Copyright © 1969 by the author(s). Published here under license by the Resilience Alliance.Stephenson, Jr., M. O. 2010. Considering the relationships among social conflict, social imaginaries,resilience, and community-based organization leadership. Ecology and Society XX(YY): ZZ. [online] URL:

Research, part of a Special Feature on Resilience Through Multi-scalar CollaborationConsidering the Relationships among Social Conflict, Social Imaginaries,Resilience, and Community-based Organization Leadership

Max O. Stephenson, Jr. 1

ABSTRACT. This article focuses on the question of what role community-based organization leaders playin shaping the possibility for the emergence of new social imaginaries. It argues that deep social conflictsand efforts to secure purposive change are likely to demand strong civil society organization response andthat certain forms of imagination are necessary and must be actively employed among community-basedleaders if new imaginaries are to be discerned and effectively shared in ways that encourage sustaineddialogue and the development of new social understandings. The article explores these briefly and drawsillustratively upon two relevant examples from the peacebuilding literature to contend that such imagination-led leadership is necessary to catalyze new social imaginaries that can lead to more resilient social orders.

Key Words: post-conflict situations; resilience; social imaginaries


Bercovitch (1996) has observed that the lion’s shareof enduring social conflicts revolve arounddissensual issues over values. These may underminegroup capacities even to imagine “the other” withanything besides distrust and disdain. Long-termexperience with efforts to address intractabledifferences has suggested that such antagonism mayrest in terror, isolation, and/or ignorance, and thatthese understandings and the behaviors they implymust change if a new social condition is to obtain(Lederach 1995, 2005). What is less clear is howbest to bring about such change and the ways ofknowing or understanding such connotes. Someanalysts have offered prescriptive processes formediation while others have embraced so-calledTrack One or Track Two diplomatic forms andforums of negotiation to address this challenge. Thisarticle focuses instead on the question of what rolecommunity-based organizations and their leadersmay play in shaping the possibility for theemergence of new social imaginaries (Taylor 2004).It argues social conflicts and significant socialchange are likely to demand strong civil societyorganization response and that certain forms ofimagination are necessary and must be activelyemployed among community-based leaders if newimaginaries are to be discerned and effectively

shared in ways that permit sustained dialogue andthe development of new social understandings.

The article explores these briefly and draws upontwo relevant examples from the peace-buildingliterature to contend that such imagination-ledleadership is necessary to create and to catalyze newsocial imaginaries that can overcome social conflictand encourage social change, leading to moreresilient social orders. The article concludes byidentifying characteristics of leadership required toelicit new imaginaries that may successfully addressenduring values dissensus in communities.


The philosopher Charles Taylor has argued thatcommunity populations come collectively toimagine their lives in specific and oftenunconsciously shared ways. He labels these “socialimaginaries” and suggests that they are variegatedand subtle, but no less powerful for possessing thosecharacteristics:

Our social imaginary at any given time iscomplex. It incorporates a sense of thenormal expectations we have of each other,

1Virginia Tech Institute for Policy and Governance

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the kind of common understanding thatenables us to carry out the collectivepractices that make up our social life. Thisincorporates some sense of how we all fittogether in carrying out the commonpractice. Such understanding is bothfactual and normative; that is, we have asense of how things usually go, but this isinterwoven with an idea of how they oughtto go, of what missteps would invalidate thepractice. (Taylor 2004:24)

In this view it is quite possible for a community’ssocial imaginary broadly to embrace norms thatexclude specific populations from enjoying a fullshare of their human rights, or to include aconception that one or more groups must exist inconflict for whatever constellation of social,political, economic, or other reasons. As Taylor hasobserved:

At any given time, we can speak of the‘repertory’ of collective actions at thedisposal of a given group of society. … Thediscriminations we have to make to carrythese off, knowing whom to speak to andwhen and how, carry an implicit map ofsocial space, of what kinds of people we canassociate with in what ways and in whatcircumstances. (Taylor 2004:25-26)

Importantly, imaginaries are not theories and, unliketheories, they are held by large groups of people andin the form of widely shared narratives:

I adopt the term imaginary (i) because myfocus is on the way ordinary people‘imagine’ their social surroundings, andthis is often not expressed in theoreticalterms, but is carried in images, stories andlegends. (Taylor 2004:23)

