on February 19, 2007
I was disappointed in this 'new edition', because it is a missed opportunity.
When it was first published in 1983, 'Imagined Communities' deservedly became a classic in the analysis of nationalism - and an excellent antidote to those who beat nationalist drums. As the new chapter (on the 'geobiography of the book') at the end of this edition outlines, the book has now been published in 30 countries and 27 languages.
Partly inspired by Anderson, the debates on nationalism have moved on considerably in the subsequent 23 years. I was hoping that a new/revised edition would at least note these debates, and preferably comment and analyse them. Unfortunately, this edition does not. Indeed, even though the 'Preface to the second edition' (written in 1991) refers to the excellent 1990 book by Eric Hobsbawm 'Nations and Nationalism', that Hobsbawm text does not get a listing in the bibliography. There is little in the bibliography post 1983, and nothing since around 1990.
While the initial book is still well worth reading (hence the three stars), there is unfortunately little to recommend in this 'new edition'
on December 12, 2010
The thesis of this book in important ways parallels that of Patrick J. Geary in the "The Myth of Nations," and the international systems analysis of the late Dr. Charles A. McClelland.
The present author, Benedict Anderson, offers the thesis that nations are creations of modern communication networks, and remain the shared and collective figmentation of people's imagination. In his view, both belonging to a nation, and the nation itself, depend on individual perceptions rather than on more objective factors such as borders and natural resources, etc. His view emphasizes the point that political nations exist only to the extent they exist in people's minds.
Greary's view overlaps with this one in the sense that nations arise as a result of the coordinated efforts of ethnic elites, who purposefully create legends that are "tacked on before the fact" in a conscious effort to provide a basis for creating national cohesion, pride and fealty, a kind of proto-nationalism.
The late Dr. Charles A. McClelland would undoubtedly support Anderson's communications-centered definition of a nation state. In fact, in his World famous research project "The World Event Interaction Survey," known best by the acronym "the WEIS Project," he went much further, by arguing that the international relations of states themselves constitutes a "communications system" composed of millions of discrete day-to-day interactions of both a diplomatic and a cultural nature going on between nation states. These "inputs" and "outputs" or transactions from individual states can seen as defining the character and personality of those states. He dubbed this global communications arrangement, writ large, as "the international system." The major purpose of his WEIS Project was to measure the temperature of international relations by observing and tracking various aggregate groupings and trends of communication channels emitted and received by the various states, especially as they interact as dyadic pairs.
Anderson's communications approach however is closer to the ground of psychology as he views people's sense of belonging to a nation through the lens of various media that connect citizens across broad distances. The coherence of his perspective depends on communities of similar languages and even being of similar levels of literacy as well as sharing the use of printed materials, etc. In his view, three major factors have contributed to the emergence of these communities. One is the fragmentation of previously organized single religious communities; the decline of political dynasties; and the changing apprehensions of time. Anderson argues that one of the major components of the environment in which nations emerged is the cultural cohesion attributed to sharing a common language. For its time, this was a trend-setter in political science that I somehow missed. Four stars
on July 29, 2008
This book is something of a classic of sociology but not a light read. Very briefly, the thesis of "Imagined Communities" is that political nations are the creation of modern communication networks (definition of modern: post-Gutenberg). When one stops to think about it, this insight seems intuitive. After all, how can people relate to other people unless there is first communication among them? In a world in which most people are illiterate and never travel beyond their villages, of course they would not think of themselves as belonging to a great nation of people since they would most likely be unable to imagine such a concept. With widespread literacy, the possibility exists of having communities of people who are not in direct contact with one another. Benedict Anderson takes this insight about nationhood and discusses how these imagined communities of people not directly in contact with one another may be formed. It is not surprising that the nations of Europe have formed around linguistic communities since having a common language facilitates communication. However, a sense of alienation from a ruling class may also facilitate a sense of nationhood, as it did in the Americas in the late 18th century when our founding fathers (and those of Latin America)felt themselves excluded from the political lives of their mother countries. Having the means to communicate throughout their colonies made possible the recognition of common feelings among these colonials. Futhermore, a sense of nationhood may be fostered by a state that creates through its educational system and its media a sense of shared experiences (eg, national holidays, national heroes, and national