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imagined communities.

by amelia

i’ve been reading benedict anderson’s seminal work on nationalism, imagined communities.  and i’m curious how some of its key ideas relate to the community and power structure of mormonism. 

anderson argues that the rise of print-capitalism and print-languages gave rise to a completely new perception of nation-ness.  according to anderson, prior to print-capitalism states were defined vertically through the king or god figurehead at the top of the social structure.  as such their boundaries were porous–easily manipulated by shifting allegiances and marriages between heads of states.  post-print-capitalism, vernacular achieved primacy over state languages and, accordingly, created much stronger boundaries.  as anderson puts it, you can sleep with anyone, but you can’t read just anyone’s language.  as a result of the primacy of vernacular, states became more horizontal in nature, rather than vertical.  heads of states became representatives of englishness or germanness and, as such, were seen as more equal to their subjects than previously.  and, according to anderson, community shifted from being something experienced in daily life to something imagined on the basis of shared reading–reading specifically of novels and newspapers.

i’m particularly interested in the idea of imagined communities–this notion that a community is perceived based on shared reading.  in mormonism, the primacy of the book of mormon lends itself to this interpretation.  the community of mormonism is essentially premised on a common reading experience–one that led to a spiritual confirmation of certain truths, which is an experience all mormons are believed to have in common (at least in the minds of most TBMs).  but the reality is that we are not truly a community; we are a group of individuals, few of whom have shared actual life experiences (this in spite of the small mormon world; and i believe this is true even at the local level of the ward community), who imagine ourselves a community because of shared reading and worship experiences.

another idea anderson glosses is from a 19th century french sociologist, renan, who suggests that communities have much in commun but also must forget much.  i’m interested in what that means for a religious community like mormonism.  what is it that we must forget in order to make our community possible?

and to what extent are we part of an imagined community rather than an actual community, even at the local level?

just some kind of scattered food for thought.

Amelia

Amelia has recently relocated to Salt Lake City for her new job selling college textbooks (a job she loves). She's a 9th generation Mormon redefining her relationship with the church (the church she both loves and hates). She's passionate about books, travel, beauty, and all things cheese.

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6 Responses

  1. Caroline says:

    Wow, so interesting. I would say that for Mormons, it’s not just shared reading of scriptures that are assumed to make community, it’s also shared experiences of other types of media, like general conference. Is there a substantive difference between communities formed by reading than by communities formed by other media?

    When you say that Mormons don’t truly have actual community, even at a ward level, I know what you mean. But I do wonder if Mormons do experience true community on a more micro level, as groups of Mormons within the ward form small groups and develop tight friendships. I’m thinking of the young moms in student housing in my ward in particular.

    As for the point about forgetting… that’s fascinating. I wonder if Mormons have collectively forgotten just how radically progressive early Mormonism was with its ideas about the United Order, etc. I also wonder if the current Mormon imagined community is in the process of forgetting its ugly history on the issue of blacks and civil rights.

  2. Dora says:

    In reality, I find that mormon communities are as much bound by shared reading as it is by cultural ties … at least when it comes to unmarried people. Most LDS single people I know socialize almost exclusively with other LDS single people. And yes, most of this is probably driven by the desire to marry within the faith.

    However, there is also the idea that it’s just easier. One doesn’t have to explain to the noninitiated about the Word of Wisdom, garments, chastity before marriage, and all the other things that make us a peculiar people. Yes, some of us may be reading the Book of Mormon on a regular basis, but I doubt it comes up in regular conversation outside of Sundays. A friend once compared it to the military as a society that provides enough for its members that there is generally not a need to mix with outsiders.

    Is it the same for married folks?

  3. Melanie says:

    It’s interesting when one applies “imagined communities” to General Conference. The idea that people worldwide are sitting down to watch it at the same time, the reading of statistics, the fact that the Conference itself becomes a text published the next month in the Ensign (complete with pictures of people in foreign countries watching conference!) definitely seems in tune with Anderson’s argument. it’s interesting to think about Mormons as a kind of a nation, I’d never thought about it that way before.

  4. D'Arcy says:

    I like this food for thought. I have been reflecting on the community the church provided for me now that I have made a break from said community. I feel like there was TOO much I couldn’t forget or ignore or deal with in the community. I came to find disharmony in the scriptures and in the teachings.

    Which bodes the question, how many differing opinions can a community support until it finally falls apart?

  5. Jessawhy says:

    great post, amelia.

    This really interests the political scientist in me.
    My first thought about our imagined/real community as Mormons is that we have the McDonald’s factor to a certain extent. No matter where you go, you’ll sing the same hymns, sit at a pew, listen to testimony meeting, etc. The assurance of continuity is part of community that many people value.

    Perhaps the assumption of sameness is what creates the imagined community. This would actually make a lot of sense if people don’t really articulate exactly what they think of their church experience and share it with others. “For me church is this . . .” could perhaps be quite different from other people’s experience, but since we don’t really talk in these terms, it’s hard to know.

    This would be a great topic at the Counterpoint conference, or even Sunstone.
    You should submit it!

  1. December 30, 2009

    […] Help me look beyond complexion and see community. […]

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