Postcolonialism theory critically examines the political, cultural, aesthetic, economic, linguistic, historical, and social impacts of (generally European) colonial rule (Elam, 2019). It involves the study of colonialism and its effects. It critiques the effects of colonialism and seeks to deconstruct its premises.
The prefix “post” doesn’t imply that it is simply a system that comes after colonialism (Kohn & Reddy, 2022). More precisely, postcolonialism is a reaction to the practices of imperialism and European colonial rule.
Examples of postcolonialism in sociology include Edward Said’s Orientalism and Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe, which both critique a western lens of viewing non-Western peoples.
This article aims to examine what postcolonial theory is. We will do this in four parts:
- Definitions: We will first discuss the many contested definitions of postcolonial theory.
- Key Scholars: We will see what the foundational works of postcolonial theory, such as that of Edward Said, Franz Fanon, Gayatri Spivak, and many more, have to say about it.
- Strengths: We will examine its strengths, such as its tendency towards equality and non-discrimination.
- Criticisms: We will present some criticisms of postcolonial theory proposed by different authors.
Postcolonial theory is, first and foremost, a body of writing that attempts to challenge the dominant ways of thinking about the relations between western and non-western peoples (Young, 2003, p. 2).
The idea that western values and views are the ‘correct’ ones is often taken for granted. Postcolonial theory attempts to shift this and look at the world through a different lens.
According to postcolonial theory, what western people see when they look at the non-western world is their own subjective and erroneous image of it.
From this, it becomes apparent that postcolonial theory is oriented toward equality. There is one more belief that virtually all postcolonial theorists share: the idea that the world can only be understood in relation to the history of colonial rule.
So much of its influence goes unnoticed and unquestioned that we aren’t even aware of how pervasive it is (Elam, 2019). Outside of this, however, the term is used so freely that it becomes necessary for each author to define what they mean when they speak of postcolonial theory.
Some use postcolonialism to refer to a period of time: the time after colonialism ceased. This approach is, however, considered problematic (Afzal-Khan & Seshadri-Crooks, 2000). What researchers usually refer to is more often the engagement and contestation of colonialism’s discourses, power structures, social hierarchies, and assumptions (Gilbert & Tompkins, 1996). With this understanding, we can now discuss the foundational works of postcolonialism in the latter sense.
- Orientalism (Edward Said): In Orientalism, Edward Said argues that the study of power relations is essential to the study of cultures, histories, and ideas (Said, 1979, p. 12). This work is often seen as the originator of postcolonial theory and discourse due to Said’s interpretation of the theory of orientalism (San Juan, 1998). The main aim of the book is to question the cultural representations generated through a binary understanding of social relations. Orientalism is often cited in postcolonial literature on the social construction of race.
- The Wretched of the Earth (Frantz Fanon): In The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon argues that the nature of colonialism is essentially destructive. The imposition of colonial identities, according to Fanon, is harmful to the mental health of subjugated peoples. Fanon highlighted the dehumanizing aspects of colonial rule and argued for strong resistance (Fanon, 1963, p. 250).
- Can the Subaltern Speak? (Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak): In this foundational work, the philosopher and theoretician Gayatri Spivak introduced a number of terms into postcolonial theory. Most importantly, “subaltern” and “essentialism.” She cautioned against ignoring subaltern peoples and viewing them as “cultural Others” (Spivak, 2021).
- The Colonizer and the Colonized (Albert Memmi): In this work, the French-Tunisian writer and essayist Albert Memmi examines and describes the psychological effects of colonial rule on both the colonized peoples and the colonizers (Memmi, 1991).
- The Location of Culture (Homi Bhabha): In this work, the theoretician Homi Bhabha argues that separating and hierarchically ranking cultures, rather than viewing the world as integral, perpetuates linguistic and sociological reductionism. To combat this, the author argues for intellectual hybridity (Bhabha, 1994, p. 113). A hybrid intellectual space is one in which ambiguity challenges the ideological validity of colonialism.
- Provincializing Europe (Dipesh Chakrabarty): In this work, the author discusses the subaltern history of the Indian struggle for independence. He counters Western scholarship about non-western peoples and their cultures. Dipesh Chakrabarty claims that Western Europe should be considered as culturally equal to other cultures of the world (Chakrabarty, 2009).
- The Colonial Present (Derek Gregory): In this work, the author traces connections of British and American colonialism in today’s geopolitics. Derek Gregory views the economic policies, military apparatu, and corporations of the western world as instruments of colonialism (Gregory, 2004).
