Revisiting Anderson’s “Imagined Communities” Almost 25 Years Later

Review Notes #2
Mathew Nelson (
PECO 5502; Other Worlds, Other Globalizations
Carleton University
April 20, 2007

In what has now become a classic in studies of nationalism, Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities traces the origins of the rise of national consciousness to the modern-industrial age of the Enlightenment in Western Europe. Following the demise of traditional, hierarchical forms of social organization associated with Christendom, Anderson attributes a major role to economic factors that helped spread supposedly universal, homogenous and “horizontal-secular” notions of national space, territoriality, and citizenship (37). Specifically, economic change fostered the rise of social-scientific discoveries, increasingly rapid communication, and the logic of capitalism, epitomized in its ruthless and perpetual search for new markets (38). Known as ‘print-capitalism,’ Anderson sees an essential link between the rise of capitalism and the development of print-as-commodity. Communication and popular literature, for instance, helped disseminate national languages, consciousness, and ideologies across a broad landmass, previously unconnected by any conception of shared experience or identity. As a secular, non-religious phenomenon, the idea of the ‘nation’ reached a level of mass consciousness. Nationalisms, therefore, have the unique ability to traverse millions of people in and through the interplay of capitalist relations and modes of production, the spread of communications, or print technology which resulted in the ultimate demise of human linguistic diversity prevalent in the pre-modern era (43).

At the same time, however, Anderson’s conception of the nation is one of a community that is socially-constructed, or “imagined” into being: “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” (6).1 Anderson’s approach emphasizes the role of creative imagery, ‘invented traditions,’ representation, imagination, symbols, and traditions in nationalism, as a constructed narrative about the nation-state. As a phenomenon that is fundamentally historical in its constitution, the ‘truth’ of national identity cannot be found in fixed racial categories, myths about origins, or certain primordial ‘facts.’ While Anderson’s approach to the nation has done much to debunk myths about nationalism that assume the nation possesses some primordial ‘essence,’ his approach is subject to a number of criticisms I would like to uncover in the following sections.

Perhaps the most relevant, and potent critique of Anderson’s approach in Imagined Communities comes from Partha Chatterjee (1993), in asking, “whose imagined community?” Chatterjee reminds us of how nationalisms were seen as “emancipatory” in their struggles against colonial powers as recent as the 1950s and 1960s in parts of Asia and Africa. Nationalisms, be they ‘good’ or ‘bad’ were seen as “one of Europe’s most magnificent gifts to the rest of the world,” an essential “product of the political history of Europe” (215). By the 1970s, as if all previous history had been forgotten, ethnic nationalisms were seen as causes-unto-themselves - the cause of third world wars, corruption, and violence. Chatterjee, however, takes issue with Anderson’s conception of nationalism as one that pre-exists in “modular” forms, such that its basic tenets can easily be exported and appropriated in the postcolonial world. His is a totalizing, “universal history of the modern world,” fails to consider the dynamics of anti-colonial nationalisms. He states:

History, it would seem, has decreed that we in the postcolonial world shall only be perpetual consumers of modernity. Europe and the Americas, the only true subjects of history, have thought out on our behalf not only the script of colonial enlightenment and exploitation, but also that of our anti-colonial resistance and postcolonial misery. Even our imaginations must remain forever colonized (216).

While appearing to oppose the colonial influence at one level, the problematic of anti-colonial nationalisms assert a form of inner sovereignty, an “inner domain of national culture,” and claim to an ‘essential’ cultural identity (220). Nonetheless, the very thematic of post-Enlightenment epistemologies and ethical systems provides a national-theoretical framework that while seemingly the reverse of Orientalism (colonialism), “…retains the essentialist character depicted in Orientalist discourse” (1986: 38). The search for an authenticity in identity, solely conceivable in terms of nationalism, demonstrates the immanence of certain strategies of resistance to regimes of power (Foucault/Deleuze). Chatterjee demonstrates, more specifically, the extent to which anti-colonial nationalist movements share the same epistemological-discursive field as their colonial oppressors. Anderson fails to consider these historically, and culturally specific dynamics in the postcolonial world.

