This big topic is one that I’m reviewing as part of my doctoral research. As a starting point I’ve reviewed some papers on evaluative criteria and the philosophical base of futures work, and looked at related literature on transdisciplinary inquiry and sustainability issue appraisal.
This post is, in part, prompted by a qualitative research training course I recently attended in which the trainer separated philosophical assumptions (e.g., epistemology), paradigm (the overall inquiry lens, or the researcher’s worldview in Creswell’s terms), and research methods. She also suggested the use of research methods (e.g. interviews) should be consistent with the researcher’s assumptions and commitments. According to this view our methodological choices and approaches are embedded within wider paradigmatic assumptions, stances or commitments. It is also prompted by my interest in the theoretical underpinning of practices like scenario planning. I generally agree with critics like Bradfield (2008) who argue that “there appears to be no solid theoretically-based foundation underpinning scenario techniques” and advocate giving much more attention to these aspects.
Below is a first cut at mapping some of the terrain, drawing on other scholars (e.g. Inayatullah, Slaughter, etc), with a focus on the use of scenario techniques.
Positivistic and postpositivist assumptions (also see empiricism)
This position adopts the narrow value criteria of predictive utility, that is: a scenario is only ‘successful’ “if it can retrospectively be shown to have described reality with some adequate level of verisimilitude” (Hulme & Dessai, 2008). Sohail Inayatullah has termed this the ‘predictive-empiricist’ position, and has laid-out some of the related core assumptions (e.g. about a deterministic universe).
In Creswell’s framework the related postpositivist worldview is one where the researcher “holds a deterministic philosophy in which causes probably determine effects and outcomes”, focussed on an objective reality that exists “out there” in the world.
Walton (2008) suggests that this leads to scenario methodologies being used as a probabilistic forecasting method. However, Walton argues and warns that scenario methods are generally unable to meet necessary positivistic conditions for truth testing. In my experience managers prefer to operate in this mode, an observation also made by Alex Wright from the University of Wolverhampton.
The pragmatist worldview is “not committed to any one system of philosophy or reality” (i.e., it’s pluralistic), real-world practice oriented and is problem-centred: “there is a concern with application – what works – and solutions to problems”, and “truth is what works at the time” (Creswell, 2008). Like critical realists pragmatists also believe “in an external world independent of the mind”.
Regarding scenario planning, Walton (2008) calls for a pragmatic perspective. This perspective emphasises decision-making utility (as the outcome of inquiry), not “testable knowledge production”.
Social constructivists “hold assumptions that individuals seek understanding of the world in which they live and world” and they develop “subjective meanings of their experiences” which are often negotiated socially and historically (Creswell, 2008). These subjective meanings “are formed through interaction with others (hence social constructivism)”.
Over the past decade more scholars have argued futures work and studies adopts a social constructivist position. Thomas Chermack and Alex Wright emphasise the constructivism in scenario planning; however, Wright argues the social and constructivist natures of scenarios are problematically ignored by influential scenario planning experts (such as Kees van der Heijden) and that positivism is present in the unspoken assumptions in well-known examples (e.g. the Shell School of scenarios). In his view “misleading objectivity is claimed for a process that is fundamentally subjective”, and individuals interpreting scenarios (e.g. encountering them through listening to presentations) do so “subjectively in an effort to make them meaningful and thereby relevant and useful” (see Wright, 2004). I agree. This view is closely related to those arguing that there is no purely objective view of the future
A constructivist perspective calls for relocating scenario planning as a “socially produced construct” (Wright, 2004) and for considering how scenarios “can stimulate prospective sensemaking” (see paper). The latter refers to how scenarios, as socially constructed narratives, provide a means to broaden how events and unfamiliar cues are ‘made sense’ of – with a future focus (i.e. prospective) – and to enhance strategising. Unexpected cues are often unable to be located within existing mental models.
