John Heron. In Memoriam.

In Memoriam. Photo by Eli Solitas.

John Heron, a personal memoir by Peter Reason

“John Heron, who died on November 28 in Bristol UK aged 94, made significant contributions to the theory and practice of participatory research, participatory education, humanistic facilitation, and participatory spirituality. The bare bones of his professional contribution, a summary of his activities, and a comprehensive archive of writing can be found at My reflections here are more personal, focussing on the period of our close collaborations in the 1980s and 1990s developing the model of co-operative inquiry, after which he left Europe for New Zealand.

John Heron had established the Human Potential Research Project at the University of Surrey in 1970, conceiving of humanistic education as a form of collaborative and experiential inquiry. In this he was seeking to counter the evident authoritarian tendencies of the human potential movement in which group leaders set themselves up as unquestionably in charge of group process. The courses at HPRP were generally in the field of personal development and facilitation skills. John articulated a model of co-counselling as the primary model for personal development, differentiating this from the Re-evaluation Counselling founded by Harvey Jackins which he saw as retaining critical aspects of hierarchical control. He also articulated an approach of facilitation based on six dimensions of practice, which formed the basis of training in facilitator styles (Heron, 1977, 1986, 1989, 1999).

In 1977 John moved to the position of Assistant Director at the British Postgraduate Medical Federation at the University of London to initiate an innovative programme of personal and professional development for doctors in hospitals and general practice. This was at a time when the medical profession was generally seen as authoritarian, failing to engage patients in their own well-being, with seriously negative consequences for both doctors and patients. The idea of a more holistic medicine was in the air, and the medical profession challenged by a variety of alternative and complementary practices.

John’s first articulation of the collaborative process as an explicitly research-oriented process was Experience and Method (Heron, 1971; see also Heron, 1981b), one of a series of working papers from HPRP. The argument is that research is necessarily ‘original creative activity’ and so cannot be encompassed by the determinist assumptions of orthodox research; and further that all persons have a political right to be involved in the creation of knowledge that purports to concern them. He argued for an inquiry model centred on the self-directing person in mutual relations with others in a self-determining community

These arguments led naturally to the co-operative inquiry, research ‘with’ rather than ‘on’ people’, in which all those involved work together as co-researchers and as co-subjects. Everyone is involved in the design and management of the inquiry; everyone gets into the experience and action that is being explored; everyone is involved in making sense and drawing conclusions; thus everyone involved can take initiative and exert influence on the process. A co-operative inquiry group cycles between action and reflection drawing on an extended epistemology of four interdependent ways of knowing: experiential, presentational, propositional, and practical. These ways of knowing are interdependent. (Heron, 1981a, 1996a; Heron & Reason, 2005)

Experiential knowing brings attention to bear on the lifeworld of everyday lived experience through face-to-face encounter, empathy, and resonance with a person, place, or thing. Experiential knowing is essentially tacit, almost impossible to put into words; it is often inaccessible to direct conscious awareness. It is the touchstone of the inquiry process and deepens through that process.

Presentational knowing can be seen as the first clothing or articulation of experiential knowing: we tell the story of our experience, often bringing it into consciousness for the first time to ourselves and to others as we do so. Such a spontaneous narrative can then be intentionally articulated and developed through creative writing and storytelling, drawing, sculpture, movement, and dance, drawing on aesthetic imagery. Through this imaginative process, new stories and new images of who we are and what is possible can be created.

Propositional knowing draws on concepts and ideas, making sense of and maybe generalizing from experience. In this sense, it is the link between action research and scholarship. Although propositional knowing always carries the danger of creating a world that exists in its own conceptual bubble, it is also clear that new ideas can drive everyday life. The ability to develop alternative theories critical of everyday common sense grows out of in-depth examination of experience and new narratives.

Practical knowing is knowing ‘how to’, knowing-in-action. At the heart of practical knowing is skilful doing, which may be beyond language and conceptual formulation. Practical knowing is of a quite different nature to knowing-about-action; action research is not the same as applied research. John argued for the ‘primacy of the practical’: as with all forms of action research, the point is not to understand the world but to act more effectively within it.

