AskDefine | Define postcolonial

Extensive Definition

Postcolonialism (postcolonial theory, post-colonial theory) is a set of theories in philosophy, film, political sciences and literature that deal with the cultural legacy of colonial rule.
As a literary theory (or critical approach), it 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 in colonial countries and by their citizens that has colonised people(s) as its subject matter. Colonized people, especially of the British Empire, attended British universities; their access to education, still unavailable in the colonies, created a new criticism - mostly literary, and especially in novels. Following the breakup of the Soviet Union during the late 20th century, its former republics became the subject of this study as well. Edward Said's 1978 Orientalism has been described as a seminal work in the field.

Subject matters

Postcolonialism deals with cultural identity in colonised 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 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, decadent 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 metaphysics, 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.

Middle East, Postcolonialism, 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”.
As indicated by the above passage, independence and the end of colonialism have not ended social fragmentation and war in the Middle East. As Larbi Sadiki understood and noted 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.
Indeed, ‘in places like Iraq and Jordan, 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’,
Thus, the Middle East's difficulties in defining national identity partly stem from state boundaries defined by colonial boundaries; ‘with notable exceptions like Egypt, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, 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 Town.
Many African empires existed in the pre-colonial era, such as the Ashanti, Ghana Empire 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.
Kenyan Ngugi wa Thiong'o was educated at the British University of Leeds 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. Iran), republican regimes (i.e. Egypt, Syria, and Algeria), quasi-liberal monarchies (i.e. Jordan and Bahrain), democracies (i.e. Israel and Turkey), or evolving democracies (i.e. Iraq 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?'

Founding works on postcolonialism

Other important works

Partha Chatterjee (1993)Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Post-colonial Histories, Princeton University Press.



postcolonial in German: Postkolonialismus
postcolonial in Spanish: Poscolonialismo
postcolonial in French: Post-colonialisme
postcolonial in Italian: Studi postcoloniali
postcolonial in Hebrew: פוסטקולוניאליזם
postcolonial in Dutch: Postkolonialisme
postcolonial in Japanese: ポストコロニアル理論
postcolonial in Norwegian: Postkolonialisme
postcolonial in Polish: Postkolonializm
postcolonial in Portuguese: Pós-colonialismo
postcolonial in Finnish: Postkolonialismi
postcolonial in Swedish: Postkolonialism
postcolonial in Turkish: Postkolonyalizm
postcolonial in Ukrainian: Постколоніалізм
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