Empire, imperial, and imperialism are terms with complex and contested histories: one is even tempted to think of them as essentially contested concepts in the philosophers’ sense. In the political discourse of the twentieth century’s second half, they were well-nigh always used pejoratively. Almost nobody, and no state, was willing to adopt them as self-descriptions. The idea of empire has often been associated, sometimes in emotive or polemical style, with particularly aggressive, coercive, expansionist, hierarchical, and indeed racist forms of power. Such associations have been yet more widely perceived in relation to imperialism, a term whose uses have tended to be more monolithically pejorative than have those of empire.
The concept of empire has also tended, at least until recently, to be far more widely employed and debated among humanities scholars—especially, and naturally enough, historians—than by social scientists. Few among the latter have explicitly or elaborately theorized the concept of empire. In the early twenty-first century, however, there were some signs of a change in these patterns, especially amidst widespread and often heated debate over the idea of a new American “empire.”
The relative dearth of theoretical elaboration thus coexisted with a remarkable effervescence of controversy and (especially, perhaps, since the 1980s) with influences coming from numerous academic disciplines, milieus, and indeed theoretical traditions. Empire, its aftermaths, and its enduring significance have not only been the concerns of historians and political or international relations analysts. In recent years, they have become major preoccupations among cultural and literary critics and theorists. In some other fields too—political theory, economics and development studies, anthropology, human geography, and more—they have generated a rapidly growing and often highly contentious literature. There has, however, been a relative lack, still, of interaction between political, economic, and strategic studies of global power on the one hand, and work by literary and cultural studies scholars interested in the cultures and discourses of imperialism on the other. These spheres of research have operated largely in an atmosphere of mutual indifference or even antagonism, and although here too a growing body of recent work seeks to close the gaps, they remain wide.
Diversity, imprecision, and ideological inflection have inevitably followed from that background. The terms empire and imperialism have at times been used to refer to all forms of relation between more powerful states or societies and less powerful ones. They have also, even beyond these loose boundaries, often been employed in academic discourse in a great range of vaguely allusive, metaphorical, or polemical ways. They have additionally been intertwined with several other, mostly newer but equally contentious words: especially colonialism, and latterly neocolonialism, globalization, and others. A great range of compound terms has also been thrown into the stew at different times and places: informal empire, subimperialism, cultural imperialism, internal colonialism, postcolonialism, and many more.
More substantive attempts at definition have centered around the notion of an empire as a large political body that rules over territories outside its original borders. It has a central power or core territory—whose inhabitants usually continue to form the dominant ethnic or national group in the entire system—and an extensive periphery of dominated areas. In most cases, the periphery has been acquired by conquest. But in earlier imperial systems, expansion sometimes came about by such means as the intermarriage of ruling families from previously separate states. And in some modern instances, the ruling elites of the peripheral territory may have chosen willingly to be brought under the control of the imperial center. Some scholars have argued that empire necessarily involves political sovereignty or direct control by core over peripheries; but others, probably more, have used the term also for informal control, influence, or hegemony. A world, or parts of it, dominated by empires is often explicitly or implicitly contrasted to one of nation-states; especially in terms of a (usually implied) narrative of twentieth-century global history in which the former is seen as having been replaced by the latter, involving the extension of an originally European nation-state model across the globe. However, whilst some analysts have seen the concept of empire as distinct from or even the antithesis to that of the state, others identify it rather as a particular form of state.
Empires, then, are composite entities, formed out of previously separate units. Diversity—ethnic, national, cultural, often religious—is thus of their essence. But that cannot be a diversity of equals. If there is no relation of inequality and domination between core and periphery, then the system is not truly an empire but a federation or perhaps a commonwealth. Both the British Empire in its last stages and the post-Soviet Russian federation used the latter term for themselves, indicating the claim that they were no longer imperial systems but free associations of equals.
The relationship between the concepts of empire and imperialism on the one hand, and colony and colonialism on the other, have been particularly fraught with ambiguity. Early usages of the latter mainly associated it with the physical transfer of large settler populations to new places: often, but not always, associated with the political conquest of such places and with the settlers attaining a position of dominance over (or even exterminating) indigenous peoples. More recently, some scholars have distinguished between imperialism and colonialism by way of seeing the former as an attitude or policy advocating territorial expansion, whilst the latter is the practice of domination or overrule. Most often, however, the distinction drawn (albeit not always explicitly) is that colonialism is used to mean situations of direct control or the exercise of sovereignty by one people or country over another, whilst the concepts of empire and imperialism are more encompassing and embrace also less direct or formal forms of domination.
