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  • Writer's pictureElaine Christian

Hopeful acts of friendship - or, what's the bench about?

I use the image of a bench, and the idea of “hopeful acts of friendship”, as guiding principles in both research and partnership facilitation. They have a few meanings, and here I’ll describe how these ideas inform my work, and how they can inspire your organisation.

A researcher sitting on a bench is not directing things; they are watching, observing, and learning. This period of careful observation and reflection is the cornerstone of the research work that I do, and a key aspect of what I can add to your organisational practice.

Two people sitting on a bench together are equals. One is not pushing the other; they are not confronting each other head-on. They sit side by side, experiencing and addressing the world together. This is the guiding image of partnership that I use in facilitating organisations to build stronger and more equitable relationships.

But what do you mean by "hopeful acts of friendship"?

The backstory on “hopeful acts of friendship” gets a little academic, but bear with me (or perhaps, start practicing “hope”). My background is in academic research; I have PhD in Anthropology & Education, and a MA in Anthropology of Development. One particular topic I specialised in was religion. I studied faith-based development organisations and eventually wrote my doctoral dissertation about Tanzanian pastors and church leaders, and the many social roles that they occupy – especially their work developing and maintaining partnerships with other organisations around the world. A lot of what pastors do is centred around theology (and yes, this includes their partnerships with international NGOs, both faith-based and secular).

As an anthropologist, my job is to ask: What significance does have for the people I am observing? How can this add to a general understanding of what it means to be human? I proceeded to fill in that blank with “theology” in the same way other anthropologists might do with “medicine” or “food” or “music”. But I struggled with how to answer the second question.

So we're on to theology now?

That's right. Coincidentally, around the same time, a number of other anthropologists studying religion had begun discussing the relationship between the disciplines of anthropology and theology: To what extent could they draw insight from each other? Anthropological study of medicine, food, music, etc. seems more straightforward. Everyone gets ill, eats, hears music. Not everyone practices religion, especially not in the UK or America. Of course we can learn about other practices, but can that learning inform our own life beyond just “Oh, that’s interesting”? That is, can we think with religion and not just about religion, even if we are not ourselves religious?

Well – yes, actually. One article I read on this topic had a profound impact on me. That article is “Toward a post-secular anthropology”, by Philip Fountain (the academic source is here, but you can also download a copy here). A key concept in this article is hope: If scholars can’t communicate anything hopefully, then what is the point? Mere observation and empty critique (or, if you’ll forgive another religious turn of phrase, preaching to the choir) does not make a move towards any social transformation.

In his conclusion, Fountain refers to a work by Cambridge theologian Nicholas Lash, who argues that theology can’t arrive at a position of finality or certainty, but rather must acknowledge the incompleteness of our understanding: “God” cannot be contained by our categories of understanding. However, he also rejects a nihilistic outlook “where nothing is to be seen and no purposes are to be discerned.” The middle way is the cultivation of practices of friendship as “anticipatory parables of coherence and fulfilment”.

Fountain concludes: “An anticipatory ethic grounded in hopeful acts of friendship is … indispensable for an anthropology that aspires to more than mere observation or critique.”

My understanding of "hopeful acts of friendship"

When I read Fountain's article, I was immediately struck by the phrase “hopeful acts of friendship.” I saw how it described the work I was doing as a researcher. This work depended on acts of friendship both on my part and on the part of members of the community I was researching. And of course, what is research but a search for knowledge? Searching implies hope; you have to have some hope of finding what you’re looking for. In personal terms, my fieldwork was difficult and at times demoralising; in fact I came very close to quitting at one point. Finding points of hope, and reaching out in friendship, helped me through.

I also saw “hopeful acts of friendship” in the international partnerships that I was observing in Tanzania. Pastors worked constantly to cultivate hope in themselves and their parishioners; they reached out hopefully to cultivate friendships and partnerships. They had hopes that these partnerships would make a positive difference for them. Partners who had a friendship approach tended to be more tuned in to examining and challenging power imbalances and pursuing greater equity in their relationships.

I ended up using “hopeful acts of friendship” as one analytic in my dissertation, and it still informs my approach to conducting research and facilitating partnerships.

Hopeful acts of friendship in my current work

I see “hopeful acts of friendship” in the work of many small charities and NGOs I work with now. Applying for funding, finding partners, designing new projects, networking: these all include aspects of hope and/or friendship.

Whether doing research work or building partnerships (or both!) this is the approach I take, and help my clients to incorporate. It’s a position of acknowledging the incompleteness of our knowledge and experience, and developing relationships that can extend, complement, and challenge our experience (namely, friendships). This emerges from a position of hope that anticipates positive transformation.

If you are interested in discussing with me how we can use this approach to bring a more transformative aspect to your research, or to help your organisation build better stronger and more equitable relationships with your partners, please get in touch.

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