Summary of The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace

Summary of

The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace

by John Paul Lederach

Summary written by Michelle Maiese, Conflict Research Consortium Note: We also have a shorter review and another summary that is quite different in focus. 

Citation: Lederach, John Paul. The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace. Oxford, MA: Oxford University Press, 2005.


Lederach describes the "moral imagination" as the capacity to recognize turning points and possibilities in order to venture down unknown paths and create what does not yet exist. In reference to peacebuilding, the moral imagination is the capacity to imagine and generate constructive processes that are rooted in the day-to-day challenges of violence and yet transcend these destructive patterns. In Lederach's view, the moments of possibility that pave the way for constructive change processes do not emerge through the rote application of a set of techniques or strategies, but rather arise out of something that approximates an artistic process. Lederach maintains that the art and soul of social change should inform peacebuilding efforts. Lederach's methodology and writing style throughout this book reflect his emphasis on art and imagination. His inquiry is not linear or strictly analytical, and he repeatedly appeals to imagery, metaphors, and stories to spark readers' imagination. Themes investigated include the nature of relationships, webs, social change, violence, creativity, serendipity, and complexity, among others.

The goal of transcending violence is advanced by the capacity to generate, mobilize, and build the moral imagination. This faculty rests on four capacities:

  1. Moral imagination requires the capacity to imagine ourselves in a web of relationships, one that includes even our enemies.
  2. It requires the ability to embrace complexity without getting caught up in social schism.
  3. It requires a commitment to the creative act.
  4. It requires an acceptance of the risk that necessarily goes along with attempts to transcend violence.

To foster moral imagination, we must understand the dynamics of protracted violence, the destructive legacy such violence leaves, and why breaking these violent patterns is so difficult. In addition, we must explore how the creative process can help to bring about social change and transform human relationships.

According to Lederach, the essence of peacebuilding is found in four disciplines, each of which requires imagination. These disciplines are relationships, paradoxical curiosity, creativity, and risk.

  1. The Centrality of relationships: Relationships form the context in which violence happens and also generate the energy that enables people to transcend violence. As people acknowledge their relational interdependency and recognize themselves as part of the pattern, they may be able to envision a wider set of relationships and take personal responsibility for their own choices and behavior. In short, peacebuilding requires that people be able to envision their interconnectedness and mutuality.
  2. The Practice of Paradoxical Curiosity: Cycles of violence are often driven by polarities. Choices about to respond to conflict are forced into either-or categories: you are either with us or against us. Moral imagination involves the capacity to rise above these divisions and reach beyond accepted meanings. Paradoxical curiosity is a matter of respecting complexity, seeking something beyond what is visible, and discovering what it is that holds apparently opposed social energies together. It involves accepting people at face value, and yet looking beyond appearances and suspending judgment in order to discover untold new angles, opportunities, and unexpected potentialities.
  3. Provide Space for the Creative Act: Moral imagination arises through creative human action that arises out of the everyday and yet moves beyond what exists to something new and unexpected. Because new ways of thinking may pose a threat to the status quo, it is important to provide space for the creative act to emerge. This requires a commitment to creativity and a belief that it is possible to move beyond the parameters of what is commonly accepted. This quality of providing for and expecting the unexpected is well-known in the world of artists and needs to be cultivated in the world of peacebuilders. Creativity opens us to avenues of inquiry and provides us with new ways to think about social change.
  4. The Willingness to Risk: To take a risk is to step into the unknown without any guarantee of success or safety. For many people caught in conflict, violence is known, and peace is a mystery. Because peacebuilding typically requires people to move toward a new, mysterious, and unexpected future, it is a difficult journey.

On Peace Accords

In particular, the post-accord phase poses a great challenge for genuine social change.

The fact that numerous peace accords have collapsed demonstrates how difficult it is to transcend cycles of violence and foster and sustain a durable peace. One place to look for answers about how to move toward peace is the site of violent conflict. Indeed, it is often people who face the worst conflict situations who see the challenge of constructive change with piercing clarity.

Constructive change is a matter of moving parties toward a relationship of love rather than one of fear. While relationships of love are characterized by openness, mutual respect, and dignity, relationships characterized by fear are defined by blame, self-justification, and violence. Constructive social change seeks to change the dynamics of human interaction that uphold relational dignity and respectful engagement.

