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date: 03 June 2020

Futures Research in Anticipatory Anthropology

Summary and Keywords

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.

Keywords: anticipatory anthropology, futures studies, design anthropology, science, technology and society

Overview of Anticipatory Anthropology

Anticipatory Anthropology as a Mode of Inquiry

The interdisciplinary field of future studies, which includes anticipatory anthropology, has emerged in the last fifty years, since 1970, as a discrete intellectual field (Bell 1997, xix). A number of disciplines participate in this endeavor including social and biological sciences and applied fields such as business, engineering, education, and design. Within anthropology, anticipatory anthropologists are less part of a discernable subfield than they are academics and practitioners who frame research questions and approach data with the future consciously and explicitly in mind.

Many of the self-identified anticipatory anthropologists who defined anthropology’s participation in futures studies were strongly committed to the notion that individual people interacting together in communities created cultural constructs, including constructs of the future. This intellectual commitment to both human agency and cultural imagination formed the basis of inquiry into cultural futures. If people using mechanisms shaped by enculturation and socialization imagined a finite range of potential futures, reacted to those imagined futures, and then enacted those futures, then anthropologists could query that process through observation and interview. In this way anticipatory anthropologists, such as Robert Textor, could build on Margaret Mead’s interest in shaping optimistic futures (e.g., her public activism on gender roles) to create a methodology for querying futures. Textor notes that “anticipatory anthropology is seen here not as a special subfield of anthropology, but rather as a mode of gathering and using available data, information and knowledge to assess future possibilities” (Textor 2005, 2).

Futures professionals in both anthropology and applied disciplines share a systems perspective (Bell 1997, 30; Miller 2018, 64). This analytical approach involves breaking a system into its component elements and carefully documenting the relationship between those elements. This analytical discipline allows scholars to track how the elements and their relationships change over time, driven by feedback loops that amplify or minimize change. Natural selection, behavioral modification, and cultural ecology are examples of fields that use such an approach. System science, which emerged in the mid-20th century, explores diverse examples that employed a form of causation that could be termed “selection by consequences” or “reciprocal causality” (Laland et al. 2011, 5012–5014; Skinner 1981, 501) This logic posits that the consequence of an action can influence future actions. It is the underlying logic of natural selection in biology, behavioral reinforcement and psychology, and the interaction of different social institutions in both sociology and social anthropology (see fig. 1). The logic of reciprocal causality emphasizes consequences, since those acts can in turn shape future acts. While the past is still important in shaping behavior, and behavior in the present is critical to observe, the future is the location of anticipated consequences. In other words, while social scientists can examine the present and look for historical antecedents, ignoring potential consequences in the future is perilous.

Futures Research in Anticipatory Anthropology

Figure 1. Anticipatory anthropology meets at the interface of anthropology, applied anthropology, futures studies, and the applied disciplines.

Created by J.A. English-Lueck and Miriam Lueck Avery.

Future studies, including anticipatory anthropology, must still ground forecasts in past trends, parsed through careful examination of the present. However, academic scholars and practitioners doing forecasting work must go beyond the facts. They must project potential consequences to be able to identify and manage the impacts of social change.

Anticipatory anthropologists use ethnographic observation and interviewing to look for the emerging consequences of policies, economic activities, the introduction of new technologies, and the behavior around those technologies, of new language and cultural practices. They do so by looking at immediate consequences of a new policy, behavior, or practice, and they especially seek the weaker signals of longer-term impacts, particularly those consequences which were never intended by the policymaker or innovator. One can think of this activity broadly as anthropologically informed forecasting or grounded anticipation.

One of the key objectives of this approach is to combine observations and imagination to anticipate change and then consider how to mitigate the consequences, particularly for the most vulnerable populations. Anthropologist Douglas Raybeck noted that engaging in systems analysis has the added benefit of directing “attention to causal loops in which a seemingly innocuous element may play a forceful role” (Raybeck 2000, 103–104). Raybeck took care to note that no element will play a determinative role, since to do so would be to invoke the logical fallacies of technological or cultural determinism, which are the potential logical vulnerabilities of the emphasis on causality in system thinking. The work of anticipation often involves careful documentation of stakeholders in a system, noting the diversity even within a category (e.g., “environmentalists” or “the oil company”), tracks the potential interactions between stakeholders, and identifies the early signs of the consequences of their acts. Catastrophes that fomented the 1970s environmental movement (e.g., the impacts of offshore drilling as a result of the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill) provided copious examples of feedback loops and unintended consequences (Maruyama 1978, 455).

In the 1960s and 1970s, anthropologists and non-anthropologists alike had noted that future studies and anthropology were natural allies. Both approaches were concerned with capturing and analyzing long durations of time. Particularly in American anthropology, where archaeology and then fashionable historical linguistics pushed human experience back millennia, scholars found it difficult to see the present as anything other than ephemeral. Moreover, the traditional writ of anthropologists to study “the other” reinforced suspicions of colonial ethnocentrism, so that as these anthropologists framed the future in their work, they veered away from a normative, that is, statistically generalized, view of humanity, especially when shaped by dominant European and North American cultural values. That dual concern with long-duration time frames and decentered perspectives shaped the emerging intellectual mode of anticipatory anthropology.

In the 1990s and 2000s, the rapid growth of the information technology industry precipitated a generation of anthropologists to the field of human–computer interaction (HCI) (Miller 2018, 8–15). Pioneers, including Lucy Suchman and Genevieve Bell, forged a path for applied anthropologists to anticipate the consequences of technologies and feed that back directly into the engineering and design of those technologies (Suchman 2011). By the 2010s, “design anthropology” is the most prevalent mode of applied practice of anticipating change in business through anthropological methodologies (Miller 2018, 78–81). EPIC, the Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference, began to run salons, tutorials, and webinars to reflect that interest in what was being called “ethnofutures.”

