Futures Research and Sociological Analysis

Eleonora Barbieri Masini. The International Handbook of Sociology. Editor: Stella R Quah & Arnaud Sales. Sage Publication. 2000.

Futures research and sociology have only rarely been interconnected. Sociology has definitely a longer period of development and has hence been subject to a lengthy critical debate. In formal terms, the history of sociology can be traced to the end of the 19th century (although, as for many disciplines, its beginning and real initiators are a source of much interesting discussion) that of futures research to the end of the second world war. In this chapter I will stress the arbitrariness of this formal and acknowledged moment of birth, rightly considered by Wendell Bell to be highly controversial (Bell, 1997: 7) as there are many anticipatory indications and references to future thinking in the history of human thought and, indeed, in ancient history. It is thus important to have a much wider definition of futures thinking than futures research.

Futures Research and Sociology: A Historical Analysis and a Brief Debate on Definitions

According to John McHale (McHale and McHale, 1976), what may be referred to as futures studies, in fact encompasses all ways of looking, inventing, forecasting and predicting the future, ranging from utopia to projections although always with a time frame of some decades; whereas futures research refers exclusively to the knowledge and understanding of the future, something which many authors, including Bertrand de Jouvenel (1976), believe is not possible. There is no way we can know or understand the future, we can only conjecture it, says de Jouvenel, because there are many futures, in this being in agreement with John McHale and others, including myself (Barbieri Masini, 1993). This relates to the basic principle in futures studies by which different possible futures are a consequence of a variety of events and of different human choices.

What we can do is think of the various possible, probable and even desirable futures, though the latter rarely coincide with the probables. John McHale claimed that there are as many futures as there are human beings; hence the unlikelihood of the possibles and probables also coinciding with the desirables. This same idea was expressed by Roy Amara (1981) in a famous article where he writes of possible, probable and preferable futures.

Bertrand de Jouvenel also used the term “futuribles” which has since been used to indicate different possible futures. In his opinion, this is an intellectual endeavour linked to conjecture as opposed to knowledge. The term “conjecture” was first used by Jacques Bernoulli in his “Ars Conjectandi” which caused a great stir when it was published after his death in 1713.

The French term “prospective” is another important concept, encompassed by the very general term futures studies and indeed connected to the many alternative futures. It was coined by Gaston Berger (1964) in the 1950s and rediscovered and used in France in the 1980s. In many countries it is used instead of “futures studies.” In this context we are exercising a prospective approach when we understand the past in terms of the part of human life that cannot be changed, and choose in the present a set of futures. This approach does not forecast or attempt to understand the future. Instead, on the basis of an understanding of the past, it chooses in the present a set of possible, probable and desirable futures (Godet, 1979). The prospective approach is then a way of influencing the future by clearly identifying the goals that guide present action.

In this chapter I focus on futures studies rather than futures research in the sense currently accepted by most futurists, in the hope of throwing some light on one of the most serrious doubts of sociologists: that it is not possible to know the future because it cannot be experimented. Futures studies look not at one future but at different alternative futures as the many authors cited underline. Futures studies require clearly stated assumptions and rigorous methods of future-oriented analysis.

In this context it is also important to examine the relationship between the past, the present and the future and the often presupposed, univocal interpretation of the past and the present, with the future being conjectured only in terms of alternatives. As early as 1969, Yairo Hayashi (1969), one of the first futurists in Japan, said that there are two ways of looking into the future: one is to know it, and the other is to conceive it. He argued that knowledge of the present cannot be univocal just as knowledge of the past (and especially the distant past) cannot be univocal. Present phenomena can be interpreted quite differently. Obviously the future presents an even wider range of possibilities. Sociologists are familiar with the difficulty and ambivalence of different interpretations of the past and the present. If the future is probabilistic—as Hayashi says—and undefined in terms of knowledge, it cannot be said to differ in this sense from the past and the present.

