Skip to content

Imagined Communities and Typologies of Nationalism

September 21, 2011

Nationalism is a remarkably tricky concept to nail down. As a graduate student that has already grappled with this phenomenon in other colloquia, the mere thought of revisiting the myriad of theories, schools of thought, and historiographies fill me with confusion, anxiety, and horror. That being said, Benedict Anderson lucidly implores us that no other single phenomenon, no matter how nebulous our conception of it, has led people to fight – and die – more fervently. I tend to agree with him.

As an aside, I was working on a presentation of Umut Özkirmili’s Theories of Nationalism (2010) and Anthony Smith’s The Nation in History (2000) right around this very time last year. After putting the books down in frustration trying to chart the various schools of thought on nationalism, from the primordialists to the post-modernists, I decided the best thing to do was to go buy a bottle of alcohol to “help” me get through the process. On my way to the liquor store, a group of fellow Boston College students passed me in the street. They were laughing, obviously enjoying themselves, and my curious ears caught a snippet of their conversation: “We ought to burn all the mosques here. That ought to show them where they belong.” After struggling for the previous several hours, days actually, conceptualizing nationalism and figuring out how I would present the various exegeses of it, this exchange hit me like a bolt of lightning. For the young men who I had just overheard, their sense of who they were and who they weren’t was not a challenging prospect; it was a deeply ingrained, unmediated concept. All of a sudden, the theories I had just been working through became all too real. The primordial sense of racialized nationhood came out in their blind hatred. And yet, the violence in their words was also informed by their experience of 9/11, as children, marinated in the environment of turbocharged post-modern nationalism, quick to define who and what was American (and what wasn’t), even as this conception itself became muddied in the endeavor of wars and imperial “nation building” that followed.

Of course the conception of nationality is anything but new. The history of nations and nationalism, while debated, extends far back through the human experience. While Anderson and others aptly focus on the “long” nineteenth century as the cradle of modern nationhood as we know it, others such as Elie Kadourie and Clifford Geertz argue that conceptions of nationality go back to antiquity and further.[1] Still others eschew both the primordial and the modernist interpretations and embrace Anthony Smith’s “ethnosymbolist” approach, contending that symbols, memories, values, and traditions can transcend and endure through overlapping political structures and experiences.[2]

For Anderson’s part, his socio-cultural approach is a bit easier to understand. Essentially, he focuses on the standardization of culture in industrialized societies, which centers around language. Anderson notes that particularly with the advent of print culture, this allowed groups of people to form “imagined communities” that helped them conceptualize their kinship with others in a shared cultural, political, and economic space. Benedict lucidly states, “even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even know them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of communion” (p. 6).  To that end, I was pleased to see that Anderson referenced the work of Elizabeth Eisenstein on the development of print culture in early modern Europe, in order to tease out and exemplify the transition of vernacular languages into standard modes of expression of nationalist sentiment (p. 44).[3]

Although Anderson utilizes this novel interpretation to refreshingly focus on non-European experiences, such as Southeast Asia, and Creole communities of the New World, Central and South America, there are some serious deficiencies worth noting in his method. First off, despite the brief mentions of the darker side of nationalism in Europe, Benedict gives far too short a treatment of fascism and its itinerant racism in the twentieth century. When held in contrast to Donald Bloxham’s The Final Solution (2009), which recounts European nationalist formulations, reactions, and ultimately purges of the “other,” mainly Jews, from the late nineteenth century through the aftermath of World War II, Imagined Communities appears dramatically incomplete.[4] Even within the framework of dealing with polities outside of Europe, I was puzzled that Anderson utilized the Western-styled Wade-Giles system for expressing Chinese words. Considering his particular focus on language and the existence of pinyin, a newer, more accurate, and most importantly, Chinese-developed system in use since the late 1950s, I was taken aback by Anderson’s insistence on using this more antiquated approach. For me this choice rubbed particularly raw against his frequent use of un-translated French to illustrate his points, which contained an air of pretension I have not witnessed in other texts of similar subject matter.

All criticisms aside, Imagined Communities, has a resonance due to its fairly lucid premise and decidedly poetic execution. The breadth and depth of Anderson’s knowledge is obvious and permeates his prose. His preface in the newer edition also a strikes a humble tone from the outset, which humanizes the author and allows some leeway for the aforementioned problems.

[1] Umut Özkirimili, Theories of Nationalism: A Critical Introduction, Second Edition (London: Palgrave/McMillan 2010) 49-67, 72-113,

[2] Anthony Smith, The Nation in History: Historiographical Debates about Ethnicity and Nationalism (Hanover, NH: Brandeis University Press, 2000)

[3] Elizabeth Eisenstein, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005). Another text that builds on Eisenstein and helps explain Anderson’s conception of modern European nation states is Thomas Ertman, Birth of Leviathan: Building States and Regimes in Medieval and Early Modern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997). Ertman breaks down modern and proto-modern models of European nation-states into various categories of patrimonial, absolutist, constitutional, and bureaucratic.

[4] Donald Bloxham The Final Solution: A Genocide (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

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

You are commenting using your 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 )

Google+ photo

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

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: