Imagined Anthropological Communities (that’s right: another post about publishing & open access)

Benedict Anderson’s* classic text “Imagined Communities” happens to be a pretty fascinating book to read while thinking about academia, communication, open access, publishing, and the formation of community.  Anderson’s argument is that print capitalism provided a critical medium that facilitated the production of national identities:

Speakers of a huge variety of Frenches, Englishes, or Spanishes, who might find it difficult or even impossible to understand one another in conversation, became capable of comprehending one another via print and paper.  In the process, they gradually became aware of the hundreds of thousands, even millions, of people in their particular language-field, and at the same time that only those hundreds of thousands, or millions, so belonged.  These fellow-readers, to whom they were connected through print, formed, in their secular, particular, visible invisibility, the embryo of the nationally imagined community (2006: 44).

However, as Anderson goes on to point out, there are limits to this construction of imagined communities: “The nation is imagined as limited because even the largest of them, encompassing perhaps a billion living human beings, has finite, if elastic boundaries, beyond which lie other nations” (2006: 7).  Nations have edges–they do not include every possible member of the human species.  These communities are inclusive and exclusive all at once.  Language, transmitted through a particular medium (in this case print capitalism) can be marshaled to engender powerful shared social meanings and connections.  But the reverse is also true.  Language and communication can also be used (purposefully or not) as a means of exclusion.

Think about those ideas on a much smaller scale.  Way smaller.  Academics–and anthropologists in particular–form a certain kind of imagined community as well.  This community, based upon a certain set of supposedly shared concepts, ideas, and texts, expands around the world–at least in theory.  These networks definitely do extend across political and social boundaries, even if there are definite limits.  But there is certainly an imagined anthropological community out there, even though the vast majority of us “anthropologists” will never meet one another.  Fascinating, isn’t it?  But this isn’t just about anthropologists, it’s about the formation of community.  What borders surround these imagined anthropological communities? What allows people in, and what keeps them out?  More importantly, what purpose is served by these borders and boundaries, and why are they upheld?

Our use of media (print, visual, etc) is one key factor, and this is why I am so fascinated by the recent discussions about open access and publishing in anthropology (see this link for a collection of some of these recent posts).  It matters, in the end, how we use media.  It matters who reads and “consumes” everything that anthropologists write and create.  So it makes sense to start thinking about how anthropologists produce and disseminate their ideas through media, where those ideas end up, and how they are received by different audiences.  It probably makes even more sense to actually do something about these self-induced and not-so-necessary borders.  I have already mentioned this before, but Harry Wolcott once wrote that much qualitative social science is basically a closed system.  In the case of anthropology, it is anthropologists who read and consume what other anthropologists produce.  As Barbara Fister might say: We pretty much tend to our own little “walled gardens.”  Why?  Do we think that our ideas only belong in our own social circles?

So then…what will it take to begin opening the gates to our little enclosed academic gardens?  Should be follow the path that economists have taken?  Should we get inspiration from some early pioneers of open access?  Does anthropology need to look to the future and go for the gold?   When are we going to really start looking outside of our walled gardens?**  What really needs to happen to make this a reality?  Is there a need for more media-based training in anthropology grad programs?  Do we need to rethink how we write and produce media?  What about adding an emphasis on audio-visual training, design, etc?  Photography?  Video?  Or maybe it’s time to encourage more collaboration with other depts in the production of anthropological media?  Are some programs already doing things like this?  What other avenues are out there?

Benedict Anderson argues that communities can be distinguished not by their relative authenticity, but instead “by the style in which they are imagined” (2006: 6).  So how do anthropologists distinguish themselves as a community?  As members of the general public or isolated specialists?  How do we imagine ourselves?  More importantly, how should we re-imagine ourselves in order to transform the community that is anthropology?



*We share the same last name, but that’s about it.  To my knowledge I am not in any way related to Benedict Anderson.  Just FYI.

**My first glimpse outside the walled garden that is anthropology was when I was doing some research for a paper on the INTERNET while I was an undergrad.  For some, that is a crime right then and there.  By happenstance, I stumbled upon this site called “Project Gutenberg.”  Maybe I wasn’t the most savvy of undergrads, but this was my first run-in with open access publishing.  Entire books, for free?  Admittedly, many of them were old, but there was (and still is) a lot of good stuff to be found there, and the overall aim of the project is definitely admirable.  It was a sign of things to come.


Ryan Anderson is a cultural and environmental anthropologist. His current research focuses on coastal conservation, sustainability, and development in the Californias. He also writes about politics, economics, and media. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

8 thoughts on “Imagined Anthropological Communities (that’s right: another post about publishing & open access)

  1. I wonder to what extent anthropology conceived as an imagined community actually displays the consciousness of shared homogeneity that Anderson saw emerging in nation-states as the result of uniform education and mass media? Could it be instead that anthropology is doubly imaginary, since people who get degrees from different departments and specialize in particular interests and areas attach quite different meanings to what “anthropology” means? Like potsherds imagining themselves as the pot?

  2. Interesting comment John

    Could it be instead that anthropology is doubly imaginary, since people who get degrees from different departments and specialize in particular interests and areas attach quite different meanings to what “anthropology” means?

