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Rethinking futures research and discourses with efficacy theory

Abstract for the Conference (final version):

6-8 June 2024, Department of Sociology and Social Sciences, University of Trento


Efficacy: rethinking futures methodologies, paradigms and discourses beyond performative, end-point futures


Efficacy theory: beyond the "performative" future


It is widely recognised in the field of futures research and practice that visions of the future can exert a significant influence on individuals' agency in the present (Bell & Mau, 1971, Beckert, 2016, Adam & Groves, 2011, Selin, 2008). Often referred to as the "performativity" of the future over the present (see Oomen et al., 2022 for an overview), this social mechanism serves as a reminder that “[p]rediction is a social happening” (Popper, 1957) culminating in the familiar self-fulfilling prophecy (Merton, 1948, Hedström & Swedberg, 1998).

Much overlooked in futures scholarship, however, is that this very influence of the future on agency is actually mediated by perceptions of personal efficacy, the latter which influence in turn how one thinks about the future (Bandura, 1999). In other words, futures thinking and agency influence each other reciprocally through the mediating effects of efficacy, which operate bidirectionally (Bandura, 1997, 1999).


Efficacy both influences and is influenced by futures thinking and agency

The most foundational mechanism of human agency (Bandura, 1997, 1999), “[p]erceived self-efficacy refers to beliefs in one's capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to produce given attainments” (Bandura, 1997: 2-3, italics in original). A judgement of personal capacity, self-efficacy affects how people think about the future as well as their agency, motivation and outcome expectations (Bandura, 1999). Reversely, (mental) representations of the future influence people's agency (what futures research knows under the limitative concept of performative future) in fact through their mediating influence on people’s sense of self and collective efficacy.

Efficacy, a productive framework for investigating the relations between futures thinking and agency

Yet, little is known in the field of futures research regarding the fundamental role that efficacy plays in shaping futures thinking and attitudes towards the future, if we take as evidence the limited literature available in top futures journals (with a few exceptions such as Park, 2017, Rizzo & Chaoyun, 2017). This knowledge gap is all the more regrettable as efficacy theory offers in my view a productive framework for rethinking some of the methodologies, paradigms and discourses of futures practice and research.

Therefore, this contribution sets out to explore the potential of efficacy theory as a productive framework for investigating futures thinking in relation to agency and its implications for futures practice and research.

Efficacy beliefs have been widely recognized to enhance pro-environmental behaviors (O’Neill & Nicholson-Cole, 2009, O'Neill et al., 2013, Milfont, 2012, Leviston et al., 2014, Bostrom et al., 2019, Hamann & Reese, 2020). I thus use here various efficacy studies of climate and sustainable futures as case studies to examine how collective efficacy beliefs are operationalized in climate and sustainability discourses. In doing so, I show how efficacy theory can contribute to reconceptualising a performative future that is otherwise unidirectional and authoritative. Only efficacy, not the performative future, can explain why the same vision of the future can elicit very different responses.


(Collective) Efficacy in climate and sustainable futures: a case study

While climate modelling projections can reduce people’s efficacy responses (Shi et al., 2015), they can also enhance personal efficacy, notably through increasing groups' identity and collective efficacy (Bandura, 2000, Fritsche et al., 2018, Innocenti et al., 2023). Interestingly, exposing people to desirable – in this case, sustainable – futures does not necessarily lead to mobilisation, as people may not take action if they do not believe such futures are achievable (i.e. low perceived efficacy) (Bandura, 1997, Shi et al., 2015, 1999, Cotton et al., 2016).

Conversely, perceived low efficacy is also a cause of contrasted responses to future climate scenarios, ranging from feelings of helplessness, indifference or denial, to mobilisation or eco-anxiety (Doherty & Clayton, 2011). Similarly, perceived high efficacy is recognized to foster pro-environmental behaviors but has also been shown to downplay risk perceptions by minimizing climate associated risks (Maltby et al., 2021).

Thus, not the performative future but only efficacy can explain why individuals may or may not mobilise in the face of pessimistic climate scenarios and why they may or may not take action on more desirable, sustainable futures – nuancing some of the work and methodologies relating to positive futures.

Sometimes, it is not the lack of available positive futures, or personal morality, that generate an apparent lack of commitment to climate action, but rather the fact that people feel helpless – i.e. inefficacious – about the perceived wicked problem of climate change.


Rethinking futures methodologies, paradigms and discourses with efficacy

Based on the above, I offer three observations on how efficacy theory can help rethink some of the methodologies, paradigms and discourses of futures practice and research.

First observation: The situated nature of efficacy tempers the calls for positive – or for that matter, pessimistic – futures that ambition to uniformly enhance everyone's efficacy. Stepping back from these injunctions can produce futures exercises that are less judgmental of different levels of efficacy and thus more inclusive of the diverse sociostructural and personal circumstances that shape perceptions of efficacy (Bandura, 1997, 1999).

Second observation: Examining how efficacy beliefs are operationalised in discourses on climate and sustainable futures can be very useful precisely for troubling and transforming (i.e. reframing) efficacy beliefs. Doing so requires uncovering people’s assumptions about collective efficacy understood as assumptions about human nature and collective action. Once these assumptions are revealed, a more transformative view (reframing) of collective human action within its environment can be articulated as a foundation for developing sustainable future scenarios.

Third and final observation: Efficacy’s incremental progression through subgoals (Bandura, 1997, 1999) challenges foresight's almost exclusive use of end-point target futures to the detriment of more process-based futures. Indeed, individuals and groups can adopt either a goal- or a process-oriented future attitude, as shown for instance in life course studies (Biesta & Tedder, 2007) or social movements theory (Haines, 1996 cited by Benford & Snow, 2000: 617).

According to this view, foresight practice may benefit from placing greater emphasis on devising social, governance and institutional processes and arrangements by which collective efficacy and inclusive and sustainable change may thrive. In this way, one can aim to counter what Bandura (1997: 520) identifies as “underminers of collective efficacy” such as bureaucracy, social fragmentation or aspects of globalisation, to name but a few.

In this view, efficacy theory advocates for a foresight practice that recognizes the value of social, institutional, and governance processes and practices, embracing a paradigm of futures as anticipation for emergence (Poli, 2017, Miller, 2018) – or "futures as processes in the making" as I like to call them – over futures considered as end-point objectives.


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