Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism

Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (1983)

It is Benedict Anderson’s book Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism that put media and nationalism in dialogue. He coined the term “imagined communities” as a way of describing the nation. Anderson defined the nation as an imagined political community (6). He uses the term ‘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…the nation is conceived as a 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 willing to die for such limited imaginings” (6-7). He wrote about the horizontal comradeship and how people conceptualized their communities mentally based on a level of imagined solidarity. What is the similarity Anderson suggested exists among a group of strangers? Language. Anderson went on to explain that print media, specifically in common vernacular, was the way modern European countries created a unified identity (46). If printing media in a common vernacular (instead of exclusive languages like Latin) could maximize its circulation, then it also could maximize the possible consumers. Anderson called this theory print capitalism because it was driven by a capitalist approach to media. Thus, imagining your national community became easier because media-consumers could understand each other via one national language and could imagine one another consuming the same media on a daily basis.

Anderson, however, was not an anthropologist, but rather a scholar of politics. This begs the question of why he is significant to the anthropology of media. His book is a historical conversation about why and in what ways people are devoted to the nation-state. Printing media in vernacular languages was key to cultivating communities in modern Europe. Anthropologists first took Anderson’s imagined community concept and applied it to rites and symbols that other cultures have used to coordinate their own national community (Foster 239). In his article “Making National Cultures in the Global Ecumene” Dr. Robert J. Foster, a professor of Anthropology at the University of Rochester, extends Anderson’s concept of the imagined community to explain bigger notions of media consumption. The influence of media consumption is how Foster explains the phenomenon of national culture, a process in which ‘sameness overrides difference’ (237). He writes, “Benedict Anderson’s concept of the imagined community changed the place of media in understanding why people are so devoted to the nation-state. It is through the imagined consumption of print media issued in vernacular that a citizen can imagine his comradeship with a fellow member he may never know. Collective identity is manufactured by the collective consumption of mass media” (250). Essentially, citizens create their own relationship to a larger community by consuming mass media. This works as a basic theoretical framework for anthropologists to understand media as a means of understanding a constructed, cultural, and collective identity.

  • Nation: imagined political community; imagined because most members of the community won’t know most of it’s members. 49; imagined from particularism.
    • Limited and sovereign: limited via finite or elastic boundaries beyond which other nations lie. Sovereign: enlightenment and revolution destroyed the divinely ordained dynasty. Community because of the horizontal comradeship.
    • Print as commodity; literate Europe
      • Latin, reformation, vernaculars spreading because of central administration
      • Fatality of particular languages (56); interplay
      • Print languages laid base for national consciousness
        • 1- unified fields of exchange and communication
        • 2- a new fixity to language, built image of antiquity
        • 3- created languages of power difference from older admin vernaculars.
      • Shared information from the media source.
      • Invention of the printing press makes it possible (especially in Europe); the vernacularization of languages (not Latin/the academic language) made it accessible to other people (not scholars).
      • Reformation in Europe was just about to begin at the same time as the rise of the printing press
      • Capitalist part: making copies so people can buy it. Why capitalist? The market was flooded (saturated) with Latin, but they needed to create a new market to sell to. Reading out loud was common considering literacy rates were so low (20%) and it was in a social way of life.
      • Standardization of languages with multiple of dialects. Saves money to producing one language.
      • Did comradeship only exist after printing press? If not, how did it exist/what was its scope?
      • Nationalism cannot exist prior to the printing press; religious ties don’t count as the same thing.
      • Standardized languages come about in institutional context (linguistic anthropological explanation). Linguistic explanation is that people spread out over a large area, social institutions are able to link the communities. One of the biggest critiques is how people were already speaking the same language and were aware that others spoke the language too (they didn’t need awakening).


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