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A new theoretical framework to understand how people represent the future

A theoretical study conducted at the Centre for Psychological Research and Social Intervention (CIS-Iscte) offers a comparative analysis two theories of social behavior to explore how individuals engage with the future and the implications of these engagements. The study informs about their unique perspectives and potential for interdisciplinary integration regarding phenomena with important societal impacts, such as the climate crisis and the renewable energy transition.


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With this study, Ross Wallace, a PhD candidate in Psychology at Iscte-University Institute of Lisbon, and Susana Batel, researcher at CIS-Iscte, are paving the way for a more nuanced and systematic conceptualization of how people represent the future and with what consequences. “Current social issues, such as the climate change crisis and the need for decarbonizing energy systems, are very complex and require a conceptualization that accounts for how people engage with the future.” Ross Wallace begins to explain. According to the researcher, the consequences of such problems are often not immediate and may happen only in a distant future, which can pose a challenge to social behaviors.


In the paper, the research team focused on two main theories: the socio-psychological social representations theory and the French pragmatic sociology of engagement and critique (also known as convention theory). Susana Batel clarifies that the former “highlights the social nature of meaning-making and the reflexive and purposeful ways individuals represent the future”, while the latter “offers a more elaborate conceptualization of how individuals practically engage with the world, including their interactions with the future and the dimensions influencing the construction of collective futures.”


By comparing and synthesizing the social representations theory and convention theory, the research team underscores the importance of analyzing representations of the future in the context of societal power dynamics, between expert-political systems and the public, and the needs for disruptive change to address collective grievances and injustices. Specifically, the authors argue that by integrating insights from both theories, the research community can better grasp how people negotiate and co-create futures, particularly in the context of pressing social issues like climate change and the decarbonization of societies.


For example, consider the rising sea levels environmental issue and the threat is may pose to people in the future. The social representations theory would analyze how individuals and communities construct representations of rising sea levels, but also how people communicate and negotiate meanings related to this environmental issue by considering factors such as media influence, cultural beliefs, and social interactions in shaping perceptions of the threat. Alternatively, the pragmatic sociology would focus on how different social actors practically engage with the problem of rising sea levels, namely by examining the material implications of this issue on communities, the moral orientations guiding responses to sea level rise, and the temporalities involved in planning and adapting to changing coastal landscapes. “We think that by combining views from both theories, researchers will be more capable to understand and address how people deal with future social issues, and in a way that is normatively oriented to the common good”, Susana Batel says.


“With this paper, we call for a systematic reflection on the relation between representation and agency, while emphasizing the agency of people in shaping and transforming social representations through communication and discourse”, Ross Wallace concludes.

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