What is Futures Studies?

Futures Studies is a scientific research field involving scholars and researchers across many disciplines. There are undergraduate and post graduate programs available in universities around the world. You will notice that we use the plural term "futures" and you may wonder why we use this and not the singular term: "future"?

The answer is that WFSF, since its inception, has encouraged and supported a pluralistic approach to futures studies. This pluralism is reflected in the diversity of the WFSF membership and the research it supports. The WFSF uses the plural term "futures" studies rather than the singular "future" studies to counter the notion of only one future, the latter having both conceptual limitations and political implications. This pluralisation of futures opens up the territory for envisioning and creating alternative and preferred futures. A major focus of futures studies for us at WFSF is how we envisage and develop desirable outcomes in the times ahead.

A Pluralistic Approach to Understanding Futures Studies

While it is commonly thought that futures studies is an attempt to predict the future based on extrapolation from present day trends, empirical/predictive futures is only one of at least five approaches to futures research that have been identified. Building on earlier models of Sohail Inayatullah (1990), Eleonora Masini (1993), Wendell Bell (1997), and Richard Slaughter (1999, 2003), and her own youth futures research (1997), Jennifer Gidley has developed a taxonomy of five traditions, or paradigmantic approaches, to futures studies (Gidley 2004, 2009, 2011, 2013).

"There are many ways that the development of the futures studies field could be characterised. One broad contextual approach is to identify five traditions currently operating within the field, each of which represents different epistemological, or even ideological, underpinnings:

The empirical-positivist tradition, which focuses on trend analysis and prediction, originated in the USA. It was supported by the formation of the World Future Society in the 1960s;

The critical-normative tradition originated in Europe and grew out of a critique of what was perceived as an overly empirical approach to futures in the USA. This led to the foundation of the World Futures Studies Federation in the early 1970s;

The cultural-interpretive tradition arose in large measure from the work of those WFSF members who sought to include non-Western cultures and to invoke a deeper consideration of civilisational and planetary futures;

The empowerment-activist, prospective, action research approach began in Europe in the nineties and has been taken up by some Australian researchers;

The integral/transdisciplinary futures approach is newly emerging and appears to have potential for authentic multiperspectival and planetary inclusion, providing it remains open.

These are not mutually exclusive approaches, nor should this contextualisation imply a linear developmental model. These are all suitable pathways to futures research and pedagogy depending on the context. Well-informed futures researchers and educators may utilise any or all of these traditions depending on their operational context." (Gidley 2009).

In Global Knowledge Futures (2013) Gidley's five-stranded futures typology begins with a single bifurcation between positivist and post-positivist. In this model, the critical, cultural, empowerment & integral approaches reflect the pluralism of the post-positivist turn. 

References for Researching the Traditions of Futures Studies

  • Bell, W. (1997/2003). Foundations of Futures Studies I: History, Purposes, Knowledge. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

  • Bell, W. (1997/2004). Foundations of Futures Studies II: Values, Objectivity and the Good Society. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

  • Galtung, J. (1982). Schooling, Education and the Future (Vol. 61). Malmo, Sweden: Department of Education and Psychology Research, Lund University.

  • Gidley, J., Bateman, D., & Smith, C. (2004). Futures in Education: Principles, Practice and Potential. Melbourne: Australian Foresight Institute.

  • Gidley, J. M., Fien, J., Smith, J-A., Thomsen, D. C., and Smith, T. F. (2009) Participatory Futures Methods: Towards Adaptability and Resilience in Climate-Vulnerable Communities, Environmental Policy and Governance, 19(6) pp. 427-440.

  • Gidley, J.M. (2013) Global Knowledge Futures: Articulating the Emergence of a new Meta-level Field Integral Review: A Transdisciplinary and Transcultural Journal for New Thought, Research and Praxis. 9(2) pp. 145-172.

  • Inayatullah, S. (1990). Deconstructing and reconstructing the future: Predictive, cultural and critical epistemologies. Futures, 22(2), 115-141.

  • Masini, E. (1993). Why Future Studies? London: Grey Seal.

  • Slaughter, R. (1999). Professional standards in futures work, Futures, 31, p. 840

  • Slaughter, R. (2003). Integral Futures - a New Model for Futures Enquiry and Practice. Melbourne: Australian Foresight Institute.

  • Slaughter, R. (2008). What difference does integral make? Futures, 40, 120-137.

  • Tapio, P. & Hietanen, O. (2002). Epistemology and public policy: using a new typology to analyse the paradigm shift in Finnish transport futures studies. Futures, 34, 597-620.