DR IVANO CARDINALE

Understanding Unimagined Events
POLITICAL ECONOMY RESEARCH FELLOW

Ivano Cardinale is Lecturer in Economics at Goldsmiths, University of London. He also lectures on the history of economic thought at the Economics Faculty of the University of Cambridge. He was previously Mead Fellow in Economics (Junior Research Fellow) at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. He holds a PhD from the University of Cambridge.

He studies foundational issues at the interface between economics, political economy, and social theory. His programme can be described as “Structural Political Economy”: studying how the mutual shaping of human action and social and economic structures can help understand economic interests, their political representation, and the political-economy paths open to societies. His articles have appeared in journals such as Academy of Management Review, Structural Change and Economic Dynamics, Revue d’économie industrielle and Economia Politica. He has published books with Cambridge University Press and Palgrave Macmillan.

His ISRF Political Economy Research Fellowship is devoted to a central problem in decision-making under uncertainty: understanding how actors construct the space of hypothetical future events they use to guide their choices between alternative actions. Economics and decision theory typically assume away the problem of how actors imagine the future. Whilst several traditions have pointed out that actors typically do not know all the relevant events that can occur in the future, they have not studied how actors construct the event space in the first place, and hence why they imagine some events but not others. This project aims to provide an explanation of unimagined events by studying the interplay between changes in social fields, in actors’ positions therein, and in different actors’ cognitive structures.

Abstract

This project falls in the area of decision making under uncertainty and aims to develop a framework to understand how actors construct the space of hypothetical future events they use to guide their choices between alternative actions. This framework will provide criteria to analyse the reliability of existing knowledge and the potential for surprising events to emerge in different social contexts, and could therefore be of considerable importance in times of rapid and often unpredictable change.

The project is grounded in conceptual work. It aims to recast a problem in economics and decision theory within a social theory framework, and to address this problem drawing on insights from the philosophy of time consciousness and social-theoretic analysis of social positions and action within them.

This research contributes to the ISRF goals in several ways. First, interest in the imagination of the future is building and converging from several disciplinary viewpoints, as reflected in the ISRF workshop in Amsterdam and in two issues of the Bulletin. Second, the opening up of economics to methods and insights from other social sciences is a core objective of ISRF, and the Political Economy

Research Fellowships seem to be pivotal for that objective. Third, this project is unlikely to be funded by other bodies, for at least three reasons:

  1. it does not aim to provide an incremental contribution to an established debate, but to define a new problem and devise a suitable analytical framework;
  2. it proposes an interdisciplinary approach to a problem in economics, relying on conceptual analysis rather than mathematical modelling; and
  3. instead of trying to subsume insights from the social sciences under an economics framework, as is often the case with economists’ attempts at interdisciplinarity, it aims to address a problem in economics by casting it within a broader social-theoretic framework.

The Research Idea

Mainstream economics and decision theory typically assume away the problem of how actors imagine the future. Whilst several research traditions have pointed out that actors typically do not know all the relevant events that can occur in the future, they have not studied how actors construct the event space in the first place, and hence why they imagine some events but not others.

To address this problem, the project aims to overcome the mainstream approach of looking at individuals taken in isolation. Instead, it relates imagination to social structure, and in particular to the positions occupied by actors within social fields, both over time and at a given moment. The idea is that experience in given positions makes it possible to imagine some events because they were experienced as such, but also to develop a habitus, which provides a “feel for the game” (Bourdieu, 1990: 66) that makes it possible to ‘practically anticipate’ events that have not occurred but are compatible with the “logic, rules and regularities” (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992: 104) of those fields. At the same time, positions are associated with taken-for-granted assumptions that make it difficult to conceive of events that are not compatible with those fields.

This suggests that the event space is internally structured, and that this structuring might depend on social positions. On this view, unimagined events can be understood by studying the interplay between changes in social fields, in actors’ positions therein, and in actors’ habitus.

Background

Mainstream economics and decision theory assume that actors know the full set of possible futures (‘states of the world’) in their decision-relevant aspects (Savage, 1954). For the aim of understanding imagination of the future, the distinction between states and events is not relevant, so I will follow the management literature and focus on events.

Much of the research questioning the aforementioned assumption has followed either of two directions. The first is investigating how to make decisions in situations in which the occurrence of hitherto unimagined events is recognized as a possibility (Gilboa, 1987; Mukerji, 1997; Ghirardato, 2001). The second is studying how to broaden the set of imagined events, e.g. through counterfactual analysis (Tetlock and Belkin, 1996; Durand and Vaara, 2009), scenario analysis (Schoemaker, 2004) or the systematic generation of possible eventualities (Feduzi and Runde, 2014).

However, existing research is largely silent on how actors come up with a particular event space in the first place and hence what events they may be more or less likely to imagine. This project can therefore be seen as responding to Shackle’s (1959; 1972; 1979) call to take imagination seriously. But whilst Shackle’s subjectivism can be seen as being compatible with the existence of structures (Runde, 1997; Latsis, 2015), this project aims to explicitly ground the phenomenological view of imagination in social positioning. In particular, it explores the structuring of imagination, by drawing on social theory that has studied the interplay between habitual and agentic components of cognition and action in social structure.

The Focus

In times of rapid social change, it is more important than ever to be equipped to understand our ability to envision new events—and potential to be surprised—in different social contexts.

