By LaVera M. Crawley, MD, MPH
Chaplains who perceive research as generally being an inaccessible, complicated, or irrelevant enterprise may be unaware of the diversity and versatility of inquiry approaches beyond the traditional scientific method (e.g., clinical trials or epidemiologic case or cohort studies) and constructivist/interpretivist social science methodologies (e.g., participant observer, ethnographic, or other case studies). The Action Research (AR) family of practices used in the fields of education and leadership development provides alternative orientations toward inquiry that are more naturally resonant with and familiar to the work of chaplaincy.
One such AR practice called Collaborative or Cooperative Inquiry (CI) places emphasis on forming learning communities among peers who collectively create knowledge as they strive to answer a question of importance to their work and practice. The three pillars of CI are: (1) a group of peer-inquirers; (2) an evolving question shaped by all members of the group; and (3) repeated cycles of action and reflection on the inquiry question. These practices are quite similar to those used in CPE training for developing and enhancing pastoral reflection, formation, and competence. CI makes research accessible, understandable, and relevant and thus is an ideal method for introducing chaplains to the research enterprise.
George Fitchett modeled the CI process in his 2011 Journal of HealthCare Chaplaincy article titled, “Making Our Case(s).” The main purpose of the article was to argue for the case-study method as a source for the evidence-basis of chaplains’ spiritual care. However, the process that he and his collaborators used to address this issue, although unstated, employed steps that correspond to the four phases of a collaborative inquiry.
Phase 1 in a collaborative inquiry entails the formation of a group of peers who share an interest in a topic and the passion and commitment to participate fully in its exploration. In the aforementioned article, Fitchett reported that he used what can be called purposive and snow-balling sampling techniques (emailing colleagues seeking names of potential collaborators who met his initial criteria) to find peers willing to participate collaboratively in a writing process. From the list of names he recruited three chaplains to join in his project.
His initial team meetings were used for getting acquainted and, one would imagine, identifying group processes needed for working together. This corresponds with the second phase of a collaborative inquiry: creating conditions for group learning. It marks the steps for identifying the initial inquiry question and its parameters, including how each peer might hold the question when he or she returns to the work environment. CI values participation and democracy in the research process. Thus it is important in this and subsequent phases that each participant shapes the initial and emergent questions throughout the inquiry. The early question held by Fitchett’s team was: what should be in a good case study for identifying chaplain effectiveness?
In phase 3 of CI, peer-researchers use their work and clinical environments to explore the inquiry question through their own experiences and then come together periodically to reflect collaboratively on those experiences. Through repeated cycles of action and reflection, initial questions are refined and modified with growing insights. New questions may emerge that will be subjected to further action and reflection. Fitchett’s group demonstrated this phase through monthly meetings, discussing cases from each peer’s chaplaincy work. Their reflections were supplemented by additional books and articles about case studies. They also opened their process to include feedback and insights from outsiders through a workshop that they conducted at the 2010 Association for Professional Chaplains meeting.
The process for making meaning and constructing new knowledge is the central challenge of the fourth and final phase of CI. The outcome for any collaborative inquiry is learning: making sense of all the experiential data collected from individual and group action/reflections. Although the Fitchett article focuses on its outcome of defining the parameters for good chaplaincy case studies, it also describes some of the additional learning that emerged from the group’s collaborative process – insights that went beyond members’ initial inquiry question. This learning included deeper appreciation for patient and family privacy concerns when reporting cases; greater intentionality in the assessments of spiritual needs; increased attentiveness in characterizing spiritual care interventions and outcomes; and changes in chaplaincy departmental practices and relationships.
Learning in a collaborative inquiry happens both outside the group (through individual reflective actions) and inside the group (during group reflections on actions and other experiential data). However, it is the group meaning-making that is at the heart of this method of inquiry. Peers are encouraged to use a range of methods (e.g., storytelling, dialogue, pictures, metaphors, poetry) for capturing the data used to elicit group learning and construct meaningful knowledge.
Given the highly experiential and subjective nature of the data collection process in CI, how can we know if the quality of learning and knowledge gained through CI is valid? Action research methods include validity procedures that need to be incorporated into the design and implementation of the study to increase the credibility of findings. These include: ensuring a diversity of participants; fostering multiple cycles of action/reflection and multiple sources of data; managing interactions among participants; ensuring democratic and balanced participation among peers; guarding against defensiveness and group think; assessing the “generalizability” of findings; and incorporating outside review and critique.
As described by practitioners of collaborative inquiry, “research is seen as a learning process accessible by everyone interested in gaining a better understanding of the world they inhabit” (Bray, Lee, Smith, & Yorks, 2000). Fitchett’s article demonstrates that valuable meta-learning relevant to chaplaincy practice can result from intentional reflection on and attention to the work we do. In summary, I contend that collaborative inquiry and other action/reflection research methods provide an approach to research that is consonant with learning practices familiar to chaplains. As such, it can be embraced and employed by chaplains with no previous formal research experience. Those interested in exploring this approach are encouraged to read more about the methods and to begin forming peer teams around a common question of interest.
LaVera M. Crawley, a palliative care chaplain fellow and assistant professor at Stanford University in Oakland, CA, is an NACC student member. She is also a member of the NACC’s Research Task Force.
Bray, J. N., Lee, J., Smith, L. L., & Yorks, L. (2000). Collaborative inquiry in practice: Action, reflection, and meaning making. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications Inc.
Fitchett, G. Making our case(s). J Health Care Chaplain, 17(1-2), 3-18.
McArdle, K. L. (2002). Establishing a co-operative inquiry group; the perspective of a ‘first-time’ inquirer. Systematic Practice and Action Research, 15(3), 177-189.
Reason, P., & Bradbury, H. (2006). The handbook of action research. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications Inc.
Reason, P., & Heron, J. (1999). A short guide to co-operative inquiry. Retrieved January 22, 2013, from www.human-inquiry.com/cishortg.htm