Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2000


Liz Stanley (2000) 'Introduction to Predictions'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 4, no. 4, <>

To cite articles published in Sociological Research Online, please reference the above information and include paragraph numbers if necessary

Received: 28/2/2000      Accepted: 28/2/2000      Published: 29/2/2000

Sociology and Prediction: A Rapid Response

Sociological Research Online has a large group of 'international correspondents' who have worked with the journal since its beginning, in fact from before its first issue was published (information about who they are will be found elsewhere on the journal's web pages). In November 1999, I read an interesting book published in Britain on the theme of 'predictions' and was stimulated to propose that this would be an interesting project for Sociological Research Online to publish on in its first issue of the 21st century, as the first 'Rapid Response' of the new century, and to invite the international correspondents to participate in this.

It is I think particularly appropriate that, as a sociology journal with a truly international readership (60,000 readers and rising from all parts of the world), an international set of sociological 'voices' should be invited to reflect on the relationship between prediction and sociology as a discipline. Therefore all of the journal's international correspondents were contacted with a request that they should write short 'think-pieces' on the theme of 'Sociology and Prediction'. They were requested to do so, not in connection with the longue dur"é"e of change, but rather concerning the next (now this) century, and focusing on how this relationship looks from the viewpoint of their own 'time and space', that is, the national and geographical contexts they are each based within.

Fewer of the international correspondents rose to the challenge, or the bait, of being able to 'speak out' in this way than had been hoped at the start of this project. This reflects two interesting things. The first is that it has become apparent how much change, of employment context but also of technology, there has been, so that some international correspondents who were in regular contact with the journal have 'vanished', technologically speaking, This has led to an unintendedly 'western' set of responses. The other is that so many academics are so hard-pressed that 'writing freely on an interesting topic' appears a long way down on the list of 'to do' things in their lives; and this too has been experienced in structured and therefore predictable ways which reflect such matters as national context, age and seniority, competing demands on people's time from 'life' and not just from 'work'. But there has been more going on here than these two things, interesting though they are.

The kinds of responses that have been made to this invitation to contribute to the Rapid Response on 'Sociology and Prediction' have also paralleled those made to the other Rapid Responses the journal has published. And this involves the sheer reluctance on the part of so many members of the discipline to think and to write reflectively on public matters, using their broad professional knowledge, but not clinging to specific data. Many sociologists appear to be thoroughly trained in not 'speaking out', in clinging to the conventional forms of 'academic discourse', so that being invited to write a 'think-piece' this and the other Rapid Responses has thrown a good many members of the discipline into something close to panic - it isn't respectable! my colleagues and/or head of department won't approve! I can't do it in less than 15,000 words and with a large data-set! I have to wait ten years!

The Rapid Responses on 'Sociology and Prediction' begin with Alan Aldridge's extended review of the book that started this project off, being invited to contribute in this way because Sociological Research Online recently published an article by him also concerned with prediction in the discipline. This is followed by 'think-pieces' from Howard Becker, Irwin Deutscher, John Jackson, Martha Gimenez, Mariyln Porter, Kenji Kosaka, Barry Wellman and Fred Hendricks. They 'speak for themselves', but there are one or two observations about these 'think-pieces' as a collection I want to make.

The first is that some interestingly different ways of thinking about prediction appear across them. 'Futurology' is prediction in its 'sorcery' sense, a 'scientific' idea but one that sits uneasily not successful. Then there is 'retrodiction', prediction backwards from events to causes. The most usual kind of prediction that sociologists engage in, both routinely and sometimes more extra-ordinarily, involves 'extropolation', moving from things as they are and the directions they're moving in, to consider where in, say, 35 years, these changes might end up. But, against all of these, we have to remember the sheer complexity of social life, not only the importance of time and space, not just the way that people attribute and negotiate meaning, but that they do so interactively, responsively. How to 'predict' in any of its senses, then, when people observe each other, think thoughts about each other, shift and change as a consequence?

The second concerns the interplay of two intellectual, but also ethical and emotional, moves across a number of these responses. One might be termed 'hope over expectation' - extracting the positives that can be observed and seeing these as the direction of future change. The other, more starkly, is that of 'things getting worse', often because of unintended spin-offs (accidents?) from changes engaged in for 'other purposes' and with other ends in mind.

I end with a small 'prediction' of my own, which is concerned with sociology and with the next ten years. The purpose of the Rapid Responses published in Sociological Research Online is to provide sociologists with the space and time to be 'public intellectuals', to 'speak out' on public events as they are happening, and to use what when younger I might have called their 'brain-boxes' in doing so. A decade or so of editorial promoting and persuading will have its effect, for by the time that 2010 rolls round some thousands of sociologists will indeed have 'spoken out' and in doing so have been made newly aware that sociology matters, in a public sense. It matters because we have interesting and insightful things to say. It matters because it can influence how people think and how people behave. So let us start with ourselves, and with the modest project of changing the discipline.

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2000