Listening - the beginning of action


The need to listen to stories attentively and well is central to my worldview.  It is also central to the ability that Arthur Franks displays in his excellent work The Wounded Storyteller.  By listening carefully to stories that people with illnesses tell he is able to share deep insights into the nature of suffering and illness, which I as a person suffering from chronic disability have found liberating and empowering.  Effective action is deeply rooted in this ability to listen to stories, as is the ability to engage in urban research.  This paper seeks to elucidate some of the skills which this requires. It starts by looking at listening, but seeks to deepen our understanding by looking at how all our five senses need to be involved.

Researching the urban

Research is an important part of the mechanics of urban regeneration and community work, but how often is this research a genuine listening to the complex stories of urban people's lives?  And how often does it enable people to empower themselves rather than justify the actions of the powerful and enrich the coffers of researchers and consultants?  Below I identify some of the issues before suggesting a multifaceted description of what authentic, enabling research might look like.

The problem of control

The motive behind research is generally the desire to exercise some control over the object of the research.  Occasionally research seems like a disinterested inquiry simply motivated by the joy of 'finding out' but then it tends to lack a real serious intensity of purpose.  We have become familiar with the power of knowledge in our information society and research is seen as the key to valid knowledge.  In fact, knowledge through research is such a key aspect of contemporary culture that the desire to be seen to base actions on research is often more important than doing proper research itself - see, for instance, the shenanigans over the dossier on Iraq's 'weapons of mass destruction'! Politics is full of the dialectic between propaganda and research - the government gives us statistics but can they be trusted, are they verifiable or falsified, half truths or quarter lies?  And does it matter once they have won the vote or seen off the latest piece of investigative journalism?  Research is therefore not necessarily a noble calling in our postmodern age where everything is seen as depending on the interest which governs the researcher's motives.

All urban research therefore has an agenda and understanding that agenda is key to interpreting any piece of research.  Map making is a kind of formalised research and, as I demonstrate elsewhere the Ordnance Survey began as an exercise in facilitating military control and slightly later, enhancing tax revenues.  Much contemporary urban research is about creating base lines so that the effectiveness of interventions can be judged at a later date, that is, so that a series of numbers can be created to demonstrate that youth unemployment has declined or burglaries have been reduced.  The trouble is, of course, that achieving a statistical reduction doesn't necessarily improve more intangible, but more important, realities such as people feeling safer or more hopeful about living in a particular community.  Research is necessary for those in power because they generally don't understand what is going on in a particular community - and a set of statistics or an ethnographic profile can begin to give them a handle on their object of interest.  Local people often feel this is a waste of time and oppressive because they believe they already know what's going on and what's needed - even though this is by no means always straightforwardly the case; not least because every local person has only their particular perspective.  Research which might seem like a simple scientific process is actually highly complex and confusing, but what else should we expect in a complex and confusing society?

Friends of mine were recently the subject of a piece of research by a think tank which has had influence on government policy.  The research was not checked out with them or the community before publication and included errors of fact, but perhaps more seriously it came to conclusions about anti social behaviour (a fashionable theme) which would destroy one of the areas most valued features - the large amount of space between houses.  Effectively the researchers had ransacked the community for data to address their interest in anti social behaviour and had no accountability to the source of their data.  They wanted to enable politicians to be seen to be able to exercise some control over anti social behaviour, but did nothing to enable people to reflect creatively about their own community – they themselves were acting in an anti-social manner!  They would, of course, argue that anti-social behaviour was an issue identified by the people but they failed to appreciate that emphasising this one concern does violence to the complex reality of the people's lived experience.  Research is done in order to exert some control over a community but if it is not controlled, in some degree, by that community it is likely to oppress them.  But if it does enable them to understand their community in all its diversity then it can be liberative -- it is this kind of research that I am seeking to outline.

