My PhD research and its implications

In this page I bring together some work-in-progress thoughts on my doctoral research and some wider implications it raises or suggests (I intend to revisit and revise this page regularly). This research evaluated three separate exercises led by CSIRO staff which brought together societal actors and CSIRO-based researchers to consider complex aspects of potential energy and transport transitions in Australia focussed on decarbonisation and related challenges. Each of these three exercises were forward looking participatory studies which I term ‘prospective exercises’ (CSIRO termed them “futures forums”).

This study also further analysed these activities to consider the roles and uses of ‘prospective knowledge practices’ (PKPs) and developed related concepts (hence, my thesis title: ‘The Roles and Use of Prospective Knowledge Practices in Sustainability-Related Transitions: A Realist Evaluation and Pragmatist Synthesis’).

Whilst my doctoral research didn’t result in a major “discovery” (a noble goal, but rare!), my thesis offers evidence-based arguments and ideas based on evaluation research relevant to practitioners involved with prospective exercises (or doing similar forward-looking inquiry). Here I want to put to one side those ideas and sketch some much broader thoughts. These thoughts are more abstract and high-level than those offered in my thesis.

In particular, in this page I want to further attend to the core notion of practices, the associated concept of prospective knowledge practices (PKPs) which I propose in my thesis, and some of the related broader arguments made in my thesis. This notion of ‘practices’ was taken from the book Social Knowledge in the Making (Camic et al, 2011) – where practices are conceptualised as ensembles of socially patterned activities which take the form of “modes of working and doing” (Amsterdamska, 2007) – but, as I suggest below, ideas from cultural sociology (Swidler, 1986) and cognitive sociology are also relevant.

A thought I came away from this research with is the conviction that we need to take much more seriously the kinds of systematic biases which can influence PKPs and their effects (also see Cerulo, 2006; Fligstein et al 2017, etc), and related strategies to mitigate them often should be considered (for an interesting example see Fligstein et al 2017). I looked at many relevant causal mechanisms ranging from cognitive mechanisms (e.g. biased assimilation and/or evaluation, etc) through to cultural and social mechanisms (e.g. the influence of cultural frames and framing, power, etc). Where biases emerge these can have major consequences (again see Cerulo, 2006; Fligstein et al 2017, etc). Moreover, my case study research showed that forward-looking exercises can be socially and culturally structured in ways that actors are unaware of (e.g. in ways that limit them). These emerging understandings points to ways in which theory and practice could begin to draw on cognitive sociology (see Cerulo, 2006; Zerubavel, 1999; Zerubavel & Smith, 2010).

Something else I was particularly struck by was how actors’ central beliefs were rarely challenged by, and much more often reinforced by, their participation in the focal exercises and studies, or by their use of the resulting reports. Little of the evidence I collected supported prevailing ideas like the belief that scenarios are “cognitive devices” (e.g. tools used for scrutinising and/or challenging ones’ beliefs and assumption) and the notion that related collaborative processes are “safe spaces” for “rehearsing” the future.

In Part 3 of my thesis I also mobilised the broader notions of routines and habits, arguing for greater focus on prevailing habits of thought and action. I noted that “a practice lens suggested examining the ways that PKPs involve routinised modes of action (habits in the terminology of pragmatism)” (p.281) along with other nonregularised actions.

The related evaluative aspect of my case study research informed critical thinking about actors’ “characteristic repertoires” (Swidler, 1986, p.284) – and related cultural resources (and factors) – from which they selected elements when constructing lines of action (see Swidler, 1986). I found that prospective exercises (and many other related PKPs) were strongly shaped by such processes and that actors and, second, that effective practice requires reflection on routines and habits (see the Conclusion chapter).

Over time, I’ve begun to see that emerging directions in cultural sociology and cognitive sociology are relevant to considering and developing the related implications. The former is particularly relevant to examining the causal effects of culture (e.g. on PKPs and their effects, etc) and considering the importance of this (which I briefly further explore below); both are relevant to potential biases and their effects. This points to both the potential of, and need for, what could be a called a ‘cognitive-cultural approach’ which could underpin a more sociological view of PKPs (and other kind of knowledge practices).

One motivator of these ideas is some of the key conclusions from my research. A central theme of the Conclusion chapter is my attempt to reflect on the limited impacts of the focal prospective exercises, i.e. on energy transitions in Australia. As indicated above, I argued for “greater focus on enabling reflection on habits of thought and action and [for] less strongly routinised approaches to prospective exercises” (p.297). I argued practitioners themselves “need to reflect on their own habits, [and] related routines” and on how these shape their practices (p.301). Whilst related prescriptions are framed as hypotheses-to-tested, over recent months and years I have seen others provide similar calls for more context-specific reflection on routines and habits (e.g. guiding facilitation routines).

Additionally, these aspects link to a broader notion of practices that is aligned with similar key ideas in cultural sociology. Ann Swidler has influentially argued that culture should be reconceptualised as “more like a style or a set of skills and habits”, noting further that “what I mean […] is similar to what Bourdieu (1977) calls “practices”” (Swidler, 1986). What we call culture is argued to be more like a “characteristic repertoire” or “toolkit” – constituted by distinctive habits, skills, and styles of action – from which actors build their lines of action (Swidler, 1986). In Swidler’s view, related sociological analysis of the causal effects of culture ought to attend “to “strategies of action,” persistent ways of ordering action through time” (p.273). She criticises other scholars who “keep looking for cultural values that will explain what is distinctive about the behavior of groups or societies” (p.275).

