Futures Always In Question

Image: Maxime Le Conte des Floris

Thursday 20th July, 2017

Richard Tutton and Rebecca Coleman

The perils of editing a special issue of The Sociological Review called ‘Futures in Question: Theories, Methods, Practices’ have been made all too apparent by the events that have unfolded since we and our contributors submitted the first versions of the articles in late 2015. Our view of what the near future holds has been unsettled by political and social developments such as the election of President Donald Trump in the US, the UK’s referendum to leave the European Union, the failed coup in Turkey, and the ongoing crisis in Syria. Yet in other respects, what we anticipate unfolding in this century remains the same: the threats of global warming still loom large in the form of widening cracks in the Antarctic ice shelf.

This special issue emerged out of a conference that we organized at Goldsmiths, London in September 2014, with the title ‘Futures in Question’. The conference itself was the final event in an ESRC Research Seminar Series on ‘Austerity Futures: Imagining and Materialising the Future in an “Age of Austerity”’ (2012-14). By involving a range of scholars from the social sciences, arts and humanities, our aim was to explore the contours of ‘the future’ in the current context of multiple financial, ecological and political crises.

As we observe, these crises have taken on new intensity in the past three years and what Evan Calder Williams calls the ‘apocalyptic fantasies of late capitalism’ seem even more vivid to us living in the West now than they did a short time ago. Trump’s chaotic Presidency and Brexit appear as slow-moving disasters with unclear outcomes. Furthermore, as we write, the prospect of another five years (at least) of austerity measures seems imminent, with the likelihood of the Conservative Party regaining power in the UK General Election in June 2017. As Williams argues, the crises that started about 2008 feel like terminal ones.

The questions that we asked ourselves at the start of this project - Would it be the case that the next generation would do better than the last? Could we still sign up to the idea of progress? Could we entertain utopian visions of a future in which, somehow, human beings overcome their difficulties and find an alternative way of living that does not involve capitalism? – appear to have greater urgency today.

Given recent events, as Ruha Benjamin says so forcefully, ‘the facts alone will not save us. Social change requires novel fictions that reimagine and rework all that is taken for granted about the current structure of the social world – alternatives to capitalism, racism, and patriarchy – are urgently needed’.

Our special issue represents a renewed intellectual commitment to a rigorous interdisciplinary engagement with the future, working with ideas developed in the context of sociology, geography, philosophy and design, as well as through areas that cut across them, including science and technology studies, visual culture, feminist theory, queer theory, and cultural theory.

It covers topics including the various futures indicated by securitised debt (Lisa Adkins), anti-microbial resistance (Nik Brown and Sarah Nettleton), and the ways in which ‘emergency’ is mobilised (Ben Anderson). It also examines theoretical and methodological modes of engaging with the future, from a revitalisation of the concept of ‘wicked futures’ (Richard Tutton) to a focus on interdisciplinary speculative methods (Mike Michael) and participatory arts projects (Rebecca Coleman).

In exploring the future in these ways, the special issue aims to both draw on and contribute further to the important ongoing work on futures by academics including Barbara Adam (e.g. Future Matters) and John Urry (e.g. What is the Future?) as well as connecting with a wider interest in temporality (e.g. Time, Time, Time and Community: A Scoping Study). It therefore seeks to engage with how “the future” is “a contested object of social and material action”.

An extended version of the ideas presented here can be found in the Introduction to the special issue.

Rebecca Coleman in Senior Lecturer in the Department of Sociology at Goldsmiths.

Richard Tutton is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Sociology at Lancaster University.

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