Imagined Communities

During international football championships, something quite odd might happen in big European cities. 

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    If you're from England, you are travelling to Spain and, let's say, England and France are playing against each other, and you want to feel at home when cheering for your team you could go to a British Pub even if you are not in the UK and, probably, be surrounded by fellow nationals.

    As Benedict Anderson would argue, this is because England is an Imagined Community. To find out what that means, read on!

    Benedict Anderson Imagined Communities

    Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism is a non-fiction book by Benedict Anderson first published in 1983.Benedict Anderson was an Anglo-Irish political scientist and historian. His book is one of the fundamental applications of constructivism, a theory of International Relations.

    Constructivism is a theory of International Relations that believes that relations between countries are informed by ideational factors which, historically, have been constructed. They oppose Materialism, which assumes that the international system is anarchic and, therefore, the nations with more (material) power rule over the others. Nations, according to constructivists, are constructed by a series of ideational factors shared by their citizens, and the idea that we have of the nation informs its relations with other nations.

    Anderson’s book contributed to the above theory by explaining how nationalism and nation states are social constructions. Anderson tries to explain how the nation is constructed when there is a change from another system, such as imperialism, to the nation-state system. Anderson’s analysis covers the origins of nationalism from the late 18th century to the present.

    Benedict Anderson Immagine Communities, Nation states Benedict Anderson Immagine Communities, StudySmarterFig. 1 Map of part of Central Europe.

    When Anderson tells us that nations are constructed, he does not mean to say that they are unreal; rather, they are fictional. This does not diminish their relevance for citizens and nationalist ideologies.

    Imagined Community meaning

    Anderson used the term imagined community to refer to the nation.

    The term imagined community highlight the constructed character of the nation. According to Anderson, nations are socially-constructed groups of citizens or nationals that see themselves as part of a bigger group with shared characteristics, which is the nation.

    Anderson tells us that even if citizens never know most other national members, they feel connected and imagine a broader community.

    According to the author, the way in which citizens construct the notion of the nation, or imagine such a community, is influenced by media and, in particular, by the print market. Indeed, the author traces the historical and cultural transformations that led to the birth of the nation as an imagined community. We will explore this in detail later in the summary.

    Imagined Communities summary

    Anderson tells us which historical and cultural events led to the birth of the nation understood as an Imagined Community.

    Historically, he highlights the following events:

    • The end of the Middle Ages and the weakening of religion as the base of the community.
    • The diffusion of vernaculars, i.e. regional languages and dialects. This diffusion happened alongside the fall of Latin as the administrative and religious language.
    • The fall of monarchies, such as the fall of the French Monarchy during the French Revolution. In general, the demise of divine right monarchies was crucial for the birth of nations.
    • The diffusion of secularity as the organising principle of the state. Secularity signifies the division between the state and the Church.
    • The beginning of the Industrial Revolution completely transformed the Northern and Central European socio-economic tissue from feudal to capitalist.
    • The Reformation, i.e. the split of the Western Christian Church into Roman Catholics and Protestants. This was a crucial event because it was accompanied by the first translations of the Bible, from Latin to German. This process helped to unify German as a language.

    All of the above events have one thing in common: they drove the construction of some shared ideational factors, such as languages in the case of the Reformation or republican symbols, in the case of the fall of monarchies.

    Printing-press capitalism

    Imagined Communities, Printing Press Imagined Communities summary, StudySmarterFig. 2 Printing press keys.

    Furthermore, Anderson recognises the printing press as the technological revolution that, together with the above historical factors, has participated in the construction of nations.

    Johannes Gutenberg is often credited with developing the modern printing press in 1436.

    Anderson tells us that the printing press led to a form of capitalism that he calls printing-press capitalism.

    Printing-press capitalism refers to the beginning of production, which gradually became a mass production of books for the new reading public. These were the speakers of new vernaculars and, later, of new unified languages.

    In the third chapter of the book, he mainly explains that the intertwinement of 3 factors brought to the birth of nationality as a community:

    1. The printing press
    2. Capitalism
    3. Vernacular languages

    Indeed, the market was dominated by Latin, the language of the literate, which were, however, bilingual and few. To capitalise on the reading market, communities had to become monoglots, meaning they all spoke the same language. This happened through the diffusion of vernacular languages and the demise of Latin as the administrative language. The Reformation participated in this process by creating new reading publics.

    Martin Luther translated the Bible into German in 1522. This was crucial for the birth of the German language since more people started reading one version of the language and, consequently, speaking it. In turn, the shared language functioned as a denominator of a shared identity, which, according to Anderson, is the basis for the construction of an Imagined Community, i.e. a nation. However, this translation would not have had the same diffusion and impact without the previous invention of the printing press.

    In sum, this linguistic transformation led to the decline of what he calls 'the imagined community of Christendom'1 and the birth of new communities, the nations, not anymore organised under religious unity but under a shared sense of nationality.

    From languages to nations

    Therefore the process that connects languages to nations is the following:

    1. More people started to communicate around territories, often via print and paper. This created the perception of the existence of unknown people that speak your same language, hence a sense of shared identity.
    2. Print capitalism fixed dialects and vernaculars that were before fastly changing and had different variations in unified languages. Again, this is crucial for self-recognition with people that speak the same language.
    3. The fixity of print languages created linguistic models, a process that makes the dialects more similar to the print language survive while the more different ones disappear.Therefore the process is:

    Imagined Communities, Summary Imagine communities Benedict Anderson, From languages to Nations process, StudySmarterFig. 3 fewer dialects/one vernacular > one language that everyone reads and speaks > self-recognition in the language > shared sense of community > nation, StudySmarter original.

