My PhD research and its implications

In this page I bring together work-in-progress thoughts on my doctoral research and some wider implications it raises or suggests (I intend to revise this page regularly).

This research evaluated three forward-looking participatory exercises led by CSIRO staff – which they referred to as “futures forums” – focussed on potential energy and transport transitions in Australia related to decarbonisation and related challenges. Each exercise was a forward-looking participatory study which I conceptualised as prospective exercises. The study further analysed these activities and related human behaviour to begin to theorise ‘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’).

My thesis offers evidence-based arguments and ideas informed by this impact evaluation research which are relevant to practitioners (i.e. those who are involved with prospective exercises or similar forms of forward-looking inquiry). I suggest ways of reconceptualising and enhancing these exercises which build on ideas from pragmatist philosophical perspectives. In (re)positioning such activities and PKPs in the practical context of guiding or enabling action in real problem situations actors presently face (or perceive), the concluding chapter argues this perspective can aid the theorisation and use of such practices. I further suggest that theories of practice and impact evaluations (e.g. assessments of PKPs) ought to more closely attend to the extent to which they serve actors’ purposes in the present and theorise the associated causal processes which enable or constrain these intended purposes. Related to this, I highlight the “limited attention to problem/action situations of actors and related current ‘needs of practice'” (p.299) and argue for greater consideration to social mechanisms (in addition to individual-level causal mechanisms).

Such a perspective also suggests a need to reconceptualise actor efforts to construct and deploy assessments of the future (and/or other representations of the future): it proposes that people primarily do these things to serve valued present purposes.

The perspective on prospective exercises (and PKPs) that I develop was partly suggested by the impact evaluation research approach. I sought to understand both the intended outcomes of the focal prospective exercises and to assess whether they were achieved.

Here I want to put to these ideas to one side and sketch some broader thoughts which I’m still developing. In particular, I want to further attend to the central notion of practices, the concept of prospective knowledge practices (hereafter, referred to as PKPs), and the potential value of further elaborating a more sociological view of PKPs. In doing so I want to suggest there’s both a need and opportunity to draw on ideas from established and emerging sub-fields of sociology like cultural sociology (Swidler, 1986) and cognitive sociology (Cerulo, 2006; Zerubavel, 1999) and the related ‘culturalist cognitive paradigm’ of social inquiry which builds on the ideas of Zerubavel and other scholars.

The conceptualisation of ‘practices’ (and ‘knowledge practices’ as one kind of these) which I drew on came from the book Social Knowledge in the Making (Camic et al, 2011). Camic et al (2011) conceptualise practices as ensembles of socially patterned day-to-day actions by which social actors structure and confront their tasks. These practices can also take the form of “modes of working and doing” (Amsterdamska, 2007 [as cited in Camic et al, 2011]) and they get performed by socially situated and fallible human agents such as the CSIRO employees who I collaborated with when conducting this case study research.

Further reflections on this research has suggested additional insights can be gained by recognising the importance of how PKPs (including prospective exercises) are shaped by “cultural-cognitive processes” (Fligstein et al, 2017, p.904) and related social mechanisms. This perspective is informed by the work of other scholars who have similar attended to actors’ assessments of the future (e.g. Fligstein et al 2017) and the extent to which actors attend to worst case scenarios (e.g. Cerulo, 2006), amongst other forward-looking activities. In the remainder of this post/page I’ll further explore some of these ideas.

Fligstein et al have highlighted the importance of these mechanisms in group deliberation and decision-making. Their paper – subtitled “Culture, Cognition, and Framing in the Failure to Anticipate the Financial Crisis of 2008” – considers the ways in which cognition itself become culturally-structured in ways that can, for example, influence actors’ attention, what facts are recognised and how they’re interpreted (thus drawing on cognitive sociology). They make this social by linking it to group processes (in the US Federal Reserve system). Their analysis is relevant to the forms of group discussion and decision-making that occurs in prospective exercises such as where a ‘primary frame’ “both structures and limits what can and cannot be seen” (p.883), shapes interaction in the group, and can enable decisions. I identified evidence of such dynamics in the prospective exercises I studied.

Moreover, Fligstein et al and others (e.g. Cerulo) argue that the linked cultural-cognitive processes can strongly influence actors’ assessments of the future in ways they are unaware of. For example, Fligstein et al (2017) argue that they contributed the US Federal Reserve being “so sanguine in its economic projections” prior to the 2008 financial crisis.

Other scholars similarly point to the role of what they term ideological frames in shaping “how knowledge is shaped, conditioned and digested” (Sovacool et al 2016). According to Sovacool et al, these ‘frames’ are subjective “conceptions of reality, or worldviews” which often manifest as “cognitive frame[s] of mind” in energy policy debates. An example relevant to one of the exercises which I studied is the Green cultural politics associated with shifting views about the electricity grid and large-scale modern electricity generation technologies. Symons (2019) notes that “the ideal of energy self-sufficiency and defection from the grid now captivates the Green-left” (p.68). Related cultural frames informed the scenarios and analysis developed by the Future Grid Forum (a prospective exercise I studied) and the sorts of expectations that many actors reportedly brought to the exercise.

