Though my doctoral research began as a fairly straightforward impact evaluation of forward-looking interventions (which I call “prospective exercises”), it evolved into a more complex piece of research and theory-building.
Two of the ideas that emerged from this broader inquiry are:
- To understand the use and impacts of a prospective exercise (or similar future-oriented research) you need a theory of prospective knowledge practices (PKPs) and to investigate these practices (knowledge practices thesis). The related notion of “knowledge practices” is an adaptation of practice theory (see the introduction chapter in Camic et al, 2011 for a useful overview); and
- Theories of knowledge practices should, at their core, also be grounded in theories of the actors and related action processes (microfoundations thesis)
Over time these theses became more central to my dissertation. The first thesis built on existing theories of social knowledge practices to conceptualise ‘prospective knowledge practices’ and explore their social dimensions and use. When developing the second I drew on a range of ideas including ideas from cognitive science and pragmatist action theories (the third part of the thesis proposes a “pragmatist synthesis”) – which grounded my analysis in theories of actors and action – but it’s also an argument about knowledge utilisation and factors that influence the appraisal and mobilisation of knowledge claims.
As I’ve thought more about this, I’ve pondered the potential to build on these ideas.
A few possible lines of inquiry for further theorising and studying knowledge practices (and also using the resulting insights) are briefly sketched below:
1) I’m keen to further develop the microfoundations thesis, as this is something I only skimmed the surface of (also see this post). By the idea of microfoundations I’m referring to Daniel Little’s argument that hypotheses about social processes and entities should “have “microfoundations” at the level of the actors who constitute them”, such as with respect to the relevant “socially constituted and socially situated” actors (Little, 2014).
One aspect my PhD thesis explored is the ways that theories of reason/ing and related cognitive mechanisms can ground knowledge practice theories and research. I’d like to build on this as well as other relevant theory. For example, it’s important to recognise that “actor theories” can theorise individual and collective actors – e.g. theories of human cognition and psychology, organisational theory (e.g. organisational institutionalism), etc.
Consider emerging theories in the psychological sciences. Richard Crisp‘s popular science book The Social Brain is an interesting introduction to relevant ideas as it both considers basic cognitive processes and explores translational considerations. Crisp describes the human brain as a “prediction machine” which seeks to “create a [mental] model of the world that is as predictable as possible” (p.62) and, related to this, he contends that “stability and structure are essential goals of the human psyche” (p.8) and humans have an “insatiable need to feel certain” (p.23). Such basic drives are argued to commonly have broader effects such as those related to out-group avoidance and psychological threat detection, but in an interesting twist cognitive benefits are claimed to be accessible if such cognitive barriers are overcome. (Regarding such potential benefits see intergroup contact theory).
In my thesis I reasoned that basic psychological ‘drives’ (and related cognitive mechanisms) could partly explain behaviour in prospective exercises, the use (or non-use) of the outputs, and related study impacts. Moreover, if that’s correct, practitioners should also seek more robust theoretical underpinnings for their work (read: microfoundations).
One day I’d also like to further explore how microfoundational insights can be drawn on when designing and conducting prospective exercises (theory-practice linkages).
2) A further possibility is to study the emergence, evolution and effects of specific prospective knowledge practices (PKPs).
A useful starting point here is a basic conceptualisation of practices as modes (or “ways”) of working and doing and associated “ensembles of patterned activities” (Camic et al, 2011, p.7). (My thesis defines PKPs). A practice theory perspective encourages attentiveness to such “modes” or “ways” and the related ‘on-the-ground’ work that constitutes social practices. Additionally, social practice theorists contend that “subjecting practices to analysis opens up the “black box” of social life” (Camic et al, 2011, p.8).
So, if we want to better understand contemporary social life and the underlying causal processes (or ‘mechanisms’) that are shaping it (yep!), practice theorists make the counter-intuitive suggestion that we should investigate concrete social practices in specific socio-historical contexts. Some practice theorists further claim that this can help us to “either discover otherwise-concealed social regularities or (according to an inverse rationale) deconstruct the very notion of such regularities” (Camic et al, 2011, p.8).
This points to a research agenda focussed on investigating the emergence, evolution and (perhaps) stabilisation of particular PKPs. Here’s a few illustrative possible examples:
- The common practice of constructing and comparing a ‘business-as-usual’ (BAU) future and policy/intervention scenario(s) – for example, in climate policy scenarios a BAU scenario might estimate emissions and climate impacts in the absence of policy and policy scenario(s) will differ according to included additional policy-making;
- Predictive modelling and its use in environmental decision-making;
- Futures visualisation practices – like the use of immersive “decision theatres” – which can, for example, be part of decision-support systems; and
- Participatory backcasting
Attentiveness to concrete social practices such as these could entail investigating the initial emergence and eventual stabilisation of such practices in their socio-historical context (akin to the way STS scholars investigate the social construction of technologies) and their use in real-world situations such as when actors seek to make the case for action (or inaction). A broader goal would be to give us insights into aspects of social life, e.g. the politicisation of areas of science or policy and evolution of specific issues (e.g. the climate issue).
Additionally, research on PKPs can examine knowledge appraisal and utilisation practices (which are themselves PKPs). If the microfoundations thesis is taken seriously, theories of the actors and action processes would be a central input. Indeed, I recently spotted a suggestive example in which organisational theory is used to develop theories about the functions of expert knowledge in policy-making (link). Similar to my microfoundations thesis the author argues that “any account of how organizations use knowledge will inevitably be premised on a theory of organizations: a set of claims about the sources and nature of organizational interests and how these translate into organizational action“.
3) Jens Beckert’s work on capitalism and economic sociology points to other possibilities. For example, he argues that “the capability of humans to imagine future states of the world that can be different from the present is the central basis for a sociological microfoundation of the dynamics of economic macro phenomena”, and he’s theorised related capitalist dynamics (Beckert, 2013). If we consider this future-oriented aspect of human beings (which Martin Seligman terms ‘Homo Prospectus’ [link]), then research on PKPs could aim to clarify and refine such a sociological microfoundation and thereby also contribute to social theorising e.g. theorising transition processes (also see Beckert, 2016).
FINAL THOUGHTS: I’ve been thinking about the professional and personal trajectories of graduates from the strategic foresight program I’ve did and how mine compares to these. For example, some graduates have pursued oracle style trajectories, or traditional activism (or ‘change agent’ style work), and others appear to have abandoned ‘strategic foresight’ (or simply not found work in this area). I’ve toyed with all of these (and others as well), but some of the things that exposure to ‘foresight’ work got me thinking more about include the very aspiration to gain more future-oriented understanding, how such aspirations manifest in society (and the functions of such knowledge and practices), and related trends over the past 40-50 years (e.g. the rise of predictive modelling in many area of policy-making). A critical analysis style trajectory such as this is difficult to combine with the paths others have taken, especially an oracle trajectory. Whilst knowledge practices inquiry can be critical, it can also aspire to inform and enhance practice ‘on-the-ground’.
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. 2016, Imagined Futures: Fictional Expectations and Capitalist Dynamics, Harvard University Press.
Camic, C., Gross, N. & Lamont, M. (eds) 2011, Social Knowledge in the Making, University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London.
Crisp, R. 2015, The Social Brain: How Diversity Made the Modern Mind, Robinson, London, UK.
Little, D. 2014, ‘Actor-Centered Sociology and the New Pragmatism’, in J. Zahle & F. Collin (eds), Rethinking the Individualism-Holism Debate (Synthese Library, vol. 372), Springer, pp. 55-75.