Such a sociology of culture is highly relevant to key arguments made in my thesis, which helps to point to their relevance and potential implications. Though I did not use this theory in my research, some of the causal analysis I conducted zeroed in on the kinds of culturally-shaped skills, habits, and styles of action emphasised by Swidler. For example, I noted and described the characteristic repertoires of key actors (e.g. CSIRO staff). I also considered the cultural (and cognitive) factors which both enabled and constrained the lines of action which they constructed, and considered the related causal effects of culture (see Swidler, 1986). This informed related calls for greater reflection on such culturally-shaped repertoires – as they appeared to have strong and consequential effects on focal actions (e.g. PKPs) – whilst recognising that this would likely be very difficult for these social actors.

Thus, building on the work and ideas of cultural sociologists, my doctoral research highlights the importance of giving very close attention to particular cultural phenomena – such as culturally-shaped skills, habits, and styles of action – for understanding and explaining patterns of action (such as PKPs). Moreover, when considering the enduring effects of a culture on those who hold it (e.g. group members), I agree that we should critically attend to its role in “providing the characteristic repertoire from which they [actors] build lines of action” (Swidler, 1986, p.284). As Swidler (1986, p.277) points out, when actors construct their chains of action they begin with “at least some pre-fabricated links”.

For instance, if we consider the climate change issue there are many other possible examples that could also be scrutinised (in addition to those I looked at in my thesis). For example, over the past few years social and environmental scientist Roger Pielke Jr has begun to further scrutinise enduring lines of action in the climate issue, codifying some of the ‘characteristic repertoires’ that he believes constrains “climate policy envelope” (see Pielke Jr, 2018). He notes the central roles of scenarios in discussion of climate policy options, but critically analyses dominant repertoires whereby integrated assessment models get mobilised to codify competing future visions where the “costs of action and inaction [and claimed benefits] are based on the assumptions used to build these models – not evidence, not data but assumptions”. He also emphasises two related habits: 1) constructing both a ‘baseline’ scenario – or reference scenario in the terminology of CSIRO staff – and ‘policy’ scenarios (mitigation actions are taken); and 2) the tendency to adopt an extreme potential worse-case scenario as “business-as-usual”, implying that it is a baseline scenario (Pielke Jr, 2018). He calls for critical reflection of such lines of action, and for the construction of new lines of action, because he believes that “policy arguments based on assumptions in highly speculative models are tailor-made for pathological politicization, appeals to authority and gatekeeping to protect from critical views”, and also observes that “in the real world of politics” such policy arguments have “very little weight in near-term policy decisions” (also see Pielke Jr, 2018). (One of reasons why these observations stood out to me is that I also found that such policy arguments very often have little weight).

Also notable is the work of sociologist Karen Cerolo in examining causal roles of sociocultural factors in two polar opposite biased perspectives: tendencies to either focus on ‘best case’ scenarios or ‘worst case’ scenarios. Specifically, in her book Never Saw it Coming: Cultural Challenges to Envisioning the Worst she focusses on a bias she terms “best-case vision”. She argues that sets of cultural practices contribute to such biases, whilst also pointing to associated group-level and organisational factors. Other scholars have also suggested that these theorised cultural mechanism and factors direct actors’ attention and can give rise to reinforcing knowledge practices which tend to “downplay negative information or reinterpret it in a positive light” (Fligstein et al, 2017, p.886).

The key themes and broader implications sketched above – along with the research findings and ideas of other scholars – point to further and related potentials such as:

  • Using such a cognitive-cultural approach to better develop sociological explanations of patterns of action and related enduring features of a given culture;
  • Using such sociological theory to explain both what is distinctive about the behaviour of a given group (or other social entity) – as discussed above (also see Swidler, 1986) – and to potentially help inform reflection on familiar strategies of action; and
  • Analysing what substantive practice change would entail and/or might practically require. For example, such change may demand more sophisticated consideration of the costly “cultural retooling” that’s often required (see Swidler, 1986); addressing opposing/reinforcing cultural mechanisms (Cerulo, 2006), and/or scholarship that reveals helps to question enduring assumptions (Pielke Jr, 2018)

Regarding contemporary forms of PKPs, I would further argue that research has to-date given too little attention to both the sources and consequences of the ‘characteristic repertoires’ from which actors build their lines of action and associated strategies, and to what moving to less familiar patterns may actually entail. Such research could focus on specific group(s), influential organisation(s), and/or even broader socioeconomic systems. It could adopt both an evaluation research approach (as I experimented with in my doctoral research) or more traditional social scientific approaches could be used.

Centrally, I believe that a cognitive-cultural approach is helpful for better understanding the use and effects of prospective knowledge practices (and many other kinds of knowledge practices). Such an approach would, amongst other things, further attend to:

  • How culture shapes action by providing a characteristic, enduring repertoires from which actors select ‘pieces’ for constructing their lines of action, and which limits actors’ strategies of action (Swidler, 1986). Related cognitive factors include the internalisation of such repertoires and related routines and norms;
  • How the development of sets of routine and patterned socio-cultural practices can encourage biases (e.g. the “perceptual blind spots” theorised by cognitive sociologist Karen Cerulo in Never Saw it Coming), along with how historical processes and events may have consequentially shaped core actor routines;
  • How cognition itself may become culturally structured (see Fligstein et al, 2017) in ways that, amongst other effects, may strongly limit individuals’ attention (e.g. only attending to some evidence, or downplaying uncomfortable facts, etc); and
  • The development of culturally-specific cognitive traditions (which Zerubavel also terms cognitive conventions), where enduring norms (ways of thinking) become established which community/group members get socialised into.