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date: 23 February 2018

The Colonial Encounter and Its Legacy

Summary and Keywords

The current scholarship on European colonialism may be divided into two approaches: colonial studies, sometimes referred to as a political-economy approach, and postcolonial studies, also known as “postcolonialism” or “subaltern studies.” Whereas the field of colonial studies appeared with the emergence of colonialism, the second emerged with decolonization, the national liberation armed struggles, and the political, formal, or institutional collapse of colonialism. The two approaches became or appeared as protests against very similar circumstances and critically complemented one another, but they soon tended to follow parallel and very different trajectories. Three basic conceptual references offer important insights not only about the geostrategic, historical, and socioeconomic trajectories of colonialism but also on its cultural evolvement and its present consequences: colonial encounter, colonial situation, and colonial legacy. In addition, the field of colonial or postcolonial studies today may give rise to three major evolvements in the near future. The first consists in the recovery of what started to be the initial subject matter of postcolonialism. The second arises from the requirement of a return to the political, historical, and economic origins of postcolonialist studies. Finally, it will perhaps be at the point of conjunction of world-systems analysis with postcolonial studies that a fundamental problem affecting our world will find the beginning of a possible solution. The combined application of world-systems analysis and postcolonial studies is a promising intellectual instrument for confronting the in-depth influence of Eurocentrism or Euro-American universalism in the current practice and teaching of the social sciences.

Keywords: European colonialism, colonial studies, political-economy approach, postcolonialism, postcolonial studies, colonial encounter, colonial situation, colonial legacy, world-systems analysis, Eurocentrism


Colonialism is usually defined as the political, economic, and geo-strategic occupation and exploitation of Africa and Asia by core European powers in the second half of the nineteenth century. This characterization is, however, quite imperfect for at least two reasons. The first concerns the chronological location of colonialism. The historical reality is that in the late eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth century European colonialism in North and South America had already been confronted and had collapsed, leading to the political proclamation of a considerable number of new independent states. The second is that colonialism was not a specifically European creature. In the larger context of the universal history of the pre-modern world, colonialism appears, rather, as an often replicated process of military, political, cultural, and territorial occupation whose aim was the economic exploitation of human and other resources or a geo-strategic objective to guarantee easier access to them. There were colonies and colonialisms established by various Greek cities as far back in time as the sixth century bce and, later on, by Roman, Arab, Mongol, Ottoman, and other warrior or trading empires over Asia, Africa, and Europe.

To be sure, these inconsistencies have been more or less satisfactorily addressed by current historiography, which states, for instance, that in reality there were two waves of European decolonization, the second one, after World War II, closing colonial processes that had been started in the late nineteenth century. This approach is usually complemented by the assertion that the global diffusion of civilization, modernization, and progress – somehow using violence, political control and a certain degree of repression – distinguished modern European colonialism from its more ancient and “barbaric” forms.

In reality, these defining characteristics are unsatisfactory. A more precise depiction of European colonialism, in both its first and its second waves, must necessarily include at least three other of its foundational features. The first links modern colonialism to the maritime expansion started by Western Europe toward the rest of the world in the fifteenth century. That expansion was simultaneously one of the major determinants and a direct consequence of the formation, consolidation, and growth of the modern capitalist world-economy. The second is that colonialism implied systematic contact with non-European peoples, with their different languages, systems of power, structures of economic production and knowledge, cultures, and symbolic systems. This contact took place in geographical areas or regions occupied or belonging to those peoples and assumed a great variety of forms, historically originating a more or less constant interaction, mutual influences, and other social, cultural, or political forms of interrelationship. The dominant reality was, however, that the European geographical expansion into Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and the Americas usually implied highly destructive forms of violence and it rarely led to processes of peaceful integration. On the contrary, it usually gave rise to active forms of collective rejection and resistance which often culminated in a more or less tolerated or forced coexistence. A third characteristic of European colonialism is that its study has been almost exclusively based on European, usually colonial, sources, perspectives, narratives, and interests. This means that usually its understanding is biased and incomplete. In other words, what we know about the European colonial expansion and exploitation of other peoples is almost exclusively based on the way Europeans perceived, wrote about, and continue today to understand it.

