Fictional Expectations from Beckert

This article is part of my Master’s Thesis - Future Imaginaries. Previous Chapter: 2.3.1 Future Imaginaries from Cook

[[ Jens Beckert ]] is an economic sociologist and director at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne. His work focuses, among other things, on the role of imaginaries in the economy. In 2016, his monograph ‘Imagined Futures’1 was published on this topic.

In the very first paragraph, Beckert refers to Benedict Anderson’s core theory that national identities are based on social imaginaries (cf. chapter 2.2.1) and ties his own core thesis directly to it: “I claim that the dynamism of the capitalist economy is in no lesser way based on imaginaries.” However, his view differs from Anderson’s because he explicitly does not examine imaginaries of the past and present, but imaginaries of the future.2

“… capitalism is an economic system in which the present is assessed principally through the lens of the future, which is itself considered using imaginaries of future states in order to anticipate as yet unrealized profit and loss.”3

With his theses on the dynamics of capitalism, Beckert offers a perspective in which behavior in the present is explicitly fed by ideas of the future. To this end, he refers to many of the social theorists already mentioned in this thesis. Building on their statements, he argues that the central role of Future Imaginaries in capitalism and how they are shaped also support a new paradigm of dealing with the future in sociology.4

Fictional Expectations

The capitalist economic model is based on the expectation of future profits through present actions. According to the theory of rational decisions, actors are able to calculate optimal decisions and invest accordingly. This is where Beckert comes in and questions the theory of rational action because it ignores dealing with an open, uncertain future.

“Rational actor theory does not fail because actors do not wish to maximize their utility but because it is unable to address the consequences of genuine uncertainty.”5

Beckert builds his own theory of capitalist dynamics on this observation, which he calls “fictional expectations6 as a counterpart to the concept of rational expectations.

As the term indicates, the difference for him lies in expectations. They are not precisely calculated calculations based on extensive information—rather, they can be described as images of the future by means of which actors imagine future situations and states.

“Under genuine uncertainty, expectations become interpretative frames that structure situations through imaginaries of future states of the world and of causal relations. Expectations become determinate only through the imaginaries actors develop.”6

These images of the future and the emotions associated with them are what motivate actors to act.

Beckert repeatedly points to the contingency of futures in Fictional Expectations, which also stand in stark contrast to the understanding of rational expectations in which the future can be predicted.

“The counter-thesis to rational expectations theory would be that under conditions of uncertainty expectations are contingent, because the openness of the future renders impossible the existence of a “true” economic model. […], expectations about the future and asset prices are better understood as based on communicatively established imaginaries that change as interpretations and judgements of a situation evolve.”7

Beckert explicitly names Imaginaries here because, in his view, the formation of economically oriented expectations is a social, continuous process.

From this, Beckert derives various implications that Fictional Expectations yield for the dynamics of capitalist economic systems:

First, Fictional Expectations help actors in the economy to coordinate their decisions in the context of great uncertainty. This reflects the basic understanding of the role of imaginaries from Taylor to Appadurai. Shared expectations allow for joint action. Thus, the lack of reliable future is replaced by a collective picture of the future, thus enabling economic thus to make economic decisions for the future.8

The second implication is that the coordinated decisions of the actors can influence the future. The more actors adopt a certain image of the future and the more they align their decisions with it, the greater their influence on the development in the direction of the image of the future. The collective image of the future becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.8

These two implications illustrate how, according to Beckert, economic actors confront an open and uncertain future: They rely on the performativity of a collective expectation of the future, which ensures that they can make decisions today from which the anticipated future will emerge tomorrow. Or, to put it bluntly: If everyone expects the same future, the future is less open.

In this understanding of capitalist dynamics, power means being able to create and influence fictional expectations. Those who shape the future expectations of as many actors as possible in their own favor gain economic advantages. This is why collective images of the future are contested. Beckert speaks of “politics of expectations:”8

“Actors seek to influence expectations in different ways, including by shaping the social and political structures that underlie them.”8

Much of business communication – from studies to advertising to presentations – can be seen as an attempt to shape future expectations.

Beckert’s Fictional Expectations offer the most comprehensive and far-reaching example of the role of Future Imaginaries in society.

Next Chapter: Sociotechnical Imaginaries from Jasanoff

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

  2. cf. ibid., p. vii 

  3. ibid., p. 22 

  4. cf. ibid., p. 6 

  5. ibid., p. 8 

  6. ibid., p. 9  2

  7. ibid., p. 42 

  8. cf. ibid., p. 11  2 3 4

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