Anticipating Alternative Futures

Evidence of cultural models of change include signals drawn from artifacts, technologies, and built environments. For example, David Hakken closely examined the ways in which the personal computer entered workspaces and both reinforced existing work patterns and shaped new ones. He forecast both how such technologies would isolate individuals and create new opportunities for social relations within and between workplaces (Hakken 1999; 2000, 767–775). Anthropologist Hakken looked at social relations, physical spaces, and material culture to systematically imagine the multiple and sometimes contradictory impacts of a new technology.

Within that broader analytical context of recognizing change, anticipatory anthropologists developed specific techniques, such as using interview to elicit alternative scenarios to discern cultural values and cultural models of agency and change. The Ethnographic Futures Research (EFR) technique is a prime example of such an ethnographic interview. The central tenets of this technique are that the interviewer first selects an appropriate sample for the domain of the research question. If the domain is education, then the sample would consist of the various stakeholders that interact in an educational setting—policymakers, administrators, teachers, and students and their families. Within each sample, the anthropologist would make a determined effort to draw on people different in age, gender, ethnicity, and other demographic variables to enrich the perspectives gathered in interviews. During the ethnographic interview, the anthropologist sets up a conversation in which the person being interviewed is given the latitude to describe varied alternative futures in detail. The anticipatory anthropologist elicits details about varied future scenarios, each scenario set in a plausible imagined world characterized by the internal consistencies and contradictions humans typically experience in everyday life. The interviewer, after collecting background information, queries the person about his or her most optimistic, pessimistic, and probable scenarios of the future, constantly probing for detail (Textor 1977, 31). Practitioners of EFR interviewing are looking for “patterned perceptions and preferences with respect to possible and probable future cultures (or subcultures) for their society (or group)” (Textor 1989, 24). Anthropologist Robert Textor (fig. 2) advocated forecasting into midrange futures of twenty-five to thirty years, or one generation. Other practitioners, such as those at the Palo Alto Institute for the Future, whose use of alternative futures inspired Textor, forecast one decade into the future to illuminate processes of more rapid change, such as the impact of digital technologies.

Futures Research in Anticipatory Anthropology

Figure 2. Robert B. Textor.

Courtesy of the American Anthropological Association.

Futurists outside of anthropology have struggled to avoid culture-bound forecasts. Anthropologists have intellectual tools designed to decenter their thinking and see problems from other perspectives to help navigate the trap of ethnocentrism. Nonetheless, anthropologists who see the need to incorporate must also struggle with another intellectual trap, “tempocentrism,” the tendency to view the constraints of the present as self-evident. Textor suggests that anthropologists “cultivate the art of anticipation” (Textor 1995a, 464). To build such an intellectual discipline, anthropologists should cultivate a sense of long-term change by immersing themselves in history, consistently engage in grounded imaginative speculation of near future change, and stretch their imaginations with the arts of speculative and science fiction. Forecasting, the act of anticipating the future based on observative evidence, combines art and science to draw on both imagination and induction.

Applying Anticipatory Anthropology

Not surprisingly, much of the effort in anticipatory anthropology is applied, firmly embedded in a problem-solution framework (Strzelecka 2013, 263). The future is implicit in organizational planning, strategic and tactical goal setting, product and service design, and even ethnographic evaluation. These modes of anthropological application examine behaviors, practices, and policies, and anticipate their consequences. Attention to the latter means that the anthropologist engages in implicit or explicit forecasting, the act of anticipating alternative futures and creating narratives, frequently integrated scenarios, that describe those futures.

Figure 3 illustrates this technique as used by the Institute for the Future, asking experts and clients alike to imagine alternative outcomes from the same drivers and modeling that process with a shorthand icon. For example, if thinking about preventative health care, the most optimistic scenario may be to create a scenario of expansion, tracking the signal that prevention is emphasized in the Affordable Care Act in the United States and the growth of market-based preventative services in Europe. However, a constrained future would explore the signal that such services are limited to consumers with sufficient resources to access them, and behaviors would emerge that view preventative health care as a limited good. A collapse scenario would explore how people in a condition of collapse would cope and restructure. In that case, practitioners may look for signals in the practices of post-disaster conditions. The most challenging scenario to consider would be to think of transformational scenarios, since those scenarios would often be considering the weakest signals on the horizon. For example, if social movement advocates were successful in moving health care in the United States from the status of commodity to a human right, then the system would transform.

Futures Research in Anticipatory Anthropology

Figure 3. Envision alternative futures. Institute for the Future template.

Courtesy of the Institute for the Future.

It is not surprising that anticipatory anthropology has been concerned with changing organizations, such as schools or workplaces, closely considering the alternative impacts of different policies. Product and service designers who are anthropologists or work with anthropologists look closely at the impacts of a particular design by exploring “design fictions,” stories based on existing behavior set in the near-term future. Anthropologists engaged in international development or in evaluating the impact of a particular policy are engaged in implicit forecasting, documenting signals of change, and inferring future impacts. Indeed, unless an anticipatory anthropologist is engaged in the ancillary activity of writing science fiction, nearly all professional efforts will be applied with a social problem or client in mind.

