Program on Science, Technology and Society at Harvard

Harvard Kennedy School of Government | Harvard University

Uncertain Futures: Imaginaries, Narratives, and Calculative Technologies

Jens Beckert & Richard Bronk

Director, Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies & European Institute of the London School of Economics and Political Science

October 23, 2019, 5:00-7:00pm
Science Center, Lecture Hall D, 1 Oxford Street


Dynamic capitalist economies are characterised by relentless innovation and novelty and hence exhibit an indeterminacy that cannot be reduced to measurable risk. How then do economic actors form expectations and decide how to act despite this uncertainty? This talk will focus on the role played by imaginaries, narratives, and calculative technologies, and argue that the market impact of shared calculation devices, social narratives, and contingent imaginaries underlines the rationale for a new form of ‘narrative economics’ and a theory of fictional (rather than rational) expectations. When expectations cannot be anchored in objective probability functions, the future belongs to those with the market, political, or rhetorical power to make their models or stories count. The talk will also explore the dangers of analytical monocultures and discourses of best practice in conditions of uncertainty, as well as the link between uncertainty and some aspects of populism such as the distrust of experts.


Esther Duflo

Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Poverty Alleviation and Development Economics in the Department of Economics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Jason Jackson

Assistant Professor of Political Economy and Urban Planning, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Emma Rothschild

Jeremy and Jane Knowles Professor of History Director, Center for History and Economics, Harvard University

Moderated by

Sheila Jasanoff

Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies, Harvard Kennedy School

About the speaker

Jens Beckert is director of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne, Germany. He is currently Theodor Heuß Visiting Professor at the New School for Social Research in New York. Beckert works in the field of economic sociology with a special interest in the investigation of markets. In recent years his research has focused on the role of expectations and imaginaries in economic decision making. His book Imagined Futures: Fictional Expectations and Capitalist Dynamics was published in 2016 with Harvard University Press.

Richard Bronk is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the European Institute of the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). Prior to joining the LSE in 2000, Bronk worked for seventeen years in the Bank of England and as an equity fund manager. His approach to philosophy of economics is grounded in a history of ideas perspective and in his practical experience in markets and policy. He is the author of The Romantic Economist: Imagination in Economics, published by Cambridge University Press in 2009.

Co-sponsored by the Harvard University Center for the Environment and the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs.