Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities
In his seminal work Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson investigated the constituting features of nationalisms. In doing so, he emphasized the key role of cultural aspects in forming an understanding of nations, and the way people conceive of themselves as a coherent community. Anderson argues that "nationality [â€¦], nation-ness, as well as nationalism, are cultural artifacts." He suggests that the term 'nation' or 'nationalism' ought be thought of in terms of kinship or religion rather than ideological 'isms' such as fascism or liberalism. Anderson accordingly defines 'nation' as an "imagined political community."
Nations are "imagined," because people of a specific nation may never come to meet every single member of their nation in person, nor even hear of them. Nevertheless, they perceive themselves as part of a larger group who share a common set of features such as language, religion or origin. Anderson explains that "in fact, all communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact [â€¦] are imagined."
The way these "imagined communities" or nations are conceived of contains two further characteristics: they are imagined as limited and sovereign. Nationalisms are limited in the sense that they attempt to define themselves against other nations. Anderson points out that "no nation imagines itself coterminus with mankind." Nations are also imagined as sovereign, since the rise of nation states was profoundly driven by the Enlightenment's deconstruction of the "divinely-ordained, hierachical dynastic realm" as the legitimate ruling mechanism. Self-determination, an elevated trust in the individual's majority, and freedom from obstructive dependencies formed the hallmarks during the late 17th and early 18th century.
Finally, Anderson explains that nations are imagined as communities, because they de-emphasize the socio-economic disparities amongst their populations in favor of the idea of a "deep, horizontal comradeship" in which all members share a certain set of 'sacred' features binding them together as a community.
A central element of Anderson's concept is the role of media, especially print media. With the help of newspapers, magazines, radio or television programs, a country is able to engage in a national conversation. As a result of this exchange, people become aware of their fellow citizens' existence, their shared experience and heritage, and realize that they belong to a community with hundreds of thousends or even millions of members even though these members will never come to physically meet each other. Media thus constructed a sense of national coherence, establishing a bond between its individual groups. "These fellow-readers," Anderson writes, "to whom they were connected through print, formed [â€¦] the embryo of the nationally imagined community."
Anderson's concept of nationalism may be summarized as follows: it is the notion that members of communities are conscious of their simultaneous existence, and that they are aware of the fact that they share a common set of features which allow them to conceive of themselves as a coherent body--a nation.
Jan Assmann, Cultural Memories
Jan Assmann is interested in how nations imagine themselves, though in a different way than Anderson's Imagined Communities. Assmann focuses specifically on national identity and memory. In addition to Anderson's anthroprological approach, Assmann thus adds a sociologic-mnemonical dimension. In his major work Das kulturelle Gedächtnis, Assmann analyzes the process of creating practices, symbols, and places that establish identity shaping narratives.
Drawing on the pioneering work of Maurice Halbwachs and his research in the field of collective memories, Assmann defines three elements that together constitute the pillars of a nation's historical self-image and national identity: a space-time reference, group specificity, and reconstructivity.
First, space, leaving time aside, is a crucial frame for the construction of identities. The family home, a village, a region or a specific landscape form affective spaces that carry community-strengthening experiences and memories. This becomes especially apparent once people leave their native environment and soon after come to identify it as "home".
Second, group specificity alludes to the fact that national identities do not form universally adoptable patterns. Each nation's narrative is associated with individual events and features that are emotive and value-laden and serve as distinctions from the 'other'. This point echoes Anderson in that nations imagine themselves as limited.
Finally, Assmann's third element, reconstructivity, describes the fluid and mouldable nature of national identities. He explains that these narratives are not fact-based representations of past times or real life features but rather the result of constant negotiation or reconstruction of experiences and memories, always subject to contemporary patterns of interpretation and interest.
Consisting of these three elements, national identity serves as a stabilizing and meaning-giving narrative particularly during times of transition and volatility. These cultural narratives are vocalized as well as validated by specialized and generally accepted persons or institutions such as poets, artists as well as intellectual and scholarly organizations. The practices, symbols or places that are defined by these cultural bearers may find expression in writing, music, dance, or painting. Assmann's conception of national identities is deeply rooted in a society's shared cultural experience and provides valuable insight into the arbitrariness and malleability of national narratives.