More recently, Graham H. May (1997) raised the issue of alternative futures being no different from different interpretations of the past or present. He wrote:

The English language is not alone in using the words past, present and future; each suggesting the singular. There was one past, history rather than histories, there is one present, not a series of presents, and there will be one future. If, however, we accept the existence of effective human choice, there must be the potential for different Futures (as in text) to occur. Easy as it is to explain, when we are used to think about the past and the present, it can still be difficult to accept that futures are multiple (…). But is it as different as that?

Another important point related to the existence of many futures, as well as to the role of human choice in determining those futures, is based on Edgar Morin’s (1977) discussion of complexity. Morin stresses the unitas multiplex which should be introduced in describing interrelations and forms of organization from a “polyrelational perspective”. This involves the conceptual element and the observer in a participatory process much debated by sociologists in the present (Wallerstein, 1995). This is certainly relevant to the thinking of futurists who are addressing this same issue and using a variety of methods, such as scenario building, to do so. Scenario building has as an important component the participation of the actors, the decision makers within the specific area under analysis, who have to contribute, together with the scenario builder, to the description of the emerging possible, probable and desirable futures. The role of the observed in relation to the observer is also becoming increasingly important and active in sociological analysis.

Interestingly enough, the two areas seem to be proceeding independently in this very important area of the epistemology of social analysis.

The other important area, which may bring the two areas closer, is the orientation towards future related action in the present which is the underlying hypothesis of futures studies. From a view of alternative futures spring the indications of actions in the present. I call this having a “project of action for the future” (Barbieri Masini, 1982). More sociologists will probably now acknowledge that an analytical approach to social interpretation and understanding is not sufficient without indications for ways of changing social reality.

The Contribution of Sociology to Futures Studies: An Often Neglected Area with Some References to Social Sciences

As already indicated, sociology and futures studies have been two separate areas only coming into contact in certain moments of history thanks to the contribution of sociologists with a future orientation. As a consequence, it is not easy to trace the contribution of sociology to futures studies. I shall refer to recent contributions and not to past social thinking or to the great political doctrines of the 18th century, as those of Tocqueville, Marx, Proudon or Comte which in many ways had a future orientation. I discuss the writings of a number of contemporary authors and outline the history of Research Committee on Futures Research of the International Sociological Association.

The Committee was founded by Bertrand de Jouvenel. He was not a sociologist, but an economist by training and interested in political science as indicated by his various writings and manifestations. He repeatedly wrote that all sciences have to have a future orientation, especially the social sciences. He referred to H.G. Wells (de Jouvenel, 1967: 8) radio speech broadcast by the British Broadcasting Corporation in 1932, advocating a “science of the future” and the need not only for “professors of foresight” but also for “faculties and departments of foresight”.

In January 24 1902, H.G. Wells delivered a lecture, entitled “The Discovery of the Future”, to the Royal Institute in London subsequently published in the journal Nature (Wagar, 1996). Wells indicated how far into the future social sciences could hope to peer. Over and beyond his visions of the future, this author and philosopher indicated a task for social scientists, which is still only at the very beginning for sociologists and, to some extent, for futurists. Wells dream is still in the making. Wendell Bell’s contribution (1997) has been particularly important concerning the links between the area of sociology and futures studies. Bell (1997: 7-10) stresses that several sociologists have made significant contributions both to futures studies, as they are today, and to the future thinking of sociologists.

One of those sociologists was William F. Ogburn who was appointed president of a Research Committee on Social Trends by the US President Herbert Hoover in 1929. Ogburn’s Committee produced a description of social change in American society up to that time, published as a report in 1933 with the title “Recent Social Trends in The United States”. After the election of US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932, Ogburn became a member of the US National Resources Committee and contributed to its report published in 1937. Ogburn’s contribution was twofold. On the one hand, he made long-term projections (a few decades) on the basis of quantitatively described trends. On the other hand, he stressed the importance of invention, looking at its impact on changes in society and social institutions and, as a consequence, on people’s beliefs and attitudes.