- Discourse on Colonialism (Aimé Césaire): In this work, Césaire argues that colonialism has never been benevolent. Rather, the motives of the colonizers were always self-centered and exploitative. According to the author, “no one colonizes innocently” and “a civilization which justifies colonization […] is already a sick civilization” (Césaire, 2001, p. 39).
- On the Postcolony (Achille Mbembe): In this work, the Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe explores questions of power in postcolonial Africa. The book examines the ways in which the West “stages itself and how it is refracted in the consciousness of those who are under its spell—in short, what life, lived under its sign and as a result of its (de)generative power, is about” (Mbembe, 2001).
- Rethinking Postcolonialism (Amar Acheraiou): In this work, Acheraiou examines the history of colonialist discourse and finds its traces in ancient Greece. The book argues that the unfavorable modern colonial representations of non-western peoples were influenced by Greek and Latin authors like Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Sallust (Acheraiou, 2008).
The main strength of the postcolonial perspective is that it challenges existing assumptions and power structures.
In this way, the theory and practice of postcolonialism is a force for equality and balance. It counterbalances primarily white perspectives that were dominant in the writing of history about others.
The larger political project of postcolonialism is fundamentally oriented toward the value of ordinary people and their cultures (Young, 2003, p. 6).
Postcolonialism is not an “armchair philosophy.” It seeks to intervene and amplify marginalized viewpoints. It tries to change the way people think and act to produce better relations between different peoples and cultures.
To this day, postcolonial theory is one of the key forms of critical examination. It has influenced the way we act, the way we read texts, the way we understand history, and the way we think about politics (Elam, 2019).
There are many common criticisms of postcolonialism both from within and from the outside.
- Some accuse it of viewing cultures as fixed and static entities.
- Others argue that postcolonial theory undermines and denies universal values.
- Some critique its focus on national identity.
- Others consider that its selective focus omits certain problematic areas.
The Marxist scholar Vivek Chibbler critiqued some foundations of postcolonial theory in his book Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital.
Many claims of Subaltern Studies scholars, according to Chibbler, are misguided due to their cultural essentialism.
Even further, postcolonial theories tend to paint the differences between East and West as unbridgeable (Chibber, 2013).
Watson and Wilder argue that postcolonial theory fails to account for several major events, such as the Green Revolution in Iran and the Arab Spring in the Middle East. These events, according to these scholars, challenge the fundamental assumption of postcolonialism of an East-West split (Watson & Wilder, 2018).
Postcolonial theory attempts to challenge the dominant ways of thinking about the relations between western and non-western peoples (Young, 2003, p. 2). It critically examines the political, cultural, aesthetic, economic, linguistic, historical, and social impacts of colonialism on the world. As a theoretical perspective and a practice, postcolonialism has many supporters and critics. Some consider it dated, but a substantial amount of literature continues to develop postcolonial theory.
Acheraiou, A. (2008). Rethinking Postcolonialism: Colonialist Discourse in Modern Literatures and the Legacy of Classical Writers. Palgrave Macmillan.
Afzal-Khan, F., & Seshadri-Crooks, K. (2000). The Pre-occupation of Postcolonial Studies. Duke University Press.
Bhabha, H. K. (1994). The Location of Culture. Routledge.
Césaire, A. (2001). Discourse on Colonialism. NYU Press.
Chakrabarty, D. (2009). Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference – New Edition. Princeton University Press.
Chibber, V. (2013). Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital. Verso Books.
Elam, J. D. (2019). Postcolonial Theory. In J. D. Elam, Literary and Critical Theory. Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0069
Fanon, F. (1963). The Wretched of the Earth. Grove Press.
Gilbert, H., & Tompkins, J. (1996). Post-colonial Drama: Theory, Practice, Politics. Routledge.
Gregory, D. (2004). The Colonial Present: Afghanistan. Palestine. Iraq. Wiley.
Kohn, M., & Reddy, K. (2022). Colonialism. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2022). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2022/entries/colonialism/
Mbembe, A. (2001). On the Postcolony. University of California Press.
Memmi, A. (1991). The Colonizer and the Colonized. Beacon Press.
Quayson, A. (2016). Postcolonialism. In Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1st ed.). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780415249126-N093-1
Said, E. W. (1979). Orientalism. Vintage Books.
San Juan, E. (1998). The Limits of Postcolonial Criticism; The Discourse of Edward Said. Against the Current, 13(5), 28.
Spivak, G. C. (2021). Can the Subaltern Speak? Afterall Books.
Watson, J. K., & Wilder, G. (2018). The Postcolonial Contemporary: Political Imaginaries for the Global Present. Fordham University Press.
Young, R. J. C. (2003). Postcolonialism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/actrade/9780192801821.001.0001