Over the last several months, as I near the end of my first year of doctoral research, I’ve been pondering what exactly is the purpose of the work I am doing. This purpose started out as one idea in the beginning, but is fluid and changes over time. My research journey has involved shifting between and combining different aspects of urban green infrastructure, data capitalism, and social imaginaries, as I try to align methods with personal philosophies. Sustainability takes on different meanings for everyone, and the actions that we can take to leave our planet in a better state than we found it are of course socially and politically dependent. As members of the sustainability research community, we are in a privileged position to consider our work as part of global efforts to forestall climate and social justice crises. 

But lately, it has become more and more difficult for me to situate my work in the grand scheme of what can be accomplished and changed for the sake of planetary health. I want to ask those who are reading this post, if you can relate to the feeling of inevitability that no matter how far sustainability research, individual efforts, and community solidarity can take us forward, doom and gloom scenarios will always overshadow our progress. It is difficult to imagine a better future, when our narratives point to a future where time has run out, and people must learn to live with the consequences of their (in)action. 

Pixabay: MabelAmber

For myself, grounding my research in the social imaginary is not necessarily about finding approaches that work best from a professional perspective, although this is important. I am also interested in taking these theories out of the academic context, and seeing how they can be applied in daily life. What would be the consequences of this?

Social imaginaries and the imagination

Questions about human agency have become (even more) complicated when grounding my research in social imaginaries. In referring to the social imaginary, I am writing about the collective identities built by social and political backgrounds, which allow groups to build a common understanding of what makes “us”. What do I mean by a social imaginary, as opposed to the imagination? Bottici (2019) helpfully describes a certain dichotomy between the two terms, where the imagination may be considered as an individual faculty each of us possesses, and the imaginary as the context which possesses us, defining what is acceptable and possible. Without getting into ongoing chicken-and-egg debates about socially contextualized imaginaries versus the free imagination of individuals, we could simplify the relationship between the two ideas as iteratively constructing one another. 

Social imaginaries in the era of climate change

In this sense, social imaginaries are a way of helping us understand how to see the world, and how we may perceive of ourselves within it. Wright et al. (2013) suggest that climate change is depicted in popular and political discourses as a natural problem, which therefore requires rational, scientific responses. However, they propose that by reframing climate change as a political problem inherently linked to ideologies and collective understandings of our own behavior, we may be able to imagine a future that is ‘otherwise’.  From here, the links to envisioning a sustainable future for humanity may be clearer. Those who are insulated from the most severe effects of climate change and environmental injustices seem to be suffering from a lack of imagination about the future these risks in the coming years. The inability to mobilize efforts and create transformative change is reflected in this failure to imagine the trajectories on which we travel, or on which we could travel.

Humanity has an innate desire to tell stories, not only about the past, but about futures that can be dystopian or utopian, or something in between. These stories are fed by a variety of knowledge sources, and our role as researchers should not be ignored here. Milkoreit (2017) makes an important point on this topic, that research on social imaginaries often lays a heavy focus on desirable and attainable futures; however, the motivational potential for undesirable, or even unattainable futures, remains less clear. In effect, our individual imaginations about the future are affected by a collectively developed imaginary, which in turn affect political-decision-making, planning for the future, and actions about what is determined to be “possible” to forestall and reverse climate change. 


In reflecting on these ideas in my daily life, I have been trying to be more conscious about what political, social, cultural, and academic discourses are having an effect on my imagination for a desired future. In doing so, I am not trying to ignore scientific evidence, or cherry-pick scientific advances which suit my individual goals. If imagination and the social imaginary mutually constitute one another, then my aim in bringing these concepts into daily life has been to meditate on my role as an individual in the many communities that I inhabit, and how these concepts can be considered more consciously to affect transformative change. 

Sara Zaman is a doctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki’s Programme in Interdisciplinary Sciences, and a member of the Helsinki Institute for Sustainability Science.

References and further readings: 

Bottici, C., 2019. Imagination, Imaginary, Imaginal: Towards a New Social Ontology? Social Epistemology 33, 433–441. https://doi.org/10.1080/02691728.2019.1652861

Milkoreit, M., 2017. Imaginary politics: Climate change and making the future. Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene 5, 62. https://doi.org/10.1525/elementa.249

Patomäki, H., Steger, M.B., 2010. Social imaginaries and Big History: Towards a new planetary consciousness? Futures, Global Mindset Change 42, 1056–1063. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.futures.2010.08.004

Wright, C., Nyberg, D., De Cock, C., Whiteman, G., 2013. Future imaginings: Organizing in response to climate change. Organization 20, 647–658. https://doi.org/10.1177/1350508413489821

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