I’ve decided to write a series of posts reviewing and reflecting on my doctoral research and considering future directions such inquiry could be taken in. Such posts might be of interest to others thinking of conducting research on forms of forward-looking inquiry and engagement (in addition to a personal moment of reflection). This post begins this by considering the idea of conducting research on such inquiry and engagement – for instance research on participatory scenario exercises, or methods like roadmapping and visioning, or on the role/use of related methods (e.g. environmental assessments) .
Firstly, some context: for most of period in which I did my PhD (2013-2017) I was living a kind of “double life”. On the one hand, I was working as a practitioner on a project doing forward-looking inquiry (see the Visions and Pathways 2040 project); and on the other hand my PhD research critically evaluated the use of such tools and processes (researching their use by a research team at CSIRO, Australia’s peak national research agency). So, I was trying to simultaneously be a doer/practitioner and an evaluator. At times each part of my life influenced the other. For instance, issues emerging in our own research project got me wondering whether similar issues emerged in the projects I was evaluating.
Additionally, I’d been reflecting on the work I’d done since completing (in 2005) the Master of Strategic Foresight course that was run by Swinburne University (e.g. consultancy work, teaching in a business school, work for a leadership program).
So, coming back to the question of research on forms of forward-looking inquiry and/or engagement: what might one seek to accomplish? Below I consider some ideas:
1) One set of ideas about such research focusses on the use of such practices as interventions. The underlying aspiration seems (to me) to be developing and validating a set of proven tools, methods and frameworks based on evaluative research. I see this research as being akin to the use of empirical research to test drugs or other medical interventions: the main goal is to identify or refine intervention(s) for a given pathology or ‘disease’ – a medical style model. Similar ideas about identifying “what works” are occasionally voiced and have even found their way into recent book titles (e.g. Sohail Inayatullah’s book What Works: Case Studies in the Practice of Foresight). Additionally, in the wider literature about forward-looking methods you do see claims about, and theorisation of, related ‘pathologies’ in thinking, planning, decision-making and/or wider society.
Related to this, you occasionally also see claims like such and such process is a “proven process”. (NOTE: These days when I hear such claims my BS detector is on high alert). My own view is that the notion of “proven” forward-looking methods and processes is largely a chimera. For instance, I agree with Ramirez and Wilkinson (2016) who write:
In clinical medicine, the effectiveness of a method is assessed using randomized, controlled trials that inform a meta-assessment of different treatments. There is no such thing in scenario planning to determine objectively that one particular method is best” (p.113).
2) Another set of ideas suggests that we ought to focus on the theories which underpin or guide such activities. The underlying aspirations are to clarify, test and enhance these theories for specific methods and/or broader sets of forward-looking activities which seek to tell us how and why these methods or activities can be useful. Whilst practitioners may have implicit guiding theories, this inquiry would make them far more explicit.
Related to this, some research focusses on developing or testing ‘foresight’ theories (e.g. theories of ‘corporate foresight’ or ’social foresight’) or impact theories. We also see attempts to connect practice with various kinds of theory. The latter can include change theories and theories related to the specific context of use (e.g. strategy theories).
My research drew on some of this literature such as scholars seeking to identify “utility theories” (i.e. those who are theorising the value and impacts of foresight style activities). I also reviewed related kinds of theory-based evaluation research (e.g. realist evaluation) which can be used to frame and guide such evaluative inquiry.
3) Beyond the above ideas, if we adopt a social inquiry perspective then we might be interested in asking different questions. The objective could be to reach or infer wider conclusions by studying instances of forward-looking inquiry and/or engagement.
For example, we might be interested in better understanding how people use anticipatory knowledge, or why prospective practices exhibit particular characteristics or tendencies. The resulting understandings may be useful for practitioners, but they might be sought for other reasons. Sociologists like Karen Cerulo have sought to examine and understand the social nature of such human activities (e.g. Cerulo’s thought provoking book Never Saw it Coming: Cultural Challenges to Envisioning the Worst considers whether and how social factors can influence the prominence of worst case scenarios in human thought).