This circular approach to explaining social change was developed in futures studies in the 1970s, without any acknowledgement of what such thinking owed to the sociologist Ogburn, although he is well known among futurists today. This aspect, namely the circular effect of change underlined by Ogburn—that is the impact on people’s attitudes and beliefs of social and institutional changes, also seen in relation to economic changes and to technological innovations—was almost completely ignored by futurists. Throughout the 1970s, and for the first part of the 1980s, futurists (with few exceptions) tended to concentrate on technological, economic or institutional change as separate entities and not in relation to each other.

Nathan Israeli also made a specific contribution to future thinking in his studies on social psychology in relation to time. This is an aspect that futurists have only recently re-discovered: the importance of attitudes towards time, and the perception of time and its influence on futures studies and decision making for the future.

Not to be forgotten, the sociologist John McHale, who has been fully recognized by futurists for his analysis of changing needs in societies, but maybe less so by sociologists. In my view, one of his most interesting contributions was the recognition in 1969 that “when we come to social futures (…) the need to introduce predictable parameters and concomitant action has become increasingly urgent” (McHale, 1969: 8). Here the sociologist’s view is clear, in terms of the search for parameters, and the futurist’s view (futurist with a prospective conception) in terms of action. I would say that this second aspect has only been accepted by sociologists in recent years.

In the 1960s, when so much was going on at the social and intellectual level, sociologists made an extremely important contribution to future thinking through the Commission Toward the Year 2000 (Bell, 1967), established by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1966. The purpose of the Commission, chaired by Daniel Bell, was to consider hypothetical futures and reflect on methodological approaches. In addition to the president, many members of the Commission were sociologists or social scientists. Among the sociologists we find David Riesman and Wilbert Moore. The latter at that time was involved in research on social indicators with the Russel Sage Foundation. In the context of the Commission 2000 he stressed the need to recognize the remarkable degrees of persistence of some components in society also in the future. Among the political scientists, we find Karl W. Deutsch, Samuel Huntington, Ithiel De Sola Pool; among the economists, Wassily Leontieff and the anthropologists, Margaret Mead. Hence the Commission had some excellent social scientists and sociologists.

Going back to some of the writings of this Commission, their contribution to professional futurists at the time and in the future was quite amazing. Daniel Bell started the report with the words: “Time, said St Augustine, is a threefold present: the present as we experience it, the past as a present memory, and the future as a present expectation” (Bell, 1967: 639). Further on we read: “Is it not now a fundamental responsibility for a society as interdependent as this one to try and engage in some form of systematic anticipation, some form of thinking about the future?” (Bell, 1967: 657). Here we have another important contribution to the time debate which Israeli and McHale, both sociologists, also discussed.

Other members of the Commission to the Year 2000 also made interesting contributions. The social scientist Fred Charles Iklé wrote an article entitled “Can Social Predictions be Evaluated?” (Iklé, 1967), stressing the distinction, already highlighted by Robert Merton (1973), between predictions which are self-realizing and predictions which are self-defeating, and the importance of controlling this effect in making predictions. Like many others at the time, Iklé uses the term prediction rather than forecast or foresight which are more generally used in English at present. A very important contribution to self-altering predictions was made by the late Richard L. Henshel (1993) who gives many interesting examples of “feedback loops” in his writings. Iklé, a political scientist, insisted on the role of action in prediction. This is an interesting emphasis and a much debated issue in social sciences at the present time. Sociology in particular has had problems going beyond the present because of analysis-oriented rather than action-oriented approach. As previously indicated, the latter is a basic principle of futures studies. Another interesting point raised by Iklé is related to whether prediction is to be considered in favour or against social change. His answer is that we wish to look ahead in order to preserve our values, but at the same time we wish continuously to change and have new goals, like old-fashioned Faustians!