Wright further argues a social constructionist standpoint sees scenario planners:
- Beginning with the desire to gather and construct data from which meaning can be induced, and recognising the multiple acts of meaning creation and re-interpretation are involved;
- Considering the use of language and text in the creation of scenarios, and how these are used to construct meaning;
- Viewing scenarios as subjective social constructions;
- Paying attention to power relations in scenario-building, such as whose voices remain unheard;
- Recognising the situatedness and constructed nature of the present and past (rather than presuming a single shared past and present);
- Considering the contextual limitations of their methods and propositions;
- Re-considering the role of facilitators (e.g. not seeing them as neutral and value-free); and
- Acknowledging their behaviours and actions will influence which futures are created.
The statements of some scenario practitioners and scholars appear to have a constructivist orientation. In their recent piece in Harvard Business Review on Shell’s use of scenario planning Wilkinson and Kupers state the following: “Corporations, like human beings, act on the basis of an agreed-upon reality — which is, in essence, a story. Stories of the past and the present can be based on facts, but a story of the future is just a story. The problem is that the stories we most commonly tell about the future simply extrapolate from the present. Perhaps the greatest power of scenarios, as distinct from forecasts, is that they consciously break this habit.” The reference to ‘story’ sound a lot like ‘subjective meanings’.
Additionally, scholars in Science and Technology Studies (STS) often adopt constructivist positions, and this informs their assessment of foresight exercises. For example, van Lente contrasts a ‘realist’ and ‘constructivist’ view of expectations about future. The realist view makes a distinction between expectations and the ‘real’ state of affairs (and this can be determined a priori). By contrast, with a constructivist view what matters is whether a future expectation is accepted as meaningful and then acted upon (van Lente, 2012). Moreover, it recognises such assessments and action shape behavior that will influence whether an expectation is true. (Expectations are assessed retrospectively).
Critical/poststructural positions and the advocacy/participatory worldview
A poststructural position has been most explicitly adopted by Inayatullah. He argued the goal shouldn’t be to predict the future; instead the aim is to problematise existing futures-oriented thinking, make “the present remarkable”, and he also argued language is constitutive of reality. Inayatullah argues the utility of methods like causal layered analysis lies “not in predicting the future [as per a positivistic mode] but in creating transformative spaces for the creation of alternative futures”.
An advocacy or participatory worldview “holds that inquiry needs to be intertwined with politics and a political agenda” (Creswell, 2008), such as helping marginalised people, and “research contains an action agenda for reform”. Creswell notes that researchers and writters in this space draw on the work of scholars like Habermas and Marx. This is clear in some futures studies literature, such as Slaughter’s development of critical futures studies approaches which draw on Habermas. Richard Slaughter’s sketch of an emancipatory tradition in futures studies also adopts this position.
Many scholars in the sustainability space have an advocacy/participatory worldview. For example, the book Dynamic Sustainabilities is framed around ‘opening up’ issue appraisal processes and enabling new narratives to better address the needs of poor and marginalised peoples. They contend that sustainability has to again be viewed as a political and explicitly normative idea.
Open transdisciplinary inquiry; ontological and epistemological insecurity and openness
In a recent Editorial statement in Futures Ted Fuller (the new editor) and Zia Sardar (the former editor) acknowledge that the futures ‘field’ is a ‘trans-disciplinary field’ in which “uncertainty and a bit of humility must now be the norm”. In the statement they further contend that “the chief meaningful characteristic of Futures Studies is ontological and epistemological insecurity”.
Fuller and Sardar are describing a shift away positivistic and postpositivist assumptions. They note that “what accompanied the formation of Futures in 1968 was an expectation that through improved knowledge and methods, the future would be more easily predicated or forecast, and as a corollary, more controlled and would be much ‘better’”. They argue that “now we know better”. Maybe. If Mike Hulme is right, the rise of climate modelling reflects the re-emergence of such expectations. Hulme argues that the “hegemony of predictive natural sciences” has led to an “over-determined” future and the “openness, contingency and multiple possibilities of the future” being “closed off”.
