post colonial studiesOverview

Post-colonial studies apply the insights of hermeneutics and left-wing political theory to the literature of countries emerging from colonialism. {1} Equally pertinent is the literature of the colonizing power — the unspoken and sometimes superior attitudes of European writers towards the culture of countries they control or once controlled. {2}


Now a complex and a rapidly expanding field of study, post-colonialism was largely initiated by Edward Said {3}, a Palestinian writer concerned about what he saw as the subtle and persistent Eurocentric prejudice against Arabo-Islamic peoples and their culture, something he called Orientalism. Though his work was one-sided, encumbered with jargon, and involved some subterfuges on its author's part, Said raised matters important in literature, international relations, trade agreements and third world aid.


Everyone has their own view of themselves and their surroundings, a view into which is mixed a good deal of unexamined prejudice, self-worth and popular mythology. And doubtless the language in which we write or talk supports and perpetuates those views. Post-colonial studies go further than simply documenting the unavoidable, however: they use the strategies of hermeneutics, Bakhtin, Derrida, Foucault and others to discern and often denounce such harmful prejudices. Post-colonial studies overlap the concerns of feminism {4} and political correctness, and are couched in the language of radical theory, dense with reference and specialized terminology.

Researchers point out, uncontroversially, that the west tends to:

  • 1. view matters wholly through their own culturally-determined and often limited historical perspectives. {5}

  • 2. lump countries together in geographical or economic blocks, which overlooks vital differences in history, outlook and cultural practices.

  • 3. oblige writers to adopt the language of the former colonial power, for practical convenience and/or economic control of the media or publishing houses. In many cases, the foreign language has traditions, social structures and textures that are not appropriate to what the new writers wish to say. {6} {7}

  • 4. apply economic or political coercion. Countries are often given or denied aid on the basis of democratic assessments that are very simplistically applied. {8} Worse, countries often need aid only because they are denied a proper market for their goods by trade organizations that perpetuate the old colonial rule. {9} {10} {11} {12}

Post-colonial studies use a concept called Otherness {13}, a somewhat flexible concept, deriving from Freudian psychiatry, which argues that human beings inevitably define themselves against what they are not: the 'other'. Inevitably, given that resistance to a colonial past helps define new writers, the unwanted colonial attitudes reappear, even if as despised negatives. In short, there is no privileged viewpoint, nothing that is free from earlier prejudice or subsequent reaction. We work within an horizon of understanding, which itself shifts as we think more deeply, and the age itself moves on.


Post-colonial studies have some telling points to make. For all its humanity, the poetry of Jonson, Pope, Byron, Kipling, etc. has views that we wouldn't expect to read in contemporary work. However enlightened by the standards of their day, the attitudes are dissonant now, perhaps even offensive, and they intrude in any possible reading. We have to isolate and take them into account, just as the prejudices in today's literature will be picked over by later generations.

That said, post-colonial studies can also be one-sided, ignoring the obvious, that:

  • 1. however distorted the image the west imposes on the third world, an equally distorted view of the west prevails in many third world countries: perception is a larger problem than colonialism. {14}

  • 2. governments in third world countries often show colonial attitudes to their own peoples: blaming their colonial history is not the answer to more complex problems. {15} {16}

  • 3. the European colonizing powers are unfairly singled out. More coercive and self-perpetuating, for example, were the Chinese and Ottoman Empires. {17} {18}

  • 4. the record of colonialism is more mixed than many theorists allow, with some good and some bad. {19} {20} {21} {22} {23} {24} {25}

  • 5. theorists enjoy an intellectual freedom unknown in the countries before their 'occupation' by the colonial powers — one that has sometimes disappeared after Independence. {26}

  • 6. study is excessively theoretical, reliant on dubious Marxist ideology, and can be imperialistic in its turn, setting itself up as the ultimate (and necessarily western) vantage point. {27} {28}

