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Imagined community

According to Benedict Anderson, what is an ‘Imagined Community’?

How does this relate to the contemporary world?

“I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the community, and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can” – George Bernard Shaw (Wisdom Quotes, 2009). Such views demonstrate that communities are an integral part of day-to-day life within the contemporary world, be this in a tiny, remote village in rural India or the thriving capital city of Beijing, China. This essay examines communities within the international sphere, focusing primarily on Benedict Anderson’s theory of ‘Imagined Communities’. The first section of this essay examines Anderson as an academic scholar and his views towards nationalism, including of course a detailed understanding of his theory of ‘Imagined Communities’. The second section then goes on to explore other political theorists take on Anderson’s work, focusing on three such theorists: Ernest Gellner, Anthony D. Smith and Eric Hobsbawm. This theory and reasoning behind Anderson’s and these three other theorists work, is then used as the foundation on which to build when looking at the contemporary world, focusing on the case study of Great Britain and how this study is of relevance to contemporary political issues. Communities within Britain are examined in terms of the imagination Anderson refers to, namely the Ukrainian community and also the Sikh community, both within multicultural British society.

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Anderson’s background is that of anthropology and when assessed, it is clear that he falls within the Modernist school of thought, arguing that nations are simply a product of modernity, in existence to cater to political, economic and military needs. Anderson’s theory of ‘Imagined Communities’ has been widely spread and applied to the field of international relations and political science, a theory which has been influential in carefully examining the politics of identity and the formation of communities across the globe, also known as nationalism. Anderson explores the modern nation in terms of its development throughout history, aiming to understand the emergence of these nations and how they have remained as nations in terms of status (Higson, 1998, p.355). Nationalism took form and began as an ideology during the eighteenth century, and more recently has undergone a global movement across the varying borders and boundaries of nations. It has three generic goals: “national autonomy, national unity and national identity, and for nationalists, a nation cannot survive without a sufficient degree of all three” (Smith, 2001, p.9). National identity in particular is fundamental to the order of the contemporary international sphere. According to Anderson (1991) therefore, the building and construction of nation states is an imitative action in that it follows similar patterns and trends as used by fellow nation states. Nationalism, in Anderson’s (1991) eyes is thus an instrument and product of such social constructions and all of this was in actual fact an American construction. Additionally, he contends that nation building is consistent of and on a par with fictional narratives, a point which agrees which Smith (2001), discussed later on in this essay.

With such a clear focus on nationalism, Anderson (1991) studies the idea of membership of a community, the idea of membership as boundaries defining ‘us’ and ‘them’, and the idea of the community as an equal comradeship, thus collectively leading to the creation of an identity. Under the umbrella of nationalist thought therefore, Anderson is largely interested in the formation and preservation of political identities. His key argument is as follows: communities are in fact imagined ones as, in truth, individuals residing in one particular place i.e. Britain, will never know, see, meet, converse or have any sort of relationship with all other residents, yet this ideological concept of a ‘British community’ still exists. Anderson thus is focusing on nationalism, in particular nations and their identity building processes, a nation being “an imagined political community…imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign” (Anderson, 1991, p.7). In his argument, the a nation is imagined as limited in that, even the one holding the greatest number of human beings, each community has finite boundaries, beyond which are other nations (Anderson, 1991, p.7). The nation is imagined as sovereign as the concept emerged during a time in which “Enlightenment and Revolution were destroying the legitimacy of the divinely-ordained hierarchical dynastic realm” (Anderson, 1991, p.7). Finally, the nation is imagined as a community as despite inequality and exploitative behaviour that may occur, the nation remains a “deep, horizontal comradeship” (Anderson, 1991, p.7).

Such ‘imagined communities’ are in actual fact socially constructed entities, consisting of individuals who have similar, if not identical, interests, these interests forming the basis for their grouping choices and decisions, and allowing the individuals to identify with one another. Anderson’s theory therefore comes from the location of individuals within specific ordered communities, as members of bounded communities whose members have common traits and concerns. His idea of this type of a community existing emerges from how the general public, according to him, identifies and understands themselves with respect to the community of their nation. As a result, all individuals have a horizontal relationship with all other members of their supposed ‘imagined community’ and this creates identity. Such identity provides safety and security to members of the imagined community, providing a sense of belonging to a group of people who are on the same wavelength and have similar interests and motivations (Anderson, 1991). This is of course, opposed to the previous identification which was wholly concerned with pre-existing religious systems and dynasties, which have now collapsed.

