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AHR Reappraisal

Thinking the Nation


Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and
Spread of Nationalism, by Benedict Anderson

MAX BERGHOLZ

PUBLISHED IN 1983, BENEDICT ANDERSON’S book Imagined Communities: Reflections on


the Origins and Spread of Nationalism is widely considered among the most influential
works written about nationalism.1 To use a very twenty-first-century method of mea-
surement, the number of citations that Google Scholar registers for this book is around
80,000, a figure that far exceeds the total for any other work in the field of nationalism
studies, as well as most other scholarly books. Anderson would have disdained the use
of such a yardstick. As he commented in his memoir, A Life beyond Boundaries, pub-
lished posthumously in English in 2016, “Google is an extraordinary ‘research engine,’
says Google, without irony in its use of the word ‘engine,’ which in Old English meant
‘trickery.’”2 But whatever one thinks of using the algorithms of the Internet to assess
a book’s influence, other evidence similarly suggests the vast impact of Anderson’s
Imagined Communities. It has been translated into twenty-nine languages and published
in at least thirty-three countries.3 Scholars of nationalism such as Anthony Smith have
described Anderson’s book as “seminal.”4 Historians such as Aviel Roshwald have
called it a “classic in its own time.”5 And in a 2003 collection of essays devoted to An-
Many thanks to the former editor of the American Historical Review, Robert Schneider, for the invitation
to write this article, and to the journal’s current editor, Alex Lichtenstein, for his incisive critiques of ear-
lier drafts. I am grateful to the anonymous readers he selected, whose excellent feedback helped me to im-
prove this piece. Jane Lyle’s expert copyediting ensured that my best writing could always be better.
Thanks to Edin Hajdarpasic for reading a draft of this article and for encouraging me to engage with the
work of Claudio Lomnitz. Finally, I thank the students at Concordia University in Montreal who took my
“Histories of Nationalism” seminar during the years 2014–2016. Our weekly reading, writing, and discus-
sion shaped my thinking about the historiography of nationalism in crucial ways.
1 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism

(London, 1983). Anderson revised Imagined Communities in 1991, and then again in 2006. The page
numbers for the quotations from the book in this article are from the 2006 edition.
2 Benedict Anderson, A Life beyond Boundaries (London, 2016), 196.
3 Umut Özkırımlı, Theories of Nationalism: A Critical Introduction, 2nd ed. (Basingstoke, 2010), 106.
4 Anthony D. Smith, Nationalism and Modernism (London, 1998), 131.
5 Aviel Roshwald, “Untangling the Knotted Cord: Studies of Nationalism,” Journal of Interdisciplin-

ary History 24, no. 2 (1993): 293–303, here 297.

C The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Historical
V
Association. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail journals.permissions@oup.com.

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2 Max Bergholz

derson’s work, the editors noted, “The connection Anderson posits [in Imagined Com-
munities] between the nation-form and imagination is so axiomatic to contemporary aca-
demic discourse by now that it scarcely needs to be mentioned.”6
Such enormous figures and lofty words raise a number of questions. How did a
slim book of less than 150 pages become what by all measurements would seem to be
the most well-known work in the world on nationalism? How did a book by a historian
of Southeast Asia, who had previously written on young Javanese revolutionaries, be-
come one that nearly all historians of nationalism would cite and engage with in some
way? Did Imagined Communities fundamentally change how historians would subse-
quently write about nationalism? And does Anderson’s book still deserve such a su-
perlative reputation today?
Answers to these questions can be pursued through the telling of a set of intercon-
nected stories. The first is the story of Anderson himself—who he was as a scholar
and how the world in which he lived shaped his unique approach to nationalism. The
second is the story of the reaction to his book in the immediate aftermath of its publi-
cation, and the subsequent ways in which historians derived inspiration from his work.
The third and final story concerns the lasting contribution of Imagined Communities.
Today, more than three decades after its publication, it would seem that much of An-
derson’s historical explanation for the origins and spread of nationalism has had its
day. Many scholars, including historians, have engaged with his arguments about the
importance of linguistic transformations, the rise in dissemination of printed mate-
rials, and changing perceptions of time in making it possible for people to imagine
themselves as belonging to “nations.” But today, the lasting contribution of Imagined
Communities does not seem to be its specific historical explanation for the origin and
spread of nationalism; rather, it is Anderson’s reorientation of his readers’ analytical
gaze away from focusing largely on ideology, elites, and socioeconomic change, and
toward cognitive processes of nationalism. Anderson provided historians of national-
ism with a fresh sense of processual verbs for examining ways of thinking that he be-
lieved were central to a sense of “nation-ness”—imagining, restoring, remembering,
dreaming. In so doing, he provided those seeking to tell histories of nationalism with
a new conceptual vocabulary to excavate and explain human agency, and specifically
the role of the imagination, in the making of nationalism into a real political force. It
is this contribution—more than any of the specific parts of his historical explanation
for nationalism—that gave, and continues to give, his short book such tremendous
and long-lasting influence.

