1. Danny Rosenkranz

    Interesting positioning here Steve. A few weeks ago, in response to your post “Revisiting theory and practice in futures studies” (http://www.facilitatingsustainability.net/?p=4777), I wrote the following note to myself:

    “Perhaps this field could position itself on firmer, more defensible epistemic terrain (which is what you seem to be grasping for here, as no other discipline with a readily accessible empirical domain to theorise upon otherwise has this decontextualised need for theory) if it abandoned all claims to veridical knowledge of the future, and reframed itself instead as the art and science of *planning*, rooted in knowledge of the present?”

    I’d still be interested in a response to this. In the meantime, you seem to be staking out a theoretical space here between viewing futures studies and practices from a sociological ‘history of the present’ perspective on the one hand; but on the other hand, your working definition of prospection as “our ability to ‘pre-experience’ the future” does not definitively critique or cut ties with your more Delphic colleagues in the futures industry. What is the difference between ‘prospection’ and a veridical dream?

    Planning, and indeed human subjectivity, are essentially future-oriented processes — but I think it’s important for practitioners in this field to make clear that they have no special or specialised claim to veridical knowledge of the future.

  2. Stephen McGrail

    Danny! Great to hear from you.

    Before I respond to your interesting questions one quick clarification is in order. That definition of prospection — “our ability to ‘pre-experience’ the future by simulating it in our mind” — is actually the definition proposed by the psychologists who I cited. It’s not my working definition. This is important to note as my response below will make clear.

    Such mental simulations of the future are often inaccurate (as noted in the article from Science that I linked to in my blog post) but their main point is that people do this and it shapes the choices people make.

    The idea of developing a sociology of prospection isn’t about developing (or claiming to have) knowledge about the future. (I.e. it’s not an attempt to reformulate futures studies on some more defensible terrain, epistemic or otherwise). Instead, such a sociology would study things like how and why future-oriented practices are conducted and organised in society and with what social consequences, and it would consider the influence of social forces and social processes on judgements about which predictions (or projections) are seen as sufficiently plausible to merit reflection and action. It might also explore what patterns in future orientation exist across different social groups and across different societies? Etc.

    In other words it would be a move towards studying the phenomenon of future-orientation. Some other folk have termed this an analytical move from (I quote) “looking into the future to looking at how the future as a temporal abstraction is constructed and managed, by whom and under what conditions” (Brown et al. 2000, p. 4).

    The queries and suggestions in your note and comment are quite interesting. Such debates are actually ongoing within the scenario planning field among many others. Some argue these techniques primarily seek to develop a better understanding of the present in order to inform strategic planning and/or policy-making – consistent with the reframe that you proposed. Others see them as primarily being about developing insights into what could happen in the future (which are informed by knowledge about the past, the present, etc).

    In my own work, the most useful and insightful work – whilst notionally about exploring the future – has often really been about improving action through an enhanced understanding of the present, including better knowledge of the potential implications of events that have already occurred (e.g. via scenario building). So I have some time for your suggestion.

    Personally I don’t believe that practitioners in the “futures” field have any (to quote your comment this time) “special or specialised claim to veridical knowledge of the future”. Any claim to this is in my view fraudulent. We’re on the same page there.

    Nonetheless various techniques and practices are often used to explore what could occur in the future or make claims about what will occur in the future – I’m currently calling these techniques of prospection. A sociology of prospection would study how and why such techniques and practices are used by different social groups, with what social consequences. Hopefully that’s clear?


    Citation: Brown, N., Rappert, B. & Webster, A. 2000, ‘Introducing Contested Futures: From Looking Into the Future to Looking at the Future’, in N. Brown, B. Rappert & A. Webster (eds), Contested Futures: A Sociology of Prospective Techno-Science, Ashgate Publishing Ltd, Aldershot, England.

  3. Tilman

    Very interesting thoughts here. But what would be the difference between the ‘sociology of prospection’ and the already existing (and above mentioned) ‘sociology of expectations’?


  4. Zachary King

    Hi Stephen!

    I’m a PhD student embarking on a dissertation centered around expectations/prospection and I’ve been reading some of your work.

    I’ve been reading several of your articles, and I’m curious if anything came of your thinking toward a sociology of prospection. I notice that before this post your work deals with futures and expectation but not explicitly prospection.

    Hope all’s well, thank you!

    • Stephen McGrail

      Hi Zack,
      Apologies for taking months to reply, I haven’t been actively maintaining this blog over recent months. Hopefully this will change over coming weeks and months.

      The short answer to your question is no, not really.

      The slightly longer answer is that my PhD thesis moved a little more in this direction during the write-up stage. (see: https://opus.lib.uts.edu.au/handle/10453/123188). Here I began to explore things like the social factors and processes that influence consideration of the future and related ‘knowledge practices’.

      I continue to think that we need something like a “sociology of prospection”, particularly one that aims to go beyond consideration of cognitive processes (as per the psychological definition of prospection as an individual mental activity), though cognition is a really important aspect, to more deeply probe the social aspects of individual and collective prospection. Please stay in touch and keep me in the loop on your progress if you decide to pursue lines of inquiry like these.


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