For Edward Said, the Orient “… is not merely there” (1979: 4), but a construction of thought in which an entire region is homogenized as one particular culture, or ‘civilization’ in opposition to the Western Occident.2 At first glance, this approach shares a constructivist affiliation to Anderson’s theoretical framework in Imagined Communities. However, Anderson’s conception of nationalism as imagined, comes dangerously close to idealizing discourse to the extent that the ‘nation’ can be read as some sort of text, in order to uncover the legitimizing narratives that aid in its construction. At the same time, the political economy or ‘materialist’ aspects of Anderson’s theory point to underlying social-material relations whose base can be found in the workings of the capitalist-economy, and its corresponding modes of social (re)production. Often socially and technologically reductionalist, however, such theories tend to conceive ideas as mere reflections, or representations of a socio-economic base which is understood to be the underlying reality beneath the ‘veil’ of ideology.

Moving beyond ‘social construction,’ Said, on the other hand, highlights the productivity and power of knowledge, which, “… for many generations, there has been considerable material investment” (1979: 6). Anderson’s methodology is therefore, too anthropomorphic insofar as it attributes far too much to ‘social’ (ie. human) elements in the rise of nationalism. The ‘material’ is reduced to solely to ‘social’ relations. Like Marx, for which materialism is the critical means by which we become conscious of ourselves as naturally historical beings, modern history is seen to unfold in accordance with the logics of capitalism as an ensemble of social relations of production. Contemporary social construction theories, similarly, are socially and technologically deterministic, neglecting the role of non-human actors and literal ‘materials’3 in the constitution of knowledge, space, and subjectivity. In a theoretical approach indebted to ‘material semiotics,’ Kendall (2004) argues that our understanding of knowledge should include “all the texts, speeches, materials, institutions, ways of acting and ways of problematising that are associated together in a convenient package” (65). An important technology of British imperialism, the map for example, can be seen as an instrument of knowledge-production in the maintenance of colonial rule. The material inscription of the map, for O’Tuathail? (1996), has been labeled geo-graphing, so as to “emphasize how map-making and other geographical knowledges are historically bound up with political aspirations to seize and control territory” (Walters 2004: 171). Kendall (2004) points to the connection between the map, and British imperialism:

So, for example, a map is a conveniently packaged-up ‘knowledge’ which can be transported easily, and which can be used regardless of the war office desk or the battleship where it is spread out. We need to remember that this immutable mobile – the map – is a result of travel, writing, weapons, theories, measurements, tools, and so on. A knowledge, then, is never simply informational, nor is it simply technical, but it is a result of the juxtaposition of a number of elements (65).

In and through the hybrid of human actions and a variety of non-human ‘materials,’ knowledge is literally produced, in order to' produce the Orient. This is not to say, of course, that subjects in the (post)-Colonial world are “passive victims,” or ‘inactive subjects in their own history,’ but merely that Colonial power came to depend upon “the systematic redefinition and transformation of the terrain on which the life of the colonized was lived” (Scott 1995: 205). The imperial practice of indirect rule, for instance, was a common instrument for creating racial hierarchies, and harnessing the self-governing capacities of various ethnic sub-populations within a territorially confined, artificially constructed national space.4

