Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Modern Social Imaginaries 1

I am working my way through Charles Taylor's Modern Social Imaginaries. I am thinking of using this book in my Macrosociological Theory class. Early in the book, Taylor illuminates one of the great problems in teaching social theory: it is an intellectual's way of looking at the world. Most people do not live their lives thinking about the theory underlying even their own actions, much less the order of society as a whole.

Thus, Taylor proposes the idea of a "social imaginary." Ordinary people do not think in terms of theory, but they do think. They do things for reasons that make sense of their world. Moreover, what they try to do is limited by what they imagine will be an effective way to act. A social imaginary is a shared notion of how the world works and what actions make sense in it. Doing those actions, if they tend to work, makes the whole imaginary seem more true, more legitimate.

In teaching social theory I am initiating students into the small circle of social theorists, at least for a time. Yet they - we - are already participants in the social imaginary that we theorize about and with.

Taylor says that one thing that is distinctive and important about modern social imaginaries is that they do incorporate some elements of explicit social theory. The great modern revolutions, especially the American and the French, enacted theoretical ideas that had been debated and thought through by intellectuals in discourse with other educated participants in making social life. Thereafter, the social imaginary included some theories about individuals, equality, and liberty.

When we are studying social theories, one of the important ideas we will need to keep in mind is Taylor's theory of the not-quite-theoretical social imaginary.


ceemac said...

Interesting ideas. I look forward to hearing more. I always appreciate it when you introduce us to these things.

I have just lived through a brutal multi-year battle over zoning in my older neighborhood.

We spent a lot of time arguing about set backs, sq footage, lot coverage etc. But those terms never seemed to catch what many of us wanted to preserve. The term funky was too vague. As was the term McMansion.

I suspect we had several different "Social Imaginaries" behind the conversation. I wonder how the conversations would have gone if we had been able to uncover those "SI's" early in the process.

Of course at some time we would ahve had to come back to sq footage etc. since that is how the city laws are written.

halifax said...

One thing that I bring out when I teach the book is that, despite the plural title, Taylor really only talks about a single modernity. His social imaginary (market, public sphere, popular sovereignty, secularism) is manifested in various ways in various places, but it is still a unified account of what it means to be modern.

His best historical take on the multiple manifestations of the modern social imaginary is, of course, his chapter distinguishing the way that popular sovereignty came to be understood in the US from the way it came to be understood (or not understood) in France. The account of the trouble that the French had in ending their revolution brings up, however, the real difficulty in pinning down what an institutional representation of popular sovereignty looks like. In a review of the work, Bernie Yack points out that, as a method of authorizing government, divine right is much easier to institutionalize than popular sovereignty. And, as Taylor argues, it was only because of the legacy of English/British parliamentary institutions that the Americans found institutionalizing the idea so easy.

Mark W. Mallman said...

Social imaginary smells like Bourdieu's habitus, capital, and field. As we read in senior seminar, Bourdieu reckons that the habitus is related to confidence, which reproduces the power structures by forming the expectations people have for how they ought to act and what they are capable of. I wonder what Taylor thinks of power hierarchy? Be interesting to know if he brings it up.