Editorial: An invitation to compassion

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I have been reflecting on Lerner’s just world theory (e.g., Lerner & Simmons, 1966; Lerner, 1980), which highlights the human tendency to believe in a just world in which people get what they deserve; good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. Accordingly, people have a personal contract with the world whereby they work hard and delay short-term satisfaction on the basis that they will eventually be justly rewarded (Lerner, 1977; Sutton, Stoeber & Kamble, 2017). From early in life, a child learns that the world is a just place in which investments (e.g., in ‘good’ behaviour) entitle them to obtain what they desire later. As well as powerfully shaping behaviour, this belief in a just world can seemingly protect people from the inherent unpredictability of life and provides humans with a sense of safety and control, albeit illusory (Wenzel, Schindler & Reinhard, 2017).

It appears that this belief is very much prized, and people will do almost anything to maintain it. According to Lerner (1980), there are nine ‘rational’ and ‘non-rational’ strategies that are employed to preserve this sense of justice. These include preventing injustice (rational), and reinterpreting causality (e.g., blaming the victim; non-rational). Perceiving the social world as multiple whereby injustice only occurs in the worlds of others, and not one’s own, is another protective strategy outlined by Lerner. From this perspective, clearly, humans are invested in the notion of a just world. This social belief seems to have schematic characteristics. That is, it is a deeply held cognitive structure that shapes the way one engages with the world (e.g., Beck et al., 1979). And it also maintains itself by guiding perception in a confirmatory manner (Padesky, 1994); believing the world to be just, victims can be reappraised as to blame and deserving of injustices, thus corroborating the schema in a cyclical fashion.

Decades of research in social psychology has since explored and developed Lerner’s work (Hafer & Bègue, 2005). Given the attention, there is, perhaps, something fundamental in the theory that it  speaks to. As well as highlighting humans’ motivation to feel predictable and safe (e.g., Maslow, 1943), it touches on how suffering and injustice might be navigated. Lerner posited that to preserve the just world belief, people can distance themselves from victims, either physically or psychologically. Indeed, Pancer’s research (1988) supports this hypothesis. In experimental conditions, Pancer found that participants physically distanced themselves from images of needy victims compared to less needy victims. Interestingly, in a more recent and ecologically valid study, Mariss, Reinhardt and Schindler (2022) similarly found that social distancing in the COVID pandemic correlated with levels of belief in a just world with higher levels of belief associated with more social distancing. In this study, distancing could be perceived as a prosocial behaviour, based on empathy for others and concern to lower risk to self/others, as Marris et al. point out, whereas Pancer’s research seems to point to less altruistic strategies of avoidance and denial-withdrawal (Hafer & Bègue, 2005).

The findings in Pancer’s research are evocative of the fourth servant song in Isaiah: ‘no beauty or majesty to attract… a man of suffering… like one from whom people hide their faces’ (Isaiah 53:2–3, NIV). One response to the suffering of others is to withdraw, as staying close to those who are suffering can be a challenge (VanderWeele, 2019) – not least because undeserved suffering threatens our belief in a just world. From a Christian perspective, there is reason to believe in ultimate justice, but the Scriptures and Christian theology wrestle with the question of suffering, leaving no guarantee that the world is, in fact, just. Instead, God, through Christ, profoundly engages with our suffering. This compassion or ‘with-suffering’ – being with, witnessing and feeling of another’s suffering (Goetz, Keltner & Simon-Thomas, 2010) – contrasts with humanity’s tendency to pull away.

The articles in this issue explore several evocative and discomforting topics related to suffering. There is little doubt that readers could find themselves impacted by the articles, particularly if there is personal resonance for the reader. Indeed, my own contribution in the form of an interview on race with Ellen Yun challenged me to stay with the uneasiness I felt in the process of dialoguing about race. Liz Doré’s article on working with race-based trauma in counselling goes further and offers a useful survey of the literature as well as some theological reflections and implications for counselling practice.

Angela Thomson and Elizabeth Neve both address bereavement, reflecting from a Christian perspective. Although it is important to not competitively pitch losses against each other in terms of severity, undoubtedly, the losses of a child and through suicide are particularly profound and complex; the traditional stages of grief and approaches to loss here feel inadequate in the light of these life-changing experiences. Both writers tackle these losses with bravery and compassion, providing the reader with some helpful scaffolding. Shannon Hood and Michael George’s article on moral injury adopts a pragmatic approach for those working with people whose moral boundaries have been threatened. Rather than pathologising the morally injured, their approach offers support and empowerment, including spirituality where relevant. All of these writers have resisted the understandable impulse to pull away from suffering. In each of their own ways, there is an invitation to compassion for sufferers and those working with sufferers.



Beck, A. T., Rush, A. J., Shaw, B. F. & Emery, G. (1979) Cognitive Therapy for Depression, New York: The Guilford Press.

Goetz, J. L., Keltner, D. & Simon-Thomas, E. (2010) Compassion: an evolutionary analysis and empirical review, Psychological Bulletin, 136 (3), pp. 351–74.

Hafer, C. & Bègue, L. (2005) Experimental research on just-world theory: Problems, developments, and future challenges, Psychological Bulletin, 131, pp. 128–167.

Holy Bible: New International Version, (2012). London: Hodder and Stoughton.

Lerner, M. J. (1977) The justice motive: Some hypotheses as to its origins and forms, Journal of Personality, 45, pp. 1-52.

Lerner, M. J. (1980) The Belief in a Just World: A Fundamental Delusion, New York: Plenum Press.

Lerner, M. J., & Simmons, C. H. (1966) The observer’s reaction to the ‘innocent victim’: Compassion or rejection?, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 4, pp. 203–210.

Mariss, A., Reinhardt, N. & Schindler, S. (2022) The role of just world beliefs in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, Social Justice Research, 35, 188-205.

Maslow, A. H. (1943) A theory of human motivation, Psychological Review, 50 (4), pp. 430-437.

Padesky, C. A. (1994) Schema change processes in cognitive therapy, Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, 1 (5), pp. 267-278.

