Enriching the Inquiry: Validity and Methodology in Terrapsychological Work

Craig Chalquist, PhD and Sarah Rankin, MA


Since the call went around for a “terrapsychological” approach for tracing the deep connections—whether conscious or unconscious—that bind the human psyche to the places we call home (Chalquist, 2006), more and more students have become interested in conducting this kind of research. As a result, the need now arises to address whether this approach mixes with other approaches, its validity, and its reliability. The issue of potential projection onto the landscape under study has been dealt with in the book Terrapsychology: Re-engaging the Soul of Place (Chalquist, 2006) but will receive further consideration below.

Mixed Methods and Place Research

Terrapsychological Inquiry was designed as a pilot methodology for detecting and working with ecological complexes: recurrent patterns of environmental wounding and colonization that recur thematically generation after generation in the symptoms, dreams, folklore, relationships, and even architecture and politics of a place’s occupants. Because Terrapsychological Inquiry uses a flexibly polytheistic framework for organizing observations and impressions, it can easily welcome techniques from other approaches. Most methodologies worship at the altar of some dominant archetypal perspective or “god”: experimental (Procrustes), hermeneutics (wily Hermes), phenomenology (Aphrodite, with “meaning units” chopped out for her by Hephaestos), case study (Theseus led by Ariadne’s thread), Heuristic (Narcissus bent over in reflection), organic inquiry (grown in the lap of Demeter), or grounded theory (Apollo). Romanyshyn’s more recent alchemical hermeneutics highlights and unfolds the presence of Orpheus and Euridice.

Since its inception some graduate students have used Terrapsychological Inquiry as it stands and others have mixed it with procedures from heuristics and hermeneutics and other qualitative approaches. Although the resulting projects turned out well and made interesting reading, they often suffered from a subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) lack of coherence. This is observable in mixed methods in general. The result stands like a temple built as a collage of architectural styles devoid of an organizing motif or approach. Additionally, because the trauma of an ecological complex tends to produce fragmentation in the people caught in its field, mixed methods risk expressing that trauma unconsciously as a form of ecotransference.

Our recommendation is to use TI as the methodology of choice for studying the soul of place and build in tools from other less place-based approaches as needed. TI possesses the flexibility and “polytheism” to accommodate this way of working.


In social science research validity refers to whether the study actually did what it was supposed to. Construct validity means that the constructs under study are adequately operationalized. For example, in a hypothetical study on the effects of a person’s self-esteem on test scores, did the test scores go up as a person’s self-esteem did? Internal validity has to do with cause and effect: did manipulating a variable actually affect another variable? External validity means the study results can be generalized beyond the study.

A strength of qualitative research is that it samples wide ranges of variables instead of breaking apart and focusing on only a few at a time. Although this gives it less precision and less validity narrowly defined, a much broader relevance and richness emerges, especially with relatively unexplored research topics. Another strength is that qualitative research investigates the undeniable presence and impact of the researcher. Mountains of research have proved beyond reasonable doubt that the psyche of the observer influences the observed even in controlled situations. Rather than denying its existence as some forms of quantitative analyses can, qualitative research honors and explores this realm of the interchange.

TI is “transjective” in that unlike many qualitative methodologies, it welcomes quantitative data, but by sifting it for the images and motifs that connect the researcher to the place under investigation. An empirical approach like environmental psychology has been useful under certain conditions, but it stands little chance of revealing deep metaphorical and affective ties to place. Such methods yield results that can be measured or manipulated at best, and manifestations of the biases of the emotionally disconnected researcher at worst. The true purpose of empirical research with living subjects is to provide universities with research funding while mass-producing a product or service; the fantasy of pure objectivity is dead as an epistemology and has been since Nietzsche began “philosophizing with a hammer.”

Quantitative definitions of validity in terms of generalizability and well-operationalized variables (measuring what they are supposed to measure) have been relentlessly criticized for thoughtlessly importing natural science techniques into human research for which they are not suitable (for three out of hundreds of examples, see Giorgi, Fischer, and Eckartsberg (1971), Reason (1988), and Creswell (1997)). The discussion has since moved on from how traditionally performed research recreates hierarchical power relations, alienation in the Marxist sense, Western notions of ego autonomy, psychological distancing, reductionism and determinism, masculinist ideals of objectivity, prizing of cognitive knowing over tacit and intuitive ones into discussions about what constitutes valid and reliable research done with living, sensitive participants.

For TI, validity and reliability remain important criteria capable of being re-imagined and reapplied from within its perspective. Similar attempts can be found in four innovative methodologies: Intuitive Inquiry, Depth Inquiry, Co-operative Inquiry, and Liberation Psychology.

