Accessibility statement

Hope - a useful tool for research?

Abstract: Joseph Gascoigne discusses ways hope can be approached in the context of research and considers if hope can be a tool for research.

Considering the notion of "hope" in academic research

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 periods 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, led by Dr Indrajit Roy. Participants 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 what hope means in the context of our research and how the concept of hope can inform our 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. How is hope differentiated from faith, expectation, and optimism? Is hope a verb? We certainly use it like a verb when we say "We hope that…" or "Here's hoping…" But we also talk about having hope as though it's a thing we can acquire, develop, and even share. Yet hope is not a discrete entity which we either have or don't have. Certainly we can be hopeful or hopeless; but we can also be "quite hopeful", "of little hope", or "running out of hope". The latter makes hope sound like a valuable resource or even a fuel that can be measured, stored, and used. Can we put a price on hope? Does it have a value that can be quantified and compared? If so, can hope be bought and sold? At its worst can hope be regarded as the currency of people-smugglers - criminals who exploit the hopes of the vulnerable in exchange for cash?

Before getting carried away with the above notions, my immediate assumption was that hope is a force that motivates people to do something. If people are hopeful that their actions can and will have a beneficial impact on themselves, their community, or the wider world they are more likely to act. Hopelessness thus implies the opposite - that things can't improve and there's no point doing anything. On first consideration I therefore saw hope as a kind of stimulant - a motive, a trigger, a positive force towards proactivity. Perhaps hope fits somewhere between faithful optimism and reasoned expectation - based on experience we expect that X action will achieve Y result, but sometimes we need a little hope to encourage us to take the next step and put that action into practice. Does hope therefore have a slightly irrational component to it?

Continuing with the notion of hope as a stimulant, I began to consider what hope means in the context of my research. My PhD looks at politics in post-colonial Antigua and Barbuda - a small island developing state in the Caribbean. Thinking about Antiguan politics through this lens made me consider politics itself to be 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 phenomena like political parties and polarisation.   

However, as well as a motive for action, hope can be regarded as a driver of inaction. During the IGDC "away-day", professor Henrice Altink introduced the idea of hope as a passive act, something that encourages people to sit back and wait for things to change through the actions of others or simply of their own accord. 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 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. To invoke the old adage, this would be like hoping for the best whilst failing to prepare for the worst.

Hope as a tool of analysis

 Whether seen as a positive or a negative force, considering hope in analysis invites researchers to consider emotional motives for action or inaction. Some might dismiss or ridicule the idea of hope as an academic tool, saying it is too nebulous or conceptual. But hope is a fundamental human emotion and a vital coping resource, accounting for human behaviours which cannot easily be explained by reason alone. Particularly for historians, hope and similar emotions have an important role to play in restoring agency to past actors.

 Some work is being done on the history of emotion by the likes of Rob Boddice and Susan Matt, but emotions are still overlooked by much historical scholarship. 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-focused cause-and-effect approach to research. For that reason, hope can and should be seen as a useful and fascinating tool for research.

The above text is developed from a blog-post by the same author originally posted on the IGDC website.