BENEDICT ANDERSON WAS BORN ON August 26, 1936, in Kunming, China. His father
was an official in the British Imperial Maritime Customs Service in China. An Irish
citizen, Anderson grew up in California and Ireland.7 “Geographically,” he later
wrote, “I was being prepared (without realizing it) for a cosmopolitan and compara-
6 Pheng Cheah and Jonathan Culler, eds., Grounds of Comparison: Around the Work of Benedict An-

derson (New York, 2003), 5.


7 Filomeno Aguilar, Caroline Hau, Vicente Rafael, Teresa Tadem, and Benedict Anderson, “Bene-

dict Anderson, Comparatively Speaking: On Area Studies, Theory, and ‘Gentlemanly’ Polemics,” Philip-
pine Studies 59, no. 1 (2011): 107–139, here 108.

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Thinking the Nation 3

tive outlook on life. On the brink of puberty I had already lived in Yunnan, California,
Colorado, independent Ireland, and England. I had been raised by an Irish father, an
English mother and a Vietnamese nurse. French was a (secret) family language; I had
fallen in love with Latin; and my parents’ library contained books by Chinese, Japa-
nese, French, Russian, Italian, American and German authors.”8 He attended Cam-
bridge University, where he graduated with a degree in classics in 1957. It was during
this time that he discovered his interest in Asian politics, and in 1958 he moved to
Cornell University to pursue doctoral studies under the supervision of George
Kahin.9
Anderson was drawn to Indonesia during the first half of the 1960s, and his experi-
ences in that country transformed him. “My time in Indonesia,” he would later write,
“attached me to the people in a direct and emotional way, but also laid the founda-
tions for the ‘culturalist’ streak that would appear later in Imagined Communities.”10
Anderson had the opportunity to observe Indonesian society shortly before and im-
mediately after a great upheaval in that country’s history: the 1965 coup. This cata-
clysm brought Suharto to power and was accompanied by enormous levels of violence,
often characterized as genocide.11 In response, Anderson, along with two fellow grad-
uate students, wrote a paper entitled “A Preliminary Analysis of the October 1, 1965
Coup in Indonesia,” which was eventually published in 1971. In this study, which
came to be known as the “Cornell Paper,” they suggested that the coup was carried
out not by communists but by discontented army officers. Anderson’s years of field-
work led him to identify a cultural fault line that made such events possible. For him
(and his co-authors), there existed a “great cultural chasm between the Westernized,
polyglot and commercial world of the capital city [Jakarta] and the traditionalist, but
often radical-populist society of the impoverished Javanese hinterland.”12 Their expla-
nation undermined Suharto’s claim to legitimacy. And it resulted in Anderson being
banned from entering Indonesia until 1998, when Suharto finally fell from power.13
In 1972, following the publication of this paper, Anderson published his doctoral
dissertation as Java in a Time of Revolution: Occupation and Resistance, 1944–1946.
As with the so-called Cornell Paper, Anderson noted that the arguments in this book
were based on “the experience of living in Indonesia,” which “decisively shifted my in-
terest and altered my perspectives.”14 For him, it became difficult to explain the revo-
lutionary activities of Javanese youth on the conventional basis of economic depriva-
tion, alienation, or the frustration of unfulfilled expectations. Instead, their increasing
nationalism was a response to a specific experience—“of being in an organization that
pushed the elite youth out into the masses”—that he described as transformative.15
8 Anderson, A Life beyond Boundaries, 23.
9 Aguilar, Hau, Rafael, Tadem, and Anderson, “Benedict Anderson, Comparatively Speaking,” 108.
10 Anderson, A Life beyond Boundaries, 71.
11 For a concise analysis of the 1965 coup and the mass violence that followed, see Christian Gerlach,

Extremely Violent Societies: Mass Violence in the Twentieth-Century World (Cambridge, 2010), chap. 2; for
a comprehensive study, see Geoffrey B. Robinson, The Killing Season: A History of the Indonesian Massa-
cres, 1965–66 (Princeton, N.J., 2018).
12 Benedict R. Anderson and Ruth T. McVey (with the assistance of Frederick P. Bunnell), A Pre-

liminary Analysis of the October 1, 1965 Coup in Indonesia (New York, 1971), 1–64, quote from vii.
13 Aguilar, Hau, Rafael, Tadem, and Anderson, “Benedict Anderson, Comparatively Speaking,” 108.
14 Benedict R. O’G. Anderson, Java in a Time of Revolution: Occupation and Resistance, 1944–1946

(Ithaca, N.Y., 1972), xi.