In any case, and if and when we use this approach to European colonialism as expansion of an evolving world-system, its origins are pushed back to at least the second half of the fifteenth century and the first Portuguese voyages of maritime exploration. As the American historian M.D. Lewis (1962), following a great number of his colleagues, was already stressing almost 50 years ago, it was that exploration that “set in motion a process which brought about a steadily growing degree of interaction between the world's peoples.” To a great extent actualizing what Adam Smith (1776) had written more than two centuries earlier, Stavrianos (1966) elaborated it into what is today the accepted scholarly conclusion that the consequences of the Portuguese overseas expansion, followed by that of the Spaniards, the Dutch, the French, the English, and other European sailors, soldiers, traders, and priests, constituted “the most important feature of modern world history.” It led, he states, to the European domination of the entire globe, determining “to a large degree the course of world history from 1500 to the present day.” That growing geographical dominance of the world by Western Europe, followed by that of the United States, “an enlarged European-type society planted astride the western Atlantic,” is what constitutes for William H. McNeill “the key to world history” from 1500 to the present (1991 [1963]). These same limits in time, between the sixteenth and the twenty-first centuries, are also used by Marc Ferro (2005) in his monumental Le livre noir du colonialisme to define its academic study chronologically. In other words, colonialism is one of the major explanations, both as one of its causes and as its direct consequence, of the formation, consolidation, and present existence of our world. As Wallerstein (2006) reminded us in one of his most recent books, “the history of the modern world-system has been in large part a history of the expansion of European states and peoples into the rest of the world. This has been an essential part of the construction of a capitalist world-economy.”

This coincidence of scholarly views, however, hides the fact that the characterization of European colonialism, and its nature as a relational historical–social science subject of research continues to be controversial to this day. Its frequent permutation with the concept of imperialism, the multiple changes of its general meaning over time, a still widespread tendency to emphasize what are considered its “positive” or “natural” aspects – so as to overshadow its deleterious consequences, still being felt today – and the colonial origin of its major sources are among the many reasons for the dissensions and controversy that plague its academic study.

To review and discuss some of the major conditions of research in this field, not only within the core of the modern world-system but also in its periphery and semi-periphery, we can consider the current academic literature as being divided into two approaches. The first, sometimes designated as a political-economy approach, can be said to have its roots in the philosophical, political, and economic debates of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Europe and the Americas. Those debates dealt with the positive and negative characteristics of the colonial enterprise and their combination in time and space. They were focused mainly on what was seen as the virtues of European expansion and territorial occupation as well as their contribution to progress and modernization – that is to say, their contribution to a ceaseless accumulation of capital. To a great extent, these topics continue to be major features in the dominant academic approaches to the study of colonialism today, particularly in the historical, sociological, economic and political-economy disciplines. To be sure, it implies consideration of what is usually designated as the decolonization process and, sometimes but not always, the study of major forms of anticolonial resistance, struggle, and national liberation. This approach assumes the perspective of the core, even if and when its studies are produced by scholars belonging to or originating from the periphery and semi-periphery of the world-economy. Among its many omissions and distortions, it usually tends to forget that it was also through these intellectual debates that Europe, as Dussel tells us (1992), gradually assumed the intellectual center of the world after having been for centuries, and at the beginning of its expansion in the fifteenth century, no more than a lateral, provincial, marginal region of the great Afro-Euro-Asian Mediterranean world.

The second general approach to the study of colonialism has its origins in the second half of the twentieth century, with the intensification of anticolonialism and other processes of what became known as decolonization and national liberation struggles. To a great extent, it began as a kind of highly critical complement for what was increasingly considered as the incomplete and distorted perspective produced by the political-economy study of colonialism with its great narratives of economic development, modernization, and progress. Characterized by different approaches in terms of epistemology and geopolitical perspectives, it emerged as part of the renewal of what became a highly innovative and multidisciplinary field of cultural studies. It assumed its basic methodological procedures from a then renewed and experimental conception of social anthropology, as well as from semiotics, literary theory, so-called postmodernism, the theory and practice of deconstruction, and so on. In particular, after the 1970s, this second approach to the academic study of colonialism received various and different designations but became usually known as “postcolonialism,” “postcolonial” or “subaltern studies.”

As with the characterization of colonialism, these designations are no more than vague, sometimes confusing, references. But what they imply is the recognition of a new, highly critical field of knowledge primarily concerned with the need for new approaches to the study of colonialism which were determined, required, and made possible by the various processes that led to the end of colonialism itself. To Ashcroft, who first coined the term “postcolonial studies,” it allows us to go further and deeper in that study by considering “the effects of colonization on cultures and societies” (Ashcroft et al. 1998). Trying to be more precise, Ania Loomba points out that “it is more helpful to think of post-colonialism not just as coming literally after colonialism and signifying its demise but more flexibly as the contestation of colonial domination and the legacies of colonialism” (Loomba 1998). In other words, it implied a radically new multidisciplinary approach to the same subject matter in theoretical, cultural, relational, and highly critical terms. This new field of study started by emphasizing, as basic requirements, the critical study of the different anticolonial liberatory processes and their histories, as well as the prevalence of the material and ideological consequences of colonialism in an evolving world-economy. Its dominant epistemological perspective appeared to be that of the postcolonial world, that is to say, of the periphery and semi-periphery of the capitalist world-system even if and when the respective academic or scholarly production originated from within the core. If till then the study of colonialism was mostly a way to explain it, the consolidation of new approaches and methodologies, particularly after the 1970s, with its basic origins or influences in cultural studies, literary theory, and the anticolonial liberation processes tended sometimes to go beyond its academic boundaries to become an intellectual form of active political action.

