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Postcolonial Studies


Postcolonial studies designates a broad, multidisciplinary field of study that includes practitioners from literary, cultural, and media studies, history, geography, art history, philosophy, anthropology, sociology, and political economy. Postcolonial studies is the analysis of the phenomenon of imperialism and its aftermath: slavery, colonialism, nationalism, independence, and migration. Its eclectic disciplinary and methodological range differentiates postcolonial studies from its subdivision field of "postcolonial theory," which is dominated by practitioners of literary studies who conceptualize narrative structures, representations of cultural difference, and strategies of subject-formation in colonial and postcolonial texts.

Edward Said's Orientalism (1978) initiated the entry of post-colonial studies into the metropolitan academies of Europe and the United States. Said's study draws upon the ideas of Antonio Gramsci and Michel Foucault to explore constructions of "the Orient" by European and American politicians, scholars, and artists. The intellectual origins of postcolonial studies are more debatable. Deconstructionist or postmodernist practitioners (including Homi Bhabha and Gayatri Spivak) regard Orientalism as the inaugural text of postcolonial studies, while for Marxist or materialist practitioners (including Timothy Brennan, Benita Parry, and E. San Juan, Jr.), the field's origins are much earlier, with the predominantly Marxist anti-colonial writings of activist-intellectuals that include George Antonius, Edward Wilmot Blyden, Simon Bolivar, Amilcar Cabral, Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, Marcus Garvey, C. L. R. James, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, George Padmore, Roberto Fernández Retamar, Walter Rodney, Jean-Paul Sartre, Léopold Senghor, and Eric Williams.

Many prominent contemporary practitioners originate from Asia (Aijaz Ahmad, Bhabha, Said, San Juan, Jr., Spivak); Africa (Chinua Achebe, Mahmoud Mamdani, Achille Mbembe, V. Y. Mudimbe, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Wole Soyinka); and Latin America and the Caribbean (E. Kamau Brathwaite, Ariel Dorfman, Eduardo Galeano, Eduoard Glissant, Wilson Harris, Jamaica Kincaid). Of these, the majority have relocated to Europe or North America, where there is no intellectual monopoly on postcolonial intellectual practices but where practitioners enjoy the lion's share of material resources to publish and distribute postcolonial academic materials.

Colonial Encounters

Materialist postcolonial scholars understand colonialism to be a territorial expression of political-economic expansionism. Its foundations in domination, appropriation, and exploitation place the colonizer and colonized populations in a fundamentally antagonistic relationship that Fanon famously described as "Manichean." Deconstructionists tend instead to understand colonialism as a cultural, epistemological, or psychological condition, and they perceive its political dimension as a "will to power" that operates autonomously of material determinants. In general, deconstructionists regard Fanon's Manicheanism as a binary opposition that requires breaking down. Accordingly, they interpret colonial dynamics as ambivalent, indeterminate, or negotiated.

All practitioners share an understanding that colonies played a constitutive role in the emergence and development of metropolitan Europe. These global dependencies have been studied in all spheres of human activity: cultural, economic, subject-formation. Ann Laura Stoler and others have developed Foucault's ideas of power/knowledge, discourse, and governmentality. This Foucauldian wing analyzes the production and regulation of colonial identities through modes of government, sexuality and gender, and educational systems. Colonial discourse analysis is concerned with knowledge production by various agencies of empire about colonized "others" (travel writers, missionaries, administrators, merchants, ethnographers, and so forth). Some practitioners emphasize the "epistemic violence" performed by these discourses; others emphasize their self-deconstructive qualities. Marxist studies have instead used concepts of ideology to explore the relations between imperialist ideologies and material practices, and consider the ways in which imperialist activities have denied and distorted indigenous social, cognitive, and cultural structures. Deconstructionists reason in spatial terms: space confers a single homogeneous political, social, ideological, and cultural identity upon its occupants (the West, Europe, Africa). Materialists criticize this approach for being monolithic, and explore instead the dynamic social-economic processes and diverse human agencies that, for them, operate within certain spaces.


Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities (1983) has been influential in its suggestion that nationalism is constitutively paradoxical, the expression of a historical rupture that must assert itself as an historical continuity. This has encouraged studies of the temporality of nationalism and highlighted the function of print capitalism in the development of national identities. Divisions between materialism and deconstructionism feature in studies of nationalism as they do in debates over colonialism. Materialists analyze historical anticolonial nationalist resistance as a collective and liberatory struggle for self-determination; deconstructionists analyze it as a master narrative derived from and complicit with the West. The Western source is, for some deconstructionist thinkers, the Enlightenment, for others, humanism, for others, colonialism, and for others, European nationalism.