History of Anticipatory Anthropology

Anthropological Interest in Futures Studies

Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, and the collection of social scientists involved in the cybernetics conferences organized between 1946 and 1953, often referred to as the Macy Conferences, prefigured the systems approach and the futures orientation that laid the foundation for anticipatory anthropology (Textor 2005, 8). In the 1940s and 1950s, they developed the fundamental mathematical logic of feedback systems and applied it to biological examples, primarily focusing on stabilizing negative feedback systems. That logic was particularly useful for controlling systems later used by engineers in computing. Gregory Bateson was a key architect in the second stage of exploration in which he took notions of positive feedback, where change was amplified over time, and applied it to psychological and anthropological examples (Maruyama 1978, 457). Margaret Mead, first in an essay published in 1971, and then later revised and reprinted in 1978, lamented that anthropology had much to offer to future studies, but had not done so. She indicated that anthropologists had key skill sets that could transform future studies, since they could incorporate a comparative perspective, which could sensitize futurists to the variety of human experience. Mead proposed that the close study of intergenerational relations illuminates how culture is learned and transformed, creating detail that can counter broad ethnocentric generalizations. She stressed that anthropologists have developed skills to work with complex behaviors and so would help forecasters avoid reducing causation to only a few variables. Examining systemic interaction among different aspects of a culture was the dominant analytical framework of the time. Finally, she framed culture as the product of historical processes, so that seeing the past, present, and imagining the future were intrinsic in a perspective that drew on “very, very, long runs” of time (Mead 1971; 1978, 3–5). The evolution of anticipatory anthropology grew out of an engagement with systems science and became increasingly intertwined with anthropological applications. Critical events, in both futures-oriented anthropology and futures studies writ large, defined the direction of anticipatory anthropology (see fig. 4).

Futures Research in Anticipatory Anthropology

Figure 4. Key events in Anticipatory Anthropology and Futures Studies.

By 1971, anthropologist and linguist Roger Wescott noted that the anthropology of the future had established itself in the intersection of future studies and anthropology as an “interdiscipline,” drawing on both futures studies and ethnography. Anthropologists of the future combined the futurist methodologies of brainstorming, the iterative interview of rounds of experts (i.e., the Delphi technique), and the detailed observation of creative arts with established ethnographic techniques (1971, 205). During the same decade, anthropologists made impassioned calls to link scholarship to social relevance, as evidenced in the book edited by Dell Hymes, Reinventing Anthropology (Hymes 1974). Anthropologist Luther Gerlach studied social movements such as the Black Power and environmental movements and carefully noted how participants were envisioning and working toward particular, if contested, futures. His careful study of movement participants revealed the power of social networks to work nearly invisible, but potent, change (Gerlach 1980, 77–78).

In the 1970s and 1980s, anthropologists flirted with cultural ecology, a systemic analytical approach that linked human values and the built world of material culture to environmental change. Cultural ecology draws on the systems logic that is at the heart of futures studies. The futures studies classic, The Limits to Growth, was a global environmental impact assessment (Meadows 1972). Interest in the future of the social and physical environment is inherent in the kinds of urban forecasts made by Dator and Riner (Dator 2002; Riner 2002). As cultural ecology became more theoretically sophisticated, incorporating the role of power and position, political ecological frameworks were used to contemplate future risk.

The Growth of Anticipatory Anthropology

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, the community of anthropologists working at the edges of future studies began to sculpt anticipatory anthropology. In 1980, in his presidential address to the American Anthropological Association, Paul Bohannan commented on the lack of undiscovered cultures to explore and then posited that the future comprises such discoverable territory for anthropologists. In a humorous account, he noted anthropologists can leverage two steps to create anthropological forecasting. First, ethnographers are able to identify, extrapolate, and document patterns. Second, they can apply that pattern to create scenarios illustrating what happens when trends continue, and illuminating alternatives should those trends not manifest. He reiterated the underlying logic of anticipatory anthropology that “to examine the future sensibly, we have to look at the past as its base” (Bohannan 1980, 508). By 1984, Marion Lundy Dobbert had coined the phrase “anticipatory anthropology” to encompass the discipline’s distinctive futures orientation (Razak, 2000, 71). Dobbert’s own work in peace studies focused on the way in which people create and understand their own possible futures. She eschewed pursuing a utopian agenda, preferring to identify those culturally appropriate and ethical social technologies, such as restorative justice, that would lead to a preferable future. She became a strong advocate of using EFR as a tool for discerning culturally appropriate values from the point of view of the people whose culturally constructed views were being elicited.

EFR is at its core an exercise in values clarification combined with projective interview techniques designed to elicit verbal and visual images of the future. The interview protocol was carefully detailed by Robert Textor. Textor formulated a sequence of interview questions structured to elicit optimistic, pessimistic, and probable scenarios. He underlined the importance of eliciting scenarios within the constraints of what is plausible, from the interviewees’ point of view. If interviewees posited seemingly unlikely scenarios but still considered them plausible, such perspectives were invaluable insights into their worldview. Textor also extensively discussed the way in which samples would be selected to understand both the perspectives of decision makers as well as the position of people who make small choices constrained by the powerful. Even in working with powerful decision makers in Thailand’s educational ministry or among Austrian national leaders, Textor was careful to situate their scenarios in the realities of their everyday lives (Textor 1995a, 463; 2009, 21). Textor applied his interview technique with engineers and educators in Silicon Valley, carefully parsing the values behind the creation of the microcomputer and its imagined use (Textor 1985, 11–14). Textor pioneered two use cases for the EFR approach. First, Textor’s choices echoed Rand’s and the Institute for the Futures’ “Delphi” interviews with experts and decision makers. This technique was based on collecting a sample of experts in a certain domain and then, in multiple rounds of interview, asking them to react to the most common responses. Textor elicited the diverse optimistic, pessimistic, and probable scenarios of critical leaders to reveal the cognitive maps they would possibly use to make decisions. The focus on thinking, on the creation of mental maps of the future, is a striking feature of Textor’s technique, which remained with people doing anticipatory anthropology. Second, since he was at Stanford University in the heart of Silicon Valley, he began exploring the impacts of technology among early adopters, and innovators would reveal the assumptions and values those creators implicitly held; values that would shape the technologies they made.

