Benedict Anderson’s Theory of Nationalism and Imagined Communities
Published in the same year (1983) as Gellner’s Nations and Nationalism, Anderson’s Imagined Communities – Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism presents an interesting hypothesis.
The basic premise of Anderson’s theory is that the decline of religion made it possible new conceptions of time, which in turn made it possible to imagine the nation.
Before nationalism, there existed the “great religiously imagined communities”, such as Christendom, based on shared languages such as latin. With the rise of exploration, Europeans came to realise the insularity of their conceptions of existence. Furthermore, the shared language of latin was beginning to decline, and was replaced by the vernacular.
Whilst Europe existed as the great religiously imagined communities, the conception of time was one in which history was fused together. The past, present and future were not linked causally, but through the will of the divine. Within such a conception of time, the word “meanwhile” can have no meaning. With the dissolution of such communities, it became possible to imagine a state in which there was now no longer “simultaneity along time” but “homogenous, empty time”. This type of time could be marked by clock and calendar, and was amenable to theoretically incidental coincidence.
Then came print capitalism. After a while, the monopoly on print was lost by Latin, and new works were published in the vernacular. (Protestantism, and its emphasis on internal salvation was particularly important here.) Books, newspapers and novels in vernacular languages gave the idea to their readers that there existed, simultaneously in time, a group of readers like them consuming the same cultural manufactures.
These manufactures gave the readers a sense of national consciousness in three ways:
- They created unified fields of exchange below Latin and above the vernaculars
- They gave a new fixity to the language and thus helped give an idea of permanence to the nation
- They created languages of power different to the pre-existing language of Latin.
Nationalism was thus, Anderson argues, the result of the fusion between the decline of religion, human diversity, the development of capitalism and the technology of print.
Criticisms of Anderson’s Theory
- Culturally reductionist
- His arguments concerning nationalism and religion do not hold in certain cases
- His thesis that nationalism was born in the Americas runs counter to available evidence
- His theory concerning anti-colonial nationalisms seems flawed