The importance of the Commission toward the Year 2000 is evident from these remarks by Daniel Bell (1967: 985):

The Commission has concentrated largely on problems of social change as they are linked to public policy. We have not dealt with the future of cultures, perhaps the most unpredictable of the dimensions of social consciousness (…) We have not dealt, and it is a neglect, with religion and man’s continuing effort to find transcendental meaning amid the contemporary disorientation wherein each individual knows that he can no longer walk in the traditional ways of his father and that his son will not walk his ways. And yet such needs remain.

Clearly the Commission toward the Year 2000 was important in terms of the relationship between sociology, social sciences and futures studies, offering a crucial example of the importance of sociology for futures studies and the importance of a future orientation for social sciences and sociology.

An important contribution to future thinking was made by the well-known social scientist, Harold D. Lasswell. From the 1930s, and for several decades, Lasswell worked for the development of futures studies at Yale University. This aspect of Lasswell’s work, as Wendell Bell tells us (1997: 47-56), is not as well known as his contribution to policy sciences. As W. Bell recalls, Lasswell indicates five tasks for Futures Studies (or, as he says, for the study of the future): (1) The clarification of goals and values; (2) the description of trends; (3) the explanation of conditions; (4) the projection of possible and probable futures if current policies continue; and (5) the invention, evaluation and selection of policy alternatives in order to achieve preferred goals.

These are indeed all the tasks of futures studies which it has taken years to define. Over and beyond identifying specific tasks, Lasswell thought globally and visualized the world as one community with great interdependencies. This is the view that developed in futures studies in the 1970s, starting from the Club of Rome’s report Limits to Growth (Meadows, 1972) and at present recognized as the identified characteristic of present and probably future society. Being so far ahead of his time, Lasswell’s ideas were probably not understood.

Many other sociologists had a future orientation. In 1971 Wendell Bell and James Mau wrote the book The Sociology of the Future (1971) which certainly opened the way to the possibility of the two areas being interconnected. Bell’s important recent publication, Foundations of Futures Studies, has been mentioned in this text in relation to several aspects of the links between futures studies and social sciences.

The sociologist Elise Boulding has also contributed to futures studies in many of her works. Among others, Boulding translated and enriched Fred Polak’s well-known The Image of the Future (1973). The French sociologist Yves Barrel of the University of Grenoble wrote extensively on “prospective sociale”, but unfortunately did not publish all his works as he died young. Another French sociologist, Victor Scardigli, worked on the future of life styles as director of research of CNRS (Centre National Recherche Sociale) in Paris. Among Scardigli’s writings I like to recall “L’Europe des modes de vie” (1987).

Much more could be said about the unacknowledged contribution of sociologists and social sciences at large to futures studies in terms of a future orientation of social analysis and of the need for indications of actions as a consequence of the choice of a future orientation. I will refer to the most recent contributions of sociologists and to those we may expect for the future later in this article.

The Contribution of Futures Studies to Sociological Work and to Social Sciences in General: Contributions from the North American and the European Schools

Once again I shall refer to futures studies mainly in the period after the Second World War, for this is when much of the analysis in the area started. I have already mentioned that futures studies emerged virtually simultaneously in the US and France, but with a totally different approach (Barbieri Masini, 1993). In the United States the first studies were undertaken in the field of military aeronautics, which has no alternative but to be future oriented. The area of technological forecasting with its assumptions and methodologies therefore emerged first. These studies can be linked to “operational research” as Wendell Bell says (1997: 28), referring to activity in the British Army during the war to project and predict the moves of German bombers.

The first major US project was the creation of RAND (Research and Development) Corporation probably the most famous think-tanks out of many (e.g., the Battelle Institute, the Standford Research Institute and others) that came into being in the 1950s and 1960s. Initially RAND concentrated on forecasting military technology and moved on to non military areas of technology in a second stage. Essentially, operational research used a systems analysis approach, or a holistic view (in social terms), and was developed by an interdisciplinary team. This is undoubtedly an area in which futures studies contributed to social sciences and sociology.

