The Imaginary

Document Type



Anthropology (Pitzer)

Publication Date



Anderson, Castoriadis, cognitive psychology, imaginary, Ivy, Japan, Lacan, schema theory, Taylor, US


It is common in anthropology now to speak of imaginaries instead of cultural beliefs. This article examines the way Cornelius Castoriadis, Jacques Lacan, Benedict Anderson, and Charles Taylor analyzed this concept. For Castoriadis, the imaginary is a culture's ethos, for Lacan, it is a fantasy, for Anderson and Taylor, it is a shared cognitive schema. Then Marilyn Ivy's application of these theories to Japanese ‘national-cultural imaginaries’ is examined. Finally, a more person-centered analysis is sketched, focusing on US Americans’ explanations of the Columbine school shootings. Current anthropological uses of the imaginary inherit from Castoriadis a tendency toward cultural abstraction, reification, and homogenization. Lacan's, Anderson's, and Taylor's applications of the imaginary are potentially valuable if we use person-centered methods to study real rather than abstract cultural subjects, if we insist on a deeper understanding of the psychological processes involved, and if we respect complexity at both the psychological and social levels.

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Copyright © 2009, SAGE Publications