The two major fields of colonial and postcolonial studies here considered were consequently born in separate and very different circumstances but with a single object of study. While the first, designated above in somewhat basic terms as the political-economy approach, appeared with the emergence of colonialism, the second, usually called postcolonial studies, emerged with decolonization, the national liberation armed struggles, and the political, formal, or institutional collapse of colonialism. To be sure, the two approaches are not incompatible. To a great extent, they became or appeared as protests against very similar circumstances and critically complemented one another. However, they soon tended to follow parallel and very different trajectories, in particular as the dominant tendency for the separation of disciplines pushed the new approaches to the study of colonialism toward literary or theoretical studies. This separation affects the possibility of a better understanding of colonialism and its legacy. This is unfortunate because, among other reasons and as Bipan Chandra (1999) expressed so clearly, “To understand colonialism and its impact is to understand today's world […] and contribute to the making of a better world.” On the other hand, and besides complementing one another, each of the two approaches to colonialism and postcolonialism has much to gain from the other in epistemological, analytical, and political terms. For instance, and as it is often pointed out in the material study of colonialism, its historical, political, and economic analysis is the foundation in which all considerations of cultural self-defense and destruction, race and racism, coexistence, exploitation, repression, political and economic control, mutual influence or rejection, assimilation, hybridity, resistance, or other relational processes involving colonizers and colonized must be rooted. Consequently, our task must be to consider the two approaches to the study of colonialism and its systemic consequences in their structural interrelationship, that is to say, as one single body of scientific, methodological requirements, as a totality. This is possible only if, at the same time, we try to locate, confront, and permanently destroy the deleterious influence of Eurocentrism or Euro-American universalism as a basic, essential condition to a deeper understanding of colonialism, its history, its present consequences, and its possible futures.

With that objective, three basic conceptual references will be used here to review, and where possible bring together, an important body of academic literature not only about the geostrategic, historical, and socioeconomic trajectories of colonialism but also on its cultural evolvement and its present consequences. These conceptual references will be those of colonial encounter (Asad 1973; Said 1979; Brimnes 1999; Ballantyne and Burton 2005); colonial situation (Balandier 1951; Cooper 2005); and colonial legacy (Said 1993; Ashcroft et al. 1998; Ballantyne and Burton 2005).

The Colonial Encounter

The long-term process of mutual knowledge and influence between Europeans and other peoples contacted by them in the global expansion of an evolving world-economy became increasingly known, in particular after the 1970s, as the “colonial encounter.” Before that, it was usually the dating and geographic localization of the moment of contact or “discovery” by European sailors, soldiers, traders, or priests of other peoples, or their leading elites, that constituted the often dominant object of historical research and knowledge. Those events were uniformly designated and limited, consequently, to what was seen as a long succession of different geographical “discoveries.” As the term clearly indicates, it reduced contact among peoples to a single, active initiative, that of Europeans arriving and being received all over the world by passive, welcoming “natives” ready to be exploited, Christianized, and civilized.

To a great extent, this contradicts not only the simplest common sense but also the evidence of historical sources describing those “discoveries” as they were happening. This can be read, for instance, in the fifteenth-century chronicles narrating the progression of the Portuguese along the western coast of Africa and reporting the “discovery of India,” that is, their first voyage round southern Africa, northwards along the eastern coast of Africa and toward the subcontinent (Zurara 1970 [1468, 1473]; Velho 2008 [1497/1838]). Written for the eyes of the king and usually highly detailed, these chronicles tell us unmistakably that the contacted African or Asian peoples were never passive and, if usually described as welcoming, they were also and always depicted as making very clear to those newly arrived that they were ready to change hospitality into an armed response in the eventuality of aggression. This is why, and notably in the northern coast of today's Mozambique or in India, the representatives of their leading elites were described by Velho in similar terms as he would probably use to describe the royal or aristocratic elites in Lisbon. In other words, non-European peoples in these narratives are seen neither as exotic nor as inferior. Moreover, if the Portuguese in the late fifteenth century were able finally to traverse the Indian Ocean and reach Calicut from the coast of Africa, it was because they were able to count on the knowledge and services of a local pilot. It was that forgotten sailor, of Arabic ascendency, with the hospitable agreement of local structures of power, who guided the small Portuguese fleet and its navigators across the long and for them unknown sea of monsoons, making possible their successful arrival in India. To a great extent, these chronicles make obvious that the Portuguese were being, if I may say so, also “discovered” by the peoples receiving them in a kind of mutual or reciprocal social process that was not ignored by both parties. “The people,” writes Velho (2008 [1497/1838]), “took much delight in us.” However, the type of approach to the study of expansion based on the dominant conception that the world was “discovered” by Europe is still found in the first decade of the twenty-first century in many works being published or in print with relative editorial success. “European discoveries” continues to be, for instance, a basic statement underlying the entries about colonialism in the 2009 edition of the influential Encyclopedia Britannica (at, accessed July 2009).