Something that interests me whether and how sociocultural contexts and factors condition the forms of inquiry and engagement that practitioners are leading or involved in, often in ways they’re not fully aware of. This interest partly stems from a desire to reflect on my own personal experiences and work. To examine this, work done in sub-fields of sociology like ‘cognitive sociology’ and ‘cultural sociology’ becomes highly relevant.
Like Cerulo I’ve also become very interested in the social nature of forward-looking activities (e.g. those used to explore future possibilities) and in how cognitive research might be mobilised for examining this . Related possible goals might include:
- Seeking to clarify or reveal the social aspects of such activities (which mean ‘prospection’ is not merely subjective or personal in nature): to what extent is consideration of the future an intersubjective phenomenon?
- Examining the influence of specific sociocultural factors on related processes of human thought (about the future); and/or
- Informing and promoting critical consideration of related patterns and tendencies
As noted above the research of cognitive sociologists is highly relevant. For instance, actors and inquiry may be shaped by “culturally based cognitive traditions or thought communities” (Cerulo, 2005) via mechanisms of habituation and socialisation.
Scholars in fields like science and technology studies (STS) have also pushed social inquiry in relevant directions. For example, one book entitled Contested Futures examines “how the future as a temporal abstraction is constructed and managed, by whom and under what conditions” (p.4). The editors characterise this analytical move as a shift from ‘looking into’ the future to ‘looking at’ the future. The editors place particular importance on the efforts of actors “to create ‘direction’ or convince others of ‘what the future will bring’”. Many areas of emerging science and technology provide relevant cases (e.g. link).
Reflecting on, and articulating, personal research goals
I recall that when I started my doctoral research I had a vague guiding aim of helping to better theorise, and also gather evidence about, new forms and uses of forward-looking inquiry and engagement related to sustainability issues and enabling sustainability-related change (see idea #1 and #2 above). This led me to explore the literature on evaluation theory and methods. As a practitioner and activist I also wanted to learn how to best (or better) use and develop my skillset to help solve pressing challenges like climate change and the myriad associated social problems. However, I also began to doubt what could be gained from such research. In particular, I doubted that research would produce proven “recipes” or processes that could, for example, be used in consultancy work.
If these doubts are valid then I think we’re justified in further interrogating the question of what is the point of conducting inquiry on forms of forward-looking inquiry and engagement? I’ll briefly outline some personal answers to this question:
Firstly, though I now have a different perspective on what can be achieved via research on such practices, I believe that inquiry can inform analysis of our ability to use particular tools or approaches to do particular ‘work’ and can inform reflection on more interventionist work. Take scenario planning and visioning as illustrative examples: there are lots of papers and books claiming wonderful potential outcomes but little evaluative analysis of what is actually achieved and why when these methods are used in real-world contexts.
Second, as indicated earlier in this post, I came to understand that we can also have the goal of taking a ‘step back’ from any particular instance of forward-looking inquiry and/or engagement to consider broader patterns or tendencies that examination of such inquiry may give us insights into. Related questions include: ‘what is this a case of?’. This is something that I have tended to see in more sociological forms of inquiry that have a strong theorising orientation, but the perspective can be adopted by others.
A related research goal (or perspective) that emerged at some point during my PhD is mobilising theory and evidence to more critically consider the ways that forward-looking tools and engagement exercises are used, along with how the outputs get used (or not). What tendencies or patterns can we see? And what broader judgements can we reach about this? I began to see these as potentially socially relevant lines of inquiry given the rise in the use of methods for more formalised consideration of the future (over the past 50 or so years) and the increased use of related engagement exercises. Though my thesis only partially reflects such a research goal it is somewhat shaped by it.
For example, some patterns or tendencies that I became interested in during my studies centre on how and when learning processes are institutionally conditioned and how this can shape forward-looking inquiry and its effects. I wanted to better understand how forward-looking activities can be shaped by the sociocultural context. From a cognitive sociology perspective such tendencies or patterns have both “inside” aspects (i.e. the neural activity in the brain and associated cognitive processes) and “outside” aspects (sociocultural factors and processes) which interact with each other (see Cerulo, 2016).
The goal of better understanding such tendencies or patterns is separate from any notion of defining action blueprints. I doubt it will be especially useful for this, however it can enhance our understanding of outcomes and can inform practitioner reflection.