The physical construction of the map as representation is a crucial example of the materiality of power/knowledge, which itself results from a multiplicity of specific practices and subjectivities (“discursive practices”). National projects, at the same time, are imbued with techniques of normalization and discipline, or what could be called “embodied” knowledges. For this reason, Foucault’s genealogical approach to knowledge, power, and the body has been appropriately described as a “materialism of the body” (Balibar).5 Nationalism, in this sense, can be understood as not merely ‘socially constructed,’ but a phenomenon that is indeed, also lived. Further, the production of knowledge is closely related to the geography of colonial conquest, for instance, mapping and other forms of land surveys etc., laid the “cartographic basis” for the imposition, and further accumulation of capitalist in much of Asia, Africa, the Americas and Australia (Harvey 1984: 2). While traditionally ‘positivistic’ forms of scientific knowledge often naively claim objectivity and neutrality, it is indisputable that the colonial context of imperialism and expansionism (ie. ‘manifest destiny’), provided the “social basis for the production and use of that knowledge” (2). In order to continue to exploit and dominate previously unclaimed territory through capitalist accumulation, there had to be necessary societal, material, and epistemological preconditions set in place.

Edward Said, in contrast to Anderson, allows for a more thorough and rigorous approach to nationalism by highlighting overall thematic continuities, but at the same time, paying close attention to historically-specific, cultural particularities, or discontinuities. Said’s framework shows how, at first, the “civilizing missions” (in the name of the Christian religion) of the imperialistic powers had a close, actual, physical relationship to colonial territories. Scientific surveys, maps and censuses, created by experts in the name of ‘human progress’ were carried out such that “Europeans could authoritatively regenerate an Orient which they knew better than any Oriental” (Hentsch 1992: 122). As we have seen, resistance to colonialism often takes the form of an ‘anti-colonial’ nationalist movement that finds itself in the framework of power defined by the very colonial power itself. In appropriating Orientalist texts for the purposes of legitimatization, these nation-builders assert a new form of unity, with all of its exclusionary components. They can be seen as sort of “inside-out orientalists, who revalorize what orientalists perceive as lacking.” (Burke 1998: 494-495). Yet if nationalism is the excluded other in colonial discourse, then Islamic movements for instance, occupy the same position in nationalist discourse. The often authoritarian-secular, anti-Islamic movements for national consciousness in Turkey,6 for instance, are an excellent example of the dark side of nationalisms, especially in their explicit exclusion of such religious identities.

While Anderson sees an abrupt break from the imagined communities of the Christian religion, to the rise of nationalist movements following the Enlightenment, Said’s approach to Orientalism demonstrates a continuous thematic from liberal imperialism (with its Euro-Christian? epistemological base), to nationalism, to present-day religious movements. The psychology of faith, in this sense, can not be limited to purely religious contexts, but must be understood as a ‘faith’ in particular metaphysical analogues for God – be they the transcendental belief in the self-evidence of the Nation, teleological, scientific progress, or Man as both transcendental subject and object of world-history.

The colonial-historical chain of events continues today with American orientalism pursuing its own “civilizing missions” under the guise of democracy. Capitalizing on the rhetoric of Islamic-fundamentalists (which hardly characterize the overall mood of the Middle East), billions of people are homogenized under the headlines of the ‘Islamic threat’ and terrorism. American hegemony repositions itself in opposition to a monolithic ‘fundamentalism.’ No doubt, in part, to boost their own importance, by positing ‘our side’ against a distinct civilizational rival, academics such as Bernard Lewis7 and Samuel Huntington exploit this difference to be made into an opposition to be threatened by. By assigning this essence - a civilizational separateness – an East/West, us versus them mentality is subsequently remade. In this sense, the ‘clash of civilizations’ thesis occupies the same discourse as religious fundamentalists who posit a similar us/them duality.

If, as Hindess (2002) argues, narratives of ‘civilization’ served as the organizing principle for imperial rule and its incorporation of the globe into the modern system of nation-states in the 19th century, then we are witnessing, today, “the return of civilization” (Rojas 2004: 108). With the United States largely at the helm, the ‘new imperialism’ advocates pre-emptive military intervention in countries deemed ‘hopeless cases’ for the purposes of that “maligned business of nation building”8 coupled with, often disastrous, neo-liberal economic reforms. The inevitable failure of such projects, sadly, will undoubtedly result in further justification for more of the same market-oriented, structural adjustments in the so-called – and inappropriately named - ‘Third World.’


Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso, 1991.

Burke, Edmund. “Orientalism and World History: Representing Middle Eastern

Nationalism and Islamism in the Twentieth Century,” Theory and Society 27 (1998): 494-495.

Chatterjee, Partha. Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse?London: Zed Books for the United Nations, 1986.

Chatterjee, Partha. The Nation and its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories.Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Gole, Nilufer. “Authoritarian Secularism and Islamist Politics: The Case of Turkey,”

Civil Society in the Middle East, Vol. 2, ed. Augustus Richard Norton. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1996. 17- 43.

Harvey, David. “On the History and Present Condition of Geography: An Historical

Materialist Manifesto.” The Professional Geographer 36 (February 1984): 1-11.

Hentsch, Thierry. Imaging the Middle East. New York: Black Rose, 1992.

Hindess, Barry. “Neo-Liberal Citizenship.” Citizenship Studies 6 (2002): 127-143.

Huntington, Samuel. “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs (Summer 1993): 22-49.

Kendall, Gavin. “Global Networks, International Networks, Actor Networks,” ''Global

Governmentality: Governing International Spaces''. Eds. Wendy Larner and William Walters. New York: Routledge: 2004. 59-75.

Lemke, Thomas. “Foucault, Governmentality, and Critique,” Rethinking Marxism 14(2002): 49-64.

Lewis, Bernard. “The Roots of Muslim Rage.” Atlantic Monthly 226:3 (September 1990): 47-60.

O’Tuathail?, G. Critical Geopolitics: The Politics of Writing Global Space. Minneapolis:Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1996.

Rojas, Cristina. “Governing Through the Social: Representations of Poverty and Global Govermentality,” Global Governmentality: Governing International Spaces. Eds. Wendy Larner and William Walters. New York: Routledge: 2004. 97-115.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage, 1979.

Scott, David. “Colonial Governmentality.” Social Text 5 (1995): 191-220.

Walters, William. “The Political Rationality of European Integration.” ''Global

Governmentality: Governing International Spaces.'' Eds. Wendy Larner and William Walters. New York: Routledge: 2004. 155-173.

Walters, William. “The Power of Inscription: Beyond Social Construction and

Deconstruction in European Union Studies.” Millennium: Journal of International Studies 31 (2002): 83-108.

1 Thus, Anderson is careful not to juxtapose some pristine idea of a ‘true’ community against the supposed ‘falsity’ of the nation (p. 6.).

2 For a classic ‘orientalist’ piece from Huntington, the leading proponent of the ‘clash of civilizations’ thesis, see Samuel Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs (Summer 1993): 22-49.

3 For an approach similar to ‘material semiotics’ in the context of European Union studies, see also William Walters, “The Power of Inscription: Beyond Social Construction and Deconstruction in European Union Studies,” Millennium: Journal of International Studies 31 (2002): 83-108.

4 Consider, of course, the concept of King Leopold’s Cake, whereby European leaders got together in Belgium – then ruled by King Leopold II – to literally ‘cut up’ a blank map of the African continent, as if it were a cake to be distributed among the various national powers.

5 See Lemke on Balibar in Thomas Lemke, “Foucault, Governmentality, and Critique,” Rethinking Marxism 14 (2002): 49.

6 For the example of Turkey, see Nilufer Gole, “Authoritarian Secularism and Islamist Politics: The Case of Turkey,” Civil Society in the Middle East, Vol. 2, ed. Augustus Richard Norton (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1996), 17- 43.

7 See for example, Bernard Lewis, “The Roots of Muslim Rage,” Atlantic Monthly 226:3 (September 1990): 47-60.

8Sebastian Mallaby (2002) in Cristina Rojas, “Governing Through the Social: Representations of Poverty and Global Govermentality,” Global Governmentality: Governing International Spaces, eds. Wendy Larner and William Walters (New York: Routledge: 2004) 109.