Consequently, this characterization of colonial encounter as European “discoveries” of “unknown” lands and peoples continues to be a dominant approach in the general study of colonialism. Important modifications have, however, started to be introduced in the last two or three decades and are radically changing the conceptualization of colonial encounter. From a unidirectional event, more or less lacking interpretive interest, it has started to be considered as a multidirectional, sociohistorical process between peoples in space and time. Among the first scholars to construct the concept with this meaning, Talal Asad in his Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter (1973) used it to assert that the history of colonizers and colonized has always been mutually constitutive. Edward Said, usually described as the “founder” of postcolonial studies with his influential study Orientalism, has also pointed out that this new conceptualization of colonial encounter challenges the canonical narratives that have governed the analysis of colonialism – as they, indeed, must be challenged. Moreover, he added, it implies characterizing the history of colonialism as a history of complicity across boundaries and nationalistic categories, making common the experience of empire to both the colonizer and the colonized (Said 1979; 1993).

The use of the concept of colonial encounter, consequently, implies the epistemological correction and conscientious rejection of the basically Eurocentric conception that reduces colonialism to the mere submission, destruction, or transformation of non-European, passive, ahistorical, and uncivilized peoples and societies under a modernizing Europe. As Brimnes (1999) tells us, the colonial encounter is today starting to be understood and “conceptualized as a dialogic process in which colonialists and indigenous peoples sought to incorporate each other in their own social structure and conceptual universe. The colonial realities that emerged from this process were hybrids” because they contain elements of both European and non-European cultures (emphasis original). Taking the fundamental work of Edward Said further, this general characterization amplifies the initial concept of discourse based on literature and philology with what Brimnes calls “local social contexts.” Moreover, in Said's early work (1979) discourse was seen as exclusively created by Europeans, while Brimnes (1999), writing after 20 years of debate, emphasizes that the discourse in the colonial encounter was “produced mutually by European colonialists and indigenous leaders… My wider assertion is that discourse in a colonial context should be understood as a cross-cultural dialogue.” Accordingly, Brimnes defines his work as a contribution to “the continuing debates on the nature of the colonial encounter and the transformations that brought India [his major subject matter] – and other non-Western societies – into the colonial orbit.” This is taken even further by van der Veer (2001) who, applying the concept of colonial encounter to notions of religion and secularity as they were lived by colonized and colonizers, concludes not only that national cultures in both India and Britain developed in relation to their shared colonial experience but also that this was crucial to the collective imagination of the modern nation in both countries.

An even more elaborate characterization of the colonial encounter as a dialogic process of interaction, mutual change, and impact in the present can be found in the work by various Latin theorists, among whom the most influential are Enrique Dussel (1992), Aníbal Quijano (1993; 2000), and Walter Mignolo (2000). To a great extent in dialogue with this work, and extending it in theoretical and methodological terms, Gonzalo Lamana has more recently presented a fascinating analysis about the first contacts between Incas and Castilians in early colonial Peru. Writing in 2008, he defined the period of encounter as having been between 1531 and “the moment when a colonial regime with working relations of subordination was recognizable,” in 1551. His goal, he tells us, is “to provide an alternative historical narrative that at once examines the colonial imprint and shifts away from it. He wants to present, then, not an anticolonial narrative, since what is “anti” “is constrained by (and inadvertently echoes) the conceptual frames of that which it opposes, but a decolonial one” (my emphasis). With these objectives, he finds out that the “uncertainty and diversity, within and across the cultural divide” go against the politics of simplification found in both European and non-European authors and their descriptions or studies. According to Lamana, the objective must not be to produce a unified historical narrative through the eventual abolition of differences between often contradictory types of sources. Instead, and also mentioning hints found in the theoretical and empirical works of Ginzburg and de Certeau, he considers them and their differences as indices of various ways of making sense of coexisting events. Relating those indices to non-European reactions about contact found in later authors like Du Bois, and his references about a divided, “double consciousness” or “two worlds within and without the veil,” (1995 [1903]) and Gloria Anzaldúa, for instance, in her reference to “being a zero” (1987), it becomes possible to construe a positioned difference and assume a distinct gaze through which meanings that had been silenced or hidden in the encounter can finally be accessed and taken into consideration. This interpretive procedure is complemented by a similar process of indexation and reading of primary and secondary colonial sources, as well as those inspired by imperial, anticolonial or nationalistic perceptions of European colonialism. It is in the structural confluence of the results of all those processes that it is possible to construct a radically new understanding of the colonial encounter which is decolonial because it “destabilizes the dominant image of the Western subject as a purely rational actor in full control of all interactions” (Lamana 2008).

