Imaginaries from an anthropological perspective

This article is part of my Master’s Thesis - Future Imaginaries. Previous Chapter: 2.2.2 Social imaginaries from Taylor

In his article ‘Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy,’1 ethnologist Arjun Appadurai considers the social changes brought about by increasing globalization.

Based on Anderson’s Imagined Communities, made possible by “print capitalism” (see chapter 2.2.1), he describes how new technologies are breaking down the fabric of communities.

“For with the advent of the steamship, the automobile and the aeroplane, the camera, the computer and the telephone, we have entered into an altogether new condition of neighborliness, even with those most distant from ourselves.”2

Characteristics of a particular community can thus be found globally in different places and different contexts.

Old cultural drivers of global imaginaries, such as the United States, merge into a “complex transnational construction of imaginary landscapes”3 as one instance among many.

In this new world, Appadurai identifies a global cultural process that establishes imagination as an organized social action:

“… the imagination has become an organized field of social practices, a form of work (both in the sense of labor and of culturally organized practice) and a form of negotiation between sites of agency (‘individuals’) and globally defined fields of possibility.”4

Societal perceptions are constantly renegotiated, and this process does not happen by the way but is driven forward by actions organized from many sides. This process as a “key component of the new global order”5 produces a fragmented, worldwide cultural landscape.

To investigate this fragmentation, Appadurai proposes a framework that identifies five dimensions6 of “global cultural flow”7:

“(a) ethnoscapes; (b) mediascapes; (c) technoscapes; (d) finanscapes; and (e) ideoscapes“

He uses the suffix “-scapes” as a reference to the landscape metaphor to make us aware that these cannot be viewed objectively.

“…rather that they are deeply perspectival constructs, inflected by the historical, linguistic and political situatedness of different sorts of actors: nation-states, multinationals, diasporic communities, as well as sub-national groupings and movements (whether religious, political or economic), and even intimate face-to-face groups, such as villages, neighbourhoods and families.”8

Appadurai presents these five dimensions as the building blocks of what he calls Imagined Worlds in reference to Anderson’s Imagined Communities:

“…the multiple worlds which are constituted by the historically situated imaginations of persons and groups spread around the globe.”8

Through these Imagined Worlds, which are constantly influenced by the five global dimensions, Appadurai shows how much more small-scale and diverse social imaginaries have become. From Castoriadis’ theory of one Social Imaginary per society to Taylor’s dominant Social Imaginaries to Appadurai, the consideration and construction of Imaginaries have become much more complex.

The cultural-psychological view of imaginaries in Strauss

Anthropologist Claudia Strauss9 observes the development within her discipline that ‘imaginaries’ is increasingly used as a term where ‘culture’ was previously used. A specific definition is often omitted.

“Imaginary is becoming common in the place of culture and cultural beliefs, meanings, and models in anthropology and cultural studies.”10

She takes this as an opportunity to examine the descriptions of imaginaries by various authors from an anthropological perspective, which were also used in this thesis.

Strauss points out that all authors use the term differently: “for Castoriadis, the imaginary is a culture’s ethos; for Lacan, it is a fantasy; for Anderson and Taylor, it is a cultural model.”11 This illustrates why no single definition has emerged over time.

Strauss identifies a great deal of agreement between Social Imaginaries as described by Taylor (cf. chapter 2.2.2) and the cultural models of cognitive anthropologists. This results in a potentially rich pool of sources that futures studies scholars can access if they want to delve deeper into imaginaries and cultural models. In particular, because there is already extensive theoretical groundwork here from which, for example, the understanding of knowledge about the future could benefit.12

According to Strauss, cognitive psychologists distinguish three types of knowledge in cultural models:13

  1. A prototype
  2. Examples
  3. Background understanding or an implicit theory

Strauss cites the American idea of family as an example. The prototype is the married couple with two to three children living in a single-family home. Numerous real and fictional families that people are familiar with serve as examples. Part of the background understanding is the different ideas of what a family is and how it should function in different situations. Strauss explicitly mentions the “normative pull” that the prototype can have, in this case, the expectation of how a family should behave. Even when aspects of the prototype are missing in an example, they are unconsciously filled in as if they were present.14

Strauss uses this model of the three types of knowledge to concretize Taylor’s rather abstract concept of social imaginaries and to formulate more specific questions with their help:

“What are the prototypes and exemplars associated with specific imaginaries (e.g., of a ‘society’ or ‘nation’)? How do the stereotypical expectations embedded in a given prototype fit with the fuller knowledge available in the exemplars and cultural models? Is the prototype for a concept seen as an ideal?”15

Strauss, as a representative of psychological anthropology, sees another problem with the abstracted approach to social imaginaries, such as Castoriadis and Taylor, in its tendency to attribute to society capacities that lie with the individual:

“This means talking, not about ‘the imaginary of a society’, but of people’s imaginaries. […] Societies are not creatures who imagine, but people do.”16

She argues for using person-centered ethnographic methods to capture imaginaries and to keep one question at the center when considering social imaginaries:

“‘Whose imaginaries are these?’ […] Answering this question requires a person-centered approach […] so that we are talking about the imaginaries of real people, not the imaginaries of imagined people. Studying real people will help counter the tendency to see imaginaries as more homogeneous or fixed than they are.”17

Appadurai and Strauss together illustrate that there are no clearly delineated groups with distinct singular imaginaries. Rather, there is a diversity of imaginaries that constantly evolve across different networks and group constellations. And they do so not as abstract concepts in societies, but in the imaginaries of individuals who interact with each other in extensive ways.

  1. Appadurai, A. (1990). Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy. Public Culture, 2(2), 1–24. 

  2. ibid., p. 2 

  3. ibid., p. 4 

  4. ibid., p. 5 

  5. ibid., p. 5 

  6. Building on the thesis at hand, it could be explored whether Appadurai’s five dimensions should be complemented by a sixth: futurescapes. 

  7. ibid., p. 6 

  8. ibid., p. 7  2

  9. Strauss, C. (2006). The Imaginary. Anthropological Theory, 6(3), 322–344. 

  10. ibid., p. 322 

  11. ibid., p. 323 

  12. cf. ibid., p. 331 

  13. ibid., p. 332 

  14. cf. ibid., p. 332 

  15. ibid., p. 332 

  16. ibid., p. 326 

  17. ibid., p. 339 

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