15 Ibid., 30.

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4 Max Bergholz

These findings, which placed emphasis on historical actors’ transformational experi-


ences and their specific cultural milieu, resonated with his own daily experiences: “I
was increasingly struck by similarities between the social conditions and the political
atmosphere of the society I was studying and those of the society I observed around
me.”16 In the end, Anderson’s research and daily encounters changed his overarching
approach to his subject: “I was led to think increasingly in cultural terms.”17
Why is it worth reflecting on Anderson’s experiences and earlier work in the de-
cade that preceded the publication of Imagined Communities? As his words above sug-
gest, his early fieldwork provided him with an acute sensitivity to the importance of cul-
ture and the changing patterns of human belief. And in this regard, by the end of the
1970s, he differed significantly from most other scholars of nationalism, including those
who had already written major works on the subject and those who would soon do so.
Nationalism did not become an object of academic study in the Anglophone world un-
til the interwar years, around the time Anderson was born. The first generation of
scholars who wrote about the subject generally did so by treating “the nation” as some-
thing natural, and often focused their attention, as Carlton Hayes put it in 1931, on
“the apostles and not the disciples” of nationalism.18 The post–World War II influence
of modernization theory, as well as that of Marxism, transformed this fledgling field.
Writing during the 1950s and 1960s, scholars such as Karl Deutsch and Miroslav Hroch
argued that the increasing density of social communication explained when and why
nationalism took hold.19 Others, such as Ernest Gellner, understood nationalism, as
Anderson noted in a survey of the field, as “nothing more (or less) than a necessary
and thoroughly functional response to the Great Transformation from static agrarian
society to the world of industry and mechanical communication.”20 What was common
in most of the literature on nationalism until the early 1980s was a striking lack of at-
tention to the ways of thought and culture among the vast majority of the population
assumed to be part of so-called nations.21 And this weakness was one that some histo-
16 Ibid., xi.
17 Ibid., xiii.
18 Carlton J. H. Hayes, The Historical Evolution of Modern Nationalism (1931; repr., New York,

1949), vi. For another important early study of nationalism, see Hans Kohn, The Idea of Nationalism: A
Study in Its Origins and Background (New York, 1944). For an overview of the literature, see Geoff Eley
and Ronald Grigor Suny, “Introduction: From the Moment of Social History to the Work of Cultural
Representation,” in Eley and Suny, eds., Becoming National: A Reader (New York, 1996), 3–41.
19 Karl W. Deutsch, Nationalism and Social Communication: An Inquiry into the Foundations of

Nationality (Cambridge, Mass., 1953); Miroslav Hroch, Social Preconditions of National Revival in Europe:
A Comparative Analysis of the Social Composition of Patriotic Groups among the Smaller European
Nations, trans. Ben Fowkes (1985; repr., New York, 2000; originally published in German as Die Vor-
kämpfer der nationalen Bewegung bei den kleinen Völkern Europas: Eine vergleichende Analyse zur gesell-
schaftlichen Schichtung der patriotischen Gruppen [Prague, 1968]).
20 Benedict Anderson, “Introduction,” in Gopal Balakrishnan, ed., Mapping the Nation (London,

1996), 1–16, here 10; Ernest Gellner, Nations and Nationalism (Ithaca, N.Y., 1983).
21 Although there was little sustained attention among scholars to researching ways of thought

among people whom they considered to be part of a national community, some did contend that “na-
tions” were essentially the product of human belief. As Hugh Seton-Watson put it in 1977, “All that I
can find to say is that a nation exists when a significant number of people in a community consider them-
selves to form a nation, or behave as if they formed one . . . When a significant group holds this belief, it
possesses ‘national consciousness.’” Seton-Watson, Nations and States: An Enquiry into the Origins of
Nations and the Politics of Nationalism (Boulder, Colo., 1977), 5. Arnold Toynbee advanced a similar
view much earlier, in 1915: “To begin with, we already have a notion of what Nationality is. Like all great
forces in human life, it is nothing material or mechanical, but a subjective psychological feeling in living
people.” Toynbee, Nationality and the War (London, 1915), 13.

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Thinking the Nation 5

rians, such as Gary Cohen in his work on Germans in Prague, began calling attention
to in pathbreaking empirical studies of popular ethnic identification.22 Thus, by the
late 1970s and early 1980s, the main challenge emerging in the field was to better un-
derstand how people actually developed a sense of national consciousness, rather than
assuming that such consciousness developed on a mass scale as a more or less func-
tional response to large-scale socioeconomic changes.
It was around this time that Anderson was prompted by contemporary historical
events to write a book about nationalism. “The immediate political occasion for writing
Imagined Communities,” he recalled, “was the triangular warfare between the soi-disant
revolutionary states of China, Vietnam, and Cambodia at the end of the 1970s. These
wars struck me as clear evidence that transnational socialism was being trumped by na-
tionalism.”23 What attracted Anderson’s attention was the challenge of explaining na-
tionalism’s appeal to people at the most intimate level, or as he put it, “its enormous
emotional power, and its ability to make people willing to die for its sake.”24 Due to his
fieldwork experience in Southeast Asia, he was well positioned to produce a unique ac-
count of this perplexing phenomenon, and one that would bring culture and human
thought processes into the spotlight of nationalism studies for the first time.

