Community Inquiry

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Ann Bishop
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Bertram (Chip) Bruce
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Communities face a wide variety of challenges in areas of health, education, economic development, sustainable environments, and social order. But regardless of the difficulty of these challenges, a necessary condition for addressing them is for communities to find ways for members to work together. Too often, community members work at cross purposes and fail to develop what Jane Addams (1912, Nov. 2) called “the capacity for affectionate interpretation,” resulting in what John Dewey (1927) called “the eclipse of the public.” Community inquiry is what Addams and Dewey called their theory and practice for reshaping communities and, thus, society at large.


The challenges for constructive communities are as old as humanity and there will never be an absolute or universal solution to them. One reason is that every member of a community has unique experiences in life and thus unique perspectives, beliefs, and values. This diversity can be a source of strength within communities, but it can also lead to frustration, disappointment, conflict, and even violence. Diverse institutions have been created to address community challenges, including public libraries, public schooling, procedures for democratic governance, and venues for free expression. Often, however, these institutions are reduced from their idealized conception. With community inquiry, diversity becomes a resource and institutions are knit together productively.


As Jane Addams pointed out in founding Chicago’s Hull-House, the first settlement house in the U.S. (Addams, 1912), and Dewey examined through the creation of the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, democracy has been more realized in its political than its social expression. That is, even when formal procedures are established and maintained, meaningful participation is by no means guaranteed. For example, a public library might offer a large collection of books available at no charge to members of the community, but meaningful use of those materials depends also on available public transportation, broad-scale development of literacy skills, and a social organization that makes people feel welcome. In this and many other examples, it is clear that the problem goes beyond institutions, structures, and procedures, requiring instead the means by which every member of the community comes into the process of authority.

Community inquiry provides a theoretical and action framework for people to come together to develop shared capacity and work on common problems in an experimental and critical manner.
The word community signals support for collaborative activity and for creating knowledge that is connected to people's values, history, and lived experiences. Inquiry points to support for open-ended, democratic, participatory engagement.

Consider the case of East St. Louis. Its widely noted dissolution and destruction (Kozol, 1991) resulted from many factors, both internal and external. The integration of housing in neighboring cities had the perverse effect of East St. Louis losing most of its middle class and professional workers. Racism, both within and towards the city, was a key factor that led to its failure to get the resources it needed to maintain a vibrant community. Problems compounded as elements within the city began to pull in different directions, often serving their own ends at the expense of the larger community. For example, companies dumped hazardous waste and landlords allowed buildings to become dilapidated and dangerous. From a community inquiry perspective, East St. Louis exhibited a failure for democratic, participatory engagement and demonstrated little evidence of people within the city or larger entities—state and national—coming together with shared values and goals.

At the same time, East St. Louis has survived and in some aspects has developed the capacity to thrive. Community members have come together to address the severe problems they faced. Substantial assets, such as the talent and dedication of Katherine Dunham, have taken enduring form in her museums and international dance workshops for children ( The community collaborates with other organizations, such the University of Illinois; their joint East St. Louis Action Research Project ( has helped improve conditions in the city by setting up, for example, community technology centers, new housing, a light rail station, and a youth-driven community theater. At the same time, ESLARP has provided new opportunities for university students, staff, and faculty who have worked in the community.

A key element of the work in East St. Louis is that it reflects continuing inquiry by people who are invested in the community in a variety of ways. That is, successes to date have not come from outsiders dictating and delivering solutions, but by bringing together participants from diverse perspectives to work together. Moreover, this work, while it addresses very practical problems of jobs, environment, health, education, cultural preservation and enrichment, and so forth, does not stop there. Instead, local action becomes a means through which the residents and those outside learn more about the community and its possibilities. In that sense, inquiry is both action and understanding. The lesson from East St. Louis, and similar communities, is that the process of community inquiry is ultimately of greater importance than the solving a specific problem.

We see many additional examples around the world of the power of community inquiry. In the domain of community development and learning, for example, a National Science Foundation study carried out in rural villages around Bangladesh related the finding that material from well-worn saris supplied a filtering material that worked better in reducing cholera than the nylon mesh that microbiologists had developed (Recer, 2003). In Reggio Emilia, Italy, with few of the resources found in affluent and advanced communities, families and teachers developed an innovative approach to education, now heralded throughout the world, that recognizes the potential of all children to learn and grow “in relation with others, through the hundred languages of doing, being, reflecting, and knowing” ( Community inquiry can also be manifested in the development of information and communication technology. See, for example, the culturally situated design tools developed collaboratively between Renssalear Polytechnic Institute and its community partners ( and the Community Inquiry Laboratory software created collectively by the University of Illinois and its partners around the world, who come from all walks of life (


Therefore: When a community faces some problem, think of it not simply as something to be fixed but rather as an opportunity for the community to come together, to build capacity, and to learn about itself and its situation in a manner that can be joyful and intellectually stimulating. Recognize that every member of the community has knowledge that may be critical to solving that problem but can be discovered only if that individual has a voice and a say in what the community does. Recognize also that most problems are not solvable in one step and even when they are, may recur in the future. Thus, it is critical for the community to not only fix its problems but to become an organism capable of further inquiry. The community’s knowledge about how to deal with challenges is not in fixed procedures but rather in the capacity to learn through ongoing action, or what Dewey called experimental knowing.

We have created a diagram to represent this cycle of ongoing community inquiry (see below): a spiral of asking questions, investigating solutions, creating new knowledge as we gather information, discussing our discoveries and experiences, and reflecting on our new-found understanding.

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