Imaginary Social Worlds: A Cultural Approach

By John L. Caughey | Go to book overview

Chapter 1
Introduction: Culture
and Social Relationships

Imaginary experience has been commonly approached through psychological schemes of interpretation. Thus Ruth Steinhagen's fantasies about Eddie Waitkus were officially explained as a product of her personal mental pathology--the "schizophrenia" that rendered her incapable of recognizing "reality." Such interpretations, constructed from current psychological theories, focus on peculiarities of individual personality to the neglect of social and cultural patterns. Here, by contrast, I will develop a cultural approach to imaginary experience. I will be concerned with exploring how an individual's imaginary experiences--Steinhagen's fantasies as well as yours and mine--are connected to recognizable patterns in cultural systems.

Culture, that which makes us a stranger when we are away from home, is a learned system. By its complexity, it differentiates humans from other animals; through its variation from place to place, it differentiates one society of humans from another. Beyond this level of description, there are a variety of competing definitions and theories.1 Traditionally, culture has often been equated with "customs," "ways of life," and "patterns of behavior." Here I will adopt a widely accepted alternative approach and assume that culture is best understood as a conceptual system of beliefs, rules, and values that lies behind different ways of behaving. As Ward Goodenough writes, "As I see it, a society's culture consists of whatever it is one has to know or believe in order to operate in a manner acceptable to its members and do so in any role that they accept for any one of themselves."2 From this point of view, the

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