During the 1980s and 1990s, anthropologists began to apply EFR to various contexts. After retiring from Stanford University, Textor relocated to the Pacific Northwest and served two years as one of eighteen appointed “future vision commissioners” in the Portland metro area. Vision commissioners were charged with creating a fifty-year vision for the region that was to serve as a “basic moral document” to guide planning and development (Textor 1995b, 10). In a similar vein, political scientist and anthropological ally James Dator at the University of Hawaii, a seminal figure in social scientific future studies, generated alternative future scenarios in a seminar in Honolulu in 1970 sponsored by the Hawaiian governor, creating the Manoa school of futures studies (Dator 1971, 131–135; 2002, 1–2). Applied anthropologists involved in planning adapted Dator’s approach on the future of local and regional governance in the decades to come. Working with his students at Northern Arizona University, anthropologist Reed Riner created a long-term project to build ethnographically based alternative scenarios forecasting the year 2020 for the city of Flagstaff. Riner used surveys to mine five hundred random samples of community members’ visions of the future and conducted thirty EFR interviews with others, including media who helped shape the public narrative of the region’s future. His team then compiled multiple impact assessment scenarios. These scenarios were then compared and later subjected to verification and enhancement by testing their ethnographically grounded forecasts with observations (Riner 2002, 69–76).

J. A. English-Lueck combined the EFR technique with life histories to explore the visions of Chinese scientists and technologists as they imagined the next generation of Chinese science and technology. In her Silicon Valley Cultures Project, she queried Silicon Valley policymakers and innovators to elicit forecasts of the distinctive technological economy of Silicon Valley. While this work echoed Textor in that both scholars elicited visions of the future from decision makers, their sampling strategies differed. She foreshadowed “bottom-up” forecasting, in contrast to top-down approaches, by documenting the visions of the region as seen through the eyes of everyday workers, including those outside of high-tech (English-Lueck 1990, 6; 1997, 22; 2000, 763; 2017, 99; these works are the most explicit on using interview-based future scenarios in a larger ethnographic analysis). Ordinary people in their roles as citizens, sojourners, users, parents, and patients exert vision and agency in the choices they make throughout their lives.

Reconnecting with the Field of Futures Studies

In 2002, sociologist Wendell Bell, a leading figure in futures studies, noted that while many scholars incorporated futures perspectives, relatively few joined or actively created a scholarly community that self-identified as futurist practitioners. He opined that such a community would need a clear, if contested, identity and they would need to build an associated infrastructure—organizations, conferences, journals, and books to build a discipline. He hoped that the scholars and practitioners in this community would cite each other and create a body of knowledge that would become an “action science” (Bell 2002, 237–239). In futures studies writ large, this process took decades. In the anthropological futures communities, that scholarly reification has arguably not occurred. Instead, anthropological scholars and practitioners functioned in relatively informal interest groups. In the 1980s, an interest group formed, housed in the American Anthropological Association’s Council on Anthropology and education’s Committee for the Study of Cultural and Educational Futures. Their Journal of Cultural and Educational Futures, combined with the journal Anthro-Tech to become the short-lived Journal of Cultural Futures Research, was published between 1982 and 1985 (Riner 2002, 62–63). If anthropologists wanted to publish their explicitly future-oriented scholarship, they turned to the World Future Society’s journal, Futures. The network of people doing anticipatory anthropology was too small or too focused on practice to sustain a separate academic journal.

During the 1980s, networks of academics arose who joined to discuss the methodological and ethical implications of constructing cultural futures. Among them were the futures-leaning anthropological scholars Paul Bohannan, Reed Riner, James Funaro, Douglas Raybeck, Robert Tyzzer, Ben Finney, and Joel Hagen, who gathered near NASA Ames in Silicon Valley to consider the long-term future of humanity in space. They met with artists, science fiction authors, and NASA technologists and ran a thought experiment, conceived by Gregory Bateson, imagining a highly elaborated contact between humans and carefully constructed aliens. This group, Contact: Cultures of the Imagination, evolved into a “Leftcoast Future Society” (Riner 2002, 67). The conference became a place for speculative and futures-friendly anthropologists to meet, deliver papers, and develop scenarios of space exploration. This network created a venue to explore the nature of cultural evidence, exchange diverse methodologies for futures research, and develop techniques for decentering privileged presumptions. This group functioned as a salon more than a think tank, but meetings generated people such as Reed Riner, who not only worked on his forecast of Flagstaff’s future, but developed strong ties with NASA and established the Journal of Cultural Futures.

In 2000, the Elsevier journal Futures published a theme issue on anticipatory anthropology. The journal’s multidisciplinary focus covers planning, policy, and the long-term futures of cultures and societies. Victoria Razak edited a volume that introduced anticipatory anthropology to the larger futures scholarly community. The issue included work from pioneer Marion Lundy Dobbert, who wrote about the future of anticipatory peace anthropologists. The special issue included other works by anthropologists who discussed the future of community, population control, technologically mediated work, and workplaces in Silicon Valley (English-Lueck 1990, 6; 1997, 22; 2000, 763; 2017, 99; these works are the most explicit on using interview-based future scenarios in a larger ethnographic analysis). Just as this themed issue was establishing anticipatory anthropology to the community of futurists, “The Robert B. Textor and Family Prize for Excellence in Anticipatory Anthropology” was granting credibility to scholars in the American Anthropological Association. Established through an endowment by Robert Textor, with a matching grant from Motorola, this annual prize was designed to encourage the explicit use of an anticipatory approach in anthropological scholarship and practice (Textor 2003, 526). David Hakken was the first awardee, acknowledged for his consideration of the impact of digital technologies on the workforce (1999). Subsequent awardees read as a tour de force of the anthropology of science and technology, with concomitant implications for the future.

