Spirituality and Social Practice – Integrating Science and Spirituality Through Cooperative Inquiry

Ksenija Napan, PhD, Senior lecturer
Te Pae Whanake, School of Community Development
Unitec, New Zealand


The aim of this paper is to explore ways of researching, exploring and inquiring about spirituality in a non dogmatic way. Science and spirituality have been understood as polar opposites for a long time. The positivist paradigm proposes that the researcher and the subject of the research are two separate entities where the researcher designs, manages and draws conclusions from the gathered data. In the area of human spirit, relationships and meaning in life, this kind of approach is unsuitable, dangerous, invalid and prone to false interpretations. When cooperative inquiry is employed all those involved work together as co researchers and co subjects. This paper focuses on possible ways of doing a multileveled cooperative inquiry for the purpose of engendering human and spiritual resources for effective, peaceful, empowering and just social work.

Keywords: spirituality, teaching, social practice, integration of science and spirituality


When developing the course Spirituality and Social Practice within the Masters of Social Practice offered at Unitec, New Zealand, I wanted to facilitate a course that would reflect the reality of its context. However, I also wanted to provide a challenge to participants to move out of their comfort zones, explore how their personal spirituality relates to their work and how it can be utilized for creating more empowering contexts where clients can grow and realize their dreams. New Zealand is primarily a bicultural society, which means that it acknowledges Maori as tangata whenua (people of the land) of this country and others (English colonizers) as equal partners. Both groups are supposed to have equal rights and sovereignty as outlined in the Maori version of Te Tiriti O Waitangi or Treaty of Waitangi (signed 1840). This is the first treaty in the world ensuring indigenous people equal rights with their colonizers. Although the Maori and the English versions do not convey the same understanding of sovereignty and equality and the Treaty has been debated since 1840, it is an internationally important document because of its message of partnership and respect for differences. Politically and in founding documents, the ideas of cooperation and partnership are deeply ingrained in all areas of life; however, human practices are at times very far from that ideal. Since 1840 many other immigrants were attracted to New Zealand’s beauty and the country is becoming increasingly multicultural. This is clearly reflected in the huge numbers of various religious and nonreligious spiritual groups that have been flourishing, especially in the last decade.
The land is refreshingly new and still very alive with numerous geysers and glaciers, and with an unusual collaboration that has developed between the plants. In New Zealand native trees and shrubs live in cooperation, supporting and enabling one another to grow and develop. Without native mammals, New Zealand flora and fauna developed a different kind of evolutionary communication which is based on partnership and not on the survival of the fittest through competition. However, introduced pests and plants have disturbed that balance. The parallel between the political and natural realities is striking. This is reflected in Al Gore’s quote; “The more deeply I search for the roots of the global environmental crisis, the more I’m convinced that it is the outer manifestation of an inner crisis that is, for the lack of a better word, spiritual” (Gore, 1992, p. 98).

Tertiary educational context is equally complex: an abundance of universities, polytechnics, private providers and specialised training institutions are devoted to whole people learning and are rapidly abandoning “chalk and talk methods” and replacing them with experiential methods and dialogue. Competition is high and there is an increasing attitude towards education as a business as opposed to education as a service to humankind. At the same time there is an increasing sense of personal connectedness with the planet as well as an increasing awareness of a need for sustainable policies, education and lifestyles. This intense sense of personal connectedness can motivate people to seek escape from consumerism’s powerful hold (Coates, 2004). The outdated, arrogant worldview that humans are superior to all other life on the planet, which implicitly gives them the right to exploit and destroy other species and oppress their own in the name of economic growth, is slowly being replaced with a holistic worldview of interdependency and reverence for all life. This perceptual shift creates a major change in worldviews and, as a consequence, creates discomfort and an urge from some members of the privileged part of the human population to stand up for the oppressed and initiate socially just change. The importance of a sense of connectedness has been emphasized in a number of social work and educational theories and approaches (Glasser, 2000; Fear & Woolfe, 2000; Heron, 2006a; Coates, 2004; Maglajlic, 2005). This sense of connectedness is essential for the human ability to explore issues critically and without blame because labeling and projections can easily hijack the process of inquiry. Understanding and experiencing connectedness in the classroom, despite striking differences in knowledge, culture and belief systems, becomes a condition for collaboration, especially in a country where the immigration policy dictates that the easiest way to get into the country is to come as a student first, then seek employment and finally become a resident. This political reality pushed forward a need to create flexible and relevant courses which will cater to a range of students. These students are mostly mature adults with a wealth of experience and, in many cases, have been oppressed in their country of origin because of their political beliefs or religious affiliations.


In this context spirituality is a very relevant concept, but I was faced with numerous questions:

How do I teach about the relevance of spirituality in social work in a non dogmatic way?

How do I ensure that students feel safe enough to explore how spirituality relates to their social practice?

How do I examine, explore and bring to awareness the effect of blind spots that follow every belief system?

