Anthropology and the Social Imagination

Prefatory Note: I owe a debt for this series to James K.A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom and Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soul Craft. Smith’s work deals with anthropology and how Christians ought to think of humanity (however, his observations are worth noting regardless of religious convictions) while Crawford’s work deals with the importance of engaging the world through our bodies. While I use some of their thoughts to shape my argument, I do not intend to mean that the way I argue would necessarily parallel their own thinking.

Anthropology and the Social Imagination

Some Introduction

The amount of young people who do not pursue skilled trades is problematic. It is problematic that the current default route to the good life is through a four-year college education. The goal, for many (I think of organizations like the mikeroweWorks Foundation and SkillsUSA), is to get more young people to go and learn a trade. The goal has not yet been met, and the problem may just be time. That is, we still need time for information to be conveyed and people to be convinced that it is a good choice for a young person to make. However, while we wait to see if the problem is just allowing for time for the information to be disseminated and the arguments presented, I want to challenge one way people may construe the problem. As I understand it, the problem is often viewed as being that young folks do not know that they can make good money in a safe manner outside of a college path and remain unconvinced. Insofar as their efforts are spent on convincing younger people that skilled work is a good career move, despite being praiseworthy, their efforts are insufficient. The problem is not that young people are unconvinced, it is that our imagination of the good life has been formed away from skilled trade.

           The key difference is the way the problem is framed. Are young people not entering skilled trades because they have not accepted arguments for entering the trades? Or, are they not entering skilled trades because their imagination of the good life does not have room for skilled work? To unpack this, this series will be sectioned into three distinct parts. First, we’ll take a brief tour in philosophical anthropology and what is meant by the social imagination. I want to try and give new methods for bringing young people into the trades, but this requires laying some foundations. Secondly, we’ll talk about the deficiencies in or “social imagination” regarding work and how we might work to makeup for these deficiencies. Lastly, I want to give an argument for why skilled trades might offer a helpful corrective to the way that we commonly view human flourishing as it regards to work. Before going forward, here’s the tl;dr of this entire piece:


Humans are not primarily thinking beings, but are loving beings. Our loves are shaped by not just what we think, but what we do with our bodies. The disciplines we practice and the stories we tell seep into our loves and decides how we imagine the good life. Finally, this imagination of the good life, fueled by our love, decides how we act. This has two consequences: 1) if it is important that young people go into skilled trades, then we need to teach them how to imagine a good life that includes skilled work and not just knowledge work; and 2) if we are embodied creatures and not simply thinking creatures, then human flourishing depends not just on how we think but how we use our bodies and this ought to weigh on which careers we choose.

A few terms before continuing…

  • Skilled Work: Work that requires expertise gained from apprenticing, experience, or a technical institute. The work is generally tied with a physical object.
  • Knowledge Work: Work that requires expertise gained from a university or college. The work is generally tied with digital or written materials.
  • Philosophical Anthropology: The consideration of what it means to be human. It’s a set of assumptions about what makes up a human being. This means less a pattern of behaviors (such as the way anthropologists more broadly might study different cultures) and more a focus on what it means to exist as a human.
  • Social Imagination: The idea that humans inhabit the world by inhabiting a set of pictures and stories than by acting out a set of ideas or principles. These pictures and stories will differ according to the loves of the individual and the individual’s community. We call it the “social” imagination because it is an imagination that develops in community and [good] social imaginations contain communal aspects.

Philosophical Anthropology

Before we can understand how we ought to approach the problem of skilled work disparity, we need to understand what is motivating people. There is a plethora of ways that we can see ourselves, as human beings. And the way we see ourselves impacts what kind of tasks, projects, and careers we consider meaningful.

            In James K.A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, he presents three possible ways of viewing humans, what he labels the “options in philosophical anthropology.” The first is “The Human Person as Thinker,” the second is “The Human Person as Believer,” and the final is “The Human Person as Lover.”

from Baker Academic

Three Views

Viewing humans as thinkers was promoted by Plato long ago, but found a revival as a dominant way of viewing humans through René Descartes in the 17th century. It views humans as creatures who think, and this thinking is the only vital part of humans. As Smith puts Descartes’ view, “[What] I am is an essentially immaterial mind or consciousness—occasionally and temporarily embodied, but not essentially.”

