A few core purposes are typically emphasised in the literature on foresight exercises and methods, such as: improving decision-making under uncertainty and coping better with uncertainty; anticipating opportunities and threats, ideally before others do; and identifying a wider range of options and opportunities. Sometimes other desired benefits are discussed such as: catalysing action and/or change; and becoming more aware of mental models and related assumptions and/or influencing them.
Foresight is, thus, often viewed as being about getting their first / early, avoiding surprises, and so on. Increasing uncertainty, or perceived uncertainty, creates a desire for “future proofing”. All these pithy phrases are bandied about to convey the reasons why people should conduct ‘foresight’ exercises’.
Some of the literature has a more strategic orientation. In particular it is suggested that through foresight exercises (or similar processes) participants can think about the future outcomes they prefer and would like to avoid, and that such exercises can help participants to identify their preferred future outcome or, more ambitiously, how to better influence which future outcome comes to pass. When methods such backcasting are used this future shaping intention is much more explicit.
As part of my doctoral research I’m considering how different theoretical frameworks might give us new ways of thinking about why people and groups initiate and participate in ‘foresight’ exercises. Social theory, such as theoretical views of social actors in “fields”, can help us to analyse such situations – for example by adopting the political-cultural approach of Fligstein and McAdam. Here, I want to explore some of their ideas and what motives they suggest actors have for participating in such exercises.
This perspective emphasises how agents behave strategically, as is clear in the following ideas:
1) Social skill: social skill is central to many forms of strategic social action and, in essence, it involves inducing cooperation especially by “appealing to and helping to create shared meaning and collective identities” (Fligstein & McAdam, 2012a, p. 46). They argue that “social skill depends on the ability of actors to transcend their narrow worldview, take the position of the “other,” and figure out how to either get the “other” to cooperate or to effectively blunt or counter the “other’s advantages” (Fligstein & McAdam, 2012a, p. 55). Thus, instigation of, or participation in, a ‘foresight’ exercises may be motivated by a desire to transcend one’s worldview with a view to figuring out how to get others to cooperate. For instance, a key strategic goal could be figuring out what arguments are more and less persuasive for gaining government assistance to create a new market or a new industry.
The basic problem for skilled social actors is argued to be:
to frame “stories” that help to induce cooperation from people by appealing to their identity, belief, and interests, whilst at the same time using those same stories to frame actions against various opponents… These stories are sometimes about meaning and membership, that is, existential issues and questions of group identity, and sometimes about “what’s in it for me” (Fligstein & McAdam, 2012a, p. 50-51)
Thus, framing future scenarios is also a basic tactic available to skilled social actors. Consistent with this, actors may be aiming to increase the credibility or desirability of particular favoured options.
2) Social action: this concept addresses the fact that actors must “undertake actions that take into account what others are doing” (Fligstein, 2013). Such action requires orientation to members of one’s own group and, externally, to the field and requires actors to operate politically vis-a-vis other actors (e.g. to produce or transform particular institutional arrangements). Involvement in a participatory ‘foresight’ exercises (e.g. involving a range of cross-sector actors) may be motivated by the desire to gain a better understanding of “what others are doing” and gain related insights to operate politically (e.g. to forge political coalitions). The theory of fields theorises the “arenas” of social action in which actors come to engage in such actions vis-a-vis other social actors.
3) Interests and collective identities are often shaped through social interaction (rather than being objectively pre-given): Whilst there are times when actors do behave as rational choice theories suggest – with fixed interests and behavior that can be predicted from those interests – during other times (especially in more fluid social situations), and through forms of strategic action, groups’ interests and identities are created in processes through which social actors “create and maintain stable social worlds” (Fligstein and McAdam, 2012b, p. 290). Fligstein and McAdam argue that:
This is the point that most rational actor models miss: actors have to operate in the context of other actors and sets of groups or organizations and have to allow their interests to be defined in the course of interaction. This is one reason why it is difficult to read interests from position in fluid social situations. If skilled strategic actors build coalitions, then their interests will be formed in the political process by which this occurs. This ability to identify with the other implies that strategic actors will also be quite attuned to the possibilities for action in their external environments. (Fligstein and McAdam, 2012b, p. 292)
The related skills of strategic actors are argued to come to the fore in more fluid social situations (i.e. unstable or unorganised fields). In such situations instigation of, or participation in, a ‘foresight’ exercises may be motivated by the aim of redefining actors’ interests and identities — particularly if the actor diagnoses the situation as being highly fluid and “open”.
