A Perspective on Benedict Anderson’s Concept of ‘Imagined Communities’


India was born on 15th August 1947; Nagaland and Pakistan on the 14th, a day earlier. If we ask the Chinese people, they would not have an exact day or year because they believe in its natural growth or primordialism as it is known as in the book social science jargon. A few Indian nationalists would follow the Chinese response citing the supposedly homogenised and ancient Indian civilisation. Yet that is not the issue. When we talk about the origin of a nation, we usually referred to one of its historical moments or as a product of history that evolves naturally. However, Benedict Anderson has a totally different view.

FYI, this is not a book review.

A nation, according to Anderson, is ‘an imagined political community’. First of all, it is imagined but not necessarily false or unreal. Referring to Hugh Seton-Watson, he writes 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 image of their communion’.

In the same breath, he added it is a recent phenomenon; and it is also limited because regardless of the size of a nation, beyond its boundary lies another nation. 

Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism
Paperback: 240 pages | Publisher: Verso; Third edition, 17 November 2006 | Language: English | ISBN-10: 1844670864 ISBN-13: 978-1844670864


In this book published in 1983 and further revised in 1991 and 2006, the author studies the role of nations and nationalism from the foundation of historicism as he found the then existing approaches to be ideologically deficient. Despite the overwhelming effects of these ideas on modern human society he also found that there was a scarce record of the origin and growth of the ideas. So where does this phenomenon of imagined community come from and how is a community equated with a nation?

According to a popular belief, the concept of a nation—which developed in the 1800s against monarchy and religious order—is a product of modernity, with special thanks to capitalism, falling language diversity and the decline of the Church authority particularly in Europe. The whole issue can be further linked to the Age of Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and economic progress, technological growth and political evolution as evident from events such as the Peace of Westphalia. However, Anderson’s deliberation is far different from Marxists and liberals, who in his view do not realise the power of this ideology.

Essentially, nationalism is a European creation, but according to Anderson, it took root first in North America, again thanks to the rise of (specifically) print capitalism (of newspapers and novels) that helped build a national consciousness. It was established around the American War of Independence (1775–1783). Then it returned to Europe and further spread to the former European colonies in other continents—‘in modular packages’ according to critics. Nationalism, writes Anderson, is ‘a radically changed form of consciousness’; and a kind of desirable belief, which encourages good conduct and manners as well as plays a vital role in making a good society. His anti-realist observation comes initially from, as he mentioned in the preface of the book, the research on ‘the armed conflicts of 1978–79 in Indochina’.  [Check his other book on this country: Java in a Time of Revolution (1972)].

Critics have maintained that Anderson was a former Marxist but he had suffered from the syndrome of ‘Wrong Address’ theory of nationalism. Ernest Gellner describes this syndrome as a disorder, which manifest when ‘class’ is believed to gain from group consciousness and solidarity but in reality it is appropriated by ‘nationality’. For that matter, Anderson considered that nationalism promotes solidarity in addition to speculating that the Marxists have no theoretical foundation to study nationalism anymore. Perhaps for the first time in this field of study, the viewpoints of class analysis and false consciousness were forsaken and instead a new element of cultural factors was introduced into the discourse.

His main contention of nationalism lies in three major areas though it is difficult to define the concept. One, it is an entirely modern entity albeit many people, specially belonging to the school of primordialism and perennialsm, believe it to be an ancient idea. Two, nationalism is universal even if each nation is unique, or in his word: ‘The whole idea of the nation is that it survives with other nations’. Three, nationalism is so powerful that people can sacrifice their lives in the name of a nation.
He endorses the anti-realistic nationalist outlook and justifies the phenomenon of people dying for their country. As an acolyte, he even considers it as a sign of embarrassment if someone commits crime in the name of a nation. His idea of a ‘good nationalist’ was just an ideal because personally he was a true cosmopolitan. He was born in China in 1936 to parents of Irish-Scottish descendants, studied in England and the US, lived in Ireland once, hopped around Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines and finally breathed his last in Indonesia in December 2015. In fact his autobiography, released recently (in the last week of April 2016), is titled A Life Beyond Boundaries.


Theorised three and a half decades ago, what is the relevance of this ‘imagined community’ today? It is a question of life and death, which is graver than the argument against the sibling of nationalism: capitalism. To cite the case of Manipur where there is an armed movement for the right to self-determination, we live in this armed conflict zone with multiple and contested national identities and to further make it ‘simpler’, ours is a region of numerous indigenous societies and ethnic groups, some of which are confronting each other for political power. So where are we? 

Nationalism is ambiguous as much as it is fabricated and it is apparent from two elements: the changing identities of people and the oft-quotes line that one’s man freedom fighter is another’s terrorist. Unsurprisingly, any national movement can be a matter of unsurpassed pride as much as it takes the worst out of a human being or a group of people; and subsequently, it is fraught with problems both psychologically and physically. When an individual is only on one side, the dichotomy fails to go away but in a pejorative sense. Suppose, if I support India, I can be torn apart between its ridiculous achievements on one side and its role of an oppressor on the other.

In this context, we are more concerned about nationalist agenda put forward by a dominant group against people on the fringes. Political correctness in times of crisis is worse than the onslaught of the dominant group. However, Anderson has seemingly devoted much of his arguments for nationalism rather than against it, allowing him to delve deeper into the theoretical framework of nationalism. He did make it comprehensible that a sense of political community, rather than a shared identity, is the underlying principle of nationalism.

Though several people have criticised him for emphasising on secondary sources for his literature study, it is his originality of ideas that has made the concept of imagined community an essential study in humanities. But then again, it lacks explanations in some aspects. For instance, it has no answer to Partha Chatterjee’s question of ‘whose imagined community’ that was posed on the ground that the principle of nationalism is considered a whole Western conception, which the colonies have adapted with literally nothing to ‘imagine’ about.

A national identity can be drastically changed in less than a century too. To take an example, one hundred years ago, we were an ancient Asiatic kingdom peopled with countless ethnic groups. During this period, we have become Indians but only after being a British subject. Religions also follow exactly the same trajectory for reasons good or bad. John Breuilly has rightly said that nationalism is a parasitic movement.

One of the inferences we can make is that a nation is imaginary (though not in accordance with Anderson’s theory) while a state is real. This statement becomes clearer when we talk about ethnic nationalism against that of civic. We have the ideas of Meitei nation, Naga nation and Kuki nation, and all of these are juxtaposed legally, or otherwise, against the Indian nation-state in contemporary politics. With ‘real’ communities having overlapping demands for homelands and sovereignty in the vicinity, we might have nothing to do with the present imagined communities living elsewhere! 

As much as the identity of people keeps changing, the essence of nationalism is also varying though primordialists would not buy this idea. In Manipur, many Meiteis in the valley ever romanticise about fraternal bond with the hill dwellers but in reality the latter has been campaigning for a common political identity, stark different from the former and without a reasonable consideration of diverse ethnic groups with as many languages. We have a plenty of ethnic groups that are now categorised under the Naga clan though a decade earlier they were independent or even affiliated with Kuki groups.


On a different plane, nationalism is a disease. Its main aim is to ‘domesticate’ the people while its underlying power, especially in a Third-World democracy, is hijacked by all sorts of people-pleasing political parties and individuals through all sorts of means for their vested interests. To cover up the hanky-panky stuffs, an intelligent few would create national symbols, compose songs and anthems, and manufacture slogans and propaganda effectively. It is also our same self-interest from which we believe in the inevitability of a government that is constructed on nationalistic dreams and promises. In olden times then, the king had the divine rights and the people obey; and now, the rulers are the protector of nationalism, an idea which is also our deepest sentiment in our collective life and so we obey them.  

Eric Hobsbawm had written the obituary of nation and nationalism seven years after the publication of the first edition of Imagined Community. For him, the concepts, not necessarily anarchistic, have become historically less important. It makes sense when we see that monarchy, which once used to be a monopolistic system of governance and administration, had died a natural death and so will be nation and nationalism. Besides, globalisation has changed the equilibrium to a large extent. However, Anderson is on the other side of the wall. The historical importance has been embedded deep within the personal and the political and the end is ‘not remotely in sight’. Without speaking, as mentioned earlier, he showed that not only Hobsbawm but the entire Marxism was no more able to engage with the concepts and ideals of nationalism.

In the ‘nationalism’ world of countless theories and an equal number of contradictions, Anderson’s imagined community—first conceived by the elites and then followed by the collective—is made plausible by an idea that people share a certain closeness howsoever it may be controversial. He referred to the Creole elites in both the North and South Americas who grow out of British and Spanish colonialism respectively. In our narrative, though, it is an entirely different story that we have had little in common, with reference to culture, history, geography and a whole lot of other elements with India but we still belong to this nation-state. This is quite a food for thought in the department of nationalism with the advent of neo-colonialism of which Anderson has no perceptible interest.

So under the ideals of an imaginary community, we are confident about making progress because we belong together, again if we do not even take into account the issues of armed movements and other contestations. Then there are issues of identity, equality and justice, culture, and growth, etc. that a nation would supposedly help us realise our individual and societal goals. Ironically, it is on these similar ‘advantageous’ grounds that certain groups are demanding for the right of nations to self-determination, which was more known as the ‘principle of nationalism’ in early Marxian days. Hobsbawm puts the ideas succinctly: ‘Nations do not make states and nationalisms but the other way round’.


Anderson was also a Southeast Asian expert. Where could we place his ideas of imagined communities in the context of Zomia vis-à-vis James C Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia? He did write Under Three Flags: Anarchism and the Anti-Colonial Imagination but in a totally different perspective.

After more than thirty years of its publication his book on nationalism remains one of the most cited books on this subject. However, a nation as ‘an imagined community’ is just a product, an entity of ‘now’ that does not explain the whole dynamics. The historical evolution of the idea is made exceptionally clear but Benedict Anderson had compromised the political implications for the sake of philosophical clarity.


Suggested reading

Read the ebook: Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism
Eric Hoffer   The True Believer: Thoughts On The Nature Of Mass Movements (1951)
Hugh Seton-Watson  Nations and States: An Enquiry into the Origins of Nations and the Politics of Nationalism (1977)
John Breuilly   Nationalism and the State (1982)
Ernest Gellner   Nations and Nationalism (1983)
Eric Hobsbawm   Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality (1991)
Partha Chatterjee   The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories (1993)
Patrick J Geary   The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe (2002)
Guoguang Wua   From Post-imperial to Late Communist Nationalism: Historical Change in Chinese Nationalism from May Fourth to the 1990s (2009)



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