Just three days after the UK left the European Union I travelled to Nijmegen in the eastern Netherlands. I was there to visit the HAN University of Applied Sciences, which holds an annual International Week. This is the opportunity for students to attend workshops offered by academics from across Europe and beyond. I had been asked to provide a session that would appeal particularly to students preparing for a career in social work. This may seem a strange request given that I am based within a department of Culture, Media & Creative Industries, and my work addresses questions of cultural policy, politics and participation.
The invitation came from Erik Jansen, an academic based at HAN, whose interests include both social work and art. Erik and I got to know each other via the Human Development and Capability Association (HDCA), including the major conference I helped organise in London in September 2019 – the first time the HDCA has met in the UK.
The capability approach is a set of ideas developed by Indian economist Amartya Sen. It began as an intervention within development economics, but the approach has subsequently become influential across a wide range of disciplines. Offering a framework with which to understand ‘prosperity’ beyond GDP, it challenges the assumptions of mainstream economics, asking: what are the lives that people can actually live? These ideas have proven attractive and useful to a wide range of researchers, policymakers and practitioners.
One of the things that makes the HDCA so exciting – and sometimes challenging – is the interdisciplinarity its conferences make possible. People working in areas including economics, philosophy, political theory, human rights, indigenous rights, international development, urbanism, childhood studies and disability studies, to name a few, gather around these ideas.
One strand of my recent research has been to apply the capability approach to cultural policy, to develop new ways of conceptualising what governments are ultimately seeking to achieve when they get involved in culture. Building on these ideas, at the London conference I presented a paper I had shared in various stages of development over the previous year. It addressed the politics of hope, and it was this research that Erik was keen for me to share with his students in Nijmegen.
The starting point for the piece is to ask: what is the role of cultural policy at a time of climate emergency and right-wing populism? The paper argues that – notwithstanding its historically junior role within government – cultural policy may have a specific and important part to play during our troubled times. Namely: to create conditions conducive to people narrating their place in the world (individually and collectively), and knowing that their actions matter. In other words, to deliberately promote conditions for hope.
The paper has now been published in the International Journal of Cultural Policy as ‘Practices of hope: care, narrative and cultural democracy’. It includes discussion of a wide range of literature on the nature of hope, and links these ideas to the challenges of responding to our populist moment.
The paper is concerned with practices of hope across several scales – from the micro to the macro – beginning with a case study of one organisation in west London that works with young people on the periphery of the education system. Drawing on this example, I suggest that practices of ‘care’ are crucial to hope. It is when we experience care that we can trust our environments – and it is trust in our environments that enables us to know that our actions matter.
It was a challenge and a pleasure to take these ideas to Nijmegen and design a workshop for students who I had been told would be primarily interested in practical applications. My colleague Nick Wilson has written about creativity as a ‘boundary phenomenon’ – taking place particularly at locations where different identities, disciplines and ways of doing things meet. Being invited to speak with social work students felt like a creative process of that kind: the opportunity to extend my thinking by bringing it into relation with a new set of practices and concerns.
Alongside the workshops, Erik organised a symposium on the theme of hope. This also provided the opportunity for exchanging ideas across disciplinary boundaries. At a time at which borders and boundaries are being ever more strongly enforced, it may seem trite to draw attention to the value of boundary-crossing. Nonetheless, perhaps insights of this kind can bear being repeated a little too often.
Hope is about how we relate to the future and imaginatively project ourselves into it. But in its concern with the future, hope mediates between what’s been and what’s to come. In June 2019 Jessica Rapson and I organised a symposium at CMCI on these themes, Politics of Doom, Politics of Hope, during which we heard contributions from disciplines including cultural studies, psychosocial studies, memory studies and utopian studies. One of the aims of that event was, precisely, to start a conversation on these ideas that is both interdisciplinary and connects with activities beyond academia. As I write further on the politics of hope in the coming months, I would be very pleased to hear from others interested in these themes.
During the week in which the UK formerly broke away from the European Union, my trip to Nijmegen confirmed for me – as if I needed the reminder – the role that border-crossing can play in generating new possibilities. In telling new stories of ourselves during uncertain times, opening new futures, the first step may often be to create the conditions of trust in which to safely bridge some boundaries together.