            A slightly different way to view humans than as thinkers is to view them as believers. This view is a reformation of the thinker-view. It still considers abstract ideas as the important part of being a human, but strives to “recognize the degree to which thinking operates on the basis of faith, that thought is not a neutral, objective activity but rather a particular way of seeing the world that is itself based on prior faith or trust.” For Smith, this anthropology is better, but it still takes too little account of our bodies and thus misses the mark.

            The anthropology that Smith wants to argue for is human beings as lovers. This model shifts the identity of humans down from the mind and into our hearts or guts. Smith argues that humans are always intending the world (as an exercise, he asks readers to try and think without thinking of anything. The point here being that no human can think in a static way that doesn’t relate to something else), and the primary way that we intend the world is through our loves. We have a hierarchy of loves where some are dominant over others, and the dominant loves shape how we intend or live in the world. Smith writes that “we are talking about ultimate loves—that to which we are fundamentally oriented, what ultimately governs our vision of the good life, what shapes and molds our being-in-the-world—in other words, what we desire above all else the ultimate desire that shapes and position and makes sense of all our penultimate desires and actions.”

            (As an aside, I’m going to assume for the rest of this article that Smith’s view is correct. I am convinced of his position as at least a counterweight to an anthropology that focuses on humans as thinkers to the exclusion of humans as lovers.)

            I am confident there are many more ways, but even just here, we can note that our anthropology will define what we find valuable (this will be taken up in the third part of this series).

The Social Imagination

This way of viewing humans requires a question: what do we love? Smith argues that undergirding our loves is a “specific vision of the good life, an implicit picture of what we think human flourishing looks like.” Another way of putting this is that we are animated by the way that we imagine the good life. Consider this as an exercise: if you are daydreaming about the ideal life, what does it look like? And what has led you to imagining it this way? It would be counterproductive to try and argue for why your vision is the “right” vision. Simply, try and grasp what has brought you to this point of imagination. For many, this imagination may be shaped by their religious activities, where they regularly hear and speak about what their religion envisions for human flourishing, while for others it may be shaped by the media they consume (which character in a sitcom or movie do you most want to be?).

      What’s important to recognize is that we are often compelled and animated by more than the arguments we accept with our reason. I may be able to rationally accept an argument for going completely green in my energy consumption, but that does not mean that I am going to be entirely animated by it. My imagination, something formed in me over time, doesn’t have room for being independent of fossil fuels. Or perhaps I am convinced in argument that it is wrong to eat meat but then I get offered a steak at a friend’s house. My vision of the good life and my love for that good life (which includes rare steaks) may compel me to accept. One more example: I might be convinced to become a pacifist, but my specific vision of the good life may compel me to defend my home if it be invaded.

Is this just a justification for hypocrisy?

            One response might be that in each of these situations I am simply a hypocrite or weak, unable to follow through on my intellectual convictions. That certainly might be part of the picture. But the other part that is important in recognizing is that our actions are not fully shaped by what we think, but by what we love. If I am to go green, I need to regularly practice disciplines that shape me to love clean energy and the environment more than convenient fossil fuels. If I am to become a vegetarian, I need to continually practice disciplines that shape me to love living animals more than good tasting food. If I am to be a pacifist, I need to practice disciplines (and tell stories) that shape me to love the goodness of peace and sacrifice more than conflict and defense. It is not enough to be rationally convinced, one has to have their loves shaped.

            With this foundation in place, we want to start to look at first, how we can reform the social imagination of youth to include lives of skilled employment and then second, why those lives of skilled employment might have something to offer that knowledge work cannot.

About Seth Reid

Seth is the Instructional Designer at Resolve. His job is to design courses and platforms that engage students with learning material that they can understand and effectively apply to their life and work. He's also the blogrunner here at Resolve. That mostly means that he picks the pictures for the posts. He is also an avid fan of chess and loves to study history. He is currently based in Jackson, Tennessee.

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