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 MPIfG Books



Jens Beckert and Richard Bronk (eds.)
Uncertain Futures
Imaginaries, Narratives, and Calculation in the Economy
Oxford University Press, 2018
352 pages | ISBN 978-0-19-882080-2 (hardback) | £38.50 | $52.50

Order book directly from Oxford.
Podcast: Richard Bronk on "How do stories help us understand the world?" (starts at minute 12:45)
Podcast: Uncertain Futures: Imaginaries, Narratives, and Calculation in the Economy (LSE Public lectures and events)
Podcast: Jens Beckert and Richard Bronk – Uncertain Futures: Imaginaries, Narrative, and Calculation in the Economy (Rhodes Center Podcasts)
Uncertain Futures: Imaginaries, Narratives, and Calculation in the Economy – Book talk by Jens Beckert and Richard Bronk, Brown University, October 24, 2019


Abstract | Contents | Editors | Reviews




Uncertain Futures considers how economic actors visualize the future and decide how to act in conditions of radical uncertainty. It starts from the premise that dynamic capitalist economies are characterized by relentless innovation and novelty and hence exhibit an indeterminacy that cannot be reduced to measurable risk. The organizing question then becomes how economic actors form expectations and make decisions despite the uncertainty they face.
This edited volume lays the foundations for a new model of economic reasoning by showing how, in conditions of uncertainty, economic actors combine calculation with imaginaries and narratives to form fictional expectations that coordinate action and provide the confidence to act. It draws on groundbreaking research in economic sociology, economics, anthropology, and psychology to present theoretically grounded empirical case studies. These demonstrate how grand narratives, central bank forward guidance, economic forecasts, finance models, business plans, visions of technological futures, and new era stories influence behaviour and become instruments of power in markets and societies. The market impact of shared calculative devices, social narratives, and contingent imaginaries underlines the rationale for a new form of narrative economics.



1. An Introduction to Uncertain Futures
Jens Beckert and Richard Bronk
Section I   The Nature of Expectations in Modern Political Economies
2. Expectations, Narratives, and Socio-Economic Regimes
Robert Boyer
3. Conviction Narrative Theory and Understanding Decision-Making in Economics and Finance
David Tuckett
4. Arctic Futures: Expectations, Interests, Claims, and the Making of Arctic Territory
Jenny Andersson
Section II   The Strange World of Economic Forecasting
5. The Interactional Foundations of Economic Forecasting
Werner Reichmann
6. Escaping the Reality Test: How Macroeconomic Forecasters Deal with 'Errors'
Olivier Pilmis
7. Uncertainty in Macroeconomic Modelling
Andrew G. Haldane
Section III   The Role of Narratives and Planning in Central Banking
8. A Tractable Future: Central Banks in Conversation with their Publics
Douglas R. Holmes
9. Central Bank Planning? Unconventional Monetary Policy and the Price of Bending the Yield Curve
Benjamin Braun
Section IV   Constructing Futures in Finance
10. Predicted Uncertainty: Volatility Calculus and the Indeterminacy of the Future
Elena Esposito
11. Uncertain Meanings of Risk: Calculative Practices and Risk Conceptions in Credit Rating Agencies
Natalia Besedovsky
Section V   Managing Expectations in Innovative Business
12. Processing the Future: Venture Project Evaluation at American Research and Development Corporation (1946–1973)
Martin Giraudeau
13. Discounting and the Making of the Future: On Uncertainty in Forest Management and Drug Development
Liliana Doganova
14. The Dilemma between Aligned Expectations and Diversity in Innovation: Evidence from Early Energy Technology Policies
Timur Ergen



Jens Beckert, is director of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne. In 2018 he was awarded the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize for his work reinvigorating the social sciences with an interdisciplinary perspective, especially at the intersection of sociology and economics. His research focuses on the fields of economic sociology, sociology of inheritance, organization theory, and social theory.
Richard Bronk is a visiting fellow in the European Institute at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He spent seventeen years working in the City of London and the Bank of England before teaching political economy at LSE from 2000–2007. His research now focuses on the role of imagination and language in economics, the dangers of analytical and regulatory monocultures, and the epistemology of markets.



"Uncertain Futures is a stimulating and diverse collection of papers about the consequences of radical uncertainty and how they are managed in practice. As the clear and comprehensive introduction by the editors explains, devices such as narratives, stories, conversations and 'imaginaries' give shape to expectations of the future."
William A. Allen (National Institute of Economic & Social Research), The Society of Professional Economists, March 29, 2019.
"Beckert and Bronk suggest that economic actors strongly anchor their expectations in narratives that are akin to literary fictions. The point is that literary narratives are read because they are convincing, not because they are true. Plausible (because convincing) imaginaries provide the basis for decision-making and help one to overcome radical uncertainty. ...This theme is further developed and illustrated by the volume’s contributors who provide vivid historical and empirical examples of how fictional expectations are formed and debated in various fields. These range from financial markets and credit rating agencies to economic forecasting institutions, central banking, geopolitics and technological innovations. … Overall, Uncertain Futures is a thought-provoking and analytically helpful book. It corrects some established assumptions in economics and sociology and proposes directions for further research in such important fields as decision-making under uncertainty, economic microfoundations and sociology of expectations."
Ekaterina Svetlova, LSE Review of Books, February 18th, 2019.
"I commend this perspective to economists. This is exciting intellectual territory and seems to me rather important at a time when uncertainty about the future seems more uncertain than ever."
Diane Coyle, Imagining the economy, The Enlightened Economist, August 18, 2018.
"Collectively, the essential introduction and the selected chapters form a powerful and well-developed contribution to current knowledge about the economy in the social sciences. [...] Beckert’s and Bronk’s Uncertain Futures is highly recommended for a wide range of readers, being able to speak to economic sociologists, anthropologists, political economists, psychologists and, why not, economists, too."
Dylan Cassar, The British Journal of Sociology, book review, published online 31 January 2019.
"Economic theory is built on how people make decisions, and in real life all decisions are made under some degree of fundamental uncertainty - people simply do not know what future they face. Uncertain Futures shows that people use works of imagination, or they use narratives, or calculative practices such as business plans, to act in spite of uncertainty. Economics – thanks to Beckert and Bronk – can build upon a much more realistic human foundation than before. A first-rate contribution to the field."
W. Brian Arthur, author of "Complexity and the Economy"
"Especially when uncertainties produced by innovation are compounded by second-order uncertainties about the reactions of others, what should one do when rational calculation of probabilities based on past data is ineffective in predicting the future? From a diverse range of disciplinary perspectives, the essays in this collection creatively explore the role of imagination – long studied as a source of innovation, but until now neglected as a response to uncertainty."
David Stark, Columbia University and author of "The Sense of Dissonance"
"We all have to take decisions with long-term consequences, with little knowledge of what the future may bring. The future is inherently uncertain, so we cannot even estimate probabilities in most cases. The editors of this book have put together a collection of papers by economic sociologists, economists, a psychologist, and an anthropologist to explore the various calculative techniques, narratives, and imaginaries that we use in practice. It is all a far cry from the precise mathematical techniques of the rational expectation world of mainstream DSGE modelling, but none the worse for that."
Charles Goodhart, Emeritus Professor of Economics at the London School of Economics and former member of the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England
"How do people make sense of the unknown – perhaps unknowable – future? It is becoming increasingly clear that this question is central to our understanding of economic life. The fine collection of studies in this book is a crucial contribution to this vital debate."
Donald MacKenzie, University of Edinburgh and author of "An Engine, Not a Camera"

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