What is community inquiry?

Community inquiry is inquiry conducted of, for, and by communities as living social organisms. Community emphasizes support for collaborative activity and for creating knowledge, which is connected to people’s values, history, and lived experiences. Inquiry points to support for open-ended, democratic, participatory engagement. Community inquiry is thus a learning process that brings theory and action together in an experimental and critical manner.

This broad definition draws from John Dewey’s conception of logic as the theory of inquiry. It invites several related interpretations:

  • Inquiry driven by community problems. In terms of the domain of inquiry, community inquiry implies inquiry originating in experiences shared within a community and a goal of addressing community problems by building upon community strengths. The inquiry is of the community because it is embedded in community situations, resources, and needs; it is for the community because it seeks to solve community problems (indeterminate situations); it is by the community, because it is enacted by community members. This definition essentially extends the idea of individual inquiry to collective inquiry.[1]
  • Inquiry into “community”. Because the process of community problem solving often raises questions about the nature of the community, membership within it, competing values, and so on, community inquiry often becomes inquiry into the nature of the community itself, or into the very meaning of “community.”
  • Inquiry facilitated by community. In the course of community problem solving, individuals articulate their own beliefs and listen to those of others. The ensuing dialogue enhances even individual inquiry. Plato, Peirce, Dewey, Habermas, and others have argued that such dialogue is not only helpful, but essential for full inquiry, since it is only through contact with divergent ideas that we are able to develop our own. Thus, community inquiry almost automatically entails community of inquiry.

See the Community inquiry bibliography.


  • Bruce, Bertram C. (2009). Dewey’s logic.
  • Gale, Richard M. (2006, April 1). The problem of ineffability in Dewey’s theory of inquiry. The Southern Journal of Philosophy, 44(1). 75-90.
  • De Unamuno, Miguel (1921). Del sentimiento trágico de la vida (The tragic sense of life). New York: Macmillan.

1. R. M. Gale develops the argument that Dewey’s commitment to ordinary, especially bodily experience, raises questions about the extension to community inquiry as defined here. He says that Dewey describes inquiry as growing out of unique situations, including our histories, our social relations, our bodies, etc., all our lived experience. Inquiry thus has a strong individual flavor to it, since no one else shares exactly the same experiences.

I may feel cold and engage in an inquiry process to get warm (put on a sweater, turn up the heat, exercise, etc.). But no one else may feel that or need to engage in a similar inquiry. If inquiry is so grounded in our real, immediate situation, how is it even possible to connect with another? Can we really have community inquiry, or even collective inquiry among a small group, or do we remain forever locked in our own individual worlds?

Unamuno calls this problem the “despair of the heart.” He also says there’s a “disillusionment of the mind,” when we fully realize that it’s impossible to know anything for sure. When these two great nothingnesses come together, we get the “tragic sense of life.”

Gale’s challenge to Dewey is to ask how we can go from the individual self to the other. How do we find or create common purpose? Or can we at all? Is community inquiry illusory within the tragic sense of life? How coherent such a collective sense of inquiry is remains an open question for both theory and practice.

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