Anticipation: A New Thread for the Human and Social Sciences?

4. Anthropology
Anthropology has traditionally focused its research on non-industrial societies; moreover, the main focus of anthropology has been the cultural reproduction of identity, which for the most part means analysis of the ways in which societies develop their sense of the past. These claims are no longer valid: anthropology has begun to focus on both industrial societies and the ways in which societies develop their sense of the future (Appadurai, 2013, p. 285). As a cautionary note, one may add that “anthropology has the means, but not yet the concerted conversation, to develop an ethnography of the near future of the 21st century” (Guyer, 2007, p. 410).

Within anthropology, the recent debate on its future has been ignited by Guyer (2007). Previous efforts to call attention to the future within anthropology had little impact (Munn, 1992; Wallman, 1991). Munn (1992), for instance, already saw that the future is a crucial topic for anthropology: “anthropologists have viewed the future in ‘shreds and patches’, in contrast to the close attention given to ‘the past in the present’” (Munn, 1992, p. 116). Here I will consider only three main contributions to this otherwise rich debate: namely the already-mentioned works by Guyer and Appadurai, together with Piot (2010).

Guyer starts by noting the emptying “of the temporal frame of the ‘near future’” (Guyer, 2007, p. 409). What has been called the ‘postmodern condition’ seems to be based on a “reduction to the present” (Jameson, 2002, pp. 207, 209). Since all the modes of time are mutually interconnected, changes in any one of them reverberate on the others. Jameson notes that the sense of the past and future within the present tends to become feebler and feebler (Jameson, 2002, p. 214). As a counter-move, he proposes learning to see utopian tendencies as they develop. To which Guyer replies: “I like the general direction here but doubt the matrix. The spaces opening up are not alternative or utopian in any holistic sense. They are reconfigurations of elements that are well-known already, moved in to colonize particular phases and domains of individual and collective life that have been released from answerability to a more distant past and future” (Guyer, 2007, p. 416). Moreover, “the spaces opened up offer innovative extrapolation from some vantage points and block any cumulative momentum from others.… In many literatures and in formal and informal daily life, I perceive a similar rising awareness of a time that is punctuated rather than enduring: of fateful moments and turning points, the date as event rather than as position in a sequence or cycle, dates as qualitatively different rather than quantitatively cumulative” (Guyer, 2007, p. 416).

Guyer’s analysis is based on the concept of ‘near future’. The question that she raises is whether the near future includes “a gap, a space, a rupture in time” – that is a singularity that cannot be described but only believed and witnessed. If indeed the near future includes a temporal rupture, this implies that previous frameworks providing temporal coherence have been substituted by a series of new frameworks “entailing continual temporal arbitrage to stay afloat” ((Han, 2004); (Guyer, 2007)).

Piot’s reconstruction of West Africa after WWII explains how the end of the Cold War has been a major disruption for the colonial system of governance: “the end of the Cold War has changed the sociopolitical landscape in ways that demand new theoretical tools” (Piot, 2010, p. 16). All the recognizable continuities notwithstanding, Piot remains “committed to the idea that a threshold has been crossed and that the contemporary world is undergoing significant shifts in modes of sovereignty and forms of political-economic organization, shifts that dramatically transformed Africa in the 1990s” (Piot, 2010, p. 13).

Perhaps surprising from a European perspective, in West Africa Pentecostal churches are the main forces forging a new understanding of the future. By urging a break with the past, including rejection of the old structures of authority, these churches reshape temporality (Piot, 2010, p. 9). Attention may be called to the fact that “US pastors are now traveling to Africa to be ordained – because they see African Christianity as a purer form – before returning ‘home’ to engage in ‘mission’ work” ((Jenkins, 2002); (Piot, 2010, p. 63)).

