The Future of Social Science
Anthony Giddens

Editors Introduction Anthony GiddensAnthony Giddens questions the belief that the future is an invention through which we can achieve progress. Rather than predicting the future, Giddens suggests that social scientists should focus on current trends of development. By highlighting issues around globalisation, technology, the family and the political debate of redistribution, he argues that you cannot be a social scientist without situating yourself in some of these problem areas.

Drop caphe topic of this talk is the future of the social sciences. If you are a social scientist you might begin by turning this phrase around and asking what social scientists have to say about the future, because they try to say a great deal about it. If you look at the work of historical sociologists--of somewhat dubious repute, I have to say--some of them have claimed that the future is a modern invention, that in medieval times and earlier people did not have the kind of conception of the future which we have now. It has been argued that the way people in Western societies envisage the future owes a lot to the Enlightenment philosophers, who saw the future as a territory we can colonise, a territory we can conquer, a territory in which, through the advance of science and human knowledge, we can confidently expect to occur. Well, I think we can confidently say the future has not turned out that way!

The future today is the province of a whole area of academic specialisation by those who call themselves futurologists. If you look at the history of futurology, it doesn't encourage you too much. If you look back to the 1960s, Herman Kahn made a series of predictions about what the world in 2000 would look like. Although some of these predictions were not so far off the mark, plenty of them sound odd today. For example, he predicted that nuclear devices would be used for mining, that the world would be lit by artificial moons in space which would reflect light down onto the earth, and that by the year 2000 the human life span would be 150 years (which people are now predicting again for the twenty-first century). So all this is salutary for anyone who seeks to speak about the future of anything.

I would point out an interesting little quirk about all this. Although we know the future is so hard to grasp, we probably discuss the future today more than any other generation or society in the past. You have to ask whether the endless discussion of the future actively prevents us knowing it. In any case, I would say that anyone who asks about the future of anything, whether it's an academic subject or area of life, should observe three principles.

First of all, history will continue to take us by surprise, in spite of our efforts to study historical trends and to project them into the future. It's easy to see examples of this. The most recent is the most impressive in some ways--the transformations in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. There you had a whole barrage of people whose lives were devoted to studying these societies and Eastern Europe. I don't know of anyone who predicted that the events in Eastern Europe would unfold in the way they did--quickly, without violence, Soviet Communism disappeared almost overnight. This was quite an extraordinary phenomenon which no one thought would happen in the way it did.

The second principle is that history is not linear. Hegel knew that, although you could say Marx forgot. The historian Jean Gimpel wrote a book on medieval technology in which he tried to show something counterintuitive and against the conventional wisdom; that the Middle Ages were a period of technological innovation, not a period of stagnation. In the 1960s, a time when Herman Kahn was writing, it seemed to many people that Los Angeles was the city of the future and that a car-based civilisation was the logic of transportation systems. But Gimpel says instead there has been a movement backwards: back to the train, back to the tram, back to the bicycle, back to walking. He traces other developments, like the construction of nylon. Nylon was intended to be the high-tech fabric of the future. But instead of nylon we've moved back to cotton and back to wool; that's the recent history of clothing. If you consider jet travel, Gimpel says, we are still travelling the world in the same wide-body jets that were invented 30 years ago and there is no successor to the Concorde, which looked like a technological marvel for the future but turned out to be the end of the line.

I think these reflections are interesting, but more complicated. They alert you to the principle that history tends to move dialectically. In fact, if I were a business person I wouldn't be looking at what contemporary technology is doing, but the opposite. I would look at the kinds of reactions that people might have to it if I wanted to find a product niche which might make me rich in the future. If you take Gimpel's jet plane example, although jet planes haven't advanced, modern travel and all it's done to the world, including ecological damage, is inseparable from computers. Computers have completely revolutionised the cost of jet travel, as without computerisation you wouldn't have cheap flights all over the world.

