Workshop 2: Socratic Dialogue and other things

Our second Ways of Knowing workshop will be on the 18th and 19th September. On the agenda, among other topics and activities, will be Sarah Banks facilitating a Socratic Dialogue. In preparation for this we need to decide on a good question (one that gives us good scope for moving through the Socratic Dialogue process), so Sarah has asked the research team to consider either:

1. Can we know something together?
2. Can I know what you know?

To help us all decide, Sarah has suggested that we say which one we prefer and give an example you might use to illustrate it using a comment box below this blog post. (if you’re not on the team and you want to pitch in too, please do!)

And this is what Sarah wrote about Socratic Dialogue before…

Socratic Dialogue

Sarah Banks, Durham University

My substantive contribution to the Ways of Knowing project will be to facilitate a Socratic Dialogue at the second workshop in September 2013.

I will adopt an approach based on the model used by the Society for the Furtherance of Critical Philosophy (UK, http:/ and Philosophisch Politische Academy (Germany:, with whom I trained as a facilitator. This approach is sometimes called ‘neo-Socratic dialogue’, which is derived from, but not the same as, the method used by Socrates (470-399 BCE) in ancient Greece. It was developed by a German philosopher, Leonard Nelson (1882-1927) (Nelson 1940) and subsequently modified by his pupils and later followers (for an accessible UK introduction, see Saran and Neisser, 2004)

Socratic Dialogue is a means of exploring complex philosophical or mathematical questions with a group of people. It is a method by which a group works together with a facilitator to find an answer to a well-formed question (such as: ‘What is justice?’ or ‘When is it right to lie?’). The procedure involves collecting concrete examples relevant to the question from the participants, choosing one example to work on, exploring the chosen example, articulating its core statement and agreeing on principles in answer to the general question. This approach is used to engage members of the public in ‘Socratic cafés’ or other arenas and in teaching practical ethics and critical thinking in schools and universities.

Although the focus is on reasoning, critical analysis and consensus-seeking, the process is very different from what we might usually associate with philosophical argument. While an abstract question is set or agreed upon, the starting point is with people offering examples from their own experience. Furthermore, one of the ‘rules’ of the dialogue is that participants should not refer to ‘outside authorities’ (i.e. no references to Plato, Karl Marx or yesterday’s Guardian). Participants are asked to ‘put themselves in the example-giver’s shoes’ (hence drawing on empathy), listen very carefully to other people, build on the ideas of others, seek points of agreement and from time to time they may reflect on how the group is working (‘meta-dialogue’). Although the process is consensus-seeking, the ultimate aim of a Socratic Dialogue may or may not be to reach ‘truth’ by consensus (this depends on the views and approach of facilitator and participants). Collaboration is at the heart of the process. It is a dialogue, not a debate (i.e it is not about one person seeking to persuade others or ‘win’ an argument). Hence participants do need to engage not only at the level of reason (logic, analysis), but also at an emotional and embodied level (empathy, managing frustration, performing as caring person or a rational expert).

The different ways of knowing identified by Heron and Reason (2008) in their ‘extended epistemology’ (theory of knowledge) developed in the context of collaborative research are all there in Socratic dialogue: propositional knowledge (intellectual knowing of ideas and theories, ‘knowing about’); experiential (gained through direct face-to-face contact with a person, place or object, based on empathy and resonance); presentational (grows out of experiential knowing, expressing it through story, movement, drawing, etc); and practical (knowing how to do something, a skill or competence – this brings together the other forms of knowing into action in the world). Although the overt focus may be more on propositional and experiential, nevertheless presentational knowledge is drawn upon in the offering of examples from experience (essentially short narratives or stories) and practical knowledge (through the skills in dialogic communication).

However, there is no doubt the dominant ‘register’ is cognitive, and the form of Socratic Dialogue lends itself to the valuing of reasoning, consensus and ‘objectivity’. So it will be interesting for us to explore the complex interplay of cognitive, affective and embodied ways of knowing in the process of a Socratic Dialogue. We will need to decide on a suitable question and agree about whether to audio-record and how to use any recordings made.

Links with co-inquiry action research (CAR) groups

Sarah Banks, with reflections from Tessa Holland and Ann McNulty

In earlier work with Beacon North East (the Newcastle-Durham Beacon for Public Engagement, 2008-12) and a previous Connected Communities project on ethics (2012), we used a co-inquiry approach to collaborative research between academics and community partners (drawing on the work of Heron and Reason, 2000).