Such a destabilization of the Western subject contributes to a deeper and more precise understanding of colonial encounter in at least four very innovative levels of research. The first emphasizes that every one of the different moments that characterize the encounter is always defined by the permanent interrelation of a great variety of alternative histories determined, not only by the interests and agency of newly arrived Europeans, but also by those of the different social groups of local peoples and their elites contacting them. The second implies a new approach to history, no longer seen as the coherent, simplistic, unidirectional narrative of a single trajectory but rather, and consequently, as a permanent interrelationship between different alternatives and their contradictions. It also includes the characterization and understanding of the alternative interests and the projects that failed. A similar approach can be used to consider the future as a multiplicity of possible alternatives whose predication is based on the systemic study of present and past trends and the possible alternatives of historical evolvement. This method of regarding both the past and, if necessary, the future as a complex interrelation of different tangled alternatives as they are construed in temporalities like the usually called conjunctural, long-term, K-waves, and hegemonic cycles, has been tried in, though not only, world-systems analysis, with very interesting results (see, for instance, Vieira et al. 1992; Hopkins and Wallerstein 1996; Arrighi et al. 2003; Boronov 2008; among many others). Third, and in what concerns the study of colonialism, this allows a wider characterization of contact and competition of the different social orders, interests, and strategies in their permanent interrelationship; the evaluation of the degree to which such an ongoing encounter leads to mutual changes; and a better understanding of agency, identities, and political goals. Finally, it locates the colonial encounter in the more or less long period of mutual contact between Europeans and other peoples of the world which usually prepared the incorporation of the latter in the modern world-system.

In other words, from mere historical events located in time and space under the superior gaze of Europe, colonial encounters are starting now to be regarded by more recent scholarship as sociohistorical and dialogical processes that bring together, under exceptional circumstances, different peoples, with their different identities, cultures, and interests. It is through this new type of approach to the colonial encounter, with its multiple social processes of interrelationship, that the period from the beginning of European expansion to the colonial incorporation of areas and peoples into the axial division of labor of the evolving world-economy, is starting now to be characterized. As mentioned above, those encounters generally started with a hospitable and generous welcome that was lived with “mutual delight” (Velho 2008 [1497/1838]). Many other sources also tell us that the first contacts between non-European peoples and newly arrived Europeans were characterized by silent dismissal, indifference, trust, and/or suspicion. In some other cases, the encounter involved military aggression by the Europeans or the refusal to receive them and open resistance, including through the use of armed rejection. In more general terms, we can be sure that first contacts took place under what were most probably simple curiosity, as well as the need for a reciprocal and increasing mutual acquaintance. We can also be reasonably certain that they were usually followed by the first attempts to evaluate the possibility of exchanges, with each of the parties quickly learning or confirming what they could expect from the other. The colonial encounter was also a process that, slowly and probably after those first mutual attempts to gain knowledge about each other, tended to change into more or less sustained attempts by the Europeans to control existing trading routes and their sources. Most probably as well, this resulted in the early beginnings of complicity between European and local elites and, often simultaneously, to the development of local forms of active and passive resistance against them.

The Colonial Situation

The concept of colonial situation was born out of the anticolonial and liberatory ferment involving the small but active group of African and European intellectuals and scholars who under the titles Committee of Patrons and Board of Editors, were instrumental in Alioune Diop's foundation of Présence africaine in 1947, the first actively anticolonialist cultural and political journal in postwar Europe. More or less well-known authors like André Gide, Aimé Césaire, Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Leiris, Léopold Sédar Senghor, and Albert Camus were some of those patrons. Its editors included, among others, Bernard Dadié, Mamadou Dia, Hughes Panassié, and Georges Balandier. As Mudimbe (1992) tells us, the Présence africaine was from its beginnings both a manifesto and a program. Its objective was to claim “the dignity of otherness” which was negated by force in European colonies all over the world. Diop's project represented “a cultural questioning, not of the French culture per se but of the imperial ambition of the Western Civilization” (Mudimbe 1992). Because its existence would not have been possible in the colonies, Présence africaine was created in Paris, the capital of one of the most important European colonial empires, and two years after its own liberation from the military occupation by a then defeated Nazi Germany.

This was also the context in which the “colonial situation” was formulated as a concept, by one of its editors, the anthropologist George Balandier. First proposed in 1951, it is one of the most appropriate and critical characterizations of modern colonialism and an important reference point in its study and understanding. According to Balandier, the designation implicates the totality of historical, economic, political, structural, and ideological processes of European colonialism and their imposition, “in a brutal manner,” all over the world. This led to the submission of peoples regarded as “primitive,” resulting in the obliteration of their history, if not, as sometimes happened, in their disappearance. By establishing themselves all over the world and through the way they did it, Europeans created “a very special type of situation,” the colonial situation (Balandier 1951).

Basically, the colonial situation has two major consequences: it conditions the reaction of “dependent peoples,” and it continues to be the major cause, in the present, for certain reactions of recently emancipated peoples. Although it is described specifically as enabling scientific observation of colonialism independent of any moral judgment, this approach to colonialism and the need to confront it is quite similar to that found in the literature of the anticolonial liberation movements in the second half of the twentieth century. The innovative aspect of this characterization of the colonial situation is the proposal that it must be dealt with and studied as a totality, a single complex, a whole, or a system (Balandier 1951).

