What is the role of political imagination for social change? Where and how is political imagination practiced today? How are political alternatives imagined, performed and lived out in different contexts and by different groups of people? How do historical processes and legacies, such as colonialism and imperialism, shape the practices of political imagination? How do various intersecting inequalities affect the ways in which people can imagine and act towards social change? How should we theorise political imagination and social change?
These are some of the questions that our special issue “Political Imagination and Social Change” for Sociological Research Online seeks to address. Political imagination comprises imaginaries, utopian visions, and repertoires of other possible worlds, as well as prefigurative practices anticipating utopian social relations in the present. We approach political imagination as a key driver of social change that helps to envisage social reality in a radically different manner, animate political desire, activate political will, articulate political critique, and organise collective action.
Our interest in political imagination springs up from two observations. First, our experience in teaching sociology and discussing social change with students over the years has convinced us about the importance of political imagination as a key sociological skill. One of our students recently wrote in her essay as follows:
Sociology studies bring me down. Sociology operates like glasses that forces one to see in the world the power structures that usually remain blurry and difficult to see. Seeing them and acknowledging that we live in an unsustainable world, in which every course of action throws us deeper into an ecological and human crisis, is often painful. The worst feelings of depression do not come from seeing the structures, but from understanding that we, as humankind, are unable to make the necessary moves to change our situation.
In Sociology, we learn to critically analyse society and culture, and identify and understand sources of injustice and domination. We learn to know what’s wrong and how these wrongs have historically emerged and how we can theoretically make sense of them. But quite often students, as the one quoted above, also contemplate how to translate sociological knowledge to emancipatory projects of different kinds, and how to maintain hope that these projects are possible and worth taking up. There is a need for political imagination and utopian praxis in the classroom allowing reflection of how a different mode of living and being could be possible. We need to cultivate and train the capacity for and belief in social dreaming as a key aspect of the pedagogy of hope.
Second, our interest in political imagination stems from the current political conjuncture, which is riddled with multiple crises, such as climate emergency, pandemic, political disenchantment and the rise of anti-democratic movements, seismic social inequalities, the psychological crisis of increasing burnout and depression rates, and the brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine. These crises underline the importance of political imagination for envisaging socially, politically and ecologically more sustainable social formations and making better futures happen. While it may often seem that our conjuncture is thoroughly anti-utopian or post-political, offering dystopic rather than utopian visions for the future, it is important to acknowledge that political alternatives are nevertheless constantly imagined, performed, and practiced in a host of everyday spaces that people inhabit. This is not only in the form of visible protests and organized movements, but also in everyday practices and small-scale experiments with non-hegemonic ways of living.
We believe that sociology has much to offer for capturing political imagination and the struggles and contestations it inspires and animates. Sociological research can contribute to reinvigorating our collective political imagination and help us better understand and engage with the shifting dynamics and drivers of social change.
The special issue is currently seeking contributions. It welcomes conceptual, methodological and empirical contributions addressing different dimensions of political imagination in different cultural settings and geographical locations. We welcome not only traditional research articles, but also Sociology in Action and Beyond the Text pieces.
See the full Call for Papers.
Suvi Salmenniemi is Professor of Sociology at the University of Turku, Finland. She is the PI of the research project “Political Imagination and Alternative Futures“, funded by the Finnish Research Council for the Social Sciences and Humanities (2020–2024). Her areas of expertise include political sociology, utopian studies, therapeutic culture, cultural studies, feminist research and critical social theory.
Hanna Ylöstalo is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Turku. Her research is concerned with feminist political economy, gender equality policy, and knowledge-policy relations.
Inna Perheentupa is a Senior Researcher in Sociology at the University of Turku. She currently works in the research project Political Imagination and Alternative Futures. Her research interest include political sociology, gender studies, cultural studies, and ethnographic methods.