Benedict Anderson

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Benedict Anderson
Historian, Professor
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Benedict Richard O'Gorman Anderson (August 26, 1936 – December 13, 2015) was Aaron L. Binenkorb Professor Emeritus of International Studies, Government & Asian Studies at Cornell University, and best known for his book Imagined Communities, first published in 1983. Anderson was born in Kunming, China, to James O'Gorman Anderson and Veronica Beatrice Bigham, and in 1941 the family moved to California. In 1957, Anderson received a Bachelor of Arts in Classics from Cambridge University, and he later earned a Ph.D. from Cornell's Department of Government, where he studied modern Indonesia under the guidance of George Kahin. He is the brother of historian Perry Anderson.

Anderson was born in 1936 in Kunming, China, to an Anglo-Irish father and English mother. His father, James Carew O'Gorman Anderson, was an official with Chinese Maritime Customs from Waterford in Ireland. The family descended from the Anderson family of Ardbrake, Bothriphnie, Scotland, who settled in Ireland in the early 1700s.[2][3][4] Benedict's grandmother, Lady Frances Anderson, belonged to the Gaelic Mac Gormáin clan of County Clare and was the daughter of the Irish Home Rule MP Major Purcell O'Gorman. Major Purcell O'Gorman was in turn the son of Nicholas Purcell O'Gorman who had been involved with the Republican Society of United Irishmen during the 1798 Rising, later becoming Secretary of the Catholic Association in the 1820s.[5][8][9] Benedict Anderson took his middle names from the cousin of Major Purcell O'Gorman, Richard O'Gorman, who was one of the leaders of the Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848.

Anderson was brought up mainly in California, and after moving to Ireland, studied at Eton College, where he won the Newcastle Scholarship, and at the University of Cambridge. His graduate work in politics at Cornell resulted in a paper (the "Cornell Paper") detailing the political situation in Indonesia for which he was barred from the country during the Suharto regime.

He was known for his book Imagined Communities, in which he described, using an historical materialist or Marxist approach, the major factors contributing to the emergence of nationalism in the world during the past three centuries. Anderson defined a nation as "an imagined political community [that is] imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign."

Anderson was professor emeritus of International Studies at Cornell University, and head of its Indonesian program. He wrote on twentieth-century Indonesian history and politics. He published on Thailand and the Philippines. As in the case of his work on Indonesia, his work on those countries was grounded in his linguistic ideas. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1994.

Anderson died in Batu, Malang, in his sleep on December 13, 2015.

Imagined Communities

Anderson argued that the main causes of nationalism and the creation of an imagined community are the reduction of privileged access to particular script languages (e.g. Latin), the movement to abolish the ideas of divine rule and monarchy, as well as the emergence of the printing press under a system of capitalism (or, as Anderson calls it, print capitalism).

Anderson's view of nationalism places the roots of the notion of 'nation' at the end of the 18th century. While Ernest Gellner considers the spread of nationalism in connection with industrialism in Western Europe (and thus not explaining sufficiently nationalism in the eastern non-industrialised European regions), Elie Kedourie connects nationalism with ideas of the Enlightenment, with the French revolution and the birth of the centralised French state, Anderson contends that the European nation-state came into being as a response to nationalism in the European diaspora beyond the ocean, in colonies, namely in both Americas.

He considers nation state building as imitative action, in which new political entities were "pirating" the model of the nation state. As Anderson sees it, the large cluster of political entities that sprang up in North America and South America between 1778 and 1838, almost all of which self-consciously defined themselves as nations, were historically the first such states to emerge and therefore inevitably provided the first real model of what such states should look like. If, for the more elite-centric theorizing of Kedourie, it was the Enlightenment and Kant who produced the "nation", Anderson holds that nationalism, as an instrument of nation-state building, began in the Americas and France. He calls this first wave nationalism, and ascribes to it a civic nationalist character, differentiating it from the ethnic nationalism of the second wave.

