Imagined communities

I have recently been looking at discussion of online community and I have been struck by the extent to which writers (particularly in the early days of the Internet) tended to exaggerate the ‘newness’ or uniqueness of being online. For example, many saw a sharp divide between physical community (based on face to face interaction) and online community (based on shared attachment and interests as opposed to shared location). Online communities were often, and continue to be, described as necessarily ‘sentiment’ as against proximity communities.

This divide between online and face to face does not sound quite right and becomes undermined further if we take a longer view of the idea of community. In fact it has long been recognised that we can feel close to others at a distance and that we are held together by a shared attachment and can empathise with people we have never met. One much cited book in support of this view is Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson [1].

Anderson’s interest in community was triggered by the phenomenon of nationalism. He noticed that writers tended to fall into two camps: in the first nationalism was seen as a timeless, deep rooted and natural instinct, in the second it was a social construction – something that led (but not inevitably) to the idea of nationalism as false consciousness. Anderson tried to bridge these two views. Nationalism was a historical phenomena (arising out of particular conditions, chiefly mass literacy and vernacular languages) but it had a universal appeal. He thus modified the social constructivist argument, noting that national identity felt real and deep rooted for many people. Indeed when push came to shove people really would (and do) die for their belief in an imagined national community.

‘Imagined communities’ is a good read not least due to Anderson’s wide frame of reference – he was an enthusiast about South East Asia, and Indonesia in particular. It also appeals because he was as interested in literature and language as social theory.

I was only aware that Anderson had died when I came across his posthumously published reflection of the business of carrying out research [2]. The interesting thing about this ‘memoir’ is that you can read it in two ways. First, if you like, you can see him as a member of a restricted club made up of male, liberal-left middle class intellectuals constituted in the 1960’s and beyond. Second, and the reading I prefer, is that you can see him as showing how to transcend the limitations of one’s own social cultural position by maintaining  an endless curiosity about the world and a commitment to the developing world in particular. Whatever the case imagined communities remains a stimulating read and a useful corrective for those who believe that attachment beyond proximity began with the Internet. It did not.

[1] Anderson, B.. (1991). Imagined communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. London: Verso.

[2] Anderson, B. (2016).Frameworks of Comparison, Benedict Anderson reflects on his intellectual formation, London Review of Books, 21 January 2016, 38, 2: 15-18.