Anderson on the Nation as ‘Imagined Community’

Benedict Anderson is one of the most important theorists of modern nationalism.

Nationalism, argues Anderson, is a story of national origins that creates imagined community amongst the citizens of the modern state. Here, he explains the sense in which the nation is an ‘imagined community’

The nation is imagined as limited because even the largest of them, encompassing perhaps a billion living human beings, has finite, if elastic boundaries, beyond which lie other nations … It is imagined as sovereign because the concept was born in an age in which Enlightenment and Revolution were destroying the legitimacy of the divinely-ordained, hierarchical dynastic realm … Finally, it is imagined as community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings …

An American will never meet, or even know the names of more than a handful of his … fellow Americans. He has no idea of what they are up to at any one time. But he has complete confidence in their steady, anonymous, simultaneous activity …

We know that [newspapers] … will overwhelmingly be consumed … only on this day, not that … The significance of this mass ceremony—Hegel observed that newspapers serve modern man as a substitute for morning prayers—is paradoxical. It is performed in silent privacy … Yet each communicant is well aware that the ceremony he performs is being replicated simultaneously by thousands (or millions) of others of whose existence he is confident, yet of whose identity he does not have the slightest notion.

Anderson, Benedict. 1991. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso. pp.7, 26, 35. || Amazon || WorldCat

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