Thirdly, our predictions of the future actively influence the future, and this is more and more the case, because we are living in a world of saturated information. In sociology we have traditional forms for designating the reflexive nature of predictions. Robert Merton famously spoke of the self-fulfilling prophecy. This is when you announce something and the announcing of it causes it to become true. So, if you do a survey of sexual behaviour on a university campus and you find that 70 percent of people on the campus are doing something unspecifiable, people read about it and think, "Oh, well, they're all doing it, I might as well join in." So even if it were not true originally, the very prediction might make it come true.

The opposite is the self-negating prophecy, which has, like the self-fulfilling one, various potential social uses. Looking at sexual behaviour again, consider the phenomenon of AIDS. Governments all round the world actively tried to disseminate information about AIDS, not just to tell people about it but in order that the predictions they made about the future would not come true. In fact, those predictions, at least in Western countries, have not come true. This kind of reflexive nature of prediction is deeply entangled in the debate about possible consequences of the changes that we see around us, in order to prevent the trends which are diagnosed from actually emerging as true. I see this as a characteristic part of the kind of society in which we live.

These reflections shouldn't deter us from trying to anticipate the future by diagnosing trends that will give us some sense of what the future may hold. But they are salutary for anyone who simply goes forth and says, "This is what the future world will look like." More effective than trying to say that this, this and this will happen in the social sciences is to look at current trends of development, at the problem areas that surround them, and to see how they are likely to structure debates over the next few years.

The social sciences have always prospered during periods of substantial change, and in my view we are living through such a period at the moment. The changes going on in the world, with all of the qualifications that I have just made about analysing them, are similar to what happened in the late eighteenth century. The advent of modern industrial production in the late eighteenth century led to a kind of shake-out of social institutions. The nature of the family changed, the nature of urban life changed, the nature of sovereignty and nation-states changed and, of course, the economy and wider transnational institutions changed.

Something similar is happening in the world today. We're living through a period of institutional shake-out which is hard for us to grasp and relate to as individuals, and which should be the terrain of the social sciences. If the social sciences cannot allow us to grasp some of the fundamental transformations which are affecting our lives, then I think you would have to conclude that they don't amount to very much.

I would like to argue here that the future of the social sciences--and I mean by "future" the next four or five years or so (it's as much as one can safely speculate about)--are likely to be dominated by what I would call "the four great debates." These are the four great problem areas which are emerging as fundamental to what the social sciences in the early part of the twenty-first century are all about.

The first of these I term the great globalisation debate. The history of the term "globalisation" and its entry into popular consciousness is amazing. Only about 10, 15 years ago, hardly anyone used the term. It wasn't used much in the academic literature and it certainly wasn't used in the popular press. Now, of course, the term "globalisation" is everywhere, and you can't open a newspaper (I think almost literally) without seeing some reference to globalisation. Since globalisation has come from nowhere to be everywhere, it's not surprising that it is the centre of fierce debate, and I believe this debate will be very significant for the next few years.

The early part of this debate was between people who were sceptical about the whole idea that globalisation means anything, that the world really is changing, becoming more interdependent, and those who stood on the other side and were fierce advocates of globalisation, with the idea that it has already changed the structures of the world. The first group tended on the whole to be on the political left and wanted to say that the changes going on in the world, if they do exist, are no greater than those that happened 100 years ago, when you had the first emergence of a global economy and trade across the world. These writers argued that there's not much different today from that period. So, to suppose that we are in some senses living in a new global age, as I think to be the case, these writers argue, is a false assumption.

On the other hand, there were those who argued that the changes that have already happened are so fundamental that they've destroyed many of our basic institutions. These are people who write about the end of the nation-state. They claim we live in a borderless economy where nations and political power have become obsolete because most things in the world are settled by financial markets and the global economy.

This was the early globalisation debate, but that debate is now largely over. Of course, there are still people around who hold to one or other of these views, but I don't think those who have studied the issue in any detail do so any longer. There is much more general acceptance now that globalisation is a reality, albeit a very complex reality, that is effecting fundamental changes in the world. This is different from the late nineteenth century, although it does bear some close affinities with that period. There is a recognition that something new has entered our lives over the last 20 or 30 years. Most scholars now agree on this.

