The Idea of Nation and Nationalism: Benedict Anderson

Nation and nationalism are contested ideas yet inseparable from our lives. Every time, debates, discussions, controversies and even wars arise because of these powerful ideas.

In this particular post, I do not write anything new. This post simply tries to provide a helpful introduction to the scholarly views of nations and nationalism. These are sourced from The Nationalism Project. I hope you find it useful not only as a student of Political Science or Sociology, but as a conscious human being willing to understand the world better.

This is PART 1 in the series: NATION & NATIONALISM


 

The Nation as Imagined Community: Benedict Anderson

benedict anderson
Benedict Anderson

Benedict Anderson’s book Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism first appeared in 1983. Since that time it has become one of the standard texts on the topic of nations and nationalism.

According to Benedict Anderson, the nation is an

“imagined political community- and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.”

On why the nation is imagined, Anderson has to say this:

“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. Renan referred to this imagining in his suavely back-handed way when he wrote that ‘Or l’essence d’une nation est que tons les individus aient beaucoup de choses en commun, et aussi que tous aient oublié bien des choses.” With a certain ferocity Gellner makes a comparable point when he rules that ‘Nationalism is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness: it invents nations where they do not exist.’ The drawback to this formulation, however, is that Gellner is so anxious to show that nationalism masquerades under false pretences that he assimilates ‘invention’ to ‘fabrication’ and ‘falsity’, rather than to ‘imagining’ and ‘creation’. In this way he implies that ‘true’ communities exist which can be advantageously juxtaposed to nations. In fact, 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. Javanese villagers have always known that they are connected to people they have never seen, but these ties were once imagined particularistically- as indefinitely stretchable nets of kinship and clientship. Until quite recently, the Javanese language had no word meaning the abstraction ‘society.’ We may today think of the French aristocracy of the ancien régime as a class; but surely it was imagined this way only very late. To the question ‘Who is the ‘Comte de X?’ the normal answer would have been, not ‘a member of the aristocracy,’ but ‘the lord of X, ‘the uncle of the Baronne de Y,’or ‘a client of the Duc de Z.’

Why is nation imagined as limited?

“The nation is imagined as limited because even the largest of them encompassing perhaps a billion living human beings, has finite, if elastic boundaries, beyond which lie other nations. No nation imagines itself coterminous with mankind. The most messianic nationalists do not dream of a day when all the members of the human race will join their nation in the way that it was possible, in certain epochs, for, say, Christians to dream of a wholly Christian planet.”

Why is it imagined as sovereign?

“It is imagined as sovereign because the concept was born in an age in which Enlightenment and Revolution were destroying the legitimacy of the divinely-ordained, hierarchical dynastic realm. Coming to maturity at a stage of human history when even the most devout adherents of any universal religion were inescapably confronted with the living pluralism of such religions, and the allomorphism between each faith’s ontological claims and territorial stretch, nations dream of being free, and, if under God, directly so. The gage and emblem of this freedom is the sovereign state.”

And, why is nation imagined as a community?

“Finally, it is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always 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 willingly to die for such limited imaginings.”

“These deaths bring us abruptly face to face with the central problem posed by nationalism: what makes the shrunken imaginings of recent history (scarcely more than two centuries) generate such colossal sacrifices? I believe that the beginnings of an answer lie in the cultural roots of nationalism.”

imagined communities
Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism

 

*Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Revised Edition ed. London and New York: Verso, 1991.

 


Except necessary changes, all the contents of this post are sourced from The Nationalist Project. You can read more about the project HERE.

Advertisements

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s