With the growing rapidity of change, including social change, areas become increasingly interrelated. In addressing issues related to change, there is therefore a growing need for an interdisciplinary or even transdisciplinary approach (Barbieri Masini, 1993:18). Using the latter approach, the various disciplines have to work to find common assumptions and use a combination of their various methods. The most widely used futures studies methods, namely the Delphi technique and scenario building, do just this. Delphi is based on the joint, and anonymous, contribution of experts on a given issue tending toward some degree of consensus through several rounds of questionnaires. In this case, statistics, mathematics, sociological analysis and psychological studies are combined in the effort to foresee possible and probable futures. Scenario building uses the results of many disciplines, adopting a sociological, political and economic approach, with the addition, in the final analysis, of mathematical tools, computer analysis, etc. A difficult endeavour indeed, but futures studies has been attempting it for many decades.

In this respect, Immanuel Wallerstein’s description of areas of study in the social sciences, as they developed in the United States in many universities, is crucial, as these area studies were essentially multidisciplinary (in the understanding of involving many disciplines) and a reaction to the artificial divisions in social sciences (Wallerstein, 1995: 44). The same type of efforts were made both in social sciences and futures studies. To some extent, futures studies went even further, as it also tried to involve natural scientists in the effort to forecast crucial issues, such as those related to the environment, which need the support of many disciplines, from geology to anthropology to history. Wallerstein also refers to the assumption of universality for any institutionalized discipline, although I believe universality will never be an assumption for futures studies, given the many possible outcomes of present events and trends. Wallerstein refers to three sets of problems for the nomothetic social sciences, in relation to their expectations in following the natural sciences model, namely prediction, management and, as a consequence, quantifiable accuracy. These problems all apply to futures studies as well (in terms of expectations which create problems even to a higher level in futures studies than they do to the nomothetic social sciences).

Reference should be made to the contribution of natural scientists to futures studies, contribution which has been useful for social science analysis. The Nobel Prize winner Dennis Gabor (1969: 38-67), analyzed the 100 technical innovations identified by Herman Kahn and Anthony Wiener (1967). By analyzing these technological innovations in terms of their social effects, Gabor provided decision makers with an important instrument. His analysis is useful also for whoever is interested in social, economic or political analysis with important insights on the social consequences of such innovations (as indicated by Ogburn long before).

To illustrate: Gabor cites a major innovation, the desalinization of sea water, which is destined to have important social and political effects, given that in the future the resource water will inevitably be a major source of conflict and alliances. He also refers to innovations in the area of transport and the introduction of superfast trains by the year 2000, which, again, can be expected to have a major social impact on entire regions, as is already the case in Europe, France, Italy and Germany. Though a great scientist, Dennis Gabor can justifiably be considered a futurist both because of his interdisciplinary approach and his future- and action-oriented indications.

John Platt (1966), a scientist working in the area of natural sciences, also made an important contribution in social terms, and from a future-oriented point of view. Platt was a biophysicist and a well known general systems analyst at the Chicago and Michigan universities. He worked on discontinuities in history and believed that current developments can be tentatively compared to “evolutionary jumps”. For the first time in history, many of these evolutionary jumps are occurring simultaneously, thus creating a completely new era, which is absolutely unprecedented in terms of discontinuity. Platt tries to compare jumps in the present with those in the past and foresee their impact. For example, the evolutionary jumps related to the discovery of DNA will, he believes, have an incredible effect on human life and hence on social structures and societies.

Having looked at the North American school of futures studies, we can now go to the other side of the Atlantic and take a closer look at the French school, also important and, from the start, closer to social sciences. It is easy to understand why: France, like the rest of Europe, had been hard hit by the war and the social consequences were dramatic. A social and politically-oriented approach was a natural reaction.