The great globalisation debate is no longer about whether globalisation is a reality; it is a debate about the consequences of it, and that debate, as anyone who opens a newspaper can see, is all around us. It was there in Seattle, it was there in the streets of London during the Carnival against Capitalism, it was there outside the White House during the IMF meetings in Washington. The new debate is about whether the extraordinary changes happening in financial markets--with a global electronic-based economy and 24-hour money markets--whether the advent of new forms of communication like the Internet, whether the forms of social change associated with this, such as the declining sovereignty of states, whether these things are producing a world which is so insecure, fractured, divided between rich and poor that we should be seeking to reverse the changes that have happened.

Since I'm primarily commenting on the future of the social sciences, I will briefly say what my views are on this great globalisation debate, because it is set to continue. I believe globalisation is a complex phenomenon. It is not just the globalisation of economic or financial markets; it is an institutional transformation of our lives, driven by new systems of communication rather than by systems of economic exchange. I think it is changing many things, including reshaping nations rather than destroying the nation-state. You could say this is the high point of the nation-state, as this is the first time that there haven't been any empires in the world. But plainly national sovereignty is altered under globalisation.

The protesters in the streets are against globalisation and some on the other side are for globalisation, but I don't think in the great globalisation debate these positions make any sense. Globalisation is a portmanteau term for a cluster of changes transforming the world. It doesn't make sense to say that you can be for or against that. Globalisation of communications, for example, is directly involved in the protest movements. Many who gathered in Seattle did so because they were able to communicate using new communications technologies, so there is a complex narrative in all this.

If you look at the brutish aspects of economic globalisation, you can still make a good case for free trade. Comparisons made recently show that if you look at the poorest economies in the world and you compare open poor economies with closed poor economies, the open poor economies have growth rates of about 4 percent and the closed poor economies have growth rates of zero. The result of the great globalisation debate will be a reshaping of how we think about the world, and will also involve a positive attitude for economic and social development of some of the changes that are happening.

The second great debate is what I would call the great debate about technology. The debate, to some extent, is recognising the differences which exist between science and technology. When you discuss the great debate about technology as a sociologist or an economist, you tend to think of information technology, and the role of information technology in reshaping the kind of society we live in has already been very profound.

Just look, for example, at the history of manufacturing in Western economies. A generation ago in this country around 40 percent of the labour force was in blue-collar manufacturing jobs. Now only about 17 percent are in this kind of job, and that proportion is falling. The average for EU countries and the US is about the same. Bearing in mind what I said earlier about history surprising us, I think on the whole we would expect these trends to continue, because we know their dynamics. The 17 percent who work in manufacturing today produce more goods than the 40 percent a generation ago. Some people say (and this is, you know, in the dubious realms of historical prediction, but I think it may turn out to be accurate) that manufacturing will look increasingly like agriculture. At one point, well over 30 percent of the population in Western countries worked in agriculture. Now less than 2 percent of the population work in agriculture and they produce more than the 30 percent did 70 or 80 years ago. Some people are seriously suggesting that only 5 percent of the population will be working in manufacturing in about 15 years from now. We do not, of course, know, because of the reasons I gave earlier, but I think it is a feasible projection given the direction of technological change.

The decline in manufacturing is not just due to information technology, but it is a very significant influence. If you look at the social changes that it has produced, they are extraordinary. When you had a large manufacturing sector, there was a large working class to go along with it, and the division between the working class and the rest was the basic division of Western politics. By and large, Labour and Socialist parties stood for the working class, and the working class was regarded by Marxists as the agency of future historical transformation. Now the working class in an orthodox sense is only a marginal part of contemporary societies. You could say that many others exist in contemporary conditions of insecurity that put them in similar class positions, but in truth this is almost a complete reversal of the projections that Marx himself made about the future.