Pancer, S. M. (1988) Salience of appeal and avoidance of helping situations, Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, 20, pp. 133-139.

Sutton, R. M., Stoeber, J. & Kamble, S. K. (2017) Belief in a just world for oneself versus others, social goals, and subjective well-being, Personality and Individual Differences, 113 (15), pp. 115-119.

VanderWeele, T. J. (2019) Suffering and response: Directions in empirical research, Social Science and Medicine, 224, pp. 58-66.

Wenzel, K., Schindler, S. & Reinhard, M. (2017) General belief in a just world is positively associated with dishonest behavior, Frontiers in Psychology, 8, pp. 1,770.


Copyright 2023 Dr Janet E. Penny

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Editorial: Navigating challenges through wisdom old and new

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With the beginning of the new calendar year, I am inevitably drawn towards reflecting on what the past year has brought. Experiences for many last year are reflected in the announcement that the Collins Dictionary word of the year 2022 was ‘permacrisis’, defined as, ‘an extended period of instability and insecurity, especially one resulting from a series of catastrophic events’ (2022). At times, it has felt as if we have been stumbling into one challenge after another. And as a psychologist, it seems to me that we are currently in a complex mix of post- (though not over globally) pandemic, post-adrenaline fatigue and confusion as we retrospectively make sense of what we have experienced, whilst also trying to adjust to new challenges. There are not always enough hands to catch what is being thrown at us.

From a lifespan developmental perspective, many writers emphasise how life difficulties shape development (e.g. Elder, 1997; Hendry & Kloep, 2002). As well as the usual maturational development unfolding with biological processes, human development continues throughout adult life as a dynamic interplay between coping/resources and demands/challenges. From this view, changes can occur as difficulties are navigated, resulting in decay, stagnation or development with strengthened resources (Hendry & Kloep, 2002). The pivot on which the trajectory of decay or development turns is complex; there is no single variable that explains why one person develops whereas another stagnates. For example, Bronfenbrenner’s model suggests there is a complex, multi-directional interaction between all the various micro and macro social systems of which a person is a part (1979); it would be empirically difficult to isolate the factors that determine causality in adaptive development. Nonetheless, there is the potential for ‘successful’ development in the face of challenges. Hendry and Kloep define success as ‘when the process of solving [a challenge] does not drain the individual’s resources but adds to them’ (2002; p. 29). This notion coheres somewhat with a biblical perspective that suffering has transformative potential to deepen our spirituality.

Whilst systemic theorists argue that humans can be resistant to change, that is, having an innate tendency towards homeostasis (Lebow et al, 2019), it is also recognised that humans have a wonderful ability to adapt, sometimes in surprising and creative ways. And so, as the year is reflected on, an important counterpoint to acknowledging the challenges is a noticing of growth, development, resourcefulness, adaption, coping and the like, in all their various forms, from the pragmatic to the spiritual.

Ana Churchman, Lianna Roast and Julie Kier’s article in this issue on the adaption of cognitive behavioural therapy within a community faith context seems to be a timely and important development, particularly in the light of the increased need for mental health services in recent years. It seems to be a successful example of how faith can be ethically integrated in counselling and psychotherapy – an issue explored in depth by Heather Churchill’s article in this issue. Victoria Owen’s article continues this focus with her research on intuition in Christian counselling. There seems to be a growing emphasis on recognising the importance of faith and spirituality in therapy with developments in theory and practice. Whilst not about innovation, Jenny Campbell’s article on ‘Body and soul in the embrace of Christ’, brings us back to some much-needed ancient wisdom and frames its importance for the modern world. As well as adaption and change, we can bear in the mind the biblical encouragement to bring out ‘treasures old and new’ (Matthew 13:52). And perhaps that is the ‘difference that makes a difference’ (Bateson, 1972; p. 462); knowing when to lay down tried and tested ways of coping for new strategies, and when to return to ancient wisdom.


Bateson, G. (1972) Steps to An Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology. New Jersey: Jason Aronson Inc.

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979) The Ecology of Human Development: Experiments by Nature and Design. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Collins Dictionary (2022) Permacrisis, [Online] Available at www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/permacrisis [Accessed 22 November 2022].

Elder, G.H. Jr. (1997) ‘The life course and human development’. In W. Damon & R.M. Lerner (eds), Handbook of Child Psychology. 4th Edn. New York: Wiley.

Hendry, L.B. & Kloep, M. (2002) Lifespan Development, London: Thomson Learning.

Lebow, J.L., Chambers, A.L. & Breulin, D.C. (eds) (2019) Encyclopedia of Couple and Family Therapy. Cham, Switzerland: Springer.

About the author

Dr Janet Penny BA (Hons), MSc, PGPDip, C. Psychol., AFBPsS; HCPC Registered Psychologist, Chartered Psychologist, Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society

Janet is Deputy Head of Counselling Training at Waverley Abbey College. As well as having a private clinical practice, Janet is a research supervisor for doctoral candidates at the Metanoia Institute. Her own doctoral research was on power dynamics and the development of intra-cultural competence within Christian counselling. She has many years’ experience teaching in higher education, focusing on the integration of faith and psychology in Christian counselling, and research methodology.

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Editorial: The Art of Listening

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The month of July, in which I am writing this editorial, is, for me, a kind of liminal space in which one academic year is coming to an end while the focus begins to shift towards preparing for the next in the autumn. Practicalities inevitably shape this complex, dual season of ending and beginning, but, in quieter moments, reflections on what the passing year has meant for me come to mind. I am always surprised by how teaching similar content from year to year can be experienced so differently by each cohort as they engage with the learning. The teaching experience is profoundly intersubjective; something is uniquely co-created between the students and me as we both navigate the course material, academically and personally. And that enriches my own development as a tutor and academic.

