I’m currently doing some interviews for a case study that I’m developing as part of my PhD. This ‘case’ will focus on the Future Fuels Forum run by the CSIRO Energy Transformed Flagship (external link), which was run from November 2007-June 2008. During this period oil prices shot up (see Figure below) and surged to almost $150 a barrel in July 2008, before economic turmoil contributed to a rapid drop in oil prices with the price plummeting back down to approximately $40 a barrel in November 2008.
During these interviews I frequently thought about some of the findings of a similar study of the influence of global environmental assessments (Mitchell et al., 2006), such as that:
- Actors “respond to assessments in ways that reflect their concerns, interests and policy preferences” (p. 311); overall, people are more responsive to some assessments than others;
- The influence of such assessments needs to be assessed in relation to different potential audiences, and not in general, and this assessment influence “depends on that audience seeing the assessment as salient, credible and legitimate” (p. 309); and
- Whether “findings from an assessment are accepted by a given audience depends on a range of ‘nonscientific’ political, social and economic factors” (p. 313).
A sociological perspective must similarly consider such aspects as interpretive processes and meaning making. In this respect it has been fascinating to hear that people draw very different conclusions from the same scenario study. For example, in the interviews I’ve conducted to date:
- Some participants came away from the Future Fuels Forum much more concerned about oil supply and price-related vulnerabilities and the prospect of near-term ‘peak oil’ scenarios;
- Other participants came away much less concerned about such scenarios and issues; and
- In general, participants in the exercise did appear to respond to the Future Fuels Forum in ways that “reflect their concerns, interests and policy preferences” (as per Mitchell et al., 2006, p. 311).
Something that Mitchell et al (2006) didn’t examine is issues of identity and meaning-making. Sociological research findings suggest that existing actor identities and the constitution of new identities (e.g. new political identities, professional identities) will be an important factor in such processes, along with related meaning-making processes. This is evident in the interviews I’ve conducted thus far.
These interpretive processes, in turn, influence the attribution of risk / opportunity and whether subsequent actions are taken. This is something I’ll further investigate in later interviews.
All of this suggests that the credibility of an assessment or a process (like the Future Fuels Forum) is only one of many factors that shape its influence or adoption. We also need to consider salience and legitimacy and the degree of consistency with actors’ policy preferences (as per the Mitchell et al study of environmental assessments). Additionally, pre-existing contextual conditions – e.g. the level of perceived ‘environmental’ uncertainty and internal actor conflict – influence responses to such exercises.
What have you found in your own scenario work? What has shaped the way your clients and/or the participants have responded to these exercises? Similar or different factors?
Key reference: Mitchell, R.B., Clark, W.C., Cash, D.W. & Dickson, N.M. (eds) 2006, Global Environmental Assessments: Information and Influence, MIT Press, Cambridge.