Information technology now extends into the impact of the Internet. There is a mania in EU countries about the impact of the Internet; the EU has not only caught up with the US in terms of its enthusiasm, but has surpassed it. The Internet, I think, should be seen simply as an extension of the already extensive role of information technology in transforming our lives. Having been myself something of a sceptic about it, I think its impact is likely to be profound, and the most profound in orthodox business rather than in the forms of e-business that tend to receive prominence at the moment. Eighty percent of e-business start-ups are business-to-business (rather than business-to-consumer), and they are already radically transforming what a lot of big companies do.

For instance, Ford, Daimler Chrysler and GM have got together to form a global parts exchange system operating wholly through Internet technology. It already has a turnover of millions and it's only just started. Again, with all the reservations about trends, it will supposedly have a turnover of trillions of dollars in the short term, and it is estimated that it will save costs to the tune of something like 10 percent over orthodox means of supplying parts. There are many other examples of this kind of transformation.

It would be difficult to deny this is a period of massive technological transformation. The next transformation seems likely to be what Jeremy Rifkin calls the "biotech century," that is, the integration of information technology with biotechnology and with the impact of the genetic revolution more generally.

Where does this lead us? It seems to me that our relationship to science and technology is rather different from what it was in previous generations. Science and technology have long had a big impact on our lives, but because the pace of change was slower years ago, because you didn't have the globalisation of science and technology as you do today, they didn't intrude directly on our lives as profoundly and consequentially as they do now. Once this happens we're all in a kind of dialogue.

You can't wait around for scientists to discover the "truth" about the forms of innovation in technology which affect our lives, because they're already here. If you consider any of the debates in contemporary society like GM foods, these are not debates which can safely be left to the "scientific experts," because they are bound to disagree, given the intrinsically contested nature of scientific development. A kind of dialogue with science and technology is becoming part of contemporary politics. It's hard for politicians to get used to this, hence the mistakes that are made when they make announcements about uncertain states of scientific knowledge--as the Conservative government did with BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or "mad cow disease") and the Labour government did with GM crops and foods. The great technology debate can only get more intense.

The third great debate is the debate about everyday life, or, if you want to put it in a narrower context, the great debate about the family. Among the major trends in the world, nothing is more important than the sorts of trends which are affecting our individual lives, especially our relationships with one another. This is geared to a number of different changes, in particular the changing relationship between the sexes and the movement towards claiming gender equality. The worldwide movement of women into the labour force has enormous consequences for our social and economic institutions. Behind them lies not just economic changes but a kind of shift in the Zeitgeist that affects the way we see ourselves.

You could see this as a retreat from custom, tradition and habit. Custom and tradition shape our lives less and less. This brings you back to the future, because it means you have to actively structure your life, largely often on an individual basis, if you want to have a sense of what your own future will be. You can see this in the changing relationship between the sexes. You could say that, until a generation ago, for many women life held a certain fate, and this was true for many men, too. Historically, as a woman your role was domestic. You might have worked, but it was your life to bring up and nurture children--often many of them. This is no longer the case.

EU countries now have one of the lowest birth rates ever known in human history. The birth rate in Spain and Italy, which are Catholic countries, where they supposedly don't use contraceptives, is only about 1.2. Women are not stopping having children, but making the decision to have a child is a quite different type of decision from what it was in the past, for women and for men. It seems to me that to be a woman now is much more open but also difficult to handle.

With the rising freedoms of women you also get the phenomenon of the emergence of eating disorders. Anorexia and other eating disorders can be traced back to the late nineteenth century, but they begin to explode in Western countries only from the early 1960s. Diet increasingly becomes governed by lifestyle and what kind of person you are in a world which looks at you both as a free agent and as a woman, judging you in terms of certain norms of physical appearance. Some women can't cope with the stresses which this produces. And we see anorexia now affecting men--about 10 percent of anorexics are men.

Much of this discussion centres on a debate on the future of the family. The future of the family is the front line in the struggles around fundamentalism across the world. Religious fundamentalism may appear to be driven by religious imperatives, but it is also driven by sexual ones and resistance to the kinds of changes which are predicated upon a more emancipated role for women. Therefore, a great deal of fundamentalism centres on the traditional family and traditional norms of sexuality.