An intersubjective view within psychotherapy (e.g. Burski & Haglund, 2020) challenges the modernist conception of the therapist as an objective observer in which unconscious material is uncovered as if on ‘an archaeological dig’ (Wachtel, 2014: 344). In this modernist view, the retrieved treasure is relatively unaffected by the context of the archaeologist and their methods of discovery. In contrast, an intersubjective perspective sees the therapy process and relationship as ‘mutual, reciprocal and collaborative’ (ibid:344); the relationship is co-created, with each person viewed as ‘influencing and influence-able’ (Orbach, 2014: 13). It is dynamic, and challenging, and requires openness from each person to reflect on what they are bringing to the relational field.

It also involves therapeutic listening that is prepared to roll up its sleeves, get stuck in and help. It coheres somewhat with Ursula Le Guinn’s comment in her essay ‘Telling is Listening’, that ‘Listening is not a reaction. It is a connection. Listening to a conversation or a story, we don’t so much as respond as join in – become part of the action’. (2004: 196). Of course, that joining in within a therapy context is nuanced, therapeutic and restrained, but the point remains that even by simply listening, we are shaping and being shaped by the dialogue. There is no place of objectivity or neutrality; we are always joining in the story and becoming ‘part of the action’. We cannot help but be changed by (and change) the stories we hear, whatever the relational context.

In this issue of the journal, it seems to me that the articles touch on these issues of co-created relationships and what it means to listen in diverse ways. Hayley Barnett’s research using interpretative phenomenological analysis (Smith, Flowers & Larkin, 2009) helpfully explores Christian counsellors’ experiences of hearing from God in the clinical context. It acknowledges how spirituality can contribute to the co-creation of the therapeutic relationship. Barnett also highlights how participants’ relationship with God impacts their ways of being with the client, raising numerous interesting relational and ethical questions. In the church context, David Wise’s reflections on embodiment and worship from a spiritual formation perspective trace the transition towards having a congregation comprising of people from more than 40 different nationalities. His thoughtful piece touches on a number of profound issues, not least what it means to be human, but illustrates how being open to listen to the different language of dance has transformative potential.

Heather Churchill’s article on the development of the BA Counselling course at Waverley Abbey College and the Waverley integrative framework (WIF; Hughes, 2002; Ashley, 2013) outlines several different conversations that are co-created, in particular, her own engagement with the WIF and her argument for a dialogical approach to the integration of psychotherapy/counselling and faith/spirituality. Historically, the relationship between psychotherapy and faith/religion has not been warm (Bienenfeld & Yager, 2007), but there has been something of shift in the last few decades as the two disciplines have continued to dialogue and reflect on approaches to the integration of the two fields (Nielson and Dowd, 2006). Churchill’s doctoral research, described in her article, has whole-heartedly listened to the integrative conversation, and joined the action, outlining the creation of the BA in Counselling and further developments in the Waverley integrative framework.

Andy Hardy’s article also joins the conversation about the WIF with his interesting invitation for a dialogue between the framework and ‘ordinary theology’ (Astley, 2002: 56). This theological approach privileges the lived theology of everyday believers (ibid). He argues for the WIF to be theologically enhanced, potentially making it more applicable in a wider range of spiritual contexts beyond counselling. It will be interesting to see how these conversations continue to develop.

Finally, Phil Shepherd’s beautifully written introduction to mindfulness for therapists calls attention to the ways in which mindfulness can engender presence and deep listening. It includes an insightful reminder that being present, and listening are to be embodied – lived – rather than merely talked about. It has echoes of Aveline’s oft-quoted point that, ‘What therapists can bear to hear in themselves, they can hear in their patients’ (1990: 333). Listening is foundational to serving others and changes not only those we help but, indeed, ourselves.


Ashley, O. (2013) A Theological and Practical Evaluation of CWR’s Waverley Christian Counselling Model. (Kindle edition). Farnham: CWR.

Astley, J. (2002) Ordinary Theology: Looking, Listening and Learning in Theology. Farnham: Ashgate.

Aveline, M. (1990) ‘The training and supervision of individual therapists’. In: W. Dryden (ed.), Individual Therapy: A Handbook. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

Bienenfeld, D. & Yager, J. (2007) Issues of spirituality and religion in psychotherapy supervision. Israel Journal of Psychiatry and Related Sciences. 44 (3), 178-186.

Burski, & Haglund (2020) Making Sense Together. (2nd ed.) London: Rowman and Littlefield.

Hughes, S. (2002) Christ Empowered Living. (Originally published 2001 by Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers, UK edition published 2002), Farnham: CWR.

Le Guinn, U. (2004) ‘Telling is Listening’. In: U. Le Guinn, The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader and the Imagination. Boulder, CO: Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Nielson, S. L. & Dowd, E. T. (2006) Religion for psychotherapists: The psychologies in religion versus the psychology of religion. In E. T. Dowd & S. L. Nielson (Eds.), The Psychologies in Religion. pp. 1-18, New York: Springer Publishing Company.

Orbach, S. (2014) ‘Democratizing psychoanalysis’. In: D. Loewenthal, A. Samuels, (eds), Relational Psychotherapy, Psychoanalysis and Counselling. London: Routledge.

Smith, J.A., Flowers, P. & Larkin, M. (2009) Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis. London: Sage Publications Ltd.

Wachtel, P. (2014) ‘An integrative relational point of view’. Psychotherapy. 51(3), pp. 342-349.

Copyright 2022 Dr Janet E. Penny

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Editorial: Reflections on research – connecting with creativity and transformation

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There are few areas of our lives that are not shaped by research in some way: from the more concrete aspects of experience (such as the clothes we wear, the food we consume, the medications for health, the layout of buildings we enter) to the more complex ways in which we live our lives. Everything is shaped by empirical research – whether qualitative or quantitative. Not only is research part of the experience of living but it speaks to what it means to be human. There is an innate curiosity in people (Kidd & Yaden, 2015). Humans are fundamentally inquirers with an interest to discover what is new and research is an expression of that inquiring tendency in systematic form (e.g., Cooper, 2008; McLeod, 2013). We are continually engaging with the world, seeking to understand, transform, control and make sense of our lived experience and ecology.

