Sociology towards the future

Source:Chinese Social Sciences Today 2023-11-09

It is widely accepted that sociology is a discipline primarily oriented towards the past and the present, as it relies on past occurrences to understand the present. While issues concerning time, the future in particular, are always present in sociology, their importance has long been underestimated. However, social changes in modern times are characterized by the fact that the potential significance of future societal transformation is increasingly serving as an important reference for thought and action.

Sociology has rekindled its interest in the future since the beginning of the 21st century against the backdrop of the uncertainty of contemporary society, the integration of future experiences into various aspects of daily life, and the deconstruction of traditional notions of time. In recent years, sociologists have opened up new paths of knowledge in an attempt to unravel the mystery of the future.

The first path involves re-examining the temporal framework of sociology and re-conceptualizing time. Sociologists often take time for granted in their interpretation of social life, considering time as an implicit rather than explicit feature of theoretical and empirical research. However, the “past-presentfuture” constitutes an integrated and coherent flow of time. On the one hand, past and present actions foreshadow how future actions will unfold, and expectations of the future are mostly extrapolated from the past and the present.

On the other hand, the future has a tremendous and tangible influence on the present, transforming plans, decisions, hopes, and fears for the future into present realities. Therefore, sociologists are advocating for a more materialistic conceptualization of the future, rather than regarding it as merely imaginary. They are putting emphasis on interpreting the intrinsic connection between social actors and the future from an endogenous rather than an exogenous perspective, and guiding the public to contemplate the future and its implications.

The second path involves adopting a future-oriented approach to address fundamental questions such as how the contemporary world is experienced and governed, and how society should be organized in light of long-term goals. The future shapes the current world order and provides sustained resources for the construction of reality.

Future-oriented sociology turns its attention to non-established phenomena under existing political, economic, and social arrangements, focusing on social changes, especially planned and intentional ones. Future-oriented knowledge will offer a better sociological explanation of projections and expectations, and the way they drive present social behavior. Sociologists can thus gain insight into how futureoriented actors and social systems constitute a historically self-consistent and self-referential order.

Third, “future” is a key concept that enables an understanding of dynamic social changes. Future-oriented sociology opens up new space for sociology to play a transformative role in building an ideal society and shaping collective action within the discipline. Against the backdrop of increasing global conflicts and crises, sociologists must actively engage in future-oriented empirical research on development. The future can not only be organized and governed, but also become the object of creation, construction, competition, appropriation, and consumption, as it accompanies social changes. Social actors must engage in a series of rhetorical, organized, and material activities if they want to secure a specific future.

The future of human existence constitutes an unrealized category where the objective, subjective, and normative dimensions intersect. Exploring this realm as an empirical object will pose an enormous challenge to future-oriented sociology. In brief, the future of sociology is inextricably linked with futureoriented sociology.


Wu Yuefei is an associate professor in the School of Social Development at East China Normal University.

Editor:Yu Hui

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