Statement of Commendation

Albert O. Hirschman Prize, 2011

Recipient: Benedict Anderson

2011 Albert O. Hirschman Selection Committee:
Barbara Stallings, Brown University
Edward Glaeser, Harvard University
Margaret Levi, University of Washington

The nation-state remains the world’s central political unit, and much of humanity identifies strongly with their nation in World Cup games or war. Many scholars have noted that nationalism is not innate. For much of history, humans identified with their family or local community and had little connection with any larger polity. Benedict Anderson has done as much as anyone to help us understand how the “imagined communities” of nations are formed.

Anderson was born in China in 1936, moved to California in 1941, and then to Ireland. He studied at Eton and received first class honors in Classics in 1957 from Cambridge. He then went to Cornell for his graduate work on Southeast Asia, studying with George Kahin among others, and beginning a relationship with that university that has lasted more than 50 years.

At Cornell, he also began his 50-year involvement with the study of Indonesia and its politics. A 1961 SSRC Fellowship funded his research on the 1945 Indonesian Revolution, and he first visited the country in 1962. His work on Indonesia at the end of World War II produced his superb book Java in a Time of Revolution (Cornell, 1972).

But Anderson became far better known for his observations on a contemporary issue. His early observation of the failed September 30, 1965, coup, written jointly with Ruth McVey, challenged the Indonesian government’s story that the Indonesian Communist Party lay behind the uprising. Anderson and McVey argued that “the effective core of the September 30th Movement appears to have been a small group of ‘young officers.’” If they were right, then the army itself was responsible for an uprising that was being used to justify a massive purge of Indonesian communists.

Anderson and McVey circulated their explosive hypothesis confidentially to a small group of fellow scholars at Cornell, but the Washington Post got the story. The “Cornell Paper,” as it was known, became famous. Anderson paid a heavy price for his attempt to question the official story: he was banned from Indonesia for 26 years during the Suharto regime.

Yet despite the ban, Anderson continued to be a prolific student of Indonesia. He edited the journal Indonesia for 18 years, which was one outlet for his many articles on that country. His scholarship reminds us that profound involvement and knowledge of a single nation can lead to insights that are relevant throughout the globe.

For Anderson’s Indonesia scholarship brought forth his masterpiece Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism (Verso, 1983). As of May 2011, the work has received over 20,000 citations on Google Scholar, far more than other well-known works on nationalism by Hobsbawm and Gellner. It has become a seminal text for understanding the strange phenomenon of national identity.

Imagined Communities is a special book in many ways. The breadth of its scholarship is dramatic. Anderson writes authoritatively about Southeast Asia, of course, but he is almost as impressive in his writing about Latin American nationalism or the older nationalist movements in Europe. His writing is clear and incisive, accessible enough for the generalist but precise enough to satisfy experts. Unlike many other students of the topic, Anderson manages to be well aware of the absurdities of national myths (e.g., “the objective modernity of nations to the historian’s eye vs. their subjective antiquity to the eyes of nationalists”), but free from the anti-nationalist rhetoric that is part of the Marxist tradition. This is true scholarship, not polemic, and that gives it its power.

In the three decades since Imagined Communities was published, the importance of nationalism has not diminished. The break-up of the old Soviet empire saw wars in the Balkans that were justified with appeals to ancient nationalist tales. The interplay between nationalism and religion in the Middle East continues to shape history. Anderson’s analysis remains a superb starting point for understanding these events.

Anderson has continued to be prolific, writing both for specialists and a more general audience. He has produced a large roster of important students, who have also helped to shape our understanding of Indonesia. He is a great scholar, and we are pleased to honor him with the Hirschman Award.