A discourse theory perspective on participatory scenario processes

Lately I’ve been grappling with the many potential pitfalls of forward-looking exercises like scenario building processes. In one post, I noted theory that explains the tendency to simply reproduce circulating assumptions and – therefore – produce no significant new insights.  In other posts, I noted the many factors that, in an increasingly complex world, militate against foresight (e.g. as discussed in Tim Harford’s great book Adapt).  It’s probably fair to say that lately I’ve become much more of a “foresight skeptic” – to coin a new term – critically questioning current practices.

Discourse theory may inform new perspectives on some of the issues raised in these posts.

In particular, this post draws on a paper titled ‘The discursive democratisation of global climate governance’ by Hayley Stevenson and John Dryzek (from Environmental Politics).

In this paper they define a discourse as being about representations and systems of meaning – ensembles of concepts, categories and ideas through which meaning is given to phenomena (e.g. to particular social, political or environmental phenomena), which get produced and reproduced through a set of practices. A discourse will typically also contain a ‘storyline’ about how problems (e.g. their causes) and what should therefore be done, or not done to address them. Often there are many competing discourses, as seen in climate change politics, sustainability more broadly, and other issues like asylum seeker policies. Stevenson and Dryzek state that “people are conditioned by discourses”, and argue “discourses are consequential because they can coordinate the actions of large numbers of individuals who never need to communicate with each other directly” (p.191).

They go on to present evidence of the existence of “discursive enclaves” in global climate governance – that is, spaces where discursive engagement needs to concentrate on one dominant discourse (e.g. business summits on climate change where mainstream sustainability views dominate) – and to describe related processes they term discursive reinforcement and discursive reflection. In discursive enclaves (in my mind I picture the summits of climate skeptics such as the Heartland Institute’s conferences, as reported on by Naomi Klein) processes of discursive reinforcement typically dominate.

Discursive ‘enclaves’ and related forces reducing ‘reflexive capacity’

To Stevenson and Dryzek climate change gatherings tend to “look a bit like enclaves”. I’ve observed similar dynamics at sustainability gatherings. In the interviews reported on by Stevenson and Dryzek they note that “a recurring theme for many participants was the feeling of solidarity that strengthened throughout the process” (p.202), and they acknowledge that this can have some value.

However, they also note that such enclaves have limitations, pointing to the following key issues:

  • Discourses articulated in such protective settings are not exposed to critique and challenge;
  • Ideological amplification and group polarisation: “the tendency for individuals to reinforce their commitment to existing convictions that are supported by the majority” of people in the enclave (p.202); “regardless of the perspectives privately held, groups will become more polarised in the direction of the majority of publicised perspectives” (p.202);
  • People in such ‘enclaves’ encourage one another to not to hear anyone else (articulating a competing perspective) and they do not learn how to communicate in ways that others (i.e. outside the enclave) will be able to hear and understand;
  • Outsiders are not exposed to competing assumptions that might stimulate reflexive capacity; and
  • Reflexive capacity will tend to be diminished, because “homogeneity displaced diversity (p.202)

My blog post on the 2012 Asia-Pacific Foresight Conference, in essence, argued that its discursive enclave qualities were problematic. It expressed the feeling that homogeneity had largely displaced diversity. It also expressed my concern that the wider futures field has also moved in this direction.

Stevenson and Dryzek suggest, based on the work of Cass Sunstein and others, that social processes lead to people to withhold their true views or refrain from voice (e.g. the desire to be perceived favorably by others and adjusting personal views to the majority public position), and point to the link between repetition and persuasiveness if relatively few arguments are articulated in competing terms.

Stevenson and Dryzek go on to discuss “productive contestation” and contrast this with the combative contestation that undermines fruitful deliberation of climate governance. They assert that “developing inclusive, competent, and dispersed reflexive capacity depends on establishing connections between spaces dominated by different discourses” (p.203). They further contend that is unrealistic to expect a new ‘super-discourse’ to form for problems like global climate change that cover a range of issues.

Participatory scenario processes

This paper – in particular their call to “provide possibilities for contestation and the reflection is can induce” (p.203) – suggests new ways of looking at scenario exercises. As some case studies highlight, scenario exercises can provide “possibilities for contestation”. During the scenario-building participants have the opportunity to articulate and be exposed to competing assumptions about a strategic issue and the future. This is claimed to be the case if participants are sufficiently heterogeneous.

Similarly in his book Transformative Scenario Planning Adam Kahane argues that the key to these scenario exercises is the “suspension” of current ‘mental models’. This requires “taking our thoughts about our situation and hanging them in front of us, as if from a string” (p.93) and “assumes and acknowledges that there is not only one way to look at what is happening or should happen” (p.93).

Stevenson and Dryzek’s paper suggests such exercises can help to: stimulate reflexive capacity; generate more effective engagement with different discourses; and enable the coordinate function of discourses.

I’ve become increasingly concerned about trends towards rigid ‘discursive enclaves’ (as seen in climate debates, as well as ‘peak oil’ focussed communities such as Transition Town initiatives, etc), as they often appear to be a barrier to large-scale change and lead to combative contestation. This concept captures it really well. The question is to what extent scenario exercises can help to ameliorate this dynamic, or whether factors such as withholding private or minority views tend to prevent this. Additionally, to what extent to such participatory processes help to establish or strengthen “connections between spaces dominated by different discourses” (as called for by Stevenson and Dryzek)?

This also has clear links to the literature on sustainability innovations, which points to their systemic nature. Therefore it requires multiple organisations to act in an orchestrated fashion. Collaborative scenario processes may help to enable or strengthen the social coordination function of discourses emphasised by Stevenson and Dryzek. On first glance this could go either way: generating greater fragmentation along the lines of the alternative scenarios, or enabling greater coordination via discursive reflection. As yet, there is little empirical evidence to support the claim that scenario techniques are well-suited to creating create common ground in collaborative innovation settings.

One Comment

  1. Nice post Stephen.

    Elsewhere, Dryzek and Simon Niemeyer make a case for ‘discursive representation’. This is the idea that the diverse discourses relevant to an issue need to be represented in a legitimate dialogue process. In the case of a foresight process, this might mean making sure there are sufficiently diverse discourses present in the room to avoid the kind of polarisation and homogeneity that you refer to above.

    This is a challenge for foresight processes, particularly those taking place at an organisational scale. Perhaps there is a role for foresight practitioners in actively seeking out discourses that are not present in a particular organisational context and facilitating the process of ‘bringing them into the room’.

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