Well, it’s been a long time between posts. Here I’ll return to themes touched-on in the last post and a broad line of inquiry emerging from my research on prospective inquiry that seeks (in part) to explore and promote energy transitions which is also relevant to many other domains: exploring the social causes and aspects of actor practices, their outputs (i.e. of forward-looking inquiry) and eventual outcomes, and the implications. More broadly, via my doctoral research and other work I came to see the social aspects of prospection and social nature of related knowledge as being important along with how these aspects interact with the human brain and cognitive mechanisms (see chapter 7 of my thesis).
This was also an analytical theme in one of my papers on visioning exercises which explored framing processes and ‘framing contests’ along with the implications for those designing and facilitating these exercises. For instance, in that paper we noted that framing theorists argue that frames are co-constituted by the “particular institutional, political and life settings” of actors (Leach et al., 2010) and we present evidence consistent with this.
Similarly the empirical aspects of my doctoral work (i.e. the impact evaluations I conducted) revealed related themes regarding the process dynamics, the outputs of these forward-looking exercises and their eventual longer-term impacts, including the ways in which they had unanticipated outcomes and the reasons for these. The question of whether prospective exercises actually contribute to the realisation of a low-carbon energy future turned out to be a nontrivial one requiring consideration of many factors and processes.
Building on and abstracting from this empirical work some relevant lines of inquiry that would be interesting to further investigate include:
- Attending more closely to socially structured tendencies and associated actor practices: I identified interesting examples of such tendencies in my evaluative research such as the reluctance of CSIRO employees to advance suggestions for reform or explicit policy prescriptions based on their analyses which was consequential for both the outputs of the exercises I studied and their perceived utility. I also discovered sociological research which has identified and theorised other socially structured tendencies such as tendencies to attend more (or less) to either worst case or best case scenarios (Cerulo, 2006; Fligstein et al, 2017). However, research attending these dynamics (e.g. what Cerulo terms ‘positive asymmetry’ [best case bias] and ‘negative asymmetry’ [worst case bias]) and their implications remains rare;
- Examining the ways in which both forward-looking analysis and the interpretation and use of the outputs is socially situated and conditioned: this was a major theme in my thesis (e.g. see Chapter 5). Whilst it is possible to take such an analytical perspective to problematic extremes, when one looks at both the micro and macro processes influencing forward-looking inquiry it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that we need to consider forms of social influence whenever we look at such studies and examine their outputs;
- Analysing why certain tools or practices become widely used and others don’t (e.g. see Jarzabkowski & Kaplan, 2014): relevant aspects here includes (i) the ways tools emerge, get promoted and move in and out of fashion (e.g. consider the increasing popularity of creating physical models of scenarios or visions in participatory workshops and related workshop processes), along with (ii) the degree to which tool use becomes routinised, why and with what consequences. Along these lines I noted in my case study research the ways in which the design, facilitation and general doing of forward-looking inquiry became increasingly routinised in a more ‘standardised’ process and I explored the important consequences of this. I noted the strong ‘imprint’ of organisational and disciplinary contexts on these processes; and
- Casting a more “sociological eye” on how (and why) tools get mobilised by actors and the outcomes that result (e.g. see Jarzabkowski & Kaplan, 2014). Other scholars have suggested such lines of inquiry for strategy tools, but this too could be valuable for understanding forms of prospective inquiry, the tools that get mobilised and their outcomes (see McGrail, 2017).
Further exploration of these lines of inquiry may also tell us much more about the social aspects and roles of prospection along with related phenomena. The practical implications of these aspects can be also considered along with their potential social importance such as where anticipation failures are consequential (e.g. see Fligstein et al, 2017).
In my own work I’d like to build-on my inquiry into transitions to low-carbon energy futures (as per my PhD thesis, etc) and the question of whether and why the growth of prospective inquiry is actually contributing to realising change towards such futures.