Anderson (1991) then goes on to examine the fall in access to privileged scripts and discourse such as Latin, the movement to eradicate ideas and commands of the monarchy and divine rules of power and finally the emergence of print capitalism in terms of the media and how this is related to the concept of nations. The final point here is of greatest relevance to this essay’s discussion. From first thought, it is common to think that no real relationship exists between media and communities, yet on closer inspection, it becomes clear that this is not the case. Anderson (1991) argues that the media is the key group creating these ‘imagined communities’ through their mass audience targeting procedures. The media often makes generalisations to the ‘public’ and when thought about, is most definitely an ‘imagined community’ in itself. Anderson (1991) therefore argues that national media and education systems have a critical role in ensuring a nation imagines itself as “a coherent, meaningful and homogenous community” (Higson, 1998, p.355). His primary concentration however lies with newspapers, which he argues are a fundamental part of print-capitalism, this being the key commodity in the generation of new ideas and concepts (Anderson, 1991, p.37). Print-capitalism contributed greatly to the imagined communities that exist within nations and will continue to do so in the future. He argues that newspapers allow shared experiences of resenting authority to take form, this not being beneficial as this gives rise to the marketplace, where print-capitalism is produced and invoked within consumer society in terms of profitability. Print-capitalism is, in Anderson’s opinion a commodity which is vital to current and forthcoming generations of completely new ideas and concepts (Anderson, 1991, p.37). His argument focuses primarily on the impact of the Reformation, this being:

“the coalition between Protestantism and print-capitalism, exploiting cheap popular editions, quickly created large new reading publics…and simultaneously mobilized them for politico-religious purposes” (Anderson, 1991, p.40).

He posits that much of the success of the Reformation is as a result due to print-capitalism itself (Anderson, 1991, p.39). Thus in Anderson’s critique with regards to the promise of the media in the public sphere and whether or not they invoke public debate, his answer is yes i.e. it was a vehicle for the American war of independence. The key example however given in his work is that relating to the Protestant and print-capitalism coalition, which he argues, was detrimental through the exploitation of cheap popular print-works (Anderson, 1991, p.40). Such “administrative vernaculars” (Anderson, 1991, p.41) led to religious and printing upheaval during the sixteenth century, and is regarded by himself as an “independent factor in the erosion of the sacred imagined community” (Anderson, 1991, p.41).

In terms of ‘imagined communities’ and its relationship with the media, film and cinema are good areas to explore. Film is often indicative of “consensual images of communities” (Higson, 1998, p.355) and is keen to show individuals from varying backgrounds coming together in shared interests. The British musical Sing As We Go (1934) (cited in Higson, 1998, p.355) for example deals with this same image as explained above and ends with the ‘imagined community’ being explicitly “nationalized” (Higson, 1995, cited in Higson, 1998, p.356) in the final scene. It is important to distinguish though that not all of the ‘imagined communities’ Anderson refers to are united. Particularly within the contemporary multicultural location that is Great Britain, nations can be presented and represented as being in disarray (Higson, 1998, p.356). Higson (1998) refers to the British film named The Beautiful Laundrette and how this is demonstrative of such a thing, providing images of “social and cultural disturbance and fragmentation” (Higson, 1998, p.356) as opposed to images of consensual imagined communities. This is therefore raises questions of what it is like to be British and to hold such an identity. Films like this consequently oppose what Anderson claims to be the truth, displaying that national identity in contexts like this one are not “as consensual but as hybrid, not as pure but as variegated” (Higson, 1998, p.356) and so this challenges Andersons point.

This theory of ‘imagined communities’ has often led to various branches of thought, one of the key ones with relation to this topic being that of ‘imagined geographies’, a concept which has emerged from Edward Said’s work on ‘Orientalism’ – a theoretical framework which argues that Europeans define themselves against their cultural contestants i.e. people from the Orient and as a result define themselves against this. Back to ‘Imagined geographies’ though, this is a form of social constructivism, referring to the perception of space and boundaries within texts, illustrations and of course, discourse. Arguably, there is no real geography and that imagined geographies can be compared with, thus posing problems of comparative analysis. So the argument lies that such imagined geographies must not be taken as given, but rather they should be deconstructed in order to display the various power sources which have been embedded in them.

Ultimately, although Anderson is sceptical of the general public in their decision to be part of ‘imagined communities’, he acknowledges that in the current day and age, nationalism and the idea of community has taken to other extremes i.e. projecting fear and hatred towards the ‘Other’, being deeply affiliated with racist and discriminative behaviour (Anderson, 1991, p.141.) He critiques this though by reinforcing how such communities are supposed to bring individuals together as opposed to dividing them further, and thus communities need to be reminded that “nations inspire love, and often profoundly self-sacrificing love” (Anderson, 1991, p.141).

