Considering the Relationships among Social Conflict, Social Imaginaries, Resilience and Community-based Organization Leadership

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Considering the Relationships among Social Conflict, Social Imaginaries, Resilience and Community-based Organization Leadership

Max Stephenson Jr., Director

Virginia Tech Institute for Policy and Governance

205 West Roanoke Street

Blacksburg, Virginia 24061


This chapter focuses on the basic question of what role community-based nongovernmental organization leaders play in shaping the possibility for the emergence of new social imaginaries (Taylor, 2004). It argues that deep social conflicts are likely to demand strong grassroots response and that certain forms of imagination are necessary and must be actively employed among community-based leaders if new imaginaries are to be discerned and effectively shared in ways that permit sustained dialogue and the development of new social understandings. The paper explores these briefly and draws upon two relevant examples from the peace-building literature to contend that such imagination-led leadership is necessary to create and to catalyze new social imaginaries that can overcome enduring social conflict leading to more resilient social orders.


Bercovitch (1996, p. 222) has observed that the lion’s share of enduring social conflicts revolve around dissensual issues over values. These may undermine group capacities even to imagine “the other” with anything besides disdain. Long-term experience with efforts to address such socially intractable differences has suggested that such antagonism may rest in terror, isolation and/or ignorance and that these understandings and the behaviors they imply must change if a new social condition is to obtain (Lederach, 1995, 2005). What is less clear is how best to bring about such change and the ways of knowing or understanding such connotes. Some analysts have offered prescriptive processes for mediation while others have embraced so-called Track One or Track Two diplomatic forms and forums of negotiation to address this challenge. This chapter focuses instead on the question of what role community-based nongovernmental organization leaders play in shaping the possibility for the emergence of new social imaginaries (Taylor, 2004). It argues that deep social conflicts are likely to demand strong grassroots response and that certain forms of imagination are necessary and must be actively employed among community-based leaders if new imaginaries are to be discerned and effectively shared in ways that permit sustained dialogue and the development of new social understandings. The paper explores these briefly and draws upon two relevant examples from the peace-building literature to contend that such imagination-led leadership is necessary to create and to catalyze new social imaginaries that can overcome long-lived social conflict, leading to more resilient social orders. The paper concludes by identifying characteristics of leadership and leader-led processes likely to be required to elicit new imaginaries that may successfully address enduring values dissensus in communities characterized by abiding conflict.

Social Imaginaries and enduring Social Conflict

The philosopher Charles Taylor has argued that community populations come collectively to imagine their lives in specific and often unconsciously shared ways. He labels these social imaginaries and suggests that they are variegated and subtle, but no less powerful for possessing those characteristics:

Our social imaginary at any given time is complex. It incorporates a sense of the normal expectations we have of each other, the kind of common understanding that enables us to carry out the collective practices that make up our social life. This incorporates some sense of how we all fit together in carrying out the common practice. Such understanding is both factual and normative; that is, we have a sense of how things usually go, but this is interwoven with an idea of how they ought to go, of what missteps would invalidate the practice (2004, p., 24).

In this view it is quite possible for a community’s social imaginary broadly to embrace norms that exclude specific populations from enjoying a full share of their human rights, or to include a conception that one or more groups MUST exist in conflict for whatever constellation of social, political, economic or other reasons. As Taylor observes:

At any given time, we can speak of the ‘repertory’ of collective actions at the disposal of a given group of society. … The discriminations we have to make to carry these off, knowing whom to speak to and when and how, carry an implicit map of social space, of what kinds of people we can associate with in what ways and in what circumstances (2004, pp.25-26).
Importantly, imaginaries are not theories and, unlike theories, they are held by large groups of people and in the form of widely shared narratives:

I adopt the term imaginary (i) because my focus is on the way ordinary people ‘imagine’ their social surroundings, and this is often not expressed in theoretical terms, but is carried in images, stories and legends (Taylor, 2004, p.23).