Most of the conflict resolution literature offers an image of violent conflict and peacebuilding as a rising and then falling line of escalation. This image emphasizes negotiation of the symptomatic and more visible expressions of conflict, but not the relational context that generates the fighting. In short, it focuses on reaching an agreement, rather than healing damaged relationships.

But what is an agreement? The true nature of social and human change is obscured by the metaphor of agreement and the linear image of conflict. Speaking of agreement implies that the parties have reached a solution and that the conflict has ended. However, it appears that agreements that end conflict are difficult to find. In fact, most peace accords propose negotiated processes and aim at stopping the shooting and killing. While these are laudable goals, they are only a small part of the change process that needs to occur.

Acording to Lederach, to sustain change processes, people need to shift to a context-based, dynamic platform capable of generating nonviolent solutions to ongoing episodes of conflict. Peaceful transformation requires a long-term view that involves ongoing changes to relationships and addresses both the episodic expressions of conflict and its relational core. This is matter of being capable of responding to day-to-day issues while also launching new ideas for long-term change. Thus, we should not think of the post-agreement phase as a distinct temporal time period, but as a phase connected to the broader processes of social change. Lederach suggests that the multiple processes that are required to create and sustain ongoing change can be built by supporting the constructive engagement of people who have been historically divided. These relational platforms are more important than any individual solutions that are created. While agreements may solve specific problems, platforms generate processes that may ultimately be able to transform the relationships that lie at the root of conflict. Without these deeper processes of genuine engagement, the peace agreement will collapse.

On the Gift of Pessimism

Among those who are most affected by peace decisions, there is a sense of pessimism about how post-accord change processes operate and shape their future. People who live with violent conflict have a sense that moving away from violence is not easy and that change does not come quickly. They perceive that the more things change, the more they remain the same, and are likely to approach the post-accord phase with a critical eye and a sense of caution. This attitude of pessimism points to some important questions about how to rebuild a public sphere that has been destroyed by violence, how to restore trust in public institutions, and how to move from cycles of violence to respectful engagement. Lederach believes that people who live in societies that are moving from war to peace have much to tell us about the nature of constructive social change.

People in conflict settings tend to have an intuitive sense of complexity and an ability to gauge the authenticity of change processes. Though they are hopeful, they recognize that if simple answers are reached and complexity is ignored, the proposed changes may actually be dangerous. Due to their life experience, they better understand the repeated patterns of violence and the difficult challenge of moving toward peace. This pessimism acts as a continuous warning system and a sense of grounded realism, which helps them to survive as well as seek out genuine change.

Determining whether authentic change has taken place is a long-term, reiterative process. Often it takes a long time for people to believe the changes are real, and they judge the authenticity of change processes by what goes on within their local communities. While change is structural, it takes place at the level of real-life relationships and is gauged by personal and individual actions. The potential for peace is located in the nature and quality of relationships developed with those who are most feared. Authentic change is a matter of moving forward by engaging the past and then transcending it.

The most significant weakness of current peacebuilding effort is the lack of genuine participation, ownership, and commitment among local community members. Moral imagination is a matter of creating links between memory and vision and is to a large extent the vocation of communities. This is a move away from realpolitik and the view that human security is tied primarily to the size of weapons, the height of walls, or the degree of power to impose or control. Instead, the focus of authentic change processes is on how to touch people's lives and allow them to have some participation in and ownership of decision-making.

On the Art of Social Change

Lederach argues that knowing and understanding conflict does not take place exclusively, nor even primarily, through processes of cognitive analysis. Often knowledge is a matter of seeing the whole rather than the parts and relying on intuition more than cognition. Thus, invoking moral imagination cannot be achieved simply by applying the techniques or skills of a process. Skill must be integrated with aesthetics to incorporate intuition and imagination.

Transformative moments in peacebuilding often resemble moments of aesthetic imagination in which something intellectually and emotionally complex is captured in an "ah-ha" moment. Valuable insight surfaces in the form of an image or in a way of describing things that resonates with the parties. These intuitive moments synthesize the complexities of conflict and the challenges of addressing deep human dilemmas. Listening becomes a matter of attending to what things truly mean and finding connections and essences. Metaphor can be understood as a creative act that reveals the essence of conflict, the underlying problems, and ways forward. An appeal to metaphors and images can help parties to get at the core of a complex problem and imagine possibilities for social change. Once we see social change as an art form, it becomes clear that building adaptive peacebuilding processes requires creativity, constant innovation, and flexibility. The value of moral imagination lies in the ability to get to the heart and soul of the matter and thereby move from cycles of violence to new relationships.