  • 7. theory becomes an end in itself. In general, the immense problems of the third world do not need such sophistry: they need action. {29} {30} {31} {32}

  • 8. examples have been pushed to extremes, which has given the whole subject a bad name, perhaps as a ready way of securing tenure in difficult academic times. {33} {34} {35}

It may well be true that "History is always ambiguous. Facts are hard to establish, and capable of being given many meanings. Reality is built on our prejudices, misconceptions and ignorance as well as our perceptions and knowledge." {36} But it is another matter to posit a wholesale, deep-seated and entirely European failing, and fasten the blame on the colonial record. History is complex, and the Marxist thesis of exploitation doesn't meet the facts.

The real difficulties arise when we look for evidence. Said's Orientalism made three assertions. Firstly, that oriental studies functioned to serve political ends. Secondly, that Orientalism has produced a false description of Arabs and Islamic culture. And thirdly, that Orientalism helped define Europe’s self-image. None seems to be true. {37} Colonial rule was not justified in advance by oriental studies but in retrospect. Second, if the views of oriental scholars were so wrong, it is hard to see how their adoption by the colonizing powers proved so successful, or why they are still used by native academics. Finally, Europe did not define itself against an oriental 'other': Europeans may well have thought themselves superior, but they did not construct an 'other' and define themselves against it. The accusation indeed commits the same stereotyping, now of the Europeans powers, that Said himself castigates. Matters are much more complicated, varying with period and countries concerned.

The issues are contentious, and it is difficult to find a balanced position. The overarching faults of post-colonial studies are those of radical theory generally: belief in simple answers to complex matters, disdain for evidence, and a prose style {38} that obscures the issues and sometimes prevents discussion altogether.