The origin of the word ‘research’ is linked with the Latin word for ‘circle’, in the sense of ‘going round’ or to ‘explore thoroughly’ (Cresswell, 2010: 390). However, at times, in my experience as a trainer in counselling and psychotherapy, research students can rather feel as if they are getting stuck going round in circles as they learn to make sense of the complexities of the research process. Fortunately, research assures me that this is not solely down to my particular teaching style but is a common experience; research students are impacted not just cognitively but emotionally and experientially by engaging with research (e.g., Cooper, Chenail & Fleming, 2012). Research can be daunting for newcomers as my own article in this issue highlights, and it is rarely the topic in the curricula that students look forward to the most. Moreover, published research tends to only recount the research triumphs, often glossing over the problems that arise. As West and Hanley point out, ‘Rarely does it seem we hear or read of research attempted that resulted in abject failure. This creates unreal expectations particularly for novice researchers’ (2006: 209). All of this, and more, contributes to the unfriendly relationship people can have with systematic research (e.g., Berman et al, 2017) and it can occlude research’s potentiality for discovery, creativity, innovation and transformation.

Action research methodologies have long understood research’s potential for transformation and to contribute to human flourishing (Reason & Bradbury, 2008: 4). Most research, however tangentially, usually seeks to improve lives – an aim that coheres somewhat with a Christian perspective. Moreover, the capacity for creativity and to bring about something new, whether in terms of knowledge or problem solving that research requires (Van Aken, 2016), is resonant with the idea that human beings are made in the image of the Divine Creator. Gabora is clear in her discussion of creativity that this capacity is inherently human, saying, ‘Creativity is arguably our most uniquely human trait. It enables us to escape the present, reconstruct the past, and fantasize about the future, to visualize something that does not exist and change the world with it’ (Gabora, 2013: 1548). Arguably, participation in the research process, far from being alien, can connect us with what is good in ourselves.

This issue of the Waverley College Journal offers a number of articles that have engaged with the research process in some way. Lucy Thomas’ qualitative investigation of courage throws a light on an under-researched and important area of clinical practice. The timely piece by Sookyung Yang explores the impact of COVID-19 on Christian counsellors. Annabel Clarke’s article explores some of the implications of Engage’s research findings on the gender balance in UK churches for Christian heterosexual marriage and the Church. Charlotte Wears adds to the small but growing body of empirical research on the Waverley integrative framework (WIF) in her research on students’ experiences of integrating the WIF in practice. Although not formally framed by a research methodology, the work of Sarah Armitage and her colleagues, Mary Sam, Sochenda San and Wendy Scott, bears some of the hallmarks of good participatory action research as they wrestle with teaching the Waverley integrative framework in the Cambodian context. And finally, the ‘Research Pond’ is offered by myself as a tool to aid learning research methodology with some reflections on research from a Christian perspective and an invitation to continue the dialogue. Good research has something to say in response to the ‘So what?’ question and it is hoped that these articles will be of service in their respective areas of research.


Berman, M. I., Chapman, N., Nash, B., Kivlighan, D. M. & Paquin, J. D. (2017) Sharing wisdom: Challenges, benefits, and developmental path to becoming a successful therapist-researcher, Counselling Psychology Quarterly, 30 (3), pp. 234–254.

Cooper, M. (2008) Essential Research Findings in Counselling and Psychotherapy: The Facts are Friendly, London: Sage Publications.

Cooper, R., Chenail, R. J. & Fleming, S. (2012) A grounded theory of inductive qualitative research education: Results of a meta-data-analysis, The Qualitative Report 17 (52): pp. 1–26.

Creswell (2010) Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins, 3rd Edn, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gabora, L. (2013) Research on creativity, In Elias G. Carayannis (Ed.) Encyclopedia of 

Creativity, Invention, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship (1548–1558), New Delhi, India: Springer.

Kidd, C. & Yaden, B. Y. (2015) The psychology and neuroscience of curiosity, Neuron, 88 (3), pp. 449–460.

McLeod, J. (2013) An Introduction to Research in Counselling and Psychotherapy, London: Sage Publications, Ltd.

Reason, P.& Bradbury, H. (2008) Introduction to groundings, In, P. Reason & H. Bradbury (Eds), The SAGE Handbook of Action Research, 2nd Edn, London: Sage Publications Ltd.

Van Aken, K. L. (2016) The critical role of creativity in research, MRS Bulletin, 41, pp. 934–935.

West, W. & Hanley, T. (2006) Technically incompetent or generally misguided: Learning from a failed counselling research project, Counselling and Psychotherapy Research, 6 (3), pp. 209–212.


Copyright 2021 Dr Janet E. Penny

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The ‘Research Pond’: An introduction to research methodologies

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The ‘Research Pond’: An Introduction to Research Methodologies


Empirical research, whether qualitative, quantitative, or mixed methods, is woven into the fabric of counselling and psychotherapy history with some of its main founders such as, Freud, Rogers and Aaron Beck all carrying out research of some kind (Hanley, Lennie & West, 2013). Since the 1990’s, there has been a greater emphasis on the need for evidence-based approaches to counselling and psychotherapy (Cook, Schwartz & Kalsow, 2017) alongside the ethical duty to consider what approaches work best for clients based on research (Blease, Lilienfield & Kelley, 2016). Clearly, it is important that therapists have a good grounding in research methodologies and how to critically evaluate empirical evidence, and training experiences are often the first introduction to research methods for many practitioners. However, for trainee therapists, the topic of research methods can be a challenging part of their learning. It can provoke anxiety, and frustration (e.g., Moran, 2011), ambivalence (e.g., Gelso, Buamann, Chui & Savela, 2013) or be perceived of as irrelevant or overly complex (Vossler & Moller, 2014). Also, given the philosophical, epistemological, methodological, and practical differences between the various research methodologies, it is understandable that counselling students can find this part of their training hard going.

