Imagined Communities

by Benedict Anderson

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

History and Nationalism

In Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson examines history as a specific way of understanding and presenting the past in service of powerful actors in the present. In the modern era, a particular approach to time and to certain kinds of events factored into a new type of written record that bolstered the claims of the nation-state. The idea of the nation was made to appear ancient and inevitable, enhancing the credibility of the rulers’ claims to inhabiting and defending territory within its borders. Both the use of a national language for creating those written records and the publication of officially sanctioned histories served to legitimize the contemporary situation. The effectiveness of those histories depended not only on their production but also on the creation of a market for their consumption by a literate public. Fictionalized versions of those histories increased their popularity among those buyers and readers and helped perpetuate the idea of national integrity as an eternal truth.

Shared Sentiment and the Suppression of Dissent ­

The notion of shared emotional connections that support horizontal comradeship is a key feature of Anderson’s concept of the imagined political community. He argues that encouraging people within the nation-state to feel solidarity with each other became more important than promoting their allegiance to the rulers who occupied a higher status. The “we” who believe in having equal stakes in the country’s affairs will go to any length to defend what is “ours.” As Anderson shows, there is an equal importance placed on casting suspicion on those who do not feel or show those admired sentiments. As the modern nation developed, the elevation of patriotism to an emotion on par with actual kinship was a crucial component in discouraging and—when deemed necessary—suppressing dissent.

Literary and Linguistic Hegemony

Anderson emphasizes the importance of a national language in the development of nationalism. Along with having shared sentiment, a nation’s members must be able to communicate with each other. Linguistic barriers were as significant as cultural differences in dividing fellow citizens. The standardization of language was accomplished through creating academic bodies that determined the features of one standard version, as recorded in dictionaries and grammars. The effectiveness of a single national language depended on its widespread deployment, not simply on its use in government-sponsored publications. Rather than sharply distinguish between the importance of different forms of writing, such as fiction and nonfiction, Anderson emphasizes the congruity among the apparently diverse forms. What matters is the amount of work written and published, the number of writers working in all fields, and the use of the vernacular in those works. Equally important is the suppression of linguistic diversity. Culture cannot survive without language, Anderson insists, so ethnic groups and other minorities whose languages were discouraged or outright prohibited were in danger of disappearing along with their native tongue.

The growing role of business in supporting literacy is closely related to, but nevertheless distinct from, linguistic standardization. Capitalism became the appropriate political and economic system for promoting language and literacy through specific technologies; Anderson terms this constellation of factors “print capitalism.” The technology for producing the written materials and the business of producing and distributing them were closely related components of the private sector. The profits made in these businesses provided incentives for expansion, thereby contributing to linguistic standardization.

Geographic and Temporal Specificity

Anderson does not attempt to create a “one size fits all” concept of nation, nationality, and nationalism. He emphasizes that those closely interrelated concepts all changed over the centuries, but that each concept was adapted somewhat differently from the others, depending on the...

(This entire section contains 799 words.)

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time and place. The author considers factors such as the distance of a given colony from its “mother country,” the different administrative methods that the colonial rulers utilized, and the ethnic and racial composition of the colonies. He shows that the very success of the imagined community concept contributed to threatening and destabilizing imperial control. One highly significant example is that of the Americas, where rebellions against European rule were widespread in the eighteenth century. Even before the revolutions succeeded, resistance to European control was promoted, especially—but not exclusively—among the American-born people of European heritage.

Anderson also points out that the success of the “nation” concept contained some seeds of its own demise. The people of a colonized territory are likely to develop a heightened consciousness of national sovereignty when they see how strong the ideology is among the rulers. Anderson’s concept of “piracy,” a kind of appropriation, refers to the formerly colonized people taking up the ideas and methods of their former rulers. The durability of the nation and nationalism, although in slightly different guises, is thus revealed by the large number of national independence movements that arose in the twentieth century.