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 participatory exercises led by CSIRO staff which brought together diverse actors (societal actors and CSIRO-based researchers) to consider potential energy and transport transitions in Australia focussed on decarbonisation and related challenges. Each of these exercises were forward looking participatory studies which I term prospective exercises (CSIRO calls 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 who are doing similar forms of forward-looking inquiry). These arguments and ideas are relevant to the question of whether and how prospective exercises contribute to sustainability-related transitions.

Here I want to put to those ideas to one side and begin to sketch some much broader thoughts. These thoughts are more abstract and high-level than those offered in my thesis.

In particular, I want to further attend to the core notion of practices, the concept of prospective knowledge practices (hereafter, referred to as PKPs), and some of the related arguments that I make in Part 3 of my thesis. I also want to highlight some related ideas that emerged from this research regarding both how, to a significant extent, knowledge practices can be determined by their cultural and cognitive aspects (or dimensions) and the need for actors to give more attention to these aspects and reflect on their practices.

This notion of ‘practices’ (and ‘knowledge practices’ as one kind of these) was drawn 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. Such practices can take the form of “modes of working and doing” (Amsterdamska, 2007 [as cited in Camic et al, 2011]) and these actions get performed by socially situated human agents. More broadly, as I suggest below, ideas from sub-fields of sociology like cultural sociology (Swidler, 1986) and cognitive sociology are relevant to understanding actor practices and I suggest that further work within a ‘culturalist cognitive paradigm’ may be useful to further illuminate this.

Two of the broader thoughts I came away from this research are that we need to much more seriously reflect on our practices (conceptualised as per above) and, second, consider the ways in which our knowledge practices get socially and cognitively structured and the consequences of these dynamics. Related to this, I came to believe that we need to take much more seriously the kinds of systematic biases which can influence PKPs and their effects (also see Cerulo, 2006; and the empirical case in Fligstein et al 2017).

Related to this, my case study research explored how forward-looking exercises – along with the use of the outputs from such exercises – can be socially and culturally structured in ways that actors are unaware of (e.g. in ways that constrain those activities). These insights point to ways in which theory and practice could begin to draw on ideas from cognitive sociology (see Cerulo, 2006; Zerubavel, 1999; Zerubavel & Smith, 2010).

Additionally, little of the evidence I collected supported prevailing ideas like the belief that scenarios are “cognitive devices” (e.g. tools which are used to scrutinise or challenge ones’ beliefs and assumptions) and the notion that related collaborative processes are “safe spaces” for “rehearsing” and/or “exploring” the future. A related finding was that actors’ beliefs were rarely challenged by, and much more often reinforced by, their participation in the focal exercises, or by their use of the resulting reports. Such findings suggest a need to reflect upon the extent to which PKPs are effective interventions.

In Part 3 of my thesis (which reflected on the focal case that was studied) I also mobilised the broader notions of taken-for-granted routines and habits, arguing for greater focus on such prevailing habits of thought and action. 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).

The related evaluative aspect of my case study research informed critical thinking about what could be termed actors’ “characteristic repertoires” (Swidler, 1986, p.284), where such ‘repertoires’ come from, and their stability. The prospective exercises I studied were strongly shaped by such repertoires and I suggested that effective practice requires reflection on routines and habits (see the discussion in the Conclusion chapter).

Over time, I’ve begun to see that fields like cultural sociology and cognitive sociology (along with others like social psychology and evolutionary psychology) are relevant to further developing these ideas and considering their potential implications:

  • Cultural sociology points to ways of considering the causal effects of culture (e.g. on PKPs, their roles, etc), such as via the culture as “tool kit” perspective advanced by Ann Swidler which can be used to examine strategies of action;
  • Cognitive sociology points to ways of thinking about how sociocultural factors can shape (or guide) the thought processes of actors (e.g. the thought processes of actors who are participating in a prospective exercise, or others using PKPs). Additionally, as Fligstein et al (2017, p.885) note, “cognitive sociology alerts us to the notion that individuals cannot process huge amounts of information”; and
  • Bringing these perspectives together further points to the potential of what’s been termed a ‘culturalist cognitive paradigm’, which could be adopted for the study and use of PKPs. Such a perspective could underpin a much more sociological view of PKPs (and/or other kinds of knowledge practices).

A further basis for such an approach is grappling with deeper cognitive foundations. For example, if human beings have the dominant tendency to be “cognitive misers” who seek certainty (Crisp, 2015) there are good reasons to suspect that such tendencies will influence their knowledge practices (e.g. the use of PKPs). However, we also ought to take a social perspective and consider how various social mechanisms could interact with what Richard Crisp terms the basic psychological “drives” of these cognitive misers.

All of this is fairly abstract (as I warned!), but I’ll make an effort to bring this back to some more practical concerns. A central theme of the Conclusion chapter of my thesis is my attempt to reflect on the limited impacts of the focal prospective exercises, i.e. on energy transitions in Australia. So, part of what my reflections are (and were) about is thinking about why this occurred and what, if anything, we could learn from it. Such potential learning originally centred on the involved practitioners but it may have broader relevance.

As indicated above, I argued that enhanced outcomes could be enabled by a stronger “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-be-tested, over recent months and years I have seen others provide similar calls for more context-specific reflection on routines (e.g. reflection on guiding facilitation routines).

However, I have also starting to think about the potential relevance of some ideas for a wider range of actors (e.g. beyond practitioners). In making such a leap it may be useful to consider a broader notion of ‘practices’, drawing on ideas from cultural sociology.

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).

This view of culture suggests that when we are examining the causal effects of culture we ought to pay most attention to actors’ “strategies of action,” [the] persistent ways of ordering action through time” (p.273). Furthermore, it suggests 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 causal analysis I conducted zeroed in on the kinds of culturally-shaped habits, skills, 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 actors given the strong social pressures they are subject to.

Broadly, I agree with Swidler’s argument that in considering the sociocultural aspects of actor practices it is 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 could 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 consider other real-world examples. For instance, if we consider the climate change issue many other examples could also be scrutinised (in addition to those looked at in my thesis).

For example, over the past few years the social and environmental scientist Roger Pielke Jr has begun to further scrutinise enduring lines of action seen in the climate issue. In particular, he has tried to codify characteristic repertoires which he believes currently constrain the “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 worse-case scenario as “business-as-usual”, implying 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 have little weight).

Also notable is the work of cognitive sociologist Karen Cerolo in examining 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).

To further consider this it would be useful to conduct further inquiry informed by these theoretical perspectives – particularly the ‘culturalist cognitive paradigm’ I referred to above. It suggests ways of further exploring the social structuring of specific knowledge practices and the causes of this. It points to potential causes of cognitive patterns which can also influence practices like PKPs. It also appears promising for understanding what substantive practice change entails or might practically require. For example, such change may demand more sophisticated consideration of the costly “cultural retooling” that can be required (see Swidler, 1986); addressing reinforcing cultural mechanisms (Cerulo, 2006); or scholarship that helps to reveal what is routinely taken-for-granted (e.g. Pielke Jr, 2018).

Though my research didn’t deliver this in a comprehensive manner such a perspective could underpin a more sociological view of PKPs (or other knowledge practices). The notion of practices’ does some of this work and points to the social patterning of day-to-day actions and processes. But this could be deepened by addressing things like the persistent ways in which such action gets ‘ordered’ (as per Swidler) along with how actors’ cognitive processes can become socioculturally scripted (as per a cognitive sociology perspective).