Whilst there is no ultimate, fixed map of the research territory, having a framework by which to understand what an approach to research is – what components make up a research methodology – can potentially bring some clarity. Adapting Tim Bond’s metaphor of the ‘pond’ (1995; cited in Horton, 1999), the ‘research pond’ is offered here as a way of understanding the various elements in a research approach with the hope that it will demystify the topic of research methodology. The pond metaphor highlights the need for coherence between the underlying assumptions and practical methods, thus seeking to engender quality in research (Tracy, 2010; Chenail, Duffy, St George & Wulff, 2011). The focus here will be primarily on qualitative approaches to research as they are more commonly the focus in my own field of counselling psychology, and it is followed by some tentative reflections on research from a Christian perspective.

The ‘research pond’

A given research methodology, such as interpretative phenomenological analysis, for example (IPA; Smith, Flower & Larkin, 2009), is comparable to a model of counselling. That is, research methodologies and models of counselling are both based on their respective philosophical stances, having paradigmatic assumptions about ontology and epistemology, as well as theoretically driven guidance on practical issues and the more visible aspects of the research or counselling process. The familiarity with what a model of counselling is can be used to facilitate trainee counsellors’ learning in research methodology, to which end the ‘research pond’ is posited (see Table 1).

As noted, the research pond is an adaption of ‘Bond’s pond’; Tim Bond uses the analogy of a pond to describe the elements that make up an approach to counselling (1995; cited in Horton, 1999). In the same way that there are unseen murky waters at the bottom of a pond, a model of counselling has at the bottom underlying philosophical assumptions about reality (ontology) and the nature of knowledge and how we know what we know (epistemology) that impact how psychological problems are understood, how healing or change takes place and the role the counsellor plays in the therapeutic process. It is a helpful aid to enable trainee counsellors learn what constitutes a therapeutic model. Citing Bond (1995) and Niemeyer (1993), Horton similarly describes the four main components of an approach to therapy; starting from the bottom of the metaphorical pond and working up to the surface, these are the ‘personal belief system, formal theory, clinical theory and therapeutic operations’, (1999; p.317). The formal theory concerns the understanding of what it means to be human and how problems are understood, the clinical theory is focused on explicating mechanisms of change in therapy and the top layer refers to the methods and strategies used in therapy that are most visible; in simple terms, what the therapist does.

In Horton and Bond’s view, the underlying personal belief system or philosophy at the bottom provides the basis for, and pervades, the other elements. It is the assumptive ground upon which clinical theory and practice stand. Similarly, all research is based on a particular worldview that speaks to issues of ontology, impacts how knowledge and truth are understood, shapes the nature of the research questions, defines the researcher’s relationship to the research process and how the research is practically carried out (Howell, 2013).

Although the ‘levels’ of the pond may not be easily separated, but rather each influences the other to some degree, the division of the components can be a useful heuristic for understanding what elements are implicated in a research methodology. As can be seen in Table 1, the bottom of the research pond concerns the assumptions that underlie research and shape what happens at the upper, practical levels. The direction of influence is primarily from bottom to top as the underlying assumptions provide a lens through which reality and knowledge are construed, from which research questions and specific methods are developed. Reflexivity is important in research, particularly in qualitative research, and is attended to at every stage of the research process, which is noted in all the elements of the research pond and will be briefly discussed below.

Bond’s PondThe ‘Research Pond’Research Definition
Therapeutic operations/skills and strategies


Specific methods and tools


Specific tools and methods used, e.g., surveys, open-ended interviews


Clinical theoryResearch design


Specific plan for how the methodology will be carried out in the researcher’s context


Formal theoryResearch methodology


General framework for research based on theoretical and philosophical assumptions


Underlying AssumptionsReflexivity











How are the researcher’s subjectivity and their social position impacting and interacting with each stage of the research process?


How do we know what we know?

What is our relationship to knowledge?



What is the nature of being?

What is the nature of reality?

Table 1: The ‘research pond’ alongside Bond’s pond (1995).

Research, by its very nature is systematic. Whilst there are debates on the defining characteristics of research, many agree on this. For example, Cooper (2008; p.1) describes research as ‘A systematic process of inquiry that leads to the development of new knowledge’, and in a similar vein, McLeod defines research as ‘a systematic process of critical inquiry leading to valid propositions and conclusions that are communicated to interested others’ (2013; p.2). It is systematic in that research is carried out according to an overall plan, and within a given theoretical framework (Leedy & Ormond, 2013). Its systematicity also lies in the coherence between the underlying assumptions and the way the research is carried out, with the practicalities being anchored to those assumptions. The underlying assumptions guide the process of interpretation. Moreover, issues of quality in research are best judged from within the particular paradigm of the research (Stenfors, Kajamaa & Bennett, 2020), thus it is helpful to clearly identify what is ‘at the bottom of the pond’ in research, even when the waters are somewhat murky. The pond analogy can help alert learners to these and other issues and provide a visual checklist as to what to consider when learning a new methodology. The various aspects of the research pond will now be briefly considered.

Underlying assumptions – ontology & epistemology

Right at the bottom of the research pond is ontology. Here, basic questions concerning what the nature of reality is and whether truth exists are considered. Questions of epistemology – how we know what we know – quickly follow. Put simply, there are three main ontological positions, each with epistemological and methodological implications. These are a positivist/modernist view, a post-modernist/hermeneutic view, and a critical realist perspective (Coghlan & Brannick, 2000). It is important to note that there are many debates and differences within each of the three positions. In fact, it can be helpful to think of the various paradigms as being on what Harper calls the ‘realism-relativism continuum’ (2012; p.87), that is, on a continuum with regards to the degree to which the data are said to represent reality. On one end of the continuum, the positivist/modernist view argues that reality can be seen and discovered in the data, whereas a postmodern view argues against that, allowing for multiple readings of the same data that are potentially equally valid (Harper, 2012).

