The Importance of Hope in Changemaking

Research has found that hope, or the wish for and confidence in the realization of a goal, is essential for achieving social change and peacebuilding efforts, and that futures thinking, or mentally planning out a desired world, is a key means to achieve these aims efficiently.

By Madeleine Piersol

With news headlines reporting daily on the latest acts of hate-based violence and new developments in current wars, it’s hard to remain hopeful that efforts for social change can lead to a peaceful world. It seems as if the never ending barrage of war, violence, and hatred is making belief in the possibility for change futile. In light of this, hope has become a dirty word signaling naivety, and people don’t dare to imagine a better world ahead. However, research has found that hope, or the wish for and confidence in the realization of a goal, is essential for achieving social change and peacebuilding efforts, and that futures thinking, or mentally planning out a desired world, is a key means to achieve these aims efficiently.[i]

Even if everyone held on to hope and engaged in futures thinking, is there any proof that the world is capable of change? The answer is yes. The direct and indirect violence that plagues our world is not inevitable as is commonly believed. Humans do not have “inborn violent tendencies,” but rather engage in violence because of what they have learned and the situations they are in.[ii]  Psychological and sociological concepts such as the desire to belong, response to authority, group influence, and violence-promoting situations primarily lead to conflict in society.[iii] These factors can be ameliorated so that social environments encourage peace instead of violence, and throughout history, positive strides have been made to achieve this. For example, there is “generally decreasing global rates of violence and war” and “Each new generation since World War II has extended the idea of universal rights a little further” (Wood).[iv] While there is still much to be done, the knowledge that change is possible can foster hope in each subsequent generation.

Understanding that the world is not destined to remain as it is now, but rather is ever-evolving, allows for successful social change. According to Cohen-Chen et al., the “…perception of the world as dynamic and constantly fluctuating opens the possibility for imagining a positive future of peace and experience hope within a protracted conflict, followed by peace-supporting attitudes”.[v] This mindset can be the difference between the success and failure of peacebuilding efforts and social change work. A good way to think about the role of hope in social change is as a puzzle. We have the picture on the box showing us the result we want. We know we are able to create this image with the resources we have, so we continue rearranging the pieces until we complete the puzzle. In the same way, we know the desired result of specific social change or peacebuilding work, and with hope we know it can be achieved. Thus, we continue working and developing creative solutions until we successfully actualize the world we are striving for. In intractable conflicts that seem impossible to solve, this mindset of hope is especially important because it leads parties to think up new ways to resolve their tension and be prepared to engage in peace dialogue.[vi] In the face of long lasting conflicts or fights for social change, it is easy to be discouraged and no longer believe success can be achieved. However, this is why having hope is so important. Cohen-Chen et al. explain that “Feelings of futility regarding the impossibility of achieving peace further feed into the conflict’s intractability by spreading despair among those who most need to maintain hope”.[vii] The motivation to continue working can become lost and strong efforts to reach the finish line can disappear. A cycle is created in which peace is driven farther and farther away. Hope on the other hand continues to fuel efforts for change, making success more likely.

…perception of the world as dynamic and constantly fluctuating opens the possibility for imagining a positive future of peace and experience hope within a protracted conflict, followed by peace-supporting attitudes.

While hope is critical to successful peacebuilding and social change, it can be challenging to maintain during conflicts due to the characterization of opposing sides as “enemies.” Media is often strongly biased against the opposition, and “Citizens thus rely on the common and quite convenient belief that the adversary ‘seeks war, not peace,’ which is spread as part of a broader set of negatively biased beliefs about the rival party” (Bar-Tal et al).[viii] This is problematic because it reduces hope. A study found that the level of hope held by all sides in a conflict feeds into each other and significantly impacts the possibility of cooperation for peace.[ix] Thus, when each side believes the other does not want peace, hope and ultimately the possibility for successful resolution is diminished.

