Quick Definition: Imagined communities are large groups of people inside a nation-state who have perceived solidarity and cultural unity promoted by print capitalism.
The term imagined communities was coined by the British political scientist and historian Benedict Anderson. He introduced the term in his well-known 1983 treatise Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism.
Anderson calls nations “imagined communities” because:
- The members of a nation will never get to know all other members of the nation, but
- They imagine a solidarity among themselves born out of a sense of shared past and present, as well as a perceived shared future.
Simple Explanation of Imagined Communities
According to Anderson, nations as imagined communities arose in response to “print capitalism”, or the use of the printing press.
Capitalists used the printing press to publish texts and other written material beginning with the 16th century (Anderson, 1983) and spreading newspapers around nations. This is when print media emerged as a major cultural force.
As capitalists in Europe sought to maximize circulation of printed material such as newspapers, books, pamphlets, etc, they took to printing in vernacular languages rather than elite languages such as Latin (which had been the preferred medium for creating printed content in Europe).
Such increasing use of vernacular languages such as English and French led to the creation of a collective consciousness among the speakers of that particular language.
It made them aware of the presence of a large number of speakers of the same language, thus enabling the fostering of a spirit of a community.
At the same time, it also helped to create the awareness of a difference between all such speakers of one language on the one hand, and those who did not speak that language.
After Martin Luther produced a German translation of the Bible in 1522, it quickly became a catalyst for the development of a German linguistic consciousness and a German national identity (Lindberg, 1996).
Although sporadic attempts had been made to translate the Bible into German before Martin Luther, too, they were unsuccessful. It was not until the technological advancement enabled by printing press that it could be rapidly reproduced and distributed.
Though Anderson emphasized the role of print technology in nationalism, he also drew attention toward other tools used by nation states. These include television, radio, maps, censuses, and museums.
In general, the members of an imagined community draw upon the same set of myths and symbols, promoted by mass media, to create a sense of belonging to one community.
Examples of Imagined Communities
1. The United States of America
The most obvious example of imagined communities are modern nation states, who have their own collective memories that unite the nation.
To take a classic example, the United States as a modern nation state was founded only in the 18th century by European settlers who came from diverse ethnic and linguistic backgrounds.
Added to this diversity was the presence of indigenous American communities from whom the settlers had claimed the territory by force of arms, and a large African-American population brought over from Africa to work as slaves on plantations.
This diverse and motley group of people were often engaged in relations of conflict, animosity, and oppression-subjugation.
For them to be bonded into one national community with a sense of shared pride over their past involved a feat of imagination made possible through the means of the printing press, and then, newer forms of mass communication such as radio and television.
Nationalist symbols became tools in the project of erasing the violent histories of conflict and difference and creating a uniform American nationalism. Examples include:
- The American flag,
- The American national anthem (star-spangled banner),
- The statue of liberty (symbolizing the supposedly quintessential American values of liberty and equality)
Related: Mass Communication Theories (A to Z List)
2. The European Union
The European Union (EU) is a supranational organization that was founded on the notion of a shared European identity among the various nation-states that formed Europe.
Until the 19th century, much of Europe existed as muti-ethnic empires such as the Austro-Hungarian empire, the German empire, the Russian empire and so on.
Anderson first formulated his concept of imagined communities in reference to the emergence of ethno-linguistic movements among the constituents of such empires.
But following the end of the second world war, a second movement for the formation of a new imagined community – the European Union – commenced, moving in the reverse direction.
Deploying much the same means as that of nation-states, the European Union sought to appeal to a shared and glorious past of the various nations of Europe.
The EU leaders pointed to the pitfalls of narrow nationalism that had brought war and conflict upon the European people to promote a larger patriotism to the continent, not nations (Toplak & Sumi, 2012).
The German sociologist Ulrich Beck (1944-2015) proposed the idea of cosmopolitanism as the new imagined community in a globalized world.
This is an imagined community that crosses national boundaries.
Beck underlined the importance of cosmopolitanism in meeting newer forms of risk such as climate change, nuclear threats, and global financial crises. These are threats that threaten not individual nations but the global community.
They require efficient coordination and cooperation among nation states to tackle.
Beck called this the “cosmopolitan imperative” – either nations cooperate or they fail (Beck, 2011).
The unifying thread in Beck’s formulation of imagined communities is global risk. Since our lives are so intricately linked now that risk at one end of the globe threatens the lives of millions at the other, we form one large imagined community of risk.
For instance, the operations of large banks and hedge funds in New York can set off financial ripples that affect the livelihoods of factory workers in Bangladesh.
4. LGBTQ Community
The global LGBTQ community can be thought of as an imagined community.
The members of this community might never meet each other but feel a strong sense of solidarity with each other on account of their shared life experiences, and common struggle for recognition and acceptance.
The community lays claim to common sets of myths and symbols. Examples include the rainbow flag, pride parades, and mythologies surrounding the Stonewall riots(Klapeer & Laskar, 2016).
5. Social Networks
Online social media networks are platforms where a number of imagined communities are created and nurtured.
Social media, and the internet in general, offer a means for individuals to transcend the boundaries imposed by nation states and seek out other members with shared interests, values, and belief systems, all of which are bricks that go into the formation of a community (Gradinaru, 2016).
Social media users may display symbols such as flags on their online avatars or profiles to openly display their allegiance to certain nationalities, ideologies, sports teams, or other groupings.
People can form groups or communities despite being located in different parts of the globe.
For instance, supporters of football clubs may display the club flag or insignia on their profiles, and have pictures of iconic players. These fans may all be part of common discussion fora such as Reddit or Facebook groups, and be well versed in the history and traditions of the club.
Related: Social Identity Theory
Strengths and Benefits of the Imagined Communities Concept
1. Imagined Communities are seen as Real, not Fake
Anderson’s use of the term “imagined” doesn’t negate the realness of community identities. This marked a different from previous scholars.
Anderson on the whole does not see nationalism as necessarily being something false, fake, or undesirable. Shared identities are real and are not necessarily negative.
By contrast, in previous scholars’ works, such as Gellner’s, imagination is equated with the negative connotation of falsity ( McClintock, 1993).
2. The Concept is still Applicable in the 21st Century
Imagined communities are emerging online through new mass media developments, roughly termed the ‘new media’, ‘digital media‘, and ‘social media’.
Anderson, in his original formation, intended to use the term imagined communities to denote modern nation-states and the political and social transformations associated with their rise in the 20th century.
However, the term has since evolved to incorporate other kinds of communities whose members imagine themselves to be bound by ties of solidarity, a shared past, and a common future path, and draw upon a common set of myths and symbols to constantly renew their sense of belonging to the community. These include the EU, LGBTI people, and the global green movement.
Weaknesses and Criticisms of the Imagined Communities Concept
1. The Primordialist Critique
Primordialism is the belief that far from being imagined communities, nations are ancient entities that have existed since before modernity and print capitalism.
Primordialists point out that while modernist theories such as those of Anderson explain how modern nation-states came into being, they fail to explain the inevitability of nationalism, or its potency (Bairner, 2009).
Alan Bairner points out that not all nations are imagined communities; some are primordialist communities.
Bairner gives the examples of national sports of various countries, and how they are intricately tied to the histories, the particular landscapes of those countries, and their national identities.
For instance, hurling and Gaelic football in Ireland, cricket in England, and bullfighting in Spain, each of which are ancient traditions of the land. These are all examples of the primordialist roots of these nations that did not have to be “imagined” into existence (Bairner, 2009).
2. The Eurocentrism Critique (From Postcolonial Critics)
The Indian political scientist Partha Chatterjee criticized Anderson’s formulation of imagined communities as being too Eurocentric.
