Postcolonial Theory Research Paper Starter

Postcolonial Theory

(Research Starters)

This article presents an introductory examination of postcolonial theory. It discusses the difficulty of defining postcolonialism and various perspectives on the meaning of the term. The article traces the historical trajectory of postcolonial theory from prior approaches to social theory and positions postcolonial theory as an outgrowth of Marxism and postmodernism. It explores major concepts and terminology of postcolonial theory, such as agency, assimilation, Eurocentric, metropole, Orientalism, subaltern, subjectivity, and hybridity, and makes reference to major works by postcolonial theorists and subjects. The article also considers the limitations of the theory by discussing critiques of postcolonial theoretical foundation and application. Emphasizing the interdisciplinary nature of postcolonial theory, and the ever-changing nature of the perspective, the article suggests that postcolonial theory offers particularly wide-ranging possibilities for academic research within the field of sociology as well as in other disciplines.

Keywords: Agency; Assimilation; Colonialism; De-colonization; Developing Nation; Eurocentric; Hybridity; Imperialism; Knowledge Production; Metropole; Orientalism; Subaltern; Subjectivity; Third World


Defining Postcolonial Theory

What is meant by postcolonial theory, on a basic level, seems easy to see: it is theory after (or post) colonialism. Yet despite the initially obvious temporal answer, postcolonial theory has been quite difficult, in fact impossible, to concretely define. Postcolonial theory is a theoretical approach that attempts to disrupt the dominant discourse of colonial power. Put simply, postcolonial theory is about colonialism, emphasizing the effects of colonialism on both the colonized and the colonizer. This means postcolonial theory provides a point of view that responds to colonialism and the complicated power dynamic that occurs both during the colonial experience and in the aftermath. Such a vague definition of postcolonial leads to contention in the highly self-critical environment of postcolonial theory.

In an early definition of what is postcolonial, Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin posited, "We use the term 'post-colonial'…to cover all the culture affected by the imperial process from the moment of colonization to the present day" (1989, p. 2). The response to this definition was largely critical, and many argued that this defined almost everything as postcolonial, since imperialism had such a widespread presence. Since then, many new definitions of postcolonialism, postcoloniality, post-colonialism, and other variations of the term have expanded, reduced, and refined the concept of postcolonial (JanMohamed, 1985; McClintock, 1992; Shohat, 1992; Child & Williams, 1995). For the purposes of understanding postcolonial theory in an introductory sense, however, Ashcroft et al.'s basic definition is a good point of departure and provides a good platform from which to explore the body of work that comprises the theoretical canon.

In particular, postcolonial theory has argued that academic systems of knowledge are rooted in a colonial mindset and that the voices of the colonized have been made invisible. Postcolonial theory is not only interested in providing the point of view of the colonized, but also in how the experience of colonialism has led to certain ways of thinking. In the social sciences, postcolonial theory has dealt with Eurocentric points of view in methodological processes and in the ways power is understood. In literature, postcolonial usually refers to work produced by subjects of the European nineteenth-century colonialism writing from their own perspective. Postcolonial theory, then, is not simply a temporal description, but rather a point of view (or many points of view).

Historical Development

While postcolonial theory has brought new light to aspects of colonialism, it has done so by building on previous sociological and philosophical traditions that have been critical of imperialism, such as classical Marxism, and by incorporating analyses of power by social theorists such as Michel Foucault and Antonio Gramsci. Marxism offered a critique of imperialism rooted in the economic exploitation of capitalism, pointing to the unfair extraction of wealth and resources from the colonies by the European powers as a result of capitalism's insatiable desire to expand. This was certainly a perspective that was sympathetic to the colonized, but classical Marxist analysis of imperialism never quite managed empathy; that is, it was always still looking into the colonies from outside, and always assuming a unidirectional power flow: the imperialist West abusing the powerless East. Marxist theoretical approaches to colonialism were also heavily rooted in the economic sector, which left many aspects of colonialism unexamined.

