When Sociologists fail to talk about the future

Earlier in the week I organised a Design Fiction for Sociologists workshop at Goldsmiths with the help of Les Back. It was a really interesting event on a number of levels but the aspect of the discussion which has most preoccupied me since is the failure of sociologists to talk about the future. I learnt that projective analysis is a relatively common feature of scholarship in the material sciences and yet it is largely absent from sociology, at least as a routine and taken for granted part of research.

We need to be cautious about this. If we accept that the social world is an open system (as opposed to the closed systems produced in laboratory work) then prediction in the traditional sense would be an obviously mistaken goal. There’s simply too many contingencies, with their potential impact multiplying over time in a path-dependent way, for it to be feasible to offer definitive claims of what will happen.

But can we forecast? My hunch is that we can and that a mechanisms based sociology is actually well equipped to do this, providing it is extremely sensitive to contextual changes over time i.e. recognising how the operation of a mechanism will unfold differently across changing contexts as other, perhaps newer, mechanisms will act conjointly to amplify or impede its operation. The results are obviously fallible but so is everything else we do. I’m increasingly convinced we can sketch potential futures, as well as the conditions likely to give rise to them, in a manner that has the status of something significantly beyond speculation.

Categories: Outflanking Platitudes

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