Imagined Communities

by Maria on February 22, 2007

I’ve just spotted that Benedict Anderson has produced a revised version of Imagined Communities, his influential 1983 book about nationalism. Is it worth buying if you own the original?

This is what the blurb has to say;

“In this greatly anticipated revised edition, Anderson updates and elaborates on the core question: what makes people live, die and kill in the name of nations? He shows how an originary nationalism born in the Americas was adopted by popular movements in Europe, by imperialist powers, and by the anti-imperialist resistances in Asia and Africa, and explores the way communities were created by the growth of the nation-state, the interaction between capitalism and printing, and the birth of vernacular languages-of-state. Anderson revisits these fundamental ideas, showing how their relevance has been tested by the events of the past two decades.”

The topics described up to ‘anti-imperialist resistences in Asia and Africa’ sounds pretty new to me, with the rest of it – capitalism and printing, etc. – having formed the core of the 1983 work.

Just wondering if this has been widely and favourably reviewed and contains significant new material and thinking, so if it’s worth the while of an interested lay reader to buy the new version.

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From Crooked Timber…New version of imagined communities out…and commentary « Identity Unknown
02.25.07 at 3:35 pm



Chris Bertram 02.22.07 at 7:22 pm

I think this must be the 3rd edition, in fact, since I remember replacing my copy of the original with an update some time in the 1980s.


Jacob T. Levy 02.22.07 at 7:36 pm

Surprised that I hadn’t heard about this. But the Amazon reviews indicate that there’s one new 23-page essay on the book’s reception, but no apparent new material otherwise.


snuh 02.22.07 at 11:46 pm


Tyrone Slothrop 02.23.07 at 3:24 am

What a good book. Thanks for pointing out the new edition.


dr ngo 02.23.07 at 6:35 am

There was a “revised and extended edition” in 1991, which I own, as well as the original edition. I have so far been unable to discover how the “new” 2006 text varies from the 1991 version.


Joel Turnipseed 02.23.07 at 7:10 am

Dr. Ngo,

I wonder whether you’ve read Under Three Flags as well–and if so, can speak to how it talks to/with Imagined Communities?

I’ve had the former sitting on my “to read” shelf (for a year or so now, but…), and I’ve always meant to read the Rizal novels (which we have, too–also unread). I’d love a good excuse (oh, but also: time!) to put myself together a little reading.


dr ngo 02.23.07 at 8:07 am

I’ve read earlier Anderson essays on Rizal, but not the latest book – which I have just learned is due out in paperback on August 1! Contact me again soon thereafter.

Anderson’s an amazing scholar. Trained as an Indonesianist, got blamed by the RI government for his role in the “Cornell Paper” that questioned the official interpretation of 1965’s “Gestapu” and banned from the country, went on to write one of the most provocative critiques ever of Thai studies, tossed off “Imagined Communities” on the side, all this before he got to serious work on the Philippines! (And, FWIW, he’s an Irishman, and his brother is Perry Anderson, renowned British leftist scholar.) I gather one of the secrets of his success – besides the fact that he’s a bloody genius – is that he never wastes time going to conferences and schmoozing with the rest of us.

Rizal was also a bloody genius, but of a different ilk. Which translation of Noli do you have? Anderson absolutely rips into L.M. Guerrero’s, which has been standard in the USA for the last generation or two.


abb1 02.23.07 at 8:18 am

Is this book only for specialists or laymen too? Don’t want to waste 20 euros.


dr green 02.23.07 at 8:42 am

As someone who’s been teaching this book on a course about nationalism for several years now, I have found that this book gets worse and worse everytime I read it. There is a reason why, when people cite it, they only cite its title – which is undoubtedly very catchy – since a lot of Anderson’s research is very poor. See, for instance, his analysis of the changing meaning of time as a factor in understanding the rise of nationalism – it’s only based on a couple of sources, and historians I know claim that no one could possibly take his claims seriously. His claim that the rise of print capitalism is so important is also highly disputed, since it is unclear how print capitalism has had a greater effect on society than capitalism and industrialism, which Ernest Gellner claimed to be behind the rise of nationalism in a very convincing argument in his 1983 book.

Someone mentioned Perry Anderson – a much better scholar in my opinion, esp. his work ‘Lineages of the Absolutist State.’ As regards the rise of nationalism, Ernest Gellner, John Breuilly and Anthony Smith have presented much more coherent and cogent analyses than Anderson.


Joel Turnipseed 02.23.07 at 8:46 am

My Noli is the Guerrero. My El Filibusterismo Lacson-Locsin. I picked them up at a Rizal Day (or was it Paskong Pilipino?) here in town–they looked a little lonely on a table dedicated to environmental devastation from Subic Bay, when all around were other vendors selling CDs/DVDs, pansit, etcetera.

Which brings me around to one of the reasons I’m interested in the Anderson (esp. the 1-2 of IC and UTF): it’s interesting to me the way in which these questions walk around (or pop in unannounced with bags of food!) in the form of friends and relatives (and, more urgently, in the increasingly aware & curious person of my two-year-old).


Jacob T. Levy 02.23.07 at 12:58 pm

Huh. Brilliant as Gellner was, and as much as I’ve learned from everything of his I’ve ever read, I think that NN can’t do much more than provide the “why it succeeded” to the “what was it/ how did it happen in the first place” that Anderson and Smith provide rival versions of.


