Last year I discovered Jens Beckert’s research on the role of fictional expectations in the economy. Beckert interestingly contrasts the concept of fictional expectations with notion of rational expectations in economic theory, and in his recently published book Imagined Futures: Fictional Expectations and Capitalist Dynamics he further develops a sociological theory of expectations. Beckert’s work is a useful reference point in some of my own research.
The following expectations-related topics and phenomena (amongst others) are also important for sustainability-oriented research:
The role of contingent imaginaries: Beckert (2016) argues that “expectations of the unforeseeable future inhabit the mind not as foreknowledge, but as contingent imaginaries”. Actors develop and internalise beliefs about future states of the world which are contingent but are often not perceived as such – hence, ‘contingent imaginaries’. “Expectations become determinate only through the imaginaries actors develop” (p.9). In Imagined Futures Beckert considers the role of such imagined futures in investment, innovation processes, consumption, and in money and credit systems. Economic action in all such areas is argued to be “anchored in narrative constructions” (p.274) and the temporal orientation of capitalist economies is argued to be intensely future-oriented. More broadly he argues for more consideration of the role of expectations in change processes.
Expectation formation and dynamics under uncertain conditions: we need to take more seriously the dynamics of expectations under uncertainty, along with the social forces that influence these processes. This was a key theme in my Master’s thesis on nanotechnology. Beckert (2016) argues that a key feature of such expectations (under uncertain conditions) is that these expectations aren’t formed based on information alone. Another way of putting this is that “the openness of the future rules out the possibility of restricting expectations to empirical reality” (p.62). Expectations are also contingent in the sense that they are, in part, the result of contingent interpretations of reality.
The concept of a prop is an interesting one in this context. A tangible example is a business plan put together by an entrepreneur who is seeking to raise capital from investors. Beckert argues that a business plan can be understood as a prop which the entrepreneur hopes will invoke imaginaries of business success in the minds of investors and make them more likely to invest.
Expectations as social phenomena: where do expectations come from if they are not formed from information alone? The sociological argument is that expectations are social and not individual phenomena. For example, a wide range of social influences shape expectations and expectations are “necessarily connected to social context” (Beckert 2016, p. 86). One example type of social influence emphasised by Beckert is “cognitive devices”. Such devices include accepted economic theories (in a particular community). Accepted theories act as cognitive models in the sense that they shape “the construction of imagined futures” (Beckert, 2016, p.89). Social conventions also promote the use of particular calculative tools to predict or estimate future outcomes.
The politics of expectations: a core argument made in Imagined Futures is that the contingency of expectations under uncertain conditions is an entry point for the exercise of power. Expectations under uncertain conditions are contingent because they are not directly determined by a situation (nor based on information alone) and are therefore the result of contingent interpretations of reality. Some actors have more power than others to influence these interpretations.
Forecasting techniques and other techniques of prospection as instruments of imagination: a range of techniques are used as instruments for creating expectations. The functions that such instruments serve are often “different from the ones they proclaim to fulfill” (Beckert, 2016, p.242). This points to the need for social scientific investigation of the use of such techniques.
A number of other important lines of inquiry are developed in Imagined Futures – focussed on the dynamics of capitalism – but the ones listed above provide a sense of the arguments.
An underlying issue raised in Imagined Futures is that if outcomes are “ontologically uncertain” (p.63) then this problematises rational actor theory (RAT). Beckert argues that RAT “presupposes agents’ ability to calculate outcomes at least probabilistically, and posits that actors will choose the alternative that maximizes their welfare” (p.75). Beckert argues that actors typically don’t have this ability under uncertain conditions, and raises questions about decision-making processes. A related issue is whether and why actors are willing to act despite uncertain outcomes – e.g. what generates actors’ confidence?
Theorisation of expectations and related issues are relevant to this and sustainability-related action.
One example is expectations of major ‘collapse’ and related risk perceptions. For example I recall the intense risk perceptions in the mid-2000s related to oil depletion and rising oil prices. I was quite concerned about this at the time. However, we now know that risk perceptions were, to some extent, overblown – although this point remains contested by some. This suggests we need to reconsider expectation formation under uncertainty, how this helps to generate policy issues, and whether this leads to wise action related to sustainability or, for example, focussing on the wrong issues.
I’ve experienced the centrality of “ontologically uncertain outcomes” (Beckert 2016, p.63) to economic action and phenomena. For example, the results of marketing strategies or advertising campaigns are uncertain. The success of a new business venture is highly uncertain.
Similarly in many respects environmental outcomes and issues are frequently uncertain however actors often develop strong expectations. How and why does this occur (e.g. through what social processes)? To what extent can such processes be influenced/enhanced? If ontologically uncertain outcomes problematise RAT then this raises related key questions (e.g. about action and decision-making processes under uncertainty and how this shapes environmental action).
One line of inquiry could be to explore the relationship between the theories and models that are accepted in particular communities and how this shapes expectation formation under uncertainty. Work on cognitive sociology points to related lines of inquiry (see this earlier post).
Beckert’s analysis of the politics of expectations – which emphasises the exercise of power – is also highly relevant. This is relevant to analysis of the use of “instruments of imagination” (e.g. as per my PhD research) and related interest struggles amongst actors. It is also relevant to broader analysis of whose expectations count and why and how this influences actors’ expectations.
A further key area of investigation is the role of contingent imaginaries in innovation processes and investment decisions. Where such innovation and investment occurs in capitalist economies imaginaries are particularly prominent and important (Beckert 2016). Imaginaries are also prominent in the groups and communities that are seeking to advance post-capitalist innovations.
Finally, one of the key framing observations made in my Masters’ thesis is that – in the context of new and emerging science and technologies – actors operate in extremely speculative environments. This observation has broader relevance to sustainability. It points to the need to better understand the expectations work done by actors and its consequences, both intended and unintended.
Beckert, J. 2013, ‘Capitalism as a System of Expectations: Toward a Sociological Microfoundation of Political Economy’, Politics & Society, vol. 41, no. 3, pp. 323-50.
Beckert, J. 2013, ‘Imagined futures: fictional expectations in the economy’, Theory and Society, vol. 42, no. 3, pp. 219-40.
Beckert, J. 2016, Imagined Futures: Fictional Expectations and Capitalist Dynamics, Harvard University Press.