Benedict Richard O’Gorman Anderson was born on August 26, 1936 in Kunming, China to James O’Gorman and Veronica Beatrice Mary Anderson. James was an officer in the Imperial Maritime Customs in China and according to his son, a Sinophile; he was also of mixed Irish and Anglo-Irish descent, and his family had been active in Irish nationalist movements (see Yeats and Postcolonialism). Veronica was English and came from a family of conventional businessmen, judges, and policemen.

In 1941, the Anderson family moved to California, where Benedict received his initial education. Benedict received a B.A. in classics from Cambridge University, England in 1957. There, he developed an immense interest in Asian politics and later enrolled in Cornell University’s Indonesian studies program. Working part-time as a teaching assistant in the department of politics, Anderson worked on his Ph.D. under the guidance of George Kahin and Claire Holt. As part of his doctoral research, Anderson went to Jakarta, Indonesia in 1961. After the 1965 communist coup and massacres, Anderson published three studies, one of which was an outline of the coup. This study, in which Anderson argues that “discontented army officers, rather than communists, were responsible for [the] coup” and questions the military government’s claims to legitimacy (Language 8) became known as the “Cornell Paper” in 1966, and it caused Anderson to be barred from Indonesia indeterminately.

After his exile, Anderson spent a few years in Thailand, and then taught at Cornell University. He served as director of the Modern Indonesia Program and then acted as the Aaron L. Binenkorb Professor Emeritus of International Studies at Cornell. Anderson’s infamous analysis of nationalism is presented in his book Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (1983). The first few chapters attempt to contextualize nationalism in the course of history.

Anderson passed away in 2015.

Imagined Communities

Imagined Communities, 1983
Imagined Communities, 1983

In developing his theories, Anderson observes that the notion of “nation-ness” has become a principal force in many aspects of modern thought. Both the rapid expansion of the United Nations and the political unrest caused by conflict between and within “sub-nations” around the world (Imagined 3) are evidence that nationalism is, indeed, recognized as modern political moral hegemony.

Yet despite the influence that nationalism has had on modern society, the origins of the concept, Anderson finds, are inadequately explained and recorded. His purpose in writing Imagined Communities is to provide a historical background for the emergence of nationalism – its development, evolution, and reception.


Anderson defines “the nation” as an “imagined political community that is imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign” (Imagined 7).

The nation is:

Imagined because “members . . . will never know most of their fellow members . . . yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion” (6). That is, the possession of citizenship in a nation allows and prompts the individual to imagine the boundaries of a nation, even though such boundaries may not physically exist.

Limited because “even the largest of them . . . has finite, if elastic, boundaries, beyond which lie other nations” (7). The fact that nationalists are able to imagine boundaries suggests that they recognize the existence of partition by culture, ethnicity, and social structure among mankind. They do not imagine the union of all under one massive, all-encompassing “nationalism” (See Maps in Colonialism, Geography and Empire).

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 . . . nations dream of being free, and, if under God, directly so” (7). The sovereign state, therefore, is symbolic of the freedom from traditional religious structure. It provides the sense of organization needed for an orderly society, without relying on the then weakening religious hierarchy.

Community because the nation is “always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship” (7). Regardless of the dissent and inequalities within the nation, the imagined alliance among people of the same imagined nation is so strong as to drive men to heroic deaths in nationalistic sacrifice.

Cultural Roots

Anderson suggests that the following elements historically made possible the imagining of the nation:

  • Decline of belief that there is a sacred text that irrevocably embodies truth. Changes in the religious community gave rise to the belief that nationalism was a secular solution to the question of continuity that had been answered previously by religious faith. The decline of religious dominance also led to the demotion of the sacred languages. The growth of secular languages by the sixteenth century lowered the status of Latin as the only sacred script language. As a result, the older communities lost confidence in the sacredness of a particular language in its ability to grant them elite admission to certain spiritual truths.
  • Decline of the belief that “society was naturally organized around and under high centers-monarchs who…ruled under some form of cosmological (divine) dispensation” (36). In the 17th century, the legitimacy of sacral monarchy met its gradual debility in Western Europe (21). People began to doubt the belief that society was naturally organized around these centers.
  • Development of the idea of “homogeneous, empty time,” in which “a sociological organism moving calendrically through [it] is a precise analogue of the idea of the nation, which also is conceived as a solid community moving steadily through history” (26). Two events happening simultaneously, though in separate places, can link the people involved in those events by this precise “simultaneity;” that is, they share a consciousness of a shared temporal dimension in which they co-exist (25).