We called our groups ‘co-inquiry action research’ (CAR) groups. In both these co-inquiry groups a key theme was how academics and community partners communicate with each other, value each other’s knowledge and experience, develop shared understandings and how participants recognise and handle difference.

The first CAR group used a co-inquiry group to study the process of co-inquiry research (Beacon NE, 2011a, 2011b). As facilitator, I was very much influenced by my Socratic Dialogue training, as well as methods derived from Paulo Freire and thinking in the field of community development (I have a background in community development). One interesting idea to come out of that group was the notion of ‘collaborative reflexivity’:

Participants were surprised at what they learnt from each other and about themselves. They reflected not just on the collaborative processes in their own current and recent research projects and evaluated their roles, strengths and weaknesses, but also studied themselves in the group and analysed the workings of the group. (Banks et al, 2013, forthcoming)

The second CAR group explored ethical issues in community-based participatory research, as part of a wider scoping study (Durham Community research Team, 2011). Tessa Holland and Ann McNulty were involved as community partners. Tessa Holland noticed a particular interchange between two other members of the group, which prompted us to go back and listen to the audio-recording and then we wrote it up in a case study. Here is an extract from the case study (Banks and Armstrong, 2012):

Whilst the group had identified the avoidance of academic jargon as an important ground rule, this was only one part of the story about how academics could dominate the proceedings. Academics are also very used to analysing, critiquing, summarising and interpreting the comments of others. This was highlighted in an exchange between a community partner (Carol) and academic (Alan) at the third meeting, when Alan was feeding back to the whole group what Carol and Alan had been discussing in a pair relating to details of an ethical dilemma told by Carol to Alan. Carol commented: ‘that is not what I told you!’ Alan explained he was trying to summarise, to which Carol responded:

  • Carol: This is what we’re getting down to: the judgement that you made upon my speech was not [my] judgement.
  • Alan: Probably not, I interpreted what you said.
  • Carol: Interpreted … you interpreted my speech with your values, your speak, your understanding of the world.

This gave an opportunity for all members of the group to acknowledge what had happened and what they could learn from it. The fact that it was handled amicably and discussed openly by Carol, Alan and the other participants was testimony to the levels of trust in the group by this point. Reflecting on this exchange later, Carol commented that the issue for her was that Alan took her story and ‘made it his own’.

Ann and Tessa were then involved in the follow-up to this project, which involved working with members of three other Connected Communities projects in 2012 to develop some ethical guidelines and cases for community-based participatory research. Ann McNulty reflected on that process in connection with thinking about the Ways of Knowing project:

The important thing for me about ethical guidelines group work was the preparation for and facilitation of the process. Maybe that’s something to get people to think about – how to do it – that is, working respectfully and collaboratively with people who you see as different to yourselves, and who are called a different thing (‘academic’ or ‘community’), which goes both ways. How to work at making co-production possible and positive? Doesn’t just happen by itself


Banks and Armstrong (2012) (eds) Ethics in community-based participatory research: case studies, case examples and commentaries, National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement, Bristol, or

Banks, S. & Armstrong, A. with Booth, M., Brown, G., Carter, K., Clarkson, M., Corner, L., Genus, A., Gilroy, R., Henfrey, T., Hudson, K., Jenner, A., Moss, R., Roddy, D. and Russell, A. (2013) Using co-inquiry to study co-inquiry: community-university perspectives on research collaboration, Journal of community engagement and scholarship, forthcoming

Beacon NE (2011a) Co-inquiry toolkit. Community-university participatory research partnerships: co-inquiry and related approaches. Newcastle, Beacon NE, or

Beacon NE (2011b) Beacon NE Co-inquiry Action Research Project, or

Durham Community Research Team (2011). Community-based participatory research: ethical challenges (Arts and Humanities Research Council Discussion Paper). Durham, Durham University,

Nelson, L. (1940) Socratic Method and Critical Philosophy, New Haven, USA: Yale University Press.

Philosophisch Politische Academy,

Saran, R. and Neisser, B. (2004) (eds) Enquiring minds: Socratic dialogue in education, Stoke-on-Trent, Trentham.

Society for the Furtherance of the Critical Philosophy,

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