The last couple of days I’ve been reading a few things about what is and isn’t required by a PhD. It’s often emphasised that a PhD thesis must clearly add up to something (not just be a collection of disconnected chapters) and, linked with this, that a thesis should clearly argue a position (i.e have a core thesis). In this sense a thesis is simply something that you wish to argue, but done in a formal manner. Some of the theses that I’ve read do this much better than others – some are more exploratory and propose a framework(s) for addressing some issue or explaining some phenomenon, whereas in others the author very clearly adopts and assesses/defends a core position or argument.
On this blog I’ve made a wide range of arguments – some informed by my reading, some informed by my own professional practice, some have been fairly reactionary and made in response to stuff that’s been happening. On reflection, some of the key ones include:
- That people conducting futures exercises (which I now call prospective exercises) need to pay more attention to underlying causal processes that are involved in these activities (e.g. the causal logic of a scenario intervention, or a visioning exercise, or simulation gaming, etc). This should include consideration of underlying causal mechanisms and related social processes.
- That, linked with the above argument, there is a need to connect practices with new theories in order to provide a more solid theoretical underpinning for these practices. (The Oxford Scenarios Programme tries to address this, e.g. see the biannual Oxford Futures Forum)
- That prospective exercises can and often do have unintended consequences (see this paper).
- That there is a need to re-consider why truly transformative change is rare and the conditions under which it occurs; here I’ve suggested that a genuinely sociological view could be helpful.
- That there is a need to reject the strong determinism that is exhibited by many sustainability advocates (e.g. see the post on Paul Gilding and technological determinism). Linked with this I noted an important potential function of scenario work and other forms of forward reasoning – that is to “reinsert a sensible notion of contingency into theoretical arguments that would otherwise tend towards determinism” (Bernstein et al., 2000, p.54).
The first couple of arguments listed above are increasingly central to my thinking. My primary research – which is looking at the practices of CSIRO and Reos Partners – focuses on complex multi-stakeholder situations (rather than practices in a firm/single organisation). Reos often talk about wanting to build the capacity for “innovative collective action”; similarly CSIRO practices are often prompted by – or occur in the context of – a dynamic, contentious situation in which a related multi-actor problem is being grappled with. In both cases there is a need to think about how and why a particular intervention is expected to achieve desired ends (e.g. “innovative collective action”).
The introductory chapter of Business Planning for Turbulent Times has been a bit of “touchstone” for my research. The editors assert that: “the thinking and practice of scenarios are characterized by a broad and confusing mix of methods and procedures with little explanation as to why and how they ‘work’ and variable criteria for success. In spite of its widespread adoption, scenario work remains theoretically underdeveloped” (p. 4). Little has changed since the book was published and the same could be also said for many other prospective practices. The book’s Foreword by Ged Davis also points out “the question of why scenarios work well in some situations and not others is of profound interest to practitioners” (p. xviii). This question is something that I’ve often reflected on.
Thus it is not novel to argue that the theoretical underpinning of such practices remains underdeveloped; indeed more folk are starting to see this as an issue and to view, for example, scenarios as practices “in search of theory” (see the paper with this title in the Journal of Futures Studies). What is perhaps more novel is the use of evaluative inquiry to address this (specifically realist evaluation), and drawing on bodies of sociological theory that have to-date been neglected or overlooked which I think can help to shed light on the causal processes that are at work and the question of why practices and methods work well in some situations and not in others.