For a long time I’ve been interested in the relationship between science and society, often with focus on the social and political processes that shape the production, evaluation and use of scientific knowledge and technology. These interests include the misuse of science and statistics (emphasised by writers like Ben Goldacre) – bad science is common in many areas ranging from health to the environment – as well the political ways that fields like climate science are read and treated across the political spectrum but most of all by those who dismiss such scientific research principally because of its unwelcome implications. It would be hard to be interested in issues like climate change, as well environmental politics and sustainability more broadly, and not be interested in the relationship between science and society. Developing academic fields like Science and Technology Studies (STS) have contributed to a better understanding of the social aspects of knowledges and technologies, including their selective production, evaluation, spread, uptake, use, and also destruction.
I was also exposed to many of these issues when I researched my Master’s thesis on nanotechnology and studied related topics such as the governance of emerging technologies and risk. As this case shows, we live in a time in which science and society often have an uneasy relationship.
More recently I’ve been pondering this with respect to the production, evaluation and use of knowledge related to sustainability and addressing climate change. An important feature of the current context is that many “scientists are moving to find ways to contribute more directly to the resolution of society’s most pressing problems” (Miller, 2015, p. 4). I’ve seen this in my doctoral research (the research group at CSIRO I’m collaborating with has many change objectives). Academic fields such as the sustainability transitions field are perhaps also indicative of such trends (see the STRN website). Miller (2015, p.5) argues that, in this context, “sustainability and scientific efforts to contribute to it are rich territory for analyzing the complex interplay of science and society”.
In particular, I’ve become more interested in casting a sociological eye on how techniques of prospection are mobilised by scientists (e.g. those seeking to contribute to the resolution of climate change-related problems). This informed the case study selection in my doctoral research. It seems to me that these uses of techniques of prospection are ripe for STS-style inquiry.
Others have pointed to the prospective disposition of much sustainability transition-related analysis (e.g. see Turnheim et al., 2015). This is one factor motivating the use of such methods.
Additionally, the production of expectations can be a way of seeking to influence present action. One conceptualisation of this process is ‘using the future to change the present’, although this can sit uncomfortably with neutral or typically objectivist conceptions of scientific research.
Research by strategic management scholars such as Jarzabkowski and Kaplan on the use of strategy tools points to broader research agendas. They argue that strategy tools – e.g. Michael Porter’s five forces analysis framework – are fluid objects that get shaped by strategy makers to suit particular contexts and serve particular purposes, and that the dichotomy or correct/incorrect use of such tools is problematic and simplistic. They also call for more attention to multiplicity of potential outcomes from the use of such tools and the processes that produce these outcomes, such as the social processes in organisations that either reinforce inertia or generate change.
Jarzabkowski and Kaplan develop a “tools-in-use” perspective which seeks to highlight that:
“Strategy tools are implicated in the ways that actors engage in these efforts to produce rational accounts of their strategy making. The more that tools become part of the organizational routines of strategy making, the more they come to symbolize these intendedly rational strategic processes.”
Similarly, other tools – such as techniques of prospection – can become ‘implicated’ in the ways that actors seek to produce accounts that support desired actions. Beyond an ultimate goal (e.g. reducing greenhouse gas emissions) outcomes related to processes of change are crucial (e.g. settlement on a strategic decision, securing investment, enabling movement-like mobilisation of relevant actors, etc). This is something that I’ve seen very clearly in my first two case studies (on the CSIRO-led Future Fuels Forum and the Sustainable Aviation Fuels Roadmap exercise).
Jarzabkowski and Kaplan further assert that “the introduction of strategy tools does not remove the politics or emotions of strategy making. Instead, tools can be co-opted and adapted to match the circumstances.” I see many parallels in the use of techniques of prospection.
Although my PhD research is designed as evaluation research (i.e. evaluating interventions), I also see it as conducting and, potentially, advancing the sort of sociological inquiry discussed above.
Recent examples of such research include Mallard and Lakoff’s (2011) study of the use of techniques of prospection in national security, and studies of the use of socio-technical scenarios in technology assessment activities and related prospective exercises (e.g. see Parandian, 2012). The STRN research agenda also points to the application of related approaches such as backcasting and scenario building by transition scholars and claims these are now “being usefully applied in transition contexts”.
Why is such research important? Some reasons include that such research could contribute to:
- Better understanding how and why actors use techniques of prospection and whether (and why) the use of such tools helps them to accomplish their goals (the intended outcomes). This could also generate knowledge of practical value, i.e. that is useful for enhancing future interventions;
- Understanding the social and political processes that shape the production, evaluation and use of anticipatory (future-oriented) knowledge – this being a special case of a broader research program examining knowledge practices (e.g. see Camic et al. 2011);
- Better understanding the evolving interplay of science and society – noted by Miller (see above) – as scientists seek to contribute more directly to the resolution of society’s most pressing problems. Are they succeeding? If not, why not?
- Linked with the above, understanding the outcomes associated with such evolving knowledge practices and the social processes that produce them; and
- New lines of inquiry into the social processes through which knowledge is employed in problem-solving.
If you have completed or are undertaking similar research I’d love to hear from you.
Key sourced cited above
Camic, C., Gross, N. & Lamont, M. (eds) 2011, Social Knowledge in the Making, University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London.
Jarzabkowski, P. & Kaplan, S. 2015, ‘Strategy Tools-in-Use: A Framework for Understanding “Technologies of Rationality” in Practice’, Strategic Management Journal, vol. 36, no. 4, pp. 537-58.
Mallard, G. & Lakoff, A. 2011, ‘How Claims to Know the Future Are Used to Understand the Present: Techniques of Prospection in the Field of National Security’, in C. Camic, N. Gross & L. Michele (eds), Social Knowledge in the Making, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp. 339-77.
Miller, T.R. 2015, Reconstructing Sustainability Science: Knowledge and Action for a Sustainable Future, Earthscan.
Parandian, A. 2012, ‘Constructive TA of Newly Emerging Technologies: Stimulating learning by anticipation through bridging events’, PhD thesis, Delft University of Technology.
Turnheim, B., Berkhout, F., Geels, F., Hof, A., McMeekin, A., Nykvist, B. & Vuuren, D.v. 2015, ‘Evaluating sustainability transitions pathways: Bridging analytical approaches to address governance challenges’, Global Environmental Change, vol. 35, November, pp. 239-53.