Constructivist Approaches: A review of Benedict Anderson’s article “Imagined Communities”

Benedict Anderson’s essay titled Imagined Communities offers a historically informed analysis of nationalism.  He asserts that the rise of nationalism was facilitated by the simultaneous decline of key cultural conceptions of great antiquity, which had erstwhile had a profound effect on humankind.  The first of these changes had to do with the role of language in the evolution of human civilization.  For much of history, written language was interlinked with power and privilege.  The religious elite especially had employed the medium of written language to control the thoughts and actions of the masses.  This was true across various religions.  Second was the dismantling of the belief that the ruling elite earned their right by divine decree.  The liberalization of language use had encouraged rational discourse among the common people and the movement toward democratic governance owes its advance to this.  The third development which made it conducive for nationalism to flourish is the conceptual separation of humans and their physical world.  For much of pre-modern history, the view held by scholars and intellectuals were essentially anthropocentric, meaning that they interpreted natural phenomenon from the stand point of its significance to human existence.  But this approach to studying the world around them changed not only the course of scientific progress, but had also ushered in changes of political organization – one such advance being ‘nationalism’.

The political developments inEuropeover the last two millennia are consistent withAnderson’s thesis.  For example, it cannot be mere coincidence that as literacy levels inWestern Europestarted rising; new, alternative political ideas were gaining recognition.  The advances in literacy and print technology had had a profound effect on society.  Not only did the vernacular language propagate and encourage exchange of ideas and views, but more importantly, they helped consolidate the common identity of a community of people.  In other words, the conventions of language usage that helped spread literacy had also reinforced unique aspects of culture, religion, customs and sensibilities of a group of people, thereby setting the foundations for the emergence of nationalism.

Reference:

Anderson (B)., “Imagined Communities” in Hutchinson and Smith, Nationalism.