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3.8 out of 5 stars
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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.
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on 17 November 2013
In an age of academic specialization, there is a need for works of synthesis, proposing theories of general application. This need is shown by way that "Imagined Communities" and, for example, Edward Said's "Orientalism" are widely read and discussed. However, to be valid, generalisations should be based on a comprehensive and objective reading of all the evidence, not just a presentation of only what suits the author's particular view. Although Anderson's book is well written and presented, it fails to be either objective or comprehensive.

In his book, Anderson traces the origins of national consciousness back to 18th century Age of Enlightenment in Western Europe. He argues that the traditional and hierarchical social organisation associated with Christendom declined through economic factors and with the spread of national territory and citizenship. He particularly identifies a link between the rise of capitalism and the development of printing, which fostered national languages and identity. Anderson considered that nations were formed through invented traditions and symbols, not fixed racial differences. This approach is clearly a Marxist one, and is open to several objections.

Firstly, assuming "Christendom" declined in the 16th century, Anderson does not explain what happened between then and the Age of Enlightenment. Secondly, Anderson relies heavily on other Marxist writers like Eric Hobsbawm and Tom Nairn, largely ignoring other schools of thought. Thirdly, at the outset, Anderson defines several concepts in a way which limits discussion on them to his own agenda. He seems to follow Hobsbawm in arguing that nationalism didn't exist before the late 18th century, so that anything earlier is not nationalism, a circular argument. Next, he provides examples which appear to prove his point, but which are not universal. For example, he may be right to point out that the boundaries of many Spanish Latin American states are based on artificial colonial-era administrative boundaries. However, this does not explain why entities such as Syria or Iran/Persia have many centuries of distinct existence or even why Spanish Latin America split up but Brazil did not. Similarly, he chooses Hungary to make a point on ethnic identity: choosing Poland would tell a different story. Finally, if this is a scholarly work, its reference to sources and explanation for some of its more contentious statements is rather poor in places.

This book can be accepted as an interesting personal view that can stimulate debate, but it was written by someone going well outside their area of expertise. It is worth reading, with some caution and reasonable scepticism. However, it is not unbiased or impartial and its status as a much quoted and approved work in several fields of social sciences probably says something about the credibility of those disciplines
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Interesting take about the rise of nationalism in the Americas and the policy of exclusion which took place fostering resentment. The idea that communities were created through the adoption of the printing press is also useful for imagining how it was formed. However what he forgets is the role of war and the myths which arose from sacrifice. Nationalism is related to the stories told within families and is based on the idea of the underdog, resistance and overcoming feeding into the fantasy world, usually of small boys.

Imagined communities is akin to the Sorelian myth, the vision of the world to come, fed to young boys. Without this familial indoctrination, then the newspaper finds no fertile ground to bolster the vision. Elias for example in his book on Germany focuses upon these stories of sacrifice and the role of iron within the German myth making - the iron cross arose from the aristocracy sacrificing their jewels to fund the war against Napoleon. Iron became rooted in strength and ritual, the base metal of the industrial revolution took on a symbolic power of the average German. Each became united within this Sorelian vision.

This book however fails to deal with psychology and therefore loses a star. It takes a more pedestrian role based on Skinner psychology of stimulus and response. People read stories and then respond to the meanings - absent is how they create the myths from them to make sense of their everyday worlds. Also missing is Fromm's send of loneliness and community which is remade within a sense of national brotherhood. The individual is essentially lonely as he/she moves away from the family structure and develops their own perspective. National brotherhood creates a fiction of belonging within people who appear to share values, culture, history and belonging.

This is where the imaginary resides. Anderson meanwhile offers some interesting ideas but fails to grasp the whole shift in thought created between 1789 and 1815 as new modes of being, thought and perspectives were introduced for feudal worlds completely reshaping them. However the ideas he does introduce from an American perspective are illuminating, making the links between the postman, the press and the newspaper in creating a national consciousness.

It is just that there is much more to say on the subject
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on 22 August 2015
The book was not as I expected it to be.

Not that it's not a well-researched, deep and interesting book. It is just that it wasn't as accessible, I had hard time to understand certain passages. There are many, many references and some of the quotations aren't translated.

I would place the burden on myself and not on the author. But be ready, the little previous at the back of the book has nothing to do with the complex work which constitues the book.
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on 31 December 2014
Just the book i needed. This new edition has 2 more chapters. It's excellent!
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on 24 November 2015
the best book about nationalism ever
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on 10 January 2015
Great and provocative writing.
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on 6 February 2014
This is a fantastic book. A true classic page turner you cannot go wrong purchasing this book. I am a very happy customer
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on 4 April 2011
I read it as part of my self-education about nationalism since it was a topic that I've always wondered about on the personal level. This book proved what I believed about nationalism but never strongly enough. I was a bit disappointed right after finishing reading it although the last chapter was very interesting and as a matter of fact, a creative way to finish a book about nationalism.
The book is something between a serious history reference book and an easy-to-read-for-everyone book and that was probably the thing that made me not enjoy it much. I felt it as a book with an identity crisis.
My review might sound confusing but that's exactly how I felt after reading it; confused!
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on 31 August 2015
Very good in the majority of respects. Can understand why Masters' students enjoyed this compared with so many of the dry texts
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