    At the same time, you must understand that Anderson himself did not believe in an inherent causal relation between languages and nations. According to the author, the concurrence of particular historical and cultural factors, such as capitalism, the printing press, and the use of vernaculars, created the conditions, especially in Europe, for the birth of nations as imagined communities.

    Imagined Communities examples

    The effectiveness of the process explained above can be seen in the cohesion of some of today's nations. Anderson uses the example of Italy quite often in his book.

    He tells us that the effectiveness of the Italian unification during the Risorgimento was due to the elites' pressure on writing, reading, and diffusing Tuscan Italian as a unified language for the nation. This process was then completed in the 20th century through the diffusion of the TV in just the Italian language.

    Anderson tells us that language's effectiveness for national unification brought some countries like Turkey and Thailand to strategically exploit it to render their nations more cohesive. This is a form of conscious language exploitation.

    Beyond language

    Even if the basis of Anderson's theory is developed around Europe, many chapters focus on understanding nationalism and imagined communities in the Americas. Indeed, Anderson’s book also analyses figures such as Simón Bolívar, the leader and national hero of Venezuela and a hero in the liberation of Spanish colonies. These nations shared the same language as Spain; however, they created their traditions and new Imagined Community.

    However, as we have said before, languages and printing-press capitalism do not always lead to the formation of a nation. In most African countries, for example, a language does not correspond to a nation.

    The importance of cultural media

    Therefore, languages are essential, but it is also other forms of shared identitarian cues, such as symbols, flags, traditions, myths, etc., that create a community. These can also be called cultural media.

    With cultural media we refer to a form of media (media is the plural of medium which means "channel of communication") that is familiar to big masses. It is usually part of television, sport, bestseller books, and fashion, just to name a few.

    A modern-day example of an imagined community not based just on language can be seen when citizens of a country come together to support their country during football matches or Olympic Games. Not all citizens may know each other at that moment; nonetheless, they perceive themselves as a more extensive group under one nationality also thanks to flags, colours, and chants.

    Another example of an imagined community not based on language is the European Union or the LGBTQIA+ community. The membership in those communities is not based on languages but shared values, symbols, and beliefs.

    Imagined Communities, LGBTQIA+ Community Imagined Communities Example, StudySmarter Fig. 4 The LGBTQIA+ community.

    Imagined Communities analysis

    In conclusion, let's analyse how Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson relates to other political ideologies and what contributions it brings.

    Anderson offers a new analysis of nationalism, which illuminates how crucial nationalism is to the existence of states as we know them today. This centring of nationalism was a way to criticise liberalism and Marxism for not considering the power of nationality.

    Nationalism is an ideology that professes the primacy of the nation-state over any other interest or ideational factor of shared identity.

    However, his account of nationalism has been countered by postcolonial thinkers. In particular, they believe that the nationalism that Anderson describes regarding colonies was positive for the elites and not for the whole population.

    Indian theorist Chatterjee saw a neocolonial logic behind Anderson's theory of nationalism in relation to colonised countries. The author criticises how Anderson sees anti-colonial nationalism as borrowed from the West. Drawing on various examples, for instance, in India, the author proves how forms of nationalism were present in strata of the population where colonisers were asserting less power. They refer to these as "inner nationalism", a form of nationalism based on spiritual traditional values. This stood in opposition to "external nationalism", which is a form of nationalism developed by the elites with the consent of the colonisers, making nationalism, as described by Anderson, a European ideology imposed on colonies and making the process described in the book more complex in practice2.

    Imagined Communities - Key takeaways

    • Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism is a non-fiction book by Benedict Anderson first published in 1983 and an example of constructivist theory.
    • Benedict Anderson maintained that nations and nationalism are social constructions.
    • In particular, the intertwinement between capitalism, the printing press, and the diffusion of vernacular languages brought nations' birth.
    • Anderson contributed enormously to seeing nationalism as central when studying social relations.
    • At the same time, his theory can be criticised as it does not account for how colonialism imposed the European model of nationalism over colonised countries.


    1. Anderson, B. R. O. 1. (2006). Imagined communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. Rev. ed. London ; New York: Verso.
    2. Chatterjee, P. (1991). 'Whose Imagined Community?' Cambridge Journals 20(3).
    3. Fig. 1 Map (
    4. Fig. 2 Vintage printing press kit (
    5. Fig. 3 StudySmarter original.
    6. Fig. 4 Photos from a Pride parade in Mexico (
    Frequently Asked Questions about Imagined Communities

    what are imagined communities?

    Imagined Communities is a non-fiction book by Benedict Anderson first published in 1983. The concept of 'imagined community' that he developed tries to explain the origin of nations and nationalism. 

    Why does Benedict Anderson refer to nations as imagined communities?

    With 'imagined community' Anderson indicates how nationalism and nations are based on a shared sense of community between people who do not all know each other, however, feel close and share ideational factors with other people in the nation. 

    What is the purpose of imagined communities?

    Imagined Communities is a book that aims at investigating the origins of nationalism and the nation-state system in the modern world. It argues that nations and nationalism are social constructs. 

    What are examples of imagined communities?

    Italy, Thailand, the USA, and many central and southern American countries are used as examples by Anderson. Furthermore, we can see how modern phenomena such as the LGBTQIA+ community can be seen as Imagined Communities. 

    What characteristics does an imagined community have?

    An imagined community is constructed by some sort of shared ideational factors such as language, which is the main focal point of analysis of Anderson, symbols, colours, food, etc.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    When was Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism first published? 

    Nations and nationalism are, according to Anderson _____.

    Which are the three factors that drove to the birth of nations and nationalism?


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