Top critical review
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on 21 May 2009
I was looking forward to reading 'Imagined Communities' as it is often seen as something of a standard text on nationalism. I ended up disappointed. The key lies with the subtitle of the book - 'Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism'. I'll try to pinpoint why but first I'll deal with what I think is valuable about the work.
It's beautifully written with witty asides and is easily read. There are plenty of insights into the way that nationalism works and how nations are imagined - that concept is a great one - how history, maps, museums, censuses, literature all contribute to the collective imagining of something called a nation and how this imagining is relatively modern. This is illustrated with some fascinating examples. Anderson is also fairly good at explaining how nationalism spread and how it has now become universal.
So, 'Imagined Communities' strength is explaining how nationalism works and, to a lesser extent, how it spreads. The weakness is in explaining the origins of nationalism. Anderson locates this in the coincidence of the rise of capitalism, the technology of print and language. Anderson also locates the first nationalisms as being creole nationalisms in the Americas thereby ignoring the rise of the nation states in the Netherlands and England prior to this. One is left with a nagging feeling that the explanation being offered here is inadequate.
Anderson is right to point out the rise of state bureaucracy in the relation to the rise of nationalism but neglects the idea that the needs of business and the protection of markets could play a similar function. In short, Anderson fails to account for the fact that the rise of nationalism mirrors the rise and spread of capitalism per se and not just print capitalism.
Anderson also states that the French model was as important as the creole in creating the template for nationalism to be copied throughout the world but then says virtually nothing about the role of the French Revolution in the creation of this template or, indeed, about the rise of nationalism in France. The reader is left to guess about how and why an idea which Anderson insists arose in places like Peru made it's way to Europe.
About two thirds of the way through, I had got the gist of the thesis and found the latter chapters unenlightening apart from illustrative examples.