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“Imagined Communites” and the World We Live In

GraceNL's picture

“Imagined Communites” and the World We Live In

            What do you define as your community? Your neighborhood? Your town? Your country? The world? It’s hard to say for myself what I identify my community as. In some ways I thought of it as my town and now that I am at Bryn Mawr College, my college. But in other ways I thought of my overarching community as my country. I am a citizen of The United States of America, doesn’t that make me part of the American community? But what really is the American community?

            According to the Cambridge Free English Dictionary a community is “all the people who live in a particular area, or a group of people who are considered as a unit because of their shared interests or background”. But the United States isn’t full of people with shared interests and backgrounds. Neither is my town, nor my college. All these places that I could consider my community are actually full of very diverse groups of people. Full of people with a very wide variety of different interests. Full of people from all over the world, with all different experiences and stories. So why do I consider these my communities?

In Mary Louise Pratt’s Art of the Contact Zone she talks about Benedict Anderson’s idea of “imagined communities” (37). She discusses the idea that as “Anderson observes that with the possible exception of what he calls ‘primordial villages,’ human communities exist as imagined entities in which people ‘will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion’” (37). This was the first time I’d ever heard the term “imagined communities” and yet it perfectly described the world I’ve been living in.

The world I live in is full of neighborhoods, towns, cities, counties, states, and countries. The world I live in is full of these so-called “imagined communities” but almost no one thinks of them that way. They are just our communities.

I didn’t know it then but my experience of my first encounter with my roommate would fit into this idea of “imagined communities”. My roommate and I share a common community; we are both from the United States. We both were going to share the Bryn Mawr community. Yet we didn’t know each other even existed. Before that initial email from student life telling me my roommates name and what room we got, I’d never even heard of her. Before my first glance at her FaceBook profile I didn’t know anything about her. Before our first meeting on move in day I didn’t really know her.

Though both of us made up a part of the so-called American community we both didn’t know anything about most of the people we shared our community with. One of the only things we shared as part of the American community was a common national language. As Pratt says, “The prototype of the modern nation as imagined community was, it seemed to me, mirrored in the ways people thought about language and speech community” (38).

My roommate and I are both part of the American “imagined community” but we are also both part of the American “speech community”. And for us, this common American “speech community” united us far more than our American “imagined community”. As described my Pratt “’speech communities’ … tended to be theorized as discrete, self-defined, coherent entities, held together by a homogenous competence or grammar shared identically and equally among members” (37).

The “speech community” phenomenon unites the United States far more than any other so called common attribute. It may not be perfect, not everyone may follow it, but by far it is the most uniting element of this country, and of other counties for that matter. Every country has one or more national languages and these languages help define who and what that country is made up of. Those languages help unite the countries as actual communities.

            This is not something most people think about. Most people don’t think about being part of “speech communities” or “imagined communities”. Most people just consider themselves as part of a general community. But that is ok. Because if the idea of living as part of a united community helps encourage people to help one another and not turn their backs on the problems of society than it is worth it.

            What I have learned from Mary Louise Pratt’s Art of the Contact Zone is that we all live in “imagined communities” and the contact zone. And that these things go hand in hand. We experience the contact zone everyday in all of our daily interactions and it is affected by our “imagined communities”. What ‘community’ we perceive that we live in affects the way we feel and act. Our idea of a shared community makes us want to help one another. Makes us perceive the world a certain way. And I like that.

            I like that I feel like I’m part of something, part of a community, even if it is only imagined. It guides me in my principles and actions. And for me one of my most influencial ‘communities’ is Bryn Mawr College. I may not have been here long but I feel as if I am part of a succinct community here, as if I belong. And that’s what I believe is the whole point of “imagined communities”, a place where someone feels they can belong.