An imagined community is a concept developed by Benedict Anderson in his 1983 book Imagined Communities, to analyze nationalism. Anderson depicts a nation as a socially constructed community, imagined by the people who perceive themselves as part of that group.:6–7
The media also creates imagined communities, through usually targeting a mass audience or generalizing and addressing citizens as the public. Another way that the media can create imagined communities is through the use of images. The media can perpetuate stereotypes through certain images and vernacular. By showing certain images, the audience will choose which image they relate to the most, furthering the relationship to that imagined community.
According to Anderson, creation of imagined communities became possible because of "print capitalism". Capitalist entrepreneurs printed their books and media in the vernacular (instead of exclusive script languages, such as Latin) in order to maximize circulation. As a result, readers speaking various local dialects became able to understand each other, and a common discourse emerged. Anderson argued that the first European nation-states were thus formed around their "national print-languages."
According to Anderson's theory of imagined communities, the main causes of nationalism are the declining importance of privileged access to particular script languages (such as Latin) because of mass vernacular literacy; the movement to abolish the ideas of rule by divine right and hereditary monarchy; and the emergence of printing press capitalism ("the convergence of capitalism and print technology... standardization of national calendars, clocks and language was embodied in books and the publication of daily newspapers")—all phenomena occurring with the start of the Industrial Revolution.
While attempting to define nationalism, Anderson identifies three paradoxes:
"(1) The objective modernity of nations to the historians' eyes vs. their subjective antiquity in the eyes of nationalists. (2) The formal universality of nationality as a socio-cultural concept [and] (3) the 'political' power of such nationalisms vs. their philosophical poverty and even incoherence."
Anderson talks of Unknown Soldier tombs as an example of nationalism. The tombs of Unknown Soldiers are either empty or hold unidentified remains, but each nation with these kinds of memorials claim these soldiers as their own. No matter what the actual origin of the Unknown Soldier is, these nations have placed them within their own imagined community.
He defined a nation as "an imagined political community". As Anderson puts it, a nation "is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion". Members of the community probably will never know each of the other members face to face; however, they may have similar interests or identify as part of the same nation. Members hold in their minds a mental image of their affinity: for example, the nationhood felt with other members of your nation when your "imagined community" participates in a larger event such as the Olympic Games.
Finally, a nation is a community because,
regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings.
Benedict Anderson arrived at his theory because he felt that neither Marxist nor liberal theory adequately explained nationalism.
Anderson falls into the "historicist" or "modernist" school of nationalism along with Ernest Gellner and Eric Hobsbawm in that he posits that nations and nationalism are products of modernity and have been created as means to political and economic ends. This school stands in opposition to the primordialists, who believe that nations, if not nationalism, have existed since early human history. Imagined communities can be seen as a form of social constructionism on a par with Edward Said's concept of imagined geographies.
In contrast to Gellner and Hobsbawm, Anderson is not hostile to the idea of nationalism nor does he think that nationalism is obsolete in a globalizing world. Anderson values the utopian element in nationalism.
According to Harald Bauder, the concept of imagined communities remains highly relevant in a contemporary context of how nation-states frame and formulate their identities in relation to domestic and foreign policy, such as policies towards immigrants and migration. According to Euan Hague, "Anderson's concept of nations being 'imagined communities' has become standard within books reviewing geographical thought".
Even though the term was coined to specifically describe nationalism, it is now used more broadly, almost blurring it with community of interest. For instance, it can be used to refer to a community based on sexual orientation, or awareness of global risk factors.