There is more than this, however. The issue is not limited to rejection of the past; the really intriguing issue is that “futures are replacing the past as cultural reservoirs” (Piot, 2010, p. 16). While our understanding of these Pentecostal-mediated futures is remarkably poor (for an insider’s point of view, see (Heward-Mills, 2006)) the very possibility of using futures as cultural reservoirs is central to the idea of anticipation.

In order to develop a systematic understanding of the future, anthropologists should examine “the interactions between three notable human preoccupations that shape the future as a cultural fact, that is, as a form of difference. These are imagination, anticipation and aspiration” (Appadurai, 2013, p. 286), even if “we have not yet found ways to articulate how anticipation, imagination, and aspiration come together in the work of future-making” (Appadurai, 2013, p. 298). Nevertheless, “as we refine the ways in which specific conceptions of aspiration, anticipation, and imagination become configured so as to produce the future as a specific cultural form or horizon, we will be better able to place within this scheme more particular ideas about prophecy, well-being, emergency, crisis, and regulation. We also need to remember that the future is not just a technical or neutral space, but is shot through with affect and with sensation. Thus we need to examine not just the emotions that accompany the future as a cultural form, but the sensations that it produces: awe, vertigo, excitement, disorientation” (Appadurai, 2013, pp. 286-287).

The capacity to anticipate the future is socially differentiated, however. On understanding that “‘the capacity to aspire’ is unequally distributed” and that “its skewed distribution is a fundamental feature, and not just a secondary attribute, of extreme poverty” (Appadurai, 2013, p. 289) one begins to grasp some of the deeper issues related to the future as a cultural reservoir. Not everybody has access to this reservoir.

As a step towards building a future reservoir where none is available, one may consider the productive role played by memory. “While state-generated archives may primarily be instrumental of governmentality and bureaucratized power, personal, familial, and community archives –especially those of dislocated, vulnerable, and marginalized populations—are critical sites for negotiating paths to dignity, recognition, and politically feasible maps for the future” (Appadurai, 2013, p. 288). Put differently, without “the capacity to aspire as a social and collective capacity … words such as ‘empowerment’, ‘voice’, and ‘participation’ cannot be meaningful” (Appadurai, 2013, p. 289).

Anthropologists need to engage in a “systematic effort to understand how cultural systems, as combinations of norms, dispositions, practices, and histories, frame the good life as a landscape of discernible ends and of practical paths to the achievement of these ends. This requires a move away from the anthropological emphasis on cultures as logics of reproduction to a fuller picture in which cultural systems also shape specific images of the good life as a map of the journey from here to there and from now to then, as a part of the ethics of everyday life” (Appadurai, 2013, p. 292).

This effort will evidence the difference between what Appadurai calls ‘the ethics of possibility’ and ‘the ethics of probability’. The former is based on “those ways of thinking, feeling and acting that increase the horizon of hope, that expand the field of the imagination, that produce greater equity in what [he has] the capacity to aspire, and that widen the field of informed, creative, and critical citizenship”. Conversely, the ethics of probability deal with “those ways of thinking, feeling, and acting that flow out of what Ian Hacking called “the avalanche of numbers”… they are generally tied to the growth of a casino capitalism which profits from catastrophe and tends to bet on disaster” (Appadurai, 2013, p. 295).

5. Sociology
Alfred Schutz argued that we simultaneously live in different contexts of meaning, with different temporal dimensions, at different levels of familiarity. Schutz distinguished three main systems: thematic, interpretative and motivational. The system of most interest here is the last one, the motivational system (Schutz, 1972; Schutz & Zaner, 1982).

According to how motivational systems operate, actions are typically framed by two types of opposition: the opposition between my actions and yours and the opposition between future and past actions. Future actions are interpreted according to an ‘in-order-to’ structure, whilst past actions are interpreted according to a ‘because’ structure. In-order-to motives are components of the action: they shape the action from within. By contrast, because-motives require reflective acts upon already-taken decisions. This structure helps explain why we perceive actions as free according to in-order-to-motives and as determined according to because-motives.