The word empire comes from the Latin imperium, for which the closest modern English equivalent would perhaps be sovereignty, or simply rule. For the Romans, an emperor was originally a victorious general, later a supreme magistrate—though the military overtones of the title never disappeared. Imperium also came, both in the Roman era and later in Christian Europe—which derived so much of its political language and thought from Roman precedents—to have three further connotations. All these have continued to shape thinking about empire. First was size. Empire came to mean rule over extensive, far-flung territories, far beyond the original “homeland” of the rulers. Although some quite small entities have, historically, described themselves as empires, in most modern usages the term is reserved for very large political units. Second was the notion of absolute sovereignty, acknowledging no overlord or rival claimant to power. When Henry VIII (1491–1547) of England had his realm proclaimed an “empire” in the 1530s, the aim was to assert that he owed no allegiance to, and would tolerate no interference from, either the papacy or any secular power. Third was an aspiration to universality. Christian (and, in a distinct but related idiom, Islamic) empire was in principle boundless, as the Roman imperium to which it was partial heir had claimed to be.
An empire is therefore, by a minimalist or semicon-sensual definition, a large, composite, multiethnic or multinational political unit, usually created by conquest, and divided between a dominant center and subordinate, sometimes far distant, peripheries. Core and periphery are usually geographically separate, clearly bounded places. In modern seaborne empires, they might indeed be thousands of miles apart. In other cases, though, the geographical lines between them might be blurred. They might even inhabit the same physical spaces: ideas like internal colonialism were developed to try and explain such situations.
Imperialism is generally used to mean the actions and attitudes that create or uphold such big political units— but also, often, less direct kinds of control or domination by one people or country over others. Terms like cultural or economic imperialism are often used to describe some of these less formal sorts of domination: but such labels are invariably contentious. So too is the concept of informal empire, which has nonetheless been very influential and widely used to describe varied forms of dominance without formal sovereignty or direct political control, as with Britain’s nineteenth-century hegemony in Chile and Iran, or the more recent role of the United States in much of Central America.
Even formal empire, however, typically involved some combination of direct and indirect rule. The central power has ultimate sovereignty, and exercises some direct control, especially over military force and money-raising powers, in all parts of its domain. But there has usually been some kind of “colonial” or “provincial” government in each of the empire’s major parts, with subordinate but not insignificant devolved powers of its own. These authorities may be headed by men sent out from the dominant center. But their leaders, and certainly their more junior administrators or enforcers, may also be drawn from the ranks (usually from the preconquest ruling orders) of the dominated people. In many empires, ancient and modern, there was a general tendency over time for imperial rulers to devolve ever more power to such groups. In the long run, of course, this might lead to the gradual breakup of the empire itself. But many historians argue that the key to understanding empire lies in the bargains struck between the imperial center and local “collaborators.” No empire could last for long if it depended entirely on naked power exerted from the center outward. Local intermediaries might enjoy much autonomy within their own spheres, and command considerable wealth, power, and status, in return for delivering their people’s obedience, financial tribute, and military services to the center. This is so also in a different sense where (unlike the British or indeed any modern European-imperial case) the ruling elites of empires were themselves ethnically diverse, as with the later Roman Empire or the Ottoman Empire.
The emphasis on intermediaries, collaborators, bargains, and decentralization should not be pushed too far. Empire was also often, indeed perhaps typically, established and maintained by violence. Sometimes extreme violence: some historians say that most episodes of genocide and mass murder in world history have been associated with empire building. This includes the Nazi Holocaust, which is increasingly analyzed as part of an “empire-building” project. More generally, the idea of empire in modern history has also usually been associated with European, white rule over non-Europeans, with “racial” hierarchies and racist beliefs. Some analysts, again, build this association into their very definitions of empire.
One other aspect of debates over the historical salience and transformative force of European (especially British) expansion has been especially vigorous. Should colonial rule be viewed primarily in terms of modernization or of archaism? The notion of colonial modernity —even colonialism as modernity—has been widely invoked, especially among recent cultural historians of empire. The idea of colonialism as a modernizing, state-building, centralizing, developmentalist, and secularizing force has been deployed too by those urging a positive appraisal both of the British imperial record and of American “empire” today. Yet on the other hand, some historians stress instead the traditionalist and even archaizing features of British imperial ideology.
Empires have, rather obviously, taken a wide variety of forms across history. Even where empires, especially imperial ideologies, display close family resemblances, this has sometimes reflected conscious imitation more than structural congruity. Some scholars, indeed, urge a definitive abandonment of the singular term empire —which tends, even when its users are stressing and tracing differences, to imply that these are variations on a single essence—and propose a mandatory pluralization of the terms empires and imperialisms. Yet most see, at least, broad similarities as well as some fundamental subcategories among empires. Perhaps the most basic and important of the latter is the division between those that grew by expansion overland, extending directly outward from original frontiers, and those that were created by sea power, spanning the oceans and even the entire globe. The first, land-based form of empire is by far the older and the more historically ubiquitous. Land empires were created by Asians, Africans, and pre-Columbian Americans as well as Europeans. The second, mainly European form, however, has been the most powerful and dynamic in the modern world—roughly the last five hundred years. It in turn is often analyzed as having two main forms: settlement and nonsettlement colonies. The former category includes those places where large numbers of Europeans moved and remained. In some—notably, most of the Americas and Australasia—they became the vast majority. In others, like Algeria, South Africa, and more precariously in Kenya or Zimbabwe, European settlers became dominant minorities. The nonsettler colonies, embracing most of Africa and South and Southeast Asia, were considerably more numerous and far more disparate in nature.