Nationalism and print

Of particular importance to Anderson’s theory is his stress on the role of printed literature and its dissemination. The rise of nationalism is in Anderson's thought closely connected with the growth of printed books and with the technical development of print as a whole.

According to Anderson, a new emerging nation imagines itself to be antique. In this he somewhat takes the point of Anthony D. Smith, who considers the nation-building mythology and national myths of the "origin" in rather functionalist terms—they are more invented narratives than real stories. Anderson supposes that "antiquity" was, at a certain historical juncture, the necessary consequence of "novelty". "Though after the 1820s, atavistic fantasizing characteristics of most nationalists appear an epiphenomenon: what is really important is the structural alignment of post 1820s nationalist ‘memory’ with the inner premises and conventions of modern biography and autobiography" (xiv).

Multi-ethnic empires

Anderson, more than other theoreticians, focuses his attention on the official nationalism in multiethnic empires. He introduces an important concept: “naturalization” of Europe's dynasties that represented retention of power over huge polyglot domains.

Some of them, like the Romanov empire, successfully transformed themselves into “national” empires. According to Anderson, in the course of the 19th century, the philological-lexicographic revolution and the rise of nationalist movements, themselves the products not only of capitalism, but of the hypertrophy of the dynastic states, created increasing cultural and therefore political difficulties for many “dynasts”. Until that time the legitimacy of these dynasties had nothing to do with nationalness.

Yet those dynasties, for exclusively administrative purposes, tried to settle on certain print-vernaculars before the nationalist big bang. Simultaneously with the rise of nationalism in Europe, there were tendencies among Central and Eastern Europe and Balkan monarchies to re-identify themselves, to re-legitimise themselves on nationalist grounds. This will for re-identification caused, in fact, well-known crises of legitimacy of multiethnic empires. Dynasties and monarchies, re-identifying themselves as members of the particular ethno-linguistic group, lost their universalistic legitimacy and became only the most privileged members of the one large family.

Anderson's historical materialist approach may be contrasted with Liah Greenfeld's methodological individualist or Max Weber's approach in "Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity".


Anderson was banned from Indonesia during the Suharto era because of his treatment of materials relevant to the overthrow of Sukarno. Wrote the Jakarta Post: "Anderson... was banned from entering Indonesia in 1973 after he and colleague Ruth McVey at Cornell produced a paper, known as the Cornell Paper disputing Indonesia's claim that the Sept. 30, 1965 Movement was the work of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI)." He returned to the country in 1999.

Selected works

In a statistical overview derived from writings by and about Benedict Anderson, OCLC/WorldCat encompasses roughly 100+ works in 400+ publications in 20+ languages and 7,500+ library holdings.

This is a dynamic list and may never be able to satisfy particular standards for completeness. You can help by expanding it with reliably sourced entries.
  • Some Aspects of Indonesian Politics under the Japanese Occupation: 1944–1945 (1961)
  • Mythology and the Tolerance of the Javanese (1965)
  • A Preliminary Analysis of the October 1, 1965, Coup in Indonesia (1966)
  • Java in a Time of Revolution; Occupation and Resistance, 1944–1946 (1972)
  • Religion and Social Ethos in Indonesia (1977)
  • Interpreting Indonesian Politics: Thirteen Contributions to the Debate (1982)
  • Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (1983)
  • In the Mirror: Literature and Politics in Siam in the American Era (1985)
  • Language and Power: Exploring Political Cultures in Indonesia (1990)
  • The Spectre of Comparisons: Nationalism, Southeast Asia, and the World (1998)
  • Violence and the State in Suharto's Indonesia (2001)
  • Western Nationalism and Eastern Nationalism: Is there a difference that matters? (2001)
  • Debating World Literature (2004)
  • Under Three Flags: Anarchism and the Anti-Colonial Imagination (2005)
  • The Fate of Rural Hell: Asceticism and Desire in Buddhist Thailand (2012)


  • Association for Asian Studies (AAS), 1998 Award for Distinguished Contributions to Asian Studies.



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