Incorporating Critical Theory and Practice

The structural systems approach was a distinctly modernist approach, focused on observation, analysis, and model building. By the 21st century, many cultural anthropologists had shifted their intellectual tools toward a postmodern approach, one that rejected stable categories and held all cultural phenomena to be contingent and in flux. Cultural anthropologists and cultural studies scholars considered positionality, the relationship between the investigator and the researched population, to be critical to how academic renditions of reality are created. Academics so trained used analytical approaches borrowed from the humanities. Cultural studies and cultural anthropological academics searched for metaphors and talked about cultural landscapes as a product of the imagination. The notion of culture as a function of the imagination, a fictive creation of human interaction, is very similar to the complex, dynamic, projected vision captured in the EFR technique. although these two approaches evolved from different intellectual traditions. Both the structural and model-driven and more subtle, ever-shifting visions of the future are rooted in the notion that people in diverse positions throughout society will create different futures to embrace or reject, according to their perspectives. The role of power is emphasized in contemporary analyses of future visions. In his 2013 work, The Future as Cultural Fact: Essays on the Global Condition, Arjun Appadurai draws on diverse aspects of postcolonial Indian life and considers the role of capitalism, risk, and design in “materializing” the future. As illustrated by “disaster capitalism,” global values and institutions possess diverse local understandings of risk. These local understandings interact with global regimes of diagnosing problems and accounting for the solutions. Both processes are intimately intertwined with stories about the future (Appadurai 2013, 295).

Appadurai’s call to the discipline is parallel, but converging with the core community of practitioners and academics who consider the future an object of analysis. The next generation of such anthropologists, especially ones focused primarily on academic analysis, is much more likely to resonate with Appadurai’s understanding of how people imagine and act on the future than they would on notions rooted in more traditional ideas of cultural ecology and cognitive anthropology.

Appadurai’s challenge to theorize the social scientific study of the future is shared with the sister disciplines of psychology, sociology, and political science. Psychology, in the midst of a neuroscientific revolution, grapples with neuroscience and the conceptualization of prospection, the cognitive ability to consider the future. Martin Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association, calls for clinicians to revise one of their foundational premises. Much of psychological thought has been focused on the past, on memory, and little attention has been paid to those cognitive processes involved in imagining the future. Seligman and his colleagues propose paying more attention to humans as prospectors, organisms that construct “an evaluative landscape of possible acts and outcomes” that influence their actions (Seligman et al. 2013, 120). Sociologist Roberto Poli suggests that social scientists “turn their sciences upside down and reshape them from primarily past-oriented societies to primarily future-oriented ones.” The past is not forgotten but is incorporated into a force that people use as information about possible futures (Poli 2014, 15–16). Poli calls for a “discipline of anticipation” in which social scientists foster “futures literacy” (2014, 17). Such literacy would require that social scientists actively seek to explain processes of anticipatory knowledge creation, not just memories of the past or processes of the present, and apply their knowledge of how people approach future events in their academic research and social scientific application. This futures literacy would require familiarity with how anticipation and prospection work, and even more importantly, the ability to apply that comprehension to solving social issues. Social scientists, including psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists, would more consciously build the body of theory that supports the practice of anticipatory intervention, the act of consciously making the future.

Anticipatory Anthropology and Technology Forecasting

In ethnography and anthropological design practice, much of theory building has taken place in the area broadly known as science, technology, and society studies (STS). The anthropology of science and technology is a late arrival to an interdisciplinary field dominated by history, sociology, and philosophy. Anthropologists studying science and technology have distinguished themselves by creating a particular niche, one that is cross-cultural, rich in observational detail, and theorized with close attention to perspective and power. Anthropologists have created a distinct niche within STS as they have drawn on a long history of looking at material culture, culturally specific knowledge realms (i.e., ethnoscience), traditional medicine and biomedical science, biological adaptation, and the social impact of technology, In the late 20th century, anthropologists began to study science and technology in earnest and take part in interdisciplinary STS conversations (Hess 1997, 151).

Anthropologists who study technology employ the logic of anticipation, whether they are studying the “laboratory as a village” or parsing the impact of technological innovation, design, testing, and consumer use. Anthropologists analyzing the cultural logic of innovation must think about the future, since the incipient technologies they are studying are designed to change the physical and social environments of the users. Practitioners, such as those doing user experience research, have found it fruitful to focus on the design, production, and initial adoption of particular technologies to understand what the innovators were thinking as they developed a concept into a concrete object in the world. Often this investigative approach means taking a close look at the social organization of government and university laboratories, corporate research and development spaces, and start-ups. Anthropologists who are observing and eliciting the inner workings of the point of creation can see what futures the creators were imagining. Often this initial vision is later contrasted to the futures that consumers imagine as they use the nascent product or service. Anthropologists in this line of research often document the distinct professional niches—different kinds of scientists and engineers—that must interact when creating a new technology. These scholars of science and technology place the research cultures they study in a larger political economy, since policy and potential profit shape the priorities of research and development venues (Hess 1997, 162). This brand of analysis is particularly apparent in the anthropological study of computing and biotechnology.

David Hakken took a close look at the way in which agency and images of the future influenced the design and implementation of computing in the late 20th century. Drawing on his expertise in the history of labor movements in which preservation of the human body is a central concern, he urged anthropologists not to engage in the kind of abstraction in which cyberspace exists apart from human experience. Anthropologists should remember that humans with actual bodies and lives interact with technologies, which also exist in the physical world. In his examination of the academic discourses around computing, Hakken cautioned anthropologists not to fall into the trap of what he calls “computopian” visions, that is, uncritically forecasting computing as the solution to all social ills, a trap he identified as a pitfall in the sociology of technology and among futurists overall (Hakken, 1999, 246n).

Charlotte Linde provides an excellent example of anthropological and linguistic analysis of technology in her 2006 article, “Learning from the Mars Rover Mission: Scientific Discovery, Learning, and Memory.” As an in-house anthropologist at NASA Ames, Linde was tasked with an interesting problem. Unlike the flurry of short-lived start-ups that surrounded her in Silicon Valley, NASA missions could last decades. She could safely postulate that very detailed and specific practices would need to be remembered for forty years. The lab needed to figure out how to store and preserve knowledge that existed only in the practices of its engineers and in shorthand form in written notes, the bits of intelligence that lived in conversations and small adjustments and workarounds. NASA was already an engineering worksite that documented more heavily than most. Even so, engineers who had solved particular software problems may not have documented tacit knowledge that they did not realize they possessed. That lack of documentation would not be problematic if the engineer were still around to answer questions and could remember the pertinent information in sufficient detail. The challenge was to create new work practices in which tacit information would also be documented and stored in such a way as to be accessible decades hence. Practices and technologies would need to be adjusted to capture future workplace learning so that the details of institutional memory did not disappear (Linde 2006, 90–102). In this case, anticipation was built into the technological dilemma.

