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This article deals primarily with the critical theories of postcolonialism. More information pertaining to postcolonial literature can be found on the postcolonial literature page.

Postcolonialism (postcolonial theory, post-colonial theory) is a specifically post-modern intellectual discourse that holds together a set of theories found among the texts and sub-texts of philosophy, film, political science, human geography and literature. These theories are reactions to the cultural legacy of colonialism.

Subject matters

The critical nature of postcolonial theory entails destabilizing Western way of thinking, therefore creating space for the subaltern to speak and produce alternatives to dominant discourse. Often, the term postcolonialism is taken literally, to mean the period of time after colonialism.This however is problematic because the ‘once-colonized world’ is full of “contradictions, of half-finished processes, of confusions, of hybridity, and liminalities”. In other words, it is important to accept the plural nature of the word postcolonialism, as it does not simply refer to the period after the colonial era. By some definitions, postcolonialism can also be seen as a continuation of colonialism, albeit through different or new relationships concerning power and the control/production of knowledge. Due to these similarities, it is debated whether to hyphenate postcolonialism as to symbolize that we have fully moved beyond colonialism.

Postcolonialism as a literary theory (with a critical approach), deals with literature produced in countries that once were colonies of other countries, especially of the European colonial powers Britain, France, and Spain; in some contexts, it includes countries still in colonial arrangements. It also deals with literature written by citizens of colonial countries that portrays colonized people as its subject matter. Colonized people, especially of the British Empire, attended British universities and with their access to education, created this new criticism. Following the breakup of the Soviet Unionmarker during the late 20th century, its former republics became the subject of this study as well.

Often, previously colonized places are homogenized in western discourse under an umbrella label such as the ‘Third World’. Postcolonialism demonstrates the heterogeneity of colonized places by analyzing the uneven impact of Western colonialism on different places, peoples, and cultures. This is done by engaging with the variety of ways in which “relations, practices and representations” of the past is “reproduced or transformed”, and studying the connections between the “heart and margins” of the empire. Moreover, postcolonialism recognizes that there was, and still is, resistance to the West. This resistance is practiced by many, including the subaltern, a group of marginalized, and least powerful.

Postcolonial theory provides a framework that destabilizes dominant discourses in the West, challenges “inherent assumptions”, and critiques the “material and discursive legacies of colonialism”. In order to challenge these assumptions and legacies of colonialism, postcolonial studies needs to be grounded, which entails working with tangible identities, connections, and processes. Postcolonial theorist Edward Said's 1978 book Orientalism has been described as a seminal work in the field.

Furthermore, Postcolonialism deals with cultural identity in colonized societies: the dilemmas of developing a national identity after colonial rule; the ways in which writers articulate and celebrate that identity (often reclaiming it from and maintaining strong connections with the coloniser); the ways in which the knowledge of the colonised (subordinated) people has been generated and used to serve the coloniser's interests; and the ways in which the coloniser's literature has justified colonialism via images of the colonised as a perpetually inferior people, society and culture. These inward struggles of identity, history, and future possibilities often occur in the metropolis and, ironically, with the aid of postcolonial structures of power, such as universities. Not surprisingly, many contemporary postcolonial writers reside in London, Paris, New York and Madrid.

The creation of binary opposition structures changed the way we view others. In the case of colonialism, the Oriental and the Westerner were distinguished as different from each other (i.e. the emotional, static, Orient vs. the principled, progressive Occident). This opposition justified the "white man's burden," the coloniser's self-perceived "destiny to rule" subordinate peoples. In contrast, post-colonialism seeks out areas of hybridity and transculturalization. This aspect is particularly relevant during processes of globalization.

In Post-Colonial Drama: theory, practice, politics, Helen Gilbert and Joanne Tompkins write: "the term postcolonialism according to a too-rigid etymology is frequently misunderstood as a temporal concept, meaning the time after colonialism has ceased, or the time following the politically determined Independence Day on which a country breaks away from its governance by another state, Not a naïve teleological sequence which supersedes colonialism, postcolonialism is, rather, an engagement with and contestation of colonialism's discourses, power structures, and social hierarchies ... A theory of postcolonialism must, then, respond to more than the merely chronological construction of post-independence, and to more than just the discursive experience of imperialism."

Colonized peoples reply to the colonial legacy by writing back to the center, when the indigenous peoples write their own histories and legacies using the coloniser's language (e.g. English, French, Dutch) for their own purposes. "Indigenous decolonization" is the intellectual impact of postcolonialist theory upon communities of indigenous peoples, thereby, their generating postcolonial literature.

A single, definitive definition of postcolonial theory is controversial; writers have strongly criticised it as a concept embedded in identity politics. Ann Laura Stoler, in Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power, argues that the simplistic oppositional binary concept of Coloniser and Colonised is more complicated than it seems, since these categories are fluid and shifting; postcolonial works emphasise the re-analysis of categories assumed to be natural and immutable.