The issue of exploitation

All research is affected by issues of power and control but there are also issues of exploitative research even if power and control is not a major problem.  There are areas of the country which are over saturated with research, perhaps the most obvious is the East End.  It is a complex, interesting area of severe deprivation with a high profile and in easy access to the academic and media centre of central London.  There is nowhere better to do research which will 'get noticed'.  Areas designated for major regeneration projects also tend to get over researched, as indicated above.  This over researching tends to disillusion and alienate local people because it brings no change and isn't oriented towards their needs and interests.  Research in an area which doesn't have a history of being researched seems to be better received by local communities both because of its novelty and because it can draw attention to a previously neglected community.  I have noticed this with research that I have done, research backed up by local lobbying can draw attention to communities which haven't previously come within the regeneration radar (Ashdown 1996).  Certainly it is difficult to get the attention of a bureaucracy without some kind of written report.

The problem of exploitative research is connected to the need of researchers to get noticed and develop their careers.  This is unavoidable, but it is also more profoundly rooted in the paradigms of research which are currently operational (Reason 1994, Guba 1990).  Within a traditional 'objective' social science paradigm it was necessary for the researcher to create distance between themselves and the community being researched.  Even if they were engaged in participant observation, where they had to learn to relate to local people there was a professional distance which meant that the core of what they were doing was not open to the people being researched.  Certainly there was no thought that they had anything to contribute to the research design or interpretation of the findings - they were just there to supply the data.  Put this way it sounds obviously exploitative but where the key values are those of positivist objectivity it is the only rational course for the participation of subjects would skew the research and not be scientifically acceptable.

Gradually the positivist paradigm has been undermined as modernism has given way to postmodernism and western scientific rationalism been challenged by the international and pluralistic perspective of marginalised peoples.   Whyte's 1955 Street Corner Society is an important early example of challenging positivistic detachment as it contains a postscript which describes his experience of doing his research in the Italian ghetto of Boston.  It is a pioneering example of reflexivity which has become an important contemporary research technique.  The impossiblity of objectivity is recognised, but by open reflection on the process of doing research prejudices and biases are brought to the surface so readers can judge the research more accurately.  Liberation theology has been an influential example of the second challenge to western modernism, by trying to look at reality from the perspective of the poor (Segundo 1975), it has criticised the claim of western theology to universality.  It has also emphasised orthopraxis - i.e. the need for right action rather than just right belief.  Many of these concerns come together in the interest in participative research which has been gaining ground in spheres such as management (Reason), education (Erlandson) and community development (Stringer).  Reason describes the participative approach

Human inquiry practicioners assert, in contrast to this positivist world view, that we can only truly to research with persons if we engage with them as persons, as co-subjects and and thus as co-researchers: hence cooperative inquiry, participative research, research partnerships and so on.  And while understanding and action are logically separate, they cannot be separated in life: so a science of persons must be an action science.


This assertion of the need to be self reflexive and participative is creating a new kind of research.  It is a research which is much less likely to alienate and, in the long run, produce an understanding which can bring positive change.  Not that it is easy.  Although at a theoretical level we have gone far beyond positivism at a practical level the attitudes of most in the statutory, voluntary and church sectors are basically positivist.  They want simple quantitative research which gives them a feeling of being in control and able to justify their actions.  Below I try and map a practical approach to research which is in tune with these contemporary insights into the nature of authentic human inquiry.  This is something that I have struggled with over the years, never quite feeling that my practice of research has matched up with my understanding of what research could be. I have found that a truly participative approach to research is difficult to achieve because the culture in which we are working sees research merely as an instrument to achieve predetermined goals - getting funding for a project or supporting a policy objective.  People are not that interested in human inquiry as a process through which they might grow and develop. I am therefore not suggesting a research programme but an approach to our life and work which is inquiring, sensitive to human realities and able to provide a basis action, whilst also having a degree of rigour and sturdy practicality.

An approach to research

The need for good research but problems in achieving it is well illustrated by the context which I know best, the church.  The church has tended to think that action should come out of theology alone rather than arise out of a dialogue between understanding our context and understanding our faith.  Again theoretically there is an acceptance of the need for this dialogue (see Barth's dictum of reading the Bible with the newspaper in the other hand) practically this has been more difficult, not least because theologians and clergy are trained to read the Bible and Barth's Dogmatics rather than census data and the graffiti on their street.  Such reading of our context as does go on tends towards a very literary approach as in Graham Ward's Cities of God rather than being about direct encounters with urban people.  Cities of God is a useful contribution but is limited especially when as in On the Receiving End (Cotton and Stevenson 1996) it purports to be about the experience of ordinary people but betrays no evidence of listening to what they actually have to say for themselves!  This is why listening is the key skill we need to develop in order to develop a research which leads to effective action.