    Maybe the question should be rephrased by changing “anthropology” to “culture,” the core concept that supposedly unifies the anthropological discipline and paradigm.

  3. The idea that a culture need not be completely shared can be traced back at least as far as A. Irving Hallowell’s Culture and Exerience. That, at least, is where I discovered it. The critical question is, of course, how much overlap is required before a group falls apart or, conversely, how much diversity is compatible with the level of cooperation required for collective survival.

  4. “Language and communication can also be used (purposefully or not) as a means of exclusion.”

    I couldn’t agree more. Recently I have been studying various theories on teaching writing, or what most of us know as Comp. There is still a huge debate over whether or not teaching the classic, prescriptive, 5 paragraph essay format is relevant in today’s society in the U.S. Contrary to this is the expressivist theorists, who recognized that people were just writing how they thought professors expected them to, but essentially were no longer being truthful in what they were writing (this is a little off topic so I’ll leave it at that). Their chief argument was that the prescriptive practices were instilling a sort of linear mode (topic/thesis, supporting arguments, conclusion) of thinking that was structuring the way students not only thought about writing essays, but was even carrying over into how they thought about and approached academics in general. Basically, students were being taught to establish a thesis, statement or theory, before they had even done the research. And if their research contradicted their original statement, they didn’t change it.

    Now, this alone is a bad enough problem in terms of linguistics, cognitive, structuralism, post-struct., etc. However, another issue I have seen arising has been in the, for lack of a better way to put it, narrow-mindedness of the people teaching Comp and fundamental English. A lot of teachers have been complaining about declining standards, how we are lowering standards, and the overall ability of students these days. I try to explain to them that student population growth occurs at an exponential rate, we are dealing with a lot more students these days, and in our particular state we are only recently dealing with a large, ethnically diverse population.

    In adhering to the prescriptive grammar and English that many of us grew up with we are setting the bar according to a level of English that is only being met, achieved, or otherwise accomplished, in private schools and higher education. We are not taking into consideration the fact that public schools within the same state are not equal in terms of funding and teachers, that various ethnic backgrounds are continuously left behind or passed along, and we have still refused to begin dealing with the fact that we are now a bilingual state with English being a second language. Simply put, we are excluding whole heaps of students from achieving because they have been limited in what prescriptive rules of English they have been taught. So, yes, in the U.S. we are excluding by language.

    Expressivist theory in Rhetoric is one possibility to overcome this, however, it is likely something that will only be seen in liberal writing courses at the college level.

  5. It is remarkable that one so aware of such material facts as exponential student population growth, increasing diversity, and inequality in funding and teachers should conclude that “Expressivist theory in Rhetoric” is a possible solution. It is hard to imagine anything more like chasing rainbows and stepping in a cow pie.

    Meanwhile, given no changes in the structural conditions of their lives, students allowed to express themselves in their own idiolects will become even more unemployable. Teachers who go this route need to face the bloody fact that they are willing accomplices in structural violence and class reproduction.

  6. Could it be instead that anthropology is doubly imaginary, since people who get degrees from different departments and specialize in particular interests and areas attach quite different meanings to what “anthropology” means? Like potsherds imagining themselves as the pot?

    Hey John,

    Anthropology is probably at least doubly imaginary in this sense. no? Maybe we’re all like potsherds from various different pots (programs, training, understandings of anthro), who imagine that we all come from one ideal vessel. Now I’m getting deep!

    Anyway, I agree with you John that “anthropology” is an umbrella term that casts a shadow over a diverse, fragmented collective. But then, nation states never are as homogenous and uniform as the national origin stories and media pretend either. What’s interesting with anthropology is this constant tension between the different versions of anthropology and attempts to bridge gaps, boundaries, and differences.

  7. I agree that the constant tension is interesting. Why? Because it is the normal state of, to borrow Thomas Kuhn’s phrase “pre-paradigmatic” bodies of knowledge. I think of the Daoists and other ritual healers with whom I worked in Taiwan and the people in the advertising industry with whom I have worked since. Both exemplify—along with anthropologists, I believe—wannabe professionals whose activities lack the clear definitions and state-imposed legal sanctions that define the prototypical professions: law and medicine. We form groups that split into smaller groups, whose relations with each other are highly ambivalent, a mixture of treasure tales and witchcraft accusations of the sort George Foster talked about in “The Image of the Limited Good.” Tensions? You bet. A regular part of the package.

    We tend to forget when we mention Benedict Anderson’s “imaginary communities,” that the central point of his analysis was the contribution of institutions—mass education and mass media to creating the imagined consensus on which the nation-state depends for legitimation. (I would add conscript armies and codified laws to the mechanisms in question.)

    The grand narratives that defined the current boundaries of academic disciplines were intended to play a similar function, assigning each field a territory to cultivate and call its own. The breakdown of those grand narratives has revealed the weakness of the underlying institutional structure to which they lent support. The resulting confusion is by no means confined to anthropology. It now seems endemic in all of the humanities and social sciences.

  8. the study of human being with a context of past, present,future, biologically, culturally and a being of society avobe all holisticallt study of human being is called anthropology.

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