For example, much of the population in the Southin the United States in the pre-civil rights movementyears ascribed to a social imaginary that could notconceive that Rosa Parks, an African-Americanwoman, should possess the right to sit wherever shewished in a public transit bus. Similarly, manyfamilies in Northern Ireland during the long yearsof the “Troubles” acculturated their children tonorms that Roman Catholics could not associatewith Protestants, and vice versa, and that peoplefrom certain neighborhoods in Belfast, Londonderry,and other communities could not associate with

those from nearby locations. Violations of thesenorms were often met with violence, whether thehorror unleashed on the Edmund Pettus Bridge inSelma, Alabama on March 7, 1965 during theMartin Luther King, Jr.-led march for civil rights,or the frequent murders and bombings in NorthernIreland during the Troubles, when Loyalistparamilitaries or members of the Irish RepublicanArmy believed that their social understandings hadbeen abridged.

These examples suggest several critical attributesof social imaginaries. First, these conceptionsconstitute a critical way in which those holding themmake sense of their worlds. They represent alternateways of knowing. Second, however significant andpowerful, the rationale or rationales underpinningthem often go unarticulated. Rather, they areespoused and motivate action because theyconstitute widely shared views of the world and howit ought properly to be ordered among members ofspecific groups or communities. Third, imaginariesgovern the possibility and portent of humanrelationships. Many in the American South couldnot conceive that African Americans could orshould enjoy equal legal rights and social equality.Fourth, imaginaries may be changed, but only ifthose espousing them are given reason to bring themto consciousness, reflect afresh on their foundations,and embrace an alternate conception.

That is, new imaginaries do not just happen; theyare socially constructed. Changing them requiresemotional and cognitive work built on interactiveprocesses of individual and social awareness andreflection. That dynamic set of processes may entailviolence and sacrifice of the sort experienced by theSelma marchers, as those responding to voices forchange lashed out in favor of existing imaginaries.Social change is hard won because it demands bothemotional and intellectual work of populations andat a deep level. It demands a shift in values, andtherefore in how individuals and populations makesense of their lives.


In a recent work on disaster and resilience, Patonand Johnston (2006) argued that catastrophic naturalor human events might be seized as opportunitiesfor communities to catalyze the adaptive worknecessary to secure long-lived change in their

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capacities to respond to future such occurrences.Their argument parallels Taylor’s philosophicinquiry, but focuses on social response to theaftermath of disaster-induced change rather than onthe dynamic construction of potential for change:

In this book, resilience is a measure of howwell people and societies can adapt to achanged reality and capitalize on the newpossibilities offered. To accommodate theformer the definition of resilience hereembodies the notion of adaptive capacity. …Neither a capacity to adapt nor a capacityfor post-disaster growth and developmentwill happen by chance. Achieving theseoutcomes requires a conscious effort on thepart of people, communities and societalinstitutions to develop the resources andprocesses required to ensure this canhappen and that it can be maintained overtime. (Paton and Johnston 2006:8)

These authors recognize that effectively reacting todisaster and creating conditions for sustainability inits aftermath typically requires broad scaleadaptation, learning, and change in a community’svalues. Values and norms inhere first in individualsand must change there, and those new conceptionsmust be shared and adopted by others thereafter ifthey are to constitute a new way of knowing in acommunity. That is, individual perspectives mustchange and those new views must be diffused acrossrelevant geographic populations before a change inimaginaries may occur. Community-basednongovernmental organizations and their leadersare well situated to play significant roles inmobilizing constituencies to promote new valuesand ways of knowing because they are generallytrusted by their supporters and often mediatebetween them and public and internationalorganizations in their areas of service and employlocally legitimate mechanisms as they do so(Menkhaus 1996).

Governments and international organizations alsooften give these organizations a role by dint ofemploying many as direct agents of contractedprogram implementation or by relying on them asfirst responders in the event of disaster (Paton andJohnston 2006). These roles allow interested NGOsopportunities to offer new paths for futurecommunity action and to articulate challenges toexisting ones in ways that governments may notalways be situated to press. For example, southern

state governments were unwilling to changeexisting Jim Crow practices without substantial civilsociety organization pressure and then only with theactive engagement of the national government. Thischange process unfolded over time and was surelynot the lone product of civil society organizationaction, but it is unclear whether or when it mighthave occurred without sustained advocacy effortsby such groups.

