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Imagined Communities

Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism

by Benedict Anderson

Last tended to June 19, 2020

The idea of an "Imagined Community" has become a staple of anthropological thinking over the past few decades.

Anderson's 1983 book coining the concept has now become one of the most cited texts in Social Science.

Anderson's proposed the idea of an imagined community within the context of nationalism, yet it maps well to a wide variety of community structures.

Taken broadly, an imagined community is the idea of a bounded whole held within the mind of each individual member. Even at the scale of a nation where each individual citizen will likely never see or hear of the majority of other citizens, they still retain a firm belief in their existence. And hold a surprisingly dedicated commitment to their membership as part of that whole.

"It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the images of their communion."

To quote another key thinker on nationalist theories, Ernest Gellner - "Nationalism is not the awakening of a nation to self-consciousness: it invents nations where they do not exist"

Anderson lays out three qualities of our imagined communities:

  • They are limited
    There are boundaries to our imagined communities – they have limits. "Even the largest of them, encompassing perhaps a billion living human beings, has finite, if elastic, boundaries, beyond which lie other nations." There is no nation that considers itself as the entire of humankind.
  • They are soverign
    The idea of a nation emerged from the same historical moment of the Enlightenment and the rationalist secularism of the Scientific Revolution – when established concepts of divine providence and hierarchical religious authorities were being questioned. As the idea of God and The Church began to lose influence, Nations and leaders stepped in as new forms of social power. This is not to say they replaced them, but simply joined their ranks as forms of authority.
  • They are a community
    Despite the material reality of social inequalities, "the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship." Anderson credits this sense of 'fraternity' to people's willingness to make personal sacrifices on behalf of their nation – to go into wars and die for the idea of a nation.

The tombs of unknown soldiers are a remarkable symbol for the modern culture of nationalism - "they are saturated with ghostly national imaginings" (9)

On the Fall of Religions and the Rise of Nationalism

We are all keenly aware of the random roll of the universal dice that created us as we are. How we ended up as a person with this particular genetic composition, sex, native language, physical and mental ability, at this certain moment in history is all acknowledged as beyond our control.

Likewise the trials and tribulations we end up going through are out of our hands, and require strong cultural narratives to make them bearable.

Anderson argues that religions have always had good "imaginative response to the overwhelming burden of human suffering – disease, mutilation, grief, age, and death."

This is generally done by "transforming fatality into continuity" through concepts like karma, reincarnation, and original sin. They offer possible explanations for the hardships of mortality.

As religious thinking fell over the eighteenth century, people struggled with the "disintegration of paradise."

Or as Nietzsche perfectly put it; "God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him." The classical notion that scientific rationalism that defined the Enlightenment eliminated the possibility of a God.

In that gaping God-shaped hole, "what was then required was a secular transformation of fatality into continuity, contingency into meaning." Anderson argues the concept of the nation was perfectly suited to the need.

Our nations "loom out of an immemorial past... and glide into a limitless future. It is the magic of nationalism to turn chance into destiny" (12)

Cue the American ideal of "Manifest Destiny"

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Maggie Appleton © 2020