Why Futures Studies Needs a Theory Base

This paper explores how a PhD in Futures Studies, if refocused on theory-building could create anticipatory theories across the social sciences, and buttress the work of a new generation of futurists.


Futures studies offers a unique perspective to the social sciences. Its disciplinary matrix invites both researchers and practitioners to generate the most useful information about the future, in view of instability, change and uncertainty (Kristof, 2006). Futurists share common methods, including environmental scanning research, trend analysis, the Delphi method, scenario planning, times series extrapolation, computer-modeling and systems-thinking (Bell, 1996a). Some suggest that futures research has the potential to be uniquely transdisciplinary, as a social science that aims to solve real world problems (Balsiger, 2004; Klein, 2004; van der Duin, 2007).

Despite this potential, futures studies remains a puzzle in higher education (Dator, 2002). It has garnered a reputation for grand thinking, in part due to the reputation of late 20th century social or technological forecasters, such as Herman Kahn, Daniel Bell, Alvin Toffler, or John Naisbitt (Cornish, 2004). Academic futurists continually debate its viability, its philosophical constructs (Rescher, 1998; Aligica, 2003), and its life in the academy (Bell, 2002; Marien, 2002). If asked, most would recognize futures studies has become a professional practice since the 1960s. Fewer, however, would claim it has flowered into a full social science discipline. This is despite the track record of journals or professional societies such as the World Futures Studies Federation or Futures journal.

Ladder of Knowledge

Theory is the missing rung in Futures Studies

Futures studies has witnessed enormous gains in the 1990s by defining its knowledge base. To achieve further disciplinary rigor, it must now define its theory base through middle range analysis, the classical task of the PhD. In contrast to top-down grand-theory or bottom-up grounded-theory, this paper will argue that middle-range theoretical models will be useful over the next decade to develop the discipline. Middle-range models are efficient tools to relate theory to data, to link concepts to each other, and to balance the abstract with the concrete to formulate hypotheses and build a disciplinary home (Pinder & Moore, 1980).

In order to refocus the PhD in Futures Studies, this paper will: (a) review how the matrix of futures studies has grown over the past two decades, (b) inquire whether a four-step ladder might help the discipline take its next step, (c) consider how a focus on middle range theory might strengthen anticipatory theory across the spectrum of the social sciences, and (d) discuss the role of the PhD in futures studies as building an integrated theory base, both derived from other fields, yet also uniquely generated to undergird foresight practice.

[This paper was presented at the World Futures Studies Federation in 2007, but remains unpublished. You can download the slides below.]


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