My research history and future research agenda

Over the past decade or so I’ve done research in the areas of prospective (future-oriented) methods and thinking, environmental sociology, and the social studies of science, along with some recent inquiry into ‘sustainability transition’ theories. I’m particularly interested in topics where two or more of these areas overlap. For example:

  • In my Master’s thesis I explored the sociology of expectations regarding emerging technologies. My thesis focus on ‘nanotechnology’ in the Australian context: I explored the speculative and hyperbolic accounts (and representations) of the future that were articulated (also see this paper). I explore how this backfired by seeding a controversy and argue that nano-hype was ultimately self-defeating;
  • In my PhD thesis I examined what I termed ‘prospective knowledge practices’ (PKPs), related participatory prospective exercises (convened by CSIRO staff) focussed on energy transitions and decarbonisation in the Australian context, and the social and cognitive factors that condition their use, including those which can limit and enhance their impact. One of my guiding interests was examining the use of PKPs as interventions. My finding that the focal exercises had limited effects on energy transitions stimulated more critical evaluative thinking about PKPs;
  • I’ve examined the use visioning processes and other methods, and the outputs from such activities, in relation to imaginary of resilient and low carbon cities; and
  • I’ve also written papers on related topics considering environmentalism, related forms of contemporary environmental thought (e.g. link, link, link), and climate change research, amongst other focal topics. Focal themes include ‘positive dissent’ and neoenvironmental determinism, and climate knowledge production. (My other publications relate to earlier career activities during 2005-2011)

As a former practitioner myself, aspects of the participatory prospective exercises I’ve studied which interest me include the dialogue aspects and the myriad issues process convenors and related staff (from CSIRO) faced when seeking to facilitate such dialogue and to inform it (e.g. via quantitative modelling, desktop research, etc). The focal exercises brought together both societal actors and CSIRO scientists – who often had different beliefs and interests regarding the energy transition issues and ideas that were explored – and exposed them to data and ideas which frequently challenged their views. The evaluative inquiry I conducted pointed to a range of related issues in participatory processes and collaborative research, similar to what other scholars have recently identified, along with the positive potential of such inquiry. An original contribution was applying theories of relevant cognitive mechanisms which both point to the potential of dialogic conditions and can help to explain limited openness to non-confirming evidence. Additionally, the interaction of cognitive and social mechanisms is a growing interest of mine (see below).

Additionally, doing this research stimulated greater interest in epistemic humility. Though I didn’t explicitly use this term in my thesis, my research suggests that a number of associated aspects need greater attention: the extent to which actors may need to exhibit greater epistemic humility when considering energy transition questions (or other transition questions) and related knowledge claims; whether actors exhibit this during a prospective exercise or when interpreting the findings of such studies; and, thirdly, factors that influence the extent to which they do exhibit epistemic humility. A related question is the extent to which different knowledge practices (and associated knowledge communities) facilitate such humility or militate against it. My thesis presents evidence suggesting that actors often struggle to exhibit an appropriate degree of epistemic humility. Moreover, my findings indicate that the extent to which actors exhibit this is an explanatory factor regarding the wider impacts of a prospective exercise. (For example, see Chapter 7).

Notably others have also recently argued that “epistemic humility […] is a much better alternative to epistemic arrogance in enabling fruitful dialogue and debate over complex, divisive issues” (link). The evaluative inquiry I conducted shows that such issues often must be grappled with when considering transition questions. Process facilitators (and also participants) therefore should emphasise such epistemic humility.

These themes and research interests link inquiry into prospective knowledge practices and their effects to broader issues regarding how energy transition questions are considered (along with other transition questions). They also suggest further inquiry into the roles of such practices. Important issues noted by others (e.g. Beckert, 2016) include the way expectations can be created by future-oriented practices (e.g. quantitative modelling), and the extent to which expectations are amenable to revision after they solidify. These aspects point both to positive potential – if expectations prompt beneficial actions – and negative potential, such as where flawed expectations contribute to harmful action.

Finally, some of my previous research is also related to my growing interest in sociological approaches to environmental issues, along with related work examining how nature and human-nature relations are conceptualised (e.g. the increasingly common view that humanity has a ‘broken’ relationship with nature). Some sociologists such as Steven Yearley call attention to fundamental questions which most analysts ignore, arguing for example that “in an important sense, the key sociological question about recent environmental concern is why it has risen to prominence at all” (Yearley, 2005). Indeed, a feature of such scholarship is the willingness to interrogate questions most people don’t ask.