4) Constructing the opportunity to engage in collective (strategic) action: the idea that actors actively construct opportunities to engage in collective action resonates with some concepts proposed by scenario planning scholars. In particular, Ramirez and van Der Heijden (2007) theorise an “interactive” role for scenarios in strategy which they term “staging”. Sociological theory and research adds to this through examination of how actors go about constructing opportunities for collective action, under different conditions, and how they engage in it. This includes: theories of action (e.g. see ‘social skill’ above); considering how relevant resources are deployed or created; how necessary social understandings are created and deployed; and the dynamics of such action under different conditions. In sociological theory terms actors must actively fashion and maintain a meso-level order (which Fligstein and McAdam term a ‘strategic action field’). Thus, instigating or participating in a ‘foresight’ exercise may motivated by the desire to engage in collective strategic action and undertake related tasks (e.g. building an interpretive frame, advancing claims on what is at stake).
5) Controlling uncertainty / maximising and taking advantage of uncertainty: in contrast to the notion of coping with uncertainty, sociological research has shown that some social actors wants to control and reduce uncertainty (e.g. formal organisations) and, on the other hand, others seek to exploit it (e.g. social movements). In markets Fligstein argues that “the main problem actors face is uncertainty” (Fligstein 2001, p.16), which they seek to control whilst addressing the related problem of competition. In contrast McAdam’s studies of social movements show that uncertainty can provide movement actors with the opportunity to expand their ‘political opportunities’. Overall, social actors may be motivated to try to control / reduce uncertainty (e.g. to maintain the order of a given field) or to exploit a crisis.
6) Human beings as existential “co-conspirators” and the “existential functions of the social”: another core idea can be summed up by the concept of Homo Sociologicus — that is, human beings “do what they do both to achieve instrumental advantage and to fashion meaningful worlds for themselves and others” (Fligstein & McAdam, 2012a, p. 40). Consequently it can be argued that any thorough consideration of why people and groups instigate and participate in ‘foresight’ exercises should take this complex mix of instrumental and existential motives into account. The capacity and need for meaning and identity is surely one of the key motivators, at least some of the time.
7) Strategic action: the related overarching concept of strategic action focusses on control in a given context, for the creation and sustaining of ‘social worlds’, by securing the cooperation of others. Thus, it is argued that the aim of “the creation of identities, political coalitions, and interests is to promote the control of actors vis-a-vis other actors” (Fligstein & McAdam, 2012b, p. 291). As part of this Fligstein and McAdam theorise the construction of strategic action, such as through the construction, maintenance or transformation of “conceptions of control” (CoCs). The idea is that interactions in fields is geared towards producing or affirming a set of cultural rules (i.e. institutions) which govern social relations and define appropriate practices and actions — they call these crystallised rules CoCs. Moreover, the crystallisation of such rules and their operation is argued to be “the result of constant political contestation that serve to construct rules, interests, and the distribution of resources”.
Looking back on some past projects I’ve run and am aware of I can relate to such a sociological perspective on ‘foresight’. For example, I can think of exercises that I ran which I hoped would change the interests and identities of involved actors, and some which did (at least in part). The emergence of collaborative “roadmapping” exercises can be interpreted as a new way that actors are seeking to construct the opportunity to engage in collective strategic action. I can also think of many futures exercises run by sustainability activists which aimed – consciously or unconsciously – to maximize, and take advantage of, the level of perceived uncertainty in order to expand their political opportunities.
Fligstein, N. 2013, ‘Understanding change and stability in fields’, Research in Organizational Behavior, vol. 33, pp. 39-51.
Fligstein, N. & McAdam, D. 2012a, A Theory of Fields, Oxford University Press, New York, New York.
Fligstein, N. & McAdam, D. 2012b, ‘A Political-Cultural Approach to the Problem of Strategic Action’, in D. Courpasson, D. Golsorkhi & J.J. Sallaz (eds), Rethinking Power in Organizations, Institutions, and Markets (Research in the Sociology of Organizations, Volume 34), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, pp. 287-316.
Ramirez, R. & van Der Heijden, K. 2007, ‘Scenarios to develop strategic options: A new interactive role for scenarios in strategy’, in B. Sharpe & K. van der Heijden (eds), Scenarios for Success: Turning Insights into Action, Wiley, Chichester, England; Hoboken, NJ.