Benedict Anderson has died

by Henry Farrell on December 13, 2015

Obituary here. His _Imagined Communities_ was an important book to me, as it was, I suspect, to many other people in the Crooked Timber community. Indeed, it’s the book that made me decide to do graduate studies in political science (how could it not be wonderful to work in a discipline where one could read novels and newspapers to reach grand conclusions about political and social life; I was to find out). He was of Anglo-Irish stock – how much that double alienation (membership of an unintegrated but socially privileged minority within a state based on the usual national myths) shaped his viewpoint has been the subject of a lot of amateur speculation. I liked his book on international anarchism (review here, combined with a review of Scott’s Art of Not Being Governed), but more for the details than the whole. There’s a funny anecdote in it about an assassination attempt on a Captain-General:

bq. With the help of two Asturian anarchists, a young Cuban nationalist called Armando Andre hid a bomb in the roof of the ground-floor toilet of the Captain-General’s palace. The device was supposed to explode when Weyler sat down on the pot, bringing the whole second floor down on his head. The plotters were unaware, however, that Weyler suffered so severely from haemorrhoids that he almost never used the facility, preferring an earthenware field-potty when he had to relieve himself. The bomb went off, but no one was hurt, and Weyler decided to inform Madrid that the explosion had been caused by stoppages which prevented the latrine’s gases from escaping normally.

with further references to how the General was “partly relieved” and to the “diehard colons” of the revolution. I like that he had a low (if somewhat pince-sans-rire) sense of humour, despite his formidable learning and clipped Etonian accent – I can only imagine that he took great delight in smuggling the story and dubious jokes into an otherwise serious and densely researched academic book. More of us should be like him.



Garrulous 12.13.15 at 3:50 pm

Hard to think of a pair of brothers with comparable intellectual influence in recent decades.


LFC 12.13.15 at 4:53 pm

This made me dig out my copy of Imagined Communities from the box where it was lying. Just looking at the brilliant discussion of “the reassurance of fratricide” (pp.199-203 in the revised [1991] edition).

[p.s. first saw news of his death on a Twitter feed displayed on a blog’s sidebar. I don’t tweet (horrible word) myself, but I can see how it functions as a sort of town crier, among other things.]


Rakesh Bhandari 12.13.15 at 5:14 pm

I think you may be the person to ask. We have Anderson’s brilliant idea, crudely put, that the otherwise anonymous people come to imagine themselves members of the same community by knowing that they are each reading the same newspaper. So what happens to our “mediated” identities now that people have personalized newsfeeds and people can easily access movies and television shows from their nations of origin? Do we know have national fragmentation due to homophily effects and transnational identities as a result of the globalization of media? How has changing media changed the imagining of our communities?
I am also interested in the distinction that Anderson draws between unbound and bound serialities, between the utopian possibilities of nationalism and the oppressive nature of ethnicity and the role that the census plays in all this. This seems to be a very important contribution. I know it has been discussed by Partha Chatterjee and others.


Neville Morley 12.13.15 at 7:42 pm

Yes, if only more political science was like this… Imagined Communities is clearly a possible model for the cross-over between social science and humanities – or, a case study in how both factions can misread a text in their own interests.


Gary Othic 12.13.15 at 8:48 pm

Sad to hear this. Whilst I can’t say Anderson was one of my big influences in sociology (that dubious honour is shared by Gellner, Runciman and Mann) I found Imagined Communities to have one of the simplest, subtlest yet persuasive argument for the development of nationalism that I’ve come across.