One of the implications of such research (including my doctoral work) is that forward-looking exercises – along with the use of their outputs – can be culturally and socially structured in ways that actors can be unaware of. These emerging insights point to ways in which theory and practice could draw on ideas from cognitive sociology which attend to both the influence of sociocultural factors and contexts on human thought (as already noted) and the importance of actors’ cognitive constraints (Fligstein et al., 2017). I also believe there’s a need to similarly further examine other kinds of PKPs.

Future research ought to further investigate these aspects of PKPs and seek to empirically demonstrate both its explanatory value and its potential practical utility.

In Part 3 of my thesis (in which I reflected on the focal case) I addressed additional aspects of PKPs which point to relevance of cultural sociology. I noted that adopting “a practice lens suggested examining the ways that PKPs involve routinised modes of action (habits in the terminology of pragmatism)” (p.281) along with nonregularised action (e.g. improvisations). In this part I was slightly critical of a tendency I observed of actors semi-mindlessly sticking to routinised modes of action rather than reflecting on their appropriateness.

This evaluative aspect of my case study research thus suggested a need for more critical thinking about, and related inquiry into, actors’ “characteristic repertoires” (Swidler, 1986, p.284). The prospective exercises I studied were strongly shaped by prevailing repertoires (e.g. the characteristic repertoires of convenors and facilitators of the exercises) and I suggested that effective practice requires greater reflection on such routines and habits. Below I sketch a few further ideas and suggestions for taking these ideas forward, with a focus on further probing where such repertoires come from and their implications.

Ann Swidler has influentially argued that culture should be reconceptualised as being “more like a style or a set of skills and habits (Swidler, 1986). She further notes that “what I mean […] is similar to what Bourdieu (1977) calls “practices”.” According to Swidler, what we call culture should be reconceptualised as being like a characteristic ‘repertoire” or ‘toolkit’ – which is constituted by a set of distinctive habits, skills, and styles of action – from which actors select elements to build their lines of action (Swidler, 1986). Swidler further points to the associated important notion of strategies of action.

This sort of cultural sociology perspective points to ways of considering the causal effects of culture on activities like PKPs. It suggests that when we are examining the causal effects of culture of human action we should pay attention to actors’ “strategies of action,” [the] persistent ways of ordering action through time” (p.273). Furthermore, it implies that these ‘orderings’ of action could show up in actors’ knowledge practices and their characteristics. Though I did not use this theory in my research, some of the analysis I conducted zeroed in on the kinds of culturally-shaped habits, skills, and styles of action emphasised by Swidler.

Broadly, having studied the practices of some actors in detail, I agree with Swidler’s argument that in considering the sociocultural aspects of actor practices it is very useful to zero-in on the culturally-shaped “repertoire from which they [actors] build lines of action” (Swidler, 1986, p.284). If we do this we have the possibility of both better understanding actors’ knowledge practices and analysing their social patterning. Such an understanding may also help actors to develop the kind of self-awareness which could inform practice alterations (where this would be useful or needed).

To further consider this it is useful to broaden the discussion and briefly note other real-world examples regarding climate change and related policy-making. One relevant illustrative example is Roger Pielke Jr’s efforts to highlight enduring lines of action seen in the climate issue. In particular, he has tried to codify characteristic actor repertoires which he believes constrain the “climate policy envelope” (see Pielke Jr, 2018).

Pielke Jr notes the prominent roles of scenarios in discussion of climate policy options, but critically analyses prevailing repertoires whereby integrated assessment models are 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 emphasises two related lines of action: 1) the tendency to constructing both a ‘baseline’ scenario (or ‘reference’ scenario in the terminology of CSIRO staff) and ‘policy’ scenarios (in which mitigation actions are taken); and 2) the tendency to adopt an extreme worse-case scenario as the “business-as-usual” future, implying it is a baseline scenario (Pielke Jr, 2018). He calls for critical reflection of such characteristic repertoires, 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 reason why these observations stood out is that I also found such arguments have little weight).

Other interesting studies have been done outside of the climate change and energy context. A notable example is Karen Cerulo’s work on cultural mechanisms and other social factors that bias actors toward certain kinds of scenarios (e.g. best-case scenarios). These have links to knowledge practices where, for instance, actors consequently tend to “downplay negative information or reinterpret it in a positive light” (Fligstein et al, 2017, p.886).

The ideas and lines of inquiry sketched above have the potential to underpin more sociological and ‘critical’ views of PKPs or other knowledge practices. The central notion of social “practices” (and “prospective knowledge practices”) does some of this work and calls for greater attention to the patterning of day-to-day actions and processes. This could be deepened by other lines of inquiry informed by particular sub-fields of sociology (e.g. cognitive sociology, cultural sociology). My research suggests this can offer explanatory insights and over-time to may bear additional fruit in terms of practical utility.

Additionally, greater critical evaluation of prevailing practices may also be essential to inform and prompt both reflection and potential practice innovations.