On Life in the Web

The invisible web of relationships is what holds societies together. Peacebuilding can thus be thought of as rebuilding the relational spaces that hold things together and give people a sense of identity, direction, and purpose. A relationship-centered approach to peacebuilding emphasizes the 'who' rather than the 'how' of transcending conflict. It understands the human community in terms of the crisscrossing connections between people, their lives, activities, and patterns of conflict. Understanding things in this way requires appropriate lenses so that people can bring the web of relationships into focus. To understand existing social webs, we should examine both the web makers and the web watchers.

Lederach points to the web making of spiders as a metaphor for constructive change in settings of violence. Peacebuilding resources are the relationships and social spaces within a particular setting that have the capacity to generate constructive change processes. There are various vertical and horizontal linkages and overlapping strands. Like the spider, people who wish to build peace must think about the space in which they are operating, the resources that are available, and the attachment points that will make the process stick. Constructing social change is an art of seeing and building webs in an unpredictable environment. The challenge is to create innovative responses to challenges as they arise by building relational spaces and understanding connections. Three principles that emerge from watching "spiders" weave their webs:

  1. Understand the Social Geography: Web making is hypersensitive to the contours of space and connections. The capacity to locate strategic anchor points that link people who are not like-minded or like-situated (socially, politically, or economically) is crucial. Social change requires recognizing, building, and strengthening relational spaces.
  2. Always Think about Intersections: Build "hubs" that connect those who are not similarly situated and do not hold similar views. The places where relationships intersect are places where multiple coordinated and independent connections can be created to build strength.
  3. Be Smart Flexible: Smart Flexibility is a matter of being able to adapt and respond to problems as they arise. Web making can be thought of creating a platform to generate creative responses, processes, ideas, and solutions. This is a continuous process of sustaining relational spaces that must adapt to changes in environment, the surfacing of new issues, and the development of new obstacles and difficulties.

On Mass and Movement: Critical Yeast

Unlike a linear change theory, the web approach emphasizes that multiple processes at different levels and social spaces should take place at the same time. It does not think in terms of "us" versus "them," but rather about how multiple sets of interdependent processes link people together and bring about social change. In settings of protracted conflict, movement away from fear and violence requires large numbers of people. However, it is important to note that it is not necessarily the amount of participants that sustain change processes. The focus on "numbers" has led to a misunderstanding and misapplication of the concept of critical mass.

In the social sciences, the notion of critical mass is used to make sense of how social ideas come to be widely accepted by society. The point at which enough people come to believe in social change is the point of critical mass. However, creating self-sustained processes of social change is not simply about numbers of people, but also a matter of discovering what initial, small processes and changes make exponentially larger changes possible. What is the catalyst for social change? Focusing on the quantity of people involved can distract us from the quality of change and the sorts of spaces needed to sustain change. What is crucial is getting a small set of people involved at the right places and drawing on available resources, space, and connections. According to Lederach, oftentimes the missing ingredient is not the critical mass, but rather the "critical yeast." (91) Which people, if brought together, would have a capacity to generate peace and allow it to grow exponentially?

Lederach appeals to bread making as a metaphor for peacebuilding through an appeal to the following five principles:

  1. Yeast is the smallest ingredient, yet it drives potential change and is necessary to make the other ingredients grow. A few strategically placed people have greater potential for creating social growth than large numbers of people who think alike.
  2. Sitting on the shelf, yeast has no real capacity to bring about growth. It must be mixed in with the larger mass.
  3. However, yeast cannot be mixed in directly and quickly. Initial growth must be cultivated carefully. Similarly, social change requires the creation of safe spaces to bring people together for social growth.
  4. After the initial phase, the yeast must be thoroughly mixed into the mass through a process of kneading. To be authentic, growth must persist in spite of everything that pushes it down. Like yeast, social change requires a capacity for resilience.
  5. It is important to preheat the oven. Social change is a matter of multi-tasking: while one set of changes is set in motion, attention must always be given to what will need to be attended to in the future.