Actions are always elements of wider projects, which in their turn rely on various stocks of knowledge. One of the most familiar components of knowledge is the stock of typical expectations, which may become actual in typical circumstances and predetermine typical reactions. As Riegler notes, “Instead of getting overwhelmed by the details of a new situation, humans seek to replace them with familiar activity and behavioral patterns that show a high degree of predictability to putatively gain control again, to be able to anticipate the outcome” (Riegler, 2003, p. 12). In this sense, indeed, new experiences may be familiar to their type.

Expected social behavior constrains social life ((Schutz, 1972); (Berger & Luckmann, 1969); (de Jouvenel, 1967)). The distribution of social capital (including economic, relational and intellectual forms of capital) further distinguishes the typical anticipations of the future characterizing different social groups (Bordieu, 1984). While “the network of reciprocal commitments traps the future and moderates its mobility,” it nevertheless makes social life less difficult in the sense that it “tends to reduce the uncertainty” (de Jouvenel, 1967, p. 45). On the other hand, the growing degree of uncertainty experienced by contemporary society implies that something more is at stake. Specifically, what is at work is the covert connection between a peculiar interpretation of rationalization and an equally peculiar interpretation of the future. As to the former, already at the beginning of the past century Weber showed that efforts to make social life more rational generate the unintended consequence of raising uncertainty (Adam & Groves, 2007, p. 12; Weber, Lassman, Velody, & Martins, 1989).

The subsequent distinction between two main kinds of futures paves the way for a better understanding of the roots of social uncertainty. Adam and Groves distinguish between “the embedded, embodied, contextual future”, on the one hand, and the “decontextualised future emptied of content, which is open to exploration and exploitation, calculation and control”, on the other (Adam & Groves, 2007, p. 2). I shall distinguish them as respectively concrete and abstract futures.

Not surprisingly, economic agents see the future as a commodity, a good to trade like any other good: banks calculate the value of the future with respect to interest and credit, insurance companies calculate the value of future risk (Adam & Groves, 2007, p. 10). These futures are abstract possibilities, independent of any context. They are reduced to pure, i.e. abstract, exchange value. The future as a commodity “can be calculated anywhere, at any time and exploited for any circumstance” (Adam & Groves, 2007, p. 10). Once the future has been traded as an abstract exchange value, “speed provides not only evolutionary and cultural but also commercial advantage” (Adam & Groves, 2007, p. 102). Trading concrete with abstract futures paves the way for the onset of uncertainty (Adam & Groves, 2007, p. 55). Furthermore, the experience of the past two centuries shows that “efforts to control, manage and engineer the future produce unprecedented uncertainties” (Adam & Groves, 2007, p. 77).

The tendency towards higher degrees of uncertainty experienced by contemporary society is further strengthened by the interplay between abstract futures and the role of information and communication technologies. Not only has communication become instantaneous, it is also networked across space to cover almost the entire planet. As a consequence, the usual, primarily local, order of causal dependences recedes into the background and contributes less and less to sense-making efforts. Again, the net result arising from abstract futures and globally networked instantaneous communications is the rise of uncertainty (Adam & Groves, 2007, p. 55).

Disturbingly, as uncertainty increases, the capacity to anticipate real, i.e. concrete, futures decreases (Adam & Groves, 2007, p. 35). The more our activities generate outcomes extending into the deep future, the more our explicit anticipatory capacities diminish.

Leaving abstract futures aside, two main kinds of concrete futures can be distinguished: pre-given futures, and futures in the making. The former are the futures resulting from relevant pasts, the futures resulting from given structures, from individual embodiment and social embedding in networks of social relations. These futures are primarily past-driven and common-sense-based. On the other hand, the futures in the making are growing possibly latent futures. Adam and Groves distinguish them respectively as ‘present future’ and ‘future present’. Present futures are “futures that are imagined, planned, projected, and produced in and for the present” (Adam & Groves, 2007, p. 28). Economic and scientific forecasts are cases in point. They colonize the future from the present (Miller, 2007). Present futures are continuations of the past through the present. Future presents, on the other hand, are futures “that can be known, ‘seen’ and anticipated”. As far as future presents are concerned, they are the futures that are used in the present, the futures that enter into and shape the present.

