Imagined Communities


Benedict Anderson, 1983, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism

Defines the nation as an "imagined political community": imagined because the members of 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. A nation exists when a significant number of people in a community consider themselves (or, in other words imagine themselves as to form a nation, or behave as if they formed one.

In fact, Anderson says, all communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact (and perhaps even these) are imagined. Communities are to be distinguished not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined.

The great sacred communities of the past (Christendom, the Islamic Ummah, the Middle Kingdom) were imaginable through the medium of a sacred language and written script.

The birth of the imagined community of the nation can best be seen if we consider the basic structure of two forms of imagining that first flowered in Europe in the eighteen century: the novel and the newspaper. For these forms provided the technical means for re-presenting the kind of imagined community that is the nation.

The newspaper in particular creates and "extraordinary mass ceremony: the almost simultaneous consumption...". This ceremony is performed in silent privacy, in the lair of the scull. 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 has not the slightest notion. What more vivid figure of the for the secular, historically clocked imagined community can be envisioned?

Implications of the concept: The Internet provides new media and new styles in which communities can be imagined. It is more important to understand these styles of imagining than to argue for or against the "falsity/genuineness" of communities in cyberspace. What are the new "ceremonies" in which participants engage? What are the shared symbolic systems created, recreated and modified in the practices of such communities? It can be argued that these communities can be more participatory and democratic because the "medium of imagining" is more flexible and open for intervention on the part of all members, compared to the newspaper, television, etc. But are they more participatory, more equal, more inclusive indeed?