For example, much of the population in the South in the United States in the pre-civil rights movement years ascribed to a social imaginary that could not conceive that Rosa Parks, an African-American woman, should possess the right to sit wherever she wished in a public transit bus. Similarly, many families in Northern Ireland during the long years of the “Troubles” acculturated their children to norms that Roman Catholics could not associate with Protestants (and vice versa) and that people from certain neighborhoods in Belfast, Londonderry or other Ulster communities could not associate with those from nearby locations. Violations of these norms were often met with violence, whether the horror unleashed on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama on March 7, 1965 during the Martin Luther King, Jr.-led march for civil rights or the frequent murders and bombings in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, when Loyalist paramilitaries or members of the Irish Republican Army believed that their existing social understandings or privileges had been abridged.
These examples suggest several critical attributes of social imaginaries. First, these conceptions are epistemic; they constitute a critical way in which those holding them make sense of their worlds. They represent alternate ways of knowing. Second, however significant and powerful, the rationale or rationales underpinning them often go unarticulated. Rather, they are espoused and motivate action because they constitute widely shared views of the world and how it ought properly to be ordered among members of specific groups or communities. Third, imaginaries govern the possibility and portent of human relationships. Many in the American South could not conceive that African Americans could or should enjoy equal legal rights and social equality. Fourth, imaginaries may be changed, but only if those espousing them are given reason to bring them to consciousness, reflect afresh on their foundations and embrace an alternate conception. That is, new imaginaries do not just happen; they are socially constructed. Changing them requires emotional and cognitive work built on interactive processes of individual and social awareness and reflection. And that dynamic set of processes may entail violence and sacrifice of the sort experienced by the Selma marchersas those responding to voices for change lashed out in favor of existing imaginaries. Social change is hard won because it demands both emotional and intellectual work of populations and at a deep level. It demands a shift in values and therefore in how individuals and populations make sense of their lives.
Community-based Nongovernmental Organizations, Resilience and Adaptive Work

In a recent work on disaster and resilience, Paton and Johnston (2006) argued that catastrophic natural or human events might be seized as opportunities for communities to undertake the adaptive work necessary to secure long-lived change in their capacities to respond to future such occurrences. Their argument parallels Taylor’s philosophic inquiry, but focuses on social response to the aftermath of disaster-induced change rather than on the dynamic construction of potential for change:

In this book, resilience is a measure of how well people and societies can adapt to a changed reality and capitalize on the new possibilities offered. To accommodate the former the definition of resilience here embodies the notion of adaptive capacity. … Neither a capacity to adapt nor a capacity for post-disaster growth and development will happen by chance. Achieving these outcomes requires a conscious effort on the part of people, communities and societal institutions to develop the resources and processes required to ensure this can happen and that it can be maintained over time (2006, p.8).

These authors recognize that effectively reacting to disaster and creating conditions for sustainability in its aftermath typically requires broad scale adaptation, learning and change in a community’s values. Values and norms inhere first in individuals and must change there, and those new conceptions must be shared and adopted by others thereafter, if they are to constitute a new way of knowing in a community. That is, individual perspectives must change and those new views must be diffused across relevant geographic populations before a change in imaginaries may occur. Grassroots-level nongovernmental organizations and their leaders, especially, are well situated to mobilize constituencies to promote new values and ways of knowing because they are generally trusted by their supporters and often mediate between them and public and international organizations in their areas of service and employ locally legitimate mechanisms as they do so (Menkhaus, 1996). Governments and international organizations also often give these organizations a role by dint of employing many as direct agents of contracted program implementation or by relying on them as first responders in the event of disaster (Paton and Johnston, 2006, p.13).

Ronald Heifetz has employed similar ideas of an imagined social contract and adaptive change in his conception of leadership:

When we teach, write about and model the exercise of leadership, we inevitably support or challenge people’s conceptions of themselves, their roles and most importantly their ideas about how social systems make progress on problems. Leadership is a normative concept because implicit in people’s notions of leadership are images of a social contract (1994, p. 14).

This study examines the usefulness of examining leadership in terms of adaptive work. Adaptive work consists of the learning required to address conflicts in the values people hold, or to diminish the gap between the values people stand for and the reality they face. Adaptive work requires a change in values, beliefs, or behavior (1994, p.22).