Future research agenda

My future research agenda is still emerging and is somewhat constrained by the precariousness of my current situation (e.g. I’m not an academic who enjoys the autonomy that tenure provides). Given this, below I only outline some emerging themes in my thinking and related questions of interest, rather than a detailed agenda.

An underlying aspect of these themes is my growing interest in exploring both how and why questions. For example, what I began my doctoral research I was most interested in how PKPs could best be used to advance a desired sustainability transition; now I’m equally interested in why questions (if not more so), such as why we see particular patterns in prospective thinking (e.g. the social structuring of such thought).

Five emerging themes are briefly outlined below:

1/ A key topic of interest is the problem of adjudication regarding model-based projections of future events and/or outcomes and the assessment of associated claims: how do social actors (i.e. in practice) decide which ones they think are more likely to be correct? What social patterns exist regarding the ways in which actors handle this problem?

2/ A related more general topic of interest (related to knowledge practices) is human responses to new information, including how people evaluate communicated information such as information communicated about possible futures (e.g. via modelling results). Some cognitive scientists like Hugo Mercier have proposed optimistic assessments of peoples’ capacity to evaluate communicated information (see his book Not Born Yesterday), arguing that we are naturally vigilant towards communicated information and we effectively use heuristics to evaluate messages. On the other hand, in my own work I’ve observed how peoples’ social visions and other commitments, as well as the social context, appear to strongly shape their knowledge practices, potentially resulting in significant biases. I wonder who’s right; or, rather, the specific conditions under which people are (or aren’t) vigilant, and under which they can be too vigilant (i.e. they unreasonably reject communicated information).

The above topic is also linked to my early career experience in the advertising industry. I also wonder if it might be different for information communicated about the future, or about specific aspects of the future (e.g. predictions made about future climates).

3/ If epistemic humility is as important as I’ve suggested above, it would be worthwhile further investigating how epistemic humility might be better fostered (e.g. related to what practitioners and/or process facilitators and designers can do to help stimulate it). Furthermore, if it’s easier than we think to get “trapped in a fictitious view” (DeFries, 2014) – as some scholars have suggested – there’s a basic need to avoid dogmatism.

4/ Another possible line of inquiry would focus on environmentalists and contemporary environmental thought. A question of increasing interest is: why do environmentalists and related communities tend to exhibit certain tendencies and dominant practices (e.g. attending to and focussing on worst-case scenarios)? A related idea is to investigate a phenomenon Karen Cerulo terms ‘negative asymmetry’ and to examine its consequences via studies of relevant communities and/or groups. A related question is whether actors’ update their expectations in accordance with evolving evidence. It could also be useful to consider non-environmental communities as comparison cases (e.g. epidemiologists).

A related project could tentatively be entitled Always Assuming the Worst: A Sociology of Anticipatory Practices and Their Consequences. It would investigate the extent to which there are such socially structured tendencies, the causes of this (as some scholars have recently begun to explore), and their consequences. For example, since my early career research on ‘nanotechnology’ and during my related exposure to many environmental communities I’ve noted an apparent tendency to expect the worst and to seemingly be drawn towards ‘doomsday’ style predictions.  It would be interesting to further interrogate why and the consequences, such as the consequences for forms of innovation that might better address current environmental problems and the extent to which we can find what might be termed ‘pragmatic’ solutions to problems. Such inquiry could also balance other work taking a more positive view of worse-case thinking (e.g. Guterl, 2013).

This topic is also related to my interest in further examining the social and cognitive structuring of contemporary environment thought, including actors’ expectations. I see great potential to draw on emerging branches of sociology such as cognitive sociology (link, link) as well as established sociological theory (e.g. see this interesting example which draws on multiple strands of theory to explain prediction failures). Scholars such as Karen Cerulo have done some interesting work which seeks to identify cultural and cognitive mechanisms that can culturally structure cognition. Others in the field of social psychology have looked at social and cultural mechanisms that can produce wilful blindness.

5/ Finally, I’ve also become  interested in whether, and why, actors’ routinely update their expectations in accordance with evolving evidence, or alternatively whether expectations formed at an earlier time tend to prove to be ‘impervious’ to future evidence that challenges them. The wider issue of rigid expectations and visions – and related tendencies – is also something I’ve become more interested in. Increasingly, I see links between these phenomena and wider concerns such as science denial and confirmation bias. As a starting point I intend to do a literature review of prior research on topics related to such ‘updating’ practices to see what preliminary answers may exist to these questions.