Colonialism, Balandier points out, is usually studied from different individualized points of view by colonial historians, sociologists, economists, anthropologists, psychologists, or politicians. But these analyses are misleading because they are isolated, partial, and do not account for all the consequences of colonialism. For Balandier, the problem required an overall view capable of integrating all the specialized perspectives of research. This is how the colonial situation can be theoretically construed and understood as a totality – by taking into analytical account the major features and conditions necessary for the complete understanding of the object of research (Balandier 1951).

This characterization of the colonial situation became very influential. Since Balandier employed it as a foundation for his work, it has increasingly become and continues to be a highly influential term of reference in a great number of studies, descriptions, and critical denunciations of colonialism and postcolonialism in all its forms. For instance, for Frederick Cooper, one of the most acute scholars of colonial studies today, once the colonial situation was identified it became recognizable and identifiable not only in the relation of France with all its colonies but all over the periphery and semi-periphery of the postwar world-economy. “Balandier's 1951 article,” Cooper (2005) writes, “is notable for taking the sociological tradition in a new direction […] What was new was primarily the unit of analysis: not the ethnic group favored by anthropologists of his era but a unit in which power was actually exercised […] Here the emphasis would be not on kinship and witchcraft but on military conquest, economic extraction and racist ideology.”

Other innovative features in the study of colonialism as defined by Balandier are also accepted characteristics of the field today, among them, the conceptualization of colonization as being both a historically specific process and (following Durkheim or Mauss) a “total social phenomenon,” as it involved the totality of relationships between colonial peoples and colonial powers and between the cultures of each of them (Cooper 2005). In other words, the concept of colonial situation as defined by Balandier involves the totality of relationships between colonial and colonized peoples, that is, in cultural and ideological as much as political and economic terms.

Balandier's attempt to renew the study of colonialism coincided with other similar, although infrequent, scholarly attempts in the rest of the world. Of particular interest (because it anticipated by almost 20 years what was to be known as postcolonial studies) is the work of the Brazilian social scientist Nelson Werneck Sodré published in 1961 as A Ideologia do Colonialismo (The Ideology of Colonialism), which is concerned not only with a more precise characterization of Portuguese colonialism in Brazil but also, particularly, with its economic, ideological, cultural, political, and literary impact on the present. With this objective, Sodré brings together and analyzes the work of various writers and social scientists who, during and after the colonial domination in Brazil, discussed colonialism in all its different features. This approach allows Sodré to conclude not only that the ideology of colonialism continues to be the dominant ideology in his country but, in addition, that it constituted one of the major obstacles to its liberation from a continued external dependency because it impeded progress toward a collectively desired economic, political, social, and cultural development. Assuming a radically different perspective, and coming to very different conclusions, is the work of Gilberto Freyre, Sodré’s countryman and colleague, which is well known today. In contrast to what happened to A Ideologia do Colonialismo, Freyre's work continues to be published both within and outside Brazil. Freyre's basic assertion is that Portuguese overseas expansion is a specific case of colonial occupation because it resulted from positive forms of social and genetic miscegenation that distinguished it from the common features of other European colonialisms. This assertion became one of the major arguments in Portugal's attempt to legitimize to the United Nations, in the second half of the 1960s and the early 1970s, its refusal to decolonize, against the wishes of the international community and the national liberation movements of Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Angola, and Mozambique. To a great extent, colonial and postcolonial studies in Portugal continue today to be directly or indirectly influenced and affected by Freyre's ideas about a supposed colonial specificity or the exceptionalism of Portugal in contrast to all other colonial empires.

