Research statement

I’m particularly interested in forms (or modes) of future-oriented inquiry and engagement – and associated practices I term ‘prospective knowledge practices’ (PKPs) – and the issues and processes related to their capacity to contribute to sustainability transitions and the politicisation of science. This research has an orientation to sustainability research and sociology of science (STS), and has also involved empirically evaluating forward-looking exercises (like scenario exercises and participatory “roadmapping” processes) and conducting such exercises. I also conduct research on transition theory (see the emerging field of transition studies) which involves studying real-world transition processes.

Though my research hasn’t had a particularly strong theoretical orientation in terms of theory building or theory testing, I have sought to mobilise social, psychological and cognitive theory and sciences to help me to both understand knowledge practices (and perhaps contribute to enhancing them) and explain their effects. I also believe that research on these practices can contribute to transition theory and related fields.

A key interest that motivated my doctoral research was my desire to better understand and perhaps enhance the contribution of forward-looking exercises to sustainability transitions. I had worked as a practitioner and felt these methods tend to lack rigour, particularly when used as strategic interventions. A related research interest more strongly emerged during the case study research conducted for my PhD, addressing a key question: what factors and processes mediate and limit the roles and effects of forward-looking exercises?  Examination of causal mechanisms and effectiveness considerations emerged in relation to case findings which indicated that the focal exercises had limited and often unintended consequences related, for example, to how actors appraise and utilise the outputs (e.g. scenarios). A better understanding of these factors and processes is crucial for effective practice and can help us to understand the broader roles and effects of forward-looking practices.

Such inquiry, and earlier professional experience doing future-oriented inquiry and engagements, stimulated a more ‘critical’ interest in how and why knowledge claims about the future are formulated, appraised, mobilised and utilised (or not), particularly in relation to the environment and sustainability and issues like climate change. This includes my core interest in the evolution, roles and use of prospective knowledge practices (PKPs).

In addition to my interest in forward-looking exercises, I believe that we live in interesting times regarding how actors “deploy” the future (e.g. see this book chapter) and the repertoires used to engage with (or deploy) the future. For instance, if we consider climate change this calls attention to how in formulating, seeking, appraising or using predictions about future climate we’re all, in a way, becoming futurologists. Related to this, as Jenny Andersson has explored, new forms of engagement with the future emerged in the second half of the 20th century. Such activities are increasingly seen as a key means of achieving various social outcomes, which calls attention to the effectiveness of these practices. Perhaps such aspirations are best captured by the current slogan of the consultancy SustainAbility: “making the future the cause of our present” (link).

My critical exploration of PKPs, earlier studies in the philosophy and sociology of science, and general interest in the role of science in society, has also stimulated a much broader interest in knowledge practices (more generally). Related research themes and interests include:

  • Examining knowledge claims as the product of socially conditioned human action and interactions;
  • A research interest in the wider sociocultural processes that can underpin (and influence) knowledge practices or their social effects and related phenomena; and
  • A growing interest in the influence of psycho-social factors on such practices, My PhD thesis explores the reasoning, social, and political dimensions of PKPs.

Regarding the above interests, two question that emerged from my doctoral work are: Through what causal mechanisms (or processes) do cognitive, social or political factors – and their interaction – shape actors’ knowledge practices, related repertoires, and their influence on transition processes? Under what conditions? Though I have focussed on PKPs (in my PhD research) this can also be considered for many other practices.

Indeed, broader important questions concern the role of ‘knowledge practices’, and the emergence and stabilisation of related actor repertoires, in shaping the patterns of activity that give rise to and influence sustainability-related transitions, including the roles and effects of PKPs. We can even ask really basic questions like: how do actors know that a ‘transition’ is needed? How to actors adjudicate competing claims about the necessity, possibility or desirability of specific transitions? With what consequences?

In terms of unit(s) and level(s) of analysis in research, in contrast to emphasis placed on ‘socio-technical systems’ and systemic thinking in much transition research, the sort of research agenda that’s sketched above places much greater emphasis on the everyday work and interactions of actors. Related to this practices and changes in practices (like PKPs) can be a core unit of analysis in such inquiry.