Listen to people

Listening is a fashionable subject.  But, in this instance, it seems to me that fashion has something important to say.  Listening skills are now recognised as central to the talents which a pastor needs and are central to the counselling movement

The 'rules' which are basic to counselling are:

1.  Listen, and listen with undivided attention.  ... We rarely listen to people so carefully that we put out of mind our own concerns, our own constructions on what they are saying, or even our own prejudices.  We often hear what we want to hear, not what is being said; we remember some details and we forget others.

Jacobs p29

This emphasis on listening pops up all over the place, in spiritual direction (cf Margaret Guenther Holy Listening) or in conferences where a listener might be employed to ensure that the mind of the gathering is attended to.  There is evidently a feeling that in the busy energy of modern life there is not the space and time to listen, or be listened to.  We therefore need to be trained to listen.  Whilst the increasing concern with emotional therapies and self realisation and can get narcissistic (see Thomas Moore's Care of the Soul for a practical critique of these solipsistic tendencies) there is much of value in the listening industry.

In community work there is certainly a need to continue to emphasise the importance of listening to people and their ordinary experience.  There is a place for more sophisticated analysis and complex research which I will go on to explore, but foundational to the human inquiry which undergirds authentic community work is an ability to listen.  But this listening is not something that is either new or technical -- it has always been crucial.  It is the pastor listening to her congregation so that her sermons inspire and nurture their deepest need; the youth worker spending hours with a cup of coffee and adolescent angst; the grandmother who is everyone's friend and always ready for a 'chat'.  But it is also something that can be developed.  Listening doesn't just have to be a pastoral tool it is also a means of learning and understanding.  In this regard we can learn something from the art of ethnography.

Listening is not merely a matter of sitting silently whilst others talk.  Sometimes this is appropriate but generally it is disconcerting to receive little response from someone listening to you.  Listening actually requires a two-way dialogue which has a sense of mutuality beyond that achievable on a psychoanalyst’s couch.  It seems to me that it requires questions, exploration and, sometimes, even disagreement.  Ethnography gives us some clues to how listening might be more than casual or therapeutic but actually something that expands knowledge.  James Spradley in his book The Ethnographic Interview describes a complex 12 step Developmental Research Sequence which guides students wanting to write an ethnography.  As a putative researcher it has always made me feel a bit guilty for not following through its process but it is a technical guide which has never been precisely relevant to the circumstances in which I have found myself.  Nonetheless it has useful insights and principles which are much more generally applicable.  Below I draw some of these out which can help us turn our listening into a tool for understanding, without exploiting our informants:

1.  Listen to the actual words that are used.  This is a critical part of effective listening - if someone calls the Bible "God's Word" or "Scripture" or "The Greek and Hebrew Scriptures" that is important to them and means something significant.  Paying attention to people's actual words helps us both listen more attentively and more analytically as we become interested in why they choose particular words which, perhaps, we wouldn't use.  There need be no reason why listening with a desire to understand shouldn't be as human or caring as a less precise listening.

2.  Understand the different kinds of questions that you can ask.  Spradley identifies different kind of questions - e.g. descriptive, structural and contrast.  These can be mixed in together but understanding what we are doing in asking them can greatly aid our understanding. 

Descriptive questions are simply that - asking someone to describe a situation - "Tell me what you do when you read your Bible".  These are open ended questions which encourage the informant to describe a particular activity or situation.  Actually the former isn't a very good question - it is a bit brief and cutting something longer which isn't more complex will put people more at ease "I read the Bible regularly but I know that people read it in different ways.  I'd be very interested to hear something about how you read your Bible".

Structural questions go back over ground already described on the basis of your reflection on the answers "You talked about reading the Bible leading you into prayer, but I'd be really interested to know what kind of prayer is this?".  These kind of questions are more probing and push the respondent into thinking more about what they have said.  They therefore need to be asked with sensitivity but they may actually help the informant to learn something themselves.  They need and develop trust.

