This article analyses the concept of epistemic community focusing the attention on two aspects, which contribute to define this ‘actor’: knowledge and capacity of acting under the conditions of uncertainty. The link between these two issues and the ‘nature of future studies’ is considered and the possibility of considering some organisations and institutions as future epistemic communities is explored. The case of the World Futures Studies Federation is examined in detail. In 1992, Peter Haas defined an ‘epistemic community’ as follows: “an epistemic community is a network of professionals from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds, they have a shared set of normative and principled beliefs, which provide a value-based rationale for the social action of community members; shared causal beliefs, which are derived from their analysis of practices leading or contributing to a central set of problems in their domain and which then serve as the basis for elucidating the multiple linkages between possible policy actions and desired outcomes; shared notions of validity—that is, inter-subjective, internally defined criteria for weighing and validating knowledge in the domain of their expertise; and a common policy enterprise—that is a set of common practices associated with a set of problems to which their professional competence is directed, presumably out of the conviction that human welfare will be enhanced as a consequence” (1) . In ancient Greek, the term ‘episteme’ has a meaning which belongs to the philosophical sphere; ‘community’ is a concept which comes from the religious tradition and, more recently, has been the objective of sociological studies. Epistemic community links the two terms to indicate a ‘new’ and in some aspects, atypical political actor. At etymological level we already have a first sort of indication with respect to what is meant: politics as a synthesis of religion (faith), sociology (the decisions taken by policy makers have consequences on the whole society) and philosophy (intended as Weltanschaung ). The German term Weltanschaung means the idea, concept or the ‘vision’ of the world and life. It is the way in which an individual or a social group considers the position of the human being in the world and the attitudes and actions they develop on the basis of a particular vision of the cosmos. In addition to this formal definition, Haas identifies other characteristics: “members of an epistemic community share inter-subjective understandings; have a shared way of knowing; have shared patterns of reasoning; have a policy project drawing on shared causal beliefs, and the use of shared discursive practices and have a shared commitment to the application and production of knowledge” (1) . This definition could be analysed in several ways with particular attention to one or more of the indicated criteria. We could assume that the expression ‘possible policy actions and desired outcomes’ is to be understood as the ‘long term implications, expected, possible, probable and desired’ of a decision taken or that which will be taken, and this would already represent a linkage between the policy, the futures studies and an epistemic community; moreover, usually ‘the policy choices concern consequences, which can only be partially anticipated’ (2) . This gives rise ‘to the desire for information, which is not so much based on purely technical knowledge but rather information, which is the product of human interpretation’ (1) . Epistemic communities, national or trans-national, are one possible provider of such information. At this stage, and considering only this aspect of the whole definition, we could argue that a network of experts active in the field of future studies would represent the perfect portrait of what we are looking for: a multi-person actor able to ‘anticipate’, using knowledge, various backgrounds and expertise. To anticipate, in this context, might be specified as to understand or comprehend global and local changes. In general, futurists work within the framework of complexity and uncertainty, try to re-define problems in broader context and attempt to comprehend ‘change’ using knowledge. An example could be helpful: the change we are experiencing in Eastern European countries appears as multi-dimensional: in less than 15 years those countries have moved from a • socialist economy (closed and planned), to a • ‘Western economy’ (the so-called market economy), to a • technological one as a consequence of globalisation and, lastly, • to the learning economy. The first step (socialist economy), recalls other sectors in which the ‘ideas’ were closed and planned. The society was divided into classes and the dominant concept was ‘war’. In this context, every single action was intended as a possibility to demonstrate the points of strength of a system: sports, culture and economy were part of the battle and the vision of the future was mostly influenced by the possibility to destroy or to be destroyed. Examples of these considerations could be seen in the choice made by the USA government in its participation at Olympic Games in Moscow (1980), the USSR’s answer in 1984 (Los Angeles Olympic Games) and the proliferation of nuclear holocaust movies such as The Day After . These ideas were strongly present amongst the people of the Eastern countries, but after 1989, things changed and ‘gradually’ the new paradigms based on ‘Western values’ and, for a few, Western lifestyles, emerged. Probably these changes caused shocks in the local societies, shocks that have had consequences also in the way these societies now see their futures. The third step, the shift to a technological economy, has been faster and wider, thanks largely to the new communication technologies and the Internet. In understanding and developing alternative futures for Eastern Europe, futurists have to take account of the fact that all the three economies exist side by side—Eastern Europe does not represent one or the other economies, it is a complex mix of all the three economies. This complexity is further augmented by the fact that Eastern European societies have not had enough time to understand their present in order to be able to desire possible, alternative futures. Further, economic competitiveness