The character and continuing consequences of empire thus remain intensely contentious. At the peak of their strength in the first half of the twentieth century, European colonial powers, plus their offshoot the United States, ruled well over 80 percent of the world’s land and effectively controlled all the oceans too. That direct physical dominance mainly came to an end, with remarkable rapidity, between the end of World War II (1939–1945) and the 1960s. But its effects remain indubitably important, both for formerly colonized and for ex-imperial peoples. And a wide range of critics—especially socialists and third world nationalists, but also such disparate currents as contemporary antiglobalization protesters and militant Islamists—argue that the twenty-first-century world witnesses not just the continuing consequences of old-style European colonialism, but a new kind of global empire headed by the United States and its allies. For some such critics, indeed, empire is now effectively a simple synonym for American foreign policy. In a slightly less polemical vein, scholarly argument has proliferated over the existence, character, and importance of continuities or parallels between the formal colonialism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and the global politics of the twenty-first.
Alcock, Susan E., et al., eds. 2001. Empires: Perspectives from Archaeology and History. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
Cooper, Frederick. 2005. Colonialism in Question: Theory, Knowledge, History. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Doyle, Michael W. 1986. Empires. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Fieldhouse, D. K. 1999. The West and the Third World: Trade, Colonialism, Dependence, and Development. Oxford: Blackwell.
Lieven, Dominic. 2000. Empire: The Russian Empire and Its Rivals. London: Murray.
Maier, Charles S. 2006. Among Empires: American Ascendancy and Its Predecessors. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
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Said, Edward W. 1993. Culture and Imperialism. London: Chatto and Windus.
Young, Robert J. C. 2001. Postcolonialism: An Historical Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell.
em·pire / ˈemˌpī(ə)r/ • n. 1. an extensive group of states or countries under a single supreme authority, formerly esp. an emperor or empress: the Roman Empire. ∎ a government in which the head of state is an emperor or empress. ∎ a large commercial organization owned or controlled by one person or group: her business empire grew. ∎ an extensive operation or sphere of activity controlled by one person or group: the kitchen had once been the ladies' empire. ∎ supreme political power over several countries when exercised by a single authority: he encouraged the Greeks in their dream of empire in Asia Minor. 2. a variety of apple. • adj. also / ämˈpi(ə)r/ (usu. Empire) denoting a style of furniture, decoration, or dress fashionable during the First or (less commonly) the Second Empire in France. The decorative style was neoclassical but marked by an interest in Egyptian and other ancient motifs probably inspired by Napoleon's Egyptian campaigns. ∎ (of a dress) having a high waist.
Lewis & Darley (1986)
Empire State informal name for the state of New York.
Empire State Building a skyscraper on Fifth Avenue, New York City, which was for several years the tallest building in the world. When first erected, in 1930–1, it measured 381 m (1,250 ft); the addition of a television mast in 1951 brought its height to 449 m (1,472 ft).
Empire State of the South informal name for the state of Georgia.
Empire style a style of furniture, decoration, or dress fashionable during the First or (less commonly) the Second Empire in France. The decorative style was neoclassical but marked by an interest in Egyptian and other ancient motifs probably inspired by Napoleon's Egyptian campaigns.
Empire ★★½ 2002 (R)
Leguizamo is Victor Rosa, a slick South Bronx drug entrepreneur hustling to keep his patch of heroin turf. Through narration, Victor walks us through his seedy world and his decision to leave it. His opportunity arises when he meets Wall Street couple Trish (Richards) and Jack (Sarsgaard). Jack cuts him in on an investment deal that helps launder his money, but Victor soon finds out that even a player can get played. Reyes's gangster flick aspires to the heights of “Scarface” and “The Godfather,” but sinks in a quagmire of cliches and obvious plot devices. Excellent cast includes Rosellini as an over-the-top drug queenpin as well as rappers Fat Joe and Treach. 195m/C VHS, DVD . John Leguizamo, Peter Sarsgaard, Denise Richards, Delilah Cotto, Vincent Laresca, Isabella Rossellini, Sonia Braga, Nestor Serrano, Fat Joe, Treach; D: Franc Reyes; W: Franc Reyes; C: Kramer Morgenthau; M: Ruben Blades.