Knowledge Production

The limitations of a strictly Marxist approach led many academics of the late 1960s to postmodernist and poststructuralist analysis. The work of Michel Foucault influenced the way academics viewed power. No longer unidirectional in a case of domination/exploitation, postmodernist interpretations of power examine an all-inclusive and multidirectional presence that is actively coercive upon the individual through processes of knowledge production. This postmodern perspective opened up a new arena in which to see power and to see the effect of that power on both the colonized and colonizer. Foucault's emphasis on knowledge production and power opened the academy itself up to critical examination for its role in exerting power through the establishment of "truth" (much of which was developed via colonial encounters).

Despite this appearance, postmodernism and Marxism do not necessarily contradict each other; indeed, postcolonial theory employs them both. As pointed out by Leela Gandhi, "Arguably, then, it is through poststructuralism and postmodernism — and their deeply fraught and ambivalent relationship with Marxism — that postcolonialism starts to distil its particular provenance" (1998, p. 25). The roots of postcolonial theory as a hybrid of postmodernism and classical Marxism has led in many ways to a tension within the postcolonial perspective that is highly critical of theory and simultaneously self-theorizing. This tension has also contributed to a degree of self-distrust that has made postcolonial theory ever-changing and particularly malleable.

The role of knowledge production in the academic realm is particularly important to postcolonial theory. It is a fundamental aspect of the postcolonial theoretic project to destabilize the "truths" born out of colonialism and to open a space in the academic world for alternative voices and perspectives to be heard. It is important to note that with regard to the historical development of postcolonial theory, the lens of critical analysis has frequently been turned upon the academic disciplines, and postcolonial theory has resulted in the shaking of many academic foundational theories. This is both the result of, and a contributing factor to, the highly interdisciplinary nature of postcolonial theory; it is particularly not confined to history, philosophy, sociology, literary studies, or any specific field.

Postcolonial Theory

Postcolonial theory can thus be seen as a way to explore the effects of imperialism on society, the individual, and the academic disciplines that study them. Many classic sociological theorists and foundational concepts have been critiqued by postcolonial theorists and continue to present points of debate. In particular, despite an increasingly globalized perspective, sociology as a discipline has been accused of being Eurocentric, which means that it privileges Western, European society as the normal point of comparison. Sociologists have responded to such critiques with varying degrees of agreement, but the criticism has led to a new self-examination of the sociological perspective (McLennan, 2003). Thus, while the function of some classical sociological theory is present in postcolonial theory, other functions are challenged. The value of the application of postcolonial theory in sociological research is clear, and postcolonial theory is commonly present in contemporary examinations of sociological subjects as far ranging as education systems, microfinance, and modern slavery. Furthermore, the push for sociology to become more self-reflective promises to lead the field in endless directions.


While postcolonial theory has taken many forms, there are basic ideas that have guided the theory since its major development in the 1970s. This section will explore some of the key concepts of postcolonial theory and some of the major works that comprise the common canon, or at least major theoretical reference points.


In what is widely accepted as the seminal work of postcolonial thought, Orientalism (1978), Edward Said argues that beyond the physical and economic aspects of colonialism, there was another aspect present: the defining of the "Other." The Other, Said contends, is the result of a binary worldview, in which the world was divided into an us-and-them structure. Said uses the term Orientalism to describe the process of "Othering" of the Eastern colonies by the Western metropole, the European colonizers' home nation. Orientalism is the European definition of all things related to the colonies as wild, emotional, backward, powerless, and fundamentally different from the (purported) Occidental qualities of civilized behavior, rational thought, modernism, and (justifiably) powerful. Through a conscious production of knowledge, the West defined the East as inferior and, in doing so, also defined itself as superior. However, and perhaps more importantly, Said argues, the West cannot exist without the East, as it is a mutually dependent definition (there can be no West without an...

(The entire section is 4382 words.)