Contrast questions often probe much more profoundly into someone's understanding so if they say "The Bible isn't a book its God's Word" then this is highly significant.  Asking questions which open up this distinction between the Bible and books will reveal a wealth of insight into the informant's understanding and world view, but requires trust and maybe the need to ask challenging questions.

3.  Reflect and analyse on what you have heard and make records of it. Spradley's method is an alternation between analysis and interviewing and it is close to another modern fashion which has much to commend it - the action reflection model.  Recording actions and conversations is an established part of professional practice and can be time consuming paper work, especially when combined with a new enthusiasm from management for reflection, but it is a practice with value.  Maybe the use of a journal is the most practicable way of implementing a recorded process of reflection as it can be taken up when need demands and time allows.  Certainly reflection is necessary if listening is to move beyond the pastoral into human inquiry.

4.  Return to your informant with further questions - maybe of a different kind

5.  Continue the listening/reflecting cycle sharing your understanding with informants.  Here I would suggest beginning to move beyond Spradley.  He certainly suggests checking out interpretations with informants but it seems to me better to try to develop shared interpretations with them such that they become co-inquirers (Reason).  As indicated above this is not often easy but if people can become enthused about inquiry then the benefits are obvious.

6.  Act on what you have learnt.  Spradley has a clear action in view in his research method - the writing of an ethnography and this affects everything about how the process is prosecuted.  Any research is affected by the end that is envisaged for it.  If it is a book on the devotional use of the Bible then it will have a definite trajectory but if it is a desire to encourage Bible reading in a congregation then its progress is likely to be very different.  Some people do seem to engage in community work so they can write a book and there are some ethical problems with this, Ray Bakke, the urban mission consultant was reluctant to write a book about his ministry and he has avoided that although he has drawn on it for a number of influential works.  In many ways we need a better distribution for monographs written out of a process of listening to urban people[1], but writing is not the only way to act on what is learnt from listening.  In fact it is relatively rare for, as I said at the start, listening to urban people is the real engine behind all authentic community work.  But much more could be made of it.

Look and analyse

Listening is central but we need more than that.  This is a lesson which the anthropologists have taught us through the discipline of participant observation.  They realised that there was a difference between what people said and what they did.  The only way to explore this difference was to spend time with people and see what they did, this could then be triangulated with what they said in order to develop a better understanding of their culture.  It is no accident that this was called participant observation because although sight wasn't the only sense they were using sight is our most acute sense and the one which enables us to analyse most effectively.

Analytic observation is, perhaps, the bad boy of the approaches I am examining.  It is tough minded, seeking to probe beneath the surface and, maybe, reach uncomfortable conclusions.  There is a danger that it can become macho and aggressive (probing is distinctly phallic!) but this is not inevitable.  In fact, an over confident and aggressive approach is much more likely to skew reality than something more humble and aware of its own limits.  We need to balance our desire for truth with an appreciation of truth's complexity and evasiveness.  Both my examples seem to me to achieve this balance.

The first example of looking and analysing is the work of David Byrne in Understanding the Urban and Complexity in the Social Sciences.  He develops a world view which he terms complex realism:

It is organised around the notion that the world is composed of nested complex systems with emergent properties and in which causes are complex, contingent and due to mechanisms which can be considered to 'lie behind' the world in which we live, which we observe, and which we change by our actions.  Complex realism is an anti universalist programme ... we can know - at the local level there is a true story which we can try to find.

Byrne p42

Byrne is basically trying to develop a way of looking at the world which is contemporary and sophisticated but, unlike, postmodernism, doesn't deny the possibility of knowing the truth and, most importantly, enables us to act in order to change reality. 

