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Imagining a Better World:
The Role of the Imagination in Social and Institutional Change


By Hannah Vera Karolina Haehn



Theory provides us a platform to discuss that which underlies the formation of our society, its structures, its policy and the actions of its people. There is a place for theory in thinking about what these elements of society are not providing and the ways in which they can be transformed. The imagination is an integral element to the discussion of societal theory and social change because it illuminates the internal framework of the individual; how they construct their views of both the world in which they currently participate and the future world of which they wish to be a part.

The discourse of the imagination as a vehicle for social change is not a new one to theory.  Roughly this concept can be summarized by the words of George Bernard Shaw, co-founder of the London School of Economics, “Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine and at last you create what you will.

Where I would like to begin my discussion of the imagination is by asking what influences the formation of an individual’s imagined world and its possibilities? How can understanding the elements that construct the imagined play a role in the creation of social and institutional change as they relate to the betterment of humanity? How can the imagination transform what humans desire for themselves, for others and for the world?  How will the increasing global interconnectedness of people and places affect these processes and what will their implications be on a global scale?


Constructing the Imaginary

In the discussion of the imagination it is important to identify a few of its characteristics. Raymond Williams contributes to this conversation the understanding that there are “tenses of the imagination”.  That is to say that the imagination has a past, present and future. The imaginary “remembrance” of history, the currently constructed view of the world, and that which is imagined as possible are all imagined in tenses. This idea is important to hold as we proceed in speaking about the use of the imagination in the present for future change. The idea of tenses of the imagination indicates for us that the imagination is always evolving and changing as an individual moves through time.  As well, this theory constructs for us a powerful dichotomy between that which is versus that which will be (Williams, 1984).

Secondly, we must incorporate into our thinking the idea that the imagination is individual and not limited to the preconceptions of others or of history. The best way to illustrate this aspect of the imagination is through the conversation of Partha Chaterjee and Benedict Anderson regarding “imagined communities”.  Chaterjee’s response to Anderson is that the colonized constructed their own sense of imagined communities and nationality which was not simply a modular representation of the colonizers’ form of community and nationality, but rather, was individually their own (Chaterjee, 1993). The individual has the ability to completely construct the world in which they live through their imagination (Appadurai, 1994).  This characteristic of the imagination causes us to focus on the importance of the individual in social change and the possibilities that lie within individual conceptions of the world and the ways in which it can be.

Therefore, our understanding of the imagination is illuminated twofold. Firstly, the imagination has a tense and secondly, the imagination, and therefore the imagined world, is boundless and individual.


The Influences of the Imagination

The influences of an individual’s imagination are at the center of societal theory through the many lenses which theorists lend to this discussion.  Undeniably, however, when speaking of such a fluid and all-encompassing process such as the imagination they all have something invaluable to contribute. Instead of seeking to separate their theories, I propose finding a way to incorporate the range of their contributions into something meaningful.

From Arjun Appadurai, we can take the lenses of ethnoscapes, mediascapes, technoscapes, financescapes and ideoscapes to show the elements which affect the imagination in the globalized world.  The “-scapes” that he highlights assist us in wanting to move fantasies for our lives through expanding the limits of what can be imagined. It is here that the imagination becomes a social practice and a key component for global order. (Appadurai, 1996).

Other theorists lend us the human rights discourse, cosmopolitanism, law, culture and colonialism as foundations from where an individual’s imagination can grow.  (Darian Smith, 1996. Gunn, 2001, Brysk, 2010). We might also add historical narratives, family relations, religion, economics, government, gender relations, myth and even theory itself.  This list is limitless as there are no boundaries for that which may generate an individual’s perception of their world and their fantasy for a future one. 

As well, relationships exist between these seemingly separate ideas which allow them to create each other. This leads us to the realization that they cannot really be separated at all, but rather they exist in constant formation of one another. In this same vein of thought, while these entities can be attributed to influencing the imagination, the imagination also contributes to their formation. Thus a relationship is born between what creates the imagination and what can be accomplished by it.

