Sociological perspectives tend to focus on the social world, what constitutes it and its influence on individuals, etc, rather than focussing their analysis on individuals (as, say, psychology does). Crucial foci are social structures of various types, the development and reproduction of social roles (and associated role structures), etc, and how these and related processes shape actors and behaviour. For example, the structural situation in which individuals act is a crucial consideration.
This notion of the structural situation points to key factors which are likely to shape whether and why groups and individuals initiate or participate in a prospective (or ‘foresight’) exercise. Taking a field theory perspective, part of the situation is whether the relevant fields are emerging, stable, or alternatively in crisis. This framework suggests that actors in an emerging field or in an unstable field (e.g. a field currently experiencing a major crisis) are most likely to participate in a prospective or ‘foresight’ exercise. In stable social worlds, skilled strategic actors are expected to help produce and reproduce the status quo. Each situation is a very different for actors to be in, as is briefly discussed below:
Emerging field: actors in such a situation are trying to establish or organise new social space (e.g. market formation). These social spaces have not yet been institutionalised. Some sociologists argue that the ‘first orders of business’ (so to speak) are to fashion an agreed, stable definition of the situation and to develop a set of “rules” which can routinise (i.e. institutionalise) social relations. Therefore actors may participate in order to try to shape or stabilise definition of the situation (e.g. to help to enable action to be taken), or they might wish to cooperatively develop rules or impose them through political coalitions. More formally, field theorists argue that establishment of fields requires negotiation of an “institutional settlement” and this often heavily depends on the cultural creativity of a meaning project (part of which involves construction of the ‘objective interests’ served by these efforts).
A possible “left-field” example of emerging fields is related to the use of new human enhancement methods and technologies in sport. Scientific advancements have made it possible to enhance the performance of sportspeople beyond the ‘natural’ level (e.g. see bioethicist Andy Miah’s research and his advocacy of a World Pro-Doping Agency). In this case technological change and new scientific knowledge makes new social space possible leading to contention around its potential development and how it influences existing sporting ‘fields’. Professor Miah argues for changes to anti-doping rules (i.e. for institutional change), and suggests that drug cheats such as Lance Armstrong are likely to eventually be seen as important pioneers of human enhancement and will be viewed differently in the future.
The efforts of Miah and others also point to the importance of cultural creativity. For example, he connects these arguments to the broader efforts of humans to modify or optimise various natural processes and to address our inherent physical limitations. Arguments are made about improving athlete safety by legalising doping technologies (e.g. via more transparency and improved monitoring of risks), supporting athletes in having longer careers, and the resolution of fairness questions. Miah points to “a vast network of support for anti-doping, which is supported at all levels of society” that needs to be overcome (i.e. the present ‘institutional settlement’ and the web of related fields). Changes to current institutions governing elite sport appears unlikely and will clearly require strategic action.
Emerging fields, as new and uninstitutionalised arenas of social action, are also the location where the most innovative forms of action are expected to occur (Fligstein & McAdam, 2012). It’s argued that actors in existing fields which experience a crisis “will usually attempt to reinforce the existing consensus of control in the field and try and solve the crisis with accepted knowledge” (Fligstein & McAdam, 2012, p. 299). They sociological jargon may be unfamiliar and jarring but we can all think of examples of where the dominant actors acted highly conservatively during a crisis.
Destabilised field (e.g. a field in crisis): this situation turns on similar dynamics however the crucial difference is that in an existing field there are well-defined incumbents and challengers. Incumbents are expected to fight to preserve the existing field (broadly, the existing institutional settlement) and to enlist their allies in this battle. Challengers may see an opportunity to advance their position. Both types of actors will have different reasons for participating in a prospective (or foresight) exercise. For example, the situation may lead to emergent contention by some challengers. In my work I’ve run processes in destabilised fields and seen such battles take place within the process.
We also see this play out whenever professional sport goes through a major doping crisis. We often see folk in the emerging pro-doping movement arguing that a zero tolerance approach isn’t working and stepping up their advocacy – perhaps sensing a new opportunity to advance their position.
Finally, there are some similarities between emerging and destabilised fields. Both situations require actors to create a stable order out of a previously chaotic action arena. Additionally, both situations are ones in the capacity of actors to create and maintain collective identities are argued to come to the fore (see Fligstein and McAdam, 2012 and their related concept of “social skill”).
Whilst sporting issues are not ones that I would normally consider on this blog, it is quite interesting to consider how complex non-environmental issues are handled. I can see lots of parallels between doping in sport and the dynamics of many complex sustainability problems.