Last week I received a letter from University of Technology Sydney (UTS) stating that the Graduate Research School at UTS has recommended (to the Academic Board) that I be admitted to the degree of Doctor of Philosophy (the degree will be conferred in March). This letter more formally marks the completion of what has been a long journey.
The PhD Project concept document that I fleshed out in first year of my candidature (in 2013) was entitled ‘Evaluating and enhancing the contribution of prospective exercises to change processes and sustainability’. This focus reflected my earlier studies and work on forward-looking inquiry such as scenario exercises, visioning processes, and horizon scanning (as per the term ‘prospective exercises’), amongst others. It reflected my belief that the evidence-base for, and theoretical foundation of, such activities is weak. Related to this I also stated in the concept document that I wanted to “pilot new forms of evaluation research and … [to use this to] add to the evidence base for how, when and why prospective approaches do (or don’t) contribute to efforts for addressing complex problems”. I think it’s fair to say that my final thesis reflects those core aims pretty well.
I was also aware of the increasing future-orientation in many sustainability-related areas of inquiry (e.g. earth systems science) and I wanted to reflect on this emerging prospective disposition. As Clive Hamilton asserts in his new book Defiant Earth, we live in a time in which “the present is drenched with the future… the unsettling presence of times to come” (p.132). In Hamilton’s view this is a good thing: in the Anthropocene “we must project ourselves into thinking of the future, to bring it into the present” (p.131).
Finally, as I had worked as a consultant (prior to further studies), another vague guiding thought was that I wanted to conduct a study that would be practically useful.
However, my earlier exposure to the social studies of science and to philosophy of science (in an MA degree) was also important and over-time I progressively became more interested in how ideas from these fields might be used to better understand and enhance forward-looking inquiry. This is reflected in the idea of “knowledge practices” which became a central guiding idea in my thesis – which I further elaborated as the concept of “prospective knowledge practices” – as well as in the ways in which I examined the social and political dimensions of such activities (Chapter 5 and Chapter 6). (The thesis is entitled “The roles and use of prospective knowledge practices in sustainability-related transitions”).
The point of this post is not to recall or dwell on these high-level details; rather, I want to reflect more deeply, consider where I now find myself, and where I could go in the future.
The scary truth is I’m not too sure where I find myself. Having taken time off post-PhD and more recently (this year) started to seriously look for work, I’ve struggled to focus my job search and identify jobs that I’m an ideal applicant for (i.e. able to meet all the key selection criteria). I’ve only seen one or two academic jobs I could apply for, which may suggest postdocs are my best option in academia. Moreover, I occasionally find myself feeling somewhat envious of others who have missionary zeal for a specific cause/idea or a very specific research agenda. They have focus. For example I recently read Fabio Rojas’s book Theory for the Working Sociologist (which is a good read) in which he summarises his research area as “the interaction of protest and organizations” (p.160). Six words!
Two things I know for sure are that I’ve become interested in the interaction of epistemic and social processes (many STS scholars take the stronger view that these aren’t distinct processes), and I place much more value on epistemic humility and vigilance. For a fascinating illustrative example of the former see Fligstein et al’s paper entitled “Seeing Like the Fed” which looks at why financial regulators in the US were so sanguine in their assessments in the lead-up to the financial crisis of 2007-8. The latter occasionally manifests itself rants on social media related to how easily people are duped by bullshit and con artists. But more fundamentally I think doing a doctorate encouraged epistemological development.
I think my growing interest in what some philosophers of science and STS scholars term epistemic practices also relates to my life experiences and what I regard as personal failures. At times I think I’ve been an easy mark (perhaps we all are occasionally?) and insufficiently critical regarding many knowledge claims. This self-perception has contributed to me placing greater emphasis on epistemological development and epistemic vigilance.
Regarding the interplay (or interaction) of epistemic and social processes, my Master’s thesis on nanotechnology was an early attempt to explore this. Though the study was limited in its scope and sophistication I was able to consider a specific kind of social process termed expectation dynamics and I made some fairly speculative arguments about how these dynamics impacted nanotechnology research and policy in the Australian context. For example, I talked about the generation of hyperbolic discourses and how some scientists ride these waves in order to secure research funding even if, in some instances, they didn’t really believe in “nanotechnology” per se. I discussed how expectations dynamics appeared to contribute to science policy and governance challenges. The study also got me thinking about the prominence of hyperbolic expectations (and associated social processes) and their consequences for research and other epistemic processes. (Also see a paper that I wrote during my MA studies entitled “Nano dreams and nightmares” [link]).
Coming back to my thesis, an underlying insight is that if you want understand what occurs in a forward-looking exercise (including why it was conducted) and/or the impacts of such exercises you need to consider the interaction of epistemic, social and cognitive processes. For example, important insights can be gained by considering political processes during a forward-looking exercise (e.g. bargaining games) and how they shape the outputs.
Thus one of my interests is the interaction of epistemic and social processes and, additionally, I’m interested in how these interactions and related practices influence the impact of science on society (and the impact of other less formalised research). Whilst I’m opposed to the more extreme forms of social constructivism seem in some STS scholarship (see this paper by Michael Lynch for one insightful review), there are many kinds of knowledge practices which are socially conditioned in consequential ways.
One way this tangibly manifests is in an ongoing interest in knowledge practices because I understand such practices to be epistemic, social and cognitive. (Again, see Fligstein et al’s paper for a great example, or see my thesis; additionally, Ramirez and Wilkinson’s book Strategic Reframing is an attempt to adopt such a perspective for scenario planning).
Two related general interests are: (i) understanding the cognitive capacities and tendencies that are, in part, constitutive of knowledge practices (e.g. see this post); and (ii) examining the social processes that underpin the development, diffusion and utilisation of scientific ideas and knowledge practices. (Notably my current Volunteer Fellow role at CSIRO provides an opportunity to consider this in relation to research evaluation, an area my doctoral thesis began to consider [regarding realist evaluation approaches]).
More specifically, during my PhD I developed a strong interest in the conception of human action and cognition developed in the pragmatist philosophical tradition (I continue to read widely on this) and an interest in the implications of this e.g. for knowledge practices and for theorising sustainability transition processes (see Part 3 of my thesis).
I’m not sure where these interests and ideas will take me. I’m currently exploring a few ideas:
- Investigating the intensifying impact agenda in research policy and practice and seeking to understand what opportunities there could be in this space. (These are learning goals for my Volunteer Fellow position at CSIRO);
- Exploring work options in management consulting where specific skill sets are useful (e.g. research, facilitation and evaluation skills) as well as knowledge of theoretical perspectives relevant to specific projects. Knowledge practices theory is relevant to aspects, e.g. where participatory intervention methods are used (e.g. see Ramirez & Wilkinson 2016 on scenario planning); and
- Exploring the evaluation sector and field, including both evaluation consultancies and the growth in evaluation roles in organisations. Notably evaluation is also a space in which new knowledge practices are emerging such as new evidence synthesis practices and impact assessment practices.
The interaction of epistemic and social processes is important in all of the above areas if we want to understand and enhance such activities. To quote Ramirez and Wilkinson on this, regarding scenario planning, they argue that “the success of scenario planning depends on the quality of interaction of social and cognitive processes” and, secondly, how well these processes fit other processes in and beyond involved organisations. My research findings are consistent with this argument and add more theoretical depth to their observations.
I plan to continue looking ahead (and back) over coming days. If you know of or hear about opportunities you think I’d be well-suited for please do get in touch – thanks.