This concept can be clearly seen in one of the most tenuous issues in our world today: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In a study by Leshem & Halperin, citizens from Israel and Palestine responded to a series of questions about their and their opponent’s views on hope for peace. This study defined hope as the combination of wish and expectation for peace.[x] Typically, respondents incorrectly believed they held a stronger desire for peace than their adversary, but accurately recognized that confidence in the successful creation of peace was miniscule on both sides.  In reality, both Israeli and Palestinian citizens strongly desired peace, but biased media and the urge to characterize the “enemy” as the roadblock to reaching peace prevented each side from realizing this. Even though both sides want peace, conflict resolution remains a challenge because the continued misconception that the “enemy” is against peace makes all parties think it is impossible. In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, when both sides know that the other also desires peace, their own wish for resolution increases and the expectation for peace rises for all.[xi] Because hope is an integral part of reconciling opposing sides to work towards peaceful resolution, an accurate understanding of hope for peace needs to be conveyed through the media. Through understanding that the “enemy” wants peace too, the second half of hope, expectation of success, can be reached, bringing the conflict one step closer to peace.

Looking to social change movements beyond conflict resolution, hope also plays an integral role in motivating action. One of the main roadblocks to achieving change is the lack of support from advantaged groups. A study found that with the presence of hope, this pattern changes, as the sense of efficacy in advantaged groups increases, making them more inclined to support equity and amplify efforts for social change (Greenaway et al.).[xii] This shows the pivotal role that the presence of hope can play in gaining the solidarity of advantaged groups, therefore removing a significant obstacle to the realization of equity. According to Greenaway et al., this necessary hope can be achieved through drawing on “shared identity,” which “…may hold the key to bringing advantaged and disadvantaged groups together in a spirit of striving for social equality”.[xiii] Through allyship and acts of solidarity made possible by hope, community is strengthened and more voices call for change.

Hope is clearly an important element of social change work and peacebuilding, but how can it be concretely applied to achieve goals? The answer lies in futures thinking. Although commonly mistaken for daydreaming, futures thinking is actually looking beyond current problems to solutions and the future world they can create.[xiv] The intention is to map out the transformation society needs to undergo, and with that mental conception, put thought into action to create change. The strength of futures thinking lies in its transcendence beyond what the probable future is to the preferable future.[xv]  Futures thinking develops a positive mindset to approach social change, and as David Hicks explains, “Not to do this can lead to a sense of alienation and despair. Doing this appropriately can lead to a growing sense of empowerment…”[xvi] Thus, to constructively imagine a better future is not futile as many believe, but rather allows for the creation movement for peace and social change that is strong from the start.

Our aim … is to discern our intentions towards the future so as to shed light on our present situation and provide guidelines for changing our actions so as to move towards that intended future.

There are three fundamental elements of social change and peace work: first is determining the social state we would like to achieve, second is deciding steps to create that change, and third is taking action to make it happen. Futures thinking plays an integral role in all three of these stages. In any work for social change, there is a goal of a world in which the work has succeeded, such as the elimination of war, hunger, or prejudice. Futures thinking simply takes this a step further by fleshing out the details of what this future looks like, making the goals more concrete. In the words of Warren Ziegler, “‘…Our aim … is to discern our intentions towards the future so as to shed light on our present situation and provide guidelines for changing our actions so as to move towards that intended future’”.[xvii]  Ziegler’s principle can be applied to the issue of world hunger. Those engaged with futures thinking would recognize the current structures that contribute to hunger, such as unemployment, high cost of food, and a lack of international aid. From this, they would be able to go beyond simply saying they want a world without hunger to imagining a world in which healthy food choices were less expensive, alternative farming methods were utilized, everyone had an income, and international aid for food stability was fostered. They would also determine the actions that need to be taken for this to occur, such as encouraging governmental and international organizations to support alternative food sourcing programs, aid those facing poverty, and encourage agriculture in countries struggling with production. This provides a game plan for effective action more so than a statement like, “I want to end world hunger.”