Balandier's and, to a great extent, Sodré’s characterization of the colonial situation as a basic feature in the conceptualization and study of colonialism as a totality was to a large extent an active and direct reaction to what were still the dominant analytical approaches. In the second half of the twentieth century, and with the beginning of the acceleration of processes leading to decolonization, it also reflected the researcher's eminently anticolonialist political position. It was not, however, such an anticolonial political engagement that constituted a new type of intellectual statement. With different forms, objectives, and expressions, anticolonial positions can be found in the long-term history of European colonial expansion and as far back as the early sixteenth century. In other words, alongside the dominant and growing praise for the exploitation of non-European peoples, territorial expansion, and colonialism, a great number of intellectuals became known for their highly critical denunciation of the evils and generalized brutality of expansion and colonial occupation. Usually of a reformist or pragmatic nature, this denunciation was generally based on religious and ethical principles or on the need to suggest more profitable and efficient policies of exploitation. The list of these anticolonial thinkers and authors is long, covering more than three centuries. We can find, as far back as the first half of the sixteenth century, the boldly expressed meditations of Bartolomé de las Casas (1552) advocating the cause of the Indians, in what we today call Latin America, against the greed and repressive practices of the Europeans, or, on the level of principle, the theological reflections of Francisco Vitória (1532). In the following century, the sermons and, in general, the life and writings of the Portuguese Antonio Vieira were often based on an extensive denunciation and condemnation of many of the aspects of expansion, colonization, and slavery in Brazil. Because both Vieira and las Casas were writing from outside their Iberian home countries, their reflections were mostly based on their own direct knowledge and experience. Contrary to their views, the position of the Christian church was perhaps better expressed by the writings of someone like the Franciscan friar Juan de Torquemada who, in his reflections about Mexico (1615), published in 1723, stated that the Aztecs represented a kind of inverted image of the Jews. Both peoples, he wrote, claimed divine and providential origins. The reality, however, was that while the Jews had indeed been created by God, the Aztecs were a creation of the devil (Torquemada 1723 [1615]). This was the dominant conception about the rest of the world that was increasingly being assumed in Europe. But the expression of opposition to expansion and colonial exploitation, which counteracted it in part, also started to make itself felt particularly in France and England, from at least the sixteenth century. Between the first half of the sixteenth century and the mid nineteenth century, and including the Enlightenment, the names of Michel de Montaigne, Voltaire, Abbé Guillaume Raynal, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Jacques Necker, Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, and François-Rene de Chateaubriand are among those authors, politicians, and intellectuals who explicitly condemned expansion and colonization – in some cases, for example Rousseau, calling for the end of the colonial system altogether. The list is even longer and equally prestigious in Great Britain for it included Francis Bacon in the transition from the sixteenth to the seventeenth century, and, in the following two centuries David Hume, Adam Smith, Arthur Young, and Jeremy Bentham. In some rare cases, as with Adam Smith, the criticism of colonialism went as far as to call for its end. We must not, however, confuse these approaches with contemporary and liberatory anticolonial positions. The sometimes violent criticism expressed by a great number of these authors was often made in the name of a more complete implementation of the principles of free trade and a self-regulating market in its extension to the colonies, and was not about colonialism as a system as we know it today.

Among the classical thinkers of the nineteenth century, a more consequential approach to colonialism can be found in the work of Karl Marx. It is an approach conceived and elaborated when the historical transition to what we now call late or modern colonialism was in process. Most probably, this was one of the reasons why Marx constitutes a fundamental reference to the study of European colonialism. His influence was felt, notably, in the work of later authors like, for instance, Hobson (2005 [1902]), Hilferding (1981 [1910]), and Lenin (1963 [1917]), whose approaches already reflect a mature phase of colonial exploitation. The reflections of these three authors about colonialism are very different and reflect their distinct political choices and individual ideologies. But they have many common aspects both among themselves and in relation to the ideas expressed by Marx. The major features of colonialism detected by them and, with small differences, common to their writings can be reduced to three. The first, predicted by Marx, confirms the second half of the nineteenth century as a period of concentration of capital both as monopolizing corporations and as finance capital. This became the starting point for the global or systemic implementation of modern colonialism as one of the responses to declining profits in a B-phase of economic contraction. This decline was then gradually aggravated by increasing unemployment, declining wages, and a growing social polarization that soon led to contracting demand for consumer goods and, consequently, to a further depression of profit rates. Like other processes of regulation and monopolization then implemented, the major objective of formal colonialism was the control of world-economic competition for resources, including cheap labor, raw materials, and the potential creation and expansion of new markets. Second, declining demand and contracting markets also meant that there were no new possibilities for investing and thus reproducing capital. The solution was found in the export of capital overseas to complement what till then was mainly the regular import of raw materials against the metropolitan export of commodities. This was also seen as a way to recreate and increase existing and newly formed peripheral and semi-peripheral financial markets. Additionally, new and expanded colonial manufacturing would mean lower wages, cheaper raw materials, and greater margins of profit. Third, modern colonialism and empire consequently became an essential way out of depression. But it was also a source of increasing competition within the core that sooner or later would lead to war, an “imperialist war,” according to Lenin.

For Hobson, this outcome could have been reversed: imperialism was not the only way for the self-reproduction of colonialism in a phase of crisis. On the contrary, its costs and the growing competition it determined were changing it into another critical problem. Hobson's solution was, rather, a general increase of wages to solve the superabundance of capital and increase demand. But, he was alone in his depiction of overseas expansion. Both Hilferding and Lenin considered it not only as unavoidable but also as the most developed phase of capitalism as a system of accumulation.

The studies on colonialism and imperialism presented by Hobson, Hilferding, and Lenin were all made during a B-phase of economic contraction and crisis in the modern world-economy, a crisis aggravated by increasing intercore competition and, after 1914, by war. On the other hand, they were also conceived in a phase in which the British hegemony in the world-economy had reached its limits. Although they were defending very different political positions, this explains why the three authors ended up reaching very similar conclusions about the nature and major characteristics of modern colonialism.