I am encouraged to believe that complex realism is a good starting point for research and action by the many insights which Byrne has into the modern city which challenge fashionable assumptions.  He, for instance, accepts the importance of the global but also points out how local action is necessary.  We aren't just subjects of the global market but our decisions affect the market - thus local planning decisions had to be made in order to facilitate the development of Canary Wharf.  These local decisions are just as important as the global context.  This is an example of how Byrne is happy to accept the complexity of situations and isn't looking for the big simple explanation - which is often what postmodernism becomes despite its much vaunted unmasking of meta-narratives.  Because the world is, in some ways, understandable we don't just have to accept the end of history and the eternal dominance of the market, we can work and plan for change.  A key component of Byrne's approach is the development of a humble but optimistic approach to urban planning.  Complexity theory can give us access to reality and from this basis we can make our cities better even if the modernist dreams of Le Corbusier and Metropolis (Ward 2000) are, rightly, jettisoned.

Byrne gives us a way of approaching analytical research which can make us more clear sighted.  The foundations of his approach (complex realism) provide a useful guide as we approach the city:

1. We need to be interdisciplinary.  Using sociology, history, statistics, biology ... and even, perhaps, we might add, theology!

2. Because cities emerge rather than follow scientistic laws there is no universal theory to explain cities, but nonetheless it is possible to discern the possible 'attractors' or patterns into which cities can evolve.  Cities aren't just chaotic maelstroms impossible to understand.

3.  It is, therefore, possible to work towards one pattern rather than another because they are human structures created by human action.  Research can, consequently, be involved in bringing change.

4.  The causes of urban realities are complex.  These causes are real but not necessarily permanent.  This complexity means it is necessary to look at whole systems not just little parts.

Byrne also provides a useful list of issues to be addressed in understanding the urban.  These are worth looking at if you are trying to see what is going on in your community:

1.  What work is done?  What work used to be done?  How is work changing?

2.  How is the city sustained and made liveable?  How are basic services provided - healthcare, rubbish collection, pollution control?

3.  What is the pattern of immigration - where do city residents come from?

4.  How is the city governed?  What difference does it make being governed in this way rather than another?

5.  How do the buildings of the city get built - and why?

6.  What communities do people identify with?

7.  How does this urban community produce culture?  What is it saying?

8.  How has this this city related to the global community?

9.  How are gender relations organised?

We have much to learn from social science and urban studies, as Andrew Davey is right to point out (Davey 2001) but we must be discerning about where they are coming from rather than just use what seems to fit our passing need.  Complexity based accounts do seem to me to offer the best basis for developing the contextual theology which is my own particular field, and it is interesting that Ken Leech in his Through Our Long Exile (Leech 2001) warms to the complexity based approach to networking of Alison Gilchrist (Leech 2001 p188).  Leech's work is, perhaps, the best contemporary attempt at looking intently at a local community with a theological eye.  It is very much a story but it is a story told with a critical, analytical perspective.  Leech probes deeply into the history of the East End and is very open to the perspectives of social scientists such as Ruth Glass - he wants to understand more profoundly what is happening to his community and enquires widely in his search.  There is a growing body of this work emerging out of churches.  It was simulated by Faith in the City and its concern for Audits but the Urban Theology Unit and the old Evangelical Urban Training Project[2] had been doing it for years.  A new impetus is coming to it from America and its concern for Congregational Analysis, sometimes this is fairly introverted but where it has a concern for the 'ecological' context of the church (Ammerman 2000) it is not dissimilar.  My own Listening to your Community seeks to provide a clear practical structure for engaging in the process by building a skeleton (a quantitative outline based on census material), putting the flesh on the bones (adding qualitative material to this outline) and finally discerning the spirit (hearing what is being said to us through the process and the data).  This hints that important as the analytical approach is, it is not enough on its own.  By evoking the remaining senses of smell, feel and touch I will go on to explore how research can be broadened and truly engage with our lived experience.

Smell the ambience

Leech says

Like the anthropologist, the contextual theologian will spend much of her or his time loitering, hanging around, getting the sense, the atmosphere, the feel, the smell of a place.  There is no way of short circuiting this essentially contemplative work.


This kind of personal engagement with ones community is certainly central but it can also be supplemented by other means of getting a feel for the community.  Reading novels and other literature can be very helpful, especially for getting to understand something of other cultures.  I found Jonathan Raban's travel book about London Soft City a particularly useful means of getting to understand London, especially where it intersected with my own experience.  Similarly there are sometimes films and TV programmes which are worth watching and local newspapers and other documents are important sources.  Building relationships is also critical.

