future problems: what sociology should (re)learn from science fiction

The following guest post by J.Z. Garrod is part of a series on sociology and science fiction.

I can’t recall with any certainty the moment when I became an unofficial sociologist. The moment when I became an official sociologist was in second-year university, when I signed up for a class called “Crime and Society” because my roommate was taking it. In typical movie cliche fashion, the course changed my view on everything and from that moment on I became engrossed in the study of society.

But when was the moment that I became an unofficial sociologist? That moment when I started to question the social world; to ask why parents and teachers made rules, why the (newly created) bank machines didn’t just spit out free money, and why some people had no things and other people appeared to have all the things? Certainly, the same forces that pushed me to ask those sorts of questions must have been the same ones that found in science fiction (SF) a certain sort of reprieve. Being given a glimpse into a variety of alternate worlds was a way of softening the strange realities of existence.

It is perhaps no surprise that I now see my interest in these two things—sociology and SF—as being inextricably linked.Here, I should take a moment to mention that I include works like 1984, A Handmaid’s Tale, A Brave New World, The Road, Black Mirror, Blade Runner, The Hunger Games, Stalker, and so on, as part of the SF canon. While there are valid arguments against including these types of works (which in many cases don’t involve much science, and, regrettably in other cases, seem much less like fiction) I tend to side with the late Ursula K. Le Guin when she writes that SF includes any work that “extrapolate[s] imaginatively from current trends and events to a near-future that’s half prediction, half satire” (as cited in Atwood, 2011, p. 5). Understood as such, SF essentially works as a warning, a way of projecting some elements of our present (usually bad ones, or ones that seem good but will actually turn out bad, like in Black Mirror) into the future so that we might understand our present circumstances differently and, god- or alien-willing, be able to change them.

To my mind, sociology is essentially doing the same thing. This is, of course, insofar as we accept the basic premise of the discipline: that it is worth studying society so that you can change it. (I mean, how many of us must admit that it was this aspect of the discipline that drew us in as naive undergraduates?) Yet, I am constantly perplexed by our uneasy relationship with the matter of prediction, projection, and imagining the future. Isn’t the purpose of sociology to identify negative elements of our present so that we can change them? And isn’t the way to do that to show how those forces might play out if left unchecked? Although he was not a sociologist per se, I was struck when reading Robert Heilbroner’s (1995) book, Visions of the Future. In it, he expresses a number of caveats before any mention of the future, mirroring what is, in my personal experience, the usual sort of warning given to those sociology students who dare to dream of what might come. While he accurately forecasted that the 21st century was likely to consist of “a spectrum of capitalisms” (p. 115) he almost immediately writes:

Beyond that vaguest of visions, I abjure speculating on the future in more detail. Any effort to foretell the course of politics, of social relations, of religious beliefs, or even of science itself over the next century is pure arrogance. We have no idea what the history books of the Distant Future will contain (p. 115).

Alright. Fair enough. Although I think that pure arrogance might be a stretch. Heilbroner (1995) writes some pages earlier:

Rather than projecting the shadow of Tomorrow’s unknowable realities, I propose to ask whether it is imaginable—I stress this crucial word—to exercise effective control over the future-shaping forces of Today. This rescues us from the impossible attempt to predict the shape of Tomorrow, and leaves us with the somewhat less futile effort of inquiring into the possibilities of changing or controlling the trends of the present (p. 95).

So we are supposed to imagine, not predict. Indeed, sociologist Alan Aldridge (1999) writes that “prediction has become a virtually taboo subject, erased from most of the dictionaries of sociology, the introductory textbooks, and the advanced overviews and position papers” (para. 1.7). But isn’t the very act of looking at the “future-shaping forces of Today” one that is necessarily tied up with a sort of prediction of where things will go? In other words, is the gap between imagination (or projection or forecasting) and prediction so large? Looking at any existing social problem is an act that necessarily involves a prediction of a future series of continuing negative effects; otherwise, the problem might simply solve itself. In this sense, as sociologist Richard Henshel (1982) notes, prediction may be somewhat “unavoidable even to those who expressly eschew its use. Like ‘cause’ in history and philosophy, it is difficult to live with and may be impossible to live without” (p. 59). In my view the point of sociology is to make clear that social problems don’t solve themselves; that there are specific reasons—however, varied—for their existence, and that their existence is, and will be in the future, a negative thing. As such, an alternative arrangement of the social order might be more preferable.

This is certainly the case for SF. Margaret Atwood (2011) writes, for instance, that one of the things that SF does is “interrogate social organization by showing what things might be like if we rearranged them” (p. 63). She points specifically to the reconsideration of gender structures, as well as what she terms ‘economic SF.’ Works that focus on such themes,

whatever else they may be doing in the way of redesigning women’s clothing (sexier, less sexy) or putting food on the table (more, less; tastier, horrible), have as their central focus the production and distribution of goods and the allocation of economic benefits among the various social classes (p. 63).


