53 pages 1 hour read

Benedict Anderson

Imagined Communities: Reflections On The Origin And Spread Of Nationalism

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1983

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Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism is a nonfiction work by historian and political scientist Benedict Anderson. First published in 1983, the book provides a highly influential account of the rise of nationalism and the emergence of the modern nation-state. Anderson sees the nation as a social construct, an “imagined community” in which members feel commonality with others, even though they may not know them. The strength of patriotic feeling and the enormous sacrifices people have made on behalf of their nation testify to the enduring appeal and political resilience of nationalism. Anderson’s argument identifies the historical transformations that made it possible to “think” of the nation as a new form of community and traces the development of nationalism from its origins in the late eighteenth-century to the present.

The original edition of the book is divided into nine chapters, which analyze the cultural roots of the idea of the nation and provide a historical account of its political realization across the globe. Two chapters of supplementary material were added to the second edition, which appeared in 1991. An afterword, in which Anderson reflects on the history of the book’s reception, was appended to the 2006 release.

In the Introduction, Anderson addresses the paradoxical qualities of nationalism that complicate its theorizing. He defines a nation as an “imagined political community” that is limited and sovereign, in which members feel a “horizontal” comradeship with each other. Anderson then analyzes the cultural roots that enabled the birth of national consciousness in the modern era. This involved several historical shifts: the weakening of the medieval worldview and the religiously-based communities of Europe, the demotion of Latin as a sacred and administrative language in favor of vernaculars, the decline of dynastic monarchies, and the emergence of a new, secularized conception of time. For Anderson, this last change is largely due to the technological innovation of the printing press, which enabled the wide dissemination of newspapers and novels.

Anderson expands upon this idea in the following chapter, “The Origins of National Consciousness.” Here, he argues that the convergence of capitalism, printing, and the diversity of vernacular languages led to the birth of national consciousness. Print-capitalism created mass readerships, distilled the multiplicity of spoken dialects into a smaller number of print-languages, and spawned vernacular administrative languages that gradually replaced Latin. The effect of these changes was to unify language communities and foster a sense of simultaneity among their members.

Chapter Four, “Creole Pioneers,” traces the origin of the nation-state to the western hemisphere. Anderson analyzes why many separate nations grew out of the Spanish colonies in Latin America, while the English colonies in North America (excluding Canada) coalesced into one. Language was not an issue in the American nationalisms; rather, the colonies’ distance, size, and age, in combination with economic factors, fueled the desire for independence. The example of these newly-established republics inspired national movements in Europe, which threatened the monarchical dynasties ruling over large, polyglot realms. European nationalism, flourishing from 1820-1920, was rooted in linguistic identity; it drew popular support from the academic study of language and the national literatures, myths, and folklore of many ethnicities.

Popular nationalism threatened to exclude the European monarchies from the new imagined communities, as the dynasties had dubious and often conflicting national credentials. They responded with what Anderson terms “official nationalism,” a Machiavellian appropriation of nationalist ideas to secure dynastic legitimacy and suppress subject ethno-linguistic groups within their realms. In the European colonial empires, official nationalism served as a tool of imperial administration.

In Chapter Seven, “The Last Wave,” Anderson analyzes the emergence of post-colonial nation-states after World War II, following the break-up of the remaining European empires. These states exhibit a complex fusion of official and popular nationalisms owing to their colonial legacy and the lengthy, modular tradition of nationalism that precedes them. In the following chapter, “Patriotism and Racism,” Anderson argues that racism is not a direct result of nationalism but arises from class distinction. Chapter Ten, “Census, Map, Museum” discusses colonial instruments of control and administration that shaped, and were adopted by, the post-colonial states that succeeded them. The book’s concluding chapter, “Memory and Forgetting,” is a meditation on how the nation creatively constructs a narrative of its identity, suppressing certain historical facts while assimilating figures and events that pre-date the national consciousness.