Ronald Heifetz has developed the idea of dynamicand evolutionary adaptive change implicit in suchefforts in his conception of leadership:

When we teach, write about and model theexercise of leadership, we inevitablysupport or challenge people’s conceptionsof themselves, their roles and mostimportantly their ideas about how socialsystems make progress on problems.Leadership is a normative concept becauseimplicit in people’s notions of leadershipare images of a social contract. (Heifetz1994:14)

This study examines the usefulness ofexamining leadership in terms of adaptivework. Adaptive work consists of thelearning required to address conflicts in thevalues people hold, or to diminish the gapbetween the values people stand for and thereality they face. Adaptive work requires achange in values, beliefs, or behavior. (Heifetz 1994:22)

Both adaptive work and adaptive capacity implypurposeful efforts to secure change in existing socialimaginaries to further social change (Heifetz et al.2009). Both require management of the conflictsthat arise from any challenge of dominant ways ofknowing in a community. Leaders are expected toenvision these possibilities and to create conditionsthat allow their communities to address them. Patonand Johnston argue that such engagement isnecessary both to cope effectively with disastersand, in their aftermath, to create resilientcommunities. Heifetz contends that adaptive workrepresents the essence of democratic leadership asthose charged with community responsibility seekto catalyze community awareness and capacity tosecure social learning to address pressing socialchallenges.

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All three authors agree that the necessary changecan occur only if ways and means are found to permitthe broader population to reflect on existing socialassumptions, consider those in light of currentconditions and competing values, and adopt freshviews based on that reflective process. Adaptivework and adaptive capacity alike require thatrelevant populations come to consider anew theirbasic assumptions concerning an important issue orissues and often, shift their stance and valuesconcerning those to address changes in social,political, or economic conditions or to realize morefully their own stated aspirations. Heifetz arguesthat we look to leaders foremost to help frame suchchoices and their implicit conflicts, and to managethose disputes when they are manifest. Paton andJohnston contend that disaster-afflicted communitiesmust accomplish just such work if they are to createresiliency.

For his part, Twigg has suggested similarly thatnongovernmental organizations and other communityleaders must work to create what he dubs an“enabling environment” for the development ofdisaster resilience (Twigg 2007). Enablingenvironments exhibit a number of characteristics,including political and policy consensus concerningthe importance of disaster risk reduction and strongcommunity support for the steps necessary to secureresilience (Twigg 2007). This last requirementsuggests a key role for leaders who must attain suchoutcomes. Heifetz contends that leaders engaged inadaptive work must obtain a number of conditions,including the following, if they are to succeed inovercoming deep social dissensus or to changeexisting imaginaries:

● Provide those communities affected anopportunity to test their assumptions againstcurrent conditions, e.g., to conduct a “realitytest” of their perspectives.

● Secure ways and means by which to bring allparties involved to respect the perspectives ofall sides to existing conflicts and seek meansfor those groups to come at least to understandthe views of those with whom they seethemselves in disagreement.

● Seek mechanisms by which to increasecommunity cohesion around a macrolevel setof shared aspirations.

● Develop shared norms of responsibilitytaking and learning among all groupsinvolved in community change processes(Heifetz 1994:26-27).

Leaders successful in prompting adaptive work intheir communities create thereby an enablingenvironment for the development of increasedcommunity resilience.


Whatever their character and responsibilities, weask leaders to help us make sense of ourenvironments. People want to make sense of theworld and leaders are pressed to help them do so.To address those claims, however, leaders must firstunderstand the imaginaries or ways in which othersare viewing their lives. This they do by exercisinga variety of facets of imagination. Four of thesecapacities, i.e., aesthetic imagination, cognitiveimagination, affective imagination, and moralimagination, are briefly catalogued here. Althougheach is treated as if separate, these forms ofimagination overlap and are interrelated in practice.Each aspect of imagination yields information andaddresses a dimension or dimensions that are criticalfor leaders as they engage in the dialectical processof seeking to catalyze adaptive work. The point ofthis discussion is not that civil society organizationsalone can catalyze social change, but that the leadersof such entities are neatly positioned to press for (re)examination of prevailing views when evengovernment officials cannot and that they exercisea variety for forms of imagination as they do so.Again, they are not alone in employing thesecapacities, but their efforts may help to elicitchanges in attitudes or understanding when theseare necessary to secure purposive social change.