I think the traditional family is incompatible with sexual equality, and therefore if you want to create a society of sexual equality, as I would think we surely should, you have to recognise that the traditional family cannot survive this transformation. This doesn't mean strong families cannot be developed, or that you cannot have stable relationships, but the traditional family was founded on male power, usually enshrined in law, and upon the lack of power of children.

The fourth great debate I would define as the great political debate, and social scientists must define themselves in relation to this, too. You cannot have a society without norms of social justice and some means of redistribution. Surely the great political debate of our time is how you can sustain norms of social justice and policies of economic redistribution in a world which seems to be driving away from those things. How can one create, on a local, regional, national and global level, a society which is inclusive and just, where there is protection of the more vulnerable members, but which still adapts to the extraordinary changes which seem to elevate inequalities rather than decrease them.

According to most statistics, economic inequality in the world is on the increase, although there is some dispute about this. If you follow the broader notion of what poverty means in terms of literacy and so on, things don't look too bad, and poorer countries have improved rather than declined. But there is a gigantic division, and we see all around us divisions within our own societies. Here in London, when you walk along the Strand you see people sleeping in doorways. What to do about this world? Well, I wasn't going to mention the term "third way politics," but this debate is really a debate about how you find a different mode of development from the past.

The third way is at least a new approach to problems of social and economic development, according to Joe Stiglitz. In the postwar period, he says, people believed that the state was the key to economic development. After that, people started to think, well, the state hasn't been very successful, the market can do the job for us, and that was the period of IMF orthodoxy, with the idea that you can create a world market and somehow all will be mysteriously resolved. But that's the sort of thing that brought the Seattle demonstrators out onto the streets. Well, both views have proved ineffective, and we need a new way of development and economics. I feel very sympathetic to the new way he proposes, which is a much more diversified approach to development, emphasising the connections between democratisation, state building, civil society, the emancipation of women and economic development.

Well, where does all this leave the social sciences? To me, you can't really be a social scientist, whether an economist, an anthropologist or a geographer, without situating yourself in some of these great problem areas, because these are some of the big issues of our time. Can the social sciences deliver? What should they do to deliver? Well I would say three things.

First, social sciences must deliver enlightenment. There has to be a role for engaged theoretical reflection. You need people who are prepared to produce innovative and explanatory accounts of what is going on in the world--for example, the efforts by Manuel Castells, with his extensive three-volume work, The Network Society, which is an attempt to try and figure out a conceptual framework for analysing these changes.

Second, the role of the social sciences is to bring some scholarly discipline into popular and public consciousness. I still feel there is a role for the public intellectual, even though that notion is derogated by many people. This is someone who works within the academy, who observes the norms of scientific rigour, but is willing to communicate findings to a wider public and engage in a dialogue. I do think there are very considerable problems for university-based social science in this area, which reflects to some degree the problems of universities more generally.

A generation ago universities had more of a monopoly on the production of knowledge than they do now. If you look back to the 1970s, there were only three or four think tanks in London. Now there are about 30, most of which have a national orientation. Think tanks are quicker on their feet than universities, and they find it easier to get their ideas represented in the media. Universities depend on carrying out thorough research, which I think these new agencies feed upon, but they don't recognise their dependence. The way out, for some people in universities, is to directly engage with the public and to have a dialogue between think tanks and universities. Universities need to consider, in the social sciences above all, how they relate to other agencies of knowledge which are dealing in social-scientific knowledge and are sometimes better at presenting it to the public.

Finally, I hope LSE will play a fundamental role in all of these problem domains. LSE has a distinguished history, because although it's an intellectual institution with the best people in the social sciences, it also has a history of addressing the problems of the world, and of connecting policy issues to intellectual issues in an effective way. I would like to see it doing so in all these great debates. So to conclude, if you ask: Can the social sciences deliver an enlightened form of reflection on the world, can the social sciences engage with the public, can LSE play a fundamental role in this?-- my answer would be yes, yes and yes.

This story is taken from a lecture by Anthony Giddens at the London School of Economics and Political Science on May 18, 2000. Copyright The London School of Economics and Political Science.