Judi Marshall. First-Person Action Research: Living Life as Inquiry (2016)

A Systems Library, Vol. 14

Philippe Vandenbroeck
4 min readOct 2, 2020
Photo: Photo by Adrian Newell on Unsplash

“In this book I offer a notion of research that is thoroughly integrated into everyday life, through which I seek to live with integrity in potentially challenging times. Living life as inquiry is at the same time philosophy, orientation and practice, seeking to treat all I think, feel, say and do as experiment.” — Judi Marshall

This is a significant book because it formulates a tentative, first-person answer to vital questions for our age.

First, we are seeking to come to terms with life in the Anthropocene. The awareness that we have caused immense devastation to our planetary habitat is starting to sink in. How, as individuals, should we live with that understanding?

Second, we are increasingly developing a sense for the ‘wickedness’ of societal challenges. The transition to a more sustainable and equitable world is not ‘a problem’ for which a clear-cut solution exists. How do we engage with these issues, realising the power of any individual and organisation to bring viable alternatives to life is limited?

Third, we are turning to ‘systems’ approaches to guide us through these learning processes. But how to resist the temptation to rely on these practices as disembodied and disconnected tools, rather than as ‘prostheses for learning’ that are intimately woven into our personal temperaments?

In response to these questions, this book foregrounds a systemic practice of ‘living life as inquiry’. It jumps off from the realisation that straight line, control-oriented interventions often lead to undesirable and unintended consequences, and stand in the way of deeper learning. It invites us to contemplate the suggestion that rather than to become technical experts in ‘systems thinking’, we would do well to develop an inclination to ‘systems being’.

Rather than to become technical experts in ‘systems thinking’, we would do well to develop an inclination to ‘systems being’.

Living life as inquiry adopts a humble stance in the face of complexity. It holds ideas and framings lightly and avoids the privileging of rational intellect. It sees actions as experimental and strategies as emergent, unfolding against a background of elusive systemic patterns. It seeks to question our behaviour in light of our intellectual biases, our sensitivities to ego and our fear of uncertainty and of not belonging.

“If things seem under control, I am not doing inquiry live.”

First-person inquiry, by its very nature, may appear as self-indulgent and solipsistic. But it is also fundamentally relational, “curious about connections, interfaces and how these are being created.” In its attention to issues of power and in its ambition to inform action in the world around issues people think matter, First-Person Inquiry is also a deeply political practice.

Living life as inquiry unfolds along three axes: action research, systemic thinking and attention to issues of power. But Marshall does not provide a tightly knit methodology to master this practice. There is no one-size-fits-all model of first-person action research. Instead, she points to kindred approaches and frameworks, provides guiding images and metaphors, and discusses helpful (micro)patterns of behaviour (collaborative sense-making, soliciting feedback, journaling and writing). There are also excursions into stories written by novelists (Nathalie Sarraute, Kazuo Ishiguro) who are particularly skilled in evoking processes of self-reflection emerging from a dynamic notion of self. Marshall also candidly shares her own experiments in her personal and professional spheres of life. These are very evocative tales that offer an attractive mix of intellectual rigour and poetic resonance.

Indeed, I want to draw express attention to the voice of the author, Judi Marshall. Because the book is, in my opinion, very well written. There’s a mixture of intimacy and authoritativeness that seems to reflect the character of first-person inquiry: at once critical and humble, rigorous and vulnerable.

The composition of the book reflects the deliberate absence of ‘system’. It has a certain labyrinthine quality, juxtaposing different styles of narrative and distinct spheres of life. I read the book on an e-reader but in addition, I ordered a hardcopy to be able to navigate through the book in a more intuitively non-linear way.

I am grateful for all the wisdom shared in this book. I will continue to study it and explore its resonances with work by Mari Ruti, Tim Ingold, Friedrich Nietzsche, Edgar Schein, Peter Block, Peter Checkland, Luc Hoebeke, Nicholas Mosley and Gregory Bateson. And I will rely on it as a demanding but supportive guide in developing my own practice of first-person action research, as a professional and citizen in the service of a broader transition to sustainability.

“Treating an issue as inquiry is not about giving priority to trying to make something happen. It is holding an attitude of curiosity as I go about trying to make things happen. I include myself in the circle of curiosity, and so I am seeking always to be open to reviewing purposes, strategies and behaviours as well as apparent effects. The broader purpose is to have a richer existence rather than to sort life out and reduce its variety.” — Judi Marshall



Philippe Vandenbroeck

Facilitator @ shiftN ⎹ Post-disciplinary researcher @ Newrope, ETH Zürich ⎹ How to create spaces were life is able to unfold, and is experienced as life?