I first met John in 1978 as these ideas were being developed, shortly after my return from the USA with a freshly minted PhD. I had quite independently developed my own version of participative inquiry and so was excited to find, at a conference of the Association of Humanistic Psychology, a session organized by John Rowan on humanistic research – John Rowan was developing what he called a ‘dialectical paradigm’ for research (Rowan, 1981). The discussions at the session led to the foundation of the New Paradigm Research Group, which met regularly in London during the late 1970s and early 1980s, working together informally to develop a participatory paradigm and practice of research. These discussions led to the articulation of a ‘new paradigm manifesto’ (New Paradigm Research Group, 1981); and later to the publication of Human Inquiry: a sourcebook of new paradigm research which I edited with John Rowan and with significant contributions from John Heron (Reason & Rowan, 1981). The positivist psychologist Han Eysenck reviewed the book saying it deserved to be burned; the humanist Carl Rogers called it a ‘gold mine of new approaches to research’.

Our shared understanding was that all aspects human endeavour, could be encompassed within this ethos of mutual inquiry. As John Rowan punned on the vaudeville routine of Weber and Fields for the cover of Human Inquiry:

“Who was that research I saw you with last night?

That was no research, that was my life!”

Once Human Inquiry was published, John Heron and I agreed that the time was past for theorising new approaches to research; we needed to develop a practice. We began a series of experiments in co-operative inquiry (using the model he articulated) leading up to the ambitious Whole Person Medical Practice. We invited general medical practitioners to a series of preliminary sessions to scope and design the inquiry. From this, some sixteen GPs participated in six cycles of inquiry: a series of two-day workshops meeting for design and sensemaking, interspersed with six-week periods of reflective practice. At the first workshop, we drew on the GPs experiential knowing of medical practice to develop a five-part model of holistic practice (propositional knowing). Each participant then chose which parts of the model they wished to put into practice and took these tentative plans to apply in their surgeries (practical knowing). This led to a deepening of experiential knowing – at times they were so thoroughly involved in practice that they would forget the inquiry process and need to recollect how they had behaved afterwards. They recorded their experience through various means and returned to the following inquiry workshop with the narratives and accounts (presentational knowing) and joined with their colleagues in making sense of their experience, amending and developing the model of holistic medicine (propositional knowing). At each of these workshops we had also agreed to invite a leading practitioner in some aspect of holistic practice to provide further ideas and stimuli. At the end of each workshop the GPs returned again to practice with plans to try out new holistic practices. In this way the group systematically cycled through the four ways of knowing, developing both a deeper understanding and practical skills in holistic practice (Heron & Reason, 1984, 1985; Reason, 1988).

This was an intense time of action and reflection for the two of us, not only the challenges of facilitating a very diverse group of doctors, also between sessions intensely reflecting on our own practice as facilitating researchers. What is the nature of authority, collaboration, and autonomy in such a group? What is the best facilitation profile? What makes this good research, what does it mean for research validity?  How do you draw together 18 people to prepare a coherent account of their learning? These discussions conducted sometimes in his office at BPMF, but just as much driving home from meetings at some speed in his new Alpha Romeo and formed the basis of a series of publications. These reflections and further inquiry endeavours led to a series of publications including (Heron, 1985, 1988, 1996a, 1996b; Heron & Reason, 2001, 2008).

This inquiry contributed to the establishment of the British Holistic Medical Association, the co-operative inquiries at Marylebone Centre Trust, the Research Council for Complementary Medicine. We contributed to a movement that significantly opened attitudes and practices within medicine. In addition to the substantive learning and political influence, the inquiry also raised questions for the theory and practice of co-operative inquiry leading to a series of further papers on validity and quality, the primacy of the practical, the participatory paradigm for inquiry.

Alongside these developments in inquiry practice, John was generally active in the Human Potential movement; for his own account see (Heron, 2012). My work with him was through the Institute for the Development of Human Potential founded by John with David Blagden Marks, Tom Feldberg, Frank Lake, Kate Hopkinson and David Boadella, which offered two-year courses in Facilitator Styles. Several of us were invited to initiate courses around the UK following the early models in London led by Tom Feldberg and Surrey by John, but each with its unique identity. As IDHP grew (and I believe it is still going in some form) the group of primary facilitators we would meet regularly to manage the overall programme and for peer supervision. John insisted – he was good at insisting – we always discussed ‘ideology’ first before getting bogged down in administration issues. This meant, as with the holistic medical inquiry, that we drew on our experience to think through different facilitation profiles, to compare ‘led’ and ‘leaderless’ groups, to supervise each other’s practice, to think through the nature of a community of practice and of self and peer assessment. John was supervisor for our group in Bath and was a wonderful support for us when one of our participants experienced a psychotic episode and we chose to nurse her through it as a community. I think it a particular credit to John that, after he left active engagement with IDHP we continued for several years, building on and developing the practices he had initiated.

