A Conversation with Lisa Adkins and Mike Michael About Social Futures

What can the social sciences contribute to our understanding of the future?

Lisa Adkins: In the very broadest of terms the social sciences can contribute an understanding that the future – its form, its texture, its promises, its possibilities, its capacities, its relations to the present and the past – is neither inevitable nor fixed but is a matter of social and historical organisation. This is, of course, not to think naively that futures can simply be enacted via engineering or design strategies in the now or to call up a clichéd social constructionism. Instead, it is to say that what the future is, and what the future might do, at any particular moment cannot be assumed and thus should always be a matter of investigation. E.P. Thompson followed this kind of procedure when he showed that the futures afforded by a society ordered and dominated by industrial capitalism were predictable, knowable and standardized. They were, moreover, organized in that way because of a time universe which arranged everyday life so as to maximize the productivity of populations in regard to the generation of surplus from labour power. He showed, in other words, that a specific organisation of the temporal form of the future was hardwired to industrial capitalist growth.

More recently, it has become clear that far from standardized, knowable and predictable, the temporal form of the future is in flux. For some social scientists this flux has been treated as a sign that in the finance-led neoliberal present the temporal form of the future is being shut down. In my own work I have suggested, however, that such flux concerns a changing form of the future, one through which the productivity of populations is being maximized to generate surplus from the flows and movements of money. What these examples highlight is not only how futures must be understood in their specificity, but also how time does not stand in an external relation to societies. Instead, time operates as a key axis along which the key dynamics of societies are constituted and unfold. These examples highlight, in other words, that in their engagements with time the social sciences draw attention precisely to how futures are productive in terms of the dynamics and operations of societies and not neutral or benign. In my view, then, social scientists can contribute a unique (and perhaps counter-intuitive) understanding of futures: that they serve to bind people, spaces and things together.

Mike Michael: Of the numerous contributions the social sciences can make to our understanding of the future, the following three seem to me to be particularly important. Firstly, there is the critical engagement with the sociomaterial enactments of futures by various agencies and institutions in the here and now to affect the present in order to shape the future. Then there is the microsociological tracing of how local futures processually unfold: what are the potentialities entailed in everyday life and how might these become actual and begin to circulate? And finally, there’s the issue of how we as social scientists imaginatively engage with the future: Donna Haraway’s ‘Staying with the Trouble’ comprises one model of how we might navigate topologically between speculation and circumspection; Wilkie, Savransky and Rosengarten’s edited volume ‘Speculative Research’ provides several others.

What theoretical, methodological and practical challenges do the social sciences face in orientating itself to futures?

Lisa Adkins: I would say that the biggest challenge that the social sciences face today in orientating themselves to futures is a lack of serious recognition of the importance of the theorisation of time in regard to crafting such an orientation. In fact, I would say that in their engagements with futures the social sciences all too often acquiesce to a normative account of time, and especially to an account which assumes that the past should stand behind the present and the future should stand as a horizon of hope or possibility in relation to the now. Such normative assumptions regarding time have fuelled social scientific engagements with recent critical world events. The global financial crisis of 2007/08 and the post-financial crisis era, for example, have been repeatedly understood via such normative assumptions. They are explicitly in play in the hollow and erroneous claim that finance destroys the present via trades on the future.

The operations of such normative understandings have, moreover, had the effect of bypassing a serious engagement with the temporal landscape of finance and of finance society. This landscape is one in which pasts, presents and futures do not stand in a preset relation to each other but are subject to change. Resources for coming to grips with this landscape, I would suggest, are to be found outside of the mainstream of social science, and in particular are to be found in feminist theory and the philosophy and history of time. To orient itself to futures the social sciences, therefore, need to develop more robust theorisations of time fuelled by resources outside of its immediate contours and co-ordinates. To shore up its engagement with futures the social sciences need, in other words, to engage in interdisciplinary adventures with time.

Mike Michael: It goes without saying, there are many challenges that ‘orienting to futures’ pose to the social sciences, most obviously the intractable one that futures are futures! However, a couple strike me as especially intriguing. Social scientists rightly tend to focus on the futures pertinent to their own sub-disciplinary specialism (economic, biomedical, environmental, pedagogic, etc, etc). Similarly, other disciplines have their own substantive futures to deal with. At stake here is not only how we deal with this multiplicity of futures and their inter-relations, but also with the seeming multiplication of substantive futures – a future of proliferating futures. Secondly, as the preceding narrative of a future of proliferating futures evidences, ‘our’ thinking is often locked into well-worn patterns of temporality and futurity. We need to seek alternatives across disciplines, histories and cultures so that our models of the future themselves have a future.

How can studying futures help the social sciences develop?

Lisa Adkins: I would suggest that the study of futures is critical to the development of the social sciences today. This is not least because time is one of the central material axes along which contemporary societies are being reorganized. From labour, through money, to households such temporal reorganisation is in action. Indeed, in this respect, one might say that that the future of the social sciences in part turns on becoming far better attuned to this temporal reorganisation, including to the recalibration of futures which this reorganisation entails. Barbara Adam pointed out long ago that the social sciences (and especially the discipline of Sociology) have always been concerned with the future in as much as they tend to be oriented towards social change. My claim here is of a rather different order; namely, that in the face of time becoming a centrepiece of societal reorganisation, social scientists can no longer be content to hold the future as an aspirational plane. Rather than a surface for projecting hopes and end points, the future should instead form an object of social scientific study in and of itself. This future should, moreover, be one which is not imagined to operate at a distance from the present and the past, but always as one which is in motion.

Mike Michael: To study the future is, potentially, to expand the ‘social scientific imagination’ not least by attending to the practices and sensibilities of other disciplinary, cultural and historical traditions. In this way, the very idea of ‘studying the future’ is subject to collective scrutiny and speculation.

Lisa Adkins is Professor of Sociology in the School of Humanities and Social Scientists at The University of Newcastle Australia. She contributed Speculative futures in the time of debt to our recent special issue Futures in Question.

Mike Michael is Professor of Anthropology and Sociology at the University of Exeter. He contributed Enacting Big Futures, Little Futures to our recent special issue Futures In Question.

Originally posted 2nd August 2017

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