Origins of National Consciousness

Along with the above historical happenings that laid the path to the consciousness of nationalism, the practice of print-capitalism facilitated the imagining of the nation. The expansion of the book market contributed to the vernacularization of languages. Print languages created unified fields of communication, which enabled speakers of a diverse variety of languages to become aware of one another via print and paper. These people, consequently, became aware of the existence of the millions who share their nation and language. Print-capitalism also gave fixity to language, which stabilized it and gave print language a sense of antiquity that enhanced the feeling of nationalism. Finally, the notion of print capitalism gave dominance to a few selected languages for their printability, namely dialects that were closer to print languages than others were the ones that were commonly used and persisted through history (44-46).

Creole States and Nationalism

Anderson defines Creole states (new world colonies) as communities that were “formed and led by people who shared a common language and common descent with those against whom they fought” (47). He affirms that “Creole states” were among the earliest to develop conceptions of nation-ness, way before the notion of nationalism blossomed in Europe (50). Drawing on the examples of North American colonies and South American republics, Anderson provides several possible explanations: stricter Spanish control and the increase of power in the administrative units in the new South American republics created much conflict. The republics resented the tighter regulations and boundaries that were imposed by Spain. For example, Madrid imposed new taxes, enforced metropolitan commercial monopolies, and obliged trade ships between the two hemispheres of the new world to first go through the ports of Spain (50).

Another reason for the early development of national consciousness in the New World was the rising popularity of the newspaper, linked to the rise of print culture discussed above. Reporting both provincial and world news, these New World newspapers further encouraged and fortified the imagination of nation-ness. By reading about events both local and around the world, these New Worlders were able to develop a consciousness about the existence of other nations, a sense of “us,” versus “them” (62-3) (see Transnationalism and Globalism).

Critical Reception of Imagined Communities

Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism was first published in 1983. It is still widely studied and discussed in the intellectual community, and is as much critiqued as it is praised. For example:

In a book review, Fadia Rafeedie voices concern over the lack of representation of the Arab world in Anderson’s book. She asserts the importance of examining Arab nationalism and raises the following points:

  • Arabic is one of the world’s only languages to have survived throughout history in its own classical form (as opposed to the other vernacular languages, which mostly stem from Lain roots), and the treatment of language as the key to evoking nationalist sentiments has been in existence “long before what a nation could be or was.”
  • Religion, whose demise in sovereignty was one of Anderson’s reasons for the rise of nationalism, conversely “defined and still defines the way of life of the inhabitants of Arab countries…and is reflected not just in government policies but in language and rituals.”
  • Whereas the nation-nesses of other countries have “modern” origins, Arab-ness has enjoyed mature linguistic, ethnic, and geographic solidarity for a much longer time.

In a paper titled “Welfare-Nationalism: Comparative Aspects of the Relation Between Sport and Nationalism in Scandinavia in the Inter-war Years,” Niels Kayser Nielsen suggests that Anderson’s definition of nationalism fails to recognize nationalism as a “lived idea, an experience” (7) (see Cricket). To Nielson, national identity is something that is acquired through an “articulation process, a creation” and is created, again and again, through the cognition of one’s actions and physical behavior (7).

Other Works by Anderson

  • —. Java in a Time of Revolution. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1972.
  • —. Language and Power: Exploring Political Cultures in Indonesia. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990.
  • —. Literature and Politics in Siam in the American Era. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986.
  • —. Spectres of Comparison. Brooklyn: Verso, 1998.
  • —. Violence and the State in Suharto’s Indonesia. Ithaca: Southeast Asia Program Publications, Southeast Asia Program, Cornell University, 2001.
  • –. Under Three Flags: Anarchism and the Anti-Colonial Imagination. Brooklyn: Verso, 2007.
  • –. The Fate of Rural Hell: Asceticism and Desire in Buddhist Thailand. Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 2012.
  • –. A Life Beyond Boundaries: A Memoir. Brooklyn: Verso, 2016.

Selected Bibliography

  • Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. New York: Verso, 1983.
  • —. “Introduction. Language and Power: Exploring Political Cultures in Indonesia. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990.
  • Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Trans. Willard Trask. Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor, 1957.
  • Bhabha, Homi K. “Introduction: Narrating the Nation.” Nation and Narration. London: Routledge, 1990. 1-7.

Related Sites

A description of Cosmopolitics: Thinking and Feeling beyond the Nation edited by Pheng Cheah and Bruce Robbins.
In Cosmopolitics, a group of scholars and theorists, including Benedict Anderson, examine cosmopolitanism and its relationship to nationalism.

Author: Elaine Lo, Fall 2000
Last edited: October 2017

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