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

6. Economics
Economics deals with the future in many different ways, at many different levels. Governments deal with forecasts on the inflation rate and the increase or decline in the Gross Domestic Product; almost any aspect of the strategic management of companies concerns the future: from calculation of the production of goods adjusted to seasonal variations to long-term decisions about producing entirely new goods or opening new factories. In turn, finance is entirely based on anticipations. Leaving aside all its remarkable technical complexities, the basic rule of finance is simple, almost trivial: buy assets that are going to grow in value, sell assets that are going to fall in value – both sides include unavoidable reference to the future. However, as later chapters of Beckert’s book will show, the vast majority of ways to see into the future exploited by economists is severely constrained. There are entire realms of anticipation that have never been considered by economists.

Even within economics, however, things are starting to change. Jens Beckert in particular is opening new avenues. Particularly worth mentioning is his endeavor to break down the walls that so far have isolated economics, political science and sociology from each other (Beckert, 2013a, p. 324).

“It is the images of the future that shape present decisions” – Jens Beckert

In order to understand the micro-processes underlying macro-economic outcomes, one should focus on agents’ expectations. The economic activities that are pursued or avoided are established by expectations. The problem is that “under conditions of fundamental uncertainty, expectations cannot be understood as being determined through calculation of optimal choices taking into account all available information, but rather are based on contingent interpretations of the situation in the context of prevailing institutional structures, cultural templates, and social networks” (Beckert, 2013a, p. 325). It is here that Beckert introduces the concept of ‘fictional expectation’ referring to “present imaginaries of future situations that provide orientation in decision making despite the incalculability of outcomes” (Beckert, 2013a, p. 325). This means that fictional expectations are more imaginations about the future than they are forecasts. Like imaginations, fictions add creativity to the economy and contribute to the dynamics of capitalism (Beckert, 2013b, p. 220). As Beckert explicitly declares, “the notion of fictional expectations is directed against the concept of ‘rational expectations’ constituting the micro-foundation of much of modern macro-economics” (Beckert, 2013a, p. 325), (Beckert, 2013b, p. 221). The reason is clear: according to rational expectations theory, aggregate predictions are correct because individual errors are random. Therefore predicted outcomes do not diverge systematically from the resulting market equilibrium. As a consequence the uncertainty of the future becomes a predictable forecast, paving the way for the rational calculation of optimal choices. On the other hand, the true openness of the future makes it impossible to explain decisions as calculations of optimal choice (Beckert, 2013b, p. 221).

Despite all the objections raised against the just summarized train of thought, such as the role played by cognitive biases or true novelties, the ideology of the rational calculation of optimal choices is still the position defended by the vast majority of working economists. Apparently, economists tend to analyze uncertainty as if it were risk. As should be well-known, the distinction between the calculability of risk as opposed to the incalculability of uncertainty was introduced by Frank Knight as early as the 1920s (Knight, 1921). This notwithstanding, within economic thought there seems to be an unrestrainable tendency to blur their differences and to see everything as risk.

Beckert’s intention is to reintroduce a difference between risk and uncertainty by raising the question of the nature of expectations under conditions of uncertainty. Here is his answer: “Structurally, expectations depend on cultural frames, dominant theories, the stratification structures of a society, social networks, and institutions. But the concept of fictional expectations gives the notion of expectations at the same time a political twist because expectations are seen as being open to the manipulation by powerful actors” (Beckert, 2013a, p. 326).

In order to clarify his concept of fictional expectation better, Beckert openly claims that “it is the future that shapes the present—or, to be more specific: it is the images of the future that shape present decisions” (Beckert, 2013b, p. 221). The fact is that actors must develop expectations “among other things, with regard to technological development, consumer preferences, prices, availability of raw materials, the strategies of competitors, the demand of labor, the trustworthiness of promises, the state of the natural environment, political regulations, and the interdependencies among these factors”, despite the true unknowability of the future (Beckert, 2013b, pp. 221-222). Hence expectations are real fictions – there is no chance of seeing them through the opposition between truth and falsehood; eventually, the proper opposition will be based on the difference between convincing as opposed to unconvincing expectations. Moreover, expectations are more than ‘mere fantasies’ because actors develop plans that are based on and include them (the difference between ‘mere fantasies’ and ‘design fantasies’ reaches back to (Schutz, 2003, p. 148)).

Finally, fictional expectation works on an ‘as if’ base: “fictional expectations represent future events as if they were true, making actors capable of acting purposefully with reference to an uncertain future, even though this future is indeed unknown, unpredictable, and therefore only pretended in the fictional expectations” (Beckert, 2013b, p. 226).

7. Toward a Discipline of Anticipation?
The generality of anticipation raises many questions. On the one hand, it shows that anticipation is indeed a general feature of a variety of phenomena and research fields. From this point of view, anticipation traverses disciplinary boundaries and may indeed become a point of unifying perspective. On the other hand, the danger is always present of treating in a uniform manner phenomena that are essentially different. The theory of anticipation may risk the same fate as suffered by systems theory (at least in some phases of its history) and ‘anticipation’ may become a catch-all term for so many different phenomena to be scientifically unhelpful.

As far as the social sciences are concerned, a clear result emerges from the above overview: that the boundaries among the various social sciences appear more and more meaningless. The more the efforts to develop the discipline of anticipation proceed, the more the traditional walls separating the social sciences will break down.

However partial the preceding overview may have been, it has nevertheless shown the variety, generality, and depth of the interest in anticipation of the future. Not surprisingly, terminologies differ widely, and the lack of a uniform theoretical framework within which to understand anticipation will become a major obstacle to the establishment of anticipation as an autonomous, unifying research field.*

The following five aspects emerge from the overview as likely components of the incipient Discipline of Anticipation:

  • The difference between calculable risks and incalculable uncertainty. The former emerges from closed futures – closed because calculable – and the latter characterizes open futures. While there is only one way to be closed, there are many ways to be open. There are also many different ways to open a closed system, which implies that the process of opening a system is not generic.
  • The difference between the distant future and the future in the present. The further distinction between ‘present future’ and ‘future present’ – that is, the distinction between the future as a projection of the past (a form of calculable future) and the future as a proper anticipation of the future – distinguishes different types of the future in the present. An issue to be addressed is whether the future in the present and the near future are synonymous concepts.
  • The difference between continuous future and the discontinuous or ruptured future. While it is granted that the far future will include major discontinuities, the issue is whether the opposition between continuity and discontinuity characterizes also the future in the present or the near future.
  • The difference between systems able to use the future as opposed to systems unable to do so. I shall call ‘anticipatory’ only the systems that have the capacity to use the future in the present.
  • If it is acknowledged that there are different types of anticipations arranged along a variety of dimensions (such as (1) biological, psychological, and social forms of anticipations, (2) explicit and implicit anticipations, (3) calculable and incalculable anticipation; (4) continuous and discontinuous; etc.), the question arises as to how they interact with each other. Under what conditions do the various forms of anticipation work together? Under what conditions do they interfere and even block or destroy each other?

This list, though partial and provisional, raises further questions. Anyway, while a full-fledged theory of anticipation will likely require further, presently unaddressed components, the above five components show that a systematic effort to gain better understanding of the many nuances of anticipation promises to pay dividends.


* For a first effort to lay down the basis of the Discipline of Anticipation see R. Miller, R. Poli and P. Rossell, “The Discipline of Anticipation. Exploring Key Issues”, 2013,



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