Both adaptive work and adaptive capacity imply purposeful efforts to secure change in existing social imaginaries in order to further social change. Both require management of the conflicts that arise from any challenge of dominant ways of knowing in a community. Leaders are expected to envision these possibilities and to create conditions that allow their communities to address them. Paton and Johnston argue that such engagement is necessary both to cope effectively with disasters and, in their aftermath, to create resilient communities. Heifetz contends that adaptive work represents the essence of democratic leadership as those charged with community responsibility seek to catalyze community awareness and capacity to secure social learning to address pressing social challenges.

All three authors agree that the necessary change can occur only if ways and means are found to permit the broader population to reflect on existing epistemic assumptions, consider those in light of current conditions and competing values and adopt fresh views based on that reflective process. Adaptive work and adaptive capacity alike require that relevant populations come to consider anew their basic assumptions concerning an important issue or issues and often, shift their stance and values concerning those to address changes in social, political or economic conditions or to realize more fully their own stated aspirations. Heifetz argues that we look to leaders foremost to help frame such choices and their implicit conflicts, and to manage those disputes when they are manifest. Paton and Johnston contend that disaster-afflicted communities must accomplish just such work if they are to create resiliency.
For his part, Twigg (2007) has suggested similarly that nongovernmental organization and other community leaders must work to create what he dubs an “enabling environment” for the development of disaster resilience (2007, p.12). Enabling environments exhibit a number of characteristics, including political and policy consensus concerning the importance of disaster risk reduction and strong community support for the steps necessary to secure resilience (Twigg, 2007, p.12). This last requirement suggests a central role for leaders who must attain such outcomes. Heifetz contends that leaders engaged in adaptive work must obtain a number of conditions, including the following, if they are to succeed in overcoming deep social dissensus or to change existing imaginaries:

  • Provide those communities affected an opportunity to test their assumptions against current conditions; e.g. to conduct a “reality test” of their perspectives

  • Secure ways and means by which both to bring all parties involved to respect the perspectives of all sides to existing conflicts and seek means for those groups to come at least to understand the views of those with whom they see themselves in disagreement

  • Seek mechanisms by which to increase community cohesion around a macro-level set of shared aspirations

  • Develop shared norms of responsibility taking and learning among all groups involved in community change processes (1994, pp.26-27).

Leaders successful in prompting adaptive work in their communities create thereby an enabling environment for the development of increased community resilience.
Leaders, Adaptive Work and Forms of Imaginationi

Whatever their character and responsibilities, we ask leaders to help us make sense of our environments. People want to make sense of the world and leaders are pressed to help them do so. In order to address those claims, however, leaders must first understand the imaginaries or ways in which others are viewing their lives. This they do by exercising a variety of facets of imagination. Four of these capacities—aesthetic imagination, cognitive imagination, affective imagination and moral imagination—are briefly catalogued here. While each is treated as if separate, these forms of imagination overlap and are interrelated in practice. Each aspect of imagination yields information and addresses a dimension or dimensions that are critical for leaders as they engage in the dialectical process of seeking to catalyze adaptive work.

Aesthetic Imagination

Leaders are expected to see possibilities and to discern and develop paths of action that otherwise might go unexplored. One primary mechanism both to comprehend existing perspectives or epistemes and to challenge those claims is via the aesthetic imagination. As Taylor observed concerning social imaginaries, no form is more powerful than narrative, story, theatre or poetry (or its equivalent) to challenge existing claims. As Maxine Greene has suggested about aesthetics, imagination and learning:

