Department of Social & Policy Sciences

Dr Dinerstein writes about hope against optimism in the British Sociological Association network magazine

Mon Apr 10 15:06:00 BST 2017

This article first appeared in the Spring 2017 edition of the Magazine of the British Sociological Association

Dr Mary Holmes' proposal that sociology should be a "critically optimistic" social science, rather than a miserable and pessimistic one, is timely (see 'Feature' Network Autumn 2016, pp. 36-39).

The world is not a happy place. As sociologists, we spend our lives scrutinising it, trying to understand and criticise social reality. Not only are we overwhelmed daily by news of war, violence against women, poverty and child abuse, but we also do research on those unspeakable wrongs of the world. ‘Critical’ seems to go hand in hand with 'pessimistic'. But, Holmes suggests, "much sociology pessimistically ignores evidence that people sometimes find enjoyment".

Life can be indeed full of enjoyable moments, lovely relationships, interesting jobs, art, beauty, solidarity and worthy causes. But this is not the point. I offer here a critique of the idea of critical optimism. My argument is that what makes sociology a ‘miserable’ social science is not that it is too critical, but that is not critical enough. To overcome its misery, critical sociology does not need to counter-pose optimism to pessimism. It needs to learn hope.

What is hope? Hope is different from optimism. When, in his Principle of Hope (1954-59, 1986), the German philosopher Ernst Bloch talks about 'hope', he suggests that it is an emotion and a state of mind that does not accept reality as it is. To have 'hope' in Bloch’s view is to be alive to alternative possibilities. Why?

Bloch’s starting point is the awareness that the world is wrong: we "scream" at the unfairness and injustice of the present economic system. We do not fully grasp yet what a new fair and just world would be like, but because the world is unfinished and open, another reality is possible.

Bloch argues that hope has a utopian function that pushes us outwards and forwards beyond incremental change to try to find a better world which may not be evident at present but yet, Bloch believes, is a reality because the world is unfinished and full of possibility.

We can seek to improve current individual and social situations, but why limit ourselves to this? For Bloch, hope means that the present contains in itself the possibility of something that has not been yet realised, has not been yet anticipated, but yet is there. Hope is a critical tool to negate present reality and never accepts that such reality is closed. This means that hope avoids the danger of normalising the society we live in as the only alternative.

In this view, optimism is not and cannot be critical, in the sense that it doesn’t allow us to articulate a fundamental critique of society, which is a condition for hope. Instead, hope enables us to improve by rejecting the current situation and anticipating better futures in the present. Hope is rooted in real possibilities. It is not naive optimism.

For sociology, how does this translate into any kind of action in our job, or in the wider world of politics? In my work (Dinerstein 2015) I use examples of social movements to show how, driven by the utopian function of hope, people can do something improbable and unexpected and still create an alternative. One example is the landless rural workers movement in Brazil, in which peasants and their supporters fought for access to land. They were hungry, and, yes, the landowners were very violent and powerful, but they just decided to occupy the land, deal with the reaction and then create their dream land-reform in practice.

Their concrete utopia (rather than abstract dreamlessness) prompted several changes in the Brazilian law and state policy. They were not optimistic about their situation, given the hunger, isolation, landlessness and poverty they suffered. But they were hopeful, and hope enabled them to break through and open a breathing space to anticipate a future alternative in the present. In their experience, the future did not mean a distant expectation for a better time ahead but the possibility of living better in the here and now.

Learning hope within academia does not happen in isolation. It requires an engagement with those who are already anticipating better worlds. The point is not to admit that there are good things in the world -of course there are - and only be critical of the negative ones, but to make mental space to criticise the present, engage with the people’s anticipation of the not-yet reality, and prepare for alternative ways of organising our societies - alternatives that are already lurking in the present, but which are simply not thought possible yet.

Levitas (Levitas R. (2010) 'Back to the future: Wells, sociology, utopia and method', Sociological Review 58(4): 531-546.) explains that sociology suppressed the task of the creation of alternative, better ways of living as the proper and distinctive method of sociology in order to become a respectable social science. Today, the opposite is true. Sociology is losing respectability as a social science because it is not producing alternatives to the suffocating reality of our world. It is, as Bloch writes, a question of learning hope.

Dr Ana C. Dinerstein is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Bath. This article draws on her book The Politics of Autonomy in Latin America: the Art of Organising Hope (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), and her edited collection Social Sciences for Another Politics: Women Theorising without Parachutes (Palgrave MacMillan, 2016).