Getting the smell of an area is the best check on research becoming over concerned with analysis and distant from lived experience.  Living with an area with senses alive and active gives you a constant stream of data which is almost unconscious, it is not feasible to record all of it - although a journal might help capture some[3], but the recording of experiences is invaluable.  I believe it is the ability to understand the spirit of an area which is the essential difference between the kind of sensitive research which can enable positive change and the clumsy, dangerous research which can wreck havoc.  As Leech indicates it has a contemplative, spiritual quality which demands time, patience and presence.

Feel and care

When we move beyond looking, hearing and tasting to touching something it is often because we care.  Princess Diana's demonstrated this through touching AIDS patients.  The metaphor of research as touch reminds us that there is not an absolute distinction between research and action, but that, often, the best way to find out about something is to start doing it - and that the best way to do something is to be engaged in critical, reflexive research whilst doing it.  This leads us into the realm of Action Research.

We have already touched on the issues which Action Research raises in looking at the problems of research as exploitative, referring to the work of Peter Reason in Bath and Guba and Lincoln in the USA.  A recent work edited by Reason is a very helpful introduction and overview of this diverse field and the related streams which are developing it.

There is no 'short answer' to the question "What is action research?".  But let us say as a working definition, to be expanded on in this Introduction and indeed the rest of this volume, that action research is a participatory, democratic process concerned with developing practical knowing in the pursuit of worthwhile human purposes, grounded in a participatory world view which we believe is emerging at this historical moment.

Reason and Bradbury p1

Action research is often traced back to the work of Kurt Lewin in the 1940s but it has many other origins - the critique of positivist science; non-western cultures; the Marxist dictum that the important thing is not to understand the world but to change it; liberation movements; feminism; psychotherapy; spiritual traditions and many theoretical sources stretching as far back as Aristotle's work on praxis and phronesis.  Reason believes all these are coming together to create a new world view.  This world view challenges the normal academic paradigm by insisting that research should be done with people not on them, that it should have practical outcomes that are useful to people in their ordinary lives and that it should contribute to a wider purpose of human flourishing.  This kind of research requires the individuals doing it to be self aware and grow as human beings through the process of doing research rather than just produce research papers.  This is the general attitude which informs my work, and I hope my life. 


Taste and risky commitment

Let's take stock.  We have looked at the problems of research - the control and exploitation with which it can be associated and have sought to develop an understanding of research for community work and other forms of action.  I have argued that this should begin with listening - a profound interest in hearing what people have to say and moving into dialogue.  This listening needs to be balanced with the steady gaze of critical analysis.  I have suggested that complex realism provides the most adequate conceptual framework for achieving critical insight.  Beyond this foundation of listening and looking we went on to look at the need for getting the smell and feel of our communities.  I associated feeling especially with caring and therefore with action.  This gives, I believe, a good framework for the role of research in community work but there is another dimension to research which cannot be contained within this neat package.  It is associated with what we might call holy chaos - that dimension of the life of the Spirit which breaks boundaries and overturns convention.  It is the surprising and the unplanned.  The new thing which emerges out of complex systems and challenges our previous understandings.  In terms of research this can be seen as taking the risk of tasting the object of our concern - it is breaking the professional codes, being irresponsible and taking our life in our hands.

Given this I can hardly advocate this as another dimension of research.  That would be impossible.  Nonetheless it does happen, people throw themselves into situations with little planning or organization and they learn remarkable things.  One of the best examples is Edwina Gateley's story as told in I Hear a Seed Growing.  It traces the story of her retreat in a forest cabin and her subsequent mission amongst the street people of Chicago.  It is told through her journal entries which gives it a strong sense of immediacy and raw reality.  She drinks deeply of the chaos of the streets and makes a series of mistakes with one particular woman, Delores, and yet it has led to an important project - Genesis House which has so far housed over four thousand prostitutes seeking an alternative life and new developments in seminary training (Leech 2001 p180).  This is an almost universal experience - tasting what we should have left well alone, regretting it but knowing that it has made us who we are.  It is a shame that few of these illicit stories are told - they remain, in the language of action research, personal first person research projects and never become third person projects open to the wider community. They are dangerous and hardly to be encouraged, but the truth is we learn much from this risky total engagement and we would be the poorer without close heroic and foolhardy individuals who engage in it.