Richard 02.23.07 at 1:48 pm

Dear abb1 – it’s for laymen, definitely.

There are problems with taking it as a statement of fact; how would you test it (or any history)? On the other hand, it’s well-written, coherent and full of provocative ideas, and it tackles nationalism-as-felt-by-nationalists (rather than simply nationalism as an ideology of the ruling class). Well worth reading.


John Emerson 02.23.07 at 2:11 pm

Gellner’s “Language and Solitude” seems to have been his last word both on nationalism and on Wittgenstein. It’s a wild ride that makes a set with Toulmin and Janik’s “Wittgenstein’s Vienna”. His reading of Wittgenstein is quite odd, and he proposes a non-national (but Eurocentric), positivist, administrative world government which freely allows petty forms of nationalism as a form of harmless private entertainment.


Matt 02.23.07 at 2:13 pm

It’s an intereting book, but as noted above there’s more than a few reasons to doubt the story told. (The use of it by philosophers is also a bit annoying.) To my mind Hobsbawm’s Nations and Nationalism since 1780 is a better book and does a better job of showing the real nature of the phenomena.


Russell Arben Fox 02.23.07 at 2:31 pm

“Brilliant as Gellner was, and as much as I’ve learned from everything of his I’ve ever read, I think that NN can’t do much more than provide the “why it succeeded” to the “what was it/ how did it happen in the first place” that Anderson and Smith provide rival versions of.”

Jacob, by “NN,” were you referring to some other work of Gellner’s, or did you mean Hobsbawm’s Nations and Nationalisms? Either way, I substantively agree with your remarks. Both Gellner and Hobsbawm, in my view, claim far too much normative and analytical territory from their empirical descriptions of nationalist movements and rhetoric. But then, I think that’s a fault of the “modernization” thesis of the origin of nationalism as a whole. Anderson is basically a subscriber to that thesis, as is Liah Greenfeld, but she and he both try to do more with the thesis, in terms of making judgments about the role and worth of nationalism in the shaping of the modern world, than many of their fellow modernists. Hence, I continue to use Imagined Communities regularly (as a counterpoint to Smith, Adrian Hastings, and others whose theories I actually prefer).


Maria 02.23.07 at 3:07 pm

My admittedly fuzzy memory of IM, as compared to Gellner and Smith who I initially read at the same time, is that he gets inside the mindset of nationalisms in a way that’s akin to the ‘histoire des mentalites’ – something I’m just more imaginatively predisposed to enjoy, I suppose.

I did find Gellner and Hobsbawm – who I’ve not re-read since – to have a far more functionalist approach to historical narratives and political theory. But I wouldn’t advise anyone interested in nationalism to read IM alone. At least add Smith whose focus bridges the gap.


abb1 02.23.07 at 3:30 pm

Thanks, Richard. But why should cost twice more on than on
Oh, well.


John Emerson 02.23.07 at 3:35 pm

The Andersons are only sort of Irish. Like Lawrence Durrell, IIRC, they are Anglo-Indians of Irish descent, from the time when the Irish were part of the British Empire. The brothers seem to have grown up in China, England, the US, and Ireland.

Durrell really hated being in England and never spent much time in Ireland, to my knowledge; he was almost a man without a country, like some of the sketchy multinational types who wandered around Europe before WWI (e.g. Apollinaire).

Alexander Cockburn is another fishy Irishman. His father Claud was born in China and settled in Ireland after a career mostly in England. Evelyn Waugh was his cousin and Laura Flanders (NPR) is his granddaughter.


Donald A. Coffin 02.23.07 at 4:45 pm

I’ve always rather liked Kurt Vonnegut’s take on “imagined communities,” which he called (as I recall) “Granfaloons”–groups which think they’re bound by something real and important, when they aren’t. (his term for the real thing was the “karass”–people whose lives are bound together in real and meaningful ways, whether they know it (or like it) or not.


Joel Turnipseed 02.23.07 at 5:00 pm

Hmmm… started into Imagined and I have some issues, esp. with what he made of Rizal’s Noli–but we’ll see where it goes from here.

Meantime (and brazenly OT), abb1: at least it’s available at both sites, unlike this:

I was so excited last week to finally get an hit on my want for the English translation–until I saw the price was something like $450 USD. And it sold almost immediately. Unbelievable. Attention CT readers at university presses: get the rights to Saturn and Melancholy and reprint the thing, will you? It’s rather silly to be able to get a book in my choice of Italian or German or Spanish for $20, but to have to pay twenty-two-and-a-half times that to read it in English (less, however, than what it would “cost” me to improve my German enough to read it efficiently)!


Richard 02.23.07 at 9:07 pm

John Emerson (18): this is some sort of extended joke on the themes of the book, yes?

In which case I have to agree, and Joseph Conrad wasa very poor sort of Russian.


John Emerson 02.23.07 at 9:39 pm

No, Dr. Ngo claimed the Andersons as Irish. The brothers may carry Irish passports, as I think that Cockburn does, and their father is described by Wiki as Anglo-Irish (from India and China). Benedict at least spent his early years in China, the US, England, and Ireland. India? I don’t know.

So the themes comes naturally to him.

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