Characteristics of Future Imaginaries

This article is part of my Master’s Thesis - Future Imaginaries. Previous Chapter: 3.2 Condensation of Future Imaginaries

The following describes the essential characteristics derived from the combination of futures and imaginaries.

Future Imaginaries as Dominant Future Expectations

A constituent feature of Future Imaginaries is their dominance in the discourse around the future. As described in chapter 3.1, many of the authors drawn upon in this thesis circle around the concept of dominant futures. When images of the future become collective expectations for the future because they have become so dominant in the discourse that they crowd out alternative ideas of the future, we can speak of Future Imaginaries. They describe the future expectations of groups in society who can no longer imagine that the future could develop differently than they assume.

Cook’s interview series with young adults in Australia is a prototypical example (cf. chapter 2.3.1). Without knowing about each other, the interviewees expressed similar expectations about the future. However, the dominance of their Future Imaginaries was not only expressed through shared expectations about the future. They also intuitively assumed that these expectations were self-evident and collectively understood that they did not need explanation.

This dominance within imagined futures is also the basis for the test of whether it is a Future Imaginary. As described in chapter 2.3.5, a thought experiment can be conducted: On a given topic, how high would be the internal (in the sense of personal imagination) and external (in the sense of societal discourse) resistance to imagining an alternative future? The thought experiment helps approach the dominance of a Future Imaginary in the background understanding and can support the identification of a Future Imaginary as a first test.

The objective and normative levels of Future Imaginaries

The role of values and normative ideas runs like a red thread through the considerations in chapter 2—both in relation to futures and imaginaries. Grunwald speaks of normative definitions as a component of futures (cf. chapter 2.1.1). Polak sees the ideal values of a society as the basis for the development of futures (cf. chapter 2.1.2). Taylor describes two levels of the objective and normative in Social Imaginaries, which are equally applicable to Future Imaginaries, as Cook has shown (cf. chapter 2.3.1).

According to Taylor, future Imaginaries always contain an objective level that describes what the basic expectations are for the future development of a topic. Below that, there is a deeper level, which includes ideas about how development should proceed according to collective values. In Cook’s work, this distinction of expectations into two levels leads to the identification of two Future Imaginaries, which share the factual level but differ on the normative level (cf. chapter 2.3.1). The existence of two levels in Future Imaginaries distinguishes this concept from others, usually based on only one of the two levels (cf. chapter 3.3).

Collective future expectations of ordinary people

Another characteristic of Future Imaginaries is that they are not relegated to certain elites or experts but are shared by the general population - the “ordinary people,” as Taylor writes. This is because Future Imaginaries are not abstract theories or have a clear theoretical framework but are part of the background understanding. Cook did not conduct her interviews with experts who have an in-depth understanding of specific topics and who were asked about their expectations for the future as experts because of this. Instead, she interviewed young adults in different life situations and with different worldviews. In their expectations of the future, she identifies the two Future Imaginaries. (cf. chapter 2.3.1).

From the perspective of anthropology, Appadurai and Strauss emphasize the location of imaginaries among ordinary human beings and not only among elites. Thus, Appadurai cites “diasporic communities” and social movements as examples1. Strauss, in turn, clarifies that it is not society that has ideas and expectations but the individuals within it. (cf. chapter 2.2.3)

This also means that Future Imaginaries can exist in expert circles. However, these relate less to expertise than to the specific expectations located in the group’s background understanding.

The Performativity of Future Imaginaries

As part of the background understanding, Future Imaginaries manifest themselves through language and behavior in the form of narratives and actions regarding the future. In doing so, each narrative and action contributes to consolidating the expectations of the future and even making the corresponding expectation of the future more probable. Various authors suggest this performativity as a characteristic of Future Imaginaries.

Thus, the participants of the ITAS workshop describe that the (sociotechnical) futures…

“…are not bound to individual actors or limited groups of actors, but circulate between the most diverse discourses and areas of society and can thus develop a “life of their own” that hardly has anything in common with the intentions of their producers. Sociotechnical futures thus possess and develop an independent efficacy in processes of communication and action…”2

Therefore, the participants examine the performativity of socio-technical futures in the dimension of their analysis model, which considers the efficacy of futures in society.

The effect of futures on society is Polak’s core thesis as the “pull of the future.” According to Polak, the future emerges from action in the present, which is determined by expectations of the future.

In particular, Taylor and the authors interpreting him, such as Alma and Vanheeswijck, point to the constituent feature of imaginaries that they only manifest themselves through action. Appadurai further deepens this understanding by describing imaginaries as an “organized field of social practice.”

Beckert makes a similar argument when he writes that it is imaginaries that actors use to coordinate their actions and thereby influence the future:

“Because expectations can help actors coordinate their efforts, they are able to affect the future.”3

Jasanoff also sees the performativity of Sociotechnical Imaginaries as a core feature, as described in chapter 2.3.3.

These characteristics are only a first approach to the social phenomenon of Future Imaginaries, which will have to be deepened and extended in future considerations.

Next Chapter: 3.2.2 Components of future imaginaries

  1. Appadurai, A. (1990). Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy. Public Culture, 2(2), 1–24., p. 7 

  2. Lösch, A., Böhle, K., Coenen, C., Dobroc, P., Heil, R., Hommrich, D., et al. (2016). Technikfolgenabschätzung von soziotechnischen Zukünften, (3), 26., p. 9 

  3. Beckert, J. (2016). Imagined Futures: Fictional Expectations and Capitalist Dynam- ics. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press., p. 11 

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