There are three founders of the French school: Gaston Berger (1964), Pierre Massé (1967), and Bertrand de Jouvenel. Over and beyond the theoretical basis and the use of terms which were (and still are) definitely different at the conceptual level from the North American school, the use of the French studies was very much related to planning at the national and regional levels. The Commissariat Général du Plan was set up as early as 1946 and the Datar (Délégation d’amenagement du territoire) to operate at the local level. Although these two bodies have lost some of their former power, a culture of managing the territory in a future-oriented way, and with an interdisciplinary approach, has indeed remained in France.

It can be said that not only did such studies develop in close relation to social sciences, but that they were (and are) used for different purposes at the public and private level, with the utilization of different disciplines, social and natural, and therefore definitely with an interdisciplinary approach.

The French studies have had a strong impact on other European countries and interestingly on central and eastern European countries. This emerged clearly in Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia in the 1970s and 1980s, and is still so mainly in Hungary. In these cases, social scientists were mainly involved, as futures studies was a way of looking at social alternatives, especially for the many in disagreement with the system.

The contribution of futures studies in terms of criticizing the system in power can also be seen in different historical moments in Latin America. In fact the only global model from a non-developed country, the so-called Bariloche model (Herrera, 1976), was built at the end of the 1970s in Latin America, in counterposition to other global models built in North America and Europe. It had the contribution of many social scientists, in addition to that of mathematicians and systems analysts. The result was a set of possible and probable futures for the main regions of the world, Latin America, Africa and Asia, with a highly normative content.

Thus futures studies has offered social scientists both an interdisciplinary and a critical approach in different historical moments. It is no coincidence that after the notorious events in Beijing in 1989, all books on futures studies were burned in China. In India, futures studies by social scientists has often been critical of the country’s economic and political system. In both cases the contribution of futures studies to social analysis can be said to be highly critical in terms of present choices related to future consequences.

The Consequences of the Neglect or the Attention by Futures Studies of Social Sciences and Specifically Sociology

In the period between the second world war and the end of the 1970s, with the exception of the excellent authors cited in relation to the Commission Towards the Year 2000 and a few others, futurists tended to neglect social analysis and focus on more quantitative approaches, such as systems analysis. This is the period of global models, of the Limits to Growth report to the Club of Rome by D. Meadows and colleagues (Meadows et al., 1972), which had the great merit of attracting the attention of decision makers all over the world to the fact that the earth’s capacity to sustain humanity was not unlimited, but in no way considered social change. In other global models, for example those by Mike Mesarovic and Eduard Pestel (1974), there was some reference to social aspects, whereas the model by Wassily Leontieff (Leontieff, Carter and Petri, 1977) was mainly an input-output model. In this same period countries produced analyses of their future in mainly quantitative terms.

In this period futures studies, with the exceptions mentioned previously, was mainly from the developed world and reinforced the parochial view mentioned by Wallerstein with respect to social sciences (Wallerstein, 1995: 55-67).

At the end of the 1970s, futures studies started to develop in what at the time were called “third world” countries and in the newly industrializing countries. In many cases these studies were based on the approach of Western futurists, especially from North America. The work of Herman Kahn (Kahn and Wiener, 1967) of the Rand corporation had an impact in Latin America, but was quite the opposite to the critical approach previously mentioned. In this set of studies social sciences and sociology were hardly present, and what was therefore lacking was an analysis of the social context. This, coupled with reliance on the Western approach, explains why such studies were often discovered to be a failure.

By the end of the 1970s, social sciences started to assume an increasingly important role in the context of futures studies, as is evident from Jib Fowles excellent Handbook of Future Research, (1978), where many contributors were from the area of social science and based their analysis also on the social context.

Yet, if we scan the Encyclopaedia of the Future (Kurian and Molitor, 1996), there is still little sign of analysis of the social context, despite a very valid interdisciplinary approach. Futurists are still not giving sufficient importance to the social context. Volumes, such as the one developed by Futuribles in France on “The Changing Values in Europe” are a good example of what can be done with futures studies when the social context is taken into account (Futuribles, 1995).