Other theorists however conflict with what Anderson (1991) poses as the function of nation building, namely Ernest Gellner, Anthony D. Smith and Eric Hobsbawm. Their proposals of national identity vary with respect to one another. Firstly, anthropologist and philosopher Gellner (1983) argues that nationalism is ultimately political in that it acts as the foundation for politics and nations as being on an equal footing. In his critique, nationalism only emerged within the modern sphere very recently, becoming a necessity in sociological terms, and thus has not been embedded within history. Smith (2001) was a student of Gellner yet did not completely agree with the argument made by his teacher. His argument therefore depends on his creation of an approach to nationalism termed ‘ethnosymbolism’, this being a combination of traditional as well as modern views toward the theory and practice of national identities (Smith, 2001, p.13). Smith (2001) distinguishes between the concept of the term ‘nation’ and another word he terms ‘ethnie’, this being: “a named human community connected to a homeland, possessing common myths of ancestry, shared memories, one or more elements of shared culture, and a measure of solidarity at least among the elites” (Smith, 2001, p.13). Thus in his critique, the imagined communities Anderson speaks of do have a cultural and historical background to them, and so they aren’t completely imagined but have some substance behind them.

Smith (2001) on the other hand, studies nationalism in terms of ethnic groupings. To him, the concept of the nation is: “a named human community occupying a homeland, and having common myths and a shared history, a common culture, and a measure of solidarity at least among the elites” (Smith, 2001, p.13). Within this though he narrows down further his understanding of nations, consisting of what he terms “ethnie” (Smith, 2001, p.13):

“a named human community connected to a homeland, possessing common myths of ancestry, shared memories, one or more elements of shared culture, and a measure of solidarity at least among the elites”(Smith, 2001, p.13).

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Hobsbawm (1992) too examines nationalism, a concept which he refers to as the same as defined by Gellner: “primarily a principle which holds that the political and national unit should be congruent” (Gellner, 1983, p.1, cited in Hobsbawm, 1992, p.9). He contends that imagined communities act as a shield for and to religious-based nation states, which in turn allows individuals from a vast array of backgrounds to come together through the notion of compromise (Hobsbawm, 1992, p.14). One of his key arguments is that nations are: “dual phenomena” (Hobsbawm, 1992, p.10), by which he means that they are socially constructed from both above and below, with regards to the “assumptions, hopes, needs, longings and interests of ordinary people” (Hobsbawm, 1992, p.10). Thus he reinforces the central and underlying importance of nationalism throughout history in relation to political evolution. With respect to this, we identify that no real national conscience is forged within his text, and later on he makes clear the number of incited mass movements of nations i.e. he refers to the liberalisation of countries like Italy.

National identity has a huge role to play within countries across the globe. In particular, it is focused on and can be identified during sporting games i.e. football or cricket, avid fans supporting their nation to be successful and triumphant. National identity can however also be associated with negativity and can create tensions, as demonstrated politically within international relations more generally. This section focuses on Britain as its key contemporary example but compares and contrasts the experiences within Britain with those of other countries too.

Britain, quite clearly, consists of a multicultural society, one which is made up of a variety of community groupings. Community-World (2009) provides examples of many of the community groupings that are existent in modern day Britain, i.e.: regional, ethnic, religious, charity/voluntary and finally miscellaneous ones which include vegetarianism and so on. In many cases, such communities are reflective of Anderson’s thought of ‘imagined communities’. An example of this can be seen with respect to the South-Asian community in Britain, formed of Indians, Pakistani’s, Bangladeshi’s, Sri Lankans and many more, yet all come together under the umbrella term of South-Asian community even though it is most definitely likely that not all of these community members know each other nor have they seen each other nor, in reality, will they ever really do so. Such a community, although to be congratulated in bringing people of similar backgrounds together, is in actual fact a socially constructed entity according to Anderson. In my critique of this however, such groupings are embedded in human nature in that terms like this have not been created as a product of society and societal views but rather because of religious, cultural and historical backgrounds. Thus they are not socially constructed.

Anderson’s concentration of the media too is useful here when looking at Britain in that, in the contemporary world, his point that the print media, namely newspapers, is largely to blame for the creation of communities is only somewhat true. This is due to the rise of other media forms, particularly the internet, which has led to newspaper sales and general success of them falling over recent years. Greenslade (2009) in review of 2009 and the past decade identifies the spectacular decline of this once thriving industry: the Daily Mail recorded a fall from 2,777,501 to 1,260,019, a decline of 55%, whilst the Daily Express experienced sale plunges of 33.7%, the Daily Telegraph losses of nearly 27% and the Guardian a fall of just over 23%. Although newspapers are now widely available online, combining the previous paper form with the recent phenomenon of the internet, this does contradict with Anderson’s core argument. As sales of print newspapers have fallen, this suggests that readership too has declined and thus communities are less likely today to identify with communities within such media.

