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"Imagined communities" is a concept coined by Benedict Anderson. An imagined community is different from an actual community because it is not (and, for practical reasons, cannot be) based on everyday face-to-face interaction between its members. For example, Anderson believes that a nation is a socially constructed community, imagined by the people who perceive themselves as part of that group.:6–7 Anderson's book, Imagined Communities, in which he explains the concept in depth, was first published in 1983, and reissued with additional chapters in 1991 and a further revised version in 2006.
Even though the term was coined to specifically talk about nationalism, it is now used more broadly, almost blurring it with community of interest. For instance, it can be used to refer to a community based on sexual orientation, or awareness of global risk factors.
Benedict Anderson defined a nation as "an imagined political community - and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign". Members hold in their minds a mental image of their affinity: for example, the nationhood felt with other members of your nation when your "imagined community" participates in a larger event such as the Olympic Games. As Anderson puts it, a nation "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". Members of the community probably will never know each of the other members face to face; However, they may have similar interests or identify as part of the same nation. The media also create imagined communities, through usually targeting a mass audience or generalizing and addressing citizens as the public.
These communities are imagined as both limited and sovereign. They are limited in that nations have "finite, if elastic boundaries, beyond which lie other nations". They are sovereign since no dynastic monarchy can claim authority over them, in the modern period:
...[T]he 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 [incongruence, divide] 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. (pp. 6-7)
Even though we may never see anyone in our imagined community, we still know they are there through communication.
Finally, a nation is an imagined 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."
According to Anderson, creation of imagined communities became possible because of "Print capitalism". Capitalist entrepreneurs printed their books and media in the vernacular (instead of exclusive script languages, such as Latin) in order to maximize circulation. As a result, readers speaking various local dialects became able to understand each other, and a common discourse emerged. Anderson argued that the first European nation-states were thus formed around their "national print-languages."
Benedict Anderson arrived at his theory because he felt that neither Marxist nor liberal theory adequately explained nationalism.
Anderson falls into the "historicist" or "modernist" school of nationalism along with Ernest Gellner and Eric Hobsbawm in that he posits that nations and nationalism are products of modernity and have been created as means to political and economic ends. This school stands in opposition to the primordialists, who believe that nations, if not nationalism, have existed since early human history. Imagined communities can be seen as a form of social constructionism on a par with Edward Said's concept of imagined geographies.
In contrast to Gellner and Hobsbawm, Anderson is not hostile to the idea of nationalism nor does he think that nationalism is obsolete in a globalizing world. Anderson values the utopian element in nationalism. According to his theory of imagined communities, the main causes of nationalism are the declining importance of privileged access to particular script languages (such as Latin) because of mass vernacular literacy; the movement to abolish the ideas of rule by divine right and hereditary monarchy; and the emergence of printing press capitalism—all phenomena occurring with the start of the Industrial Revolution.
Anthony D. Smith states that even when nations are the product of modernity, it is possible to find ethnic elements that survive in modern nations. Ethnic groups are different from nations. Nations are the result of a triple revolution that begins with the development of capitalism and leads to a bureaucratic and cultural centralization along with a loss of power by the Church. Smith, however, maintains that there are also many cases of ancient nations and therefore cannot be considered a modernist.
The concept of imagined communities remains highly relevant in a contemporary context of how nation-states frame and rescript their identities in relation to domestic and foreign policy, such as policies towards immigrants and migration.
The construction of imagined narratives to enable the state to weave disparate communities into a national whole is complex. Aside from building a sense of "togetherness", the agenda of developmental regimes to blend policy objectives, economic goals and regime stability into this narrative, becomes more apparent as these narratives age. Kenneth Paul Tan of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy states:
The modern nation, no matter how small or socially homogeneous, can only be an imagined community. And, as an imagined community, it needs its members to feel as if they have an intimate knowledge of one another. It needs constantly to be narrated through structures that are resonant and familiar to all (Anderson, 1991). For instance, the Singapore Story follows a rigid structure that begins properly in 1819 when Sir Stamford Raffles of the British East India Company founded factory on the island and went on to build up a thriving colonial port city. The ‘‘Japanese Occupation’’ in the early 1940s eroded the myth of colonial superiority and precipitated anti-colonial sentiments, particularly amongst the Chinese masses who were becoming influenced by communist developments in China. Eventually, the rise of political consciousness led to the emergence of several indigenous political parties, including the PAP, whose English-educated leaders such as Lee Kuan Yew co-operated with the communists in order to secure a mass base of supporters. After Singapore gained self-government in 1959, Lee sought a merger with Malaya; and, in 1963, Malaysia was established. By 1965, Singapore was ejected from Malaysia due to irreconcilable differences. And, from this point on, the Singapore Story becomes an account of a ‘‘Third World’’ ex-colony taking nervous first steps as an independent nation-state; but transforming ‘‘against the odds’’ into a successful ‘‘First World’’ nation-state whose per capita GDP today is equal to those of the leading countries of Western Europe.
This straightforward tale of survival and success is complicated by a cautionary note insisting that Singapore, although it has come a long way, continues to be dogged by old and new vulnerabilities that threaten to destroy all that it has achieved. The moral of this Singapore Story, then, is: whatever Singapore has been doing right, it must continue to do, or else face the possibility of losing everything. Such a narrative might help Singapore citizens, recent immigrants and Singaporeans living overseas to feel connected by a mythically grand story that serves as a source of meaning and value to all its protagonists. The nation, like any large community in which members do not all enjoy face-to-face interaction, must be imagined; and common stories that go into the construction of a national identity, sense of belonging and value system can more adequately activate this imagination through the mass media that capitalism has made an intrinsic part of everyday life. This, among others, has been an important motivation for the state to retain its tight grip on journalism in Singapore.
- Anderson, Benedict R. O'G. (1991). Imagined communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism (Revised and extended. ed.). London: Verso. p. 7. ISBN 978-0-86091-546-1. Retrieved 5 September 2010.
- Ross, C. (2012). Imagined communities: initiatives around LGBTQ ageing in Italy. Modern Italy, 17(4), 449-464. doi:10.1080/13532944.2012.706997
- Beck, U 2011, 'Cosmopolitanism as Imagined Communities of Global Risk', American Behavioral Scientist, 55, 10, pp. 1346-1361, Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed 2 February 2013.
- Interview with Benedict Anderson by Lorenz Khazaleh, University of Oslo website
- Bauder, H. (2011) Immigration Dialectic: Imagining Community, Economy and Nation. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
- Tan, Kenneth Paul (August 2007). Journal of Contemporary Asia 37 (3): 292–308. doi:10.1080/00472330701408635.