References and Internet Resources

1. Bart J. Moore-Gilbert, Postcolonial Theory: Contexts, Practices, Politics (New York: Verso, 1997). Q
2. Kipling's Burden: Representing Colonial Authority and Constructing the "Other" through Kimball O'Hara and Babu Hurree Chander in Kim. Nandi Bhatia . NNA. Brief essay illustrating style and approach of Post-colonial studies.
3. Contemporary Philosophy, Critical Theory and Postmodern Thought: Edward Said. Martin Ryder. Jul. 2004. NNA. Extensive list of references.
4. Feminism and post-colonialism. Necessary similarities between feminism and post-colonial studies.
5. Contemporary Postcolonial and Postimperial Literature in English. George Landow. NNA. Well organized site devoted to post-colonial studies.
6. English Studies and Colonialism. Philip Holden. Jun. 2003. NNA. Uses of English in India, etc.
7. Introduction to Postcolonial Studies. Deepika Bahri. Oct. 2002. Introduction, listing important writers.
8. Help the Third World help itself. Kofi A. Annan. The Wall Street Journal. 29 Nov. 1999. General review of third world problems.
9. George Mobiot. NNA. Articles by the UK Guardian's writer on global affairs.
10. Third World Development Foreign Aid or Free Trade. John Majewski. Jul. 1987.
tradeandinternationaleconomics/thirdworld.html. A view contrary to Mobiot's.
11. Friends of the Third World. Articles illustrating the third world problems caused by global trade.
12. The Other, Otherness, and Alterity. George Landow (Ed.) NNA. Good list of online excerpts.
13. Why so many Muslims deeply resent the West, and why their bitterness will not easily be mollified. Bernard Lewis. The Atlantic Monthly. Sep. 1990. Article by a noted Islamic scholar.
14. James G. Carrier, Ed., Occidentalism: Images of the West, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995). Q
15. Amnesty International. Left-wing, but well-documented research.
16. History of Imperialism. 2002. Very extensive listings, concentrating on, but not limited to, European imperialism.
17. A million Europeans enslaved.
. Brief Washington Times article on Barbary Coast slavery.
18. C.A. Bayly, "Writing World History: C.A. Bayly Looks at the Opportunities Presented to the Historian in 21st Century When Trying to Write the History of the World," History Today, February 2004. Short article indicating complex nature of historical situations. Q
19. Swapan Dasgupta, "Not Such a Bad Home," New Statesman, October 23, 2000. See also the Oxford History of the British Empire.
20. Treat of European Involvement in Africa 1870-1914. G.Moore. Jun. 2004. NNA. Balance sheet of costs and benefits.
21. After Empire. Theodore Dalrymple. 2003. A cautionary tale of unfortunate consequences of colonialism.
22. William Roger Louis, Andrew Porter, Alaine M. Low. The Oxford History of the British Empire: Vol. 3 (O.U.P. 1998). Q
23. Alan Burns, In Defence of Colonies (London: Allen & Unwin, 1957), 291. Q
24. Margery Perham, The Colonial Reckoning: The End of Imperial Rule in Africa in the Light of British Experience. (New York: Knopf, 1962). Q
25. Academic Freedom in Africa Edited by Mahmood Mamdani and Mamadou Diouf. 1994.
. Review by Paul Tiyambe Zeleza.
26. Rewriting the history of the British Empire by Keith Windschuttle. The New Criterion. May 2000. NNA. History is more complicated than advocates of post-colonial studies commonly appreciate.
27. A Marxist Critique Of Post-Marxists. James Petras. 1998. Problems with Marxism new and old.
28. Postcolonial Theory Versus Philippine Reality: The Challenge of Third World Resistance Culture to Global Capitalism E. San Juan, Jr. 1995.
. A rebuke of America cultural dominance.
29. Humpty Dumpty and the Despotism of Fact: A Critique of Stephen Howe's Ireland and Empire. Patrick McGee. NNA. A Jouvert review with the usual reference to Derrida, Foucault, etc.
30. In the Gaudy Supermarket A Critique of Post-Colonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Terry Eagleton. May 1999. A critique from a Marxist thinker sympathetic to Spivak's position.
31. Post-Colonialism or Post-Imperialism? Luke Strongman. 1996. Article illustrating the excessive theorizing typical of the subject.
32. Notes & Comments The New Criterion. Nov. 1999. A conservative view of the academic industry.
33. Jumping into the Culture Wars. Shakespeare's Tempest as an ugly record of colonialism?
34. Class Dismissed. Mark Crispin Miller.
. Tenure chasing and much else wrong in American academia.
35. Graham Huggan, Prizing "Otherness": A Short History of the Booker, Studies in the Novel 29, no. 3 (1997) Q
36. Edward Said’s “Orientalism revisited” by Keith Windschuttle. The New Criterion. Jan. 1999 . NNA. A hard look at Said's thesis. Accessed 14 July 2004.
37. The Language of Deconstruction: Elitist Jargon or Jargonvergnügen? Rolf J. Goebel. Advantages of deconstructive language, with difficulties admitted.
38. Contemporary Postcolonial and Postimperial Literature in English. George Landow. NNA. Extensive snippets of information on post-colonial studies.
39. Postcolonial & Transnational Theories. T.V. Reed. 2001. NNA. Short outline and excellent bibliography and listings.
40. Feminism and Postcolonialism. Kristin Switala. 1999. Short bibliography.
41. Jouvert. A journal of Post-Colonial Studies. NNA.
42. Introduction to Modern Literary Theory. Kristi Siegel. Jan. 2003. Introduction to types, bibliographies and Internet listings.
43. Literary Criticism & Critical Theory. T. Gannon. Apr. 2002. NNA. Very extensive listing of sites under main categories of literary criticism.
44. Cultural Studies. Includes excellent listing of Post-colonial studies articles.
45. Postcolonial Theory and Criticism: A Bibliography. NNA. Very extensive.
46. Guide to Literary Theory. Michael Groden and Martin Kreiswirth. Johns Hopkins online guide: free access limited.
47. Voice of the Shuttle. Alan Liu et al. Literary theory section.

      C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if cited in the usual way.