Reflecting on my personal journey – from ‘foresight’ practices to the sociology of prospection?

(NOTE: This was originally written in my PhD journal but I’ve decided to post it here as I’d welcome thoughts and general feedback on the idea of developing a ‘sociology of prospection’)

Increasingly I use the term prospection in my research and work. Psychologists use this term to refer to “our ability to ‘pre-experience’ the future by simulating it in our mind” (see this paper) and have also studied the avid scenario-building exhibited by human beings. Some social scientists also use the term ‘techniques of prospection’. These methods are used to take this beyond a purely cognitive process, e.g. via formal model-based simulations and forecasting or scenario-based exercises, and attempt to make futures present in a range of ways. Most dictionaries define prospection as either the act of looking forward or the act of anticipating and contrast it with retrospection. I find prospection and techniques of prospection to be more straightforward and clearer terms than “futures” methods or “foresight process” or other such terms which are commonly used. They also have a link to the French ‘la prospective’ approach which is, for example, associated with Michel Godet and Gaston Berger.

In contrast, after completing the Master’s program in Strategic Foresight and Futures Studies at Swinburne University I often referred to my consulting work as applied foresight work and loosely adopted “foresight practitioner” as a professional identity. Many, perhaps most, graduates of the program did this too and perhaps I simply conformed to the group norm. Today I think these terms are fairly meaningless and wonder why anyone would use them other than to try to differentiate themselves in the uber-competitive consulting space or to attempt to distance themselves from forecasting and/or futurism, both of which rightly have a very poor reputation.

Some of this consulting work was shaped by dual purposes: to address specific client needs and, secondly, to encourage or enable change (in this case towards more sustainable business or social practices). I’ve observed that the latter – encouraging or enabling change – is often a motivation of many practitioners. This is one of the respects in which a politics of anticipation is often unavoidable. As Samuel Kinsley has suggested we need to consider “what politics ensue from representing specific types of future in particular ways”, not only technical methodological issues.

My own research on nanotechnology highlights the politics that ensued from the ways in which nano-futures have been represented (see here, here). Speculative accounts and representations of possible futures have been central to nanotechnology-related policies and debates, with many proponents arguing it will be central to a next industrial revolution. Nanotechnology proponents underestimated the potential for such politics to ensue. Other observers similarly pointed to the development of a more speculative ethics, which they contend is too focussed on futuristic concepts rather than ongoing, more incremental, technological developments (Nordmann & Rip 2009). Nordmann and Rip (2009) note the core related predicament which is relevant to many other domains, “the difficulty of knowing which predictions — technological, economic or otherwise — about the future of nanotechnology are sufficiently plausible to merit some reflection and action”.

Like nanotechnologists, I often found in my consulting work that attempts to encourage or enable change through the use of forward-looking inquiry had unanticipated or unintended consequences. Additionally, I also found that techniques of prospection often have limited influence on subsequent actions (e.g. corporate strategy development, local government programs, etc) although this varied from project to project. These sorts of experiences suggested that more research is needed, such as on what factors explain why some interventions are more influential than others.

As important as these questions are (such research could develop insights that can inform more influential/effective practice) there are also deeper, more sociological, questions that ought to be asked. For example, how do artefacts such as model projections, vision videos, roadmaps, etc, act within the present? Or, stated in more fancy social science terminology, in what ways are they performative, and under what conditions? The question posed by Samuel Kinsley is also important: what “politics ensue from representing specific types of future in particular ways”? And how does the temporal orientation of knowledge practices influence the politics of such practices and knowledge?

Linked with this perhaps what we actually need is a sociology of prospection, in addition to the emerging psychology of prospection. Such a sociology, for example, could also consider:

  • How does prospection vary under different social conditions, in what ways it is socially patterned, and how is the use of techniques and practices of prospection socially situated?
  • How does the use of techniques of prospection vary in different times and places, with what consequences? Given that an emphasis on the far future (e.g. see Nordmann & Rip 2009; Williams 2006) and viewing science as a predictive oracle (Sarewitz 2004) can often be highly problematic, why is this more prevalent today?
  • When and how do specific techniques of prospection influence policy-making and other decision-making? What concrete causal mechanisms are at work?
  • Who is seen as best able to assist prospection? Why? For example, in Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Fail – and Why We Believe Them Anyway Dan Gardner observes that economists today are often “treated with the reverence the ancient Greeks gave the Oracle of Delphi”. Why are they currently treated this way despite their terrible track record as forecasters? What are the social consequences of economists often being primarily looked to for insights into the future?

If we consider energy and climate change it is, for example, a striking example of the more frequent attempts to look far ahead (e.g. by modelling alternative decarbonisation scenarios) and myriad related attempts at the management of expectations. How do these act within, and help to constitute, the present? What influence do such techniques and practices of prospection have on policy decisions (e.g. do they assist policy-making)? How? And so on (see above). Whilst there is some research examining these sorts of questions, a sociology of prospection would especially contribute to a better understanding of (i) the social processes and related factors which shape these practices and their effects (e.g. by examining causal similarities and differences across cases), (ii) related agency processes, (iii) what shapes judgements about which predictions (or projections) are seen as sufficiently plausible to merit reflection and action, and (iv) the politics of knowledge related to techniques of prospection.

Such a sociology could draw on existing fields of sociological research such as the sociology of expectations (an STS-led research program) and sociology of knowledge, along with science studies. Other areas of social scientific research such as in psychology, economics, etc are relevant. If you have any thoughts on such a possible branch of sociological inquiry I’d love to hear from you.

References cited above

Gardner, D. 2010, Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Fail – and Why We Believe Them Anyway, Scribe Publications, Carlton North, Australia.

Gilbert, D.T. & Wilson, T.D. 2007, ‘Prospection: Experiencing the Future’, Science, vol. 317, 7 September, pp. 1351-4.

Kinsley, S. 2010, ‘Representing `things to come’: feeling the visions of future technologies’, Environment and Planning A, vol. 42, pp. 2771-90.

Nordmann, A. & Rip, A. 2009, ‘Mind the gap revisited’, Nature Nanotechnology, vol. 4, pp. 273-4.

Sarewitz, D. 2004, ‘How science makes environmental controversies worse’, Environmental Science & Policy, vol. 7, no. 5, pp. 385-403.

Williams, R. 2006, ‘Compressed Foresight and Narrative Bias: Pitfalls in Assessing High Technology Futures’, Science as Culture, vol. 15, no. 4, pp. 327-48.

3 comments

  1. Danny Rosenkranz says:

    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 says:

    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?

    Cheers,
    Steve

    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 says:

    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’?

    Cheers,
    Tilman

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