Rethinking the issue social maturation process

Back in 2013 colleagues and I published a paper in the journal Futures which posited a ‘social maturation’ framework. The framework posits a sequential process (of six phases) through which an issue passes and a range of indicators for each phase. This analytical framework is a kind-of linear model in which the early phases are characterised by a focus on identifying and theorising a new issue or problem (broadly, these phases are about the science), and the latter phases more centrally focus on the dynamics and evolution of social responses to the issue or problem (broadly, the response of society to a defined issue or problem). In other words, science defines and then society responds to the science.

The emergence and evolution of some issues may broadly conform to patterns like these, but lately I’ve been wondering about more complex co-evolutionary processes.

That is, perhaps it’s better to think about how knowledge and action ought to co-evolve in a more continual way (as issues emerge and evolve over-time), rather than positing a linear process of settling the science and then settling the response?

An issue that has gotten me thinking about this is the current COVID-19 crisis. An influential medical scholar and epidemiologist, Professor John Ioannidis, offered some observations of this issue which point to a more co-evolutionary perspective (or ideal):

“At the beginning, in the absence of high-quality data, we can do what seems most reasonable, following the precautionary principle and using common sense. But beyond this point, failing to correct our ignorance and adapt our actions as quickly as possible is not good science. Nor is politicizing scientific disagreement or looking away from the undeniable harms of our well-intentioned actions.”

This idea of adapting our actions and beliefs as new information or evidence comes in (or as the quality of data improves) is a simple one, but it’s rarely so simple in practice.

For example, as Imperial College London professor Neil Ferguson put it in his interview with the British website UnHerd, there can be a “tendency to become wedded to a position you’ve taken and find it difficult to revise views in terms of new evidence that’s coming forward”. What’s true at the individual level can also emerge at higher social levels.

In the case of COVID-19, one thing we see is increasing debate about whether and how new information should alter existing pandemic policies given that we’re learning more about this new coronavirus and related epidemiological and public health considerations. We also see knowledge practices related to different policy commitments resulting in the creation and mobilisation of new knowledge that gets fed into public policy debates.

I’ve begun to wonder more about these dynamics and how they play out. This has included reexamining some of the low-carbon transition dynamics I explored in my doctoral research. Many actors who participated in the ‘futures forums’ I studied were strongly wedded to positions they’d taken and this strongly influenced the forums and their effects. Moreover, the co-evolution of knowledge and action was far from a smooth process.

This makes me now think that a better issue social maturation framework would be one that tries to incorporate co-evolutionary dynamics and the diverse, contingent ways that they can play out, along with what key actions influence or improve such dynamics.

Moreover, such a perspective might also be able to inform broader proactive social action (in line with an ideal) rather than more reactive forms of strategic planning.

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