Sociology of the Futures: A Brief History

By Matthew Chase

The future remains an uncertain space. While not so much a big revelation for most, it certainly has carried an undeniable palpable anxiety. We don’t know with 100% accuracy what will happen next, whether it is 500 years from now or 5 minutes. The year 2017 has marked a particular shade of tension in a climate of political protest and public unrest. At the same time, it has also sparked speculation and innovation with emerging technologies and new ideals (and fears) of what society might become in the coming decades. Sociologists have a meaningful stake and impact in the predicting and shaping of future. They have so for the last century, especially in the development of a relatively new kind of science: futures studies.

The modern science of studying the future began roughly over 70 years ago. Unlike the field of history, futures studies focus not on what has happened and is certain. Rather, they attend to the as yet unknown in postulating the possible, the probable, and the preferable. They draw upon the collaborative partnerships among social and natural scientists, engineers, and technologists to predict the products and developments of the future. Notable sociologist-futurists in the movement include the likes of John Urry, Wendell Bell, and Barbara Adam. Futures studies have been employed to not only understand what may transpire, but also to shape it. To really dig deep in appreciating the science of the future, we must look at its own history and the methodologies that emerged from its practice.

Futures thinking arguably has roots just as extensive and deep as history itself. Over the centuries, what originated as oral prophecies and traditions through shamans, oracles, and sorcerers gradually shifted to the hands of scholarship. Early macrohistory scholars from the reaches of ancient China and North Africa would come to study the futures of nations and the world, spurring a utopian movement in Western countries toward shaping the ideal society. Technology advancement would have futures studies permeating culture through literature and cinema up to the early twentieth century.

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Blade Runner (1982). Science fiction literature and film have served as pop culture reflections of futures thinking.

Modern futures studies as we have come to understand them began shortly after World War II. Their history can be divided into three distinct intellectual periods: 1945 to the 1960s, the 1970s to the 1980s, and the 1990s to the present. The first period between 1945 and the 1960s was characterized as a phase of scientific inquiry and rationalization. It was at this origin point that futures studies were being developed into a science for national planning. Systematic inquiry, professionalization of the futures discipline, and a greater focus on technological development became key components to this phase. They emerged largely in response to the historical contexts of the times as Western societies experienced rapid political and economic expansion in the face of underlying Cold War tensions and fears. As a result of these uncertainties in the political landscape, strategic methods such as modeling, game theory, and the Delphi method were developed to predict technological advancement, future threats, and alternative futures.

By the 1970s and the 1980s, futures studies became a full-fledged profession and would turn into a world institution as it entered into the discourse of global futures. Intellectual focus on nation-state interests were soon shifted and expanded toward greater social problems such as world population growth and competition for increasingly scarce resources, government and economic collapse, and environmental crisis. The discourse in the futurist community was debated and split among pessimist and optimist thinkers regarding the different, possible directions of the world at large over these doomsday scenarios. Over a hundred new nations founded only decades before had to forge their own identities, developing localized futures movements to craft their political, economic, and cultural paths. Visions of new types of society, both positive and negative, arose surrounding the future roles of information technologies, post-industrial development, and social control. Futures studies would also see their industrialization and deep incorporation into business practice, with corporations employing futures methods (e.g., scenario building) and professionals to strategically plan for factors shaping the future markets and corporate opportunities.

Unlike the institutionalization observed in the previous decades, the start of the 1990s saw to the neoliberal globalization and resulting fragmentation of futures studies. Foresight became the key concept during this intellectual phase with forecasting as a popular methodology, as the field increasingly concerned itself with maximizing technological advancement and individual freedom across corporate, national, and civic spaces. Foresight as a futures method draws from applied history, with the use of historical research to address issues encountered in the present and near future. It is a scientifically informed and specific expectation of the future, grounded in the antecedents and cause-and-effect relationships that could assist determining the probability of certain events. The relationship between foresight practices and policymaking decisions was cemented, seeking to serve specific interests and not as strongly toward an ideal human future for the greater public good. Future studies have thus turned to following market trends for strategic purposes, using methods like cognitive mapping and backcasting to predict people’s attitudes and behaviors as well as pursue preferred futures.

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Ghost in the Shell (1995). How will artificial intelligence and robotics transform sociological insight?

Many members of the futurist community have responded to foresight and other traditional approaches by raising the need for critical futures studies. These critical futures have come to counter traditional approaches (e.g., forecasting, etc.) with a reexamination of future alternatives. There is also the parallel movement to integrate critical feminist standpoints into future studies as to craft preferred futures of social equity and diversity in the development of technology and politics. New methodologies emerged as a result, such as causal layered analysis, to address the existing power structures and futures control embedded in current futuring practices.

This reexamination of power structures embedded in current futures thinking has also raised questions regarding its ethics and assessment of emerging technologies and social advancements. Due to the science’s inherent foundation on uncertainty and its impact at the global scale, there is a growing and clear need for reevaluation of how futures are used for supporting policy, organizational design, and anticipatory action. Current dominant practices under a neoliberal framework have shifted the studies away from predicting the future to instead extending the present. The field has taken on the role, deliberately in some ways and unintentional in others, of futures making as well as futures thinking. This relationship to the futures, in addition to the potentially global ramifications from its practice, have emerged the need for responsible and ethical self-reflection. While not exactly a new problem per se, it nonetheless demands attention given how futures studies have pervaded almost all spheres of everyday life and influence.

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Minority Report (2002). A representation of how futures studies could be incorporated into the criminal justice system, and its dangerous implications.

Futures studies have not been immune to the transnational and globalizing effects of the modern day, as the field is now embedded across various disciplines (e.g., political science, historical studies, psychology). It is a collaborative, multi-disciplinary field among natural and social scientists as well as technologists, which mirrors the futures’ multifaceted and shifting nature. This self-conscious need for ethical and diverse development in the field is responsive of its central position in present decision-making. It is reflective of current futures trends toward decentralization, mass distribution, and inclusivity in a digital information age. Futures studies are seeing a shift from Western domination to a more transnational presence throughout the postcolonial world of Asia, the Pacific islands, and the Middle East.

The debates over apocalyptic and utopian possibilities remain prevalent as the world engages in rapid developments in information, technology, and society. Since the 1950s, future has become a category of action in local and global landscapes. So too has history and the present. With futures becoming increasingly accessible to us, the induction of critical public sociology can shape futurist research in ethical and meaningful ways.

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