In attempting to see the functionality of the imagination as a tool for positive social change, we need to look at the collective of these influences and see what we can take as positive from them. Does the human rights discourse separate us from one another through the argument of cultural relativism or do we connect on our shared humanity? Does religion seek to pit us against one another through wars over our Gods or to we see the commonality of service to one another and our communities?  Does economics serve only to make the rich richer and the poor poorer or do we see a system that allows us all to experience abundance and prosperity?  

When embarking on the search for positivity, what we are really asking is what makes us imagine the betterment of society?  What makes us care for one another and demand support in our institutions and policies? What is the value in finding that which we can share across borders, real or imagined, between individuals and all social spaces?  The value in looking at that which is shared amongst these interrelated influences of the imagination is in the understanding of the boundless nature of the concept.  The shared “something” can come from all avenues and perspectives of the individual’s imagined world. Therefore, there is power in all human experience to assist in generating an imagination which holds the betterment of all humanity at its center.

Judith Butler take this idea into consideration with a slightly different tone when she argues that what it is that we can share, and upon which we can construct our communities is not simply that which we may find positive in our lives but rather it is our tragedies, violence, vulnerability and loss which connect us (Butler, 2004). What is the role of focusing on tragedy and loss in how we create a better imagined world? Is it equally important to include empathy for one another as it is to include love? Butler argues that:

“Many people think that grief is privatizing, that it returns us to a solitary situation and is, in that sense, depoliticizing. But I think it furnishes a sense of political community or a complex order, and it does this first of all by bringing to the fore therelational ties that have implications for theorizing fundamental dependency and ethical responsibility.” (Butler, 2004).

In other words, through imagining our communities using the lens that Butler provides, there is no way to deny our interconnectedness – of both our shared humanity and our shared thoughts. The realization comes that we need to imagine a betterment of society; we require the sadness so we can understand happiness, there is purpose in the pain so we may appreciate joy. The elements of tragedy and loss as actors on the imagination are valuable in the ways in which we can see their purpose for creating the context for imagining a better world.


The Dark Side of the Imagination

It is important, however, to illuminate the reality that if the positive side of the imagination is not directed, there is potential for the imagination to fulfill desires of fear, death and destruction. How has the imagination been used in this way? What is the purpose in exploring the potentiality of the negative formation of society due to the imagined?  Can the imagination be as dangerous as it is creative?

Rediker and Linebaugh in The Hewers of Wood and the Drawers of Water discuss this element of the imagination when they explain how myth and story played a role in the formation of a discourse about which people were human and who was acceptable for exploitation.  This eventually led to the harboring of fear in the imagination and thus the need to protect oneself and one’s imagined world through the validation of genocide in various historical contexts.

What is important in this illustration is that the imagination can be very powerful, not only to create a fantasy for the betterment of the world and of humanity as we have been discussing, but also to create fear of the potentialities of the future world.  The other aspect of this illustration is the way in which the imagination can be used to generate action. What kinds of actions are being encouraged by the use of the imagination? And how can the imagination be directed to create social change?


The Generative Power of the Imagination

The imagination has the power to generate action of the individual, the group, and ultimately society as a whole. The first step in this generative process for positive social change is the recognition by the individual of the existence of their imagination and the power that it holds.  Although you do not have to be aware of your imagination in order for it to function, becoming aware gives you the power to control it and use it in ways for good for yourself and for others.  

Once an individual has formulated a relationship with their imagination, or their imagined idea, they are able to share this awareness with others. When others become aware of another world possible, agency is encouraged to make possible that which is imagined. There is no longer a separation between fantasy and reality – there are only actions which are required to make the imagined real.  “The imagination [becomes] an organized field of social practices, a form of work and a form of negotiation between the site of agency (individuals) and globally defined fields of possibility” (Appadurai, 1993).

