Summer 1987 // Volume 25 // Number 2 // Forum // 2FUT1

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Labeling the Future


Michael Quinn Patton
Futures Editor
Minnesota Extension Service
St. Paul , MN

Walter A. Hahn recently reflected on what he has learned from thinking about the future over the last 30 years. Hahn has applied his futures thinking for the National Academy of Sciences, General Electric, Presidential Commissions, and the Congressional Research Service. His reflections generated the following 12 lessons:

  1. Interdisciplinary teamwork requires mutual respect and trust.
  2. Labels are important.
  3. Few major decisions are made solely in the public or private sector.
  4. Beyond analysis and forecasting, good futures thinking requires synthesis, alternatives, and choice.
  5. Parties in power should never announce national goals, because those not in power demand instant fulfillment.
  6. Technology assessment is not a discipline or profession.
  7. Labels are veryimportant.
  8. Doomsday scenarios and outrageous statements attract the media and conference goers.
  9. The pursuit and success of futures activities are highly dependent on what individuals do with those activities.
  10. Futures, foresight, and issues management are not disciplines or professions, but they can be pursued in a professional manner by members of many professions.
  11. Good labels are essential.
  12. Futures and foresight are rewarding activities but sometimes frustrating and lonely; nevertheless, "futures is fun!"1

Any one of these lessons is worthy of discussion and reflection, but what stands out is that this wise and experienced futurist would devote one-fourth of his list (three items out of 12) to the importance of what we call things-to labels.

Importance of Names

Why would a futurist be particularly concerned about labels?

Futurists work at seeing things in new ways. The boundaries of our current definitions create major barriers to futures vision. Much current work involves helping people break down old models, redefine limiting paradigms, and move beyond narrow definitions to see the possibility of genuinely new configurations. "Imagineering," frame-breaking, and mental-leaping require new ways to conceptualize what might be.

We can't share a vision without words and labels, but the very possibility of seeing things in new ways is constrained by our current words and labels. That's why we find Hahn, a man of unusual futures vision, stressing the importance of labels. It's worth, then, examining the functions of labels.

Labels Help Make Distinctions

Social linguists emphasize that attaching names to things helps us make important distinctions. Eskimos, for example, have many words to describe snow, because it's important to them to distinguish the different kinds. People make distinctions among things important to them, allowing them to communicate important nuances and differences. Program area names are an example of such distinctions in Extension.

Labels Help Make Associations

Sociologist Janowitz has observed that America's war experiences have militarized our language, and perhaps our thinking. This observation came in his reaction to being asked to participate in a panel discussion entitled "What is the cutting edge of sociology?" He responded:

"Cutting edge" is a military term. I am put off by the very term cutting edge. Cutting edge, like the parallel term "breakthrough," are slogans which intellectuals have inherited from the managers of violence.2

Terms now current in Extension with military associations include "strategic planning," "targeting," "mapping the territory," and "we're fighting hand-to-hand in the trenches" (a comment recently made to me regarding retrenchment and reallocation decisions in the university).

In the same vein, a women's caucus at an evaluation meeting reported:

We need no new weapons of assessment-the violence has already been done! How about brooms to sweep away the attic-y cobwebs of our male/female stereotypes? How about knives, forks and spoons to sample the feast of human diversity in all its richness and color?3

Labeling carries powerful associations. The words and terms we use help us associate the things we know well to things that may be unfamiliar or unknown.

Labels Attract Attention

Millions of dollars are spent each year by advertisers and marketing experts whose job is to come up with THE product label that will distinguish one item from another in the marketplace. A marketing firm recently helped a literacy program in St. Paul come up with a name. Consider the difference between one proposed name and the final selection:

Adult Instruction and Development School (AIDS)
Technology for Literacy Center (TLC)

In today's marketplace, would you rather go to a place that offers AIDS or TLC?

Labels Establish Identity

Those of you who've had the experience of trying to name a child know the importance of names in establishing identity. Dr. Seuss nicely captures the identity dimension of labels in his story about "Too Many Daves."

Did I ever tell you that Mrs. McCave Had twenty-three sons and she named them all Dave?

Well, she did. And that wasn't a smart thing to do. You see, when she wants one and calls out, "Yoohoo! Come into the house, Dave!" she doesn't get one. All twenty-three Daves of hers come on the run!

