Imaginary (sociology)

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The imaginary (or social imaginary) is the set of values, institutions, laws, and symbols through which people imagine their social whole. It is common to the members of a particular social group and the corresponding society. The concept of the imaginary has attracted attention in anthropology, sociology, psychoanalysis, philosophy, and media studies.


The roots of the modern concept of the imaginary can be traced back to Jean-Paul Sartre's 1940 book The Imaginary: A Phenomenological Psychology of the Imagination in which Sartre discusses his concept of the imagination and the nature of human consciousness. Subsequent thinkers have extended Sartre's ideas into the realms of philosophy and sociology.

For John Thompson, 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".[1]

For Manfred Steger and Paul James "imaginaries are patterned convocations of the social whole. These deep-seated modes of understanding provide largely pre-reflexive parameters within which people imagine their social existence—expressed, for example, in conceptions of 'the global,' 'the national,' 'the moral order of our time.'"[2]

John R. Searle uses the expression "social reality" rather than "social imaginary".[3]


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'.[4] 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"'.[5]

In similar fashion, Habermas wrote of 'the massive background of an intersubjectively shared lifeworld ... lifeworld contexts that provided the backing of a massive background consensus'.[6]


"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".[7] 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".[8] Lacan also drew on the way "Melanie Klein pushes back the limits within which we can see the subjective function of identification operate",[9] 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".[10] "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".[11]

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. "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".[12]


Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor uses the concept of modern social imaginaries to explore the Western transition from the hierarchical norms of pre-modern social imaginaries to the egalitarian, horizontal, direct access social imaginary of modernity.[13] He sees the Renaissance ideal of civility and self-fashioning as a sort of halfway house[14] on the road to modernity and modern morality. The modern social imaginary he considers comprises a system of interlocking spheres, including reflexivity and the social contract,[15] public opinion and Habermas' public sphere, the political/market economy as an independent force, and the self-government of citizens within a society as a normative ideal.[16]

Taylor has acknowledged the influence of Benedict Anderson in his formulation of the concept of the social imaginary.[17] Anderson treated the nation as 'an imagined political community...nation-ness, as well as nationalism, are cultural artifacts of a particular kind'.[18]


While not constituting an established reality, the social imaginary is nevertheless an institution in as much 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'.[19] 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'.[20]


In 1995 George E. Marcus edited a book with the title Technoscientific Imaginaries which ethnographically explored contemporary science and technology.[21] A collection of encounters in the technosciences by a collective of anthropologists and others, the volume aimed 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.[citation needed] 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'.[22]

Media imaginary[edit]

Several media scholars and historians have analyzed the imaginary of technologies as they emerge, such as early communication technology,[23] mobile phones,[24] and the Internet.[25][26]

Serial imaginary[edit]

A recent research led by a team from the Université Grenoble Alpes offer to develop the concept of imaginary and understand how it functions when faced with serial works of art.

This research, published in Imaginaire sériel: Les mécanismes sériels à l'oeuvre dans l'acte créatif, (Jonathan Fruoco and Andréa Rando Martin (Ed.), Grenoble, UGA Edition, 2017), subscribes to Gilbert Durand's Grenoble school of thought and both questions the impact of seriality on our imaginary and defines the imaginary of seriality.[27]

The development of this concept allows a better understanding of the close link between the ability to condition and organize exchanges between an experience and its representation, and a procedure based on the rhythmical repetition of one, or several, paradigms in a determined and coherent body, which allows their reproduction and inflection 6.

Serial works of art thus form a privileged field of studies since they turn this recursion and redundancy into structuring principles. This research tries to illustrate this serial conceptualization of the imaginary by analyzing serial literature, television series, comic books, serial music and dance, etc.

Architectural imaginary[edit]

Peter Olshavsky has analyzed the imaginary in the field of architecture. Based on the work of Taylor, the imaginary is understood as a category of understanding social praxis and the reasons designers give to make sense of these practices.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ John B. Thompson, Studies in the Theory of Ideology (1984) p. 6
  2. ^ Steger, Manfred B.; James, Paul (2013). "'Levels of Subjective Globalization: Ideologies, Imaginaries, Ontologies'". Perspectives on Global Development and Technology. 12 (1–2): 23. doi:10.1163/15691497-12341240.
  3. ^ John R. Searle, The Construction of Social Reality (Penguin 1996) p. 4
  4. ^ Quoted in Thompson, p. 23
  5. ^ Thompson, p. 24
  6. ^ Jürgen Habermas, Between Facts and Norms (1996)p. 322 and p. 22
  7. ^ David Macey, "Introduction", Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis (London 1994) p. xxi
  8. ^ Macey, p. xxi
  9. ^ Jacques Lacan, Écrits: A Selection (London 1997) p. 21
  10. ^ R. D. Laing, Self and Others (Penguin 1969) p. 38-40
  11. ^ J. Childers/G. Hentz eds., The Columbia Dictionary of Modern Literary and Cultural Criticism (1995) p. 152
  12. ^ Macey, p. xxi
  13. ^ Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (2007) p. 164-5 and p. 209
  14. ^ Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (2007) p. 112
  15. ^ Michael McKeon, The Secret History of Domesticity (2005) p. 107
  16. ^ Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (2007) p. 176-207
  17. ^ Poovey, M. "The Liberal Civil Subject and the Social in Eighteenth-Century British Moral Philosophy." Public Culture 14.1 (2002): 125-45, p. 132
  18. ^ Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (London 1991) p. 6 and p. 4
  19. ^ John R. Searle, The Construction of Social Reality (Penguin 1996) p. 4
  20. ^ Searle, p. 12-3
  21. ^ Marcus, George E. (1995-04-01). Technoscientific Imaginaries: Conversations, Profiles, and Memoirs. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 9780226504445.
  22. ^ R. T. A. Lysioff et al, Music and Technoculture (2003) p. 10
  23. ^ Marvin, Carolyn (1988-02-11). When Old Technologies Were New : Thinking About Electric Communication in the Late Nineteenth Century. Oxford University Press, USA. ISBN 9780198021384.
  24. ^ Vries, Imar de (2012-01-01). Tantalisingly Close: An Archaeology of Communication Desires in Discourses of Mobile Wireless Media. Amsterdam University Press. ISBN 9789089643544.
  25. ^ Flichy, Patrice (2007-01-01). The Internet Imaginaire. MIT Press. ISBN 9780262062619.
  26. ^ Mosco, Vincent (2005-01-01). The Digital Sublime: Myth, Power, and Cyberspace. MIT Press. ISBN 9780262633291.
  27. ^ Jonathan Fruoco, Andréa Rando Martin, Arnaud Laimé, Imaginaire sériel: Les mécanismes sériels à l'œuvre dans l'acte créatif, Grenoble, UGA Editions, 2017, 174 p. (ISBN 9782377470006), p. 10-15

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