Benedict Anderson (1983) defines a nation as an imagined political community: imagined both as inherently limited and sovereign.
There are three defining characteristics of a nation:
- It is imagined because most members of even the smallest nations never meet most other members, yet they feel like they belong to the same community.
- It is limited because nations include some people and exclude others. No nation claims to include all of humanity.
- It is sovereign because nations claim political independence and the right to self-governance on the part of the people who belong to them.
The nation is a social construction: it exists in as far as the people who perceive themselves as part of it imagine it.
The origin of nations
Anderson argued that the first European nation states were formed with the emergence of national print languages, in the early to mid 16th century, shortly after capitalist entrepreneurs started producing mass print runs of books in national languages rather than the more elitist Latin.
One event which symbolises the start of this process is Martin Luther’s 1517 presentation of his religious views in German rather than Latin, and it was in the region around today’s Germany and also England that the first national languages were produced.
Gradually greater numbers of people started to communicate with each other in national print languages rather than local dialects.
Nations as imagined communities
National Print languages helped to develop early nation states, political entities which then went on to develop their own mass publications and further standardised national languages in doing so.
Nation states also contributed to the imagination of national identity by developing maps (thus making visible the boundaries of nations), and standardising calendars and clock time.
Also important was the decline of the idea of the Divine Right of Kings and the emergence of democracy: previously the Catholic church had power over large swathes of Europe, which had been something of a barrier to the formation of national consciousnesses. The gradual separation of the church from the state laid the foundation for the imagination of the nation as a sovereign, political community.
As nations developed through the centuries more institutions and ceremonies were developed that further reinforced the idea of a shared national identity, some of them having their origins in government, some in the private sector.
Examples of things which enhance a sense of national identity include:
- Great works Works of literature such as those by Shakespear, whose plays had a mass audience.
- Standing militaries and conflicts. War is a time when mass populations get behind their nations, the Falklands war in the 1980s may have been a good example of this.
- Many political parties in the 20th century came to power on the back of overtly nationalist ideologies, Nazi Germany is an obvious example of this.
- Sending national teams to global events such as the World Cup and Olympic Games.
The industrial revolution and capitalism were essential to the emergence of nations and ideas of nationalism because without these the printing press and mass communications would not have been developed.
The difference between racism and nationalism
Racism is based on ‘dreams of eternal contamination’ an is based on certain peoples having fixed, biological characteristics which form the basis of inclusion and exclusion in terms of racial groups. It is not possible to become part of a race which one is not born into.
Nationalism is not based on ideas of certain people having fixed biological traits which automatically exclude them. Anyone can potentially become part of a nation, irrespective of who their parents or grandparents are.
Early ideas of nationalism may have been tied up with colonialism and racism, but nationalism and racism are not the same thing!
The nation as a positive source of identity
Anderson claims that we have lived in the ‘era of nationalism’ since the 16th century: since World War II every successful revolution has defined itself in nationalist terms and we can thus say that nationalism is the most universal value of our times.
He argues it is difficult to dismiss as problematic an idea that has such importance to so many people and forms the basis for modern global political relations in the form of Nation States.
Certainly the idea of Nationalism is very relevant today as the examples of Brexit, and the United Kingdom’s recent immigration bill which puts the British Nation before the European Convention on Human Rights demonstrate.
He recognizes that the origins of nationalism may well have been racists, but his distinction between nationalism and racism reminds us that nations do not have to be imagined at all in racist terms. The idea of British Values possibly demonstrates this.
Anderson may understate the relationship between nationalism and racism: many nationalisms are based on ideas of ethnic purity.
Anderson did not apply his ideas to the mass media or the internet. Mass communications online may do more to enhance cross border global identities compared to national identities.
National Identity may be less important today given that many people’s sense of self is more tied up with their sense of gender identity or simply their interests!
This material is mainly relevant to the Culture and Identity option, taught as part of A-level sociology.
To return to the homepage – revisesociology.com
Benedict Anderson (1983) Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism
Part of this post was adapted from Haralambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives 8th Edition.
Printing press image source: By Daniel Nikolaus Chodowiecki – DANIEL CHODOWIECKI 62 bisher unveröffentlichte Handzeichnungen zu dem Elementarwerk von Johann Bernhard Basedow. Mit einem Vorworte von Max von Boehn. Voigtländer-Tetzner, Frankfurt am Main 1922. (self scanned from book), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17927966
Europe in 1740: Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=767922