The vagueness of future imaginaries

This article is part of my Master’s Thesis - Future Imaginaries. Previous Chapter: 3.3.7 Collective memory

As already indicated several times, dealing with both futures and imaginaries is not entirely straightforward because both concepts have a certain inherent vagueness. In the case of futures, the very fact that the term German term for “futures” (Zukünfte) used in this and many other futures studies works is classified as “rare” in German usage by the Duden dictionary1 illustrates this. Thus, while (German) futures studies deal with a concept of the future that differs from the understanding of the future in the general population, the social sciences still face the challenge of not being able to grasp imaginaries fully.

In November 2019 – while this thesis was being written – the Österreichische Zeitschrift für Soziologie (Austrian Journal of Sociology) published a special issue on the topic ‘Einsatzpunkte und Spielräume des sozialen Imaginären in der Soziologie.‘ (Points of Application and Scope of the Social Imaginary in Sociology) The editorial opens with the following sentences:

“The social imaginary is a challenging object for sociological research in several respects. As an object of study, the imaginary largely evades attempts at quantification or explanation in terms of causal relationships. Its reality status, and hence its relevance as an object of scientific inquiry, is quickly denied. After all, it is “imaginary” and not “real.”2

In the first article of the issue, Werner Binder joins in:

“In the last years, the “social imaginary” has received considerable attention in the discourse of the social and cultural sciences. Various conferences were held on the topic, monographs, edited volumes, and special issues have been published, and even a journal named Social Imaginaries has been founded in 2015. Nevertheless, “social imaginary” is not a well-defined concept yet and may never be.”3

The conditions for Future Imaginaries to ever be a clear and precisely defined concept are therefore not the best. But if this circumstance is part of the concept from the beginning, there may be strength in it. The goal of this thesis, as described in the introduction, is to give a name to a social phenomenon and thus make it more consciously perceivable and interpretable. This phenomenon of collective expectations of the future in the background understanding can only be approached if its mysterious character is accepted. To endure the lack of a clear framework and the fluid transitions between conscious and unconscious expectations enables the opening of a new observation space.

Next Chapter: 3.4.2 The distinction between imaginaries and future imaginaries

  1. Duden. (2020). Duden. Accessed January 1, 2020. 

  2. Herbrik, R., & Schlechtriemen, T. (2019). Editorial for the special issue “Scopes of the Social Imaginary in Sociology” in the ÖZS. Österreichische Zeitschrift für Soziologie, 44(S2), 1–15., p. 2 

  3. Binder, W. (2019). Social imaginaries and the limits of differential meaning: A cul- tural sociological critique of symbolic meaning structures. Österreichische Zeitschrift für Soziologie, 44(S2), 17–35. 00371-2, p. 18 

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