Aesthetic imagination

Leaders are expected to see possibilities and todiscern and develop paths of action that otherwisemight go unexplored. One primary mechanism bothto comprehend existing perspectives and tochallenge those claims is via the aestheticimagination. As Taylor observed concerning socialimaginaries, no form is more powerful thannarrative, story, theatre or, poetry, or its equivalent,

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to challenge existing claims. As Maxine Greene hassuggested about aesthetics, imagination, andlearning:

None of our encounters can happen,however, without the release of imagination,the capacity to look through the capacitiesof the actual, to bring as-ifs into being inexperience. … Imagination may be ourprimary means of forming an understandingof what goes on under the heading of“reality:” imagination may be responsiblefor the texture of our experience. (Greene1995:140)

In his final book, the philosopher Herbert Marcuseoffered a thoughtful critique of Marxist aestheticsthat suggested similarly that those who exercisehigh order aesthetic imagination necessarily subvertaccepted social norms and mores; that is, they oftencontest accepted imaginaries. As he observed in TheAesthetic Dimension,

Thereby art creates the realm in which thesubversion of experience proper to artbecomes possible: the world formed by artis recognized as a reality, which issuppressed and distorted in the givenreality. This experience culminates inextreme situations (of love and death, guiltand failure, but also joy, happiness andfulfillment) which explode the given realityin the name of a truth normally denied oreven unheard. (Marcuse 1978:6)

We look to leaders to provide just suchconceptualizations of possibility and these, asMarcuse would contend, typically “subvert”existing conditions and assumptions. Leaders areexpected to see possibilities and to discern anddevelop paths of action that otherwise might gounexplored. They are further required to undertakethese 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 ofunderstanding and not merely to accept them.

Leaders also employ the aesthetic imagination in atleast two other ways. First, they are asked to capturethe complex in simple and readily graspable terms.This is perhaps especially true in democratic andfast-paced industrialized societies. They areenjoined not merely to spin slogans, which maysadly often be substituted, but to capture in a few

words or a brief narrative or symbol a complexreality to obtain a connection and shared aspirationwith those with whom they are engaged. Societies,communities, and organizations alike demand theseaccountings and they stipulate likewise that theserenderings be concise, resonant, and powerful, thatthey be in a word, elegant. Second, leaders are oftencalled upon to identify the criteria by which storiesor claims are judged. This powerful role is linkedclosely to whether leaders are to succeed when theyattempt to change the dominant frame or imaginaryof the organization, community, or other entity withwhich they are engaged. In such instances, it maynot be sufficient to offer a compelling narrative orstory alone. It may also be necessary to provide analternate set of criteria by which competing claimsought rightly to be understood.

Cognitive imagination

Although cognitive imagination is not identifiedsolely by raw intelligence, it nonetheless appearsunassailable that leaders must possess the necessaryacumen to sort through complex concerns,understand them, and suggest mechanisms by whichthey might reasonably be addressed (Northouse2007). This facet of imagination also requiresleaders to help citizens or stakeholders make senseof their environments at various analytical scales,whether these are nations, subnational politicaljurisdictions, communities, or organizations.Organizations, whether for-profit, nonprofit, orpublic, may not change course unless alternateconceptions of shared purpose or processes arebrought to the fore and present conceptions arechallenged. Citizen and stakeholder groupsimplicitly, and often explicitly, ask leaders to seerelationships among ideas, concerns, or connectionsthey might not, to suggest how those claims arerelated and then to use their aesthetic imaginationto provide a narrative of meaning linked to whatthey seek to describe.

This set of capacities demands high-order analyticalthinking at what some scholars have dubbed themetacognitive level (Turiel 1983, Kohlberg andCandee 1984). Metalevel analysis suggests thatleaders are not only expected to grasp and wrestlewith complexities and to make sense of them, butalso to stand above them to be able to describe incompelling ways their underlying structure andrelationships to allied concerns. That is, they mustmake plain to their constituents their understanding

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of how the issues under consideration might beviewed and why in convincing ways. Addressingthat imperative requires strong cognitive reasoning.

