Jennifer Gidley on Post-Positivist Approaches to Multiple Futures

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Jennifer Gidley:

"The predictive-empirical tradition originated in the USA. It arose initially from US defense intelligence but was supported as a methodology with broader purposes by the formation of the World Future Society in the late 1960s. This research refers to a one and only future that empirical trends suggest, and is often referred to as the (singular) ‘probable future.’ This approach still dominates the literature base. One of the strengths of this approach is its perceived objectivity and values neutrality. Its weaknesses may include narrowness in focus and lack of contextual awareness. It also implies that trends are inevitable and this can be disempowering if the trends are negative.

Post-positivist Approaches to “Multiple Futures”

The critical-postmodern tradition originated in Europe, particularly France, growing out ofa critical social theory tradition which sought to balance what it perceived as the overly empiricist approach of many futurists in the USA. This led to the foundation of Mankind 2000 in the late 1960s, which led among other initiatives to the founding of the World Futures Studies Federation (WFSF) in the early 1970s. This approach is normative and is often referred to plurally as ‘preferred futures.’ A strength of this approach is that it makes explicit the— often tacit—contextual and values dimensions and thus leads to a questioning of ‘business as usual.’ A weakness is its perceived subjectivity, which can sometimes lead to excessive relativism.

The cultural-interpretive tradition arose in large measure from the work of those futures researchers who sought to include non-Western cultures and to invoke a deeper consideration of civilizational futures (Inayatullah, 1995, 2000; Milojevic, 2005; Nandy, 2000; Sardar, 1994).This approach opens up the possibilities of alternative, particularly non-Western and feminist futures, and is a crucial part of the dimension that may be referred to as ‘possible, or alternative, futures.’ Strengths of this approach include its creativity and engagement of multiple perspectives. A weakness is that proposed alternatives may lack feasibility, or be overpowered by the more dominant empiricist approach.

The prospective-action research approach seeks to facilitate empowerment and transformation through engagement and participation. It was initially developed by French and later Swedish futurists and has been emphasized in Australia (Berger, 1964; Bjerstedt, 1982;Boulding, 1988; Hutchinson, 1992; Wildman & Inayatullah, 1996). This could be referred to as ‘prospective’ or ‘participatory futures,’ depending on context. The most obvious strength of this approach is that it engages participants in research projects, empowering them to question and act on alternatives to ‘business as usual.’ A weakness is that if it does not also take account of relevant empirical research, it may lack legitimacy in the dominant positivist scientific circles.

The integrative-holistic futures approach is a relatively new and somewhat contested territory. It is potentially the broadest and deepest possible approach to futures as it can integrate aspects of all the other approaches (Gidley, 2010c; Slaughter, 2003; Voros, 2001).Because of its grounding in complex, integrative and transversal epistemologies it maximizes potential for facilitating and enabling normative ‘planetary futures.’ The strength of this approach is its breadth of scope, which may enable the integration of different methods as appropriate to different contexts (Gidley, 2010c; Hampson, 2010). However, too much breadth may also be perceived as a weakness in that it may sometimes lead to a lack of depth. There is also an ideological trap, which can lead to contested claims about integrality of approaches(See two special issues of Futures, Inayatullah, 2010; Slaughter, 2008a).Being a transdisciplinary field, the insights and methods of futures studies can be applied within many fields and across multiple issues. However, its contributions are yet to be widely adopted in much academic discourse. At a time when the pace of change is accelerating, and environmental issues such as anthropogenic climate change are upon us, both the natural sciences and social sciences could benefit from a greater understanding of how to think about alternative futures using longer time frames. The ontological, epistemological and methodological contributions of futures studies have been overlooked, resulting in too much research mirroring the short-termism of share markets and electoral-cycle-driven government policy-making. Futures studies as a field is not without its drawbacks. Unfortunately its reputation as a serious academic field has been tainted by the uptake and over-use of well-known futures methods such as scenarios in a non-scientific and uncritical manner by consultants, market researchers and journalists. Futures researchers often focus on very complex themes and, consequently, not all relationships can be fully teased out and conclusions have to be recognize as reflecting a degree of uncertainty. These issues are addressed in discussions of validity and trustworthiness in the futures studies literature. Taking these issues into account, policy and planning initiatives based upon futures approaches do need to be implemented within cautionary frameworks.

Futures studies makes a significant contribution to global knowledge futures in that it stretches the boundaries of time and its modernist conceptualization. It applies a futures lens to a number of discourses that do not appear to have a conscious sense of the temporal dimension in which they operate. While many disciplines and fields have a sense of the past, very few appear to have a sense of their potential futures. Ironically, even within the evolution discourse, which is clearly embedded in the time dimension, there appears to be little regard for the decades of academic research that has been undertaken in the futures studies field. By introducing futures perspectives into the boundary-crossing discourses, I take both a macrohistorical time perspective and also make explicit the significance of future time sense as a balance to the over-valuing of the past. All forms of development, growth and progress are embedded in the time dimension and thus need to take into account the future time dimension as well as the past. By applying futures thinking to the three meta-theoretical approaches that I am highlighting— postformal reasoning, integral consciousness and planetary awareness—I am crossing the boundary that ties us and limits us to what we already know in the present -

Since postformal reasoning refers to the developmental stage after the establishment of formal operational thinking, it can be conceptually situated in the temporal dimension as a psychological stage that points to the future of human development.

- The notion of integral consciousness is closely tied to postformal reasoning as it refers in much of the integral studies literature to a stage/structure or movement of consciousness beyond formal thinking and is reflected in both cultural evolution and individual psychological development.

- The rise of planetary awareness can also be situated in the temporal dimension most frequently associated with the 15th century where the European journeys of discovery enabled a broader communication between the peoples of all continents. If one takes a big picture macrohistorical view of time, it may be that these new ways of thinking are only in their early stages of development. The significance of stretching our concept of time through futures studies is of great potential value to education and many other disciplines and fields, such as the sciences, philosophy, and the arts in relation to considerations of the evolution of these disciplines. Even a cursory glance at possible futures in the context of the rapid emergence of more integral and transdisciplinary approaches, suggests that disciplinary knowledge itself may soon become “history. ”Paradoxically, these temporal conceptualizations rely on the three-part model of time—past, present and future. Elsewhere I have made a philosophical contribution to the reconceptualizing of this default modernist notion of linear time on which western culture depends (Gidley, 2007b,appendix 1).

Several other ways of conceptualizing time need to be considered, pointing again to the complexity and paradoxical nature of time.

In summary my boundary-crossing contribution to the futures studies field includes:

- Offering a further development of earlier typologies of approaches with the field, with particular emphasis on the bifurcation between positivist and post-positivist approaches;

- Taking a futures lens to the other meta-theoretical approaches that are the focus of the paper, in particular to the postformal studies field. The implications of my contribution include the realization that futures studies is not immune to other epistemological developments, nor is it necessarily leading the way. For further discussion of this issue, see Gidley (in press)."