This approach requires what Lederach calls an "imaginative meditative capacity," or an ability to think about the social spaces for constructive change processes that have intermediary impact. This requires us to think about mediation as a process requiring multiple roles and activities rather than as an activity performed by a single trained professional. Mediative capacity is a capacity to watch for and build creative responses to conflict by creating change processes and strengthening social spaces. Lederach maintains that "the perspective of meditative capacity focuses attention on introducing a quality of interaction into a strategic set of social spaces within the web of systemic relationships in order to promote constructive change processes in the conflict-affected setting as a whole." (97) The most significant peacebuilding processes are those that infuse relational spaces with a new quality of interaction and strategically connect a small group of people in such a way that whole societies begin to be transformed.

On Web Watching

Sparking constructive social change and making it stick requires imagination, new ways of thinking, and the development of processes that create new social spaces. However, prior to the strategic development of change processes, a different form of imagination must be honed. Lederach describes this often-overlooked component of peacebuilding as "the craft of watching webs." (101) Watching for social webs is not only a matter of empirical observation or conflict analysis, but also a matter of the soul. It involves getting past noise and being attentive to the authentic dialogue that is taking place in our surroundings so that we can see the patterns beneath the presenting symptoms. Web watching requires patience and observation and leaves peacebuilders with two important questions: What exists? What is our relationship to it? Finding and understanding the social webs that exist requires stillness, humility, and sensuous perception.

  1. Stillness: Web watching requires great patience, intense attention, and careful observation. To see what exists and thereby imagine something different, we must truly pay attention to the resources, insights, and possibilities for change that are all around us. External actors tend to be driven by a sense of urgency to provide short-terms answers to problems and are often unable to see the already-existing potential for constructive change. They lack stillness.
  2. Humility: The scientists who watch spiders demonstrate respect, connectedness, and a sense that their every movement affects the context in which they are working. What Lederach calls "soul of place" is a kind of inner voice that speaks to us about who we are and what sort of role we play in the places where we find ourselves. Once people have a deeper sense of identity, relationship, and situated-ness, they may begin to acknowledge that their lives are part of a bigger whole. They may also recognize that learning and truth-seeking are lifelong endeavors.
  3. Sensuous Perception: What we perceive and are attentive to is integrally tied to social change. Sensuous perception is a capacity to use our complete faculties to achieve full awareness of that which surrounds us. Analytical capacities rely on but two senses, hearing and seeing, in making sense of human conflict. The moral imagination goes beyond the world of words to engage a fuller range of senses: eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and skin.

On Serendipity

The serendipitous appearance of the moral imagination in human affairs is what makes profound social shifts possible. Thus, the question of how to harness and apply moral imagination is difficult to answer. Constructive social change is often more about what accompanies and surrounds the peacebuilding journey than what was originally planned and pursued. Serendipity consists in moving with the energetic flow of the unexpected and being open to the possibility of gaining insight and understanding from unplanned occurrences. To see such potential requires a sort of peripheral vision and an ability to watch carefully for opportunities for social change in both good and difficult times. Serendipitous openings can lead to new relationships, breakthroughs, and even negotiations. Lederach points out that deep-seated patterns of violence are not controlled and overcome by acts of further violence, but rather by changing the environment that generates that pattern of violence. Serendipity is all about our capacity to innovate, imagine alternatives, and adapt to changing circumstances while keeping in mind our goals. The three capacities that facilitate the discovery of serendipitous moments are acquiring and building a capacity for peripheral vision, developing creative learning disciplines, and sustaining platforms that are smart flexible.

  1. Peripheral Vision: Being attentive to circumstances and surroundings is central to peacebuilding. Peripheral vision looks past the symptomatic expression of conflict to see the historical patterns of relationships. Relationships have an ongoing, dynamic nature and offer up various accidents, unexpected twists, and opportunities. Peripheral vision is a matter of watching for any "accidents" that occur along the way and, in the face of obstacles, watching for other paths or avenues of social change.
  2. Creative Learning: Artists never bump into the very same problem twice. Their pursuits involve insatiable curiosity, constant invention, and attentive critique. Creative learning is a matter of learning things by accident and wanting to know more. This goes beyond rote skill training and requires an ability think beyond what already exists. Being attentive to how things are connected may open our eyes to tremendous insights that were not originally expected or intended.
  3. Smart Flexible Platforms: Social institutions and bureaucracies are notorious for being rigid and unable to shift and change according to new demands. However, not all processes of social change are linear nor are they always best measured by visible and verifiable results. Platforms for change need to reflect the fact that the context in which change processes take root are dynamic and constantly changing. These platforms must be purposeful and yet flexible and adaptive enough to generate new responses to emerging challenges. Lederach asks that we think of peacebuilding as a process structure that consists in dynamic adaptive platforms for social change.