In describing Depth Inquiry, Coppin and Nelson indirectly but meaningfully address the issue of validity by outlining the philosophical commitments of depth psychology research, which include the following in relation to the psyche: it is real, both personal and more than personal, fluid and protean, and multiple, relational, and dialectical (2005). When the psyche’s natural fluidity and multidimensionality attempts to study itself, its least useful tools are those borrowed from natural science; instead, the topic should guide the consciousness of the researcher into ever deeper avenues of inquiry. The same applies to research with place.

Rosemary Anderson’s Intuitive Inquiry draws on two types of validity procedures: resonance validity and efficacy validity. The first relies on the quality of experiential resonance with the reader, for whom the findings must have identifiable value and make sense of the reader’s experiences. “…Research can function in a manner akin to poetry in its capacity for immediate apprehension and recognition of an experience spoken by another and yet be true for oneself, as well” (Anderson, 2006). Resonance should occur not in just one domain, but across multiple domains of experience. For example, a recognizable symbol or myth of a place must appear in many spheres of experience before the researcher can conclude that it is, indeed, seeking expression. Resonance validity also includes a “resonance panel” of peers who evaluate the research in progress through how it energizes them or fails to. The second criterion, efficacy validity, has to do with whether research fosters creative jumps and insights and “inspires, delights, and prods us into insight and action” (Anderson, 2006). Taken together, both types of validity provide a qualitative measure of whether a study adds value to human life and promotes beneficial transformations in the reader’s consciousness.

For Co-operative Inquiry, the primary criterion for validity is coherence, which refers to a mutually enriching and informing influence developing between the research statements (which should also be coherent with each other), the inquirers’ experience (including intersubjective agreement), their “propositional” or conceptual understanding of the topic they explore, and any actions taken as a result of the study. Coherence also refers to the strength of real-world grasp provided by the research constructs and how successfully they are applied experientially and practically.

Liberation psychology research takes a critical participatory approach as its version of action science: research for social change. Its tests of validity include contextual validity, the fruitfulness of how the research effort and questions are framed and the relevancy of data collection to those involved in the research—or in the case of a place, relevancy to those who actually live there; interpretive validity, which increases as people come together from various social locations and levels to discuss possible meanings of narratives and propose alternative interpretations; and catalytic validity: whether the research leads to creative, liberatory transformation in the individuals who participate and in the world at large (Watkins and Shulman, 2008). To this we might add: research that leads to transformations in the relationships of local residents to where they live.

TI can work well with all of the above (the more that are included in a place study, the higher its validity) while emphasizing dimensions unique to person-place research.

The first is ecotransference resonance in terms of the researcher’s “aha!”-sense discovery of consciously or unconsciously enacting themes resonating in the place under study. In the current study, this was evaluated by the researcher and by a thesis committee which also served as a resonance panel. If panel and researcher pick up on similar resonant themes, this provides an indicator that the researcher’s detection of them is valid. Other responsibilities of the panel include the “devil’s advocacy” of generating possible disconfirming explanations and hypotheses and evaluating whether the researcher is projecting personal material onto the research site. (See more about projection below.)

In traditional research, criterion validity refers to whether one set of study results stands up against another, like how effectively test grades match actual later performance. The consistency with which placefield themes continue to resonate and develop during and after the study provides a TI version of criterion validity.

Construct validity means how closely constructs like operational definitions mirror actual entities being studied. For example, do test scores really measure self-esteem? Ecoreactivity, the felt sense of impingement or invasion by the terrain under study, furnishes an ongoing check on construct validity by providing the researcher with dreams, ecotransference reactions, and other indicators of “fitness” between research constructs and the living presence of the research site. An example of this is how Orange County as a psychical being appeared in one researcher’s dreams to criticize the researcher for omitting an important placefield motif (Chalquist, 2006). Construct validity is further strengthened by TI’s use of cycles of reflection and action similar to those employed by CI (Reason, 1988).

Transformation validity refers to the depth of perceived transformation in the relationship between researcher and place as a result of the research. This includes transformations in how the presence of the site manifests in the psychological field or relational matrix. For example, ecologically damaged sites tend to manifest in initial on-site dreams as disturbed or violent personifications that gradually soften and mutate as the study continues (Chalquist, 2006).

Intragroup validity means that the more researchers, the better the validity, especially when the researchers have different backgrounds and typologies. So far most place studies have been done by individuals, but Craig Chalquist recently visited California’s gold country with former student Kathryn Quick to try out a small team approach. Chalquist’s Myers-Briggs typology is INFJ, whereas Quick has introverted sensation as her superior function and was familiar with the research site. Both discovered numerous examples of Norse mythology at play in Placerville, but their observations came through different channels (in Chalquist’s case extraverted feeling and sensation). Typology of the researcher(s) should be kept firmly in mind.

