Introducing the concept of prospective knowledge practices

One of the outputs of my PhD research is the concept of prospective knowledge practices. The purpose of this post is to outline this concept and some of its potential benefits versus other terms that are commonly used (e.g. “foresight practices”, “futures research”, etc.).

My introduction to the concept of knowledge practices – which informs and underpins the concept of prospective knowledge practices – was the book Social Knowledge in the Making (University of Chicago Press, 2011). This book explores an STS-inspired approach to studying the day-to-day practices and social processes that shape the production, assessment and use of social knowledge. This includes scholarly inquiry, such as by university-trained historians and sociologists, as well as in myriad other fields of analysis that have emerged (e.g. financial analysts, political and national security analysts, etc.). Social knowledge entails descriptive information and analytical statements (e.g. about human beings, collective units in which they are situated, and the social world), and also normative statements. It also addresses the ‘technologies’ and tools used to produce, assess, communicate and preserve knowledge.

So, in this sense, research on social knowledge practices could entail, for example, research on how an influential scholar goes about developing or testing their theories; or research could investigate how the dominant knowledge practices in a particular discipline have evolved over time and why; and research could scrutinise the use of particular tools or ‘technologies’ such as public opinion polling or focus groups. The latter idea of scrutinising the use of tools or technologies informed my PhD research.

The key STS idea of opening up the “black box” of knowledge production and use is taken seriously in the concept of knowledge practices. For example, rather than use simple input-output style models (e.g. where input = data, and outputs = theories and papers), scholars can scrutinise the daily routines of knowledge producers and other relevant actors, how their ideas are developed and refined, and the myriad mediating and intervening factors or contingencies which can influence the gathering, use and analysis of data (or social knowledge). A famous STS example is laboratory ethnographies. Such research informed comparisons of the daily reality in labs with the neat and often linear descriptions of research in scientific papers, and highlighted the influence of micropolitics on research choices and outcomes.

The editors of Social Knowledge in Making argue that social knowledge practices are “ensembles of patterned activities – the “modes of working and doing”, in Amsterdamska’s (2008, 206) words – by which human beings confront and structure the situated tasks with which they are engaged” (p.7). Such activities include both routine modes of action and nonregularised actions. A simple example of the former is the routine of peer review widely used in academic publishing.

Additionally, the focus on knowledge specifies that fictional and fabricated material is omitted from consideration. That is, the focus is on “data and statements that seek to advance empirically based and empirically warranted claims” (p.3).

Though such claims can be “about the present, the past, or the future” (p.3) I argue that future-oriented claims are unique and important enough to have their own term: prospective knowledge practices. (Here the term “prospective” broadly means relating to the future).

Building on the definition of social knowledge practices provided in Social Knowledge in the Making, a prospective knowledge practice (PKP) can be defined as follows:

‘An ensemble of patterned activities – related to the situated tasks with which human beings are engaged – used to advance, assess, or put to use knowledge claims about the future which are (at least in part) empirically based and warrantable’.

What is the value of such a concept – or, how can it “cash out” in terms of inquiry and practice (as some pragmatists philosophers put this)? Here are some illustrative thoughts:

1/ First and foremost it places routines, and associated habitual ways of thinking and acting, front and centre. Routines are a core element of knowledge practices (see above). In my PhD research, I zeroed in on routines evident in example PKPs and critically analysed how they shaped the production and use of anticipatory knowledge. More broadly, I’ve observed that experienced practitioners develop routines over-time which become more-or-less taken for granted, often are insufficiently reflected upon, and influence their work and its impact in myriad ways.

In my thesis, I also argue that empirically-based evaluation research (as opposed to doing a high-level project review) is one way of revealing, and informing reflection on, such routines. Insights resulting from such research may be used to enhance practice.

2/ The concept of knowledge practices usefully calls attention to multiple types knowledge practice: knowledge-production practices, knowledge-assessment practices, and practices through which knowledge is put to use. All three are relevant to PKPs. For example, we can examine knowledge practices that are used to construct future scenarios, those used to assess the likelihood (or the “credibility”) and relevance of a scenario, and the way scenarios are used in strategic planning.

3/ The concept puts the emphasis on empirically-based and empirically warranted claims. In contrast to the view of many futures studies scholars – some of whom argue that that field studies the ideas people have about the future and how these are used, and who argue that future-oriented inquiry cannot be an empirical undertaking – key trends in many fields are towards making claims about the future which seek to be empirically-based and empirically warranted. Consider climate scientists: their modelling work explores the longer-term future and aspires to make empirically-based and warranted claims about the medium-term and longer-term climate futures and their consequences. Or consider economists who claim that their economic models are empirically based and then seek to develop evidence-informed and (to some extent) empirically warranted forecasts or scenarios to guide policy-making. Or consider some futures studies scholars who ground their future-oriented inquiry in macrohistory and present trends – the former of which is viewed as providing knowledge about patterns of social change that can guide speculation. I believe we need to consider such attempts to make claims about the future more empirically-based and warranted, their evolution, and the downstream consequences of such knowledge practices.

4/ The concept emphasises the ways in which such practices are “patterned activities” and socially situated. This aspect is similar to the claim made by STS scholars that science and research are social activities, and implies that the use and downstream effects of PKPs is likely to be different in different organisational and institutional contexts (e.g. within formal scientific organisations or within an NGO or an activist-y research organisation). This too can be investigated via research. Similarly, the editors of Social Knowledge in the Making suggest examination of the consequences of the ways that knowledge making practices “are characteristic of a particular knowledge-making site” (p.32). PKPs also typically get used “social locations that are relatively porous” (p.27). Practitioners can examine these aspects of their own practices, including how they deal with heterogenous contingencies that emerge, as part of reflective practice.

5/ Beneficial transformations of prospective knowledge practices may also be possible through giving greater attention to the day-to-day practices and associated events during the use of PKPs. Some examples will make this more concrete. A good example from my case study research is the practices used by CSIRO staff to minimise or avoid conflict during multi-stakeholder workshops (e.g. avoiding conflictual debates that are perceived to be an unproductive use of time, not getting involved in conflicts and seeking to remain neutral). These practices were highly consequential. Another example is practices used to protect scientific credibility such as relying upon certain kinds of literature (e.g. peer-reviewed literature) – indeed, similar issues have been consequential with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Reviewing and modifying such practices may contribute to beneficial process innovation.

There’s of course much more to the story, but this post has introduced the concept of prospective knowledge practices and provided some insights into how it may cash out in inquiry and practice.

Other terms like “foresight practice” often refer to one type of approach to doing forward-looking inquiry (e.g. technology foresight exercises). Such terms typically also aren’t clearly grounded in a relevant body of theory and concepts. Other terms like “futures research” are more general but they also have disadvantages such as only being descriptive. Such terms are useful but don’t have explanatory potential nor do they point to lines of inquiry which could enhance their use (such as the ideas briefly noted in this post).

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