Scenarios as Narratives of Reactive Sequences: Lessons from Historical Social Science


Scenarios are one of the most widely used methods in futures research, and there is a wide variety of scenario methods, as documented by Bishop et al. (2007), for example. Scenarios are commonly used in practically oriented foresight work as structural descriptions of the future which help to anticipate possible future circumstances. In this context, the focus is on the impacts of trends, variables and macro-level drivers.

In an introduction to a recent special issue of Futures, Mermet, Fuller and van der Helm call for critical discussion of the theoretical bases of futures work, drawing on both work within the futures field and in other academic fields (Mermet et al., 2009). This paper contributes to this goal by discussing how concepts from historical social sciences could enrich the theoretical basis of scenario building.

In this article, scenarios are examined as tools to anticipate possible social change processes from an event-based perspective. The starting point of the paper is the parallel between futures studies and historical social science as fields which study change over time. In particular, three central concepts from historical social science are considered as important for scenario construction: 1) narrative explanation, 2) reactive sequences and 3) causal mechanisms. A tentative a scenario framework is presented to incorporate these concepts into scenario building.

Scenario approaches

Scenarios are one of the central tools of futures research. According to Bell (1997), 317, scenarios are used by all futurists in some form and scenarios are the end product of all futures research methods. Despite the wide spread of scenario methods, or perhaps because of it, there is no consensus on what scenarios are and how they ought to be created. Several recent articles have divided scenario approaches into scenario types (Bishop et al., 2007; Bradfield et al., 2005; Börjeson et al., 2006; van Notten et al., 2003). These typologies are based on different criteria. For example, Börjeson et al. (2006) focus on purposes and aims, while Bishop et al. (2007) focus on scenario techniques, and van Notten et al. (2003) ambitiously consider project goal, process design and scenario content. Bradfield et al. (2005), in turn, focus on three historical schools of scenario development.

In this paper, I will focus on what van Notten et al. (2003) call scenario content: the characteristics of the actual scenarios rather than the practical aims of the exercise, the process design or the organisational surroundings. More specifically, I am interested in the theoretical and social scientific basis of the scenario content and the claims that are made within scenarios.