Affective imagination

Leaders are expected to exercise high-orderinterpersonal communication capacities (Graen andUhl-Bien 1995). These typically require that theybe able to function comfortably with diverseindividuals and communicate clearly andeffectively as they do so (Fisher and Ellis 1990,Senge et al. 2004). In addition, these capacitiesdemand at their core two additional capabilities.First, many leadership scholars suggest that leadersmust operate from profound self-knowledge (Burns1978, Heifetz 1994, Senge et al. 2004, Northouse2007). Such self-awareness may allow them tocontrol their reactions and to discipline themselvesas they relate to others with whom they may havedifferences, or who present difficult challengesemotionally or intellectually. Second, successfulleaders exude and practice actively what has beenvariously labeled other-regardingness or empathy(Turiel 1983, Hoffman 2000). They appear able toperceive the needs of those with whom they interactand genuinely to appreciate and act on thoserequirements. Each of these matters merits briefconsideration.

Self-knowledge provides leaders a dais on which tostand as they consider possibilities and the views ofothers with whom they are engaged. Self-knowledge permits leaders to listen actively and todiscern the assumptions as well as articulated needsof constituents and stakeholders (Fisher 1997).Personal awareness also permits leaders to negotiatealternate ways of knowing and to craft metalevelcognitive possibilities because it implies self-knowledge of just these concerns. Self-knowledgepermits a more open and empathetic response toother ways of knowing because one understandsone’s own imaginary well. Listening attentively andopenly to those ideas and epistemologies offered byothers, even when these deeply contravene one’sown, is made possible, if not always comfortable,by that personal knowledge and continuing processof reflection (Gilligan 1982).

The moral imagination

In a thoughtful book concerned with internationalpeacebuilding efforts in which he reflected ondecades of seeking to resolve deep impasses andconflicts, John Paul Lederach defined the moralimagination generally as “… the capacity to imaginesomething rooted in the challenges of the real worldyet giving birth to that which does not yet exist”(Lederach 2005: 29). For his part, and similarly, theinfluential critic and thinker Russell Kirkpopularized the idea of the moral imagination inrecent years. Wesley McDonald has sought tocapture Kirk’s understanding of the moralimagination:

Kirk described the moral imagination “asthat power of ethical perception whichstrides beyond the barriers of privateexperience and events of the moment,especially the higher form of this powerexercised in poetry and art. … A uniquelyhuman faculty, not shared with the lowerforms of life, the moral imaginationcomprises man’s power to perceive ethicaltruth, abiding law in the perceived chaos ofmany events.” Without the moralimagination, man would live merely fromday to day, or rather moment to moment, asdogs do. “It is the strange faculty—inexplicable if men are assumed to have ananimal nature only—of discerning greatness,justice and order beyond the bars ofappetite and self-interest.” (McDonald 2004:55)

McDonald’s characterization suggests that exerciseof the moral imagination demands that itspractitioner act on behalf of a collectivity beyondself. The moral imagination is therefore innatelycreative and intuitive even as it is concerned withneeds beyond those that serve the leader alone.Artful use of the moral imagination will causeleaders first to consider alternate social assumptionsand second, to seek creatively to deepen mutualawareness of what they discover in so doing. Asthey do this, they will seek to look outsidethemselves both to ascertain needs and to justify andlegitimate how they act to address them. As such,the moral imagination is at once an attitude, a moralclaim, and an acuity.

If community-based NGO leaders employ thesefacets or forms of imagination, they will do so in aspecific historical, social, and economic context.

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The analysis turns next to a discussion of the rolesof NGOs as they seek to catalyze adaptive work andaddress long-lived social conflicts. Following anintroduction, the discussion highlights two caseexamples to suggest the ways in which contexts mayshape NGO capacity and scope for action.Thereafter, the paper turns to a discussion of thecharacteristics of community-based leadership andthe role of the various forms of imagination insecuring adaptive change.


