Researching Uncertainties and Futures in the Pandemic

Concept image of a Future Past Present signpost against a blue cloudy sky

Drawing on new theoretical insights into futures research, Marek Pawlak writes about researching uncertainties during the pandemic in the context of caring for elderly patients.

By Marek Pawlak

In recent years, there has been a growing interest among social scientists to engage with future orientations and their impact on the present matters. Obviously, these are not forecasted futures, but rather the speculated ones, which are often imagined as possible. This is an interesting shift in social sciences, since for a long time it was merely the past that inhabited the present. Today, apart from ‘patterns’, ‘routines,’ and ‘reproductions,’ the research perspective is also pointed towards the ‘emergent,’ ‘uncertain,’ and the ‘still-elusive,’ which become the embodiment of the future already residing in the present.

What is interesting in this kind of research perspective and theoretical endeavor, is the attempt to understand human agency not only as reaction to the repetition of the known, but also as a way of dealing with the imagined and the unknown.

The research interest in futures coincides with the increasing uncertainty (real or imagined) of the contemporary world. Ours is a time of a rather dark global narrative of multiple crises, in which the environment, the economy, and the politics are strongly intertwined. Even though crisis means different things to different people, it engenders uncertainty, often a protracted one.

The lived experiences of crisis often include a range of emotions:  fears and anxieties and even excitement driven by the new opportunities and hopes for change and better future. But, the crisis situation also produces a vertiginous rupture in otherwise taken for granted ordinaries. The crisis disturbs the teleology of the everyday life, thus breaking the continuity of the events, social understandings, and actions. As a result, the future becomes uncertain and as such becomes a significant reference for the present.

Uncertain Futures and the Pandemic

The first months of the global COVID-19 pandemic, with lockdowns and restrictions of movements and daily routines, were a moment, in which the temporalities of the past, present, and future have been disrupted. Moreover, the notions of ‘yesterday’, ‘today,’ and ‘tomorrow’ have been difficult to separate since they have almost merged into one uncertain temporality.

This was a particularly strong experience among the healthcare workers, who often couldn’t leave their workplace, being on a frontline of the pandemic. For others, the rupture in everyday life temporalities included finding a way to balance caring for children and working from home. Yet, having a possibility to work remotely was a privilege, which made some people realize how important frontline workers and services are for their own survival.

Still, for the vast majority of people the pandemic meant a time of economic uncertainty. The future began to be uncertain and pictured in rather bleak colors.

Uncertainty is the embodiment of the crisis experiences. According to Limor Samimian-Darash, an anthropologist working on future scenarios and planning in governance, the mode of uncertainty points to the existing fears, which begin to be projected onto the imagined near futures. Uncertainty emerges in situations in which the available knowledge is limited, fragmented or difficult to grasp and might be understood in its ‘possible’ or ‘potential’ form.

The distinction between ‘possible’ and ‘potential’ uncertainty follows different dynamic of the relationship between the past, present and future. As Samimian-Darash argues, the uncertainty is ‘potential,’ when it concerns questions about the ongoing challenges in the present matters, and is ‘possible,’ when the past experiences are used to explain what will happen in the near future.

The COVID-19 pandemic has induced ‘possible’ and ‘potential’ future uncertainties, which were followed by various speculations and planning. The daily updates with number of infections, pandemic charts and predictions of another ‘wave’ became crucial elements for the projected uncertain futures. The pandemic produced a temporality in which the future scenarios were difficult to anticipate and constantly subjected to different reasoning driven by the dynamic developments and unclear situation.

The uncertainty was quite poignant for the nurses in our study. The pandemic caught all of them unaware, the same way it caught the rest of us unprepared for what the next weeks and months might bring. Zofia and Jadwiga were visiting their families in Poland when the World Health Organization (WHO) pronounced the outbreak of COVID-19 as a pandemic. They worried whether they would be able to return to Norway and resume their jobs. Their livelihoods and family lives depended on the ability to lead transnational lives and travel frequently between Oslo and Gdańsk.

While most of us worried about ourselves and our loved ones, the nurses also worried about those in their care. The vast majority of them worked in nursing homes, respite care facilities, and hospitals catering for terminally ill. The future was uncertain for many of their patients. Will those with advanced dementia understand what was being planned for them?

Even under the best of circumstances, Magda’s Alzheimer patients had no ability to understand the temporal shifting between the past and the present, and certainly were not capable of comprehending ‘what might come next.’ The past is often blindly believed to be a template for providing all the answers to the looming uncertain future. However, when past experiences and present happenings are blurred in the minds of the elderly, speculations about the future are left to their caretakers.   

Expecting and Anticipating Futures

It is not only the global pandemic that brings uncertainties about the future into our daily lives. It is also the case of a more intimate and rather personal future-gazing, in which uncertainties meet various forms of expectation and anticipation. Although, there is a blurred line between expectation and anticipation, in their book The Anthropology of the Future (,Rebecca Bryant and Daniel M. Knight point to ‘the different thicknesses of the present, and therefore relationships to the past, that are contained in each’ of these affective states.

Briefly speaking, whilst expectation ‘thickens’ the present by relying on the lived experiences of the past, anticipation ‘slims’ it by directly bringing the future into the current state of affairs. As Bryant and Knight argue, ‘we expect because of what the past has taught us to expect’, and we anticipate because the future ‘awakens’ the past and the present by ‘pulling’ us ‘forward’ in its direction. The difference is thus subtle and lies in the degree in which future temporalizes itself in the present.

Expecting and anticipating futures is particularly important in the healthcare settings, where waiting for diagnoses or planning treatments involves various, not always easy to predict, factors. The ‘unknown’ becomes then a principle mode of operation. However, even if the future is ‘known’ and it doesn’t bring any hope, as in the case of terminally ill patients, it still impacts the ways how they, their caregivers, and family members make the most of the present or prepare for the inevitable.

In other words, both expectation and anticipation bring together the aspects of ‘knowing’ and ‘not knowing,’ thus producing contingent forms of thinking, sensing, and acting upon what lies ahead. In this sense, the ways of expecting and anticipating the future unravel the dialectical process between the known and the unknown, the hopeful, and the uncertain.

Even though, the expected or anticipated futures are imagined and still only on the horizon, their meanings already affect the present social understandings and actions. Our attentiveness to futures might thus spell new, surprising ways of researching the present matters.