None of our encounters can happen, however, without the release of imagination, the capacity to look through the capacities of the actual, to bring as-ifs into being in experience…Imagination may be our primary means of forming an understanding of what goes on under the heading of “reality:” imagination may be responsible for the texture of our experience (Greene, p. 140).
In his final book, the philosopher Herbert Marcuse offered a thoughtful critique of Marxist aesthetics that suggested similarly that those who exercise high order aesthetic imagination necessarily subvert accepted social norms and mores; that is, they often contest accepted imaginaries or epistemes. As he observed in The Aesthetic Dimension,
Thereby art creates the realm in which the subversion of experience proper to art becomes possible: the world formed by art is recognized as a reality, which is suppressed and distorted in the given reality. This experience culminates in extreme situations (of love and death, guilt and failure, but also joy, happiness and fulfillment) which explode the given reality in the name of a truth normally denied or even unheard (1978, p. 6).
We look to leaders to provide just such conceptualizations of possibility and these, as Marcuse would contend, typically “subvert” existing conditions and assumptions. Leaders are expected to see possibilities and to discern and develop paths of action that otherwise might go unexplored. They are further required to undertake these actions in ways that are “visionary,” that is, that chart new ways of thinking about a concern. Thus, leaders are asked to address received ways of understanding and not merely to accept them.
Leaders also employ the aesthetic imagination in at least two other ways. First, they are asked to capture the complex in simple and readily graspable terms. This is perhaps especially true in democratic and fast-paced industrialized societies. They are enjoined not merely to spin slogans (which may sadly often be substituted), but to capture in a few words or a brief narrative or symbol a complex reality in order to obtain a connection and shared aspiration with those with whom they are engaged. Societies, communities and organizations alike demand these accountings and they stipulate likewise that these renderings be concise, resonant and powerful, that they be in a word, elegant. Second, leaders are often called upon to identify the criteria by which stories or claims are judged. This powerful role is linked closely to whether leaders are to succeed when they attempt to change the dominant frame or imaginary of the organization, community or other entity with which they are engaged. In such instances, it may not be sufficient to offer a compelling narrative or story alone. It may also be necessary to provide an alternate set of criteria by which competing claims ought rightly to be understood.
Cognitive Imagination

While cognitive imagination is not identified solely by raw intelligence, it nonetheless appears unassailable that leaders must possess the necessary acumen to sort through complex concerns, understand them and suggest mechanisms by which they might reasonably be addressed (Northouse, 2007, p. 48). This facet of imagination also requires leaders to help citizens or stakeholders make sense of their environments at various analytical scales, whether these are nations, subnational political jurisdictions, communities or organizations. Organizations, whether for-profit, nonprofit or public, may not change course unless alternate conceptions of shared purpose or processes are brought to the fore and present conceptions are challenged. Citizen and stakeholder groups implicitly, and often explicitly, ask leaders to see relationships among ideas, concerns or connections they might not, to suggest how those claims are related and then to use their aesthetic imagination to provide a narrative of meaning linked to what they seek to describe.

This set of capacities demands high-order analytical thinking at what some scholars have dubbed the meta-cognitive level (Turiel, 1983; Kohlberg and Candee, 1984). Meta-level analysis suggests that leaders are not only expected to grasp and wrestle with complexities and to make sense of them, but also to stand above them in order to be able to describe in compelling ways their warp and woof and relationships to allied concerns. That is, they must make plain to their constituents their understanding of how the issues under consideration might be viewed and why in convincing ways. Addressing that imperative requires strong cognitive reasoning.
Affective Imagination

Leaders are expected to exercise high-order interpersonal communication capacities (Graen and Uhl-Bien, 1995). These typically require that they be able to function comfortably with diverse individuals and communicate clearly and effectively as they do so. (Fisher and Ellis, 1990; Senge, et al, 2004) In addition, these capacities demand at their core two additional capabilities. First, many leadership scholars suggest that leaders must operate from profound self-knowledge (Burns, 1978; Heifetz: 1994; Senge, 2004; Northouse, 2007). Such self-awareness may allow them to control their reactions and to discipline themselves as they relate to others with whom they may have differences, or who present difficult challenges emotionally or intellectually. Second, successful leaders exude and practice actively what has been variously labeled other-regardingness or empathy (Turiel, 1983; Hoffman, 2000). They appear able to perceive the needs of those with whom they interact and genuinely to appreciate and act on those requirements. Each of these matters merits brief consideration.

Self-knowledge provides leaders a dais on which to stand as they consider possibilities and the views of others with whom they are engaged. Self-knowledge permits leaders to listen actively and to discern the assumptions as well as articulated needs of constituents and stakeholders (Fisher, 1997). Personal awareness also permits leaders to negotiate alternate ways of knowing and to craft meta-level cognitive possibilities since it implies self-knowledge of just these concerns. Self-knowledge permits a more open and empathetic response to other ways of knowing since one understands one’s own imaginary well. Listening attentively and openly to those ideas and epistemologies offered by others, even when these deeply contravene one’s own, is made possible, if not always comfortable, by that personal knowledge and continuing process of reflection (Gilligan, 1982).
The Moral Imagination

