The Growing Strength of Future Studies

Originally published:
Morrison, J. L. (1998). The growing strength of future studies. Planning for Higher Education, 26(4), 45-47.
Reprinted here with permission of the Society for College and University Planning.


Foundations of Futures Studies: Human Science for a New Era, by Wendell Bell. Two volumes. Transaction Publishers, 1997. Volume 1: 365 pages, ISBN 1-56000-271-9. Volume 2: 371 pages, ISBN 1-56000-281-6.

In the spring of 1980, I attended my first annual conference of the World Future Society. I was not there because I thought I would learn anything worthwhile from futurists—after all, I was trained as a research sociologist, and to me causal modeling using advanced statistical techniques such as two- and three-stage least squares seemed the best way to approach planning and policy analysis.

I agreed to attend the conference for two reasons: I had never been to Toronto, Canada before, and the monitor on our research contract suggested I go and offered to pay my travel expenses and the cost of meals with leading futurists. I attended the first session out of curiosity. But it was so intriguing I attended several more and invited numerous futurists to breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I was converted in Toronto to being a futurist.

Wendell Bell, who recently retired as chair of Yale University's sociology department, reminded me of this conversion experience because he describes his own conversion to a futurist 25 years ago in the new and magnificent two-volume work, Foundations of Futures Studies: Human Science for a New Era. As Bell explains the history, perspectives, assumptions, methods, and usefulness of futures research in these books, I could see more clearly why I became a futurist. I warn all readers: these two volumes are so wel-argued and well-written that you may find yourself being converted, too.

What is the value of futures study to college and university planning? Bell points out that the purpose of these studies is to invent, examine, and evaluate possible, probable, and preferable futures. By imagining and forecasting possible futures for society, higher education, and our institutions, evaluating their probabilities, and looking at the action alternatives, we tend to be freer to discover important possibilities and prepare for strategic actions. We all tend to get hemmed in by the current "realities" and difficulties of change and often fail to see or seize new opportunities.

To illustrate, Bell cites the example of the Kremer Prize, a  50,000 sterling prize for the first human-powered flight around a one-mile figure-eight course. In Germany, an aeronautics professor proclaimed that it couldn't be done, so no German entered the contest. But an American, Paul MacCready, Jr., accepted the challenge and won the prize in August 1997.

Sure, the future is uncertain. However, we can shape scenarios about the future that can be used to help design our actions. These statements about the possible futures are not "knowledge." The future is not factual until it has become the past. Therefore, futurists formulate their assertions in a range of alternative futures. Planners can then devise plans for each alternative, and examine each of them, thereby stimulating creative ideas that people could have obtained in no other way.

Can futures research become a science? Most would say no. But Bell argues fairly persuasively that futures research at its best is already a science. He also characterizes it as an art (as in the art of conjecture). But he contends that a significant portion of scientific research is also an art. To Bell, futurist assertions are based in large part upon the scientific study of past and present realities, and upon conjectures involving predictions. Scientists too study the present, form hypotheses, and predict future behavior and occurrences.

Bell acknowledges that although a prediction may be justified when it is made, that prediction may turn out to be false. This is because predictions are contingent on conditions, and conditions often change. For example, envision an air control tower operator seeing two blips on the radar screen approaching each other. The operator predicts a collision and quickly orders direction changes for both aircraft pilots, and the collision is avoided.

Looking Ahead, With Preferences

In the first volume, subtitled "History, Purposes, Knowledge," Bell describes the origins and progress of this new field of inquiry and explains the intellectual tools and theories of futures research. The central people in the growth of the field are mentioned, and the special kind of knowledge that futures studies has attained is delineated. Those planners who are more theoretically, methodologically, or epistemologically inclined will find this first volume enlightening and even enchanting. Chapter 6 is a cornucopia of ideas about the methods of futures research. Bell is a rigorous social scientist but explains everything in language that any moderately educated layperson can understand.

The second volume, Bell says, deals with "the ethical foundations of futures studies." As he writes,

Critical appraisals of value judgments and moral principles are fundamental to futures studies. They are the base or bedrock on which assertions about preferable futures and the good society rest. As action scientists futurists cannot rightly avoid the responsibility of critically evaluating the desirability of the ends, means, and future consequences of human action or inaction....

Since all architectural and strategic planners must decide whether to express certain values or preferences in their initiatives, this second volume is especially valuable, particularly Chapter 3, "Some Practical Strategies for Judging Preferable Futures."

Like James Q. Wilson (1993) and Rushworth Kidder (1995), Bell believes there exists, underneath all the flowering forms, a "universal set of values."

Contrary to the dominant view in most academic and intellectual circles ... core values are largely the same in all societies and cultures. This is so because the origins of human values are to be found in the similar nature of all humans as biopsychological beings, in the preconditions of social life that are the same everywhere and in the universal features of this earthly physical world.

This is clearly an arguable belief, but it allows Bell to hope that nations and cultures may be able to come together in peace and freedom one of these centuries.

Foundations of Futures Studies has been hailed as "a masterpiece" and "a stunning tour de force" by early reviewers. It is without question the finest pair of books to be written about the enlarging field of futures studies. Among the paradigmatic shifts in thought and research in the past several decades has been the elevation of concern about the future to a position approaching equality with concern about the past. The Society for College and University Planning has contributed to this shift. Bell's two volumes provide a remarkable summary of where we are today in our methods of studying the future and making decisions based on scholarly, reasonable conjectures.


Kidder, Rushworth. 1995. How Good People Make Tough Choices. New York: William Morrow.

Wilson, James Q. 1993. The Moral Sense. New York: The Free Press.