IN THE FIRST PAGES OF IMAGINED COMMUNITIES, Anderson laid out a set of ideas that
would change the field of nationalism studies. “I propose the following definition of
the nation: it is an imagined political community—and imagined as both inherently
limited and sovereign. It 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.”25 His introduction of hu-
man cognition into the study of nationalism required further elaboration: “Com-
munities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style
in which they are imagined.”26 For Anderson, the search to account for how “the
shrunken imaginings of recent history (scarcely more than two centuries) generate
such colossal sacrifices” in the name of the nation was to be found in the cultural roots
of nationalism.27
To shed light on this subject, Anderson advanced a set of arguments, at the heart
of which was his attempt to explain a major cognitive transformation. “A fundamental
change was taking place in modes of apprehending the world, which, more than any-
thing else, made it possible to ‘think’ the nation.”28 This change took the following
form: thinking the nation became necessary because older identities, which were asso-
ciated with the pre-nationalist ancien régime, began to lose their credibility. Three cen-
tral elements had eroded by the eighteenth century: sacred languages and scripts
(e.g., Latin), which were believed to be the sole keys to truth; the primacy of divine
22 Gary B. Cohen, The Politics of Ethnic Survival: Germans in Prague, 1861–1914 (Princeton, N.J., 1981).
23 See Anderson’s response to the essays about his work in Cheah and Culler, Grounds of Compari-
son, 226.
24 Anderson, A Life beyond Boundaries, 126.
25 Anderson, Imagined Communities, 6.
26 Ibid.
27 Ibid., 7.
28 Ibid., 22.

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6 Max Bergholz

monarchs; and a cosmological sense of past time. The invention of mass printing and
capitalism were the new factors that helped erode these elements and laid the path
for new “imagined communities” of nations. These two forces together (what Ander-
son famously called “print capitalism”) created modern vernaculars through which
nations could be imagined—suppressing some dialects while exalting others, and loos-
ening the hold of the older sacral languages. In the eighteenth century, newspapers
created a vernacular readership whose limits often helped define the nation. And a
new sense of time—“homogeneous, empty time,” or a sense that “acts are performed
at the same clocked, calendrical time”—made it possible for readers, who were largely
unaware of each other, to imagine themselves, and simultaneously relate themselves
to others, as belonging to new national communities.29
Shortly after its publication, the complex but elegantly presented arguments of
Imagined Communities received several positive reviews in the English press. Conor
Cruise O’Brien noted in the Observer that the book was “learned and original.”30
Writing in the New Statesman, Edmund Leach was impressed with Anderson’s global
lens of analysis, with details in support of his arguments drawn from the Americas,
Europe, Africa, and Asia. “Readers of the paperback version,” Leach advised, “who
suffer my misfortune of having the binding fall apart almost before they have started
or who feel that they need a magnifying glass to read the small print should battle on.
They are getting good value for their money.”31
Academic reviews of Imagined Communities took longer to come in, but most
were celebratory. “This is a splendid book to read—engaging, imaginative, sweeping,
relevant, humane,” one reviewer concluded in 1985. “It should be put in the hands of
students, for despite the array of learning it never wraps up an argument but chal-
lenges and provokes to further questions.”32 In 1986, another noted: “This is an im-
portant book, not for new research findings, but for the refreshing, intelligent way its
author looks at a topic often drowned in turgid or emotive prose.” He concluded, “It
forces readers to rethink their own ideas on a vital human question. I recommend it
particularly to all teachers of modern history.”33 Notable in these reviews was the ap-
preciation of Anderson’s originality, his global breadth of analysis, and a sense that
Imagined Communities deserved a wide readership.
Some reviewers, however, were more critical. Writing in the pages of the American
Historical Review in 1985, George Wilson observed, “In his comprehensive attempt to
explain [nationalism], no single world area—not even Southeast Asia, which is Ander-
son’s specialty—receives deep or prolonged treatment.” And he noted, “Anderson’s
treatment of Japan illustrates the vulnerability of so general an approach.”34 In a 1986
29 Ibid., 24, 26. See chaps. 1–2 of Imagined Communities for the central aspects of the book’s main