Consequences of the Neglect of, or Interest in, Futures Studies by Social Sciences

Social sciences, and sociology certainly, have tended to split into many fields of specialization with the emergence of the study areas referred to by I. Wallerstein. Although we are currently witnessing a trend toward more contact between disciplines, something futures studies had been tending toward for some time, if we look at university curricula, it is evident that fragmentation is still very much the norm, even within the area of sociology. There are still therefore obstacles to the holistic view which has become essential in a time of constant and rapid change, which enhances the interrelatedness of areas. It is obvious that to look at the future development of a given technology, without considering the social context, is dangerous. It is equally dangerous not to look at the future consequences of a specific change in value hierarchies in a given society. It is also dangerous to look at those changing values from the perspective of one particular branch of sociological analysis (for example rural sociology) without looking at changing values in another context. For example, the urban context in a developing country with migratory flows from rural to urban areas, or to other countries. The failure to look at the whole social system, in considering the consequences of deep changes in many countries involved in conflict and unrest, has undoubtedly weakened the social sciences and prevented them from at least giving warning of potential conflicts.

Some efforts in this direction have been made within the social sciences and I would like to mention the publication Exploring the Future (International Social Sciences Journal, 1993), based on a set of papers originally presented at the International Sociological Association World Congress of Sociology in Madrid in 1990. UNESCO has also developed some studies in this direction – for example, the Futures of Cultures (Barbieri Masini, 1994) in which I have looked at the “futures of cultures” from an anthropological perspective, within the framework of Asia, Latin America and Africa.

Recent Examples and Hopes of Greater Cooperation between Futures Studies and Social Sciences with Special Reference to Sociology

Evidence of the emergence of a new approach to the issue of cooperation between futures studies and sociology is to be found in several interesting texts published recently, and in my personal experience in two universities.

The first text I would like to cite is one by Wendell Bell (1997), which in my view best expresses the difficulties of the past and the present but also the possibility of theoretical cooperation. Bell presents a theory of knowledge and explores the foundations of futures studies. In his view, futurists organize knowledge and “encourage people (…) to be more conscious of the consequences of their own actions and to be more deliberate and responsible in their decision making” (1997: 316). Bell believes that, although futures studies can be considered both an art and a science, they share with science the obligation to search for the truth. He adds that futures studies are interdisciplinary and a social science. This last observation may be debatable but is, I think, a step at least in the right direction of mutual recognition of futures studies and social sciences in general, and sociology in particular. He proposes a theory of knowledge for futures studies: critical realism, which goes beyond positivism and includes some of its aspects, but at the same time introducing a critical discourse. There is an external reality independent of the human mind that can be known objectively, but there is also a conjectural knowledge. The external reality responds to the past and the present and this is where we need sociology. On the basis of that, we can then attempt conjectural knowledge, which is described by many as alternative futures.

In my view, the challenge of cooperation comes mainly from the actual context in which social sciences and futures studies operate. This means that challenges come from the problems of developing countries, the economic discrepancies between rich and poor, the disadvantaged human resources, such as indigenous populations, youth, women and children at the global and national level. These challenges require all our intellectual energy and the complete elimination of any kind of competition and parochialism. The boundaries of each discipline are being challenged.

In the context of efforts to face such challenges in futures studies, Richard Slaughter (1996: 799-813), involved in futures studies and education, has developed what he calls the knowledge base of futures studies, calling to its support many futurists from all over the world. Slaughter advocates the view that futurists facilitate the development and application of the individual, organizational and collective capacity of what he calls foresight, thus recalling the term used many years ago by H.G. Wells. He suggests that social foresight can emerge through many distinctive layers of capability ranging from language, concepts, theories, images, literature, organizations, networks, practitioners, methodologies, to social movements and innovations. In this case a transdisciplinary approach is accompanied by a whole range of different approaches. It is a new way of looking at futures studies which, in my view, needs further analysis and the rigorous involvement of the various layers.

