While Benedict Anderson’s theory is important and interesting, it has limitations. For some limited background information on what we mean by “imagined community,” you can look at past blogs I have written here. Wikipedia also provides a good overview here of the book where he describes his theory.
1. What power does the “imagined community” have when it is almost entirely comprised of strangers next door? Within a mile of where I live, there are easily over a thousand people, maybe two thousand people. I know a few (probably less than ten) to a limited degree. The rest, I don’t know. The theory of the “imagined community” is, of course, partly designed to explain how and why people who have little in common and who don’t know each other can have much in common vis-à-vis nationalism, but what changes if no one really knows anyone? What changes to theories of nationalism when the people I know live far away? What is the actual power of the nation State.
2. Anderson’s theory of nationalism ignores geopolitics. People who live in/on the borderlands between two nations frequently have much in common, at least culturally speaking, and have many important connections between them that are both different from and sometimes stronger than nationalism. Time and space matter. De facto nations/groups are more relevant, interesting, and information-rich than the de jure.
3. Nationalism is not something to be praised. As written, Anderson theorizes a nationalism that indicated advancement–wide-spread literacy, vernacular languages, and abolition of divine kings/queens–and does not allow for the ways in which nationalism was founded to justify and to continue colonialist endeavors that had irreversible consequences for people and for the environment, for example. Nationalism also caused deadly world wars. The rise of nationalism has positive correlations with the factors named by Anderson but causation was much more a product by elite hungry for money and power.
4. Anderson’s theory emphasizes privileged individuals. Someone could read Anderson’s thoughts about the characteristics of nationalism and come to the conclusion that everyone is literate. While literacy has increased and certainly does contribute to bonds between people who do not know each other, illiteracy rates have remained high across time and place. Determining “literacy” and “illiteracy” also involves a certain ethnocentrism, as does Anderson’s entire theory. Anderson’s “Great Men” theory effectively omits minorities through a process I call the rhetoric of implied exclusion.
5. Nations or groups take many forms, and these are always changing. Anderson’s theory is very specific–too White, too Modern, too Western-centric–specific enough such that it is only relevant in very few historical situations. It does not allow for the infinite ways in which nations or groups have and do take shape.
Points two and three above are both partially inspired by and paraphrased from the work of Partha Chatterjee.
Dr. Andrew Joseph Pegoda