argument. Anderson also sought to de-center what had been up to the early 1980s a very Eurocentric ap-
proach to the study of nationalism. He devoted an entire chapter (chap. 4) to what he called the revolu-
tionary “creole nationalisms” of the New World in order to explain why nationalism triumphed in the
Americas before it did in Europe. He found the answer in the conflict between “creole” functionaries
and their aristocratic European overlords, and in the role of newspapers and administrative career struc-
tures in creating the boundaries of “national” consciousness.
30 Conor Cruise O’Brien, “How Old Empires Still Hold Sway,” Observer, August 21, 1983, 7.
31 Edmund Leach, “The Idea of the State,” New Statesman, August 26, 1983, 22–23, here 22.
32 Anthony Reid, review of Imagined Communities, Pacific Affairs 58, no. 3 (1985): 497–499, here 499.
33 David G. Marr, review of Imagined Communities, Journal of Asian Studies 45, no. 4 (1986): 807–808.
34 George M. Wilson, review of Imagined Communities, American Historical Review 90, no. 4 (Octo-

ber 1985): 903–904, here 903.

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Thinking the Nation 7

issue of the political science journal International Organization, Ernst Haas concluded
that Imagined Communities “is more evocative than systematic. It relies more on
highly subjective interpretations of nationalist poetry than on statistics of social mobi-
lization.”35 One element of the book stood out: “The best thing about Anderson’s
Imagined Communities,” Haas wrote, “is the title.” He did not, however, elaborate
why.36
In advancing his argument about the origins and spread of nationalism, Anderson
employed a global lens of analysis. This approach left him vulnerable to making
sweeping claims. Most area specialists critical of Imagined Communities, such as
George Wilson (a historian of Japan), could point to nuances of particular cases that
Anderson either glossed over or left out. Social scientists seemed uneasy about the na-
ture of Anderson’s arguments, especially his eclectic use of evidence and unorthodox
comparative cases to illustrate his points. Yet with regard to his scope of analysis and
points of comparison, Anderson chose his approach deliberately. “[T]he most instruc-
tive comparisons (whether of difference or similarity) are those that surprise,” he
wrote in his memoir when reflecting on the style of Imagined Communities. “No Japa-
nese will be surprised by a comparison with China, since it has been made for centu-
ries, the path is well trodden, and people usually have their minds made up before-
hand. But a comparison of Japan with Austria or Mexico might catch the reader off
her guard.”37 Such comparisons, Anderson noted, were “intended to surprise and
shock, but also to ‘globalize’ the study of the history of nationalism.”38
Whatever the reservations some scholars had about Anderson’s book, Imagined
Communities quickly became a standard graduate-level text in departments of history,
sociology, and anthropology, as well as English and comparative literature. Part of
what drove the increasing popularity of the book had to do with the historical changes
taking place during the late 1980s and thereafter, namely, the end of the Cold War
and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Even Anderson was surprised later that his
35 Ernst B. Haas, “What Is Nationalism and Why Should We Study It?,” International Organization

40, no. 3 (1986): 707–744, here 719.


36 Ibid., 717. For another critical response to Imagined Communities by a political scientist, see Yael

Tamir, “The Enigma of Nationalism,” World Politics 47, no. 3 (1995): 418–440.
37 Anderson, A Life beyond Boundaries, 130.
38 Ibid., 127. One important effect of Anderson’s global approach was that Imagined Communities

became a book that could (and eventually did) capture the engagement of scholars working in diverse
geographical and temporal contexts, including those working outside what had been up to the 1980s the
largely Eurocentric field of nationalism studies. On non-European studies that derived inspiration from
Anderson’s work, see, for example, Thongchai Winichakul, Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-Body of a
Nation (Honolulu, 1997); Claudio Lomnitz, Deep Mexico, Silent Mexico: An Anthropology of Nationalism
(Minneapolis, 2001). Although inspired by Imagined Communities, this body of work also produced pro-
ductive criticism of Anderson’s book, such as Lomnitz’s work on Mexico, in which he noted: “My first
and most fundamental amendment to Anderson is thus that nationalism does not form a single fraternal
imaginary community, since it systematically distinguishes full citizens from part citizens or strong citi-
zens from weak ones (e.g., children, women, Indians, the ignorant). Since these distinctions are by nature
heterogeneous, we cannot conclude that nationalism’s power stems primarily from the fraternal bond
that it promises to all citizens. The fraternal bond is critical, but so are what one might call the bonds of
dependence that are intrinsically a part of any nationalism.” Lomnitz, “Nationalism as a Practical System:
Benedict Anderson’s Theory of Nationalism from the Vantage Point of Spanish America,” in Miguel An-
gel Centeno and Fernando López-Alves, eds., The Other Mirror: Grand Theory through the Lens of Latin
America (Princeton, N.J., 2001), 329–359, here 337, emphasis in the original. For a pathbreaking study
that explores the heterogeneous nature of nationalism’s supposed fraternal imaginary community, see
Edin Hajdarpasic, Whose Bosnia? Nationalism and Political Imagination in the Balkans, 1840–1914 (Ith-
aca, N.Y., 2015).