Moreover there could be ample space for debate in considering a reflection by futures studies on the important writings of many sociologists of our time. For example, Anthony Giddens (1991) considers “modernity” a specific historical period which has reached its limits. Much of this position is also present in futures studies, but Giddens goes much beyond the physical limits and considers modernity as “a risk culture”. This position is shared by many futurists, although reached from totally different approaches, such as technological forecasting or systems analysis. Post-modernity, hence, is an historically emerging stage and, as Zygmunt Bauman, writes: “a post-modern perspective (…) means above all the tearing off of the mask of illusions; the recognition of certain pretences as false and certain objectives as neither attainable nor, for that matter, desirable” (1993: 3). This approach has the support of some young futurists and may be another possibility of interchange between in-depth social analysis from sociology and the tracing of possible, probable, desirable and undesirable alternative futures.

What can be said at this point is that, on one side, in sociology there are growing quests for what has in many ways already been developed (though not always achieved) in futures studies: the need for interdisciplinarity, and even transdisciplinarity; the need for the participation of anyone involved in social research; the need to strive for an action-oriented attitude. Futures studies has long been developing the character of interdisciplinarity; more recently it has been working for transdisciplinarity. Sporadically, and more recently, it has been stressing the need for the participation of those choosing and building the various futures. This has emerged as an ethical need. Futures studies has always been action-oriented, for what is the point of looking ahead, if not to make a difference and a change?

Sociology has always contained a critical component (I could refer to many writers). Because of the rapidity of change, futures studies emphasizes this need in particular. Moreover it has to go even further, for thinking about the future is acknowledged to be value loaded. Although this may be a difficulty for sociologists, a change may be possible because critical social analysis is also inevitably value loaded, albeit not future-oriented. This latter point stresses certainly the responsibility of futurists, but may also be an area of reflection for sociologists. Sociology on the other hand has much to offer in terms of social theory and social analysis.

These are some of the points that, if open to debate, may bring sociologists and social scientists at large closer to futurists to the advantage of both. This may indeed be the future of these two areas which are both interested in society and its changes.

Some Efforts in the Direction of Bringing Sociology and Futures Studies Closer: A Personal Experience

In my personal experience teaching in the Faculty of Social Sciences at the Gregorian University and the Faculty of Political Science at the University of Trieste’s School of International Studies, I have been able to combine sociological analysis and futures studies, especially through empirical work in scenario building. In scenario building it is crucial to have a good analysis (in sociological and social science, with a transdisciplinary contribution in some cases extending even beyond social sciences) of the past and the present of the subject involved, in order to be able to build alternative societal scenarios, which are possible, maybe probable and maybe feasible. This involves a lengthy process of data collection and checking, but it is rewarding in that it offers the possibility of clarifying the present in function of the futures.

In my view this is one good approach. To use the best tools of sociological analysis on which to base possible and probable scenarios, using the most rigorous methods available to futures studies. After twenty years of scenario building in universities and developing countries, in areas such as education, or in specific geographic areas—for example European Union, the Balkans—over and beyond transdisciplinarity, the availability of reliable data, and an intercultural approach, I think it is clear that the most important characteristic is the participation of the people who in some way will be in the position to realize some of these scenarios. These may be decision makers, students or political leaders, but they must accept the role of builders of the future, on the basis of the best available sociological understanding of the specific area.


The rapidity of change and the interrelation of trends and events forces us academics to search for new ways of understanding social reality, and to make conjectures for the future, which in any case are alternative. We need all our capacities and joint knowledge as well as a willingness to experiment in our search for rigorous and reliable ways to conjecture the alternative futures, even at the risk of being criticized by our academic colleagues. What is at stake is the future of those who will be following us in the history of humankind and of the societies we are so earnestly trying to understand as sociologists and social scientists at large. The responsibility of such an endeavour is with us today.