Drawing on the learning from a diverse array of inquiry and education projects, John came to the view that a creative group is characterized by an appropriate balance of the principles of hierarchy, collaboration and autonomy – deciding for others, with others, and for oneself (Heron, 1999). Each of these principles has both positive and shadow side: authentic hierarchy is based in experience and skill but may degenerate into authoritarian control; authentic collaboration finds a place for everyone and draws together diversity, but can become oppressive majority rule; authentic autonomy honours the self-directing and self-creating individual, which at its extreme turns into a lonely solipsism.

John moved on from BPMF in 1985, first to restore and live in an elegant old farmhouse in Volterra, Italy, then in 2000 to New Zealand, where he established the South Pacific Centre for Human Inquiry. He turned to what was maybe his primary concern through his life: a participatory spirituality that bade a ‘farewell to authoritarian religion’ and to a further series of publications (see Heron, 1998 and papers on website).

I taught his model as part of our work at the Centre for Action Research for Professional Practice at the University of Bath(Reason, 1998, 2002; Reason & Marshall, 2001). John’s  inquiry models have been adopted and adapted across the world to research with the experience of Black British women, nurses and midwives, young women in management, police offices, professional collaboration in child protection, young persons whose parent is dying from cancer, women and body image… and those are just some of the projects I know about. Sarah Riley, Professor of Critical Health Psychology at Massey University wrote to me, ‘I’m sorry I didn’t have a chance to tell him about the CI work in New Zealand my students are doing’.


Working with John was both exhilarating and maddening. He enjoyed mapping and categorizing – six categories of facilitation, each one analysed in detail; four dimensions of an extended epistemology; Apollonian vs Dionysian inquiry; self- and peer- assessment; maps of altered states of consciousness, of participatory spirituality. These models provided us with important clarity. They helped us all see, for example, that much of humanistic psychology practice, while purporting to be about human liberation, actually carried significant authoritarian dominance; that doctors, because they carry the role of top carers and healers in our society have to live with immense countertransference from the rest of us, to the detriment of their own well-being; and that research that treats people as objects cannot be considered to be a science of persons. Working with John was at times was maddening because he could hold his clarity and precision very firmly, sometimes prevented the emergence of alternative perspectives and alternative forms of sense making.

John was dedicated to collaboration and participation in all aspects of human endeavour – in education, in professional practice in all its forms, in research methods, and indeed as an ontological and metaphysical principle (the academic paper A Participatory Inquiry Paradigm (Heron & Reason, 1997) had a significant impact). He was an iconoclast, ruthless and courageous in challenging authoritarian practices wherever he saw them. The difficulty for his close colleagues was that he often saw these tendencies in us as well. In the later years of our collaboration, I often said, ‘John is dedicated to collaborative approaches… so long as you collaborate in his way’.

John was also dedicated to inquiry, not as arid research, but to learning through risk taking in living, inquiry based on the experience of novel and at times challenging practices, on careful and imaginative reflection on that experience, theorizing from that reflection and taking the insights back into new practice. In his later work he applied this inquiry model to participatory spirituality and transpersonal experience. His final articulation can be found in (Heron & Sohmer, 2019).

Over the past four years I have initiated a series on co-operative inquiries with Rivers as sentient beings (Kurio & Reason, 2022). I find John’s insights continue to be relevant. His inquiry models have been adopted and adapted, applied formally and informally across the world: the experience of Black British women in a racist society, nurses and midwives, young women in management, police officers, professional collaboration in child protection, young persons whose parent is dying from cancer, women and body image, feeling and hearing Country… and those are just some of the projects I know about.

The work, and John Heron’s significant contribution, continues.”



Heron, J. (1971). Experience and Method: An inquiry into the concept of experiential research: Human Potential Research Project, University of Surrey.