Fisk (2010) makes an interesting point though in his work, arguing that many human communities within Great Britain have been abandoned since the Middle-Ages and so he works to commemorate such communities and identify their reasons for abandonment.

Contrastingly, Hall (2004) examines the process of immigrants becoming citizens, with a particular focus on the Sikh community within Britain, namely second-generation ones. Her argument is that cultural politics have a huge role to play and in terms of the formation of nations, yet many more cultural processes are also at work: the role the media has in circulating religious, national and ethnic illustrations and political imaginaries; youth movement between cultural worlds in the home, at school and professionally; the frequently contradictory nature of the schooling system; and the cultural matters which flow across transnational and diaspora networks and communities (Hall, 2004, p.118). Thus Hall (2004) is suggesting that although this Sikh community may live and reside in Britain, this does not instantaneously make them a fundamental part of the imagined ‘British’ community, but rather due to their heritage and ancestral roots, many British Sikhs often find themselves to be torn between identifying with Britain and identifying with their parents country of origin. Hence individuals can be part of a series of imagined communities as opposed to simply one as posed by Anderson (1991). Hall (2004) does however agree with Anderson (1991) to the extent that the media is incredibly influential in the contagion of national and cultural identities across various borders and boundaries.

Similarly, Smith and Jackson (1999) studied ‘imagined communities with respect to Ukrainian communities living in Bradford, UK. Their argument was one of this sense of community, being shaped by Ukrainian history and the ever-changing global political climate (Smith and Jackson, 1999, p.367). For many Ukrainians living in Bradford, Ukraine’s independence in 1991 was symbolic of de-stabling an unsettled, often imaginary, sense of “Ukrainianness” (Smith and Jackson, 1999, p.384). Furthermore, they propose that recent cultural and historical change has led to an over-complication of the way in which the Ukrainian community within Bradford, UK is imagined and thus poses problems in terms of narratives and discourse.

In my critique, although cultural influences are considered by all of the previously discussed political theorists, economics in terms of social status and inequality is not considered. It is no surprise that the creation and preservation of ‘imagined communities’ as discussed by Anderson (1991) leads to “fractionalization” (Alesina et al, 2003, p.155). My argument contends that such fractionalization is the cause of the observed rise in cross-country inequalities, Britain included, and Anderson (1991) fails to account for this. A broad view of heterogeneity demonstrates that anything that generates groups, as Anderson’s theory does, has both political and economic consequences, ultimately leading to greater inequality. In Britain for example, we can see that Central London, in most cases, is a highly affluent area. The outskirts of Greater London though vary in affluence such that groups are formed and located according to these same groups. Research has proved such theses to be correct i.e. Alesina et al (2003) examined approximately one hundred and ninety countries, concluding that “ethnic, religious and linguistic fractionalization” (Alesina et al, 2003, p.155) increases corruption, infant mortality and illiteracy, and reduces democracy and political rights indexes. Thus this supports my point of critique, that although ‘imagined communities’ bring people together from similar backgrounds and who have shared interests, the creation of such groupings leads to divisions and ultimately, in many cases, such divisions are indicative of social status, welfare and affluence. Hence Anderson (1991), along with Gellner (1983), Smith (2001) and Hobsbawm (1992), did not investigate this. Theorists in future should therefore research this area, building on the work mentioned above.

In an age where it is extremely common for “progressive, cosmopolitan intellectuals to sit on the near-pathological character of nationalism, its roots in fear and hatred of the Other, and it’s affinities with racism” (Anderson, 1991, p.141), it is crucial to remember at all times that “nations transpire love, and often profoundly self-sacrificing love” (Anderson, 1991, p.141). Hence whether communities within these nations are imagined or not, which Anderson (1991) would say they are, they act as the fundamental foundation for society to communicate, evolve, exchange information and knowledge and ultimately to progress. Thus communities are incredibly important in multicultural Britain but also on a transnational scale too.

To conclude, Anderson’s work on ‘Imagined Communities’ is one which has been used largely within the realm of political science and international studies. It does provide the reasoning as to why people commune together in the majority of instances yet at the same time, is rather broad in its explanation and thus has limited generalisation and applicability to the modern world that is the twenty-first century. The theory of ‘Imagined Communities’ is rather useful though in terms of understanding community and group formation with regards to historical, religious and cultural contexts across the world. This essay has examined what Anderson terms to be an ‘Imagined Community’ and how this has been used within the Social Sciences, in particular International Relations and Political Science. It has then later gone on to look at Britain as a contemporary example of how a series of ‘Imagined Communities’ have been formed i.e. the Sikh community and the Ukrainian community. Thus it is important to recall that nationalism is not simply a “sociological or cultural phenomena: it is also a powerful political instrument which…has played an important part in both the creation and the reform of modern states throughout the world” (Jackson, 2003, p.610).


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