The imaginary, or social imaginary is the set of values, institutions, laws, and symbols common to a particular social group and the corresponding society.
'The social imaginary...[is] the creative and symbolic dimension of the social world, the dimension through which human beings create their ways of living together and their ways of representing their collective life'.
'The imaginary is presented by Lacan as one of the three intersecting orders that structure all human existence, the others being the symbolic and the real'. Lacan was responding to ' L'Imaginaire, which was the title of the "phenomenological psychology of the imagination" published by Sartre in 1940, where it refers to the image as a form of consciousness'. Lacan also drew on the way 'Melanie Klein pushes back the limits within which we can see the subjective function of identification operate', in her work on phantasy - something extended by her followers to the analysis of how 'we are all prone to be drawn into social phantasy systems...the experience of being in a particular set of human collectivities'. 'While it is only in the early years of childhood that human beings live entirely in the Imaginary, it remains distinctly present throughout the life of the individual'.
The imaginary as a Lacanian term refers to an illusion and fascination with an image of the body as coherent unity, deriving from the dual relationship between the ego and the specular or mirror image. This illusion of coherence, control and totality is by no means unnecessary or inconsequential (as something that is illusory). 'The term "imaginary" is obviously cognate with "fictive" but in its Lacanian sense it is not simply synonymous with fictional or unreal; on the contrary, imaginary identifications can have very real effects'.
In 1975, Cornelius Castoriadis used the term in his book The Imaginary Institution of Society, maintaining that 'the imaginary of the society...creates for each historical period its singular way of living, seeing and making its own existence'. For Castoriadis, 'the central imaginary significations of a society...are the laces which tie a society together and the forms which define what, for a given society, is "real"'.
Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor expands on the concept of Western imaginaries in his book "Modern Social Imaginaries" (2004). He attempts to describe modernity and modern morality as a system of mutually beneficial spheres, in particular the public sphere of Habermas, market economy, and the self-government of citizens within a society.
While Taylor considers that '"social imaginary" usefully names a reciprocity of the individual and the community, as well as a reciprocity of understanding and behaving in the social world' applicable to all societies, he emphasizes above all 'the basic features of the modern social imaginary - virtuality, self-constitution, reflexivity...the social contract, market exchange, public opinion'.
Taylor has acknowledged the influence of Benedict Anderson in his formulation of the concept of the social imaginary. Anderson treated the nation as 'an imagined political community...nation-ness, as well as nationalism, are cultural artifacts of a particular kind'.
In 1995 "Technoscientific Imaginaries" was used as the title of a volume ethnographically exploring contemporary science and technology. A collection of encounters in the technosciences by a collective of anthropologists and others, edited by George Marcus, the goal was to find strategic sites of change in contemporary worlds that no longer fit traditional ideas and pedagogies and that are best explored through a collaborative effort between technoscientists and social scientists. While the Lacanian imaginary is only indirectly invoked, the interplay between emotion and reason, desire, the symbolic order, and the real are repeatedly probed. Crucial to the technical side of these imaginaries are the visual, statistical, and other representational modes of imaging that have both facilitated scientific developments and sometimes misdirected a sense of objectivity and certitude.
Such work accepts that 'technological meaning is historically grounded and, as a result, becomes located within a larger social imaginary'.
While not constituting an established reality, the social imaginary is nevertheless an institution inasmuch as it represents the system of meanings that govern a given social structure. These imaginaries are to be understood as historical constructs defined by the interactions of subjects in society. In that sense, the imaginary is not necessarily "real" as it is an imagined concept contingent on the imagination of a particular social subject. Nevertheless, there remains some debate among those who use the term (or its associated terms, such as imaginaire, as to the ontological status of the Imaginary. Some, such as Henry Corbin, understand the imaginary to be quite real indeed, while others ascribe to it only a social or imagined reality.
John R. Searle considered the ontology of the social imaginary to be complex, but that in practice 'the complex structure of social reality is, so to speak, weightless and invisible. The child is brought up in a culture where he or she simply takes social reality for granted....The complex ontology seems simple'. He added the subtle distinction that social reality was observer-relative, and so would 'inherit that ontological subjectivity. But this ontological subjectivity does not prevent claims about observer-relative features from being epistemically objective'.
- John B. Thompson, Studies in the Theory of Ideology (1984) p. 6
- David Macey, "Introduction", Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis (London 1994) p. xxi
- Macey, p. xxi
- Jacques Lacan, Écrits: A Selection (London 1997) p. 21
- R. D. Laing, Self and Others (Penguin 1969) p. 38-40
- J. Childers/G. Hentz eds., The Columbia Dictionary of Modern Literary and Cultural Criticism (1995) p. 152
- Macey, p. xxi
- Quoted in Thompson, p. 23
- Thompson, p. 24
- Jürgen Habermas, Between Facts and Norms (1996)p. 322 and p. 22
- Michael McKeon, The Secret History of Domesticity (2005) p. 107
- Poovey, M. "The Liberal Civil Subject and the Social in Eighteenth-Century British Moral Philosophy." Public Culture 14.1 (2002): 125-45, p. 132
- Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (London 1991) p. 6 and p. 4
- R. T. A. Lysioff et al, Music and Technoculture (2003) p. 10
- John R. Searle, The Construction of Social Reality (Penguin 1996) p. 4
- Searle, p. 12-3
- Flichy, Patrice. The Internet Imaginaire. Translated by Liz Carey-Libbrecht. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007 .
- Jasanoff, Sheila, and Sang-Hyun Kim. "Containing the Atom: Sociotechnical Imaginaries and Nuclear Power in the United States and South Korea." Minerva 47, no. 2 (June 1, 2009): 119-146.
- Marcus, G.E. Technoscientific Imaginaries. Late Editions Vol. 2. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. With contributions by Livia Polanyi, Michael M.J. Fischer, Mary-Jo DelVecchio Good, Paul Rabinow, Allucquere Rosanne Stone,Gary Lee Downey, Diana and Roger Hill, Hugh Gusterson, Kim Laughlin, Kathryn Milun, Sharon Traweek, Kathleen Stewart, Mario Biagioli, James Holston, Gudrun Klein, and Christopher Pound.
- Salazar, Noel B. "Envisioning Eden: Mobilizing Imaginaries in Tourism and Beyond". Oxford: Berghahn Books.
- Strauss, Claudia. "The Imaginary". Anthropological Theory vol. 6 issue, 3 September 2006, p. 322–344.
- Vries, Imar de. Tantalisingly Close: An Archaeology of Communication Desires in Discourses of Mobile Wireless Media. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2012. "Tantalisingly Close".
- "Charles Taylor, "On Social Imaginary", at archive.org". Archived from the original on 2004-10-19. Retrieved 2010-10-28.
- "Fernando Andacht, "A Semiotic Framework for the Social Imaginary", at ARISBE: THE PEIRCE GATEWAY". Retrieved 2007-07-18.