myths). Prof Anderson also describes how the predecessors of today's European nations "created" their national languages as well as their myths. This is a very sketchy overview of what I believe to be the major points of this book. "Imagined Communities" is not a book which flows easily. I believe that Prof Anderson might have made life a bit easier for his readers had he been able to express himself a bit more clearly. For example, he is describing how a sense of history is essential for the concept of nationhood. In order to think of oneself as belonging to a nation, one must think of oneself as being related to others who share only the circumstance of living at the same time. Furthermore, it is necessary to imagine a different relationship with those who have gone before. Here is a passage describing this idea: "What has come to take the place of the medieval conception of simultaneity-along-time is, to borrow again from Benjamin, an idea of 'homogeneous, empty time,' in which simultaneity is, as it were, transverse, cross-time, marked not be prefiguring and fulfillment, but by temporal coincidence and measured by clock and calendar." I think that this should give some idea of the flavor of Prof Anderson's prose. Is it all worth the effort? I think that anyone who is trying to understand the problems created by 20th (and 21st) century nationalism will not find much help here. A better book for understanding the lunatic-type nationalism which causes so much trouble would be Eric Hoffer's classic book, "The True Believer." However, as a primer for understanding how the modern nation came to exist in the first place, this book does offer some thought-provoking ideas.
on April 28, 2012
A must-read for anyone interested in colonial, nationalist, and postcolonial studies. Anderson's insights into print culture and the decline of religious power in the West and these two contributions to the rise of nationalism are of particular interest. Once you understand his theory of flat, homogeneous time, it's hard to think about modern print journalism in different terms. Anderson's concept of nationhood may be idyllic at times (nations are not unflinchingly unified, happy and wonderful, as this text would make it seem), but the text as a whole deserves its place in the canon of postcolonial theory.
Benedict Anderson, professor at Cornell University with a background in Asian studies, complained in the 1983 introduction to Imagined Communities that, despite the universally important value of nationalism in our time, “plausible theory” on nationalism is “conspicuously meager." Anderson’s study sought to inspire additional work on nationalism. Anderson had in mind the future of socialism (being Marxist-influenced himself), and he was seeking to explain the meaning of nationalism in modern history.
Benedict Anderson’s study suggests that nationalism rose around the world as a result of three main developments. First, the rise of print-capitalism allowed people to “imagine” themselves as part of a larger community. The process began with the “revolutionary vernacularizing thrust of capitalism,” which not only expanded the reading public but also led to the spread of vernacular languages as instruments of administrative centralization. “The convergence of capitalism and print technology on the fatal diversity of human language,” Anderson writes, “created the possibility of a new form of imagined community, which in its basic morphology set the stage for the modern nation.” The second development was the rise of what Anderson calls the “creole pioneers” – the elite classes who led movements in opposition to the colonial states, especially in the Americas. Here, print capitalism exceeds language itself in importance: New England and the Spanish colonies, for instance, created its own press and spread its own ideas, even though the language in which this process occurred remained the same as the metropole. Thus “pilgrim creole functionaries and provincial creole printmen played the decisive historic role” in the creation of nationalism.
The onset of nationalism in Europe closely followed the era of successful national liberation movements in the Americas. Anderson sees several key differences between nationalism in the Old World and the New World, however. First, “national print-languages” acquired importance in Europe that was almost entirely lacking in the Spanish- and English-speaking Americas. Second, the Old World nationalism drew on visible models provided by their predecessors in the Americas. These movements paralleled state centralization, and especially the rise of the bourgeoisie. The latter of these is especially important, for the bourgeoisie could not be a class in the same way as the aristocracy or the working-class. The bourgeoisie was, as Anderson writes, the first class “to achieve solidarities on an essentially imagined basis,” the consumers of a common print language that visualized imagined communities. Moreover, the rise to prominence of the bourgeoisie, in Europe and elsewhere, eroded the old loyalties to dynastic empires, monarchical institutions, absolutisms, nobilities, and so forth. This process led to what Anderson calls “official nationalism,” the response (or reaction) of dominant groups threatened by marginalization in an emerging nationally imagined community. Finally, Anderson locates the “last wave” of high dynasticism at the end of the First World War. By this stage nations “were now everywhere modularly imagined.” States adopted national languages, spread modern-style education, and created “national histories” in support of their aims. “Print-language,” Anderson writes, “is what invents nationalism, not a particular language per se.”
