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Research as 'barefoot wayfaring'

Introducing the Schumacher Society Research Fellowship

Published onApr 06, 2021
Research as 'barefoot wayfaring'

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Julie and Patricia are both Trustees of the UK Charity Schumacher Society, who award the Research Fellowship on the basis of a substantial piece of practice-based independent inquiry placed in the public domain.

We start evocatively - what kind of experience is barefoot wayfaring?

Imagine stepping precariously onto the damp Devon soil in the small woodland alongside of the Noss Mayo estuary - to walk there barefoot. Gritty shards of limestone, compacted within the clay, form strange patterns as living roots entwine on multiple planes - is this a small torture or a meditation? It certainly has the effect of focusing attention on the feet, on balance. Suddenly it is necessary to become very interested in a new level of detail: where to place each step - a full footfall here, on tiptoe there- and with what force - as here the terrain is smooth, here jagged, here solid, here soggy, here slippery. How to stay in teetering touch with the texture of the terrain, its small transitions, its offers, its surprises?

This barefoot wayfaring differs from walking suitably shod along the existing coastal path. It means walking without maps, not insulated from the ground by sock and rubber sole. This is an encounter with close touch – a vulnerable place where sharp stone meets soft flesh. Here the world whirls a little as balance falters. Here feet may stumble. Here pausing is needed to gain orientation, to look behind, to look around, in order to move on, in order to make a way.

There is no way unless a narrative is told of the movement, the judgements, the discoveries, the trials and errors; a narrative that others can imaginatively follow and find significance and relevance along the trail, to illuminate other trajectories.

What do we mean by barefoot wayfaring as a mode of inquiry?

Barefoot - travelling light, untrammelled by too many pre-existing institutional protocols, a practice of being actively receptive and imaginatively responsive, with all faculties and senses honed , to striking details of present circumstances, as these appear and disappear….

Wayfaring - …while moving on an exploratory journey; one whose compass is an emerging inquiry and whose aim is less to arrive at a particular destination, and more to communicate insightful ‘travellers tales’ - discoveries shared in the form of reflexive narratives. The purpose of such carefully crafted narratives is to re-configure existing practice, as other practitioners are stirred to see differently the possibilities in their own circumstances.

How do we situate ourselves with other traditions of research in different disciplines?

Over 200 years ago Goethe’s scientific work departed from the Newtonian search for governing laws of nature, by imaginatively directing attention to the transformations, transmutations, transitions taking place in the movement of our encounter with dynamic phenomena:- from the experience of colour in light and pigments, to the protean morphology of plants, trees and animals. He advocated moving towards more general insights by going deeply into the situated and particular - cultivating precise observation and ‘exact sensorial imagination’.

His work continues to be developed by evolutionary biologists such as Craig Holdrege, who has extended and promoted Goethe’s ‘delicate empiricism’ as an approach that requires researchers to journey precisely, receptively and imaginatively with the detailed unfolding of living phenomena, cultivating new organs of perception and honing powers of observation and description, as they work. Allan Kaplan and Sue Davidoff have coined the term ‘delicate activism’ for their approach to inquiry in the social realm, informed by Goethe’s methods.

Goethe’s work was also taken up by Henri Bortoft as precursor of a shift in 20th century philosophy, a shift from a focus on researching what appears, ie research by subjects on objects of study, to research into the appearing of what appears ie on the dissolution of the subject/object separation in favour of the tracking the coming into being of distinctions experientially - a hermeneutic phenomenology that emerges from the work of Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger and Wittgenstein. Bortoft calls this a dynamic mode of thought, thinking in movement, rather than through the representations and categorisations of analytical thought. Thinking in movement brings attention to the physicality of bodies dwelling with other bodies (human and other than human) in particular places - to the gestures and displacements, visceral intimations, sudden glimpses, that are the many cues that signal latent patterning of the social-material fabric, offering clues to how this might be further shaped and influenced.

Brian Goodwin’s pioneering work, on the emergence of form in complexity studies, used mathematical modelling to simulate iterative processes in biological phenomena. He took further inspiration from Bortoft as he developed his ideas, later in his life, about researching a ‘science of qualities’ at Schumacher College .

Ralph Stacey and colleagues at the University of Hertfordshire explored this approach in the social domain as ‘complex responsive processes of relating’ - emphasing self-patterning process rather than the focus on the patterns themselves, of many systems perspectives.