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work on nationalism had catapulted him into the spotlight because of events during
the early 1990s:
I vividly remember receiving a frantic telephone call from a high official at the Kennan
Institute, one of the key centres for Soviet studies. He begged me to fly down and give a
talk at his institute. When I asked why—since I knew very little about the Soviet Union or
Russia—he astonished me by saying, ‘Soviet studies are finished, money is not coming in
anymore, and our students can’t get jobs. Everything in the former Soviet Union today is
about nationalisms, and almost no one here has ever studied them. You are among the
few people in the country who can help us get back on our feet.’ I didn’t go.39

Despite Anderson’s reluctance to use his knowledge of nationalism to help save the
supposedly imperiled field of Soviet studies, Imagined Communities continued to gain
in influence throughout the 1990s. This was due in part to some aspects of the book
that became widely referential and inspirational for many historians of nationalism.

AMONG THE FIRST TO PRAISE AND critically engage with Anderson’s contribution was
the political theorist and historian Partha Chatterjee. For him, Anderson’s originality
lay in the fact that he “subvert[ed] the determinist scheme” that many scholars of na-
tionalism had put forth, in which they portrayed nations as products of specific socio-
logical conditions (e.g., industrialism), by “asserting that the nation [was] ‘an imagined
political community.’”40 Chatterjee, however, felt that Anderson did not adequately
extend agency in this process of imagining to all parts of the globe: “If nationalisms in
the rest of the world have to choose their imagined community from certain ‘modular’
forms already made available to them by Europe and the Americas, what do they
have left to imagine? History, it would seem, has decreed that we in the postcolonial
world shall only be perpetual consumers of modernity . . . Even our imaginations must
remain forever colonialized.”41 Notable in Chatterjee’s reflections was his acceptance
and appreciation of the notion of “an imagined community.”
Other historians followed suit during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Eric Hobs-
bawm argued in Nations and Nationalism since 1870 that the modern nation “is, in
Benedict Anderson’s useful phrase, an ‘imagined community,’ and no doubt this can
be made to fill the emotional void left by the retreat or disintegration, or the unavail-
ability of real human communities.”42 The influence of Anderson’s emphasis on cogni-
tive perspectives was clear in Hobsbawm’s introduction, in which he stressed that un-
derstanding nationalism now urgently required analysis of “the assumptions, hopes,
needs, longings and interests of ordinary people.”43
Historians of Europe, with interests in contexts as diverse as France, Spain, Great
Britain, and Germany, drew inspiration during the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s
39Anderson, A Life beyond Boundaries, 150.
40Partha Chatterjee, Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse? (1986;
repr., Minneapolis, 2001), 19.
41 Partha Chatterjee, “Whose Imagined Community?,” in Balakrishnan, Mapping the Nation, 214–

225, here 216. See also Chatterjee, The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories
(Princeton, N.J., 1993), 5–6.
42 E. J. Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism since 1870: Programme, Myth, Reality (Cambridge,

1990), 46, emphasis in the original.


43 Ibid., 10.

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Thinking the Nation 9

in various ways from Anderson’s notion of the “imagined community.” Peter Sahlins be-
gan his 1989 study of national identification in the Pyrenees by noting that Anderson’s
definition of the nation as an imagined community “usefully corrects the positivist con-
ception of national identity as a product of ‘nation building,’ focusing our attention in-
stead on the symbolic construction of national and political identities.”44 In her 1992
book Britons, Linda Colley wrote of Anderson’s “invaluable definition of a nation as an
‘imagined political community,’” which enabled her to focus on analyzing how “men and
women decide who they are by reference to who and what they are not.”45 Alon Confino
began his 1997 work on the local dynamics of nation-ness in Württemberg, Germany, by
noting, “Since 1983 [Benedict] Anderson’s fascinating notion of the nation as an imag-
ined community has become a household term in the way we conceive nationalism.”46
He agreed with Anderson’s stress on explaining how people come to “think” the nation,
arguing that national communities should indeed “be distinguished ‘by the style in which
they are imagined.’” But he also observed that Anderson “has not identified these styles,”
and thus was inspired to identify and explain one such style in the German context.47
Anderson’s influence on how historians wrote about nationalism was not limited
to those writing about Europe. Historians of East Asia, such as Prasenjit Duara, were
inspired by Anderson’s concept of the “imagined community.” In his seminal 1995
study Rescuing History from the Nation: Questioning Narratives of Modern China,
Duara drew on Anderson’s work in examining the ways in which historical actors en-
gaged in imagining themselves as belonging to a national community. But his study of
this non-European case, while appreciating the notion of the “imagined community,”
also challenged Anderson’s empirical arguments in various ways, especially by calling
into question what he saw as Anderson’s overly strong portrayal of a modern versus
premodern polarity in explaining the development of nationalism.48
What is striking in such works that have drawn inspiration from Imagined Com-
munities is which elements have captured the attention of historians and inspired their
subsequent studies—and which have not. Interestingly, the main features of Ander-
son’s historical explanation for the origins and spread of nationalism—the existence
of sacred script communities, divine monarchs, cosmological time, and their erosion
by print capitalism—do not appear to have influenced most of the historiography on
nationalism in significant ways.49 Rather, it is Anderson’s notion of the “imagined
community,” and its reorientation of our analytical gaze toward the role of human
44 Peter Sahlins, Boundaries: The Making of France and Spain in the Pyrenees (Berkeley, Calif., 1989),
9.
45 Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707–1837 (New Haven, Conn., 1992), 5–6.
46 Alon Confino, The Nation as a Local Metaphor: Württemberg, Imperial Germany, and National
Memory, 1871–1918 (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1997), 4.
47 Ibid., 188.
48 Prasenjit Duara, Rescuing History from the Nation: Questioning Narratives of Modern China (Chi-