It is unfortunately not difficult to develop a list ofnations and communities in which various forms oflong-lived social conflict have led to violence andvarying degrees of breakdown of civil order. Recentexamples include Northern Ireland, Kenya, IvoryCoast, Sri Lanka, Somalia, Israel/Palestine, and theformer Yugoslavia. This roll suggests no dearth ofopportunity for NGO leaders to engage in theexercise of the forms of imagination treated aboveand to press efforts to create enabling environmentsthat permit the adaptive work necessary to allow theconflicting parties and their communities to cometo acknowledge the imaginaries of “the others” intheir conflicts. These disputes are multifaceted androoted deeply in historical conditions andperceptions (Goodhand and Lewer 1999, Shirlowand Murtagh 2006). Some are tied to ethnicity,others to economic conditions, some to religiousbeliefs, still others to conflicts over territory, andsome exhibit elements of all of these factors andmore. Indeed, most perduring social conflict ismultivalent. The role of community-based NGOs intwo such conflicts, in Northern Ireland and in theformer Yugoslavia, is treated briefly below tosuggest the ways in which each raised prevailingimaginaries to view and articulated alternatives forpublic consideration.

What is most pressing in addressing any abidingsocial conflict is the development of mechanismsthat allow the parties both to grasp and respect theimaginaries of the other and to act on that knowledgein good faith thereafter to create new and sharedpossibilities that may then guide new behaviors andefforts to change community conditions. This mayoccur in any number of ways and generally mustobtain among actors across analytic scales as well(Elliott 2002). NGO/civil society organization

leaders may play important roles in allowing for theevolutionary social learning processes aimed atsecuring a modicum of understanding across socialdivides. Cochrane (2000) has argued, for example,that peace and conflict resolution, community-based organizations were cumulatively key to thedevelopment of the historic 1998 Good FridayAgreement in Northern Ireland. These organizations’efforts were not always obvious and frequently,indeed, were not visible to the general public, butthey were nonetheless vital:

Consequently, it is important to make someassessment of the impact of the P/CRO(peace and conflict resolution organizations)sector on the ‘peace process’ in NorthernIreland and its contribution to civil societygenerally. Actually doing this is extremelydifficult in practical terms. In reality, muchof the most useful activity in this field isconducted invisibly and is not tied toparticular events. It is often not appreciablewhen it is carried out, its value onlybecoming apparent in combination withother events and actions when viewed overtime. … While undramatic, it is fair toconclude that the greatest long-term impactof the sector was provided at the micro-levelby ‘unsung heroes’ who provided the gluewhich held society together during theworst periods of conflict. (Cochrane 2000:17-18)

One such organization in Northern Ireland is theCommunity Arts Forum. The Forum, the 1993brainchild of Belfast artists Tom McGill and MartinLynch, sought self-consciously to devisecommunity-based art that transcended the typicalcultural divide that separated even artistic efforts inthat divided province. One such initiative,conceived in 1997 by Lynch and playwright Jo Eganand researched and written with broad communityinvolvement in 1998 and 1999, was a cross-community play, the “Wedding Play,” produced inlate 1999 by 11 different Catholic and Protestantarts groups (Cleveland 2008). As its title suggests,the play featured a wedding, in this case between ayoung couple from Catholic and Protestant workingclass Belfast neighborhoods respectively, and wasstaged in multiple neighborhoods while featuring60 performers from both sectarian communities.

The Wedding Play’s creators exercised affectiveimagination in bringing the disparate groupsinvolved across sectarian lines in a joint production

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whose staging required travel and set-up amongseveral private residences in Protestant and Catholicneighborhoods. The two demonstrated empatheticimagination in building the trust necessary to crosslong-standing animosities to produce a theatricalevent that dealt with the improbable and difficultchallenges of Catholic-Protestant intermarriage asmetaphor for a broader social possibility and itsrelated dilemmas. Egan and Lynch practicedcognitive imagination by envisioning the possibilityof the collaboration, despite obvious specificroadblocks among neighborhood subpopulations,ongoing community violence, and prevailing socialassumptions. These leaders also exercised moralimagination by persevering in a vision of hope andnormative change anchored in an alternate socialimaginary and symbolically represented by the play.

Finally, in undertaking the play’s production andthe cross-community resident involvement itentailed, these artist-leaders created an enablingenvironment for continuing dialogue concerninghow deeply divisive and enduring social conflictsmight be addressed and what factors, precisely,fostered their continuation.