Ronan(rf) 12.13.15 at 10:33 pm

I’d be interested to know, from people who might know, what more recent research (particularly in things like population genetics, lingusitics, and more specific historical specialisation) has meant for Anderson’s thesis? My understanding is that, at least in some cases, researchers have found greater genetic and ethnic continuties than previouasly thought, and a deeper more material basis for (some) ethnic and national identities?


bob mcmanus 12.13.15 at 10:57 pm

3: Arjun Appadurai, maybe along with Anthony Giddens, is BA’s successors

6: I mostly read about Japanese nationalism since Meiji, and my sense is that the individual agency involved in imaginary communities and constructed identities is just the base assumption anymore. Constraints, resistance, whatever; and there are of course many more communities and identities than the “nation,” but nationalism is largely something the people are doing, with available resources etc, rather than being done to them. The abstracted nation is no longer any more useful than race or religion or class. Anderson brought sociology and anthropology into political science?


Gary Othic 12.13.15 at 11:20 pm

@Ronan (6)

Well, nationalism is kind of my field so I can answer part of the question. The old divide is between modernists (of which Anderson was one), who view nations as uniquely modern phenomenon (post-French revolution usually) and primordialists who think of them as having continuing ties from the past (Anthony Smith for example). So whether or not you think there’s greater continuity kind of depends on who you read.

For material basis there are some who argue for it. J. Phillipe Rushton has had some evo psych, ‘index finger to ring finger ratio suggests’ horseshit that tries to give a biological formulation to nationalism but it doesn’t work. Pierre van den Berghe postulated the notion that ethnic relations and nationalism essentially just parasites on the kin selection relationship – that elites use ideology to promote the idea that everyone is extended ‘kin’ in order to make them cooperative with one another (hence the rhetoric on ‘shared blood’, ‘motherland, fatherland’ etc.) Sort of a hybrid between Marxism and sociobiology. I think that’s about as far as you can sensibly push it, though I don’t think it actually offers an explanation, or gives that much of a concrete link in continuity.


Ronan(rf) 12.14.15 at 1:26 am

Bob and Gary, thanks for the responses.
Gary, I’ve heard of smith but never read him. Is he the
best place to start (reading wise ) for the primordialist perspective ?


Matt_L 12.14.15 at 2:42 am

Besides Smith, the best place to start with the primordialists is Miroslav Hroch. The Big Book is _Social Preconditions of National Revival in Europe_ (1985), but shorter essay versions of his typology and theory are available elsewhere. See for example, “From National Movement to Fully Formed Nation: The Nation-Building Process in Europe. in, Eley & Suny, _Becoming National: A Reader_ (OUP: 1996), 60-79.


js. 12.14.15 at 3:13 am

I don’t have anything particularly insightful to say, but I found Imagined Communities to be mind-blowingly awesome. The discussion of newspapers (and maps in the reissue) alone alone make it more than worthwhile, to my mind. The Specter of Comparisons was also very good, I thought. I didn’t know about his book on anarchism, but I imagine I’ll be reading it relatively soon.


Barry Freed 12.14.15 at 9:42 am

The discussion of newspapers (and maps in the reissue) alone alone make it more than worthwhile…

Which edition is the reissue? I loved the book when I read it but that was a couple decades ago and I now work professionally with maps in a national/research library context so I would be very interested in rereading it in that revision.


LFC 12.14.15 at 12:28 pm

@B Freed
The reissue is the revised edition of 1991.


mdc 12.14.15 at 1:17 pm

I always liked Kant’s dry irony in the Doctrine of Right:

“Because of its form, by which all are united through their common interest in a rightful condition, a state is called a commonwealth (res publica)….but because the union is (presumed to be) one they inherited, a state is also called a nation (gens).”


Gary Othic 12.14.15 at 1:47 pm

@Ronan (9)

Smith I’d say is the best for the ethinc continuities leading to nations (Ethnic Origins of Nations would be the one). He wouldn’t class himself as a primordialist though, so I should make that, and they are a broad church. The other one of interest is Steve Grosby, who maintains that nations are themselves old phenomenon (Ancient Egypt and ancient Israel).


Ronan(rf) 12.15.15 at 3:53 am

Gary and Matt_L, thanks for the recommendations.


Maria 12.15.15 at 2:06 pm

Is this a thing that happens to people in their forties; your intellectual parents start going down like nine-pins? I really don’t like it.

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