In communication studies, John Shotter has contributed a treasure chest of linguistic turns of phrase to help practice based researchers speak and write with the movement of events - what he called ‘withness-thinking’ rather than ‘aboutness-thinking’. He also advocated the need for a social poetics that works with the striking (moving) moments of social experience and brings back into play all that our more conceptual, abstract knowledge-generating traditions leave out.

Hannah Arendt in her ‘thinking without bannisters’ (ie thinking with and through actual events without heavy reliance on existing categories of thought) is now often seen as one of the first political phenomenologists. This kind of thinking proceeds by making careful distinctions amid related phenomena, emphasing the importance of discernment and judgement in the midst of action.

Tim Ingold has been exploring inquiry along the ‘lines of life’ , in the fields of anthropology, art, architecture, and archeology. He challenges, as did the sociologist Norbert Elias before him, the repeated static portrayal of ‘organisms’ surrounded by an ‘environment’ - the nested systems pictures that have become so familiar. He puts in its place a meshwork of trails along which life is lived.

How we are taking this work forward as a community of inquiry?

Our ‘barefoot wayfaring’ divests itself of institutional dress codes, encourages in our researchers a willingness to lose their bearings, to go off-piste, and pay close attention to strangeness in the midst of the familiar . We start with attending to and probing striking experiences that arise in the midst of everyday practice. We train ourselves to work more holographically, to notice more, to notice earlier, to dwell longer with the still vague and latent, to distinguish detailed differences, to see the larger in the smaller. We learn how to draw others attention to what is unheeded or too quickly dismissed, to inquire further into small openings. . The challenge is to describe and relate these particulars so precisely and tellingly, that the reflexive narrative accounts offered ( whatever form these may take) may speak to others - creating echoing chords in the experience of other practitioners, illuminating their circumstances with different ways of ‘seeing’, that may re-configure the ground of credible actions.

All our researchers are immersed in projects/practices within which their inquiries and research develop. With the support of a small faculty, inquiries develop through individual mentoring, sharing work in regular small peer groups (both on-line), meeting as a community in person twice yearly for 6 days of intensive exploration, organising on-line webinars and maintaining a backstage virtual atelier (the ‘gallery’)on our community publishing website, where every member of the community can gain a glimpse of one another’s work-in progress. Some members are also pursueing more academic studies in parallel, enrolled on University doctoral research programmes.

Marking Progression on the Research Fellowship describes how we construct transitions and cairns en route , to help researchers further a sense of getting somewhere, a vectored somewhere that they are able to communicate to others.

You can see some of the fruits of all this by looking at Thinking in public where we offer Previews (work in progress) and Releases (work published by our members elsewhere).


Bortoft H. (2012). Taking Appearance seriously: the dynamic way of seeing in Goethe and European thought. Edinburgh: Floris books.

Elias N. (1978) What is Sociology? Columbia University Press

Goodwin B. (2007) A Science of Qualities, Chapter 7 in How the Leopard changed its Spots. Princeton University Press

Holdrege C. (2013) Thinking like a Plant: a science for life. MA: Lindisfarne Books

Ingold T. (2011). Being Alive: essays on movement, knowledge and description. London: Routledge

Kohn J. (ed) (2018) Hannah Arendt. Thinking without a bannister:Essays in Understanding 1953-1975 New York: Schocken Books

Kaplan A. (2005). Emerging out of Goethe: conversation as social inquiry. Janus Head Volume 8 Issue 1.

Shotter J.D.(2011). Getting it: Withness-thinking and the dialogical in practice. New York: Hampton Press.

Stacey R.D.(2001) Complex Responsive Processes of Relating in Organisations:Learning and Knowledge Creation London: Routledge


Mark Lewis:

Good afternoon Julie and Patricia

I very much appreciate your share here (as well as Julie’s earlier blog post on New Forms of Economic Activism). I am new to this site, though have the principals you share embedded deep within my ancient past.

I am presently involved with new economy activism here in my local town of Berkhamsted (a trustee of the charity overseeing our markets, the creation of a local currency, trustee of a land-based ‘school’ project and active organic grower) and with colleagues on supporting the transition of Argentina out of its long-standing crisis reality into its future expression of its true abundant nature.

I wonder how I might join your community of enquiry?

In gratitude