According to materialists, anticolonial nationalism has historically mobilized leaders and masses as a political unity that represents the needs and desires of the entire colonized population. Materialist scholars apply class analysis to differentiate between socialist, populist nationalisms and bourgeois nationalisms. Their approach rests on a dialectical understanding of the reciprocal transformability of leaders and masses as political agents.

Deconstructionists, who see the concept of political unity as a ruse, question such an understanding. They contend that it is the interests of a male social elite that nationalism actually served (and serves) and that these interests conflict with the interests of women, the peasantry, workers, and the poor. The deconstructionist critique of nationalism rests on a categorical or structural (as opposed to a dialectical and historical) understanding, which posits that these heterogeneous groups are fixed in their autonomous, essentially cultural, differences. Any claim, or attempt, to unify them does violence to those differences; any attempt to politically represent, or "speak as" the entire dominated population is actually an exploitative act of "speaking for," that is, another example of self-consolidation through others.


Debates over nationalism have intensified studies of anticolonial resistance in general. The conventional historical distinction between primary resistance (physical opposition to initial colonial invasion) and secondary resistance (constitutionalist struggles against an established colonial administration) has been augmented and contested by a broad range of studies. These have examined spontaneous political uprisings, local insurgencies, and industrial action, and have tended to focus analysis on the consciousness of the resisters. The indirect, everyday, cultural, religious articulations of anticolonial resistance have also been energetically analyzed and theorized, as have women's resistances. In this context, Bhabha's notions of "sly civility" and "mimicry" have been widely circulated.

Some practitioners have been prompted by a postmodern politics of difference, while others have seen their work as an extension of Marxist and nationalist politics. Both tendencies, however, evaluate the material value of culture and debate the relationship between cultural and political expressions of resistance. Some have analyzed a dialectical relationship; others have seen culture as necessarily preceding political forms. Still others have seen culture as following from politics.

In general, recent critical studies of resistance have disputed developmental models that posit a qualitative linear progression of resistance and consciousness "from protest to challenge." For some, this model denies the heterogeneity of resistant currents at work in any one historical movement or moment; others object to the teleological worldview, or belief in the idea of progress, to which this model subscribes.

Decolonization, Postindependence and Neocolonialism

The debate over nationalism extends to the nation-state and to nationalism's legacy in postindependent societies. Deconstructionists argue that the state is an alien structure imposed by colonialism. By adopting it as their goal and means of social liberation, anticolonial nationalists doomed themselves to cultural inauthenticity and to political failure. Against this, materialists have argued that the state, as a political structure, has its origins in precolonial, not colonial, polity. They suggest that in a world increasingly governed by global capitalism, the state potentially provides an important safeguard of human needs. As a structure it is uniquely accountable to, and transformable by, its populations; the nation-state remains a tool to oppose neocolonialism.

Both tendencies agree that there are serious difficulties besetting much of the postcolonial world. Materialists regard and study political corruption, ethnic and religious conflicts, patriarchal practices, gross socioeconomic inequality, and national debt as originating in colonialism and in contemporary global configurations of capitalism that follow a neocolonial dynamic. Postmodernists interpret these same phenomena as arising from the structural flaws of nationalism itself.

Historical and Regional Contexts

Academic postcolonial studies initially focused largely on the imperial metropoles, colonies, and former colonies of Britain and France. It has subsequently expanded to include critical analysis of other European imperialisms (Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, German) and that of the United States. The field has additionally investigated transnationalism, race, ethnicity, diaspora, and globalization, which now operate as autonomous academic fields. The institutional relationship of postcolonial to ethnic studies and to area studies varies; in some instances, mergers of these previously discrete programs and departments have occurred.

Different regions are associated with different intellectual concerns and contributions. The study of race, for example, has been particularly pronounced in work from (and about) Africa and the Caribbean, challenging orthodox political economy by arguing that, historically, enslaved labor did not precede but was integral to the development of metropolitan capitalism. This work insists on the economic as well as the ideological significance of race.

Postcolonial intellectuals from these regions have also developed negritude and pan-Africanist scholarship that argues for the liberatory value of racial identification. At the same time the strikingly multicultural and multiracial qualities of Caribbean history have led to scholarly studies of cultural plurality and mixing: creolization, metissage, mestizaje, and syncretism are ideas that have been heavily debated in and regarding the Caribbean.