In a thoughtful book concerned with international peacebuilding efforts in which he reflected on decades of seeking to resolve deep impasses and conflicts, John Paul Lederach defined the moral imagination generally as “…the capacity to imagine something rooted in the challenges of the real world yet giving birth to that which does not yet exist” (2005). For his part, and similarly, the influential critic and thinker Russell Kirk popularized the idea of the moral imagination in recent years. Wesley McDonald has sought to capture Kirk’s understanding of the moral imagination:

Kirk described the moral imagination “as that power of ethical perception

which strides beyond the barriers of private experience and

events of the moment, especially the higher form of this power exercised

in poetry and art. … A uniquely human faculty, not shared

with the lower forms of life, the moral imagination comprises man’s

power to perceive ethical truth, abiding law in the perceived chaos

of many events.” Without the moral imagination, man would live

merely from day to day, or rather moment to moment, as dogs do.

“It is the strange faculty—inexplicable if men are assumed to have

an animal nature only—of discerning greatness, justice and order

beyond the bars of appetite and self-interest” (McDonald, 2004, p.


McDonald’s characterization suggests that exercise of the moral imagination demands that its practitioner act on behalf of a collectivity beyond self. The moral imagination is therefore innately creative and intuitive even as it is concerned with needs beyond those that serve the leader alone. Artful use of the moral imagination will cause leaders first to consider alternate epistemes and second, to seek creatively to deepen mutual awareness of what they discover in so doing. As they do so they will seek to look outside themselves both to ascertain needs and to justify and legitimate how they act to address them. As such, the moral imagination is at once an attitude, a moral claim and an acuity.

If community-based NGO leaders employ these facets or forms of imagination, they will do so in a specific historical, social and economic context. The analysis turns next to a discussion of the roles of NGOs as they seek to catalyze adaptive work and address long-lived social conflicts. Following an introduction, the discussion highlights two case examples to suggest the ways in which contexts may shape NGO capacity and scope for action. Thereafter, the chapter turns to a discussion of the characteristics of grassroots leadership necessary for epistemic change. That section treats the role of the various forms of imagination in securing adaptive change.
Enduring Social Conflict, Grassroots Peacebuilding NGOS and Adaptive Work

It is unfortunately not difficult to develop a list of nations and communities in which various forms of long-lived social conflict have led to violence and varying degrees of breakdown of civil order. Recent examples include Northern Ireland, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Somalia, Israel/Palestine, and the former Yugoslavia. This roll suggests no dearth of opportunity for NGO grassroots leaders to engage in the exercise of the forms of imagination treated above and to press efforts to create enabling environments that permit the adaptive work necessary to allow the conflicting parties and their communities to come to acknowledge the imaginaries of “the others” in their conflicts. These disputes are multi-faceted and rooted deeply in historical conditions and perceptions (Goodhand and Lewer, 1999; Shirlow and Murtagh, 2006), Some are tied to ethnicity, others to economic conditions, some to religious beliefs, still others to conflicts over territory and some exhibit elements of all of these factors and more. Indeed, most perduring social conflict is multivalent. The role of community-based NGOs in two such conflicts, in Northern Ireland and in South Africa, is treated briefly below.

What is most pressing in addressing any abiding social conflict is the development of mechanisms that allow the parties both to grasp and respect the imaginaries of the other and to act on that knowledge in good faith thereafter to create new and shared epistemic possibilities that may then guide new behaviors and efforts to change community conditions. This may occur in any number of ways and generally must obtain among actors across analytic scales as well (Elliott, 2002). Grassroots organization leaders may play important roles in allowing for the evolutionary social learning processes aimed at securing a modicum of understanding across epistemic divides. Cochrane (2000) has argued, for example, that peace/conflict resolution community-based organizations were cumulatively key to the development of the historic 1998 Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland. These organizations’ efforts were not always obvious and frequently, indeed, were not visible to the general public, but they were nonetheless vital:

Consequently, it is important to make some assessment of the impact of the P/CRO (peace and conflict resolution organizations) sector on the ‘peace process’ in Northern Ireland and its contribution to civil society generally. Actually doing this is extremely difficult in practical terms. In reality, much of the most useful activity in this field is conducted invisibly and is not tied to particular events. It is often not appreciable when it is carried out, its value only becoming apparent in combination with other events and actions when viewed over time. … While undramatic, it is fair to conclude that the greatest long-term impact of the sector was provided at the micro-level by ‘unsung heroes’ who provided the glue which held society together during the worst periods of conflict (Cochrane, 2000, pp.17, 18).