Chatterjee, a postcolonialist, raised objections particularly to Anderson’s hypothesis that the idea of nations as imagined communities was first born in Europe, and it then provided a “modular form” to the rest of the world.
The assumption of Anderson is that the colonized people of Asia and Africa modeled their own nationalisms off the nationalism of Europeans (Chatterjee, 1991).
Chatterjee pointed out that Anderson’s formulation historically denied agency and originality to the colonies.
Thus, in Anderson’s formulation, the formerly colonized nations even borrow their “imagined communities” from Europe. According to Chatterjee, if nationalisms in the rest of the world have to choose their “modular forms” from European models, what do they have left to imagine?
In Chatterjee’s words “even our imaginations must remain forever colonized” (Chatterjee, 1991).
3. The Masculinist Critique (From Feminist Critics)
Linda McDowell (1999) criticized Anderson’s formulation of imagined communities from a feminist perspective, pointing out that the very language in which imagined communities were conceptualized was gendered.
For instance, McDowell points out that when Anderson calls an imagined community a “horizontal comradeship” he is using the language of masculine brotherhood (McDowell, 1999).
Similarly, Anne McClintock (1993) points out that the presumed unity and uniformity of an imagined community hides the institutionalization of gender difference.
The nationalist imaginary, according to McClintock, is masculinist, and by extension oppressive.
Whereas in Anderson’s formulation, the imagined community has a positive implication in the sense of being creative, McClintock points out that in the process of invoking a glorious past, a history of shared struggles, and a common future destiny, the nationalist imagination resorts to masculine narratives that erase feminist histories.
In McClintock’s words, “all nationalisms are gendered, all are invented, and all are dangerous” (McClintock, 1993).
The nation state as we know it today is the system of political and social organization into which most of us were born, and thus it appears to us as the most natural form of political organization.
The concept of imaginary communities however allows us to see that the nation state, and consequently nationalisms, are of relatively recent origin.
As the world becomes increasingly globalized, and countries become increasingly multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-racial, and multinational, we can see the relevance of Anderson’s thought.
At the same time, we can also see reflected in a globalized world of immigrants the various critiques of Anderson’s formulation.
For instance, while certain members of a diaspora might integrate into their new environment (validating Anderson’s hypothesis of the imaginary nature of nationalism), others might tenaciously hold on to the customs, beliefs, politics, and national pride of their original homeland for generations, pointing to a more primordialist essence of nationalism.
Anderson, B. (1983) Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. Verso.
Bairner, A. (2009) National sports and national landscapes: In defence of primordialism National Identities, 11(3), 223-239. doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/14608940903081101
Beck, U.( 2011). Cosmopolitanism as imagined communities of global risk. American Behavioral Scientist. 55 (10), 1346–1361. doi: https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0002764211409739
Gradinaru, C. (2016) The technological expansion of sociability: Virtual communities as imagined communities. Academicus 14, 181-190. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.7336/academicus.2016.14.13
Klapeer, C.M. & Laskar, P. (2016). Transnational ways of belonging and queer ways of being. Exploring transnationalism through the trajectories of the rainbow flag. Global Studies in Culture and Power. 25(5), 524-41. doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/1070289X.2018.1507958
Linberg, C. (1996) The European Reformations. London: Blackwell. doi: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/book/10.1002/9781444315776
McClintock, A. (1993). Family Feuds: Gender, nationalism and the family. Feminist Review, 44, 61–80. doi: https://doi.org/10.2307/1395196
McDowell, L. (1999) Gender, identity, and place. New York: Polity.
Ross, C. (2012). Imagined communities: initiatives around LGBTQ ageing in Italy. Modern Italy. 17 (4), 449–464. doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/13532944.2012.706997
Toplak, C. & Sumi, S. (2012). Europe(an Union): Imagined community in the making? Journal of Contemporary European Studies, 20(1), 7-28. doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/14782804.2012.656949
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.