On Time

Lederach asserts that we need to develop a capacity to imagine the past that lies before us. This means recognizing that the past is not dead, but rather alive and present in the wisdom, understanding, and deep identity held by the elders of the group. Because relationships between people and nations arise in a historical context, the past can be a useful frame of reference for responding to a crisis and moving toward change. The integrated framework for peacebuilding that Lederach set forth in 1997 requires a capacity to understand the patterns of the present, imagine a desired future, and design change processes at various levels. Lederach points out that the past has been left out of this framework, and that what needs to be incorporated is a more holistic understanding of the settings of cycles of violent conflict. People's "lived histories" encompass the lived experiences that create and reinforce the stories of their collective lives and shared memories. The history of the formation of the group's identity, the construction of the group's future, and its very survival are all about finding place, voice, and story. (143) Lederach points to a wide range of activities increasingly practiced in the field of peacebuilding that explore the past: truth commissions, war crime tribunals, restorative justice practices, and trauma healing.

Moral imagination does not see the past as something to be overcome, laid aside, or forgotten in order to move toward a better future. Instead, the narratives that give meaning to people's lives and relationships must be told and the repetitive patterns acknowledged so that healing can take place. People must attempt to discover where they've been, who they are, where they are going, and how they will make this journey together. Between memory and the potential future, there is the place of narrative, the art of "restorying." (148)

On Imagination and Creativity

Creativity has a tremendous transformative power. Art and music have an ability to move people, remind them of their share humanity, and move them toward reconciliation. Artistic performances and activities can bring people together, strengthen relationships, and contribute to healing and reconciliation.

There is something transcendent that takes place both in artistic endeavors and in authentic reconciliation. Like artistic processes, reconciliation is not linear. It proceeds in all kinds of unexpected ways, has its own sense of time, and is not chronological. Like a creative endeavor, reconciliation has its own inner timing and cannot be forced. It arises from the heart as much as from the head and is most effective when it expresses a message that is simple and honest. The knack for playfulness and for seeing the life inside of things is highly important. Ledearch recommends that peacebuilders begin to see themselves as artists who feel a sense of connection to what they create, love for what they do, and a desire to bring beauty to what they build. The work of peacebuilding and social change needs to move beyond analytical techniques and tap into people's more artistic selves.

On Vocation

A commitment to building relationships involves risk. Risk is a mysterious journey into the unknown that requires us to accept uncertainty and vulnerability. In settings of protracted conflict, people find innovate responses not because they are well-trained, gifted professionals, but rather because they find a way to voice who they are and how they see themselves in relationship with others. Risk-taking and the exercise of moral imagination involve the ability to find one's voice and carry out one's vocation. Vocation is not a matter of one's job or what one does professionally, but rather a matter knowing and staying true to oneself. Those whom Lederach calls "voicewalkers" are those who are continuously guided by their sense of vocation and have a clear sense of who they are. Peacebuilding can be thought of as working to help people find the voice that sustains transcendent change and makes it possible for people to enter into relationships with "the enemy."


The approach Ledearch has presented suggests that peacebuilders should think of themselves as artists engaged in a vocation to nurture constructive social change. Some of their main "tools" would be serendipitous moments, intuition, innovation, and creativity.

In many respects, the events that have transpired since September 11, 2001 are the antithesis of the moral imagination. Rigid ideologies, isolation, and fear paralyze the capacity to imagine a web of interdependent relationships. What we see are cycles of violence driven by fear and insecurity. If we are to survive as a global community, we must find ways to foster the moral imagination and recognize that our current modes of response are incapable of overcoming violence.

  • We must move away from isolation and an emphasis on domination and toward an emphasis on interdependent relationships.
  • We must recognize the complexity of relationships and not fall prey to an "us vs. them" mentality.
  • We must trust that creativity and the capacity for constructive change are always in reach and not look to violence as our sole mode of defense and security.
  • We must accept vulnerability and seek constructive engagement with those people and things we least understand and most fear.

Lederach ends with the following mantra:

"Reach out to those you fear. Touch the heart of complexity. Imagine beyond what is seen. Risk vulnerability one step at a time."