Postcolonial studies originating from (or about) Asia have arguably shown the heaviest imprint of poststructuralism applying Foucauldian, Derridean, and Lacanian psychoanalytic ideas. From India emerged Subaltern Atudies, an influential collective of historians. Its original Gramscian-Marxist orientation produced studies of colonialism as "domination without hegemony" (Ranajit Guha), and studies of the resistance history and consciousness of subalterns (a term describing subordinated social agents). At the start of the twenty-first century, subaltern studies has moved towards deconstructionism.

See also Empire and Imperialism ; Equality ; Eurocentrism ; Europe, Idea of ; Interdisciplinarity ; Nationalism ; Postcolonial Theory and Literature ; Postmodernism ; Structuralism and Poststructuralism .


Ahmad, Aijaz. In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures. London and New York: Verso, 1992.

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London and New York: Verso, 1991.

Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. London and New York: Routledge, 1994.

Cabral, Amilcar. Return to the Source: Selected Speeches, edited by Africa Information Service. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1973.

Césaire, Aimé. Discourse on Colonialism. Translated by Joan Pinkham. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000.

Chatterjee, Partha. Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse? Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.

Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. Translated by Constance Farrington, preface by Jean-Paul Sartre. New York: Grove, 1968.

Guha, Ranajit. Dominance without Hegemony: History and Power in Colonial India. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Pratt, Mary Louise. "Transculturation and Autoethnography: Peru 1615/1980." In Colonial Discourse, Postcolonial Theory, edited by Francis Barker, Peter Hulme, and Margaret Iversen. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 1994.

Retamar, Roberto Fernández. Caliban and Other Essays. Translated by Edward Baker. Foreword by Fredric Jameson. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989.

Rodney, Walter. How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1974.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon, 1978.

Scott, James C. Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985.

Spivak, Gayatri. A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Laura Chrisman

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"Postcolonial Studies." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . 11 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Postcolonial Studies." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . (December 11, 2017).

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Postcolonialism is a generalized term used to describe the variety of events that have arisen in the aftermath of European decolonization since the nineteenth century. Among the events included under the rubric are social change, cultural redefinition, and political upheaval on both the small and large scale. The term implies a breaking free or a breaking away from a colonizing force, but essentially the study of postcolonialism addresses issues of power, subordination, race, gender inequity, and class and examines how these issues linger far after the colonizer has exited. It is sometimes understood that colonialism ended in the early to mid-twentieth century, but the vestiges of colonial power and influence remain in many parts of the once colonized world. These vestiges can be seen in the unequal sharing of power in government, especially when Western interests are at stake, as well as in inequities in military control, resource allocation, and economic benefits when more powerful governments and entities participate in economic exchanges with postcolonial nations.


Postcolonial theory has been developed in various fields, including philosophy, literary studies, and sociology. From its beginnings in the 1960s and 1970s, with Frantz Fanon and Edward Said, postcolonial theory has addressed issues such as identity, gender, race, ethnicity, and class. It also examines how once colonized nations develop their own identities and how information among the exploited populations has been produced and used both by the colonized and the colonizers. In literary studies, postcolonial theory addresses the question of how the writing produced by the colonized and by those who colonize them responds to colonial legacies.

Postcolonial theorists can trace much of their initial discourse to Antonio Gramsci, who, in his Prison Notebooks ([19291935] 1992), examined the subaltern, or those who were excluded from power by virtue of their race, class, gender, ethnicity, or colonial status; this study was later taken up by Partha Chaterjee (1993), among others. Fanon, in the Wretched of the Earth ([1961] 1963), a work considered a landmark in colonialism studies, expressed clear anticolonialist sentiments in his discussion of the Third World. In a highly influential 1978 book, Edward Said argued that a set of attitudes he dubbed orientalism was a way for the West (here meaning Europe) to differentiate itself from its progenitors. Even though Europe in its modern form was essentially a product of the East, to rationalize its ascent to power it aspired to colonize the East through many means, including the physical and economic. Gayatri Spivak, another significant postcolonial theorist, has, like Chaterjee, focused on the subaltern, though as a gendered categoryboth in terms of those who are colonized and those who have colonized (1988). Feminist postcolonial theorists have additionally discussed sexuality, gender and diasporic communities, power and globalization, and the idea that the feminine in any capacity or context can be equated with a subaltern position.

To make the above comments more concrete, the remainder of this entry will seek to illustrate many of the issues postcolonial theorists are concerned with through a brief examination of one postcolonial country: Ireland. Ireland was a colony of the English for eight hundred years, but perhaps due to its position as a Western country, is often not understood in the same light as other colonies. Its affluence today (the Celtic Tiger) also makes it easy to forget that it is less than a century since that independence was gained. Since the turn of the twentieth century, Ireland has moved from being a long-term colony of England to being a postcolonial power on its own. The next section examines how Ireland became a colony, its response to colonization and the plantation system, and how it has developed its national identity in the decades following independence in 1922.