These Northern Ireland grassroots organizations were critical to peacebuilding because they employed a wide variety of mechanisms in sustained processes aimed at creating enabling environments for continuing dialogue and thereby for ensuring the continuing possibility for growth in understanding among the factions involved:

There is nevertheless, a very distinct NGO ethos that runs throughout P/CROS in Northern Ireland, from the single identity community development groups to the cross-community reconciliation organisations. The attitude of many of these groups is governed by a desire to see a broadening of political dialogue and an inclusion of civil society within the political debate (Cochrane, 2000, p.15).

These organizations played a vital part in allowing alternate conceptualizations of relationships to be articulated and thereafter to be shared across epistemic, and therefore social boundaries, to address the populations involved. This set of processes helped to shape the dialogue and possibilities envisioned by political leaders. Importantly, the role of these organizations and their conception of peace as first and foremost a cessation of violence cannot be understood apart from the political and cultural context in which they were operating. Their leaders reacted to the imaginaries reflected by the groups in conflict and responded with a search for ways and means by which to bridge those gulfs in order to stop the violence afflicting their neighborhoods.
South African grassroots peace-oriented organizations also reflected their political and cultural contexts. These entities defined peace not simply as the absence of social conflict, as had their Irish counterparts, but also as the replacement of a regime perceived as illegitimate with one dedicated to social justice rooted in political equality (R. Taylor, 1998, p.2). Cochrane has captured this distinction:

The very idea of being a ‘peace organisation’, or a ‘non-violent’ organisation, was a difficult one for South African NGOs who were against the apartheid system, because the government also claimed to be in favour of peace and in favour of bringing an end to the conflict as well. They were in favour of restoring peace through ‘order’, via harsh anti-democratic legislation and the enforcement of that legislation by a ruthless law and order regime. As a consequence … the NGOs in South Africa had to emphasise a positive (Galtungian) view of peace, as being not simply the negative concept…(Cochrane, 2000, p. 4).

While South African community-based peace-oriented organizations were thus less diverse in their orientations and strategies than their Northern Ireland counterparts, due to their uniform focus on the issue of the regime’s lack of legitimacy, groups in both nations shared a commitment to articulating and advocating claims for the consideration of alternate imaginaries. Their leaders employed a range of strategies and forums and engaged in multiple processes to press their claims to alter existing structural conditions. Grass roots groups from both nations had in common too a need to create conditions that would result in the dignification of “others” by those who had long refused their “opponents” that status (O’Brien, 2007).
In Northern Ireland, many community-based conflict resolution groups worked tirelessly with government officials and with other NGOS to overcome the fear, hatred and historical divisions that separated the contending parties. Each faction had to be convinced at least to imagine the possibility of living near to those whose outlook and upbringing did not match their own. Each had to accord negotiating status and legitimacy to the other and at least to countenance the development of a new imaginary. In South Africa, much as in the United Stated during its civil rights struggle, large shares of the population had to be convinced that current conditions could not be allowed to continue and that justice and the nation’s own ideals demanded change. As in Northern Ireland, community leaders had not only to envision, but also to develop processes aimed at securing peaceable opportunities for ongoing dialogue among contending groups. In both Ulster and South Africa, the proof of success was the diminishment of fear and increased willingness to consider the other as worthy of dignity and legitimacy in the ongoing conversation. A broad shift in popular attitudes and perspective had to antedate any proposal for peace and these had first to be identified and articulated. Grass roots NGOS played vital roles in these processes in both situations.
Characteristics of NGO Grassroots Leadership for Epistemic Change