Rabinow and Dan-Cohen, in their 2005 book, A Machine to Make the Future: Biotech Chronicles, document conversations among the technologists in a genomic company with potential to yield diagnostic applications in biomedicine. Diagnosis, as in the illustration of NASA’s institutional memory, is an inherently future-facing technological process. Biomedical diagnosis limits the state of knowledge about the present in order to prognosticate outcomes more effectively. Genomics companies had a quandary. They needed to rapidly replicate biological processes, but that procedure is lengthy and difficult. To reduce time and cost, genomics companies needed to replicate biological processes using computing technologies that mimic them, thereby quickly identifying health risks through genetic testing. The company Rabinow was studying, Celera Diagnostics, was pioneering the use of digital mimicry to create alternative genetic and microbiological futures. As Rabinow put it, they were creating a machine to make the future (Rabinow and Dan-Cohen 2005, 2–3). Similarly, Michael Fortun’s book, Promising Genomics: Iceland and deCODE Genetics in a World of Speculation, tracks a bio-dot-com charged with creating a biogenetic database leveraging the unique characteristics of the genetically “isolated” island nation of Iceland. This entrepreneurial effort was an exercise in speculation, another practice that belongs in the realm of the future. Fortun explores the nature of technological “promise,” examining the economic, legal, and social constraints such promises entail. His overarching research questions asked, “What kinds of statements about the future are made in the territories of genomics, what kinds of force do they exert, and what kinds of effects do these statements have?” (Fortun 2008, 4, 10).

Other future-oriented works in the anthropology of technology focus on the adoption and transformation of particular technologies in a consuming public. Elly Teman’s book, Birthing a Mother: The Surrogate Body and the Pregnant Self, illustrates this approach. Rather than focus on the creation of in vitro fertilization technologies, she looks at the cultural practices that have grown around surrogacy and in vitro fertilization in Israel. Since Jewish identity is intrinsically ascribed, that is, you are born into your culturally defined status, surrogacy poses numerous legal, ethical, and religious dilemmas. The interpretation of these technologies by specialists—some medical, others religious—will affect the future status of biological mother, birth mother, and child (Teman 2010). By looking at the implications of the impact of a technology, this exemplar in the anthropology of science and technology foreshadows the way in which anticipatory anthropology can be applied to real-world issues.

Applying Anticipatory Anthropology

Anticipation in Business and Organizational Studies

One way of using anticipatory anthropology is to employ it in business and organizational studies. By looking at modes of production and analyzing the future orientation of various stakeholders, business anthropologists can understand stakeholder motivations and practices in a new way. Marietta Baba described this form of interdisciplinary practice as the “ethnographically informed design of services, products, and systems” (2006, 108).

This approach to looking at the narratives of production is also illustrated by Elizabeth Fox’s research on discourses of the future in the production of Mongolian cashmere. In her research on post-socialist factory production, Fox notes that women working in the factory motivate themselves with hopes and dreams for the future. An older cohort dreams of factory stability and eventual retirement, drawing on the future narratives generated in a socialist Mongolia. Younger workers, often migrants, view their employment in producing cashmere as temporary, a way station in which they make a future that includes returning to the university. Mongolian managers who had hired Japanese consultants to help them “plan” imagined that they could extend their control farther into the future, at least a year. The work of negotiating these constructed futures reflected the social organization of the cashmere factory, which in turn reflected broader social changes (Fox 2015, 78, 85–90).

The narratives that are created about the future inform the choices made by decision makers within organizations. Wiedman and Martinez look closely at the strategic planning inherent in creating a new medical school in a university. They discovered that the goal-setting exercise that is part of any such strategic planning fundamentally shifts the cognitive schema, the way people think, and the narratives they use in assessing their own success (Wiedman and Martinez 2017, 272).

Anthropologists who want to employ futures thinking in their application have been able to examine the inception, planning processes, and subsequent evaluation metrics to parse how the future is used to mold the present in organizations, whether public or private. Anthropologists are beginning to occupy the roles of providing strategic insight or innovation planning to organizations. However, as is the case for many practicing anthropologists, the literature on this work is often proprietary and not in the public domain.

Anticipation in Design

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, applied anthropologists began to work in design, marketing, and user experience, the human-facing facets of technology consumption. The anthropology of science and technology has given practitioners some theoretical tools they can use to consider the production and consumption of emerging technologies. This attention to the impact of technology has opened up career opportunities for anthropological practitioners to bring the future into their analyses. Anthropologists can bring future impacts into human-centered design, innovation forecasting, and strategic planning, as well as marketing and user-experience work. Practitioners have found such work in places such as IBM, Google, LinkedIn, IBM, and Intel. As information technology sectors matured, it became increasingly clear that users, whether they were internal as clients or ultimate end users, were the key to market success. Technological and design features needed to mesh with human expectations and practices. In the world of high-tech, the two professions most attuned to human experience include ethnographically inclined designers and the emerging field of user-experience professionals. The latter category embraces social psychologists, specialists in computer–human interaction, and ethnographers.

The confluence of design and anthropology centered early on the contested practice of ethnography, a single word describing practices of different granularities and ethical mores (Miller 2018, 9–11). The maturing of design as an integrative discipline (Miller 2018, 48) facilitated this convergence.

