Recently I’ve been reading some papers in which sociologists take the uncertainty and indeterminacy of decision situations (such as most decision situations in economic contexts) as a key starting point for their analysis and theory-building. For example, because of the fundamental uncertainty that characterises many decisions in economic contexts Jens Beckert argues that the decision-making of intentionally rational actors is “anchored” in fictions. An example is business strategies which often require the formation of fictional expectations, because these strategies are generally “produced under conditions of the unknowability of the future” (Beckert, 2013, p. 227). Strategists often grapple with situations in which outcomes are inherently incalculable but still must make strategic choices.
Because of the importance of expectations, fictional or otherwise, the management of expectations can be an important agency process. Actors often seek to influence present decisions by shaping and setting expectations. Linked with this, imaginaries of future states often are contested.
Over the past month or so I’ve reviewed some interesting examples of this, both past (from back in the 1960s and early 1970s) and present, e.g.:
- In a previous post I discussed Paul Ehrlich’s efforts “to bring people to get something done” about global population growth which included making dramatic predictions and developing dramatic scenarios (see The Population Bomb). Matthew Connelly’s history of global population control discusses the ways that the spectre of the future was used to justify quite radical forms of social engineering. These social engineering experiments were often well-intentioned but very often had quite disastrous social consequences. Ehrlich himself later admitted that he “expressed more certainty” (about the imminent threats that he claimed humanity faced in the near-future) than the available evidence justified.
- ClimateWorks Australia has released analysis seeking to demonstrate that it is possible for Australia to get to zero net emissions by 2050 (here) and to halve emissions by 2030 (here). The CEO of ClimateWorks Anna Skarbek claims this can be done “using technologies that exist today, while still growing the economy”. This analysis aims to influence the willingness of the Australian government to commit to much stronger climate targets and action.
- A contrasting piece published in The Conversation by Samuel Alexander (a research fellow at the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, University of Melbourne) claims that humanity will soon exceed the Earth’s ‘biocapacity’ unless rich nations initiate a degrowth process (i.e., planned economic contraction). Based on ecological footprint analysis of an ecovillage in Scotland, Alexander predicts that any attempt made by humanity to live within the carrying capacity of the planet that doesn’t involve economic contraction and “descent from consumerism” will fail. He aims to influence peoples’ expectations about the prospects of living within the carrying capacity of the planet if such radical changes aren’t made.
- Alternative fuels advocates such as NRMA Motoring and Services seek to increase attention on the consequences, and potential risks of, reliance on imported liquid transportation fuel (e.g. see these reports). Scenarios focussed on liquid fuel supply risks are emphasised, along with the implications of such events. The goal is to influence policy-makers expectations – in particular their perception of vulnerability – in order to increase the “willingness to address and invest in the issue and to take the necessary steps to build resilience ahead of a potential crisis”.
- Researchers at the Institute for Sustainable Futures promoting greater adoption of ‘circular economy’ models calculated future economic opportunities from creating a circular economy and argue that Australia in future must rapidly learn to do more with less.
These examples have a few important things in common:
1) They are all attempts to influence expectations in order to motivate and/or change present action. As part of this, most are also efforts to convince others of a new interpretation of reality (e.g. so it is perceived as being more risky or, alternatively, as offering new opportunities).
2) Those advocating these views rely on – and articulate – what Beckert terms ‘fictional expectations’: “present imaginaries of future situations that provide orientation in decision-making despite the incalculability of outcomes” (Beckert 2013, p. 325); and
3) These present imaginaries of the future are contested. For example, many dispute that existing technologies, especially existing renewable energy technologies, are up to the task of decarbonisation (these critics range from Google engineers, to James Hansen and other US scientists [see this co-signed open letter and related commentary], to Bill Gates). Another example is the contestation of claims that Australia’s liquid fuel security is under threat (e.g. see the National Energy Security Assessment).
An important part of this is an agency processes that Beckert terms the management of expectations. Expectations management can become the focus of power games and attempts to gain political leverage. Every example listed above is an example of advocates and activists seeking to gain or excise agency through the management of expectations. However, this is a extremely complex task and clearly some attempts are more successful (or influential) than others.
Some researchers in a range of fields are starting to more deeply examine this. For example, management scientists have begun to theorise the intense “temporal work” done in strategy making during periods of high uncertainty (Kaplan & Orlikowski 2013). Theorisation of entrepreneurial storytelling has pointed to the importance establishing “intertextual links” – linking a story about a proposed venture with other stories which have currency in order to enhance a story’s resonance and credibility with audiences – and coherently “plotting” the future which aims to establish the plausibility of a future state by plotting events (or steps) that could lead to a desired outcome (Garud et al. 2014). Roadmapping exercises often attempt to plot the future in this way. Some researchers examining sustainability transition processes have begun to theorise ‘expectations work’ (e.g. done to try to accelerate transitions). Such theorisation is a good start, but it is only a start.
The contesting of imaginaries is also an under-appreciated part of environmental politics. This is most obvious in debates about climate change and related emerging technologies (e.g. for climate engineering technologies), and also an important part of other issues and debates.
Beckert makes the related argument that a theory of fictional expectations is also a theory of politics. I agree but this theory of politics remains underdeveloped. Developing this further could assist those attempting to influence expectations in order to shape present action and contribute to a better understanding of related social problems and dynamics.
A related phenomenon that fascinates me is the formation of expectations, in particular the ways that expectations are, in part, constituted by social structures (e.g. cultural frames and frameworks, reference groups, networks). Such structures shape the emergence and stability of expectations. In a paper co-authored with two colleagues we argue that framing processes play roles in shaping the ways that low-carbon resilient cities are envisioned and relate this to cultural frameworks.
Finally, expectations can also have major unintended consequences. Think of how the hysteria and hype around the Copenhagen UNFCCC Climate Summit back in 2009 contributed to what is now widely seen as a relatively good outcome being seen (at the time) as a catastrophe, which added to the woes of the Rudd Labor Government. That is, strategies which aim to enhance agency through the management of expectations can have unintended consequences which reduce agency – e.g. the hype generated social pressure for an outcome but also had unintended consequences.
We need to pay greater attention to these processes and issues, such as by further examining:
- The temporal work involved in many forms of strategic action, i.e. not only in strategy making. For example, see my paper on the articulation and contesting of ‘nanotechnological’ futures which highlighted how the future and past are mobilised and reframed. The same temporal work is frequently done by biotechnology advocates, amongst others. Aside from better understanding such ‘work’ we also need to study its effects/consequences;
- Agency processes and related strategies: e.g. more detailed research on attempts at the management of expectations and the role of fictional expectations (as defined above);
- The heavy reliance on predictions and science (e.g. model-derived predictions) for resolving political disputes and guiding action (e.g. see the critical discussion in this book on climate policy and other climate action); and
- How the above activities shape environmental politics: e.g. as an important part of the political processes that shape how environmental problems are perceived and responded to.
As others have begun to examine for prospective technoscience, such research can help with better understanding how the future is mobilised as an object of present-day action and agency. It can also help with understanding the emergence and stability of expectations, which – building on related sociological theory – must consider the interplay of both agency and social structures.