Postcolonial Theory - as epistemology, ethics, and politics - addresses matters of identity, gender, race, racism and ethnicity with the challenges of developing a post-colonial national identity, of how a colonised people's knowledge was used against them in service of the coloniser's interests, and of how knowledge about the world is generated under specific relations between the powerful and the powerless, circulated repetitively and finally legitimated in service to certain imperial interests. At the same time, postcolonial theory encourages thought about the colonised's creative resistance to the coloniser and how that resistance complicates and gives texture to European imperial colonial projects, which utilised a range of strategies, including anti-conquest narratives, to legitimise their dominance.

Postcolonial writers object to the colonised's depiction as hollow "mimics" of Europeans or as passive recipients of power. Consequent to Foucauldian argument, postcolonial scholars, i.e. the Subaltern Studies collective, argue that anti-colonial resistance accompanies every deployment of power.

Notable theorists

Edward Said

Said coined the term, Orientalism, describing the binary between the Orient and the Occident. This binary, also referred to as the East/West binary, is key in postcolonial theory. Said argued that the Occident could not exist without the Orient, and vice versa. In other words, they are mutually constitutive. Notably, the concept of the ‘East’ ie the Orient, was created by the ‘West’, suppressing the ability of the ‘Orient’ to express themselves. Western depictions of the ‘Orient’ construct an inferior world, a place of backwardness, irrationality, and wildness. This allowed the ‘West’ to identify themselves as the opposite of these characteristics; as a superior world that was progressive, rational, and civil.

Furthermore, Said, following Foucalt's belief, states that power and knowledge are inseparable. The ‘West’s’ claim to knowledge of the East gave the ‘West’ the power to name, and the power to control. This concept is essential to understanding of colonialism, and therefore recognizing postcolonialism.

Some postcolonial writers have critiqued Said's homogeneous binary of Occident and Orient insisting that multiple variations of Orientalism have been created within the western world and are at work. Said believes that Europe used Orientalism as a homogeneous "other" to form a more cohesive European identity.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

Spivak's main contribution to Postcolonial theory came with her specific definition of the term subaltern. Spivak also introduced terms such as 'essentialism', 'strategic essentialism'. The former term refers to the dangers of reviving subaltern voices in ways that might simplify heterogeneous groups, creating stereotyped impressions of their diverse group. Spivak however believes that essentialism can sometimes be used strategically by these groups to make it easier for the subaltern to be heard and understood when a clear identity can be created and accepted by the majority. It is important to distinguish that 'strategic essentialism' does not sacrifice its diversity and voices but that they are being downplayed temporarily to support the essential element of the group.

Spivak also created The term 'epistemic violence' which refers to the destruction of non-western ways of knowing and thereby the domination of western ways of understanding. This concept relates to Spivak's "Subaltern must always be caught in translation, never truly expressing herself" because of the destruction and marginalization of her way of understanding.

Furthermore, Spivak critizes those who ignore the "cultural others" (the subaltern) and has offered constructive theories for allowing the West to go beyond its current position through self-criticism of western methods and ideals of understanding and exploring the alternatives offered by post-colonialism.

Frantz Fanon

Fanon is one of the earliest writers associated with postcolonialism. Fanon analyzed in his book, The Wretched of the Earth the nature of colonialism and those subjugated by it. He describes colonialism as a source of violence rather than reacting violently against resistors which had been the common view. His portrayal of the systematic relationship between colonialism and its attempts to deny "all attributes of humanity" to those it suppressed laid the groundwork for related critiques of colonial and postcolonial systems.

International relations

The Middle East and national identity

In the last decade, Middle Eastern studies and research produced works focusing upon the colonial past's effects on the internal and external political, social, cultural, and economic circumstances of contemporary Middle Eastern countries; cf. Raphael Israeli's "Is Jordan Palestine?"A particular focus of study is the matter of Western discourses about the Middle East, and the existence or the lack of national identity formation:

“... [M]ost countries of the Middle East, suffered from the fundamental problems over their national identity. More than three-quarters of a century after the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, from which most of them emerged, these states have been unable to define, project, and maintain a national identity that is both inclusive and representative”.

Independence and the end of colonialism have not ended social fragmentation and war in the Middle East. Larbi Sadiki wrote in The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (2004), because European colonial powers drew borders discounting peoples, ancient tribal boundaries and local history, the Middle East’s contemporary national identity problem can be traced back to imperialism and colonialism.

