Imagined Communities

by Benedict Anderson

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Last Updated on February 1, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 946

Benedict Anderson has made a significant contribution to understanding modern society through his emphasis on the internal cohesion within a nation. While his analysis of the changing contours of nationalism is also important, the merit of that analysis is derived from the insights of his basic conceptual framework. Anderson insists that a nation is meaningful to its members because they believe in their essential sameness: they conceptualize themselves as coequal peers. The horizontal quality of this comradeship, Anderson insists, stands in stark contrast to the vertical relations of systems based in hereditary rights, class status, or land ownership.

As a historian, Anderson originally concentrated on Indonesia. It was through this specialization that he developed a nuanced understanding of contemporary nationalism. He investigated the ways that this Southeast Asian nation, which has a primarily Muslim population, had emerged from Dutch colonial control. His deep familiarity with this nation’s situation influenced his approach to other twentieth-century nationalist movements, especially those with socialist and communist dimensions. His efforts to understand how the Dutch, centuries earlier, had succeeded in colonizing a distant territory also factored into his efforts to understand nationalism as a force in European expansion more generally.

In many ways, Anderson follows established conventions in the field of historical scholarship. Like many other scholars, he associates the concepts of nation, nationality, and nationalism with the broad shift from a sacred to a secular worldview, and he emphasizes the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries as the key period in which those concepts gained sway. He also resembles previous historians in focusing on Europe as the original seat of nationalist imaginings, a phenomenon attributable in part to the Protestant Reformation’s powerful challenge to Catholic control.

In other ways, however, Anderson departs from convention. He argues that the swift growth of nationalism began earlier than others had claimed. In regard to the most recent developments, he attends more closely to the influence of colonial resistance in strengthening nationalism within the ruling countries. In addition to his emphasis on the emotional aspects of nationalist identification, Anderson’s most effective contributions lie in his convincingly rendered synthesis of several factors.

In addressing the relationship between the rise of capitalism and the decline of religious orthodoxy, Anderson emphasizes technologies of persuasion that strongly supported the ideological underpinnings of nationalism. Anderson’s concept of “print capitalism” is especially crucial in supporting this line of argumentation. He shows how the promotion of national languages corresponded to the innovation of a marketplace of ideas: the production and consumption of a vast array of written materials in those languages.

The importance of communication cannot be overestimated, Anderson claims, in firming the emotional bonds that join the nation’s citizens. He sees the decline in Catholic Church power as a pivotal component in the growth of print capitalism: as each nation developed its own vernacular, it simultaneously rejected the primary role of Latin. One important element was the rulers’ use of the national language for governance, such as in the written constitution and the law. Even more important, Anderson insists, was the routine, daily use of national language among citizens; such usage did not happen spontaneously but had to be constantly promoted.

Formal government documents were far from adequate for these purposes. The national language was utilized in every realm in which words could be used creatively: fiction, poetry, songs, and even history. A burgeoning literature in the national language sprang up in every European nation, Anderson claims, and promoting the superiority of one’s own national literature became a point of national pride. The growth of literacy, which supported the consumption of such works, was a realm that joined governmental and private efforts. Education, including the radical innovation of public schools, supported literacy for the masses rather than limiting it to the elite few.

Tracing the historical trajectory of changes in nationalism from the 15th through the 20th century, Anderson reveals how successive regimes utilized many of the same strategies. Imperialism contained an inescapable paradox: that the ideas of comradeship that the ruling nation promoted could not be restricted to the minds of that country’s citizens. Some of the colonized subjects had to become literate in the colonizer’s national language, for this was instrumental to effective colonial administration. In doing so, they also gained access to the ideas that undergirded their rulers’ loyalty.

The lasting influence of Anderson’s formulation depends in part on recognizing their limitations. One point he stresses is that the concept of belonging to a national community that was distinct from the colonizing country took hold first in the Americas. After British and Spanish colonies became independent republics in the eighteenth century, the revolutionary successes inspired further upheavals in Europe. Anderson’s explanations are less successful in explaining why other colonies did not quickly follow suit, or why imperialism not only expanded but also lasted so long. In fact, the largest wave of decolonization occurred in the twentieth century, as the European powers swiftly lost control of their colonial holdings in Africa and Asia.

Anderson’s idea of a nation’s internal solidarity is persuasive and, as it helps explain such phenomena as patriotism and self-sacrifice, can offer insights into popular support for wars to expand national territorial control. He has provided us tools for understanding how conceptualized communities—those no longer defined by family ties, geographical proximity, or shared religion—can persevere and grow. From the late-twentieth century to the early-twenty-first, however, pluralism has increasingly been both promoted and contested as a defining feature of nation-states. Anderson’s argument that nationalism need not be accompanied by racism also bears further scrutiny, given the global trends toward suppressions of identity-level difference.

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