The social imaginary is the imaginary system that holds society together. It provides the web of meanings and structures that guide our collective and individual actions and values. The following thought experiment should make this clearer:
Imagine you are in a group of strangers. Nobody knows one another, so you need to find a way to break the ice. You decide to play a game. After choosing what to play, you induct everyone into the rules and the aim of the game. You play the game, and there is laughter, frustration, tension, excitement, triumph and disappointment – and most importantly, a sense of belonging.
In just twenty minutes or so of playing, in other words, you have transformed a group of total strangers into a community.
How does this happen? What is it that gives games this unique alchemy? In my view, games are so powerful because they provide us with the coherence that makes cohesion possible. In having an intrinsic purpose, and providing a set of rules by which players pursue this purpose, a game is a paradigm case of coherence. And because this coherence is shared by all the players, a game also provides cohesion.
In order for the game to work, all players must imagine that they are – for a given time – inhabiting a world that is governed by a particular set of rules, and that the ultimate purpose really is worth striving for together. Because even if the game is competitive, no competitor can triumph if the other players do not play along.
In the idea of playing along, we find the secret of games’ cohesive magic. Indeed, games are, I believe, just micro-versions of the imaginary systems that hold societies together.
These imaginary systems, known as ‘social imaginaries’, are the set of imagined ideas, practices, orientations, values and so on that binds a society together.
If citizens are the players, then the norms and assumptions and attitudes we live by are the rules. We play along with these imaginary rules in order to participate in society.
A group of strangers must tacitly agree to imagine that things mean certain things in order to communicate, and in order to build a community. This is what makes an aggregate of individuals a society.
When we recognise the existence of social imaginaries, we can understand why there are patterns of meaning in things. Words, gestures, policies, preferences, metaphors, institutions – these everyday phenomena carry social meaning.
We can also recognise, more importantly, that things do not have to mean what they do: things only mean what they do as long as we imagine that they do.
When we recognise that the words we use, for example, are part of broader patterns of imaginary meanings that guide society, we see why it matters that we reject sexist or racist terms, for example. Such slurs – even if used ‘jokingly’ – are potent because they aren’t just stand-alone comments, but representatives of social structures that have real-life implications for people.
Most of us are not responsible for devising racist policies, but we are responsible for our part in creating the ambient culture in which racist policies do or do not seem normal and acceptable.
This is easy to understand when we recognise that our social imaginaries are systems – just like games are. In other words, they are, as leading systems thinker Donella Meadows puts it, “interconnected set[s] of elements that [are] coherently organised in a way that achieves something”.
When we participate in a system, we operate as the dynamics that reinforce that system. This is usually called the positive feedback loop, and these loops are essential for systems to continue doing what they doing, and being what they are.
But sometimes things go wrong with systems, as when the positive feedback loops get out of control. For example, contemporary society is fuelled by individualist consumerism, but the environmental and social costs of these powerful drivers pose an existential threat to society. When this happens, counterbalances are needed to get back on an even keel again. These are called negative feedback loops.
But what happens if not just one or two glitches appear, but become so numerous that they seem to characterise the system?
In this case, it will not suffice to tweak a few feedback loops. This is because the problem is at the ‘paradigm level’. In other words, it goes to the very heart – the purpose – of the system itself.
In the case of a game, or even in the case of Thomas Kuhn’s scientific paradigms, resolving the problem is somewhat straightforward, because the paradigm is known. Changing the paradigm would still involve making fundamental changes to the system such that it might not be recognisable.
For example, if we don’t like the selfishness and the greed intrinsic to the game of Monopoly, we would have to change the purpose of the game. Merely changing the names of the streets, or the forms of the counters, or even introducing more radical taxes and chance elements, would not alter these attitudes. Selfishness and greed are simply the necessary attitudes to succeeding in making fellow players bankrupt.
In the case of a social imaginary, however, its underlying core is not known. The core is mediated through so many layers of structures and ideologies and practices that, in day to day life, we don’t even recognise that there is a core to it!
But given that all systems have a principle of coherence (because coherence is the thing that transforms a set of odds and ends into a system), we can feel confident that the imaginary systems of society also possess such a core.
In my research, I analysed around 150 commonplace practices for their implicit assumptions, which I then analysed for their assumptions and so on, until I revealed a common disposition. These tiers of analysis revealed layers of structures that mediate and organise our everyday experiences.
The layers of structures mean that, even though there is a common core, it can be expressed in widely divergent ways – to the degree that any two practices might seem totally unrelated. For example, what do narrow pavements have to do with the default masculine pronoun? What does pet ownership have to do with the race pay gap?
And yet, despite comprising a range of apparently unrelated practices, society does seem to have a particular character – a certain flavour that subtly permeates everyday experience.
The core principle that that my analysis revealed is “entitlement”. Entitlement refers to a person’s preferences and superiority being routinely expressed over and against others. This is expressed as both liberty (the idea that, above all else, we are free to choose), and hierarchy (in a nutshell, that superiors may make demands of inferiors).
I refer to the core of the social imaginary as the ‘keystone concept’: it is that which holds the whole system together. Without it, a given social imaginary would not be what it is (just like a how a ‘keystone’ species is integral to its ecosystem).
Entitlement, I believe is integral to our current social imaginary – and it pervades our everyday lives. Indeed, it is so pervasive, we fail to see it much of the time. But I belief that without this singular disposition, our society could not exist in its current form.
Misogyny, racial complacency, and exploiting animals are ideologies that manifest in things we do, collectively and individually, day in and day out that are all expressions of entitlement.
Eating animal products is the most potent expression of entitlement: both because it is so pervasive and because killing an innocent being for trivial reasons would seem to be the most perfect expression of entitlement over against another.
If we wish to transform society, we must reject and replace the keystone concept of entitlement. The only way to do this is to reject entitlement’s most salient expressions. Because if we continue to express entitlement, we are simply reinforcing and shoring up the existing imaginary.
Furthermore, the radical imagination – the faculty that can help us create a new imaginary – requires space free from the existing imaginary in order to work properly.
It is my view that in order to transform the imaginary we must do the following four things:
Firstly, we must come to understand the social imaginary, in particular how what we do reproduces the underlying dispositions that give rise to the pernicious practices we seek to change.
Secondly, we must reject the most salient expressions of entitlement (sexism, racism, speciesism, anthropocentrism, instrumentalism and so on), because doing so is the best way to undermine the dispositions that generate society’s problems.
Thirdly, we must make an effort to cultivate the radical imagination.
Fourthly, we must help each other achieve the first, second and third steps.
In these pages, I will be elaborating on the ideas briefly touched on in this overview, especially focussing on how to achieve the 4 steps above.