These brief sketches of the roles played by grassroots NGOS in two disparate contexts and geographic locations that have addressed long-lived social conflicts illustrate the ways these organizations and their leaders sought to encourage adaptive work in their communities. In each case, and despite very different circumstances, these entities sought to contribute to the construction of more peaceful social conditions and thereby greater social resilience. In each instance, leaders of these organizations employed a variety of processes and means to address the foundational ideas that underpinned the perspectives that needed consideration if social change was to occur. Whatever the mechanism employed, leaders had to devise creative ways and elegant narratives to bridge the epistemic divides that split their populations and subverted existing understanding (aesthetic imagination); had to be able to articulate perspectives that “made sense” to their community’s residents, but that nonetheless offered new ways of knowing (cognitive imagination); had to share those ideas in ways that could be heard by all concerned (affective imagination) and had finally to make ethical and moral claims that could be understood and be seen as sufficiently compelling (moral imagination) so as to elicit the prospect of respectful dialogue from all concerned. NGO leaders and their organizations had, in short, to address their community’s divides while securing conditions for social learning and change. Such change demanded new ways of knowing and did not come easily. The tale of grassroots organizational roles in Northern Ireland and South Africa is long and the processes each employed to address this principal goal were diverse. Whatever the strategy and audience, however, NGO leaders in both locations had to identify the social imaginaries in play in their contexts, understand the values and claims that underpinned each and find alternate ways of viewing their roles in the social commons that the community’s population could consider and that held the prospect for offering an alternative to broadly shared existing ways of knowing (Goodhand and Lewer, 1999).


Instead of focusing on strategies or tools for redressing conflict, this chapter has explored the nature of the challenge confronting would-be NGO organization leaders as they seek to address enduring social divisions in their communities. When long-lived, these social conflicts are typically epistemic in character and ultimately require that these leaders and their organizations work to create conditions in which those on different sides come first to reflect on their own ways of knowing and thereafter to consider respectfully those of their perceived “opponents.” Either of these challenges alone is daunting, but when highlighted together, the enormity of the obstacles becomes clear. Would-be peacebuilding leaders must chart contrasting imaginaries, must craft approaches to bring individuals and competing leaders alike to reflect on them and must manage the conflict these steps are almost certain to create. But they must do more. Even as they uncover assumptions for fresh scrutiny in the name of new possibilities, they must also convince those involved that the risk of dignifying the other is not so high as they have been acculturated to believe and that there are indeed viable alternate ways of viewing that relationship. This set of responsibilities is addressed necessarily in a dynamic historic and social context in which missteps can create large setbacks and the possibility of ruinous conflict. There is no substitute for thoughtful and sustained engagement that builds trust and allows for the possible development and articulation of different social imaginaries.

Accordingly, this chapter has argued that grassroots NGO leaders seeking to secure peace employ a variety of facets or forms of imagination as they seek to meet these challenges. They must employ aesthetic imagination literally to conceive of ways of knowing that possess the power to subvert existing claims. They must utilize affective imagination in countless meetings and workshops to broker trust and legitimacy and to come to understand more fully the hopes, fears and assumptions of all sides to their community’s central conflict. They must also use their cognitive imagination to analyze possibilities for future action and to craft new epistemic understandings for discussion and refinement. Finally, and overarchingly, their efforts must be driven by a moral attachment to the common good of their community and to the hope represented by the effective amelioration of the conflict dividing it. They must be driven by a passionate regard for the future and for the ethical mitigation of conflict in their midst.
Given the complexity and interdependent array of actors involved in creating, sustaining and changing community social imaginaries, these are unlikely to shift magically with adoption of one or another strategy, tool or technique by either political or civil society actors. But sustained efforts to clarify and articulate differences and similarities among the parties as well as to identify their hidden and often unarticulated assumptions may allow grassroots leaders to play important roles in these critical processes. To the extent they do so successfully, they can contribute powerfully to the development of a sine qua non of the amelioration or resolution of deep social conflict: the development of a healthy respect among all of the parties for one anther and deference to their equal role in the process of decision-making. There can be no gainsaying how difficult such efforts are, but their attainment, as reflected through alternate imaginaries, is critical to the long-term resilience of conflict-ridden communities. This goal, as the old axiom had it, is well worth the candle expended to pursue it.


The author acknowledges with sincere thanks Leah Wickham’s research assistance in the development of this chapter.


i This section is adapted from Max Stephenson Jr., “Exploring the Connections Among Adaptive Leadership, Facets of Imagination and Social Imaginaries”, Public Policy and Administration, Vol. 24, (3), July 2009.

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