One framework for more open transdisciplinary inquiry has been proposed by Jacqueline Russell. Russell called for both an “open ontology” and an “open epistemology”, and openness about guiding ethics — justified by a need to recognise uncertainty and ignorance, deal with the epistemological problem of ‘under-determination’, and to acknowledge the partially, plurality, and provisionality of knowing:
- An ‘open ontology’ adopts an ‘open systems’ view of the world, in which the nature of the world is believed to exist as an unfolding dynamic and heterogeneous complexity; and
- An ‘open epistemology’ explicitly takes account of multiple constructions of knowledge.
In the book Tackling Wicked Problems: Through the Transdisciplinary Imagination Russell argues we are yet to accept “the consequences of the complexity of the world and our inability to include everything in our system of inquiry”. She calls for “greater humility than our positivist forebears”, and approaches “to inquiry and decision-making that remains flexible and open to revision and improvement”.
From the perspective of these philosophical assumptions and paradigms futures work and methods provide tools to enable a less-determined future and approaches for conducting open transdisciplinary inquiry. Some of the value, here, lies in enabling an “‘open systems’ view of the world”. For example, in Scenario Planning in Organizations Thomas Chermack positions scenario planning as an important answer to the following question: how can you help decision-makers to understand the dynamics at play in uncertain ‘environments’? I have seen this in scenario planning projects. The scenarios themselves may turn out to be a poor or a very poor expression of the future that emerges but they have already had delivered a lot of value in forcing decision-makers to engage much more deeply with the complex dynamics at play — which is later drawn on in strategy-making and decision-making.
This position has been most strongly argued by Wendell Bell (e.g. see his two-part Foundations of Futures Studies); he saw this position as an important counter to positivist intellectual constraints on futures inquiry, and as part of efforts to counter moves towards relativism or nihilism in the postmodernist turn. That is, he sought to overcome the unwarranted certitude of positivism — focussing instead on conjectural knowledge — without lapsing into extreme relativism and subjectivism.
Bell notes that “futurists function with a mish-mash of sometimes contradictory epistemological views”, and “face the additional task of justifying truthlike propositions about the as yet nonexistent and unobservable future”. He called for more examination of the epistemological roots of futures inquiry.
Critical realists “do not demand that the truth of a proposition be justified, but only that a person is justified in believing that the proposition is true” and “give reasons for their beliefs and make serious attempt to refute them” (Bell, 2007). “They believe that knowledge is conjectural and they allow for the possibility that conjectural knowledge may turn out to be false”. In essence Bell drew on this position to argue “conjectural knowledge of the future is possible” — critiquing the “denial of prediction” voiced by most futurists, also viewing it as a core part of planning and decision-making.
According to Wendell Bell:
- Prediction plays an important role — they are also termed “truth-like propositions about what, under a variety of different assumptions, might be, can be, or will likely be at some future time”;
- Futures studies includes an orientation to action “can be considered an action science in the fullest sense of the term”;
- The futures field “is necessarily multidisciplinary or transdisciplinary”; and
- The “conjectures and speculations about the future, whatever their imaginative and intuitive sources, can be objectively examined and evaluated as truth claims by themselves and others”
EVALUATIVE APPROACHES, REFLECTIONS AND GAPS
A useful starting point is the framework outlined by Hulme and Dessai (2008) for evaluating climate scenarios: predictive success (has the future turned out as envisaged?); decision success (have ‘good’ decisions subsequently been made?); and learning success (have scenarios proved engaging and enabled learning?). These can be considered in light of the above perspectives:
- The first criterion, predictive success, is aligned with positivistic/postpositivist assumptions or the critical realism espoused by Wendell Bell;
- The second criterion, decision success, mostly clearly expresses a pragmatist worldview. Pragmatism appears to be the dominant (implicit) worldview of foresight: recent papers on the value proposition often focus on enabling more effective decision-making; and
- The third criterion, learning success, is most clearly aligned to the other philosophical positions and frameworks: the social constructivist and interpretive positions, critical/post-structural, advocacy/participatory worldview, and open transdisciplinary inquiry.
