Thinking about long waves

Posted in future, long waves, research by thenextwavefutures on 5 May, 2015

James Dator. Source: Trends FM

It’s fairly clear, if you spend any time doing futures work, that there are some recurring patterns that seem to evolve over one or two generations, or more. As part of a personal research project, I have started re-reading these “long wave” theories to try to understand their similarities and differences, and I’ll be blogging about my reading as I go.

An obvious starting point in this journey is Jim Dator’s long survey of the area, “From Tsunamis to Long Waves and Back”, drawn from the archive of the journal Futures, and published over two articles in Futures in 1999. The essay – recombined – can be found here.

Here I’m just going to pull out some extracts that seem to shape the landscape.

Images of the future

His starting point is that futures work is actually about the story of “images of the future”:

“Futures studies doesn’t study the ‘future’,” I like to say, “because ‘the future’ does not exist. What does exist and what can and should be studied, are ‘images of the future’ which each person (culture, class, gender, etc.) has, and which form the basis for individual and collective acts in the present which then impact upon ‘the future.’

And in fact this idea is at the heart of the work of what one might call the “Hawai’i” school of futures, which Dator founded and nurtured: the whole idea of futures archetypes, and the scenarios meta-analysis that preceded them, was designed to understand patterns of images of the future. And the layers of CLA, similarly, are designed to explore these images through different frames. But images on their own are not enough:

I believe it is also necessary to develop (from one’s image of the future) a “theory of social change and stability” and “methods for anticipating and inventing preferred futures” in order to be a useful futurist or to develop a fuller and deeper understanding of what futures studies is.

Dator’s futures practice drew on six theories and their accompanying methods:
•    Images as motivators of individual and group action;
•    Technology as an agent of social change;
•    Age-cohort analysis;
•    Cyclical and wave theories;
•    Emerging issues analysis;
•    Social invention and design.

Joining the dots

As he acknowledges in the essay his perspective on technology is probably over-developed, while in contrast he’s given less thought to age-cohort theories (largely represented by the work of Strauss and Howe) and barely any to cyclical or wave theories, while being a fan of Immanuel Wallerstein, who includes Kondratiev’s long wave or K-wave thinking among his influences.

This changed in the mid-‘90s when his imagination was fired by a series of articles that seemed to open the possibility of connecting these two areas.

The first was a 1994 article by Berry and Kim, that set out explicitly to do this, followed by a paper by Carlos Mallman on “generational billows”: “I now saw that they might well be parts of the same theory/method: Howe and Strauss’ four generations and eras seem to be related to the four phases of a Kondratieff wave.” (See Figure, below). And of course, there’s a whole set of literature, which I’ll discuss in another post, on the relationship between technology and economic waves.

It’s probably worth backing up here for a moment.

Four phases

Howe and Strauss’ four generations, covered in their books Generations and The Fourth Turning, unfold over a period of 80 years, through four distinct phases: Crisis-High-Awakening-Unravelling – with the next Crisis following the Unravelling. That’s the simplest version, but they have a whole set of layers of generational attitudes sitting within this story: your attitudes are shaped by the societal background in which you grew up, and your interaction with your parents, who are the products of a different phase. I’ll be coming back to The Fourth Turning later in the research.

Kondratiev, a Russian economist, studied 19th and early 20th century price data and concluded that economies moved through 50-60 year cycles, with an upswing followed by a period of stagnation which gives way to a downswing. His waves – although of different length – are also sometime described as a four-phase cycle of Prosperity-Recession-Depression-Recovery. A paper by van Duijn, mentioned by Dator, maps these onto a four-phase technology model, of Growth-Maturity-Decline-Introduction,  “such that the introduction of the technology which is to drive the next long wave happens during the lowest point in the current long wave.”

Kondratiev problems

There are problems with the Kondratiev waves: an article by Jos Delbeke observed “its inability to incorporate consistently endogenous variables in the explanation of turning points.” The data is erratic, and it seems that even his disciples can’t agree completely on when later waves start or finish. Although his name is associated with the waves, he was building on the work of Dutch economists.

And there are at least three schools of thought as to why you might get such long waves, running through innovation (also drawing on Schumpeter), capital investment cycles, and “the political economy of capitalist development” (drawing on Mandel). Again, I’m not going to go into detail on these here, since they’ll be explored in a later post, but it is worth noting that the work of Carlota Perez, who is more associated with the innovation school, nonetheless seems to integrate the capital investment school within her long wave (or long surge) model.

Figure: Systems patterns

systems pattern table revised

Cultural and social

By Dator’s account, Mallman and Lemarchand argue that their long-term “billows” are not just technological or economic, but cultural and social. Their underlying cycle is 39 years long, which – I haven’t read the article yet – may or may not link to a heuristic I have developed through my work that sees political crises and institutional innovation in the UK running on a lagged 40-year cycle. (Political crises: 1890s/1930s/1970s/2010s: Institutional innovation: 1900s/1940s/1980s.)

The Italian physicist Cesare Marchetti, meanwhile, has found 55 year “social pulses” in all sorts of data, from transport infrastructure investment to murder, while Brian Berry tried to link Utopian communities to K-waves in a book, America’s Utopian Experiments,  that accumulated scathing reviews from assorted historians.

The final observation that Dator makes in his article is from a 1984 Futures article by Immanuel Wallerstein, who notes that “A long-standing witticism has it that the credibility of the existence of long economic cycles is a function of whether or not the discussion on this topic takes place during the A-phase of expansion or the B-phase of economic stagnation.” They have more credibility during a stagnation period. And given that he was writing in 1999, Dator also has a prescient observation about the impact of “massive and increasing consumer debt creation” on extending the phases or delaying recession.

Patterns of change

There’s at least one whole further school of long wave historians, represented by Peter Turchin and his work on secular cycles, which isn’t covered in Dator’s review of the field (most of this published work has emerged since 1999), which looks at the interchange between demographics, resources, relative prices and political power, which I’ll also be re-reading for my project. These cycles are typically longer. And one of the open research questions for me is the extent to which we might have to think about cycles of different lengths interacting in different ways.

One last thought from me: the patterns of change described here all follow general patterns of systemic change. If one thinks of the Panarchy model, developed by Gunderson and Hollings from studying the life of forests, it has a cycle that also goes through four stages: Expansion (or Exploitation)-Conservation-Release-Reorganisation. At the very least it seems reasonable to believe that human and social systems might follow similar systemic patterns.

Several of the Futures essays referenced by James Dator have been collected in Christopher Freeman (ed), (1984), Long Waves In The World Economy, published by Frances Pinter. The image of Jim Dator at the top of this post is from Trends FM, and it is used with thanks.

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