In a positivist/modernist view, truth exists independently of the researcher, and it can be discovered through objective means (e.g., Howell, 2013). Irrespective of the social or cultural context, as long as the research is carried out objectively – without the researcher’s own subjectivity influencing the process and findings – generalisable truth can be found. What is true in a given research context can be more widely applied to the relevant general population. Epistemologically, knowledge can be known objectively (e.g., Flick, 2020). Thus, the role of the researcher is to limit the impact on the research of their own subjectivity and make sure that all confounding variables – factors outside the research that might have an unwanted or unknown effect – are controlled for and eliminated. Thus, in this paradigm, objectivity is important (Coghlan & Brannick, 2010).

In contrast, a post-modern/hermeneutic view argues against the idea of objective truth. In this perspective, ‘truth’ is situated and contextual, that is, it is created and impacted by context, discourse, and social relations (Ritchie, Lewis, McNaughton Nicholls & Ormston, 2013). What is true, is true in a particular context, and in this paradigm, research develops what McLeod terms ‘local knowledge’ (2013; p.50). Thus, it is fallacious to think in terms of truth that will apply in every context, but rather ‘truths’ that are perspectival; we see from a particular perspective and that perspective is partial. In this post-modern paradigm, reality is often thought of as socially constructed and does not exist independently and objectively of the context within which it was created (Howell, 2013). Research is not concerned with discovering ‘the truth’ but exploring social understandings and processes as well as giving voice to marginalised narratives (e.g., Hill, Thompson & Williams, 1997). This involves the process of interpretation, which is central to qualitative research (Willig, 2017). As the findings of a particular piece of research could differ from researcher to researcher (owing to their different subjectivities), it behoves the researcher to be reflexive and transparent about how they are contributing to and co-creating the research process. Instead of seeking to be objective, the researcher’s subjectivity is recognised, and reflected upon, and becomes an integral part of the research (Finlay, 2017).

As Potter & Lopez write, critical realism is a ‘broad church’ (2001; p. 5); again, it is important to note that there are many different views within critical realism. Three ideas underpin this perspective. These are what Pilgrim calls, the ‘holy trinity’ of critical realism; ontological realism, epistemological relativism, and judgemental rationalism (Pilgrim, 2019; p.3). In a critical realist position, reality is thought to exist independently of context or person (ontological realism), but it can only be known through the lens of human interaction and subjectivity (epistemological relativism). Research takes place within a particular social context, and knowledge is situated but ‘knowledge cannot be reduced to its sociological determinants of production. Truth is relative to be sure but there is both truth and error’ (Potter & Lopez, 2005; p.6). Judgemental rationalism refers to the ability to discern what is true whilst recognising the imperfection of human judgement (Pilgrim, 2019). Critical realism is something of a ‘both-and’ approach, according to Danemark, Ekstromm and Karlsson (2019). That is, there is some agreement with the modernist view that reality exists objectively, but also agreement with a postmodernist perspective that knowledge is socially produced.

The position taken with regards to these questions of ontology and epistemology will determine how the research process is construed and carried out, so it is vital that the researcher is clear about their underlying assumptions to a good enough degree. It may be that a particular methodology is philosophically driven and has ‘in-built’ assumptions, as in the example of interpretative phenomenological analysis which draws on phenomenology, or that the researcher’s own values are the starting place for choosing a methodology. In either case, it can be helpful for researchers to appreciate how the, sometimes, unseen, underlying assumptions shape the research from beginning to end.

Reflection & reflexivity

Reflecting the centrality of reflexivity in qualitative research (e.g., Etherington, 2017), in Table 1 it is present in all the levels of the hypothetical pond. Reflexivity is a notoriously challenging concept to define and writers such as Gough (2003) have argued for thinking in terms of ‘reflexivities’, that recognises the wide range of understandings of the concept. It is usually distinguished from reflection as something that is more than simply thinking about something but closer to a dynamic, critical, and continuous practice that is developed (Lumsden, 2019). May and Perry describe reflexivity as focusing on ‘second order questions concerning thinking itself and not-taking-things-for-granted’ rather than simply reflection (2017; p.3). And Berger (2015) defines reflexivity as ‘the process of a continual internal dialogue and critical self-evaluation of the researcher’s positionality as well as active acknowledgment and explicit recognition that this position may affect the research process and outcome’ (p. 220). It could be said that in reflection, we are looking at ourselves in the mirror, whereas in reflexivity, we are looking at ourselves looking at ourselves in the mirror! Reflexivity helps us consider questions such as, what is the interplay between the researcher and their research participants in the given context? What is being co-created by those involved in the social context? How is the research question shaped by the wider social milieu as well as the researcher’s personal identity?

We could think of two avenues of consideration in the process of reflexivity: wider and deeper. Wider is concerned with understanding how the social and cultural milieux we are embedded in shape and constrain the research process. The questions we ask, for example, are framed by and within a particular social context and time. Looking back over time, it is possible to see how research has explored issues that are pertinent to a particular zeitgeist, which may now seem old fashioned, or even unethical, today. Social changes can influence research, and indeed research can lead to social change (Rhodes & Zlotowitz, 2018). But the influence and values of a social context are not always obvious, particularly to those who inhabit it. It can be difficult to see how the implicit assumptions and practices of our social context bear upon the research, and vice versa. Developing reflexivity enables these unseen dynamics to be brought into awareness and critically reflected upon.

The reflexive process can also help us look deeper into how our personal identities shape research as these too can be influential. In qualitative research, the concept of positionality seeks to make this dynamic transparent and can be part of the reflexive process. Here, personal identities are seen as being multi-faceted, dynamic, and complex, that is, a person perceives and acts from several different subjectivities as, e.g., a white, female, Western, academic. Qin (2016) defines positionality as ‘the practice of a researcher delineating his or her own position in relation to the study, with the implication that this position may influence aspects of the study, such as the data collected or the way in which it is interpreted’ (para. 1). Positionality is based on a post-modern (and feminist) assumption that does not view identity as something static or fixed, but rather fluid and affected by the wider social context. Therefore, it follows that in research, participants, as well as researchers ‘make meaning from various aspects of their identity’ (Kezar (2002); cited in Bourke, 2014; p.1).

