Emerging pathways for critical futures research: Changing contexts and impacts of social theory

Toni Ahlqvist, Martin Rhisiart

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

67 Citations (Scopus)


There has always been a critical, emancipatory tradition within futures studies. Although those voices can still be heard, there has been a growing tendency for futures studies to be driven by more utilitarian needs in business and government. Whilst it is positive that futures thinking and research is increasingly valued within corporate and policy-making settings, much of that work appears to lack genuine plurality of worldviews and interests. The paper traces the changing contexts for futures research over the past 25 years. It argues that futures research needs to be viewed as part of the re-politicisation - in the Habermasian sense - of technocratic decision-making. It suggests that there are three particular reasons for revisiting the need for criticality in futures research: the increasing acknowledgement of systemic interrelatedness (ecological, social, economic), a growth in the forward-looking socio-economic paradigm that permeates both business and policy, and the challenge of theory development. Drawing on social theory and futures research, we suggest three pathways for revived critical futures research: socio-technical practices, future-oriented dialectics, and socio-economic imaginaries. As a result, the paper calls for development in futures studies that would dialectically integrate and overcome the dichotomy between instrumentalisation and (critical) theorising that can be currently understood as somewhat antagonistic. In order to find a balance between these antagonistic dimensions, futures research should be more engaged in enabling critique and revealing assumptions and interests.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)91-104
Publication statusPublished - 2015
MoE publication typeA1 Journal article-refereed


  • critical theory
  • social theory
  • critical futures research


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