While many research projects are focused on description and explanation, some attempt to “predict”. Indeed, one we understand what is happening and why it is occurring, we may be tempted to attempt to understand the conditions under which that phenomenon or others like it will happen in the future. Social science researchers have come up with a set of techniques–broadly called scenario-building–which attempt to do this while paying attention to the uncertain and probabilistic nature of the social universe. A good introduction to such approaches is Bernstein et al.’s article, “God Gave Physics the Easy Problems” (see Resources, below).

There is a general consensus in the literature on scenarios that several key questions need to be addressed by researchers:

  • What is the key outcome of concern?
  • What are the possible factors which could influence that outcome?
    • Which of these are predetermined and unlikely to change?
    • Which of the remaining factors are likely to vary in definable ways? With what likely results?
  • What are the important wild cards which may influence the outcome?


Abstract: In this piece about social science research itself, Bernstein and his colleagues acknowledge and consider the logically impossible attempt of the field to impose intellectual order and structure onto the inherent chaos of the world being observed. They do so in order to argue for a normative attitude to be adopted by the social sciences (a spirit forgotten, according to them), as well as to provide a template or framework off which researchers can begin their perspectives and inquiries from. More importantly, they also introduce and outline the technique of scenario-building, a weapon and tool of social science researchers to develop and propel their ideas (this specifically pops up in pgs. 53-59).

Abstract: This short Foreign Policy article is an extreme example of a scenario-building exercise, examining how different political models will play out in the event of a zombie attack.

Abstract: “Since thoughts about the future cannot help but enter into our planning of policy, the International Relations community should make it an aim to help systematize these thoughts. One way of doing this is by developing a methodology for scenario building. Much extant work on scenario planning shares a key weakness that is well known in traditional socioeconomic planning, namely a tendency to reify current trends. In order to break with this tendency, this article sets out an approach that we call perspectivist scenario building. We also try to illustrate the points made and demonstrate the value added for planners by reflecting on our own experience in participation-oriented scenario work with Norwegian bureaucrats and politicians in the framework of a broad-scoped national scenario project for the Norwegian Government in the period between 1998 and 2001, called Norway 2030.” – Interscience Website.

Contributor: Nicholas Quah