‘Deeper’ also shifts the focus onto our own personal story and experience; how these impact who we are as people and professionals, how this shapes us as researchers. Counsellors will be familiar with the idea of the wounded healer, and, writing from a Jungian perspective, Ramashayan (2013) has argued for greater acknowledgement of how unconscious dynamics underpin research. There is, of course, a reciprocal relationship between our personal and social selves, but it can be helpful to recognise how our own woundedness or story may be present in our research endeavours.

Additionally, Finlay (2002) offers a helpful overview, saying there are five variants of reflexivity: 1) introspection, 2) intersubjective reflection, 3) mutual collaboration, 4) social critique, and 5) discursive deconstruction. It can be thought as a dimension with simple reflection at one end and in-depth reflexivity at the other. Reflexivity often concerns consideration of issues of power, deconstruction, and critique, and, in that sense, is a political process, that is, concerned with power dynamics. But that is not to say that research without reflexivity is (politically) neutral; as Clough and Nutbrown argue, all research is political. He writes, ‘All social research sets out with specific purposes from a particular position [his emphasis] and aims to persuade readers of the significance of its claims. These claims are always broadly political’ (2012; p.4,5).

The degree to which reflexivity is an acknowledged part of the research process will depend on the particular research methodology. Quantitative research usually does not pay attention to the multiplicity of perspectives but limits reflection to simply aid researcher objectivity, whereas qualitative research seeks to bring hidden biases and assumptions to light and appreciate how the subjectivities of the researcher and participants arrived at their findings among many possible findings. In contrast to positivism’s imperative to eliminate the effects of the researcher’s subjectivity, the qualitative paradigm values subjectivity as a resource in research (Gough & Madill, 2012).

Research methodology and methods

As we have noted, the ontological and epistemological stances underpin the methodology and have ramifications for how research is carried out. As with reflexivity, methodology is a broad term that can be defined variously, but it is usually thought of as an overall theoretical framework that guides the research, which, as Schensul says, consists of the ‘assumptions, postulates, rules, and methods’ of the research approach (2008; p. 516). Thus, in this definition it bridges and encompasses some of the underlying ideas or principles as well as the practical methods. However, along with other writers, Payne & Payne (2004), more clearly separate methods from methodology with the former being the practical tools or methods used, e.g., open-ended interview or survey, and methodology referring to the assumptions or philosophy that give rise to the research tools. Or as Mills and Birks argue, ‘philosophy is what makes a set of methods a methodology’ (2014; p.24). Thus, it is more helpful to think of methods and methodology as distinct concepts as, confusingly, a single method can serve more than one methodology. For example, the method of using open-ended interviews can be used in several quite different methodologies. Wellington, Bathmaker, Hunt, McCulloch & Sikes (2005) sum it up helpfully by saying, ‘Methods are the specific techniques for obtaining the data that will provide the evidence base for the construction of that knowledge. Thus, methodology is concerned with the theoretical and overall approach to a research project rather than with the characteristics and practical application of particular methods.’ (2005; p. 97).

One of the main differences that bifurcates research is between quantitative and qualitative methodologies and these are underpinned by modernist/positivistic and post-modern/interpretative philosophies respectively. There are two additional methodologies to briefly mention, that of mixed methods methodology and action research. As the name suggests, mixed methods methodology involves using both qualitative and quantitative methods based on a systematic rationale (Todd, Nerlich, McKeown & Clarke, 2004). Mixed methodology research may rest upon, for example, the philosophy of pragmatism, adopt quantitative assumptions with qualitative methods further exploring the quantitative findings, or vice versa. Similarly, there are many approaches that come under the umbrella term of action research (e.g., Chandler & Torbet, 2003) and it also uses quantitative and/or qualitative methods. Action research values knowledge in action that contributes to immediate real-world change and human flourishing (Coghlan & Brannick, 2014). It may be participatory, emancipatory, or transformative involving researching and exploring problems in situ (Reason & Bradbury, 2013).

‘Off the peg or tailor made?’

Some research methodologies more closely adhere to one particular philosophy with a clearly defined set of methods, whereas other approaches to research have grown and developed in different philosophical and methodological directions like branches from a tree trunk. In the latter instance, for example, ‘grounded theory’ can be carried out from a range of perspectives that share the aim of developing theory but vary philosophically. Grounded theory, originally developed by Glaser and Strauss (1967) was based on aspects of symbolic interactionism and positivism, earning itself the title of ‘classic’ grounded theory (Glaser, 2007). Researchers have since developed it guided by other underlying assumptions, most notably, Charmez’s constructivist grounded theory (1995; 2014) which moves firmly away from positivism. Undoubtedly, research methods and methodologies will continue to evolve.

In contrast, other methodologies are clearer about the issue of underlying assumptions and methods. For example, Smith, Flowers, and Larkin (2009) developed interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) and are explicit about how the philosophy of phenomenology has provided the foundation for their approach. Though not overly prescriptive, its methods and underlying assumptions are helpfully articulated for the novice researcher, leaving less room for variation on what constitutes IPA. It is firmly anchored to phenomenology (although, as with many approaches, IPA is not methodologically or theoretically static but is continuing to develop (e.g., Smith, 2019; Smith & Eatough, 2019)).

A note about thematic analysis (TA) is pertinent here that may help illuminate the issues. In its basic form, it denotes a method for analysing qualitative data into themes. As Joffe argues, it is ‘a method in its own right’ (2012; p.210). However, it is not always discussed in methodological and philosophical terms, that is, researchers use thematic analysis without explicating the underlying assumptions that have guided the analysis. Clarke and Bruan, who have written extensively about thematic analysis, bring out this point in their recent paper on poor practice in thematic analysis (2018). They agree that thematic analysis is methodologically flexible and caution against using TA without due consideration to theory. They write, ‘researchers need to understand any differences in philosophy and procedure and explicitly discuss how different procedures have been reconciled, and actively negotiate any tensions in underlying philosophies’ (2018; p. 108). Thus, thematic analysis can be part of a tailor-made approach to research, but the underlying assumptions and philosophical approach ought to be made clear. As the research pond illustrates, there should be congruence between the various aspects of research, from underlying philosophy, through to methodology and methods, with a clear rationale for the choices taken.

