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date: 20 April 2024

Futures Research in Anticipatory Anthropologylocked

Futures Research in Anticipatory Anthropologylocked

  • J.A. English-LueckJ.A. English-LueckSan Jose State University
  •  and Miriam AveryMiriam AveryIndependent Scholar


Anticipatory anthropology can be variously seen as a mode of inquiry that occupies the space between the disciplines of applied anthropology and future studies. Philosophically, the anticipatory approach has deep roots in applied anthropology since the purpose of studying human experience is to improve the quality of human life in the future. Traditional anthropological approaches to data collection and analysis, however, have been much more focused on past life or present experiences. In the mid-20th century, anthropologists began to employ more explicit future orientations, paralleling efforts in other social sciences to make sense of the post-World War II milieu. Prominent anthropologist Margaret Mead was in the forefront of that effort. People engaged in cultural forecasting, thinking about human futures, resist making predictions. Prediction assumes that one cultural path will create the future, but anthropologists recognize human agency, and people’s ability to choose and make different futures. Academic or practicing anthropologists who actively consider future actions and consequences anticipate alternatives for various possible futures. These anthropologists map the implications of that flow logically or emotionally from observable practices.

In the 1960s and 1970s, a cohort of scholars began to develop methodologies for exploring possible cultural futures. During the same period, an interdisciplinary endeavor, the emerging field of future studies, began to produce a body of literature, a series of conferences, and international organizations. While a minority were interested in the long-term survival of the species, most futures research was focused on near or midterm futures, ranging from five to thirty years into the future. Anthropologists made unique contributions to this larger body of future studies.

Much of the literature generated in classic future studies was based on North American or European perspectives, often from an elite point of view. The logic of forecasting was largely quantitative and based on a set of assumptions that could be deeply culture bound. Anthropologists sought to decenter the presumption that the future could only be made by elite actors in developed and democratic nations. Anthropologists deliberately sought out non-elite people of diverse backgrounds, tapped into their imaginations, and delved into the choices they would make to shape the future. Research in anticipatory anthropology has been closely associated with the emerging field of user experience, as both sets of scholars seek to understand the consequences of technological change on ordinary people.

Drawing on notions from cognitive anthropology, anthropologists who employed a futures orientation posited that individual cultural actors imagined different futures and acted to create or avoid those projections. If you asked people about the futures they hoped for and the futures they feared, they would reveal the underlying affective logic that shaped those visions.

Much of the work in anticipatory anthropology has involved discerning the impacts of emerging technologies on social life. As interest in the anthropology of science and technology has grown, academic scholars and practitioners used the techniques of anticipatory anthropology to reveal both the intended and unintended consequences of technological use on social life. In particular, the interests of anticipatory anthropologists have converged with self-identified design anthropologists, since both look at present behaviors to imagine the future use of a service, product, architectural form, or landscape.

In addition, the global social problems of environmental degradation and resource use, which so captivated the imaginations of futurists in the late 20th century, continue to be of concern. Sensitively documenting and forecasting the impacts of climate change, global disruption, automation, and biotechnologies on vulnerable populations comprised some of the emerging frontiers of anticipatory anthropology that will call to a new generation of scholars and practitioners.


  • Applied Anthropology

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