A world view deriving from complexity theory requires a constantly enquiring mind.  Perceptions induced from grand theories based on a selection of 'industry-standard' research projects won't do, and neither will the latest fashionable speculations.  Complexity theory compels us to continuous, serious and subtle inquiry which seeks to keep touch with a constantly emerging and changing reality.  This is why constant, open engagement with the new is essential for community work and other processes which seek to bring real change.  Not that we all need to become professional researchers, it will achieve more if we seek to develop attitudes of curiosity and wonder.  I use these two words with reason for they seem to me to be relevant to two different habits of mind. 

Curiosity is the disposition for the scientifically inclined, the desire to understand, find out and work through - to push beyond appearances and discern how the whole works in all its constituent parts.  Wonder is perhaps more relevant for the artistically inclined: the desire to value the unique diversity of reality and to be drawn into inquiry through beauty and the mystery of the organic whole.  Perhaps the fully integrated person is one where curiosity and wonder are brought together and used appropriately at different times.  Wonder and curiosity must also go alongside our experience of anguish.  Sometimes urban life is so painful that to speak of the delight of wonder and the pleasure of curiosity is absurd, then we are forced to learn and find out only because we need to.  "I can feel myself cracking up in this parish, I need to find a way to cope"; "Our community is tearing itself apart with violence, we must learn how to change this madness".  This kind of desperate research can uncover things not available to the more contented spirit, we should treat the results of this kind of research, mined out of the underbelly of human experience, with special reverence.

Good research enables us to tell good stories.  Good stories are crucial - they provide us with our context and vision as well as giving us the tools to explain what we are doing.  It is easy to tell bad stories: stories which smooth over mistakes and failures, stories which tell a partial and censored tale, stories which tell our vision but have never bothered to listen to anyone else.  Good stories require more work: the work of listening, analysing and actively engaging described above.  If we have these good stories then we can begin to create accurate maps which can be guides for future action.  This is the problem with many community work stories, they give people false ideas of what to expect and how to engage in grassroots action.  They create maps which show footpaths where there is now only the quagmire of a ploughed field, a secluded valley now the path of a roaring motorway.  Small wonder new participants in our cities often feel lost and overwhelmed.  There are interesting paths to take and landscapes of beauty to find, even in the most disordered communities, but without good stories and good maps - and therefore good research, we might spend a lifetime blundering around without finding them.  And just because some people have found their way without maps doesn't mean that the wider enterprise of grassroots social change doesn't need them.  But this process is more than good maps and sensitive storytelling it is fundamentally about action, for it is through action that we really learn.


Ammerman, Nancy et al Studying Congregations Abingdon 2000

Byrne, David Understanding the Urban Palgrave

Churches Commission on Mission Summarising Building Bridges of Hope 2001

Cotton, Robert and Kenneth Stevenson On the Receiving End Mowbray 1996

Erlandson, David et al Doing Naturalistic Inquiry Sage

Gateley, Edwina I Hear a Seed Growing Anthony Clarke Books 1990

Guba Egon The Paradigm Dialog Sage 1990

Guenther, Margaret Holy Listening DLT 1992

Jacobs, Michael Still Small Voice SPCK 1982

Leech, Kenneth Through our Long Exile DLT 2001

Moore, Thomas Care of the Soul Piatkus 1992

Raban, Jonathan Soft City Fount

Reason, Peter ed. Handbook of Action Research Sage

Reason, Peter Participation in Human Inquiry Sage 1994

Schreiter, Robert Constructing Local Theologies Orbis 1985

Spradley, James The Ethnographic Interview HBJ 1979

Stringer, Ernest Action Research Sage 1996

Ward, Graham Cities of God Routledge 2000

[1] John Vincent ed.  Faithfulness in the city Monad Press 2003 contains many good examples

[2] Now called Unlock

[3]  I have always found writing poetry a way to capture my feel of an area.