The feminist Yugoslav peace-organization Womenin Black-Serbia (WIB) defined peace not simply asthe absence of social conflict, as had their Irishcounterparts, but also as the replacement of a regimeperceived as illegitimate with one dedicated tosocial justice rooted in political equality. This needarose as a result of the atrocities committed by andin the name of the Milosevic regime during theYugoslav war in the 1990s. WIB advocated forregime change from its founding in 1995 until theconflict’s end, and thereafter has pressed forgovernmental accountability for atrocities by avariety of public advocacy-related activities. Thesehave included the collection and publication of oralhistories of women who lost their children to thehorrors of that Balkan conflict and who often stilldo not know their loved ones’ whereabouts (Zajovicet al. 2007). The group has also led a long series ofsymbol-laden public demonstrations and streetevents aimed at raising the salience of the Srebrenicamassacre and demanding a formal regime apologyfor that horrific event (achieved in 2010, althoughcontroversy still reigns regarding the adequacy ofthat formal statement) and partnered withcommunity-based arts organizations, including thetheatre company DAH, to highlight the tragedieswrought by the war and to call for transitionaljustice. Most recently, WIB has teamed with a

variety of other NGOs to press for creation of a civilsociety-based Regional Fact Finding Commissionon the Victims of Wars in Former Yugoslavia tosecure accountability across the war zone for thosewho perpetrated war crimes. WIB has also pursueda publications program in English as well as Serbianto highlight its claims (Vuskovic and Trifunovic2008).

The group’s leaders have systematically employedaesthetic imagination to design symbolic events tohighlight their claims and to garner public dialogue,including a partnership with the Belgrade basedDAH theatre. WIB has similarly employedcognitive imagination both to develop the evidencenecessary, often oral histories, to press its claims inthe public square and to position those as effectivelyas feasible in the broader public’s consciousness.

Stasha Zajovic and other WIB leaders have builtcoalitions among an array of NGOs around calls forjustice for victims of genocide, military rape, andother war crimes. These have required a capacity toreach a variety of constituencies and elicit theircooperation and support even as it has demandedoften intricate interorganizational communication.Both of these have required continuing exercise ofaffective imagination.

Finally, Women in Black-Serbia has tied itsadvocacy efforts to a vision of an alternate societyin which those wronged by the war attain justice anda new social order is created that removes thevarious social tensions and fissures thatunderpinned the conflict. Creating and sustainingthis vision has required moral imagination.

In Northern Ireland, the Community Arts Forumworked tirelessly to address the fear, hatred, andhistorical divisions that separated the contendingparties to produce a play designed self-consciouslyto stimulate public dialogue on those concerns. Theaim was to convince those who experienced theproduction at least to imagine the possibility ofliving as family with those whose outlook andupbringing did not match their own. Each had toaccord negotiating status and legitimacy to the otherand at least to countenance the development of anew imaginary. In Serbia, WIB has employed a widevariety of often symbolic advocacy activities bothto obtain justice for victims of war crimes and toargue for a changed social imaginary that wouldensure those atrocities would not be repeated. As inNorthern Ireland, WIB’s leaders had not only to

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envision, but also to press for development ofprocesses aimed at securing peaceable opportunitiesfor ongoing dialogue among contending groups toaddress latent assumptions that constituted theexisting social architecture of shared communitymeaning. That is, each group’s leaders has ledefforts to challenge existing widely heldassumptions about “the other” and to press fordialogue about what the assumptions of a new socialimaginary might be.


These brief sketches of the roles played by thesetwo NGOS in two disparate contexts and geographiclocations that have addressed long-lived socialconflicts illustrate the ways these organizations andtheir leaders sought to encourage adaptive work intheir communities. In each case, and despite verydifferent circumstances, these entities sought tocontribute to the construction of more peacefulsocial conditions and thereby greater socialresilience. In each instance, leaders of theseorganizations employed a variety of processes andmeans to address the foundational assumptions thatunderpinned the perspectives that neededconsideration if social change was to occur.

Whatever the mechanism employed, leaders had todevise creative strategies and narratives to bridgethe divides that split their populations and subvertedexisting understanding (aesthetic imagination); hadto be able to articulate perspectives that “madesense” to their community’s residents, but thatnonetheless offered new ways of knowing(cognitive imagination); had to share those ideas inways that could be heard by all, even if that messagewas challenging (affective imagination); and hadfinally to make ethical and moral claims that couldbe understood and be seen as sufficientlycompelling (moral imagination) so as to elicit theprospect of respectful dialogue from all concerned.

