In Defence of Hope: Towards a Sociology of Hope in Crisis Times

By Julia Cook and Hernan Cuervo

In his 2017 book The Courage of Hopeless: Chronicles of a Year of Acting Dangerously public commentator and sometime philosopher Slavoj Žižek provides a treatment of the concept of hope in crisis times. Specifically, he suggests that we should turn our back on it and instead embrace hopelessness as a transformative tool. Žižek is inspired by Lenin’s 1923 statement – made on his deathbed – in response to his growing realisation that a Europe-wide revolution was not likely to occur:  

What if the  complete hopelessness of the situation, by stimulating the efforts of  the workers and peasants tenfold, offered us the opportunity to create the fundamental requisites of civilisation in a different way from that of the west European countries? 

Taking his cue from this statement, Žižek argues that it is not hope, but hopelessness – a loss or abandonment of hope – that will lead to the revolutionary action that he desires, and which he appears to treat as a proxy for positive social change. Žižek claims that hopelessness encourages us to act before we have a fully formulated alternative vision in mind, enabling us to take the first step on a journey for which we cannot yet conceptualise the desired end-point.

This account is of interest to us primarily because it makes two assumptions about hope that we seek to contest. Firstly, the association made between hopelessness and action equates hope with passivity (a view which has gained traction in other academic treatments of hope), and secondly, the assumption that turning away from hope will allow us to avoid comporting ourselves towards a specific, hoped-for future suggests that hope is always oriented towards a specific object or outcome.

While early sociological work on hope is marked by some degree of conceptual unity – enshrined, for instance, in Ernst Bloch’s seminal The Principle of Hope – more recent work is characterised by fragmentation and a proliferation of empirical treatments. We, however, argue that the proliferation of recent empirical literature addressing hope reflects tendencies that provide a basis from which we can frame a grounded interpretation of its expression. Specifically, we contend that this literature can speak back to the assumptions about hope that we have outlined above.

Some recent literature on the concept of hope labour in the context of workers in creative industries provides an entry-point into this discussion. The notion of hope labour was developed by Kuehn and Corrigan (2013) to refer to the practice of creating free online content in the hope that future employment opportunities may stem from the experience and exposure that it provides. Notably, Kuehn and Corrigan view hope as inherently future oriented, contending that even while it renders the present meaningful (or perhaps simply bearable in some cases) it is nevertheless comported towards a desired future.

Alacovska (2018) has recently provided a contrasting view, taking issue with the seemingly implicit relationship that they posit between creative workers’ future orientation and precarity or exploitation. Drawing on her own research conducted with creative workers in the highly precarious post-socialist context she contends that hope functions as a strategy for coping with the uncertainty of her participants’ working lives. In forming this view of hope Alacovska draws on research conducted in medical sociology and anthropology which conceptualises hope as a psychosocial resource that is oriented to the present, and which aids individuals in persisting through experiences such as chronic or even terminal illness (eg Mattingly, 2010). The work of Kuehn and Corrigan and Alacovska thus presents conflicting views as to the temporal nature of hope; whether it is future oriented or present centred.

Moving on to the equation of hope with passivity, this tendency finds some purchase in Kuehn and Corrigan’s work. Specifically, they state: 

When we hope labor we may also engage in these sorts of strategic actions, including the pursuit of experience and exposure, because difficult outcomes do not simply happen on their own; however, we ultimately know that the realisation of our hopes is fundamentally beyond our control. We lack agency, so we hope (Kuehn & Corrigan, 2013, p.17).  

In contrast, Alacovska views hope as constitutive of agency claiming that, by allowed her participants to ‘keep going’ in the face of the uncertainties that characterise their profession, it provides them with a resource for acting in the present.  

Notably, these author’s positions are reflective of the contradictions that mark research on hope more broadly. So how do we make sense of them? We suggest that in order to make sense of the contradictory nature of hope we must contend with its diverse nature. Specifically, we contend that rather than reflecting irreconcilable views of hope, these contradictions instead constitute two different modalities: a representational modality oriented towards a specific view of the future (as reflected in the work of Kuehn and Corrigan), and a non-representational mode that is future oriented but without a specific object.

This division still, however, leaves us with the question of passivity that has dogged the concept of hope. In answer to this we turn to Ghassan Hage’s (2003) work, in which he addresses how hope is experienced by the individuals who make up a nation’s imaginary. Hage argues that hope constitutes a source of collective fantasies about what an individual’s life can be, claiming that it is socially distributed. However, he affirms that capitalist societies are characterised by deep inequalities in their distributions of hope, meaning that when hope is already in short supply some groups are not afforded any. While this work provides a masterful account of how hope is socially distributed, its deterministic undertone nevertheless leaves little space for individual action. We thus suggest reading it alongside the work of authors such as Pedersen (2012) and Alacovska who respectively conceptualise hope as work, and as a collective practice. Such accounts suggest that hope can be cultivated essentially from the bottom up, as well as from the top down, with the former rescuing hope from determinism.

The final remaining question is how these reflections on the origins and social distribution of hope relate to our suggestion to understand it as reflecting two distinct modalities. We argue that these modalities are closely related, with their expression often shaped by the degree to which one finds support for their desired future within their social context. However, drawing on the claims of authors such as Pedersen and Alacovska we contend that this support is not only structural or institutional – it can also, as in the case of Alacovska’s creative workers, come from one’s community and peers.

After reading this you may be left with questions about the significance of hope, however neatly we might try to articulate its diverse manifestations. We ultimately contend that the significance of hope lies in its diversity. It neither paralyses action when one cannot call up an object, nor promotes passivity because it is often a last recourse in dire circumstances. This is because of its very changeability; its ability to be maintained collectively despite a lack of structural support, as well as its ability to persist in a latent, non-representational form when representations prove unviable. Rather than proving a time to abandon hope, the present is an ideal time in which to take it seriously.

Hernan Cuervo is an Associate Professor at the Melbourne Graduate School of education and the Deputy Director of the Youth Research Centre, in the University of Melbourne. His research interests are sociology of youth and young adulthood, rural studies and theory of justice. He is the co-editor-in-chief of the Journal of Applied Youth Studies.

Julia Cook is a Lecturer in the School of Humanities and Social Science at the University of Newcastle, Australia. Her research interests include the sociology of youth, time and housing, and her most recent research addresses Australian young adults’ pathways into home ownership, focusing particularly on the role of intergenerational transfers in facilitating entry into the property market. Julia tweets @julia_anne_cook

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses cookies to personalise your experience and analyse site usage. See our Cookie Notice for more details.