TI also adds the criterion of community action validity stated in the form of two key questions: How consistently do the people who live at the research site resonate to or recognize the findings and to what degree does the current study contribute to the aliveness, sustainability, and ecological integrity of the research site? Because TI does not split advocacy from bearing witness, very often the research itself can be seen as actively valid by changing the ecoreactive “feel,” the researcher’s relationship to the site, and the community’s ways of thinking about where and how they live there. Research should also serve as an opening in a conversation with the place about what it needs from the researcher and from its own community.


Reliability refers to whether research results can be successfully replicated by other studies. Because places are complex and multifaceted, “reliability” as replicability or interjudge sameness of results is abandoned in single studies for the same reason it serves no purpose when evaluating psychotherapy: the presence of each therapist/researcher evokes different responses in the client/participant. The relational matrix constellated by each collaborative pair is unique to each. In multiple studies of the same place some form of inter-relationship could be implemented among investigators and peer reviewers.

For TI, reliability refers primarily to whether the work of different researchers combines to form a coherent, intelligible picture of the placefield motifs of a place under study. Also, generative reliability is the degree to which the study’s clarity, resonance, and attention to detail allow other researchers to use it as a point of departure. This includes the use of poetic and evocative “wild speech” noted and used by Laura Mitchell (2006) as appropriately descriptive of emplaced natural processes.

Place or Projection?

A criticism sometimes made of TI as well as of other qualitative methodologies is that findings are merely projections of the researcher’s unresolved complexes or psychic wounding.

In some cases this charge is leveled because of a cultural prejudice that the landscape could not possibly be alive, let alone capable of reacting intimately to how we treat it. We are used to thinking of subjectivity as a purely human quality, forgetting traditions like panpsychism and Naturephilosophie running all the way back to land-based people who experienced Earth and matter as sentient. Because of this we sometimes forget that the qualities of consciousness that mark us as human evolved in the natural world and still have counterparts there, like soil fungi that send neurotransmitter-like signals across vast distances and ecosystems that create new adaptive combinations. We also forget that seeing inner as separate from outer and mind apart from world is a relatively recent historical development, and one that paralleled territorial expansion and the global plundering of landscapes now regarded as dead resources.

Even so, we who investigate place do run a risk of projecting various aspects of ourselves onto the land, sea, and sky. How can we tell when such projections operate, and that the patterns we see below and around us do not originate solely from within?

That a thorough self-inventory is necessary before the work starts hardly needs to be said. This should be backed up by at least one peer (a resonance panel of them would be better) who knows the researcher well and who can keep an eye out for projections and other errors of perception. Ideally this watcher remaining outside the field has some level of psychological training, experience working with place, and a knack for knowing whether a suspected symptom of an ecological complex really is one. Does the symbolism make sense in terms of being characteristic of the place? Is it consistent with the total picture there? Does it cut across many domains of experience (e.g., the local geology, folklore, politics, art), or does it primarily express the investigator’s unresolved issues? In the case of Rankin’s research on Petaluma, where she tracked the motif of the Phoenix, her master’s committee provided a resonance panel, and Chalquist had previously visited the site.

This task is made easier by the fact that projections normally make the relationship with the place go dead. They kill the aliveness of the contact. Descriptions of the place go dry or sound stereotypical, bombastic, or absolutist. Also, critical dreams soon arrive, like the Orange County dream mentioned above, to correct the investigator’s impressions.

We are developing criteria for assessing whether an ecological complex is in operation: repeating motifs, explanatory relevance, manifestation across multiple dimensions of local experience (Chalquist, 2006). The work of detecting one is similar to that of spotting a syndrome in a therapy client: one notes single symptoms, but primarily as they form meaningful patterns of expression.

Similarly, the fact that one gets triggered by a client or by a place does not necessarily mean that the task of analysis halts. Work with place can hone a talent for using a personal wound to learn more about a place’s. Properly tended, our “inner” places of scarring, pollution, or barrenness can open doors into similar states in the terrain surrounding us. Likewise, ecological and psychological healing often move together.

Ultimately what a person understands and feels is not wholly entirely inner or outer. It is both. By playing in the overlap of the two, a realm of interconnectedness and relationship emerges. Qualitative research honors and explores this realm of the transitional phenomena (Bond, 1993).

Future Pathways

The authors of this paper share a fondness for informal approaches to place, including a more natural and poetic style of writing than research genres normally permit. As a result, our thinking about terrapsychology also remains committed to the kind of intuitive approaches to place opened up by Matthew Cochran and Laura Mitchell and by various passages in Sarah Rankin’s master’s thesis (Rankin, 2006). Craig Chalquist is currently at work on The Tears of Llorona, a book about his place explorations of the soul of California.

Ultimately, our understanding of place will need to move beyond single research projects to gather force as a movement capable of expanding our collective consciousness to include sane and loving contact with the living ground beneath our feet.


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