Imagined Futures - Hope, Risk and Uncertainty

“Who, ultimately, chooses the future for contemporary youth?...Cook’s book is an excellent contribution for pushing further research not only in relation to theories on the future – probably the most predominant feature of the book – but also, in perspective, on a policy sensitive level.” Valentina Cuzzocrea, Universita` di Cagliari, Italy

Imagined Futures – Hope, Risk and Uncertainty interrogates the relationship between individual’s expectations and hopes they have for their lives and that of the world around them. The book presents the findings of an interview-based study of 28 adults living in Melbourne conducted by youth sociologist, Dr Julia Cook. The book is based on research Dr Cook conducted for her PhD and examines how young people relate to both their personal and societal future.

“I went into the PhD knowing I wanted to do research on young adults and I wanted to look at something to do with managing and coping with uncertainty within individuals day to day lives. This brought me to the sub-field of the sociology of time. Over the past decade there have been a number of large-scale quantitative studies looking at the attitudes and impressions of young people, and their thoughts about what the future might hold. However I wanted to take a qualitative approach and get an in-depth view of the complexities involved in this topic,” Dr Cook said.

Dr Cook says she is fascinated by research into people’s ideas of the future because it delivers a unique vantage point for looking at society and social issues.

“If someone asks you what you think is important in society and your place in it, it’s a very challenging question to answer. The answers to this question and others I posed in the study show the extent to which people feel they are integrated into their own society,” she said.

“Contemporary life differs greatly from human history which generally dictated that if you were born into a certain class, family or job then that is the role you would inherit. With an increase in social mobility after the industrial revolution this began to change and now our place within society is no longer such a good predictor of what the future will look like,” Cook noted. “Contemporary life is also incredibly complex so it naturally hinders our ability to anticipate what the future will hold.”

Dr Cook approached the study participant interviews in two phases, firstly asking them about their everyday lives, personal history and plans, hopes and thoughts about their own future. In the second phase Dr Cook asked the participants about their thoughts on the future of their society including politics, the environment and the social context within which they existed.

“The second part moved from the personal to the social and was exploratory because I didn’t want to pre-determine how they would think about the future, so I didn’t ask closed or overly specific questions and allowed the conversation to flow. It worked quite well and allowed me to organically identify some of the similarities and differences in what people were saying,” Dr Cook said.

Dr Cook found that most of the young people she interviewed were in contrast to the self-focused stereotype of young people.

“I was surprised about how much the participants had to say about the societal future. Their responses could be grouped into a set of common themes. For example a lot of what the participants were saying about the future used Christian ideas and language, whether they were from the Christian faith or not. Because all the study participants were Australian born this speaks to a general Christian society coming through, and a latent diffusal of those ideas does colour how people think and speak about the future. For example when people were thinking about climate change they often brought up imagery associated with apocalypse,” Dr Cook said.

“I also found there was interesting discussion to be had around the role of technology versus the role of human actors. Some participants thought there would be advances in technology that might solve some of the environmental issues we’re facing. Some emphasised that no matter what technological innovations are developed there’s still human priorities and attitudes that need to be shifted before anything can be done.”

One of the conclusions that Dr Cook comes to in the book is that despite the fact that the study participants were almost uniformly relatively pessimistic about the future that didn’t mean they didn’t have a sense of hope that things could get better.

“There was always some element of hope. They didn’t have a rosy idea of the future but on the flip side they didn’t see it as a lost cause either. We know there are a lot of environmental challenges facing the globe at present but this core of hope led the participants to believe that they are not entirely insurmountable.”

“In trying to provoke people into action around things like climate change there is a real temptation to go with scare tactics and disaster stories and images of mass animal deaths, but going with that very fatalistic attitude of ‘it’s already too late’ may not stir people into action and it can be quite paralysing.”

“The participants in the study were already doing small things to improve the world around them and they were able to act because they had a sense of hope that things could get better.”

In the book Dr Cook works on identifying the specific contours of that kind of hope examining where it comes from, what it means and what it can do. Dr Cook says there has been a very important turn toward empirical research looking at the concept of hope within sociology and anthropology since the year 2000.

“Hope is more difficult to extinguish than many other emotional resources. For example many of the participants in my study didn’t have a tremendous sense of social trust in government institutions in terms of safeguarding against long term issues like environmental concerns. But they still had hope. Many of the participants were not religious so didn’t have a strong sense of faith to fall back on which can be a means of coping with uncertainty. But they had hope left and it had its own sort of resilience and it wasn’t easily damaged by government actions they didn’t agree with,” Dr Cook observed.