And so it was for the classical works of sociology as well, “virtually all of whom tried to forecast at one time or another” (Henshel, 1982, p. 57). Indeed, Aldridge (1999) notes that Auguste Comte’s once famous formula—savoir pour prévoir et prévoir pour pouvoir (roughly, know in order to predict, predict in order to control)—that ultimately kicked off the discipline “has not fared well” (para. 1.2), especially to those of us “who learn that ‘positivist’ is one of the gravest professional insults we can utter” (para. 1.2). Similarly, we consistently teach Marx as one of the founding fathers of the discipline (despite not being a sociologist) because of the oft-neglected subtitle to Capital; that is, Marx’s work was not so much political economy, but rather, a critique of political economy. In showing us how the classical political economists (Adam Smith and co.) neglected the social aspects of our existence, he showed how they also took for granted the existence of an atomized, self-owning and -interested individual, and that, in doing so, they neglected to understand where capitalism came from, how it worked, and how it was likely to work in the future. Marx’s concern with his contemporary social experience of industrial England dragged into the future also set the stage for conversations with Durkheim, who, in responding to Marx’s analysis of the forces tearing society apart, argued that we needed to shift the focus to those forces that keep us together. But here too, there is a vision of what was to come (although I admit that I think Marx was more correct on this one). As Steven Lukes (2014) writes of The Division of Labour in Society:

Durkheim envisaged that in the various industrial branches throughout the country new types of corporations would be instituted in which both employers and employees of each specific branch would be represented. The administrative council of these corporations would have the power to regulate labor relations, wages and salaries, conditions of work, appointments, and promotions, as well as relations with other branches of industry and with governmental authorities. There would be a central administrative council for a given branch of industry as well as local or regional bodies… He had no doubt that the professional corporation was destined in the future to take a key position in the structure of modern societies as a vivifying source of new social norms and new social bonds (p. xxi).

In Weber too, we find a historical sociology concerned with current social forms and trends and a prediction of their movement into the future; ongoing processes of rationalization, secularization, and a growing disenchantment with the ‘modern’ world.

To me, what is great about sociology is what’s great about SF: the ability to take a piece of our present and drag it into the future so as to reflect back at us the general direction of our existing state of affairs. In this sense, shouldn’t we consider ourselves science ‘reality’ writers? I mean, weren’t the psycho-historians in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation—those who used mathematics to predict the general course of the future—simply quantitative sociologists of a certain sort? As more of a critical historical sociologist myself, I certainly agree with Heilbroner when he writes that we are not able to predict the future with any exact certitude. But I wonder whether that was ever the point? Do we need to continue to take such a strong position against prediction? Can we not simply accept that any part of future guessing is part of the analysis of social issues? The Portuguese sociologist, Boaventura de Sousa Santos (2006) writes that:

The sociology of emergences is the enquiry into the alternatives that are contained in the horizon of concrete possibilities. It consists in undertaking a symbolic enlargement of knowledges, practices and agents in order to identify therein the tendencies of the future (the Not Yet) in which it is possible to intervene so as to maximize the probability of hope vis-à-vis the probability of frustration. Such symbolic enlargement is actually a form of sociological imagination with a double aim: on the one hand, to know better the conditions of the possibility of hope; on the other, to define principles of action that favour the fulfilment of those conditions (p. 31).

Does this need to be a subsection of the discipline? Is this not what makes both sociology and SF so powerful? If we don’t identify those elements of the present that might lead us to ruin in the future, I’m not really sure what we’re doing. I mean, all the elements of even the most dystopian SF futures are already here: Big Data, constant surveillance, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, politics-as-spectical, reality television, twitch streaming, environmental catastrophe, rising people flows, mega cities, the medical-industrial complex, and an ever more brutal form of global capitalism that ensures that inequality will rise, jobs will get more precarious or nonexistent, and that corporations will continue to dominate the planet. Whether it’s SF or sociology, I want to read works that engage in the simple act of prediction so as to better direct us to what we should change and how we should change it. And I want you to want to read works like that too—even if they’re wrong.

J.Z. Garrod is a doctoral candidate in Sociology at Carleton University.

Works Cited

Aldridge, A. (1999, September 30). Prediction in Sociology: Prospects for a Devalued Activity. Retrieved from http://socresonline.org.uk/4/3/aldridge.html

Atwood, M. (2011). In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination.

Durkheim, E. (2014). The Division of Labor in Society. (S. Lukes, Ed.).

Heilbroner, R. L. (1995). Visions of the Future: The Distant Past, Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow.

Henshel, R. L. (1982). Sociology and Social Forecasting. Annual Review of Sociology, 8(1), 57–79.

Sousa Santos, B. de (2006). The Rise of the Global Left: The World Social Forum and Beyond.

Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

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