6.3. Imagined Communities

We do mental work to feel connected with the 7.5 billion people we’ve never met.

Communities are more than just the people we live near and interact with.

There are seven and a half billion people on this planet…and at most, we’re probably only ever going to meet a few tens of thousands of them face-to-face.

That’s why the concept of “imagined communities” is so important.

It was coined by sociologist Benedict Anderson to account for this enormous gap between the few people we meet, and the millions or billions of others with whom we still nevertheless feel a sense of community or belonging.

“Members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them,” he wrote, “yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.”

He’s pointing out that we do mental work to feel connected with all these people we’ve never met.

By having something in common with someone—whether it’s our race, our gender, our nationality, or even our favorite TV show or sports team—we imagine they’re “one of us.” We imagine we share common traits, common values, and have had similar experiences.

It’s a pretty arbitrary, baseless, and error-riddled process, when you think about it.

There are many ways we’re similar or different from each other. Yet we pick a few of those things, make them central to our identity, and then use stereotypes to determine who among these people we’ve never met is worthy of our trust.

Race and ethnicity seem to be one of our biggest differences. But more than 99% of our DNA is the same across races. Far more genetic variations occur within races, not across different races.

But skin color is a very visible trait. And our ancestors mistakenly believed that must have meant something. The whole history of racial conflict and oppression was borne from this tragic error in how we imagine communities.

Countries are pretty arbitrary too. Why do we feel like just because we all live inside an imaginary border, we must have something in common?

Even though nations are only a few hundred years old, we tell ourselves stories that stretch all the way back to the beginning of civilization, to make our countries seem natural and inevitable. We do all that work to feel like we’re one people.

We can’t avoid imagining communities. There are just too many people out there.

But we should at least be mindful of how we’re doing it, and acknowledge what an error-riddled process it is.

People start wars because of how they imagine communities. People enslave and oppress other people, because of how they imagine communities.

Here in the U.S., the way we imagine half the country as arrogant liberal elites and the other half as backward, bigoted conservatives has put our democracy in jeopardy.

Think about how you imagine communities.

Think about the shortcuts you use to sort the whole world into “us” and “them” categories—that are questionable at best, and flat-out prejudiced at worst.

As small as this world is, I think we have to increasingly imagine ourselves as one global community.

But as populous as we are, we’re increasingly likely to lean even more heavily on our imagined communities to keep sorting ourselves into separate tribes.

It’s a tendency we have to resist.


This is the 95th in a series of over 150 videos about how to create real, lasting social change. Click here for a list of all titles, videos, and transcripts.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *