April 23, 2015, by Brigitte Nerlich

Imagining imaginaries

This is a post by Brigitte Nerlich and CAROL MORRIS. Carol works on spatial imaginaries in the context of food provisioning and food security as part of our Making Science Public programme. Brigitte works on metaphors, images and imagination and always asks what imaginaries are…..

The word ‘imaginary’ as a noun is a jargon term that has been gaining currency in a number of social sciences. It grates on those who have not come across this usage before, as in ordinary language the word is mainly used as an adjective. People have, for example, ‘imaginary friends’, but they rarely have ‘imaginaries’ (there is however an online comic entitled ‘The Imaginaries‘!). So where does this term come from and what do social scientists do with it? This is what we want to explore in this blog post.

When you type ‘imaginary’ into a certain search engine, you get the following definition: “The imaginary, or social imaginary is the set of values, institutions, laws, and symbols common to a particular social group and the corresponding society through which people imagine their social whole.” But, as we shall see, imaginaries are more than that. Social imaginaries “are ways of understanding the social that become social entities themselves, mediating collective life” and shaping the way we live now and into the future.

Some history and philosophy

The word first made its appearance on the academic scene in the 1950s and 60s when Paul Cardan used it in a critique of Soviet ideology. “It later turned out that Paul Cardan was a pseudonym for Cornelius Castoriadis, a [Greek] émigré in France, who only began publishing under his own name in 1970.” In 1975 Castoriadis wrote L’Institution imaginaire de la société, which was translated into English in 1987 as The Imaginary Institution of Society. What he was getting at was that society is not a given but only exists because it is collectively imagined in certain ways.

Castoriadis was influenced by Immanuel Kant’s philosophy of the imagination, but that is not as important here as some synergies between Castoriadis and Emile Durkheim, the 19th -century sociologist who famously wrote about collective representations that are the glue that hold societies together. Durkheim was interested in exploring the social power of ‘collective consciousness’, an interest he shared with many of his contemporaries from Wilhelm von Humboldt to Wilhelm Wundt. Durkheim used this concept to refer to the totality of beliefs and sentiments common to average citizens of the same society. He also spoke in this context of ‘social facts’. Ferdinand de Saussure, the father of modern linguistics, partly inspired by these insights, later explored language as what one may call a collective or social imaginary.

Let’s jump forward a bit now. A first major book that relates the concept of imaginary specifically to science and politics, the main focus of our Making Science Public Programme, appeared in 1995 under the title Technoscientific Imaginaries, edited by the anthropologist George Marcus. The book asks: “What is it like to be a scientist at the end of the twentieth century? How have shifts in power and in assumptions about knowledge affected scientific practice? Who are the people behind the new technologies, and how do they address the difficult moral and professional issues during a time of global change?”

In 1999 ‘imaginary’ in the social science sense made it into the Oxford English Dictionary: “1999 Earth Matters (Friends of the Earth) Summer 36/3 Such ‘imaginaries’ are crucial because they shape urban development patterns.” Interestingly, we have here a geographical usage. 1999 was also the year that Benedict Anderson published Imagined Communities.• Both this work and Castoriadis’ influenced more current research into (new or modern) imaginaries from Dilip Goankar (2002) and Charles Taylor, to Levy and Spicer (2013) and beyond.•Actually, as one commenter below pointed out, this work was published in 1983!!

After this short excursion into history, we’ll now turn to exploring how ‘imaginaries’ are imagined in a variety of contemporary disciplines, especially in sociology, geography and Science and Technology Studies.

It should be stressed that the word has a flexible meaning, can be adapted to many theoretical and disciplinary contexts, and might still be evolving new meanings as we write. Definitions of ‘imaginary’ also vary, although there are common themes, especially in the degree of attention given to the concept, with some studies making an imaginary the object of analysis, others using it as an analytical device or identifying imaginaries as the outcome of analysing other processes and phenomena.

Social imaginaries

As we have seen, the ‘social imaginary’ is one of the earliest explored in the history of the social sciences. In sociology, a social imaginary is the way a given people imagine their collective social life which enables and at the same time legitimises sense making processes and practices. Such imaginaries, imagined in particular by Charles Taylor, are complex yet at the same time largely unstructured and unarticulated (i.e. they have a strongly tacit quality), carried in images, stories and legends, and incorporate both facts about how we usually conduct our social existence, but also norms about how this existence ought to be played out.

Spatial imaginaries

Across a variety of geographical sub-disciplines the term ‘spatial’ typically substitutes for ‘social’. Spatial imaginaries are “particular understandings of space … cognitive frameworks, both collective and individual, constituted through the lived experiences, perceptions and conceptions of space itself (Lefebvre, 1991)” (Wolford, 2004, p.410). A spatial imaginary is a shared or collective understanding of a particular space produced in association with the practices of living in that space. Importantly, spatial imaginaries are more than ‘just’ cognitive frameworks / representations; they structure and co-constitute social practices and have material effects – similar in this to sociotechnical imaginaries.

Climate imaginaries

The role of competing imaginaries in shaping climate policy are explored by Levy and Spicer (2013). They distinguish between four climate imaginaries: These are ‘fossil fuels forever’, ‘climate apocalypse’, ‘techno-market’ and ‘sustainable lifestyles’. For these authors imaginaries provide a shared sense of meaning, coherence and orientation around highly complex and also global issues. They are closely linked to the ways in which institutions and economic activity are organised and structured, and the ways people think they ought to be organised and structured.

Over and above the ‘imaginaries’ briefly discussed here, one can find all sorts of other imaginaries on the web, such as political, apocalyptic, biomedical, urban, wild, viral, collaborative, collective imaginaries, and and many more. However, one of the most pervasive of all social science imaginaries is perhaps the ‘sociotechnical imaginaries’ as popularized by Science and Technology Scholars.

Sociotechnical imaginaries

The concept of sociotechnical imaginary is explored in Sheila Jasanoff and Sang-Hyun Kim’s (2009) work on nuclear power in the US and Korea over the past half century (see also 2013). They use this concept in order to explain the relationship between science and technology developments and political institutions, and in particular understand the relationship between the process of building a sense of national identity and national level science and technology projects. National sociotechnical imaginaries are defined as “collectively imagined forms of social life and social order reflected in the design and fulfilment of nation-specific scientific and / or technological projects” (120). “Such visions, and the policies built upon them, have the power to influence technological design, channel public expenditures, and justify the inclusion or exclusion of citizens with respect to the benefits of technological progress” (120).

In these and other usages of the phrase ‘sociotechnical imaginary’ within STS in particular language plays a central to the construction of imaginaries. However, language is not the focus of their study, which is instead on exploring the material effects or consequences of such imaginaries.

Jasanoff and Kim distinguish their concept of sociotechnical imaginary from a number of other discursive phenomena. Firstly, they assert that imaginaries are not the same as policy agendas. “They are less specific, less issue-specific, less goal-directed, less politically accountable, and less instrumental; they reside in the reservoir of norms and discourses, metaphors and cultural meanings out of which actors build their policy preferences. Neither are imaginaries simply master narratives that justify scientific or technological investment, such as the pervasive modern narrative that equates science with progress. Unlike master narratives, which are often extrapolated from past events and serve explanatory or justificatory purposes, imaginaries are instrumental and futuristic: they project visions of what is good, desirable and worth attaining for a political community; they articulate feasible futures. Conversely, imaginaries also warn against risks or hazards that might accompany innovation if it is pushed too hard or too fast. In activating collective consciousness, imaginaries help create the political will or public resolve to attain them” (123).

Imaginaries are also distinguished from discursive frames guiding media representations of science and technology. For Jasanoff and Kim ‘media packages’ rest on the repeated use of words and images in public communicative space while sociotechnical imaginaries, in contrast, are understood to be “active exercises of state power” e.g. the allocation of funds, the suppression of dissent, investment in infrastructures.

Linking ancient and modern imaginaries

It is interesting to note the use of the phrase ‘collective consciousness’ (especially at the level of nations!) in these modern texts. This contemporary thinking about sociotechnical imaginaries therefore links up with with older imaginaries of society and language, especially with the works of Durkheim (but also Humboldt and Wundt). All these 19th-century thinkers wanted to explore the collective consciousness of nations through how it manifests itself in and in turn shapes language, law, politics, religion, science and other social institutions.

Finding imaginaries

The word ‘imaginary’ has certainly taken off since the 1950s and populated all sorts of conceptual niches within all sorts of disciplinary and interdisciplinary landscapes – or as the most recent book on the topic calls it ‘dreamscapes’ (with references to Shelley, Verne etc.!). What is less clear is how one goes about finding them. Here we might usefully turn to another scholar who has some things in common with the originator of the word ‘imaginary’, Castoriadis, but who was more directly influenced by Durkheim. This is Serge Moscovivi, the father of ‘social representations theory’.

For all three, Castoriadis, Durkheim, and Moscovici, society and individuals are “intertwined threads of the same fabric” (Arruda, 2009, p. 748), and this fabric is spun through imagination and language.

Social representations theory can be usefully employed by those trying to find imaginaries in the social fabric of life, together with other tools such as metaphor analysis, image analysis and so on. Angela Arruda explores some of these confluences of thought between social representations theory and social imaginaries in a forthcoming book chapter which should be of interest to social scientists: “Image, social imaginary and social representations” in The Cambridge Handbook of Social Representations (May 2015).

Foreward look

Our Making Science Public team is just in the process of testing out a few of the theoretical approaches to imaginaries summarised in this post in order to shed light on how ‘publics’ are imagined in a variety of contexts. More about that another time!

Image: Early videophone-television concept by George du Maurier (Punch’s Almanack, 1879)



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