is now based more and more on the capacity to develop and apply knowledge (3) . Thus, futures of Eastern Europe are a function of its capacity to develop relevant new forms of knowledge. Futurists cannot afford to ignore this connection between the knowledge and alternative futures. Thus, the concept of epistemic community and the theory of ‘knowledge economy’ have a great deal in common. If we consider that the so-called ‘decision-makers’ are (in democratic countries) elected by the people, we can argue that that section of the people able to disseminate consciousness of problems, possible solutions and long term implications, posses a form of power. Without engaging with this power, we cannot shape viable and meaningful futures. Are there any trans-national networks of expert where it is possible to identify these characteristics of an ‘embryonic’ epistemic community? In some respect this could be the case of the World Futures Studies Federation (WFSF), or of the Washington-based World Future Society (WFS) or, at regional level, of the Namur-based euroProspective or the Finland Futures Research Centre, where we have structured networks of the experts coming with different experiences, from different backgrounds, a common interest (to analyse the society from different perspective, but all future oriented), a shared task (to disseminate the use of futures studies not only as a tool but also as a way of thinking) and diversity in knowledge, which is what keeps them together. Moreover, for most of the members, the idea of knowledge economy is already their reality and the capacity to understand trends, possible (or even better) probable futures is the aim of their professional activities. If we briefly consider those organisations, we could assume that they already posses some aspects related to the concept of epistemic community: the WFS for example “strives to serve as a neutral clearinghouse for ideas about the future, membership is open and the Society includes 30,000 people in more than 80 countries from Argentina to Zimbabwe. Members come from all walks of life, they include sociologists, scientists, and educators” (4) . If the WFS’s main strength is in trans-national partnership and different backgrounds of its members, the regional experience that euroProspective is carrying out is mostly based on the construction of a European network of experts. The inter-exchange of ideas and a common ‘mission’ are the two elements, which could let us consider this organisation as futures epistemic communities. Another example, at national/regional level, is the one provided by the Finland Futures Research Centre; the link with epistemic community is offered by the activity and the nature of some projects of this institution such as ‘sustainable energy development in developing countries’, ‘Russian energy and global climate’, ‘collisions of nature and culture in transport policy’, ‘professional delphiscan , an expert system’ (5) —all of these projects or tools ( delphiscan is a software) are aimed at producing a relationship between political power and future and knowledge power. There are several reasons why we cannot consider the WFSF by itself as an epistemic community. Perhaps the most important is that it does not have a direct link with the political power; neither does the Federation seek any kind of influence on public authorities or on the decision-making process. But in as much as the Federation is concerned with managing change, it could be considered as an actor able to help people and the institutions understand the on-going processes of change. In the coming years, it will probably be forced to become an epistemic community as it will be necessary to ‘represent and clarify the relation between knowledge management, ICT usage and experts in futures studies as mediators between the complexity of political decision and the tendency of institutions to became advanced learning organisation’ (6,7) . We also need to study the role the futures studies can play in clarifying those ‘shadow zones’ between the political power and the complexity of the decision-making processes. In this respect, it has to be underlined that the demand for the expert advice is a common phenomenon in policy-making processes, at local, national and international level. All this processes have a concrete objective, which would offer the possibility to exploit the added value of a ‘federation intended as a sort of epistemic community’: the credibility of the futures studies and, consequentially, the credibility of the experts active in this field, depends on this. The debate and the progress of these considerations should be developed in a multi-disciplinary and trans-disciplinary way with respect to several subjects and research areas, but this is only a logical consequence of the ‘nature and the different backgrounds’ already represented in the Federation. A theme (which emerged during the conference held in Brasov), which allows us to identify a relationship between an epistemic community and the social needs is globalisation. While globalisation is difficult to pin down, it is quite evident that we are living through a phase of transition. But as futurists and a potential epistemic community, our goal ought to be to develop an understanding of, and perspectives on, post-globalisation societies. This suggests that we need to identify the relationships between an epistemic community, the futures studies and the organisations active in this field such as WFSF and euroProspective. The analytical tools offered by the concept of epistemic community seem appropriate under the current prevailing conditions of uncertainty and ignorance. Understanding uncertainty and bringing multi-faceted expertise and knowledge to analyse difficult problems and propose future solutions are the two fundamental characteristics of futurists. The constitution of a network of experts coming from different backgrounds is already a reality inside the Federation but, at the moment, there is no linkage with the traditional and democratic forms of power. To become an active epistemic community, the WFSF has to realise its potential and develop these much needed linkages.
Futures – Elsevier
Published: Oct 1, 2002
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