Benedict Anderson - Census, Map, Museum

Benedict Anderson - Census, Map, Museum


Benedict Anderson’s chapter in Imagined Communities describes how the historical implementation of censuses, maps and museums, specifically in colonised states, shapes nationalism as we know it (163). He uses Southeast Asia as an example to further this argument, showing how colonising powers introduced these classification methods which inevitably created geopolitical and racial boundaries. Ultimately, he suggests that this is how Southeast Asia was established formally as a region – through the imposition of these three concepts on a previously more fluid region.

He begins by discussing the census’ role in creating and solidifying categories. Census makers were from the western colonising countries and had the power to classify groups of people according to categories as they deemed fit, such as in terms of race and religion (164). This resulted in a quantifying take on the populations living in the region as a result of the colonial state (165). Moreover, as there were different colonial powers scattered throughout the region, each one came up with identifying categories of their own in order to make sense of the people around them (165). Anderson sums this process up with the quote: “the real innovation of the census-takers of the 1870s was, therefore, not in the construction of ethnic-racial classifications, but rather in their systematic quantification” (168). Colonial powers wanted a way to easily place people into categories – through undoubtedly western, self-serving approaches - hence diminishing the agency that people living in the region had in identifying themselves.

The second element Anderson proposes in cementing the idea of nationalism in Southeast Asia was the map. Boundary setting was a new concept there, as maps were “never situated in a larger, stable geographic context” in the past (172) – populations charted directions and landmarks in a way they themselves could understand. However, the quantifying methods of the west determined cartography for the region in a seemingly more “objective” representation. Even for kingdoms that were not colonised such as Thailand, the effect of the colonised states trickled down to them as a result of print-capitalism and the migration of cartography methods from the west. As Anderson puts it, maps were a “totalising classification” and also a form of “surveillance” (173) for the colonial powers.

Finally, Anderson describes the museum’s role in shaping the way people in Southeast Asia viewed themselves. Museums and the museumising imagination are “profoundly political” (178) by nature of the narratives established after curating the collection of artefacts. Anderson claims that the people themselves were not initially interested in the culture left behind by previous civilisations (179), but the colonisers were. He attributes this to an Orientalist lens through which the colonisers viewed locals, the desire to remind the locals of the power dynamic they held over them, and most importantly, the movement away from culture towards a more sanitised, categorised and secular version of the state (182). He emphasises the concept of “infinite reproducibility” in these museum artefacts (182), which I interpret as the removal of the more humanistic aspect of these culturally significant objects, such that they become merely logos for the state.

A theme that emerges across all three elements is the idea that there must be an exact, almost uncompromising manner in which people and objects belonging to a culture are classified - “a totalising classificatory grid” (184), in his terms. This method appears to depend on being quantifiable, convenient, and completely up to the colonising administration. It is a means for the colonisers to make the unknown known, in an almost reductionist way.

However, I find that this reading did not discuss the potential agency of the populations involved in establishing (or re-establishing) their identities, especially in the post-colonial period. Did locals have the ability to respond to these imposed categories, and how do these historical contexts play out today?


  • Why did census categories become more “visibly and exclusively racial”, while diminishing in categories of religious identity? (164)
  • The colonising powers were all different despite using similar totalising classification tactics for populations in the region - how did they come to a consensus on where lines should be drawn? (Related to the map exercise we did last class which emphasised the almost arbitrary nature of drawing geopolitical boundaries)


Danielle, This is an excellent reading of the text that very succinctly captures the main points. Your point about how it fails to address agency is very thoughtful. But I wonder if Anderson is being deliberate in this? Were he still alive to reply, he would likely retort that the very agency to identify an identity is itself bound up in the classificatory projects his piece describes. While the boundaries of the categories might change in the post-colonial era, the push to count people, map boundaries, and make museums that represent national histories is just as strong, or even stronger, in the post-colonial era.