Anthropologists in particular excel in identifying emerging practices and in identifying a complex ecosystem of expectations by capturing narratives from diverse populations. This skill, one which Mead identified in her assessment of anthropological assets in forecasting, was by the early 2000s proving to a useful tool for evaluating new technologies. People use and adapt to new technologies, producing the “weak signals” of new cultural practices that forecasters harvest and communicate to clients. Consumers create narratives about their expectations of a new product or service, imagining new social worlds that include this product or its variation.

Design anthropologists listen to these narratives, observe how people rethink the purpose of the product or service, and ask them about the imagined space in the future in which this product is integrated into their social lives. The kind of work that is done in this forecasting is very similar to the work of human-centered designers for developing ways of using and analyzing their data that depend less on the past but are informed by images of the future.

Dunne and Raby’s 2014 book, Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming, has been a common reference point for converging conversations in design, futures studies, and ethnographic practitioners. They note that the problem-solving orientation of designers is often coupled with tacit optimism. Designers are working with the future, where their designs will be made manifest, but engagement with the future is often implicit, not intentional. The authors advocate a process in which designers deliberately generate alternative futures, possible scenarios, to develop objects that will be integrated into future people’s social lives (Dunne and Raby 2014, 2–3). These scenarios will unfold as stories, or “design fictions,” that help the designer engage with the object’s users to clarify what futures are possible, and more importantly, preferable. The goal is not to create a prediction of the future, but just as in the methodologies of anticipatory anthropology, to explore possibilities that may plausibly unfold. Dunne and Raby are particularly committed to the notion that design can engage citizen consumers to “nudge” future behavior. They note that design can modify our behavior by nudging us “to make choices that someone, usually a client organization, would like us to make” (Dunne and Raby, 2014, 160). Such client organizations often imagine the designer, like the ethnographer, to be the conscience of the project, closely considering the social impacts of the object or service.

As Christine Miller notes in Design + Anthropology, anthropologists are drawn to the field of design as a part of broader change in which many anthropologists repositioned from observers of cultures to agents of cultural transformation. In tracing the history of the convergence of design and anthropology, she notes the ethical, practical, and theoretical points of friction (2018, 57). Anthropology’s practice of reflexivity and self-criticism for the colonial roots of the discipline sits uneasily with the “nudge” design of Dunne and Raby’s futures. But as agents of transformation, the modes of inquiry tied to anticipation and imagination of possibility prove precisely the tools needed to practice constructively.

“An expansive ethnographic practice requires an extended role of the researcher as participant, facilitator, and interventionist in the process of change and transformation (Halse and Boffi 2016). In the mode of participatory design, this not only requires creating new ways to draw out and articulate ‘the possible,’ but also to explore ways to facilitate and guide dynamic transformative action” (Miller 2018, 60). Indeed, Miller posits “future orientation” and “emergent potentiality” as key principles by which design anthropological practice can be recognized. The Design Anthropological Futures Conference, a set of events in 2014 and 2015, sought to codify these principles among “holism, transdisciplinarity, performance, critical, collaborative, and iterative.”

Design anthropologists practicing anticipation collect ethnographic information but resist being pigeonholed as data collection specialists. Forming ethnographic data into vignettes, “bottom-up” rather than top-down forecasts based on the experience of actual people, is a primary communication mode of anthropologically informed forecasting in the context of actual product, service, and policy design. In strategic planning contexts, these scenarios may be tuned to challenge normative patterns of executive decision-making. In product design contexts, these scenarios may be much more granular and support a funnel from many possible product directions to actual delivered product.

Experiential Forecasting and Provocative Artifacts

From this fruitful collaboration with design, one of the tasks of anthropologists practicing anticipation in business is to create a “diegetic prototype,” an object designed to illuminate the world of a particular future (Lindley et al. 2014, 237, 241). Social scientists, including anthropologists, at the Institute for the Future create “artifacts from the future,” which are integrated into scenarios presented to clients. Those artifacts draw on observations collected through a variety of methods, including ethnography. The visualization of a future, drawing on photographic images, art, and performance, is an integral part of the storytelling inherent in anticipatory anthropology. The incorporation of visual and tactile media is essential to communicating stories effectively.

For example, in working with the Google Food Lab, an assemblage of multidisciplinary food scholars and professionals thinking about the future of food, English-Lueck and Avery were charged with creating strategic learning materials. The curriculum and activities had to be useful to both chefs and public health professions to create a conversation that embraced different values and objectives. Their project, “Farms to Firms to Families,” collected visual images, ethnographic observations, and interviews—which incorporated elements of EFR—to identify discrete sets of values among people who produced, prepared, consumed, and shared the food consumed in corporate cafés. Insights gleaned from the data were transformed into three near-future scenarios: utopian, pragmatic, and speculative settings in which different people would make different choices about food production, preparation, and consumption practices based on the way they valued sustainability. Participants and leaders could use these scenarios and the artifacts generated within these scenarios to help them make choices about what foods to grow, cook, and consume consistent with the mission of the Google Food Lab (English-Lueck and Avery 2014, 36–49).

In another case, Watts-Englert and her team were looking at the future of mobile and remote work, drawing on ethnographic information to create experiential prototypes: physically constructed environments where new interfaces and workflows were modeled at life scale. These prototypes helped their clients envision what work may look like in the future by embodying ideas about what it would be like to work at home with remote team members. This tactile experience helped the anthropologists think through their data about workflows and communicate more effectively to their clients (Watts-Englert et al. 2012, 150). Such prototypes function as an “enchanted artifact that entraps and transmits an innovative sensation.” The innovative vision is not just a forecast but a practice that guides organizational practices (Lex 2016, 230–223). In “The Experiential Turn,” Stuart Candy and Jake Dunagan argue that experiential forecasting, a particular intersection with future studies and design, realizes the promise of pre-experiencing a Dator-style alternative future. This experienced future could be constructed from artifacts forming an installation or by finding an ethnographic space to visit (Candy and Dunagan 2016).