NGO leaders and their organizations had, in short,to address their community’s divides while securingconditions for social learning. Such changedemanded new ways of knowing and did not comeeasily. The mechanisms these organizationsemployed to address this principal goal werediverse. Whatever the strategy and audience,however, NGOs and their leaders had to understandthe values and claims that underpinned the social

imaginaries at play in their contexts and findalternate ways of viewing their roles in the commonsthat the community’s population could consider andthat held the prospect for offering an alternative tobroadly shared existing ways of knowing(Goodhand and Lewer 1999).


Instead of focusing on strategies or tools forredressing conflict, this article has explored thenature of the challenge confronting NGOs as theyseek to address enduring social divisions in theircommunities. When long-lived, these socialconflicts are typically architectonic in character andultimately require that these organizations and theirleaders work to create conditions in which those ondifferent sides come first to reflect on their ownways of knowing and thereafter to considerrespectfully those of their perceived “opponents.”Either of these challenges alone is daunting, butwhen highlighted together, the enormity of theobstacles becomes clear. Would-be peacebuildingleaders must chart contrasting imaginaries, mustcraft approaches to bring individuals and competingleaders alike to reflect on them, and must managethe conflict these steps are almost certain to create.But they must do more. Even as they uncoverassumptions for fresh scrutiny in the name of newpossibilities, they must also convince thoseinvolved that the risks implicit in changedassumptions and behaviors are worth bearing andcan be justified on grounds that make moral andcognitive sense. This set of responsibilities isaddressed necessarily in a dynamic historic andsocial context in which missteps can create largesetbacks and the possibility of ruinous conflict.There is no substitute for thoughtful and sustainedengagement that builds trust and allows for thepossible development and articulation of differentsocial imaginaries.

Accordingly, this article has argued that communityNGO leaders seeking to secure peace employ avariety of facets or forms of imagination as theyseek to meet these challenges. They must employaesthetic imagination literally to conceive of waysof knowing that possess the power to subvertexisting claims. They must utilize affectiveimagination in countless meetings and public eventsto broker trust and legitimacy and to come tounderstand more fully the hopes, fears, andassumptions of all sides to their community’s

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central conflict. They must also use their cognitiveimagination to analyze possibilities for future actionand to craft strategies aimed at eliciting theirdiscussion and refinement. Finally, and overarchingly,their efforts must be driven by a moral attachmentto the common good of their community and to thehope represented by the effective amelioration ofthe conflict dividing it. They must be driven by apassionate regard for the future and for the ethicalmitigation of conflict in their midst.

Paton and Johnston (2006) suggested that post-disaster efforts to build community resiliencerequires the rethinking of the ways of life and ofliving that antedated specific disaster events. Thismay require living in alternate locations, changingthe mix of economic activities that sustaincommunity life, or overcoming long-standingdissensus among different social groups, or all ofthese. Community resilience in short demands morethan effective disaster planning, as important assuch efforts may be. It demands social learning andartful leadership aimed at creating enablingenvironments for just possibilities to occur.

Given the complexity and interdependent array ofactors involved in creating, sustaining, andchanging community social imaginaries, these areunlikely to shift magically with adoption of one oranother strategy, tool, or technique by eitherpolitical or civil society actors. However, sustainedefforts to clarify and articulate differences andsimilarities among the parties as well as to identifytheir hidden and often unarticulated assumptionsconcerning existing ways of knowing andcommunity organization may allow civil societyleaders to play important roles in these criticalprocesses. To the extent they do so successfully,they can contribute significantly to the developmentof public consideration of social imaginaries andtheir self-conscious (re)creation over time aroundnew assumptions and claims. There can be nogainsaying how difficult such efforts are, but theirattainment, as reflected through alternateimaginaries, is critical to the long-term resilience ofdisaster afflicted and conflict-ridden communitiesalike. This goal, as the old axiom had it, is well worththe candle expended to pursue it.

[1] This section is adapted from Stephenson Jr., M.O. 2009. Exploring the connections among adaptiveleadership, facets of imagination and socialimaginaries. Public Policy and Administration 24(3):417-435.

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The author acknowledges with sincere thanks LeahWickham’s research assistance in the developmentof this article.


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