The distinction between ‘present future’ and ‘future present’ was initially introduced by Luhmann (Luhmann, 1982, p. 281). According to Luhmann, while present futures are utopian, future presents are technologically biased. Adam and Grove develop a different understanding of these two expressions based on the difference between ‘pre-given futures’ and ‘futures in the making’. I am suggesting that they add a more explicitly active component to their description indicated by the expression “using the future”. I will reserve the qualification of ‘anticipatory’ only to those systems that can use the future in the present.

To return for a moment to present futures, the value of a given present future is calculated against its alternative present futures. The present future generating the larger profit is the future with the highest value. “In this way the future as such becomes tradable: one future outcome is tradable for another, on the basis of its estimated returns” (Adam & Groves, 2007, p. 73).

Adam and Groves call the future in the making ‘latent’. A latent future is a future ‘on the way’ that still has to surface and become visible. Even if a latent future is hidden and invisible in the present, it is nevertheless an actual component of the present: it is a future “living within the present”.

This may be the appropriate place to note that “during the past thirty years substantial experimental data have shown that all axioms of expected utility theory have been violated by real subjects in experimentally controlled situations” (Berthoz, 2003). Real agents are far from being ideal or idealized decision-makers, as expected utility theory assumes. On the contrary, we systematically make mistakes, for various reasons including social pressure, the tendency to agree with others, the influence exerted by hierarchical structures, the role of emotions, the desire to be right, the way in which problems are represented (Berthoz, 2003). All this may eventually provide robust evidence that it is time to update the decision-making programs used in business schools for managers, public policy schools for administrators, or military schools for soldiers.

As we have seen, the invention of abstract futures is one of the sources, possibly the most important one, of the rising level of uncertainty in contemporary society. The idea of developing strategies intended to reconnect abstract and concrete futures presents itself as the natural option to consider. The suggestion is not to return to anything like the ‘good old times’ because nothing historical reverts to any of its previous states. The only possibility, as always, is to move forward. What has to be considered is whether it makes sense to reconnect what was severed. However extraordinarily successful the bourgeoisie has been, the institutions that it has invented are only two centuries old. Are we sure there are no other institutional frameworks and configurations of social relationships that are further able to advance democracy, freedom, and respect for individual and social rights? Wright’s idea of ‘Real Utopias’ faces such questions (Wright, 2010, p. 4). Indeed, one cannot rule out that at least some of the problems being faced are directly or indirectly connected to the form that political institutions have historically taken in the West. Imagining new institutional frameworks may be of assistance in addressing some of these issues. Clearly, it would not be sufficient to simply carry out purely abstract thought experiments on institutional changes. As social scientists, we can and must also assess whether the newly proposed frameworks are desirable (for instance in the sense of mitigating the adverse consequences in question), viable (i.e. capable of withstanding the test of time), and achievable. A framework that induced unbearable unintended negative effects, that proved unsustainable in the long run, or that could not be established in practice would not constitute an acceptable outcome (Wright, 2010, pp. 13-14). Identifying the ways in which existing social institutions and social structures cause harm for people is a natural starting point. Complementarily, a better understanding of the variety of human flourishing clarifies the capacities that any institutional framework should respect, protect and improve.

According to Wright, a theory of transformation involves four central components: (1) a theory of social reproduction; (2) a theory of the gaps and contradictions within the process of reproduction; (3) a theory of the underlying dynamics and trajectory of unintended social change; and (4) a theory of collective actors, strategies, and struggles (Wright, 2010, pp. 17-19). All of these obviously involve the future and should be integrated into a full-fledged theory of anticipation.

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