How graduate students apply Integral Theory in a doctoral research program

How graduate students apply Integral Theory in a doctoral research program

The Integral model, based on a meta-analysis of past and current interpretations of human development, provides a coherent framework of fundamental perspectives and methodologies. The students in the Integral Theory-based EdD program at the University of Calgary in Canada, face an interesting challenge as they endeavor to understand the complexities of this model, and then attempt to apply their new understanding to their research projects. The writers, who lead this program, anticipated these challenges, and deliberately engaged in

critical reflexive practice

from the start of the program, in order to track the students’ learning process and provide appropriate supports as the specific needs arose. This paper briefly outlines the model, before describing the general learning steps through which the members of this EdD cohort seemed to proceed toward the understanding of this complex model. These steps included learning to understand the critiques of the model, which invariably arose during Candidacy examinations, and learning to apply the model to real-life research. The enactment of the model in their research led to choices between using the model to its full potential and engaging with the complexity of the research problem, and delimiting the full expression of the model as necessitated by the time parameters of a doctoral program.


Although the term “multidisciplinary research” is cropping up at mainstream universities, our experience with Candidacy examinations of the students in the Integral cohort showed us that the scientific perspective is still the safe fallback position in situations where “academic standards” are at stake. ‘Keep it simple, keep it narrowly defined’, the examining committees advised. Discussions I have had with colleagues from various faculties across the university about setting up an interdisciplinary research project revealed a similar attitude: ‘We need to choose one theory, have a small, well defined problem, and apply the methodology appropriate to the theory’ – at which point they turned to me with a perplexed look that said ‘how can we fit your humanities/creativity question into our methodology?’ A perfect segue for the introduction of the Integral model!

computer-1185626_640‘There is a framework that enables research to be done on a complex problem using and including many methodologies, instead of trying to fit multiple perspectives into one methodology – let me draw you a picture!’ Unfortunately, I have not heard back from that group since the first meeting, so I cannot report on their response…

In education, the trend toward recognizing complex problems in their totality, is slowly gaining ground

(e.g. school districts as complex systems, transculturalism) and it seems there is a recognition that a coherent integrating framework would be helpful in making sense of the complexity. So the time seems to be right, this (small) market is ready. I feel that we have to increase our efforts to legitimize Integral Theory in universities, and it is an uphill battle with the academic establishment. It would be great if we could collaborate with academics in Europe and that way increase our collective profile – get some critical mass of “accepted” Integral academics. I often hear from colleagues and other academics: ‘It’s really not a serious theory, is it? Who’s doing it [at universities], anyway?’ 

Why the Integral Model?

While the Integral Model has been used widely in business and in the helping professions in the past two decades, its use in academia has often been met with opposition, for various reasons.

The legitimation of the Integral Model in mainstream universities would greatly increase the number of integrally informed researchers and future practitioners.

This implies the necessity for the future establishment of integrally based graduate programs. Since the standards and outcome requirements for graduate research programs are similar for European, North American and Australian universities, this Canadian program provides a timely example.

Results, conclusions and interpretations

The students were introduced to Wilber’s Integral Spirituality (2006) at the beginning of the program, as it presents a clear and comprehensive description of the model. This is a summary of the common steps that students experienced – through our observations and their own descriptions and commentaries:

  1. What is this? -This book seems too easy – a new age self help book? Quickly followed by “What is he saying? I read the book twice and I don’t understand any of it!”

  2. Venturing into the quadrants -The quadrants became the first level of comfort, though students had varying degrees of knowledge about the quadrants.

  3. Entering Integralville -“Integralville” is a term coined by the students. There were a variety of approaches to understanding the rest of the Integral components (levels, lines, states, types), but generally it remained at a theoretical level. Very little enactment was evident at this point. The students were using the terminology in their everyday interactions “speaking in code”, and were able to intuitively have a sense of the complexity of the model.

  4. I thought I knew it – The first big test was the Candidacy oral examination. The students felt challenged when trying to translate their intuitive understanding “in code” into answers to external examiners, whose questions characterized hostile attitudes from the post-modern and scientific perspectives.

Steps 1-4 represent the process of knowledge building, or lateral development (Cook-Greuter, 2004). The steps after the Candidacy examination began to point to the beginnings of vertical development, as awareness of new perspectives began to appear (unevenly) among the group.

  1. Enactment begins – Students grapple with the relationships between the research questions and the Model.

  2. Pragmatism – How many quadrants do I cover in my research project? How many methodologies from the Integral Methodological Pluralism do I select?

  3. How deep into Integralville do I go? What types of analysis do I want to include? What types of data do I need?

  4. How will the quadrants talk to each other? How do I mesh together all the perspectives impinging on my research problem?

  5. Pause and reflect – At every step of the process, and particularly at this point, the students reported that they had arrived at a new interpretation of the model.

  6. The ultimate Integralville: the cosmic address – in order to mesh the diverse perspectives in their research context, the student had to determine their cosmic address. An interesting learning experience was to apply the cosmic address to themselves as researchers.

Educational importance of this study in the European Context

This Canadian program provides information regarding the experience of teaching and researching with the Integral Model, and it also adds to the critical mass of university graduate programs needed to make the integral approach legitimate in mainstream academia in Europe, North America and Australia.


Veronika Bohac Clarke is Associate Professor in the Werklund School of Education at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada. She has been using the Integral Model in teaching since 2001. She has coordinated Master’s level programs in Integral Curriculum Development, and currently coordinates a doctoral program in Curriculum – Integral Theory.

The presentation at IEC

 will discuss teaching the model through embodied learning experiences, and conclude with recommendations for transdisciplinary structuring of Integral graduate student research.

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