Researching (for) desirable futures: How can we theorize what does not exist?

Author: Dr. Ali Aslan Gümüsay


Dr. Ali Aslan Gümüsay is Head of Research Group Innovation, Entrepreneurship & Society |
Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society Researcher|University of Hamburg





Like many of our colleagues, we came to academia through a combination of intellectual curiosity to understand the world of organizations and management coupled with an ambition to produce knowledge that also shapes this world in a positive way. As we are living through troubled times of the COVID-19 pandemic, growing populism, heightened inequality and the coming climate emergency, our desire to offer inspirational models for social transformation has become greater and more urgent.

In our own work we found it useful to study examples of alternative forms of organizing – real utopias on the periphery of the mainstream which demonstrate, on a small scale, what could be possible. These included a digital social incubator, an Islamic bank with a values-based business modelprefigurative organizing in the Occupy movementtransformative initiatives for worker rights or fairer trade. Such work on heterotopias and real utopias allows us to access empirical data while also generating novel insights and implications that can be ‘translated’ into the centre of society. In other words, focusing on the periphery allows scholars to contribute changing the mainstream. We as academics then co-create social change by theorizing and legitimizing its occurrences at the fringe.

In our essay, we explore whether there is also an answer that lies beyond such search for empirical alternatives: through acts of disciplined imagination. To clarify, anticipating or predicting a probable future is not the aim. Instead, we need to reclaim our societal relevance by redefining our purpose in engaging with the future and articulate desirable futures, and how they might become reality. But how could this be done while maintaining scholarly rigor? We argue that this requires us to go beyond studying social reality as it exists and how it came to be, towards generating new visions of desirable futures along with productive insights to (trans)form it. Research can and should have both a preparatory and performative potential to equip us for and lead towards desired futures. But how can we contribute to the construction of a future social reality through theorizing?

The paradox we face in data-driven theorizing is the following: Empirical social science deals with the social world as it exists and its methodological tools are based on data sourced from observable events that have already occurred. Thus, how can we study, conceptualize, and theorize what is not (yet) observable and does not (yet) exist? How can we overcome certain limitations of empirical methods to actively feed forward soci(et)al change as academics?

This is the conundrum that we start to address in our essay. We hope that it will open up the conversation about what a new future-oriented research agenda might look like, and that management studies scholars will join us so that we can together develop new ways to research (for) the future.

This article was originally posted on Journal of Management Studies :