This makes things quite difficult at the McCaves' As you can imagine, with so many Daves.4

Labels Provide Meaning

A rose by any other name is not a rose. A rose carries a special meaning. In one of the most successful advertising campaigns of history, Hallmark Cards epitomized the meaning that can be associated with a name: "Hallmark means you care enough to send the very best."

Hahn spent a great deal of his life working in political arenas. He understands at the deepest possible level why the Pentagon would label a nuclear missile "Peacemaker." Labels communicate meanings.

Extension Examples

These reflections on labels are prompted in part by the experience of finding important discussions about the words we use reduced to the comment: "That's just a semantic difference. We're just arguing semantics. It doesn't make any difference in the end."

Semantics do make a difference, particularly in defining the future and in helping us understand how things have changed from the past.

Consider the language surrounding families. Only 10 years ago, I worked on a major study in which one of the primary variables was whether the children in the study came from a "broken home." Consider the connotations, quite deliberate, of the label "broken home." One no longer hears that term. Instead, we now have single-parent families, blended families, and female-headed households. What labels will we apply to families of the future? And how will those labels affect our visions of our work with families?

Many home economics units have been struggling with the connotations associated with the label "home economics." California calls its specialist unit, "Food, Nutrition, Family and Consumer Sciences," but county agents still prefer to be called "home economists." What will be the future identity-and the future label-of what we have traditionally called home economics? Whatever the name, we can be sure that it will affect the future of home economics activities, political acceptance, financial viability, and university prestige.

Changes in agriculture have led to some interesting attempts to find meaningful and acceptable labels. The negative connotations that came to be associated with "organic farming" gave way to "sustainable agriculture." I recently worked with faculty from a number of departments to try and find a label for interdisciplinary agricultural research and Extension collaboration. The suggested term, "Farming Systems," turned out to carry a great deal of baggage that eventually made the term untenable: for some, because they didn't feel there was anything new; for others, because they felt it was too vague; and for still others, because it didn't ring true to their own experience.

We struggle even with our geographic frames of reference. The McKnight Foundation, the largest private foundation in Minnesota, recently launched a major rural funding program. Since much of McKnight's funding has traditionally been in the metropolitan areas, they decided to describe this new thrust as aimed at "non-metropolitan areas," but some people in rural areas objected to being defined by what they're not, rather than by what they are.

The suggestion that the initiative be labeled a "Farm Families" program brought objections from those who pointed out that rural communities involve much more than farming and the program was intended to reach people other than farmers. Others objected to the term "rural," because they felt it carried connotations of backwardness and underdevelopment when, in fact, many of these communities are, or want to be, industrial centers. In the end, the label problem was sufficiently perplexing that the program adopted no descriptive title at all and simply became the "The Minnesota Initiatives Fund."

How will we label the non-metropolitan, rural, farming, and outstate areas in the future?

The Community and Natural Resource Development program area provides many examples, only one of which I will pursue. For some, the term "development" has acquired negative connotations, conjuring images of "developers" who exploit land and resources in the name of progress, as opposed to those who respect and sustain communities and natural resources. Do communities want to be "developed?" Do they want to be "sustained?"

Then, of course there's the question of how to describe and label Extension in general. Are we educators? Change agents? Information resources? Community organizers? University outreachers? Technology transferers? Cooperators? All the above? None of the above?

Labeling the Future

To label the future is, in part, to create and define the future. These aren't merely semantic arguments. Naming involves the processes of making distinctions, making associations, attracting attention, establishing identity, and providing meaning. New names can open up new possibilities. As we engage in discussions about how to label what we do and who we are, it's worthwhile to ask the following questions:

  1. What distinction are we trying to make? Just what is it we want to distinguish?
  2. What associations and linkages do we want to create with a term, label, or name?
  3. What kind of attention do we want to attract? From whom do we want attention?
  4. What kind of identity do we want to establish with this name?
  5. What meanings do we want to connote and communicate?

    And finally-

  6. How will this new name or label open up for us new possibilities-carrying us into and helping us create the future we envision?


1. Walter A. Hahn, "Futures in Politics and the Politics of the Future," Futures Research Quarterly, IV (Winter 1985), 35-56.

2. Morris Janowitz, "Where Is the Cutting Edge of Sociology?" Sociological Quarterly, XX (No. 4, 1979), 591.

3. Kathleen Hurty, "Report by Women's Caucus," Proceedings: Educational Evaluation and Public Policy Conference(San Francisco, California: West Regional Laboratory, 1976).

4. Dr. Seuss, Too Many Daves (New York: Random House, 1961), 37-39.