Program on Science, Technology and Society at Harvard

Harvard Kennedy School of Government | Harvard University

Imagined Social Collectives

A number of philosophers and social theorists have explored the imagination of states, nations, and ruling classes, although not always explicitly using that term. Work such as this can be read as an important precedent to scholarship on sociotechnical imaginaries, offering entry points for STS studies to connect to broader questions in political and social theory.

State and Nation (Political Science/Anthropology)

Benedict Anderson. 1983. Imagined Communities. Verso.

Anderson offers an innovative and widely influential approach to understanding the nature of nationalism and the emergence of the nation state as a political form. Nations, he argues, are the product of the collective imaginations of the people who perceive themselves as members. Though most members of a nation state will never see each other, they form an imagined community through technologies like print media that give them a sense of immediacy with one another and a sense of collective identity.

”In an anthropological spirit, then, I propose the following definition of the nation: it is an imagined political community—and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.”

Arjun Appadurai. 1990. “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy.” Public Culture 2 (2):1-24.

Appadurai suggests that modern society is characterized by a new relationship between subjectivities and imagination. The two major, interconnected diacritics affecting this dynamic are electronic media and mass migration, which impel the work of the imagination. In modern society, imagination has become an organized field of social practices, a form of work, and a form of negotiation between sites of agency and globally defined fields of possibility. Ethnography must, therefore, be reoriented to illuminate the role of imagination in the fabrication of social lives. Imaginaries play a constitutive role in social life as forms of life emerge more out of subjectively imagined possibilities than the specific trajectories of social forms and practices.

Gabrielle Hecht. 1998. The Radiance of France. MIT Press.

In this book, Gabrielle Hecht examines how the French state became increasingly intertwined with nuclear technology after World War II. Arising from the ashes of war and German occupation, French nationalism re-imagined itself as fulfilling a vision of “technological prowess.” Hecht goes beyond this initial insight, however, to describe how this imaginary became enmeshed in several parts of French life and technology—from how engineers embraced a culture of masculinity and risk taking in service of the vision to how engineers and scientists built a uniquely French system of nuclear power generation, the gas-graphite reactor. Instead of assuming that there is something essentially French about this technology, Hecht shows how the actors cast the gas-graphite reactor as Gallic, thereby, simultaneously producing a concrete technological system, a national identity, and a discourse of technical excellence.

Charles Taylor. 2003. Modern Social Imaginaries. Duke University Press.

Taylor, partly building on Anderson, uses imagination to explore how the durable social structures of western modernity—the economy, the public sphere and the sovereignty of the people—are sustained through collective practices, stories and ideas. He distinguishes between “the moral order” and a modern “social imaginary,” with the former referring to the body of articulated political philosophical ideas held by elites, and the latter the much larger forms of imagination shared by ordinary people through images, stories and legends. The social imaginary a common understanding that simultaneously enables the practices and reinscribes the common sense that together constitute social life.

“The social imaginary is ‘that common understanding which makes possible common practices and a widely shared sense of legitimacy.'”

Self and Society (Psychology/Media)

Jacques Lacan. 1956. “Fetishism: The Symbolic, The Real and The Imaginary” (in collaboration with W. Granoff), in S. Lorand and M. Balint, eds., Perversions: Psychodynamics and Therapy. Random House.

The “Imaginary,” is one of three core concepts in Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, which also includes the “symbolic,” and the “real.” A proper understanding of the structure of personality requires that all three be taken together. For Lacan, the “imaginary” refers to a fantasy in which the subject constructs an “ideal-ego” or an “image” of himself out of what he imagines to be the desires, expectations and ideals of others—out of social symbols, norms and images. The imaginary is the initial source of self-alienation of the personality. It is the basis for an essentially narcissistic relationship in which the mirror of the subject produces a deficiency of the self that can never be rectified. For Lacan, the imaginary, though built out of a repertoire of social symbols, is the fantasy of a specific person; thus the proper tools for interrogating and exposing the imaginary are psychoanalytic.

Cornelius Castoriadis. 1998. The Imaginary Institution of Society. MIT Press.

Cornelius Castoriadis uses the concept of the imaginary to describe how societies tend to construct mythologies around social orders and means of production. The imaginary is essentially social and transcends individual, subjective representation; it is a cultural ethos. It is a domain of signification that emerges “ex nihilo” out of history and does not refer to anything particular or immediate. Rather, it produces significations that organize human behavior and reinforce social relations.

“The imaginary is the unceasing and essentially undetermined (social-historical and physical) creation of figures/forms/images, on the basis of which there can ever be a question of ‘something.’—of ‘reality’ or ‘rationality. What we call ‘reality’ and ‘rationality’ are its works.”