cago, 1995).
49 There are historians who have written important studies of nationalism who do not appear to have

been significantly influenced by Anderson’s notion of the “imagined community.” They seem to have re-
duced Anderson’s main contribution to his being one of several influential authors (who published stud-
ies during the 1980s) who argued that nationalism emerged in response to large-scale socioeconomic
change in the eighteenth century, and thus was a distinctly modern phenomenon. See, for example, Da-
vid A. Bell, The Cult of the Nation in France: Inventing Nationalism, 1680–1800 (Cambridge, Mass.,
2001); Jeremy King, Budweisers into Czechs and Germans: A Local History of Bohemian Politics, 1848–
1948 (Princeton, N.J., 2002); Brian Porter-Sz} ucs, “Beyond the Study of Nationalism,” in Tomasz Kamu-
sella and Krzysztof Jaskułowski, eds., Nationalisms Today (Oxford, 2009), 3–15.

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10 Max Bergholz

cognition in the emergence of nationalism, that has attracted by far the most attention
among historians. In this sense, it was Anderson’s conceptual originality and evocative
theoretical formulations, rather than his historical arguments, that ultimately influ-
enced the historiography of nationalism in significant ways in the decades following
the 1983 publication of Imagined Communities.

AND YET, ANDERSON’S INFLUENCE WAS NOT merely circumscribed to historians of na-
tionalism. As scholars of collective memory have noted, Imagined Communities was
largely responsible for calling attention in the Anglophone world to Ernest Renan’s
1882 lecture “What Is a Nation?” (Qu’est-ce qu’une nation?), a document that has
since become foundational in that field.50 Anderson drew on this text in order to stress
the role of narrative—and especially the crucial place that Renan gave to both re-
membering and forgetting—in the creation of national identity.51 In the revised and
extended edition of Imagined Communities (1991), Anderson added an entire chapter,
entitled “Memory and Forgetting,” in which he expanded on this subject. “Awareness
of being imbedded in secular, serial time,” he wrote, “with all its implications of conti-
nuity, yet of ‘forgetting’ the experience of this continuity—product of the ruptures of
the late eighteenth century—engenders the need for a narrative of ‘identity.’”52 Schol-
ars of collective memory have been inspired by such insights, which signal the need to
take seriously the ways in which people choose to tell stories about themselves, with
all of the remembering, forgetting, silencing, and invention that such acts of imagina-
tion entail. The study of collective memory, which expanded exponentially from the
late 1980s onward, has captured the attention of historians with diverse temporal and
geographical interests.53 They have been propelled forward, in no small part, by con-
cepts and insights that Anderson articulated in Imagined Communities about the inti-
mate relationship between nationalism and historical memory.54
But in the end, nationalism was the central subject of Imagined Communities, and so
in reappraising the book more than thirty years after its publication, one final question
needs to be answered: What from Anderson’s widely cited and influential book con-
50 Jeffrey K. Olick, Vered Vinitzky-Seroussi, and Daniel Levy, “Introduction,” in Olick, Vinitzky-

