Blog: Hope - a useful category of analysis in global south research?
PhD Student Joseph Gascoigne addresses how the idea of hope should be considered in academic research
By Joseph Gascoigne
No matter how it is defined, hope is a powerful force in the world. Today we hope for an end to the Covid-19 pandemic, we are hopeful that vaccines will work, and we hope for a return to some kind of normality in the coming months. We can think of hope as a motive behind human activity - a feeling or belief that propels us to actually do something, take part in life, and try to make a positive impact. It can also be an important coping mechanism, providing relief in times of adversity as we hope for better times to come.
Hope and how it relates to research on the Global South was the theme of the 2021 IGDC Research Away-day. This topic was proposed by Dr Indrajit Roy, building on themes developed in his research project "Citizenship Futures - The Politics of Hope." Participants at the Away-day included PhD students, lecturers, and researchers representing a wide range of academic interests, from political history to food security. Through group discussion we were invited to consider ways that the concept of hope can inform our research projects.
Hope - a positive or negative force?
Before applying hope to our research, it was necessary to reflect on how we understand and define hope. Hope can be thought of as a positive force that motivates people to do something. Hope is intricately tied up with the setting of goals and identifying methods or "pathways" to achieve those objectives (Rand and Cheavens, 2009). My PhD research looks at politics in post-colonial Antigua and Barbuda - a small island developing state in the Caribbean. Thinking about Antiguan politics through the lens of hope made me consider politics itself as an act of hope: people stand for elections, organise movements, and vote because they hope that their actions will make a positive difference, that things can and will improve through their taking part. For me, this highlights the agency of individual Antiguan voters, something that can easily be overlooked in a field which focuses on structural factors.
However, as well as a motive for action, hope can be regarded as a driver of inaction. During the "away-day", professor Henrice Altink introduced the idea of hope as a passive act, something that encourages people to essentially sit back and wait for things to change almost of their own accord (McConnel and Hart, 2019). For example, if an Antiguan voter is hopeful that their government is honest will they be less likely to scrutinise their MP’s conduct? If they hope all politicians are generally fair-minded and 'good', are they less likely to bother voting in the first place? Does a sense of hope that things will eventually get better make people more tolerant of corruption? Conceiving of hope in this way is just as useful because it helps to explain inactivity and passive behaviours which would otherwise be harder to understand.
Hope as a tool of analysis
Whether seen as a positive or a negative force, hope can restore agency to past actors by inviting researchers to consider emotional motives for action or inaction (Han-Pile, 2017). Some might dismiss or ridicule the idea of hope as an academic tool, saying it is too nebulous or conceptual. But hope is a basic human emotion and a vital coping resource, accounting for human behaviours which cannot easily be explained by reason alone (Lazarus, 1999).
While the history of emotion is now a burgeoning sub-field of history (Boddice, 2018; Matt, 2019), emotions are still overlooked by many historians. Students and academics are so drilled in a systematic approach of "objective, hypothesis, evidence, result" that we forget that this is not how actual people live their lives. From the individual and small to the collective and transformative, all actions are far more complicated than a systematic approach allows. It may be that human behaviour is also far more irrational and emotionally-driven than we like to admit.
This is not to argue that hope is the only or even the most important motive of action or inaction. But emotions are an important factor in explaining human behaviour and they should not be overlooked by historians or any researchers. Introducing the idea of hope into considerations of past and present behaviour forces researchers to reflect on the subjective, personal, and even irrational motives that drive people to act or to not act. Moreover, including hope in our research prompts us to think critically about how individual thoughts and feelings intersect in complex ways with the structural factors that so many researchers prioritise.
Regardless of how one defines it – as an emotion, a coping mechanism, an incentive for action, or a motive for inaction - hope can add depth and colour to academic debate. It can also restore significant agency to past actors and help us break out of the restraints of the more traditional and structurally-focussed cause-and-effect approach to research. For that reason, hope can and should be seen as a useful tool for research.