Reflections from a Christian perspective

Given Christianity’s part in the conversation on issues of ontology and epistemology, how might a Christian perspective underpin research? The question presupposes that a Christian approach to research matters, and the reader is free to debate that point. However, in thinking about research, faith and research are both profoundly concerned with matters of reality, truth, and knowledge. My aim here is not to provide a theological treatise on the question but, drawing primarily from the work of James K. A. Smith (2006; 2012), I will briefly explore some tentative reflections on what could be at the bottom of a research pond from a Christian perspective, writing from my own perspective as a psychologist, whilst welcoming further discussion on the question.


An orthodox view of the Christian faith would affirm the notion that reality (e.g., God) exists independently of society and one’s perspective. In this sense, truth is not socially constructed, but exists irrespective of context, and, moreover, is revealed through the Scriptures and in the person of Jesus Christ. The idea of multiple truths seems to not sit comfortably here. At first, the modernist assumption of truth and objectivity might be appealing from a Christian perspective. However, as Smith (2006) elegantly argues in his book, ‘Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?’, Christianity is not concerned with objectivity. We do not prove that God exists primarily through objective or scientific means, otherwise where would there be room for faith? The knowing in Christian faith is not the same as that of the natural sciences. Truth and objectivity are not the same thing. Thus, the choice between the three main ontological and epistemological stances in research from a Christian perspective (postmodern, modernist, and critical realist) is not straightforward.

Within reason, research that takes the Biblical claims seriously is free to engage creatively with a range of ontological positions, particularly if an ontological position relates to certain domains of knowledge. In my own work as a psychologist, the discipline of psychology is a broad discipline that encompasses a range of ontological positions, from positivism, post positivism through to postmodern deconstructive schools of thought, social constructionism, and pluralism, to name a few. Within my own practice as a counselling psychologist, much of the work here is not concerned with discovering a single truth. Relational dynamics, conceptions of diagnosis, understanding human problems, for example, how these are talked about and conceived of have all changed over time, shaped by wider social contexts. But, as they say, when in the dentist’s chair with a raging toothache, no amount of social construction explains the pain away! There are realities that humans inhabit, not least embodiment.


The Apostle Paul offers an important epistemological thought at the end of his treatise on love. ‘Now I know in part’, he says, or as the King James Version puts it, ‘we see through a glass darkly’ (1 Cor 13: 12, KJV). There are many other verses in Scripture that attest to the limits of our human knowledge in stark contrast to God’s omniscience. Whatever our relationship to knowledge, a Christian perspective would include an epistemology of humility. Interestingly, Pilgrim talks about ‘the need for epistemic humility’ in his discussion of critical realism which acknowledges the fallibility of human knowing. (2014; p 10).

Also, humans are created, situated, and embodied, that is, humans live physically in one time and space. It follows that human knowledge is necessarily impacted to some degree by the contexts in which we live, historically, socially, relationally, politically and the like. Therefore, with few exceptions, a purely modernist stance in the social sciences seems untenable. We cannot know truly objectively in that our knowing is not independent of time and place. A post-positivist approach recognises this. Whether adopting a postmodern, critical realist or post-positivist stance, a Christian epistemology must wrestle with the limits of human embodiment and how that influences our knowing.


Smith (2012) asks ‘what is the interpretation of interpretation?’ How is a Christian perspective to think of interpretation? Is interpretation something that came with the ‘fall’ of humankind and is therefore affected by sin? Is it in that sense (always?) sinful, or is it, in fact, part of what it means to be human? Interpretation is concerned with the ways in which what we experience is perceived and the ‘process of meaning-making’ (Willig, 2017; p.274). It mediates between the knower and that which is being investigated. Two individuals can experience the same thing and yet interpret it quite differently. This touches on thorny questions around whether we can know God directly, or whether we do so through the lens of our own interpretation. I cannot hope to answer these questions of course, but I suggest that the prophetic books of the Bible have something to say on the issue. The major and minor prophetic books of the Bible offer a revelation of who God is. Yet, each book has its own particularities. Jeremiah is called the ‘weeping prophet’, Ezekiel’s visions are fantastical and sometimes disturbing, whereas Haggai gives an intimate and challenging image of God’s people as unfaithful. Each prophet, whether through his own personality or context, grasped something of who God is and what He was saying. There is a kind of dialect of difference and coherence amongst the different prophetic books as the complexity of God’s nature is revealed. Even in the synoptic gospels, there are differences of style and emphasis. It is not interpretation in the sense of imposing one’s own agenda, but it is interpretation by which perceiving occurs through the lens of one’s life, story, and context. The differences of what each view reveals can be appreciated. Similarly, in qualitative research, if mindful of issues of quality, differences of engagement and interpretation can be equally valid and ought not to cause anxiety around the notion of ‘truth’. I agree with Smith (2012) that interpretation is an aspect of ‘creaturehood’ good, and not a postlapsarian phenomenon in need of elimination, but is part of what it means to be human, embodied and created. We can know to a good enough degree, and that knowing is profoundly impacted by all that it means to be human.

Concluding remarks

The research pond offers a way of understanding the various elements of an approach to research. Being attentive to each of these elements and ensuring there is coherence between them will hopefully engender quality in the research endeavour. It is also hoped that the idea of the research pond will contribute to alleviating students’ anxieties when learning research methods and enable them to draw upon what they are familiar with. There are just two final points. The first is that there is the academic freedom to creatively explore different perspectives whilst holding the integrity of faith. Also, it can be helpful to reflect on how our values and beliefs from a Christian perspective interact or otherwise with issues of research philosophy and methodology. This can enable us to inhabit the research process more fully with intentionality and authenticity. There is much that Christian theology and thought has to say on the questions that underpin research, and further conversation about this is welcomed.


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