While there is some evidence that forecasts can alter discourse and practices in organizations, anthropologists seeking to influence business processes through anticipating consequences have found it difficult to assess their impact retrospectively. The time scales involved in social and cultural forecasting, while still human, are much longer than the quarterly drive for measurable change in private sector organizations.

Anticipation in Public Policy

Anticipation has had measurable impact in public policy through demographic forecasts. The inherently quantitative forecasts are intertwined with qualitative interpretations about growing populations. Malthusian forecasts of the dangers of overpopulation extend back into the 19th century (Bashford and Chaplin 2016). Narratives of the teeming masses and the dangers they pose were integral to the cautionary tales of social Darwinism (Clark 2000, 737). One of the most famous forecasts in classic futurism was Donella Meadows’ The Limits to Growth (Meadows 1972). This report, made for the Club of Rome, a pioneering group of futurists motivated by species survival, was one of the first to make use of computer-generated alternative scenarios. Meadows forecast a bleak set of alternative futures in which systems collapse would be inevitable by 2100 (Meadows 1972). Nardi, a notable anticipatory anthropologist, comments on how difficult it is to judge the influence of such globally scaled computer simulations. Sweeping forecasts have been most useful in creating a conversation among futurists and anticipatory anthropologists about how such forecasts were created and which variables make a difference (Nardi 1980, 51).

The controversial The Limits to Growth study, however, did have a significant impact, although obliquely. In her 2008 masterpiece of bureaucratic ethnography, Susan Greenhalgh carefully examined the antecedents to China’s One Child Policy. At the time forecasts were emerging from the Club of Rome, Chairman Mao Zedong repudiated the studies as blatantly neocolonial. Chinese social scientists were not engaged in the effort to interpret the studies or to apply them. Instead, Song Jian, who designed Chinese missile guidance control systems, was persuaded by the mathematics of the feedback system outlined in the logic of the simulation. Song became one of the chief architects of the One Child Policy (Greenhalgh 2008, 131, 282, 348n). This 20th-century example, one of the great demographic experiments in recorded history, was indirectly influenced by forecasts made by futurists, although not anthropological ones. Ironically, this episode demonstrates the power of unintended consequences and is a cautionary tale that forecasts, once they are being used in the world, can themselves have impacts unforeseen by the forecaster.

One of the most critical emerging areas of anthropologically sensitive forecasting is in imagining impacts and adaptations to climate change. Anticipatory anthropologists are entering an era in which their work may have significant impacts on communities depending on how decision makers use the products of their imaginations.

Conclusion: Emerging Directions for Anthropological Practice

Anthropologists with a futures orientation continue to unravel complexity, connect empathetically to people, and anticipate changes in complex social and semiotic systems. Design anthropologists, as applied standard-bearers of anticipatory anthropology, continue to engage with the emerging technologies to disrupt social life to help people and client organizations cope with and derive value from those disruptions. North America and Europe continue to be the epicenter of such research, at least in the Anglophone world. Careers in both the private and public sector include positions in strategic thinking and urban planning. Corporations seek ethnographically informed practitioners who can spot the weak signals of emergent innovation and position the companies accordingly.

The impetus for futurism that emerged in the mid-20th century has only sharpened as we head toward the mid-21st century. Our global ecosystems are endangered, climate change threatens agriculture, fishing, mariculture, and the cultural lifeways dependent on those subsistence strategies. The global problems once identified by the futurists in the Club of Rome—diminishing resources, environmental degradation, overpopulation, conflict, and inequality—are only more critical than in the 20th century.

Recent scholarship in anticipatory anthropology is clearly directed at these environmentally linked problems, such as the work identifying the impact of climate change on fisheries. Whether examining the way people in the industry talk about energy production or the way regulations are created and implemented to plan environmental changes, anthropologists have closely examined the narratives, metaphors, actions, and policies employed by people with different points of view (Hitchner et al. 2016, 208). Highly designed public works are one manifestation of a forecast. Ordinary individuals who imagine living in a particular future are also reshaping our physical and social worlds. The challenge for applied anthropologists is to be able to capture these diverse narratives, engage people in conversations about their futures even, or perhaps especially, when they disagree, and to build capacity in communities to adapt to inevitable changes. Murphy and Wyborn created a project in Montana and Colorado that illustrates such an effort. They engaged in multiple, iterative sessions of scenario building with a range of stakeholders, intending to “throw it wide open” to see how these diverse actors engaged with each other and with the environment. Their ultimate goal was to understand how their stakeholders would respond to environmental uncertainty (Murphy et al. 2016, 35–36, 40).

Anthropologists working with human beings actively engaged in making their own future, whether those decisions are large or small in scope, can still bring clarity to a chaotic conversation. Anthropologically informed forecasting allows anthropologists to illuminate values, model possibilities, and provide carefully analyzed data to reinforce the connections between informed future visions and multi-stakeholder decision-making.

Further Reading

Dunagan, Jake. 2010. “A Methodological Interlude: Alternative Futures and Deductive Forecasting.” Future Now (blog), Institute for the Future. Last modified February 25, 2010.Find this resource:

English-Lueck, J. A., and Miriam Lueck Avery. 2014. “Corporate Care Reimagined: Farms to Firms to Families.” EPIC Proceedings 2014 (1): 36–49.Find this resource:

Lindley, Joseph, Dhruv Sharma, and Robert Potts. 2014. “Anticipatory Ethnography: Design Fiction as an Input to Design Ethnography.” EPIC Proceedings 2014 (1): 237–253.Find this resource:

Razak, Victoria. 2000. “Introduction: Essays in Anticipatory Anthropology.” Futures 32 (8): 717–727.Find this resource:

Textor, Robert. 1989. “Commentary: A Brief Explanation of Ethnographic Futures Research.” Anthropology Newsletter 30 (8): 1, 24.Find this resource:

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