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement, and was coordinated through the Centre for Social Justice and Community Action at Durham University.

The starting point for the research as envisaged by Beacon North East was ‘co-inquiry’ as developed by John Heron and then extended by Peter Reason (see Heron, 1971; Heron, 1996; Heron and Reason, 1997; Heron and Reason, 2000).

According to Heron and Reason (2008) the foundation for cooperative experiential inquiry (what we term co-inquiry) is that ‘good research is research conducted with people rather than on people’. Co-inquiry is based on the assumption that “ordinary people are quite capable of developing their own ideas and can work together in a cooperative-inquiry group to see if these ideas make sense of their world and work in practice’ (Heron and Reason, 2008: 179). In co-inquiry, everyone can take initiative and exert influence on the process (Heron and Reason, 2008).

Co-inquiry is a way of working with other people who have similar concerns and interests. The co-inquiry process involves cycles/phases of reflection and action to develop new and creative ways of looking at things, learn how to act to change things you may want to change and find out how to do things better.

How the Co-inquiry Action Research (CAR) group worked

Membership: Members of the CAR group included academics from Durham and Newcastle Universities and community partners involved in collaborative projects through Beacon North East under the themes of social justice, ageing and wellbeing and energy and environment. Sarah Banks was the coordinator/chair and has considerable experience of working in community – university research partnerships and supervised the project. Andrea Armstrong was the dedicated researcher responsible for collating the majority of the materials. She also arranged the meeting venues and prepared the agendas in collaboration with the coordinator taking into account the views of other group members.

Before the first meeting: Clear aims, objectives, outputs and outcomes were established early on in the original research proposal to provide a focus and direction to the research partnership. These were circulated to the CAR group members. Before the first meeting the researcher in liaison with the supervisor/coordinator prepared a short overview of literature related to co-inquiry and this was circulated to the CAR group shortly before the first meeting. The community partners were contacted to see if they were willing to present a case study at the first meeting – which they were.

Meetings (phases/cycles of reflection and action): The CAR group met on five occasions (April, July, September, November 2010 and January 2011) to discuss in detail the findings from a literature review, case studies presented by members and the design of a toolkit, each of which will be published on websites (NCCPE, Beacon NE and Durham University’s Centre for Social Justice and Community Action). Members of the CAR group shared interest, enthusiasm and experiences of collaborative research working. The series of five meetings over the nine months, each three hours long including lunch, worked well in providing a space to collaborate and share and comment on materials produced by the researcher and group members. The meetings each showed progression and had clear agendas (e.g. feedback, case study presentation, group working, deciding next steps) and were a time of reflection to be followed by action (by the researcher) who implemented the advice/ideas of the group and collated more materials for the next meeting. This model of working was successful and has established a supportive, trusting and proactive research partnership.

Purpose and aims

The aims of the CAR group project were to share learning from Beacon NE partners about co-inquiry as an approach to community-university engagement, with a particular focus on research, and to produce materials (co-inquiry literature review, a toolkit and articles in practitioner and academic journals) that would be of use to universities and community partners engaging in this approach.

The specific objectives established at the start of the project were:

1) To undertake a literature review on co-inquiry research, which includes generic literature, as well as that focusing specifically on community - university partnerships in research.  Themes/ questions for the review included: 

  • Growth and development of interest in co-inquiry research.  Location of ‘co-inquiry’ in relation to ‘participatory’ and ‘participatory action’ research
  • The nature of co-inquiry research, values and principles.
  • Overview of types of co-inquiry research (typologies by purpose, methods, types of participants, degrees of partnership)
  • Methodology and methods – variety of approaches and links with values. Types of methods and techniques used
  • Practical and ethical issues – e.g. negotiating institutional ethical review, issues of intellectual property rights, equality in the writing process.

