This post and the next one will consider some of the broader learnings and thoughts that emerged from my doctoral research. This post will focus on some theoretical aspects and their possible applications and implications.
One core aspect is what I term prospective knowledge practices (PKPs). In my thesis I define a PKP as:
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” (p.4).
The thesis makes the argument that it’s important to theorise PKPs and to examine and, potentially, also enhance the roles of PKPs in the context of sustainability-related transitions. (Hence the title: “The Roles and Use of Prospective Knowledge Practices in Sustainability-related Transitions”). I built on existing work on ‘knowledge practices’ (Camic et al, 2011) to conceptualise and analyse forward-looking forms of practices.
Let me unpack and further outline one of my related conclusions: I believe we need a more thoroughly social account of ‘prospective knowledge practices’ which is also grounded in a microfoundation that’s informed by recent cognitive science research (informing the cognitive presuppositions). My doctoral work suggests that this can enhance the theorisation of such activities and may also have practical utility.
Firstly, what is meant by the notion that these practices are “social” and therefore need social scientific exposition and analysis? One starting point is provided by Tony Lawson: social things “arise out of, and depend necessarily upon, human interactions […] and could not exist in the absence of human beings and their doings” (link). PKPs typically meet these criteria! Another way that they could be social is if key patterns or tendencies (e.g. in the use of PKPs and/or their effects) are, to some extent, underpinned by sociocultural processes (Cerulo, 2005). Again, I think this is correct but I also wish to highlight the importance of cognition to such patterns/tendencies. A third consideration could be to explore the place or roles of PKPs in broader social phenomena of interest.
These notions of social are relevant to many aspects of the focal prospective exercises I studied such as the following aspects: (i) why such exercises are undertaken; (ii) the processes and methods that are used; (iii) actor behaviour and human interaction in such exercises (e.g. during large group workshops); and (iv) how the resulting anticipatory knowledge claims are appraised and used, amongst other aspects. I would contend that many other PKPs are also social in the senses outlined in the previous paragraph.
Some of the social aspects of PKPs that I considered include the following:
- The development of routines and institutions that condition future choices made by practitioners and the participants in such exercises. Routines can include organisational routines and the ways that practitioners and analysts over-time develop and share their own routines (with colleagues/collaborators);
- Social aspects of cognition, as per the “interactionist” account of human reason (Mercier & Sperber, 2017): in contrast to the dominant image of individual reasoners – independently exercising their capacity for reason to produce better beliefs or better decisions (as per the “intellectualist” view of reason) – the interactionist position is that reason isn’t geared towards solitary use and is a social tool or competence evolved for use in the context of interaction;
- The concept of “thought communities” (Cerulo, 2005; Zerubavel, 1999) which the practitioner(s), participants and other involved actors may be members of. This concept questions the notion of a “solitary thinker” (who participates in a prospective exercise and/or uses the outputs) and suggests that all mental actions are profoundly shaped by an actor’s social environment(s);
- Power relations during a prospective exercise and/or in relevant contexts of use; and
- The social contexts in which PKPs are used and gain influence (or don’t), such as the context of a policy or strategy debate or an intrapreneurship context, and theorising what roles or functions (of PKPs) are desired or emergent in these contexts. (On this theme also see Ross Gittin’s commentary on economic modelling).
The above ideas and processes are broadly consistent with a related argument made in my thesis that prospective exercises, PKPs and their effects “reflect the social conditions of their production and the social conditions of those involved in their production” (Erickson, 2016, p.1). Additionally, as per my discussion of the interactionist account of human reason (Mercier & Sperber, 2017) I also see a need to ground theorising in the latest cognitive science. Given social things are shaped by “human beings and their doings” (Lawson) we need to consider what shapes such doings (e.g. cognition).
These ideas are only the beginnings of a more thoroughly social account of ‘prospective knowledge practices’ grounded in a microfoundation informed by recent cognitive science research. Some initial thinking for further developing these ideas includes the following:
- Further drawing on practice theory and related forms of social theory to further theorise the production, appraisal and use of anticipatory knowledge as “practices” – for instance, theorising the roles of knowledge practices (e.g. as per a notion of “practices” emphasising efforts to “maintain – not always with success – a sense of ontological security” as theorised by John Postil for media practices [link]);
- Further drawing on the emerging theories and research of cognitive sociologists (e.g. Cerulo, 2005; 2006; 2016) to consider how relevant processes of human thought (and associated practices) are influenced by sociocultural factors;
- Examining and development and interplay of relevant “culturally based cognitive traditions” (Cerulo, 2005) and related causal mechanisms; and
- Drawing on other lines of cognitive and psychological research (e.g. Crisp, 2015; Haidt, 2013; Sloman, S. & Fernbach, P. 2017).
What about the question of ‘so what?’ Why pursue such lines of inquiry or research?
One answer is that it could enhance some uses of PKPs. For instance, I discuss in my thesis some of the implications of the interactionist view of reason for process design and facilitation. That is, better theories of prospective practices may inform better practice.
Another answer is that in relation to sustainability-related transitions it is socially important to understand what mechanisms and practices shape them and related public debates, and to also be a critical ‘consumer’ of related anticipatory knowledge claims. Research on PKPs may also lead to a better understanding of related forms of social behaviour and what influences actors’ judgements regarding what claims about the future they judge to be plausible or accurate. This points to a much broader set of questions about the use of PKPs in sustainability transitions and related social processes.
A further possibility that I find intriguing is that a more thoroughly social account of ‘prospective knowledge practices’ could give us new explanatory insights into why actors assessments of the future can be biased in consequential ways (e.g. too sanguine or too gloomy). For suggestive moves in this direction see an interesting paper entitled “Seeing Like the Fed” (Fligstein et al, 2017), a paper I co-authored on visioning exercises, and the book Never Saw it Coming: Cultural Challenges to Envisioning the Worst (Cerulo, 2005)
Such explanatory insights might also inform interventions that seek to reduce such biases, though (as noted in an earlier post) I don’t expect to define detailed blueprints.
You might have some additional thoughts on the utility of such lines of inquiry – if you do I’ve love to hear from you (perhaps add your thoughts in the comments section below). I’ll also add some further thoughts in the next post (part 2).
Camic, C., Gross, N. & Lamont, M. 2011, Social Knowledge in the Making, University of Chicago Press.
Cerulo, K.A. 2005, ‘Cognitive Sociology’, in G. Ritzer (ed.), Encyclopaedia 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.
Crisp, R. 2016, The Social Brain, Robinson (Little, Brown Book Group).
Fligstein, N., Brundage, J.S., & Schultz, M. 2017, ‘Seeing Like the Fed: Culture, Cognition, and Framing in the Failure to Anticipate the Financial Crisis of 2008, American Sociological Review, Vol 82, Issue 5, pp.879-909.
Haidt, J. 2013, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, Penguin Books.
Mercier, H. & Sperber, D. 2017, The Enigma of Reason, Harvard University Press.
Sloman, S. & Fernbach, P. 2017, The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone, Riverhead Books.
Zerubavel, E .1999, Social Mindscapes: An Invitation to Cognitive Sociology, Harvard University Press.