In Europe especially nationalism is inextricably associated with fascism and racism, yet Anderson’s broader view of nationalism as a worldwide historical force downplays the connection. “The dreams of racism,” he writes, “actually have their origin in ideologies of class, rather than in those of nation.” Racism was an outgrowth of “official nationalism,” the attempt by the upper classes to weld dynastic legitimacy with national community in terms of an innate, inherited superiority. It should be noted, too, that much of Anderson’s analysis has in mind the wars waged by communist states in the name of nationalism – China, Vietnam, and Cambodia, for instance. This helps explain Anderson’s focus on nationalism beyond Europe, especially in Southeast Asia (his area of specialty), where national wars by communist states demonstrated the preeminence of national consciousness over universalistic ideologies like Marxism. This broadly applied theory helps to explain the book’s massive global appeal, but it is also the main weakness of Anderson’s study. It emphasizes the common features of nationalism around the world, but largely fails to account for – ironically – “national” difference.
on July 8, 2011
This book is a very interesting exploration of the origins of nationalism and does a very good job of providing plenty of non-European examples to back up its main argument. That being said it is not a very easy read in parts and this is due mainly to the fact that the author seems to be overly wordy when he could have gotten his point across in simpler language also I don't see the point in writing a book in English and then putting lengthy quotes in different languages in it without translation ( he does this on three occasions in three different languages!). While I consider myself a fairly well read and educated person who could understand the Spanish, I do not speak French and Thai also and whatever point he was trying to make in those quotes was lost on me and many other readers I am sure.
Also and this is somewhat of a minor point but most authors use an afterword to talk about subjects that are connected but not directly related to the main argument of the book or talk about what has happened since then. While Anderson chooses to do the latter it does not really add to the book and seem to be more of just a list of acknowledgements to the various international publishers that have printed his book.
Overall, I DO recommend this book and think that it makes a good strong argument for the creation of nationalist sentiment as opposed to it being a natural phenomenon. Aside for a few really annoying stylistic choices it is a strong book.
on February 9, 2013
Although published in 1983, Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities is still one of the standard works on nationalism. As Anderson points out numerous times in the book, although nationalism has become the dominant political force of the modern world, there is no agreed upon definition of nationalism. Political theorists and historians generally agree that nationalism first rose in the late eighteenth century, but beyond that the picture is muddled. Arguing against Marxists who underrate nationalism, Anderson thinks the successful revolutions of the twentieth century have all been nationalist. More important than that, though, is Anderson's contention that the nation is an imagined community and that nationalism is perceived as destiny.
As such, Anderson's book very much is in line with the books assigned for this course. Anderson argues that nationalism triumphed in the Americas due to friction between revolutionary creoles and the imperial governments that ruled them. In many ways, the creole nationalists would have been content with the European government that ruled them if they could be part of the political process. But, after being shown they were expendable and/or unnecessary, the creoles attempted to create a national consciousness.
One area where Anderson and several of the books we read disagree is on the role of patriotism and racism. Anderson argues that racism should be disassociated from racism and attached instead to class. Disagreeing with this, historians of whiteness studies and several historians of the South, including Stephanie McCurry, have shown that race was often linked to national identity. Especially in the United States, to be a white man was to be American for essentially the entire nineteenth century.
In many ways, Anderson's book is a discussion of what makes people not only unite as a nation, but see themselves as part of a group of people, especially when they will never meet their other countrymen. This is certainly a question that has been explored in many of the books we have read. What makes an American? Based on the books we have read this semester, there are different answers to that.
One of the more interesting answers might be Stephanie McCurry's. Although she is talking about the Confederate States, she successfully argues that while the government was founded with the idea that only white men were members of the community, white women were able to make their voice heard. So, in some ways, the mere act of interacting with the government makes one "American."
