Futures Studies: What is it, and how can it be ‘evidence-based’ research?

by Tegan Darnell
Research Librarian
University of Southern Queensland, Australia

In March 2015, I started as a student in the Doctorate of Professional Studies (DPST) program. I wanted to find out why librarians are ‘doing’ information practice so far behind what is relevant in the current information environment. Obviously, we are all at different places and have different strengths in regards to our professional practice, but generally, as a group, librarians are, well, behind the information use of our clientele. Just admit it.

Scholarly communication has been transformed. The world in which information professionals operate has been disrupted, and embracing these changes allows for a much broader scope for the roles we play. I wanted, really, to shake things up. After reading tonnes of the literature, debating with myself, and arguing with the DPST Program Director about how I was going to address the problem, I was introduced to causal layered analysis (CLA).

CLA is a ‘futures studies’ methodology which was introduced by Sohail Inayatullah in 1998. The original paper can be found here. Professor Inayatullah is a practitioner of futures studies, the interdisciplinary study of postulating possible, probable, and preferable futures. But how can this possibly be scientific? I mean, how can it be possible to collect evidence from a future that hasn’t happened yet? It is a paradox which has not been ignored by practitioners.

Futures studies is a growing transdisciplinary field which has embraced such fields as systems thinking, education, hermeneutics, macrohistory, sociology, management, ecology, literature, ethics, philosophy, planning and others. It is an integrated field ‘with many lines of inquiry weaved together’ to create a complex whole (Ramos 2002).
The discipline uses a systematic and pattern-based approach to analysing the sources, patterns, and causes of change and stability in the past (history, economics, political science) and present (sociology, economics, political science, critical theory) in an attempt to develop foresight and determine the likelihood of future events and trends.

De Jouvenel (1965), an early futures theorist, likened forecasting or ‘the art of conjecture’ to the science of the meteorologist. Weather forecasts can be prepared reasonably accurately for each of the next few days. A forecast for more than a month in advance can be based on patterns, such as normal temperatures and precipitation, and other factors which may affect these in relation to the average. There is no way for a meteorologist to, with any certainty, say what the minimum and maximum temperature and precipitation levels on a particular day one month in the future will be. The meteorologist may, however, be able to say that it is likely that we will have above average rainfall, or that temperatures will be below average. A futures study considers patterns of power and privilege, social institutions, religion, and history, to postulate possible future states that may recur.

The causal layered analysis method, specifically, is not used to predict the future, but rather to create ‘transformative spaces for the creation of alternative futures’ (Inayatullah 1998). It is an action research method for increasing the probability of a preferred future by examining the problems, systems, worldviews and myths of the present. It is about human agency – using what we know about the past, to act in the present, in order to create/shape the future we would like to see.

Just imagine librarians in your own workplace, critically examining their own current problems, existing systems, worldviews, and subconscious myths and mythologies, to transform their practice. Perhaps you are starting to see why I decided to use the causal layered analysis method in my research.

I’m currently preparing for Confirmation of Candidature. Professor Inayatullah has agreed to be one of my supervisors. I think that makes me a *ahem* futures theorist.

If you are interested in finding out more I recommend this article by Professor Inayatullah on Library Futures published in The Futurist magazine.


Inayatullah, S 1998, ‘Causal layered analysis: Poststructuralism as method’, Futures, vol. 30, no. 8, pp. 815–829.

De Jouvenel, B 1965, The Art of Conjecture, Trans. by Nikita Lary. Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London.

Ramos, JM 2002, ‘Action Research as Foresight Methodology’, Journal of Futures Studies, vol. 7, no.1, pp. 1-24.

This article gives the views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.