2) To convene a co-inquiry action research group (CAR group), meeting on a maximum of six occasions during the period April 2010 to January 2011, comprising participants drawn from Beacon NE and community including: Academic Engagement Leads; Theme Leaders; a limited number of current and past Beacon Fellows; members of the Beacon North East central team and existing community partners, with the purpose of:

  • Discussing detailed case examples of co-inquiry research brought by group members;
  • Feeding back theoretical and practical comments to the participants involved in those case examples;
  • Theorising the process of co-inquiry research;
  • Developing ideas and contributing to the drafting of articles that will be of practical and theoretical use in the context of university-community research partnerships.

Identifiable outputs and outcomes

Literature review: with a focus on co-inquiry and related approaches, specifically including co-inquiry in context of community-university research partnerships.  This informed the work of the action research group, but is also on the web as a resource for wider use.

Case studies: Four case study examples of community – university research partnerships.

Articles in practitioner and academic journals: the group is aiming for at least one co-authored article.

Workshop at the NCCPE Engagement Conference in December 2010 entitled ‘Issues and challenges in co-inquiry research’ which gave a brief overview of the CAR, offered two case studies and opportunities for participants to share and discuss their own experiences.

Feedback from the CAR group workshop ‘Issues and challenges in co-inquiry research’ held at the NCCPE Engagement Conference December 2010:

“I was really inspired by you, and Sarah Banks…… I just wanted to say 'look what you started!' and also to thank you for a very inspiring workshop.” Workshop participant, (email sent to Maurice Clarkson, Thrive, who presented one of the case studies)

“Overall, an inspirational session!” Workshop participant

Enhanced awareness and understanding of co-inquiry and related approaches for community and university research partners. Specifically the literature review informed our understanding of co-inquiry and related approaches and provided a context for the project. The four case studies of community-university research partnerships moved on our thinking a lot and we learnt more about the key issues and challenges of co-inquiry approaches, for example, the time it takes to build relational networks; the complexity and benefits of partnership working; being able to move between roles; personal commitment and enthusiasm as a key ingredient; making universities accessible; the importance of communication skills and specific practical and ethical issues.

What worked well

“Participating in the CAR group has been an immensely enjoyable and rewarding experience. It has provided opportunities for diverse participants to learn from and with each other, and to make connections with others beyond the North East region similarly concerned to improve, extend and better understand public/community engagement.” Audley Genus, Beacon North East Fellow in Public Engagement: Energy and Environment

  • The multi-disciplinary nature of the group contributed to the successful collaboration because it provided an opportunity to share ideas and approaches from the fields of community development/social work, anthropology, geography, architecture and planning, medicine and health, science and technology studies (STS) and engineering and community practitioners working in areas of multiple deprivation.
  • Sharing expertise from different perspectives, for example, expertise by experience and affording equal value to the knowledge and expertise of all the group members. This means much more than one-way knowledge transfer, and involved knowledge exchange between multiple individuals with multiple knowledges and expertise.
  • Working under the aegis of Beacon North East meant that institutional differences were less important and the emphasis was on like minded individuals working together. The CAR group provided the opportunity for Beacon Theme Leaders in social justice, ageing and wellbeing and energy and environment to work together and this cemented relationships and built trust. It also provided the opportunity for academics involved in Beacon NE to work alongside community partners other than the ones they normally work with. Overall the CAR group way of working consolidated and extended relational networks.
  • The case study presentations worked very well for several reasons: it gave members of the group a dedicated role and allowed them to share their experiences; members of the group had the opportunity learn from others; they provided a focus around which to explore the key issues and challenges of co-inquiry research; from the case studies it became apparent that there are a variety of related ‘co-inquiry’ approaches and this significantly informed and reshaped the direction of the research.
  • The workshop ‘Issues and challenges in co-inquiry research’ at the NCCPE Engagement Conference in December 2010 presented by some members of the CAR group was very successful and received positive feedback (see quotes at the end). It worked well because it provided the opportunity to share learning and gain opinions from others interested and /or involved in co-inquiry approaches to community – university research.
  • Overall the CAR group has worked very well and evidence of this is that the members wish to continue.

What didn't work well

1) The first challenge was encountered early on once the literature review began and it became apparent that there was a diverse range of approaches related to co-inquiry and an enormous literature in these areas, for example, action research, participatory action research, community based participatory research and ethnobiology to name a few. Alongside this is the literature on participation and engagement.

The case studies presented at the CAR group helped develop the thinking around co-inquiry and it became apparent that there are a range of co-inquiry approaches and despite some differences the commonalities revolve around values and principles of social justice and equality.

The emphasis on community – university research partnerships also helped frame the project and provided a focus for the overview of literature. The lesson learnt from this is that despite best efforts to anticipate the focus and direction of research (as required to obtain funding) often it may evolve very differently and take more time than anticipated.

2) The second challenge is related to the first and is about communication, as highlighted by Maurice:

“When I was asked to be part of the CAR group, to be honest I didn't have a clue what it meant or how it would have such an important impact on my life. From the outset it was quite daunting. The University wanted us to be one of their case studies. For me this was new. The academics genuinely wanted to know our opinions. I must admit that at first I thought it was over my head and at the first meeting, me and a colleague were ready to call it a day. We decided to stick it out for a couple more sessions.

At one meeting we were discussing the problems of engaging with the university and one point was the language or the amount of academic jargon being used. They LISTENED to me and took on board what I said and it was plain sailing from then on.  As I said at the beginning this has an impact on my life in such a positive way. When I was asked to go to London to help the University run a workshop I was made up. I realised then that we had jumped that final hurdle and we were on equal terms. Collaborating on this work with the University has given me that extra drive and confidence and I will go back into higher education this year to fulfil my aspirations. So thank you all.” Maurice Clarkson, Thrive

Therefore, the lesson learnt is to use appropriate language - not jargon - so as not to exclude members of the group/audience. This also works the other way, as when the community partners presented their case study, some of the community organising terminology was not understood by the academic audience. 

Top Tips

Ensure that all members of the group are included in contributing to the group.  Jointly deciding individual proactive roles, for example, who would like to present case studies or be involved in a workshop, is a useful way to ensure equality in the partnership. Others may want a less involved role, but their contribution is equally important in a ‘commentator’ and/or advisory role.

A series of meetings established early on with a clear agenda showing progression is important. Practically it is important to ensure that the venues are accessible to the majority of people. For example, the CAR group meetings were held at venues in Durham or Newcastle universities as this took advantage of the free facilities (room, IT etc). It is important to give clear travel and parking information. In the budget allow for travelling expenses.

Resources Required

Specific resources required for the CAR group model included:

  • A co-inquiry research worker – to undertake literature review, convene and record action research group meetings, assist in drafting short guides and articles
  • Funding for design and publication of short guides
  • Funding for travel of community partners
  • Funding for refreshments (assume free rooms in universities)
  • Funding for additional copying, stationery (assume use of existing digital recording equipment, laptop, printer, etc in Beacon NE offices)
  • Funding for the supervision of the overall project
  • Funding for time of community partners and for departments of the university staff  (for whom this would not be regarded as a normal part of their work)


Heron, J., (1971) Experience and method: an inquiry into the concept of experiential research (accessed 09/12/10)

Heron, J. (1996). Co-operative Inquiry: research into the human condition. Sage, London

Heron, J., Reason, P., (2000) The practice of cooperative inquiry: research ‘with’ rather than ‘on’ people, In Reason, P., Bradbury, H., (eds) Handbook of Action Research, Sage, London (accessed 09/12/10)

Heron, J., Reason, P., (2008) Extending epistemology within a cooperative inquiry. In Reason, P., Bradbury, H., (eds) (2nd edn) The Sage handbook of action research: participative inquiry and practice, Sage Publications, London, pp 366-380


If you would like more information about the Beacon North East Co-inquiry Action Research project then please contact:

Sarah Banks, School of Applied Social Sciences and Centre for Social Justice and Community Action, Durham University

Andrea Armstrong, Centre for Social Justice and Community Action, Durham University,