Should sociologists think more carefully about the ideas which they produce? Do we make some futures more likely to materialise by writing about them?

Although there is a sophisticated sociology of the future (in particular see the work of Barbara Adam and Chris Groves) it perhaps does not feature significantly in sociology in general. However, a consideration of the future and the power of ideas (perhaps unsurprisingly) weighs heavily on sci-fi writers. I wonder if there is something which sociologists could learn from the insights of such writers.

Sci-fi author Neal Stephenson (who wrote the classic Snow Crash amongst many others) has established Project Hieroglyph along with Arizona State University which encourages the production of positive futures in speculative fiction. This project is founded on the idea that imagining and writing about potential futures helps to bring (at least some) of them into being. Similarly, in a discussion on BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week the novelist William Gibson commented on how throughout his career he has deliberately left out some of his more dystopian ideas because he does not want to encourage their materialisation.

The assumption here is that sci-fi does not just predict future developments but inspires their development. This can be seen quite clearly. In technological developments, for instance, it is well known that Star Trek communicators directly inspired the development of the first mobile phones at Motorola in the 1970s. Star Trek is also thought to have inspired the invention of MRI scanners and tablet computers, which were also predicted in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy which itself surely inspired Wikipedia.

The points made by Stephenson and Gibson demonstrate a carefully considered, ethical stance towards their own ideas and their place in the world. Do sociologists have a similarly reflexive relationship towards the ideas which they produce?

It is not new in sociology to suggest that ideas can create material realities. Georg Simmel (1971) conceptualised this particularly well when he made an analytical distinction between subjective and objective culture. Subjective culture is that which we produce in our own minds and is personal to us, conversely objective culture is the material products of our subjective culture (an essay, song, carving, etc.). Our subjective culture, however, needs to assimilate objective culture in order to function. The two are intimately intertwined.

If we accept Simmel’s, and Stephenson’s, propositions then we need to think carefully about what objective culture we produce as this will be the resources with which others think and then produce further objective culture of their own. This does not mean that we should not show injustices or problems as they exist, rather that we should be aware that imagination can generate material impacts.

What kinds of ideas are sociologists putting into the world?

There is perhaps a tendency towards pessimism in a lot of social science writing. Of course there is an important role for social critique, particularly as research which is considered to be useful or for the public good (as opposed to frivolous or “academic”) tends to focus on social “problems” whether that is stigmas applied to particular groups, inequalities or obfuscating ideologies or discourses.

Also, politicians (at least those in power) and others with a vested interest in the status quo tend to tell us that things are good or at least getting better. It is vital that social scientists continue to critique and unpick these kinds of claims. But a potential consequence is that many, perhaps most, ideas sociologists put into the world are negative. If sociologists are not actively trying to produce more desirable futures they are leaving it to others define what the future could or should be. While sci-fi authors may be careful about what futures they imagine others, arguably more powerful than them, have fewer qualms.

Thinktanks, for instance, are preoccupied with the future and as pointed out in a recent article in Le Monde (sorry article is paywalled but a report by an influential thinktank is enlightening reading) the fifteen most influential thinktanks are based in Washington, DC, they are largely populated by staff from the same universities with experience of the same state institutions. They all also have many of the same preoccupations of security, peace, defence, terrorism and technology in relation to US interests. These hawkish concerns produce a particular future through influencing policy and contributing to the materialisation of risks merely be conceptualising them.

The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman famously proposed that socialism should be an “active utopia” something which is never fully achieved but exists on the limits of what is possible. It is a constant critique of the present and reminder that we must always be assessing whether we are being “just” enough by setting an example of how things could be. Should sociology itself put more emphasis on doing the same?