Sub-theme 49: Dreams, Fictions and Calculations: Imagined Futures in Organizational Life

Klaus Weber
Northwestern University, USA
Jens Beckert
Max-Planck Institute for the Study of Societies, Germany
Brooke Harrington
Copenhagen Business School, Denmark

Call for Papers

Imagined futures – fictional projections of future states that are understood to be not real but nevertheless serious – are central to organization and economic activity. Examples range from everyday dynamics of hope, fear and desire to highly organized visions of entrepreneurial projects, technological possibilities and economic utopias and dystopias. Imaginaries of the future stimulate individual action as well as organizational coordination. They are produced through a variety of social practices, and are embedded in cultural and institutional conditions. This subtheme brings together researchers that study the processes of imagining future states and their consequences for action across a range of settings.
Beckert (2013, 2016) described ‘fictional expectations’ as the inhabitation in the mind of an imaginary future state of the world. As such, they are inherent to social action (Schütz, 1967/1932). Imagined futures are important for understanding projects that rely on a high degree of projective agency (Emirbayer & Mische, 1998). In organizational settings, this includes engaging in technological and entrepreneurial projects (Rindova et al., 2009, Suddaby; Bruton & Si, 2015), moral critiques of institutional orders, utopias and mobilization in social movements (Bloch, 1923/2000; Levitas, 2013), and organized responses to societies’ ‘grand challenges’, such as poverty, political violence or climate change (Ferraro et al., 2015). Yet, they are also at the heart of mundane and everyday organizational and economic activity, such as investing, strategy-making and preparedness for rare events (Brown & Starkey, 2000; Watson, 2003; Sutcliffe & Weick, 2006; Beckert & Bronk, 2018). And imaginaries of the future, as daydreams and fantasies, may be used deceptively (Harrington, 2009), or in self-regulatory processes that maintain the status quo (Voronov & Vince, 2012; Voronov & Weber, 2017).
The goal of the sub-theme is to bring into conversation scholars that study different forms of future imaginaries in a range of settings and from different perspectives. This dialogue will advance the conceptual and methodological foundations for the study of projective agency in organizations and markets. We invite empirical studies as well as theoretical contributions, and deliberately conceive of imagining the future as a very general process. Some sample topics and questions may be:

  • Processes of imagination: How are fictional futures constructed, individually and collectively? The organizational production of imaginaries. Social technologies for the creation of imaginaries and how they differ. How do imaginaries of the future relate to imaginaries of the present and past?

  • Role of emotion in imaginaries: The phenomenological bases of resonance with imaginaries. Hope and fear of the future as motivations for action. Identities and notions of sacredness in imagined futures.

  • Imaginaries and action mobilization: When and how are imagined futures taken as real and serious enough to be acted upon? The role of imagined futures at the macro level (e.g., for institutions, organizations) and micro level (e.g., for entrepreneurship, employment or investment).

  • Content of fictions: Why are some futures imagined rather than others? What are societal and personal sources of idealized and feared futures? How are future imaginaries embedded in institutional, epistemic, social structural and historical contexts? Global and local differences in imagined futures.

  • Politics of fictions: The role of authority and power in creating future imaginaries. Contestation about alternative possible futures and their legitimation. Alternative facts and the critique of imaginaries.

  • Deception and imaginaries: How are imaginaries used in organizations to deceive members of organizations and stakeholders?



  • Beckert, J. (2013): “Imagined Futures: Fictional Expectations in the Economy.” Theory and Society, 42 (3), 219–240.
  • Beckert, J. (2016): Imagined Futures. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Beckert, J., & Bronk, R. (eds.) (2018): Uncertain Futures. Imaginaries, Narratives and Calculation in the Economy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Bloch, E. (1923/2000): The Utopian Spirit. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Brown, A.D., & Starkey, K. (2000): “Organizational Identity and Learning: A Psychodynamic Perspective.” Academy of Management Review, 25 (1), 102–120.
  • Emirbayer, M., & Mische, A. (1998): “What Is Agency?” American Journal of Sociology, 103 (4), 962–1023.
  • Ferraro, F., Etzion, D., & Gehman, J. (2015): “Tackling Grand Challenges Pragmatically: Robust Action Revisited.” Organization Studies, 36 (3), 363–390.
  • Harrington, B.(ed.) (2009): Deception. From Ancient Empires to Internet Dating. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Levitas, R. (2013): Utopia as Method: The Imaginary Reconstitution of Society. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Rindova, V., Barry, D., & Ketchen, D.J. (2009): “Entrepreneuring as Emancipation.” Academy of Management Review, 34 (3), 477–491.
  • Schütz, A. (1967) [1932]: The Phenomenology of the Social World. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.
  • Suddaby, Roy, Bruton, G.D., Si S.X. (2015): “Entrepreneurship through a Qualitative Lens: Insights on the Construction and/or Discovery of Entrepreneurial Opportunity.” Journal of Business Venturing, 30 (1), 1–10.
  • Sutcliffe, K.M., & Weick, K.E. (2006): Managing the Unexpected: Assuring High Performance in an Age of Complexity. San Fransisco: John Wiley & Sons.
  • Voronov, M., & Vince, R. (2012): “Integrating Emotions into the Analysis of Institutional Work.” Academy of Management Review, 37 (1), 58–81.
  • Voronov, M., & Weber, K. (2015): “The Heart of Institutions: Emotional Competence and Institutional Actorhood.” Academy of Management Review, 41 (3), 456-478.
  • Watson, T.J. (2003): “Strategists and Strategy-Making: Strategic Exchange and the Shaping of Individual Lives and Organizational Futures.” Journal of Management Studies, 40, 1305–1323.

Klaus Weber is a Professor of Management and Organizations at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, USA. In his research, he develops cultural and institutional models of action to understand the political economy of globalization and development, the intersection between social movements and the economy, entrepreneurship and environmental sustainability.
Jens Beckert is a Professor of Sociology and Managing Director of the Max-Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne, Germany. His research examines the social foundations of economic orders, organizations and inherited wealth, and the role of morality and imaginaries in economic life. His award-winning most recent book, “Imagined Futures. Fictional Expectations and Capitalist Dynamics”, was published in 2016.
Brooke Harrington is a Professor in the Department of Business and Politics at Copenhagen Business School, Denmark. Her research examines the social underpinnings of money and markets – what actors like investors and professionals do, and how that aggregates to financial markets, culture and political institutions. Brooke has investigated this question in domains ranging from amateur investors in the United States to the global wealth management profession. Her most recent book, “Capital without Borders: Wealth Management and the One Percent”, was published in 2016.