How do I find a suitable research methodology to inquire about something that is as elusive and fluid as human spirituality?


The course, Spirituality and Social Practice, was offered for the first time in 2006, over three Friday- Saturday blocks during one semester. The group reflected the reality of New Zealand – beliefs and cultures ranging from a Catholic man from Iraq to a Mormon Maori woman; facilitated by two lecturers, one male, the other female, one born in New Zealand and the other an immigrant, one brought up in a religious context, the other in a non religious one. The course was conducted by using learning contracts and self and peer assessment. In this first instance, cooperative inquiry was not used as teaching methodology although principles that guide cooperative inquiry were also present. A lot of discussion on learning outcomes as well as how spirituality relates to social practice took place and the atmosphere was collaborative and collegial. While this worked fine, I was still looking for more relevant teaching methodology that would take us to the next level of understanding and exploring how spirituality influences our practice and how to ensure that our clients and students are not oppressed despite our best intentions.

Cooperative inquiry

While the course was developed and as it became a reality, I was part of the cooperative inquiry in human spirituality at the South Pacific Centre for Human Inquiry and was also privileged to meet John Heron and Barbara Langton. We used, and are still using, cooperative inquiry as a method of exploring our own spirituality and how it is reflected in our professional practice. I loved the methodology because it was extremely empowering, free from dogma and it enabled me to integrate science and spirituality both personally and professionally and to become aware of how it relates to the political reality of our time.

Cooperative inquiry is a radical peer-to-peer research method, originated by John Heron between 1968 and 1981, and is now regarded as one of the most well-developed of the family of action research approaches. It has been applied in a wide range of contexts: medical practice, nursing, midwifery, social work, management, organizational development, community development, adult and continuing education, living together, human spirituality, co counseling, obesity, diabetes, racism, gender, women in midlife, social justice leadership, and more (Heron, 2006b).

It is equally relevant for research in tertiary education as for social work because it replaces the traditional paradigm of research on people with a cooperative model where participants are in a cooperative relationship of bilateral initiative and control; all involved are co researchers and co subjects. It also matches well with the New Zealand participatory paradigm outlined in the founding document of the country, Te Tiriti o Waitangi, as well as with shifting worldviews towards interconnectedness and sustainability.

In a “publish or perish” context within academia, where the research in human sciences is mostly an academic pursuit based at universities, traditional quantitative and qualitative research on people thrives; whereas, collaborative methods are often seen as less reliable, less valid and, accordingly, “less scientific”. This perpetuates the authoritarian education model where academics make unilateral decisions in terms of how and when shall students learn and how and when their learning is going to be assessed. This creates an authoritarian collusion between teaching and research (Heron, 1996) where academics do not need to acquire the emotional and interpersonal competence needed for empowerment of students. Students are, at the same time, expected to learn holistically, learn how to challenge authoritarian power over their future clients who will experience oppression and discrimination on many levels, and to become well grounded professionals, able to act and reflect in practice in a way that manifests their uniqueness, competence and reliability. In the area of social work education we have the unique opportunity to exercise social work principles and values in our everyday teaching practices. Authoritarian, top down, unilateral teaching and assessment methods are not able to serve that purpose. The same principle is reflected in teaching and learning about spirituality in an academic context.

In enrolling mostly mature students with a wealth of experience and who are well versed in challenging authoritarian power, we have been privileged to be constantly challenged by our students when we departed from our credo of “walking the talk” and exercising social work principles of accountability, empowerment, partnership, biculturalism and social justice in our teaching.

Cooperative inquiry methodology seems to be the most suitable for exploring issues of concern and interest related to spirituality and social work.

The Spirituality and Social Practice Course

The overall purpose of the course is to explore the meaning and relevance of spirituality in social practice and to explore the social and cultural constitution of spirituality by deconstructing ideas, beliefs and practices in order to enable conversations about spirituality.

This purpose is manifested through three suggested learning outcomes that students personalize in their learning contracts

  1. To deconstruct cultural understandings of spirituality
  2. To critically analyze how ideas of spirituality reproduce social/ power relations.
  3. To critically examine own understanding of spirituality in order to appreciate the complexity of socially and culturally produced understandings

Proposed topics open to change after the first meeting with students are: spirituality and religion, meaning in life, social and historical development of spirituality, and implications of spirituality in social practice.
The main focus was to collaboratively explore issues related to spirituality and social practice. Following a collaborative discussion on personalized learning outcomes we decided to:

  • Explore central values and concepts for spiritually respectful social practice
  • Expand participants’ views on the meaning and significance of spirituality in social practice as well as ideas about diversity in social practice
  • Become effective spiritually respectful social practitioners able to utilize own spirituality in our practice but not impose it on people we work with
  • To co create a Level 8 (Masters) course with practitioners and for practitioners through collaboration and to come up with suggestions for improvement

The course was offered for the first time in 2006; the only improvement suggested was to employ a research methodology which would be empowering and able to provide a focus to explore issues related to spirituality from personal and professional standpoints in order to promote effective social practice. Cooperative inquiry seemed to be the most suitable to achieve these outcomes. Students will learn through their own experiences how to facilitate a collaborative piece of research, which is very relevant for their social practice, and lecturers will have the opportunity to test usefulness of cooperative inquiry as a teaching methodology.

