What Makes Social Futures Robust? Towards a Processual View of How Social Actors Jointly 'Organize Uncertainty


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What Makes Social Futures Robust? Towards a Processual View of How Social Actors Jointly 'Organize Uncertainty
Walter Timo
in preparation for: Sociological Theory
Since the 2008-09 global financial crisis, research in economic sociology and political economy has gradually but fundamentally called into question previous truths and assumptions about the nature (and limits) of ‘economic rationality’. The failure not only of financial market actors, but also various other institutions armed with state-of-the-art economic knowledge (such as central banks, regulatory agencies, risk managers), has triggered a far-reaching rethinking of the foundations and possibility of ‘rationality’ as based on fore-knowledge of (even aggregate) future states of the world that would permit an ‘objective’ calculation and weighing of possible future outcomes or consequences of particular courses of action. Instead, there has been a ‘problem shift’ towards approaching future-oriented (economic and other) social action from the angle of the openness of the future and the uncertainty this creates for actors (deciding on rational courses of conduct) in the present.
Although this problem shift has opened up new lines of inquiry that have shed new light on the nature of rationality and how social actors rely on various forms of sense-making to orient their present conduct towards the future, it has also produced a number of novel conceptual and theoretical problems. At the heart of many of these debates has been the idea of the uncertainty of the future, often traced back to Knight. In this view, the future is fundamentally open as it depends on present anticipations of how it will unfold – and therefore, future states of the world can never be known objectively as they will depend on the meanings through which actors in the present project and understand the future. This line of reasoning (that has been given an influential formulation by Beckert) thus replaces knowledge with meaning as the basis for rationality when it comes to future-oriented action: social actors are no longer seen to be guided by knowledge of the future, but instead the future is produced (performed or enacted) by shared meanings, ‘imaginary’ projections of the future that instruct present conduct and thus determine the future produced through the courses of actions instructed by them.
As I show in this paper, despite its intuitive appeal such a conception of future-oriented conduct as anchored in ‘imaginary’ projections or visions of the future is problematic for two related reasons. First, by inserting meaning instead of knowledge in what remains a fundamentally epistemic conception of rationality (as flowing from shared representations of the future, whether true or fictional), it turns meaning into a “metaphysical substance that precedes its expression” (J. Butler). Such a semantic view of meaning as a sort of convention that guides the performative production of future(s), rhetorics of ‘fictionality’ or ‘imagination’ aside, maintains the notion of rationality as a correspondence between an epistemic state and the conduct it instructs. In conceiving of meaning as a (fictional) surrogate for (true) knowledge, it becomes impossible (or at least, exceedingly difficult) to conceive of meaning (as recent work in pragmatic and relational sociology have pointed out) as embedded in social relations, as a relational and processual accomplishment of social pragmatics rather than an epistemic or cognitive abstraction from unfolding practice.
This means, secondly, that it becomes exceedingly difficult to explain both how social learning occurs: if future-oriented conduct is embedded in ‘fictional’ or ‘imagined’ futures that are subject to continuous change, as Beckert for instance suggests, in what ways can social actors transcend these fictions and learn about the world in which they are acting? And, relatedly, if future-oriented action is based on convention, does the resilience of particular courses of action depend (only) on the endogenous strength of social convention? How and when do conventions (and imaginaries) then fail?
To address these problems, in this paper I propose an alternative conception of futurity and future-oriented social conduct as a processual-relational, and thus pragmatic or praxeological accomplishment. Instead of introducing meaning as a deus-ex-machina for resolving the ‘fictional’ problem of epistemic uncertainty of an open future, I propose that rationality-under-uncertainty is better understood as an ongoing accomplishment (in the sense of Garfinkel) that emerges endogenously from social relations. To do so, I draw together a variety of social-theoretical sources and concepts. I draw a parallel between future-oriented conduct and the notion of performativity as developed originally in linguistics to propose a conception of rationality in performative (rather than epistemic) terms. I then bring together insights from relational sociology (in particular, drawing on Harrison Wight’s work) with reflections on the nature of signification and the nature of sense and reference (building on Frege, Quine and Peirce) to articulate a processual-relational ontology of the future as the object of an activity system whose meaning emerges endogenously from the relational practices that instantiate it across an interrelated set of conducts. This allows me conceive of ‘rational’ conduct in terms of the praxeological coherence of sequences syntactic operations endogenous to assemblages of social practice/relations, as an “operation” rather than rooted in “shared agreement” (Garfinkel). Finally, I link insights from Garfinkel and Weick with Hutchins’ studies of distributed cognition to discuss the conditions under which the endogenous production of futures and futurity can yield learning (or ignorance), breaks down (or remains resilient) – and thus produce robust vs. fragile forms of future-oriented rationalities.
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27/08/2023 15:32
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