Other historians, such as Charles Sellers, would argue that it is the economics of the United States that link the nation together. Capitalism, and the market, allowed Americans to feel unified. Still others, like Sean Wilentz, would point to the politics of the United States as what links everyone together. To be sure, not everyone agrees on politics or even participates, but Wilentz argues that it was participatory democracy that unified the country.
The interesting thing is that none of these historians, except maybe McCurry, were even discussing nationalism. However, it is nearly impossible to discuss the sense of unification of a country and not touch on nationalism. As such, nationalism has become more prevalent in the past thirty years or so. However, there still does not seem to be an agreed-upon definition of exactly what nationalism is. Because Anderson's book has been so influential, though, his definition has become one of the standards in the field.
on July 17, 2007
This short book/long essay offers some interesting insights on nationalism, but is limited by its Marxist-materialist perspective. Anderson obviously knows his history and his typology of three essential nationalisms (the new republics of the Americas in the late 18th-early 19th centuries, popular national revival movements in 19th-century Europe, and suffocating official nationalisms such as the British and Russian empires) is based on the history of capitalism, the development of printing, mass communication, class conflicts, and world trade. Anderson argues that these models were adapted in one form or another in the newly independent nations of Africa and Asia after World War II.
Psychology is the unmentioned elephant in the drawing room. There is no consideration of group/crowd psychology or built-in human aggressiveness and territoriality, the human need to define oneself in a group in opposition to others, or the way that nations are felt by many people to be a kind of family, with rulers as parent figures. The absence of psychology causes Anderson's argument to run out of steam toward the end, when he offers only a few pages about patriotism and racism, and here becomes shallow and unconvincing.
Some nation-states are no doubt very artificial (as Anderson's "imagined" title suggests), and borders between countries are often artificial. But cultural and linguistic differences between groups are very real. Anderson recognizes the importance of language differences. At one point he quotes a distinguished Indonesian author, leaving the quote untranslated. (Are we supposed to be impressed because Anderson reads Indonesian and we, presumably, don't?) However, Anderson does not give much consideration to cultural (including religious) differences, other than some mention of this issue in his discussion of Japan and Indonesia.
There are other curious omissions. Anderson does not note that people often have multiple and conflicting loyalties (allegiance to a nation, but also to a region, or to a religion). He never mentions the Roman Empire, says little or nothing about the Arab world, diaspora populations or stateless peoples.
Anderson is an academic writing for other academics. He wants to be quoted and to be considered clever, hence the catchy title. Readers outside academia may become irritated with his gassy, excessively precious and self-indulgent style (phrases like "discontinuity-in-connectedness"). Anderson's references to trendy authors (Foucault, Bakhtin) do not really contribute to his argument and the authors in question are no longer as trendy now as they were in the early 1980s.
This book can certainly stimulate your thinking on this important topic, but will leave many questions unanswered.
on February 11, 2016
I'm not a fan of Nationalism and now I know why. The author's refined my views and thoroughly educated me about the subject although I wish he'd translated all the French he used and concentrated less on Asian societies so much because he knows so much about their development. All told a very important book on the origins of Nationalism but you really really have to be interested in the subject to get through it. It's fine scholarship just not for everyone.
As the original text on nationalism as an idea, you would think that this would be a better read. Indeed, the plethora of translations that the author catalogs in the Afterword written for this expanded edition, you would think it would be best thing on nationalism ever. And while it does have a few great ideas, it is a barely developed, almost completely nonsensical book. The first few chapters start out alright as he identifies native languages, bueracratic language requirements, and revolution in public education in the wake of the Reformation as key to the development of nationalism first in Europe then in the Americas. But after that, things begin to break down completely. The author can never sustain a single thought long enough to develop it, bouncing around the globe and the globe of ideas like a ball in a racquetball court, only a ball in a racquetball court would make a loud THUD! to let you know you hit the wall. After the first few chapters, Mr. Anderson can't hit anything. Aside from some good, but half-baked, ideas, I would suggest finding another book to read if you are interested in the development of nationalism as an idea.