Endless examples of the generative power of the imagination exist tangibly and daily in the world around us; from the ways in which we construct our societies, families, neighborhoods, and schools to the existence of technology, from airplanes to cyberspace. We see the imagination’s role in decolonization, liberation struggles, indigenous movements, human rights progress, civil rights movements, and feminist movements to the formation of the UN, the EU and the USA. The results of the empowered imagination, and the role of the active individual, are the realities of our world.


Institutional and Policy Implications of the Imagination

How do we take the generative power of the imagination and create normative ideas for policy and institutional change? In imagining a better world, who decides what this world will be and how they will implement it?  What are the implications of striving for a better world in regards to the relationships that exist between individuals and their different individually-imagined worlds?  

There are both the positive and the negative implications of the imagination as it relates to policy. While policy can be seen presently to be attempting to alleviate suffering and unfairness around the world, give voice to the people and protect the lives of the individual, there are limitations to this discursive power. The danger in creating any policy or institutional framework is that it can be seen as limiting the fantasy of the imagined worlds of individuals. That is too say, that no policy or institution has yet to encompass all members equally and with dignity.

However, Gunn reminds us that “the conceptualization of, if not a common human nature, then at least the nature of a common, or, in any event, a sharable human world may be a job for which the imagination is better equipped than the analytical intellect” (Gunn, 2001). And therefore, there is still value in imagining a way in which the betterment of humanity can be at the center of the individuals’ imagination and the creation of their world.



What have we grasped from this exploration of the imagination? Firstly, we came to understand that the influences of the imagination are limitless and individual and that there is a purpose for viewing the imagination in tenses to illuminate the difference between that which is and that which can be. Secondly, the purpose of finding that which can be shared was illuminated in our attempt to construct an imagination which focuses on social change – that which is shared, in this case, being not only ideological but emotional as well. Next, we discussed the potential for the imagination to be used to create fear, death and destruction, while asking what the implications of this dark side of the imagination are. The generative power of the imagination was outlined by the formation of the social changes and shifts we have seen occur throughout history, leaving us to ask, what are the potentials for policy and institutional application of the imagined?

A thread that has been woven throughout this discussion is the sense of the global in the formation and use of the imagination.  “The link between the imagination and social life, I would suggest, is increasingly a global and deterritorialized one” (Appadurai, 1994).  The current worlds which we imagine reflect our growing interconnectedness and our realizations that our desires cannot as easily be separated from one another as each of our actions has far reaching effects across humanity and the planet.

The purpose in attempting to understand the role of the imagination in positive social change is in response to an increasingly global world, in which humanity must learn to share and imagine together in order to preserve life and all human dignity.




Works Cited

Appadurai, Arjun. “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy.” Modernity    at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press, 1996 27-47

Appadurai, Arjun. “Global Ethnoscapes: Notes and Queries for a Transnational Anthropology.” Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press, 1996 48-65

Brysk, Allison.  “Human Rights as Social Imaginary”. The Orfalea Center for Global & International Studies. Goleta, CA. 18 Nov. 2010.

Butler, Judith. Precarious Life: The Powers of Violence and Mourning. London & New York: Verso, 2004

Chaterjee, Partha. “Whose Imagine Communities?” The Nation and its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories New Jersey: Princeton University Press. 1993 3 -13

Darian Smith, Eve. “Postcolonialism: A Brief Introduction.” Social & Legal Studies: An International Journal. September 1996, Vol. 5, 3, 291-299

Gunn, Giles. Beyond Solidarity. Pragmatism and Difference in a Globalized World. Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 2001 146-195

Rediker and Linebaugh. “Hewers of Wood and Drawers of Water.” The Many Headed Hydra. Boston: Beacon Press, 2000 36-70

Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Picador, 2003

Williams. Raymond. “Tenses of the Imagination.” Writing in Society. London, Verso, 1983. US edition. New York, Verso, 1984