Considering the links between philosophical position, paradigm and method we can also consider how methods are used. Scenarios can be adopted for forecasting (in positivistic modes), as a decision-making tool, or as a tool for learning (in both organisational learning and social learning processes).
A related dimension is what is the goal of futures inquiry? For example, is the goal “testable knowledge production” (as per positivist modes, or Bell’s critical realism), or a wider set of objectives?
The Fuller/Sardar editorial statement in the journal Futures suggests the potential for wider learning and value. That is, given an increasingly complex and unpredictable world, scenario techniques and futures inquiry (more broadly) can develop capacity to cope with the indeterminacy of the future – in contrast to the determinism of models. As noted above there is value in enabling an “‘open systems’ view of the world” (i.e. an ‘open ontology’) and helping to develop new modes of interdisciplinary inquiry.
Another clarifying perspective in Hulme and Dessai (2008) is the idea that scenarios can be understood either as ‘products’ (the scenarios themselves) or as ‘social processes’ (as per their development and/or use). Constructivism and interpretivism lend themselves to understanding peoples’ experience of scenario development, being exposed to a set of scenarios, and using them.
Garb et al (2008) call for more analysis of the “social work” of scenarios; that is, how they shape and embed their social contexts. For example, how they “operate on” context by: 1) shaping what political actors know, say and do; 2) playing role in facilitating dialogue and building networks between disparate actors; and 3) doing social work by linking different social world and mediating different world as a so-called “boundary object”, and seeing scenarios as ‘boundary-spanning’ artifacts.
One gap in the above discussion is integral theory and philosophies. In some respects it can sound like the pluralism of a pragmatist worldview. For example, Joseph Voros argues “integral inquiry must take into account, honour and somehow include the essence of the foundational assumptions of all existing approaches to inquiry”. (He also states that ‘Integral Future’ “recognises that there are many ways of knowing … and that no singular approach, paradigm, methodology or form of praxis can be assigned pre-eminence”). Similarly, given integral theory provides a framework for honouring and integrating multiple ways of knowing it could support an ‘open epistemology’.
Brown, V.A., Harris, J.A. & Russell, J.Y. (eds) 2010, Tackling Wicked Problems: Through the Transdisciplinary Imagination, Earthscan
Chermack, T.J. & van der Merwe, L. 2003, ‘The role of constructivist learning in scenario planning’, Futures, vol. 35, no. 5, pp. 445-60
Chermack, T.J. 2011, Scenario Planning in Organizations: How to Create, Use and Assess Scenarios, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc, San Francisco.
Fuller, T. & Sardar, Z. 2012, ‘Editorial’, Futures, vol. 44, no. 10, pp. 845–6.
Garb, Y., Pulver, S. & Vandeveer, S.D. 2008, ‘Scenarios in society, society in scenarios: toward a social scientific analysis of storyline-driven environmental modeling’, Environmental Research Letters, vol. 3, no. 4.
Hulme, M. & Dessai, S. 2008, ‘Predicting, deciding, learning: can one evaluate the ‘success’ of national climate scenarios?’, Environmental Research Letters, vol. 3, no. 4.
Inayatullah, S. 1990, ‘Deconstructing and reconstructing the future: Predictive, cultural and critical epistemologies’, Futures, vol. 22, no. 2, pp. 115-41.
Walton, J.S. 2008, ‘Scanning Beyond the Horizon: Exploring the Ontological and Epistemological Basis for Scenario Planning’, Advances in Developing Human Resources, vol. 10, no. 2, pp. 147-65.
Wright, A. 2004, ‘A Social constructionist’s deconstruction of Royal Dutch Shell’s scenario planning process’, University of Wolverhampton Business School.