Seroussi, and Levy, eds., The Collective Memory Reader (Oxford, 2011), 3–62, here 21; Olick, Vinitzky-
Seroussi, and Levy, introduction to Part I, ibid., 63–64, here 63; Ernest Renan, “From ‘What Is a
Nation?,’” ibid., 80–83, here 80.
51 Anderson, Imagined Communities, 6.
52 Ibid., 209.
53 On the history of the field of collective memory, see Olick, Vinitzky-Seroussi, and Levy, “Intro-

duction.” For important critiques of that field, see Alon Confino, “Collective Memory and Cultural History:
Problems of Method,” American Historical Review 102, no. 5 (December 1997): 1386–1403; Kerwin Lee Klein,
“On the Emergence of Memory in Historical Discourse,” Representations, no. 69 (Winter 2000): 127–150.
54 For a sampling of historical studies on diverse aspects of collective memory, all of which have

drawn on Anderson’s Imagined Communities in various ways, see John Bodnar, Remaking America: Pub-
lic Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century (Princeton, N.J., 1992); John R.
Gillis, ed., Commemorations: The Politics of National Identity (Princeton, N.J., 1994); Jay Winter, Sites of
Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History (Cambridge, 1995); Marita
Sturken, Tangled Memories: The Vietnam War, the Aids Epidemic, and the Politics of Remembering (Berke-
ley, Calif., 1997); Confino, The Nation as a Local Metaphor; Daniel J. Sherman, The Construction of
Memory in Interwar France (Chicago, 1999); Robert G. Moeller, War Stories: The Search for a Usable Past
in the Federal Republic of Germany (Berkeley, Calif., 2003); John R. Neff, Honoring the Civil War Dead:
Commemoration and the Problem of Reconciliation (Lawrence, Kans., 2005).

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Thinking the Nation 11

tinues to influence historians of that subject today? The study of nationalism has moved
in new directions during the past decade, with concepts such as “national indifference”
becoming a focal point for innovative research. Tara Zahra, a main proponent of this
approach, has argued that “historians who analyze nations as ‘imagined communities’
risk remaining imprisoned within nationalists’ own discursive universe, analyzing the
contested content of nationalist ideologies and cultures without questioning the extent
to which those ideologies resonated among their audiences.”55 Her warning is well
taken. But the notion of the “imagined community” need not be reduced to a unidirec-
tional process. To consider how some people imagine themselves as belonging to a na-
tional community would seem to also entail asking how others might not engage in such
a process. In the same way, focusing attention on a concept like “national indifference”
should not blind us to the fact that people can become intensely nationalistic in certain
contexts—the reasons for which deserve analysis—something that scholars employing
“eventful” approaches to nationhood have started calling attention to in recent years.56
What unites much of this current historiography on nationalism is the focus of
scholars on explaining human cognition in relation to nationalism—a subject that still
remains under-researched.57 These new vistas are being explored today in no small
part due to the enduring contribution of Anderson’s Imagined Communities: the refo-
cusing of our attention away from something abstract called “nationalism,” and to-
ward the challenge of explaining how and why people in the past came to think—or
not think—of themselves as belonging to a national community.
55 Tara Zahra, “Imagined Noncommunities: National Indifference as a Category of Analysis,” Slavic

Review 69, no. 1 (2010): 93–119, here 111–112. On how historians can become imprisoned in the discur-
sive world of nationalist activists, see Duara, Rescuing History from the Nation. On “national indiffer-
ence,” see also Tara Zahra, Kidnapped Souls: National Indifference and the Battle for Children in the
Bohemian Lands, 1900–1948 (Ithaca, N.Y., 2008); Pieter M. Judson, Guardians of the Nation: Activists on
the Language Frontiers of Imperial Austria (Cambridge, Mass., 2006).
56 For a pathbreaking argument about the need to adopt “eventful” perspectives in the study of na-

tionalism, see Rogers Brubaker, “Rethinking Nationhood: Nation as Institutionalized Form, Practical
Category, Contingent Event,” in Brubaker, Nationalism Reframed: Nationhood and the National Question
in the New Europe (Cambridge, 1996), 13–22. For examples of empirical studies that have sought to take
account of, and account for, eventful nationhood, see Max Bergholz, “Sudden Nationhood: The Micro-
dynamics of Intercommunal Relations in Bosnia-Herzegovina after World War II,” American Historical
Review 118, no. 3 (June 2013): 679–707; Bergholz, Violence as a Generative Force: Identity, Nationalism,
and Memory in a Balkan Community (Ithaca, N.Y., 2016).
57 On the need to more closely research human cognition in the study of nationalism and ethnicity,

see Rogers Brubaker, Mara Loveman, and Peter Stamatov, “Ethnicity as Cognition,” Theory and Society
33, no. 1 (2004): 31–64.

Max Bergholz is Associate Professor of History at Concordia University in Mon-


treal, where he has taught since 2011. His interests include microhistorical
approaches to the history of modern Europe, with a particular focus on the local
dynamics of nationalism, intercommunal violence, and historical memory. He is
the author of Violence as a Generative Force: Identity, Nationalism, and Memory in
a Balkan Community (Cornell University Press, 2016), which has won numerous
prizes, including the 2017 Herbert Baxter Adams Prize from the American His-
torical Association. His current book project investigates subnational variation in
interethnic violence through the history of several neighboring communities in
the Balkans during the first half of the twentieth century.

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