Kumaraswamy writes that "in places like Iraqmarker and Jordanmarker, leaders of the new state were brought in from the outside, [and] tailored to suit colonial interests and commitments. Likewise, most states in the Persian Gulf were handed over to those who could protect and safeguard imperial interests in the post-withdrawal phase",

According to Sadiki, "with notable exceptions like Egyptmarker, Iranmarker, Iraqmarker, and Syriamarker, most [countries] ... had to [re-]invent, their historical roots" after colonialism. Therefore, "like its colonial predecessor, postcolonial identity owes its existence to force".


The interior of Africa was not colonised until almost the end of the 19th century, yet the impact of colonialism was even more significant to the indigenous cultures, especially because of the Scramble for Africa. The increasingly efficient railroad helped European powers to gain control over all regions of Africa, with the British particularly emphasizing goals of conquer. The British Empire sought to build a single railroad through the continent and succeeded in building tracks from Egypt to Cape Townmarker.

Many African empires existed in the pre-colonial era, such as the Ashanti, Ghana Empire, Kongo Kingdom, and Edo Empire. Nigeria was home to the Haussa, Yoruba and Igbo cultures and Chinua Achebe was among the first to take up this history in the construction of a postcolonial identity, as in Things Fall Apart.

Kenyanmarker Ngugi wa Thiong'o was educated at the British University of Leedsmarker and wrote the first postcolonial East African novel, Weep Not, Child, in 1964. The later The River Between addresses postcolonial religious issues. His essay Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature is considered one of the most important pieces of African literary criticism.

Criticism of focusing on national identity

Scholars criticise and question the recent post-colonial focus on national identity. The Moroccan scholar Bin 'Abd al-'Ali argues that what is seen in contemporary Middle Eastern studies is 'a pathological obsession with ... identity'.Nevertheless, Kumaraswamy and Sadiki argue that the problem of the lack of Middle Eastern identity formation is widespread, and that identity is an important aspect of understanding the politics of the contemporary Middle East. Whether the countries are Islamic regimes (i.e. Saudi Arabiamarker), republican regimes (i.e. Egyptmarker, Syriamarker, and Algeriamarker), quasi-liberal monarchies (i.e. Jordanmarker and Bahrainmarker), democracies (i.e. Israel), or evolving democracies (i.e. Iran and Palestine), ‘the Middle Eastern region suffers from the inability to recognize, integrate, and reflect its ethno-cultural diversity.’

Ayubi (2001) questions if what Bin 'Abd al-'Ali described as an obsession with national identity may be explained by 'the absence of a championing social class?'

Goals of Post-Colonialism

The ultimate goal of post-colonialism is combating the residual effects of colonialism on cultures. It is not simply concerned with salvaging past worlds, but learning how the world can move beyond this period together, towards a place of mutual respect. This section surveys the thoughts of a number of post-colonialism's most prominent thinkers as to how to go about this.

Post-colonialist thinkers recognize that many of the assumptions which underlay the "logic" of colonialism are still active forces today. Exposing and deconstructing the racist, imperialist nature of these assumptions, they will lose their power of persuasion and coercion. Recognizing that they are not simply airy substance but have widespread material consequences for the nature and scale of global inequality makes this project all the more urgent.

A key goal of post-colonial theorists is clearing space for multiple voices. This is especially true of those voices that have been previously silenced by dominant ideologies - subalterns. It is widely recognized within the discourse that this space must first be cleared within academia. Edward Said, in his canonical book,"Orientalism" provides a clear picture of the ways social scientists, specifically Orientalists, can disregard the views of those they actually study - preferring instead to rely on the intellectual superiority of themselves and their peers.

To the extent that Western scholars were aware of contemporary Orientals or Oriental movements of thought and culture, these were perceived either as silent shadows to be animated by the Orientalist, brought into reality by them, or as a kind of cultural and international proletariat useful for the Orientalist's grander interpretive activity. (Said, 1978: 208)

Much debate has since taken place regarding how to effectively and fairly incorporate the subaltern voice into social studies. With such a huge mass of criticism against the idea of studying "others", many social scientists felt paralyzed, fatalistically accepting it as an impossibility. Spivak, an Indian post-colonialist thinker, rejects this outright. "To refuse to represent a cultural Other is salving your conscience, and allowing you not to do any homework."

Spivak recognizes the project is problematic, as recovery and presentation of a subaltern voice would likely essentialize its message, negating the subaltern masses' heterogeneity. Spivak suggests "strategic essentialism" - speaking on behalf of a group while using a clear image of identity to fight opposition - is the only solution to this problem. Applying this approach, bell hooks addresses the white academic reader on behalf of subalterns in the conclusion to her paper "Marginality as a site of resistance".

