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A Quaker Approach to Research - Review

Tom Head
On Difference (July 2015)
A Quaker Approach to Research: Collaborative Practice and Communal Discernment
by Gray Cox
reviewed by Tom Head

This short book is the latest in a series from the Quaker Institute for the Future (QIF). All of the other publications in the series focus on pressing, specific, hot topics for our global future: genetically modified crops, energy and fuels, the economic growth dilemma, climate change, food security, etc. In contrast to these issue-oriented volumes, A Quaker Approach to Research (2014) explores methodology and our ways of knowing: How do we as Quakers approach research and understanding of critical issues? This book is a provocative exploration of how Quakers come to know what we know and how those methods might be applied to social research.

The primary author is Gray Cox, a Friend with a long-standing interest in Quaker epistemology and a professor of political economics, history and peace studies at the College of the Atlantic. As in other QIF efforts, the lead author is joined by a team of collaborators. In this case,

that team includes includes: Charles Blanchard, Geoff Garver, Keith Helmuth, Leonard Joy, Judy Lumb, and Sara Wolcott. As such, the booklet not only addresses the QIF methodology, but illustrates it as well – in both its content and style. Many voices are heard, in many ways . . . so much so that the reader is drawn into the discernment process and has to do some of the work of sorting it all out. It’s not always easy reading, but navigating its pages and insights will likely appeal to Friends wishing to probe the question of how our Quaker faith shapes our ways of knowing and what contributions Quaker methods might make to humankind’s search for public policies that support human betterment and ecological integrity.

Its four chapters provide, in turn: an overview of Quaker traditions and practices of communal discernment; a presentation of QIF’s experience with the meeting for worship for the conduct of research; a comparison to communal discernment traditions, both religious and secular, outside of the Quaker movement; and finally, an in-depth discussion of underlying philosophical issues. In addition to Gray Cox’s overarching teachings with respect to the subject of Quaker epistemology, some of the most fascinating and instructive features for me were Keith Helmuth’s section on “collective discernment in indigenous cultures” and Leonard Joy’s “experience of Quaker process in a secular setting.”

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should note that I am not an entirely disinterested reader of this book. I was on the Board of the QIF in its early years, served as one of its officers, and participated in several of the efforts described in this book. Thus I have observed these efforts in an up-close and personal way, making me keenly aware of both strengths and challenges. But I have also been away from QIF’s work for a number of years now, and I observe its current contributions from a distance. I admittedly have a fondness for what QIF is doing, how it is doing it, and the people doing this work. QIF is a remarkable undertaking, and perhaps in somewhat the same way that we Quakers have come to appreciate what Robert Greenleaf called “servant leadership,” I think we can see in this book specifically – and in the work of QIF generally – something we might come to call “servant scholarship.” The book is a blueprint for research that serves the common good.  ~~~

Tom Head is a member of Bridge City Friends Meeting in Portland, Oregon (NPYM), and Professor of Economics at George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon. The field of International Economics has been the focus of most of his professional work and much of his Quaker service, and he has a particular passion for contemplating the interface of world religions and global economics issues.

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