Benedict Anderson, a scholar of Southeast Asia who transformed the study of nationalism by positing that nations were “imagined communities” that arose from the fateful interplay of capitalism and the printing press, died on Saturday night at a hotel in Batu, Indonesia. He was 79.
Dr. Anderson’s best-known book, “Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism,” first published in 1983, began with three paradoxes: Nationalism is a modern phenomenon, even though many people think of their nations as ancient and eternal; it is universal (everyone has a nation), even though each nation is supposedly utterly distinctive; and it is powerful (so much so that people will die for their countries), even though on close inspection it is hard to define.
Dr. Anderson believed that liberal and Marxist theorists had neglected to appreciate the power of nationalism. “Unlike most other isms, nationalism has never produced its own grand thinkers: no Hobbeses, Tocquevilles, Marxes or Webers,” he wrote.
Trying to fill that void, Dr. Anderson argued that nations emerged only after three beliefs were weakened: that elite languages (like Latin) offered unique access to truth about existence; that society was naturally organized around leaders who ruled through divine dispensation; and that the origins of the world and of humankind were essentially identical.
Starting in Western Europe, economic change, scientific discoveries and a revolution in communication broke down those old beliefs. A new way to meaningfully link fraternity, power and time was needed to replace them.
Essential to this process was, as Dr. Anderson put it, “the revolutionary vernacularizing thrust of capitalism.” Mechanical reproduction of printed matter helped people who might have otherwise had trouble understanding one another in person — given enormous linguistic variations — to understand themselves as part of a community. It also slowed down changes within languages, making them seem fixed and stable. And it created “languages of power,” like the King’s English or High German, which were more prestigious than other vernacular tongues.
The result were communities — that is, nations — that were limited (every nation had borders) and sovereign (the Age of Enlightenment and political revolution had eroded the idea of divinely ordained dynastic rule).
By “imagined,” Dr. Anderson did not mean that nations are not real; indeed, he wrote, any community larger than a village in which people know one another face to face is to an extent imagined. The “deep horizontal comradeship” that characterizes a nation is socially constructed, he wrote, but also heartfelt and genuine; it explains why people die and kill for their countries.
While the preconditions were set in Europe, Dr. Anderson argued, the development of national consciousness began in the Western Hemisphere — in the United States, Brazil and the former Spanish colonies — in the late 18th century. From there, it spread to Europe and then to former colonies of Europe, in Africa and Asia.
Benedict Richard O’Gorman Anderson was born on Aug. 26, 1936, in Kunming, China, to an Irish father and an English mother. His father was a commissioner in the Imperial Maritime Customs Service, which was run by a European official who collected taxes on behalf of the Chinese government.
The family moved to California in 1941, and then to Ireland in 1945. He graduated from Cambridge University in 1957 with a degree in classics before enrolling at Cornell. He received his Ph.D. in government in 1967, and continued to teach there until his retirement, as an emeritus professor of international studies, in 2002.
While still a graduate student, he published, with Ruth T. McVey, a searing account of the Indonesian genocide of 1965-66, when, after a failed coup, at least 500,000 Indonesians were massacred because of real or supposed links to the Indonesian Communist Party. Dr. Anderson’s report helped undermine the official narrative of the coup. In retaliation, he was banned from the country in 1972, and returned only after the fall of the dictator Suharto in 1998.
(Long suppressed as a topic of discussion in Indonesia, the massacres were the subject of two recent documentaries, “The Act of Killing” and “The Look of Silence,” by the filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer.)
Dr. Anderson was renowned not only for his theoretical contributions but also for his detailed examinations of language and power in Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines; he was fluent in Indonesian, Javanese, Thai and Tagalog.
It was America’s bitter experience in the Vietnam War, and the clashes during that era among Vietnam, Cambodia and China — all Communist states — that prompted Dr. Anderson’s curiosity about the origins of nationalism.
Among his many other works are a collection of essays on nationalism in Southeast Asia; an essay on the social forces behind a 1976 counterrevolution in Thailand, three years after a student revolt there toppled a military dictatorship; an analysis of the influence of anarchist ideas on Filipino nationalism; a travelogue about Wat Phai Rong Wua, a popular Buddhist tourist destination in Thailand that tries to depict what hell would be like; and several books on language, power, violence and belief in Indonesia.
Dr. Anderson is survived by a brother, Perry, a British historian and essayist who edited The New Left Review; a sister, Melanie, an anthropologist; and two adopted sons, both of Indonesian origin.
At his death, Dr. Anderson had been finalizing an English translation of a memoir, “A Life Beyond Boundaries,” which was first published in Japanese. The book urges readers to resist the easy comforts of imagined homes; extols the joys of learning languages and of teaching and doing field work; and examines the New Left’s influence. It is scheduled to be published on July 6.