Social Imaginaries

This article is part of my Master’s Thesis - Future Imaginaries. Previous Chapter: 2.2.1 Early approaches to imaginaries

Charles Taylor has shaped the current understanding of imaginaries like no one else. Most authors refer to him when they try to explain the concept of imaginaries.

In the early 1990s, the standard theory on the emergence of modern Western culture was that it could be explained primarily by the triumph of modern science and rationality. For Taylor as a philosopher, this justification remained too superficial.

Inspired by Anderson’s definition of the nation as an ‘imagined community’ (see chapter 2.2.1), he developed the thesis that modernity arose because something had changed in the way human beings collectively imagined society. A new moral structure has become a collective self-understanding in society, which he describes as a “modern social imaginary.”1

First, he explains Social Imaginaries in terms of their role in distinguishing them from mere ideas:

“The social imaginary is not a set of ideas; rather, it is what enables, through making sense of, the practices of a society.”2

They enable social life by legitimizing certain behaviors within it.

A central feature of Social Imaginaries, which he emphasizes from the outset, is that they are thought to be evident once they are established:

“… once we are well installed in the modern social imaginary, it seems the only possible one, the only one that makes sense.”3

In the second chapter of Modern Social Imaginary,1 Taylor elaborates on his rewriting of social imaginaries:

“I’m thinking […] of the ways people imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations that are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images that underlie these expectations.”4

The two key terms here are “imagine” and “expectations.” Social imaginaries describe how human beings imagine living together in society and which expectations play a role.

Taylor introduces another essential property of social imaginaries:

“Such understanding is both factual and normative; that is, we have a sense of how things usually go, but this is interwoven with an idea of how they ought to go, of what missteps would invalidate the practice.”5

Social Imaginaries contain two levels: factual and normative. The factual level includes the expectations of how things should be. The normative level describes the underlying desires for the expectations—how things should go according to the collective values.

Taylor consciously distinguishes Social Imaginaries as an intellectual element in society from theories and thereby clarifies further characteristics:

“… my focus is on the way ordinary people “imagine” their social surroundings, and this is often not expressed in theoretical term, but is carried in images, stories, and legends.”6

Human beings do not base their place in society on theories but are guided by images and stories. These are the most important carriers of Social Imaginaries. Taylor deliberately focuses on the “ordinary people,” as the next point will deepen.

“… theory is often the possession of a small minority, whereas what is interesting in the social imaginary is that it is shared by large groups of people, if not the whole society.”7

An essential characteristic of Social Imaginaries is that they do not only exist in the imagination of an elite but are shared by large parts of society. Taylor explains that social imaginaries often have their origin in theories of elites. In long processes, these theories take on a life of their own, flowing into images and stories until they finally become part of how society organizes itself, legitimizes its behavior, and can no longer imagine acting differently.

This sets Social Imaginaries apart from many other social theoretical concepts, which usually have a clearly defined, theoretically graspable framework. This is precisely what is absent in Social Imaginaries.

Taylor locates Social Imaginaries in the philosophical concept of the “background understanding” to illustrate that he sees “no clear limits” to their reach. He describes the “background” as…

“…that largely unstructured and inarticulate understanding of our whole situation. […] It can never be adequately expressed in the form of explicit doctrines because of its unlimited and indefinite nature.”8

As part of the background understanding, Social Imaginaries are thus difficult to put into words. They manifest themselves primarily in actions. Taylor illustrates this with an example:

“The understanding implicit in practice stands to social theory in the same relation that my ability to get around a familiar environment stands to a (literal) map of this area. I am very well able to orient myself without ever having adopted the standpoint of overview the map offers me.”9

Alma and Vanheeswijck10 point out that by expressing the background understanding in daily actions and the stories one tells, these deep-seated values become not only real but also constantly change:

“Hence, precisely in these articulating-constitutive practices of coping with our world, social imaginaries’ flexible boundaries are challenged, negotiated and reconstructed.”11

Social Imaginaries, then, are part of a deep background understanding of proper behavior in society that is elusive, manifests itself predominantly through action, and whose framework is constantly in flux. In contrast to Castoriadis, for whom there was only one Imaginary per society, James points out that Taylor understands a Social Imaginary as “a cultural dominant, layered across prior and emerging imaginaries.”12

Patomäki and Steger pick up on Taylor’s social imaginaries and describe the elements that usually make up a “typical modern national imaginary:”13

  • Prototypes are archetypal stories and features that exemplify a nation, such as “The First Thanksgiving” for the U.S. and the outline of a country on a map14
  • Metaphors are figurative terms such as fatherland and others, often using the image of the family in this context
  • Framings contextualize issues positively in terms of the nation, often in conjunction with appropriate metaphors (example: “Are you willing to die for the good of your country?”)

Although at the beginning of the 21st century, according to Patomäki and Steger, the social identity of most human beings continues to be shaped by national imaginaries, they observe that…

“… the national imaginary is being increasingly blended with and destabilized by the prototypes, metaphors and framings of a global or ‘planetary’ imaginary.”15

From this perspective, political scientist Manfred Steger, who has written extensively on globalization and ideology, looks at Taylor and considers the interplay of ideology and imaginaries with a focus on global imaginaries.16

“The ideologies dominating the world today are no longer exclusively articulations of the national imaginary but reconfigured ideational systems that constitute potent translations of the dawning global imaginary.”17

James18 abstracts a layer model for ideas, ideologies, and imaginaries from Steger’s remarks: according to this model, ideas are beliefs expressed by individuals. Ideologies gather these ideas into comprehensive belief systems with truth claims. Imaginaries, in turn, are “convocations of the social whole that frame different ideological contestations.” “The social whole” points out how, for example, the “we” is used in many statements on stages or in opinion articles without the perceived need for a more precise definition.19

On the one hand, this model differentiates the terms from each other and, simultaneously, shows how they build on each other.

Next Chapter: Imaginaries from an anthropological perspective

  1. cf. Taylor, C. (2004). Modern social imaginaries. Durham: Duke University Press.  2

  2. ibid., p. 2 

  3. ibid., p. 17 

  4. ibid., p. 23 

  5. ibid., p. 24 

  6. ibid., p. 23 

  7. ibid., p. 23 

  8. ibid., p. 25 

  9. ibid., p. 26 

  10. Alma, H., & Vanheeswijck, G. (2018). Introduction to Social Imaginaries in a Globalizing World. In H. Alma & G. Vanheeswijck (Hrsg.), Social Imaginaries in a Globalizing World (S. 1–18). Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter. 

  11. ibid., p. 8 

  12. James, P. (2019). The Social Imaginary in Theory and Practice. In C. Hudson & E. K. Wilson (Hrsg.), Revisiting the Global Imaginary (S. 33–47). Cham: Springer International Publishing., p. 41 

  13. Patomäki, H., & Steger, M. B. (2010). Social imaginaries and Big History: Towards a new planetary consciousness? Futures, 42(10), 1056–1063., p. 1057 

  14. cf. prototypes in Strauss in chapter 2.2.3 

  15. Patomäki and Steger 2010, p. 1062 

  16. Steger, M. B. (2008). The rise of the global imaginary: political ideologies from the French Revolution to the global war on terror. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press. 

  17. ibid., p. 12 

  18. James 2019 

  19. cf. ibid., p. 42 

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