By relating imagination of the future to social positioning, the project aims to understand the situations in which imagination is likely to be reliable and those in which the emergence of surprising events is more likely. As a result, the project aims to provide a framework to interrogate the reliability of existing knowledge in more or less stable social contexts.

This approach can provide insights in several areas of social life. For example, by comparing the changes in the analytical categories of policy-makers and in the socio-economic structures of the contexts in which policies are implemented, this research could help understand the ‘analytical deficits’ that are more and more often seen as characterizing policy-making, as well as envisioning the policy domains in which occurrence of unimagined events may be more likely.

Another area is the debate on expertise. Instead of assuming that the reliability of expert judgement only depends on the fit between heuristics and the complexity of different environments (e.g. Gigerenzer and Gaissmaier, 2011), this approach suggests looking at the ‘qualitative’ differences between the kinds of events that are more likely to occur in different fields, whereby some events are ‘practically anticipated’ by some actors whilst remaining completely unimagined by others.

Theoretical Novelty

The first element of conceptual innovation lies in the problem addressed: the construction of the event space, as opposed to how to broaden it or how to make decisions when the space is incomplete.

The second element lies in questioning the assumption that the event space can be reduced to a set of events posited as such, i.e. as distinct future possibilities. Instead, we need to do justice to the fact that part of our imagination is implicit: we often assume the possibility of future events—and act accordingly—without formulating them explicitly.

The third element lies in avoiding looking at individuals taken in isolation, instead relating imagination of events to positions occupied within fields in society. The aim is to understand the interplay between the actor’s history of positioning (expressed in the habitus) and current positions, in order to make sense of which events are implicitly imagined, which are posited as such, and which remain outside the event space, surprising the actor if they occur. Far from suggesting that positions determine imagination, the objective is to understand the interplay of positioning and agency in the imagination of the future (see Cardinale, 2018).

The fourth element is to bring into decision theory the insight that societies are differentiated into fields and subfields, each of which has different “logic, rules and regularities” (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992: 104), which are understood not in the Humean sense of enumeration of like instances but as an expression of propensities inherent in social structure.”

Methodology

Decision making under uncertainty is an interdisciplinary area of investigation, which draws on research in economics, psychology and epistemology among others. This project, which is based on theoretical work, requires further disciplinary inputs.

One is the distinction, inspired by Husserl’s (1991 [1966]) phenomenology of time consciousness, between events posited as such (as distinct future eventualities) and occurrences that are perceived as forthcoming and inscribed in the present, without being perceived as distinct future eventualities. This distinction is key for doing justice to the fact that part of our imagination is implicit: we often assume possible futures (and act accordingly) without formulating them explicitly.

The other inputs are drawn from different parts of social theory. The first is a definition of social structure based on social positions, which can be drawn, with somewhat different implications, from Bourdieu’s (1990; 2000) theory of practice or critical realism (Archer, 1995; Bhaskar, 1998; Lawson, 2003), among others. The second is Bourdieu’s division of societies in relatively autonomous fields and subfields, each of which has different “logic, rules and regularities” (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992: 104). The third is the understanding of how action depends on social structure (Bourdieu, 1990; Sewell, 1992; Emirbayer and Mische, 1998; Lizardo and Strand, 2010), and especially how habitus and reflexivity are concurrently in play and depend on social positions (Cardinale, 2018). Taken together, these resources help relate the kinds of events that are experienced and ‘practically anticipated’ to the fields in which actors operate, and to the specific positions occupied therein.

Work Plan

I envisage that the project will lead to writing a number of articles. One will present a theory of unimagined events along the lines discussed above. Another article will use the theory to understand the interplay between explicit and implicit imagination in more or less stable environments. A third article will apply the theory to the debate on the reliability of expert judgement. Potential outlets include journals such as Academy of Management Review, Organization Science, Organization Studies, Cambridge Journal of Economics, Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, and Theory and Society.

As is usual with conceptual work, research phases overlap considerably and have a strongly iterative nature. However, broadly speaking, I envisage four phases of about three months each. The first phase will be devoted to reconstructing the different strands on which the project relies: the formulation of the problem in decision theory, Shackle’s contribution, Husserl’s approach and how it can be used in a decision theory context, and the different approaches to social positions and action therein. In the second phase, I will develop the key conceptual model and draft the first paper. The third phase will be devoted to engaging with the literatures on imagination in more or less stable environments and on the boundaries of expertise. In the fourth phase, I will draft the second and third papers and revise the first paper in view of submission to a journal.

Outcome

The first further step has to do with how to study the construction of the event space empirically. I would like to explore collaborations with researchers specializing in different methods, with the aim to devise empirical strategies to understand the interplay between explicit and implicit imagination of the future and to relate it to positions occupied in different fields.

The other step would be a conceptual one. Having developed, in this project, a theory of how actors construct the event space, it would be interesting to study how actors make decisions given the space they have constructed. In other words, this would involve moving from the propensity to imagine certain events to the propensity to pursue a certain course of action out of all that make sense given that event space. This would require understanding how the interplay between habitus and reflexivity in given social positions induces actors to see a given course of action as an appropriate one, given the future they envision.

More broadly, this project is part of a long-term programme to address key problems in economics through tools of social theory. In this project, the problem of formation of the event space will be addressed by using theories of social positioning. The longer-term plan is to tackle broader issues, such as the nature of economic action and the definition of economic structures, by recasting them in social-theoretic terms so that their study can rely on the resources of other social sciences.