This is an intervention. A message from that space in the margin that is a sight of creativity and power, that inclusive space where we recover ourselves, where we meet in solidarity to erase the category colonized/colonizer. Marginality as a sight of resistance. Enter that space. Let us meet there. Enter that space. We greet you as liberators. (hooks, 1990: 343)

Some post-colonial theorists make the argument that studying both dominant knowledge sets and marginalized ones as binary opposites perpetuates their existence as homogenous entities. Homi K. Bhabha feels the post-colonial world should valorize spaces of mixing; spaces where truth and authenticity move aside for ambiguity. This space of hybridity, he argues, offers the most profound challenge to colonialism. (Bhabha, 1994: 113) Critiques that Bhabha ignores Spivak's stated usefulness of essentialism have been put forward. Reference is made to essentialisms' potential usefulness. An organized voice provides a more powerful challenge to dominant knowledge - whether in academia or active protests.

Fanon offers a less bright and more violent prescription for moving beyond the colonial mindset. He argues that previously colonized peoples would remain hybrids with a miserably schizophrenic identity unless they revolt violently against their oppressors. This collective action would apparently stimulate collective pride, freeing them of their inferiority complexes.

Ultimately, however, Post-colonialism is a hopeful discourse. The very "post" defines the discipline as one that looks forward to a world that has truly moved beyond all that colonialism entails, together. Mbembe finds it gives him "hope in the advent of a universal brotherly [and I would add sisterly] community". Asking what it means to be human together, post-colonialism aims at decolonizing the future.

Founding works on postcolonialism

Other important works

See also

External links


  1. Dictionary of Human Geography. Blackwell Publishing(2007) p.561
  2. Dictionary of Human Geography. Blackwell Publishing(2007) p.561
  3. Sharp, J. (2008). Geographies of Postcolonialism, chapter 1, On Orientalism. SAGE Publications.
  4. Dictionary of Human Geography. Blackwell Publishing(2007) p.562
  5. Sharp, J. (2008). Geographies of Postcolonialism, chapter 6, Can the Subaltern Speak?. SAGE Publications.
  6. Sharp, J. (2008). Geographies of Postcolonialism, chapter 6, Can the Subaltern Speak?. SAGE Publications.
  7. Dictionary of Human Geography. Blackwell Publishing(2007) p.561
  8. Helen Gilbert, Joanne Tompkins, Post-Colonial Drama: theory, practice, politics, Routledge 1996, ISBN 0415090237
  9. Bill Ashcroft, The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literature (1990)
  10. Said, E. (1978). Orientalism Random House
  11. Sharp, J. (2008). Geographies of Postcolonialism, chapter 1, On Orientalism. SAGE Publications.
  12. Said, E. (1978)"Chapter Three: Latent and Manifest Orientalism" Orientalism. p201-225
  13. Sharp, J. (2008). Geographies of Postcolonialism, chapter 6, Can the Subaltern Speak?. SAGE Publications.
  14. Sharp, J. (2008). Geographies of Postcolonialism, chapter 6, Can the Subaltern Speak?. SAGE Publications.
  15. Sharp, J. (2008). Geographies of Postcolonialism, chapter 6, Can the Subaltern Speak?. SAGE Publications.
  16. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. “Can the Subaltern Speak?.” 1990: 62-63 -
  17. Fannon, F. (1963) The Wretched of the Earth)
  18. Fannon, F. (1963) The Wretched of the Earth. p 250
  19. in: Israel, Hashemites and the Palestinians: The Fateful Triangle, Efraim Karsh and P.R. Kumaraswamy (eds.)(London: Frank Cass, 2003), pp.49-66 and also Nazih Ayubi's Overstating the Arab State (Bodmin: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 2001) pp.86-123
  20. Sadiki, L. (2004) The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses India: C. Hurst & Co. Ltd
  21. Kumaraswamy, P, R (March 2006) “Who am I?: The Identity Crisis in the Middle East” The Middle East Review of International Affairs Volume 10, No. 1, Article 5, p 1
  22. Sadiki, L. (2004) The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses India: C. Hurst & Co. Ltd
  23. Kumaraswamy, P.R. (March 2006) “Who am I?: The Identity Crisis in the Middle East” The Middle East Review of International Affairs Volume 10, No. 1, Article 5, p.1
  24. Sadiki, L. (2004) The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses India: C. Hurst & Co. Ltd p.122
  25. Bin 'Abd al-'Ali quoted in Nazih Ayubi's Overstating the Arab State (Bodmin: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 2001)p.148
  26. Kumaraswamy (March 2006) “Who am I?: The Identity Crisis in the Middle East” in The Middle East Review of International Affairs Volume 10, No.1, Article 5, p.1
  27. Nazih Ayubi, Overstating the Arab State (Bodmin: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 2001)p.148
  28. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. “Can the Subaltern Speak?.” 1990: 62-63 -
  29. Frantz Fanon: The Wretched of the Earth (1961)
  30. Eurozine - What is postcolonial thinking? - Achille Mbembe. An interview with Achille Mbembe. 2008: 2

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