Ireland has been a colonized nation since the time of the Vikings in the ninth century. The Vikings were followed in 1169 by the Normans (the Old English), who began civilizing the native Irish. In more recent times, as with many colonized nations, Irish perspectives on the colonial situation varied based on the nature and closeness of economic relationships with the colonizer, and whether those relationships conferred economic advantage. During the plantation era, Anglo-Irish, who had thrown their lot in with the English, could hold lands and resources their Irish brethren were excluded by law from owning. Lower-class Irish were indentured laborers on plantations, though a few could hold small plots of land; Irish who once had held political or social power were stripped of their valuables, land, homes, and driven into exileeither to another country or into the poor counties of western Ireland.

The Reformation was brought to Ireland by Oliver Cromwell in 1649. He was not the first Englishman to arrive on Irish shores, but he was among the first to come with arms and the intent of suppressing the Irish people as a class and forcefully instituting Protestantism. In that he was very successful. A brutal military strategist, Cromwell destroyed entire towns and villages, including the walled city of Drogheda, where he burned 3,000 people alive. From then on, Ireland remained under the control of the English. Though a variety of short-lived uprisings and revolts occurred over the centuries, it was not until the Potato Famine of the mid-nineteenth century that the Irish were able to bring their plight to the attention of the rest of the Western world. Millions starved to death, millions more were forced to leave Ireland. In the space of ten years (18461856) Irelands population halved from eight to four million. The 1916 Easter Uprising, led by Padraig Pearse, loosened the hold the English had over the country. Though principally limited to urban centers such as Dublin and Cork, the Uprising reverberated across the country. When the heroes of the uprising were executed or jailed in the months that followed, civil war broke out. In 1922 Ireland gained independence from England, but was partitionedmost of Ulster would remain under the English flag while the Irish Free State was inaugurated in the south.

Despite their hard-won freedom, Ireland remained closely linked with England and depended on it economically for several decades. During this time, however, following the lead of people like President Eamon de Valera, and poets and authors W. B. Yeats, Brendan Behan, and Patrick Kavanaugh, the Irish began to consciously express their own national identity through a revival of Gaelic culture. This revival, known as the Celtic Twilight, was based on a vision of Ireland as a rural idyll, in which people were closely tied to the land. With the Celtic Twilight came a revival of the Irish language, which had been on the brink of extinction, and now became part of the school curriculum. This restoration of a national language separate from that of the colonizer is a common response to decolonization. Traditional Irish music was also revived and is now popular throughout the world. The Gaelic Athletic Association, which organizes hurling and Gaelic football and was first established in the 1880s, has steadily risen in popularity as well.

Only recently, beginning in the 1970s, has Ireland truly developed a modern national identity and become an independent economic powerhouse. Since the 1990s, Ireland has been dubbed the Celtic Tiger, a reference to its new wealth and status. As of 2006, Ireland has the fourth strongest GDP in the world behind the United States, Norway, and Luxembourg (ESRI 2006). In July 2006 Ireland ranked second among the wealthiest nations in the world behind Japan (RTE 1, 2006).

SEE ALSO Anticolonial Movements; Colonialism; Decolonization; Empire; Imperialism; Moral Suasion; Neocolonialism; Nkrumah, Kwame; Orientalism; Passive Resistance; Said, Edward


Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. 1989. The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Postcolonial Literatures. London: Routledge.

Chaterjee, Partha. 1993. The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Economic and Social Research Institute, Ireland. Irish Economy Overview. Dublin: ESRI.

Fanon, Frantz. 1963. The Wretched of the Earth. Trans. Constance Farrington. New York: Grove. Originally published as Les damnés de la terre (Paris: F. Maspero, 1961).

Gramsci, Antonio. [19291935] 1992. Prison Notebooks. 2 vols. Ed. Joseph A. Buttigeig; trans. Joseph A. Buttigeg and Antonio Callari. New York: Columbia University Press.

Kiberd, Declan. 1996. Inventing Ireland: The Literature of a Modern Nation. London: Vintage.

Said, Edward. 1978. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon.

Spivak, Gayatri. 1988. Can the Subaltern Speak? In Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, eds. Cary Nelson and Larry Grossberg, 271313. Chicago: University of Illinois.

Kelli Ann Costa

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