Third, additionally – although this goal wasn’t a motivator of my doctoral work – conducting such inquiry could help to inform the development of a cognitive sociology of how actors ‘deploy’ (or consider) the future and related forward-looking activities. Related theorisation of key processes of human thought is relevant to such inquiry (e.g. see Cerulo, 2005; 2016). Such a cognitive sociology of the future (should it ever be fully developed) holds the promise of making contributions to other fields like sustainability transition studies (link) and environmental sociology. The intensely future-oriented aspects of many sustainability debates and issues underscores this potential. Additionally, we might better appreciate the roles and development of “culturally based cognitive traditions” (Cerulo, 2005).
Forth, on a more basic level I don’t underestimate the potential for quality research to help us to reflect on and better understand our experiences and, in doing so, perhaps challenge or modify our beliefs. This was a possible outcome for the research team at CSIRO whose work I was evaluating. As a then active practitioner I also had a sense that the work I was doing wasn’t as effective as it might be and desire to learn why such work can be more or less useful or effective. Whilst I do believe that it’s unrealistic to seek a detailed blueprint for success (as per a “proven process”), I believe lessons can be learned.
In contrast, I find that research done on forms of forward-looking inquiry and engagement too often seems oriented to validating and/or selling these activities via vague “success stories” that are misleadingly described as case studies.
Summarising these ideas
Perhaps we can say that there are competing ideas about research on forms of forward-looking inquiry and engagement and the potential value of this, including:
1) A medical style model (or approach) for such research, seeking to craft and refine interventions used to address a given ‘pathology’ (or ‘disease’) and working towards identifying the best method to use (and/or “proven” processes).
2) An evaluative inquiry model which can draw on efficacy assessments (idea #1) but can have a broader orientation toward articulating and testing the theories that guide practice. We might be interested in exploring when and why certain practices are useful (or not), perhaps also reflecting on different ideas about what success looks like.
3) A more sociological model which, for example, invites broader inquiry into how people and organisations use anticipatory knowledge; and/or into how the sociocultural context influences related processes of human thought (about the future); and/or we might inquire into how sociocultural factors and processes influence the very practices and activities that are being used for forward-looking inquiry and/or engagement, amongst other possibilities. A sociological approach or imagination might also promote critical consideration of related patterns and tendencies, separate from more ‘pragmatic’ considerations.
Over recent years I’ve shifted somewhat from being a practitioner to becoming more of a “cognitive sociologist” who studies prospective practices and how anticipatory knowledge is used. Such inquiry examines/approaches thought (about the future) as an intersubjective phenomenon (Cerulo, 2005) and analyses the influence of sociocultural factors and contexts on how people use anticipatory knowledge and/or advance related claims. The insights emerging from such inquiry might be useful for practitioners (e.g. see this paper on visioning processes I published in 2015). However, it can also frame or inform other forms of social inquiry and critique that are separate from practitioner concerns.
Finally, I think it’s important to note that developing a better understanding of why forward-looking inquiry and engagement happens the way it does, and/or why outcomes are or aren’t achieved, doesn’t necessarily empower practitioners or others to change this. Instead, I think such research can help practitioners to have a more humble or reflective view of their work. Much of the existing literature over-promises and underplays key issues.
Brown, N., Rappert, B. & Webster, A. 2000, Contested Futures: A Sociology of Prospective Techno-Science, Ashgate Publishing Ltd, Aldershot, England.
Cerulo, K.A. 2005, ‘Cognitive Sociology’, in G. Ritzer (ed.), Encyclopedia of Social Theory, SAGE Publishing, Inc.
Cerulo, K.A. 2006, Never Saw it Coming: Cultural Challenges to Envisioning the Worst, University of Chicago Press, Chicago; London.
Cerulo, K.A. 2016, ‘Cognition and Cultural Sociology: The Inside and Outside of Thought’, in D. Inglis & A.-M. Almila (eds), The SAGE Handbook of Cultural Sociology, SAGE Publishing, Inc.
Ramirez, R. & Wilkinson, A. 2016, Strategic Reframing: The Oxford Scenario Planning Approach, Oxford University Press, Oxford, United Kingdom.