This plan to reach the world we are aiming for requires action, but a common critique of futures thinking is that it fails to get movements to this step. In reality, it improves the effectiveness of action. Meadows et al. explains that “‘…we do not believe it is possible for the world to envision its way to a sustainable future. Vision without action is useless. But action without vision does not know where to go or why to go there’”.[xviii] Futures thinking provides that vision, and can be applied to specific action steps to achieve the world we imagine. It also provides tools to overcome potential obstacles because it allows for the discovery of, “…enough commonalities in the images to enable the participants… to be willing to work out joint strategies in the present” (Boulding).[xix] Instead of succumbing to the misconception that there is no way to reconcile differences, futures thinking can provide a starting point for cooperation. Through the process of futures thinking, movements can gain hope. They are able to visualize the world they are going to work for and feel more confident starting their efforts knowing the steps that need to be taken.

There are countless conflicts and injustices that need to be addressed today, but without hope and futures thinking, they are not likely to be resolved. With them, movements become more powerful, more supported, and better equipped with creativity and planning to take on the greatest conflicts in our world. If we want the news headlines in the future to read “Mass demonstrations spark institutional change in Iran” and “End of Russian aggression in Ukraine,” hope must be our guide.

Madeleine Piersol is a student at Georgetown University pursuing a major in Justice & Peace Studies.  She is interested in conflict negotiation/mediation and peace education.

Notes & References

[i] Hicks, as cited in Leshem, O. A., & Halperin, E. (2020). Hoping for peace during protracted conflict: Citizens’ hope is based on inaccurate appraisals of their adversary’s hope for peace. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 64(7-8), pp. 1390-1417. 10.1177/0022002719896406, (p. 1390).

[ii] Wood, H. (2016). Invitation to Peace Studies. Oxford University Press. (pp. 179, 200).

[iii] Wood, (pp. 200-203, 222)

[iv] Wood, (pp. 52, 129)

[v] Cohen-Chen, S., Crisp, R. J., & Halperin, E. (2015). Perceptions of a changing world induce hope and promote peace in intractable conflicts. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 41(4), pp. 498-512. 10.1177/0146167215573210 (p. 499).

[vi] Cohen-Chen et al. (p. 508)

[vii] Cohen-Chen et al. (p. 498)

[viii] Bar-Tal et al., 2008; Bar-Tal, Oren, & Nets-Zehngut, as cited in Leshem, O. A., & Halperin, E. (2020). Hoping for peace during protracted conflict: Citizens’ hope is based on inaccurate appraisals of their adversary’s hope for peace. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 64(7-8), pp. 1390-1417. 10.1177/0022002719896406 (p. 1395)

[ix] Leshem, O. A., & Halperin, E. (2020). Hoping for peace during protracted conflict: Citizens’ hope is based on inaccurate appraisals of their adversary’s hope for peace. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 64(7-8), pp. 1390-1417. 10.1177/0022002719896406 (p. 1406)

[x] Leshem & Halperin (p. 1390)

[xi] Leshem & Halperin (p. 1408)

[xii] Greenaway, K. H., Cichocka, A., van Veelen, R., Likki, T., & Branscombe, N. R. (2016). Feeling hopeful inspires support for social change. Political Psychology, 37(1), pp. 89-107. 10.1 Ill/pops. 12225 (p. 94)

[xiii] Greenway et al. (p. 105)

[xiv] Hicks, D. (2004). Teaching for tomorrow: How can futures studies contribute to peace education? Journal of Peace Education, 1(2), pp. 165-178. 10.1080/1740020042 000253721 (p. 168)

[xv] Bell, as cited in Hicks, (p. 168).

[xvi] Hicks, (p. 166).

[xvii] Ziegler as cited in Hicks, ( p. 172)

[xviii] Meadows et al., as cited in Hicks, ( p. 176)

[xix] Boulding, E. (1990). Uses of the imagination. Building a global civic culture: Education for an interdependent world (pp. 95-117). Syracuse University Press.  (p. 111)

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