Heron, J. (1977). Dimensions of Facilitator Style.: Human  Potential Research Project, University of Surrey.

Heron, J. (1981a). Experiential research methodology. In P. Reason & J. Rowan (Eds.), Human Inquiry: a sourcebook of new paradigm research. Chichester: Wiley.

Heron, J. (1981b). Philosophical basis for a new paradigm. In P. Reason & J. Rowan (Eds.), Human Inquiry, a sourcebook of new paradigm research. Chichester: Wiley.

Heron, J. (1985). The role of reflection in a co-operative inquiry. In D. Boud, Keogh., & D. Walker (Eds.), Reflection: Turning experience into Learning. London: Kogan Page.

Heron, J. (1986). Six Category Intervention Analysis  (Second  Edition). Human Potential Research Project, University of  Surrey.

Heron, J. (1988). Validity in Co-operative Inquiry. In P. Reason (Ed.), Human Inquiry in Action (pp. 40-59). London: Sage Publications.

Heron, J. (1989). The Facilitators Handbook. London: Kogan Page.

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

Heron, J. (1996b). Quality as Primacy of the Practical. Qualitative Inquiry, 2(1), 41-56.

Heron, J. (1998). Sacred Science: Person-centred inquiry into the spiritual and the subtle. PCCS Books: Ross-on-Wye.

Heron, J. (1999). The Complete Facilitator’s Handbook. London: Kogan Page Ltd.

Heron, J. (2012). My Early Engagement withHumanistic Psychology. Self & Society, 40(1), 48-55. Retrieved from

Heron, J., & Reason, P. (1984). New Paradigm Research and Holistic Medicine. British Journal of Holistic Medicine, 1.

Heron, J., & Reason, P. (Eds.). (1985). Whole Person  Medicine: A co-operative inquiry: British Postgraduate Medical Federation,  University of London.

Heron, J., & Reason, P. (1997). A Participatory Inquiry Paradigm. Qualitative Inquiry, 3(3), 274-294.

Heron, J., & Reason, P. (2001). The Practice of Co-operative Inquiry: Research with rather than on people. In P. Reason & H. Bradbury (Eds.), Handbook of Action Research: Participative inquiry and practice (pp. 179-188). London: Sage Publications.

Heron, J., & Reason, P. (2005). The Practice of Co-operative Inquiry: Research with rather than on people. In P. Reason & H. Bradbury (Eds.), Handbook of Action Research: The Concise paperback edition (pp. 144-154). London: Sage Publications.

Heron, J., & Reason, P. (2008). Extending Epistemology with Co-operative Inquiry. In P. Reason & H. Bradbury (Eds.), Sage Handbook of Action Research: Participative inquiry and practice (pp. 366-380). London: Sage Publications.

Heron, J., & Reason, P. (Eds.). (1985). Whole Person  Medicine: A co-operative inquiry: British Postgraduate Medical Federation,  University of London.

Heron, J., & Sohmer, O. (2019). An Interview with John Heron: Exploring the Interface between Cooperative Inquiry and Transpersonal Studies. International Journal of Transpersonal Studies. Retrieved from

Kurio, J., & Reason, P. (2022). Voicing Rivers through Ontopoetics: A Co-operative Inquiry. River Research and Applications, Special Issue: Voicing Rivers. doi:

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Reason, P. (1988). Whole Person Medical Practice. In P. Reason (Ed.), Human Inquiry in Action (pp. 102-126). London: Sage Publications.

Reason, P. (1998). Co-operative Inquiry as a Discipline of Professional Practice. Journal of Interprofessional Care., 12(4), 419-436.

Reason, P. (2002). Special Issue: The Practice of Co-operative Inquiry. Systemic Practice and Action Research, 15(3), 169-270.

Reason, P., & Marshall, J. (2001). On Supervising Graduate Research Students. In P. Reason & H. Bradbury (Eds.), Handbook of Action Research: Participative Inquiry and Practice (pp. 413-419). London and Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Reason, P., & Rowan, J. (Eds.). (1981). Human Inquiry: A Sourcebook of New Paradigm Research. Chichester: Wiley.

Rowan, J. (1981). A Dialectical Paradigm for Research. In P. Reason & J. Rowan (Eds.), Human Inquiry (pp. 93-112). Chichester: Wiley.