Spirituality and Social Practice course as a collaborative inquiry

This is the proposal of the one open loop of the cooperative inquiry spiral suggested for the course, starting August 2007.

Preparation for the course:

  • E-mailing all course materials: proposed learning outcomes, learning contracts, self and peer assessment materials, an outline on cooperative inquiry
  • Students and teachers are to bring a vocational autobiography (Canda & Furman, 1999) to introduce themselves on the first day

The first weekend:

  • Defining common interests and individual outcomes, and relating them to the proposed outcomes for the course
  • Using the weekend to personalize our common interest and make it as relevant as possible to our social practice
  • Getting to know each other and building trust
  • Exploration of values, guiding ideas, meaning of social practice in participants’ lives through vocational autobiography
  • Define resources in terms of books, people, web sites, movies and other physical resources as well as the knowledge, experiences and abilities of group members
  • Defining actions or forms of practice that participants will focus on during the inquiry
  • Introduction to learning contracts and self and peer assessment processes

Between workshops: participants will be immersed in their inquiry, writing reflections and dialoguing online, sharing resources and findings.

The second weekend:

  • Reflection on agreed actions
  • Exploration of the diversity of spiritual expression
  • Maori spirituality input from an invited guest
  • Critical analysis of how ideas of spirituality reproduce social/power relationships
  • Examination of voices heard and silenced in Aotearoa New Zealand
  • Recapitulation of the weekend and exploration of possible changes in planned actions in the light of our reflection

Between workshops: more focused inquiry into selected themes, participants will form smaller groups for deeper reflection and more collaborative action

The third weekend:

  • Spirituality in action, participants’ presentations of their findings (individual or group presentations)
  • An exploration of how spirituality may inform or misinform social practice
  • Articulation and reflection on own social and cultural context in relation to spiritually respectful social practice
  • Bringing it all together – wrap up – focusing on perceiving intricate links and how themes relate to one another
  • Closure and celebration co created by all participants

After the event:

  • Publication of a coauthored paper in the light of our experience

Teaching/learning methods and assessment: cooperative inquiry, learning contracts, self and peer assessment, feedback from the lecturer.
Cooperative teaching/learning methodology requires cooperative assessment. Peer and self assessment are introduced at the beginning of the course and are open to students’ scrutiny and incorporation of novel ideas for more effective and relevant assessment. Course facilitators submit self-assessed assignments for peer assessment from the group.

Instead of conclusion – personal, professional and political spiral in the making
Cooperative inquiry is a dynamic, continuously evolving methodology which keeps me, as a lecturer, excited and interested in continuous improvement. No two courses are the same and participants report it to be very relevant and interesting. The integration of theory, practice and personal experience in a collaborative context creates an opportunity for reflection, honest feedback and flourishing of novel ideas of how to bring forth the world. My personal inquiry into spirituality and social practice does not stop here. I will continue my participation in the cooperative inquiry group at the South Pacific Centre for Human Inquiry; it nourishes my soul and is essential for my personal development as a just practitioner in tune with her spirituality. The course, which is offered August 2007, will present another open loop of the spiral which will relate to practical ways of cooperating with students for the purpose of creating human and spiritual resources related to social work practice. The third loop of this open-ended spiral is my proposal to connect with international academics who teach spirituality and social work for the purpose of forming a third, virtual, cooperative inquiry group to explore how we can incorporate spirituality into our teaching in a way that will contribute to the creation of global peace.

If you would like to join us please e-mail me at:


Canda, E., & Furman, L. (1999). Spiritual diversity in social work practice: The heart of helping. New York: The Free Press.

Coates, J. (2004). From ecology to spirituality and social justice. Currents: New scholarship in the human services. Retrieved May 10, 2007, from

Fear, R., & Woolfe, R. (2000). The personal, the professional and the basis of integrative practice. In S. Plamer & R. Woolfe (Eds.), Integrative and eclectic counseling and psychotherapy. London: Sage.

Glasser, W. (2000). Every student can succeed. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Gore, A. (1992). Earth in the balance: Ecology and the human spirit. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co.

Heron, J. (1996). Co-operative inquiry: Research into the human condition. London: Sage Publications.

Heron, J. (2006a). Participatory spirituality: A farewell to authoritarian religion. North Carolina: Lulu Press.

Heron, J. (2006b). Co-operative inquiry - A radical peer-to-peer research method. Retrieved May 10, 2007, from

Maglajlic, D. (2005). Love as a tool: The legacy of St. Francis. Proceedings from NACSW Convention October 2005. Retrieved May 31, 2007, from



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