Imagined Communities: Reflections On The Origin And Spread Of Nationalism Summary

Benedict Anderson

Imagined Communities: Reflections On The Origin And Spread Of Nationalism

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Imagined Communities: Reflections On The Origin And Spread Of Nationalism Summary

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Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism is a nonfiction text by historian and political scientist Benedict Anderson. First published in 1983 the book has been widely influential in theorizing the concept of “the nation” as a social construct in which members perceive commonality with others, even when they cannot know them. Thus, the sense of community exists purely in the imagination of the members, and is the first step in the process of building a concrete nation. The book is divided into nine chapters, each analysing the different tangible aspects which help to create this sense of community, like geography, cultural exhibitions, common languages and imperialistic goals. In 2001 the book was rereleased with an updated preface and final chapter.

Following an Introduction to his overarching concepts, Anderson begins with a chapter called “Cultural Roots” which analyses the end of older forms of communities that predate the modern nation-state. As examples of this shift Anderson refers to changing languages around religious belief (i.e. the move away from Latin in favour of colloquial languages), the end of Dynasties and monarchy, as well as a change in the interpretation of the present. For Anderson, this last change is largely due to the development of the printing press, leading to 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 origins of national consciousness lie in the intersection of capitalism and the distillation of many spoken vernacular languages into fewer print languages. This contributes to the coalescence of nations by creating a unified mode of communication that was not Latin, but was more official and fixed than regional vernaculars. It also solved the problem of differences among hand-copied documents (again with the advent of the printing press) and created “languages-of-power”, or specifically administrative languages.

Chapter 4, “Creole Pioneers”, analyses why may separate nations grew out of the Spanish-American Empire, while a singular nation (excluding Canada) grew out of the Anglo-American Empire. He discusses Enlightenment ideals as a factor in these nations’ foundations as republics (except Brazil) and concludes that attaining wealth and status no longer meant returning to the Old World, but that once you were born in the colonies, meant achieving administrative status in a local community. This disconnect between the Old world and New, along with the aforementioned print capitalism are the main forces that shaped the communal development and eventual nation building of the creole population in the Americas.  Chapter 5, “Old Languages, New Models” investigates a similar turn in Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century, when states like Germany and Italy were in the process of unification. Anderson credits the revolutions in the United States and France as central to the concept of the nation as a political entity at this time, as well as the emergence of a bourgeois reading public in beginning to theorize what a nation should be. Chapter 6 (“Official Nationalism and Imperialism”) explores the ultimate realization of official nationalisms through imperialism, which asserts the goals of colonialism in creating a subjects across the world that resemble those in the metropole. However, like the creole populations in the Spanish Empire, these subjects cannot achieve more than administrative importance in their localized governments. Following the chronological layout of this narrative, Chapter 7 “The Last Wave”, assesses the factors leading to the ultimate independence of colonies post-WWII. In this case, efforts to better educate colonial administrators gave them access to nationalist ideologies, which were employed to aid in throwing off colonial government. Anderson revises this claim later in the book (Chapter 10 “Census, Map and Museum”) by suggesting that nationalism in colonized states was not merely an imitation of European nationalism, but aided in its development by the technologies mentioned in the chapter title. These three articles all exist in service to imagining the history of the nation state.

In Chapter 8 (“Patriotism and Racism”) Anderson argues that racism is not a direct result of nationalism, but instead rises out of class distinction. Chapter 9, “The Angel of History” is the original conclusion to the book, wherein Anderson suggests that “official nationalisms” are now so entrenched in members’ consciousness’s that they must be employed by political figures in order to make their versions of the state recognizable and desirable.