Interrupted by 30 years of European war, further studies on the colonial expansion of Europe and colonialism started again after the early 1950s. In very general and generalizing terms, it can be said that they followed what was described above as the two historical trajectories expressing either intellectual praise and support or a confrontational criticism of colonialism. A large number of works, mainly about what became known as theories about the modernization and economic development of the periphery and semi-periphery, whose colonies then started to become increasingly independent, at least in political terms, characterized the first direction of research. It was based on new anthropological or ethnographic studies as well as on political science, sociological, economic, and other approaches usually describing the newly independent countries, grouped into area studies, as coming out of tradition into the modern world. Simultaneously there was also an increasing number of works by authors assuming the tradition of anticolonialism and the type of analytical approaches found in Marx, Hobson, and Lenin. Among them were authors in the US like Paul M. Sweezy (1966), Paul Baran (1957; 1975), Harry Magdoff (1969; 1977; 2003), and others usually involved with the influential Monthly Review, founded by Baran and Sweezy in 1949. They contributed to a great extent to what started to be a new interpretation of colonialism, as one of the major structures of interrelationship between the core and the periphery and as a fundamental requirement for the historical formation and continuing reproduction of a globalized, capitalist economy. In the rest of the world, important works by Yves Benot, Pierre Philippe Rey (1971), Rene Dumont, Claude Meillassoux, Arghiri Emmanuel (1972 [1969]), and many others contributed equally to a new understanding of that historical colonial relationship between an exploitative core and an increasingly dependent and impoverished periphery.

The period from the late 1940s to the late 1970s was also very important to the renewal of the understanding and study of European colonialism. First, this was because of the intensification of activity by a significant number of anticolonial resistance movements and the multiplication of national liberation armed struggles against European domination. Second, it was because of what became known as the decolonization process and the successive victories of formerly colonized peoples in Asia and Africa, as well as the achievement of economic independence in Latin America. All this originated a vast and very rich body of theoretical reflections based on the effective practice of the struggle against colonialism, imperial dominance, and its consequences, not only by anticolonial and national liberation movements, but also by intellectuals and scholars often directly related to them. In addition to the documentation and periodicals produced by those movements, we find the well-known names of Nehru, Ho Chi Minh, Vo Nguyên Giap, Mao Zedong, Amilcar Cabral, Frantz Fanon, Eduardo Mondlane, Samora Machel, Patrice Lumumba, Che Guevara, and many others. Considered from the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, this tricontinental literature of liberation has been more or less forgotten, perhaps with the exceptions of Fanon and, to a lesser extent, Cabral and Guevara. The essential primary source it constitutes for the study of colonialism from a postcolonial or other type of approach, it is now very little known or researched. Nor have the key texts of this literature been republished in an organized way. With regard to southern Africa and its liberation movements, however, there is an important anthology of documents published in three volumes with an introductory essay by Aquino de Bragança and Immanuel Wallerstein (1982). And in Mozambique, major articles and other texts from the periodical regularly published between 1964 and 1974 by FRELIMO (Mozambique Liberation Front) under the title A Voz da Revolução were collected in an anthology, with an introduction covering their meanings, objectives, and influence on the anticolonial armed struggle and liberation of the country (Mota Lopes 1977). With regard to the long process of African resistance and national liberation, an exceptionally rich and well-organized bibliographic archive of the anticolonial literature, including periodicals, internal publications, and other original documents and scholarly works, has been set up with electronic access at the Aluka digital library (see below).

The Colonial Legacy

The colonial situation as defined by Balandier did not end with the end of colonialism. Because it deeply impacted all continents, colonialism continues to influence a great number of global trends and problems today (Abernethy 2000); its legacy is strongly felt in international relations, within and between countries. In other words, colonialism continues to be a defining characteristic of our world in the early twenty-first century.

Reminding us that “most states […] were ruled as dependencies of a foreign power at some point during their history,” Hensel emphasizes that “any attempt to understand the impact of history on international conflict is incomplete if one does not consider the effects of colonialism.” Long after independence, peoples continue to be impacted by a “substantial historical legacy” created by colonial actions and decisions, or the absence of them (Hensel et al. 2004).

This is clear in at least three of the major consequences of historical colonialism in an evolving world-economy: (1) the growing political and economic inequality within and between nation-states (Valenzuela and Valenzuela 1978); (2) the multiplication of peripheral conflicts and their expansion to the core (Hensel et al. 2004); (3) the generalized failure of successive attempts and aid programs based on and directed by the US and former metropolitan countries to overcome some of its more striking consequences in the present. To be sure, those programs are often described as designed to guarantee the considerable cultural and economic influence those core countries had in the colonial past.

Of these three major consequences of the colonial legacy in our world, the growing global inequality has been correctly defined by the Valenzuelas as the most negative and deleterious. Based on World Bank statistics, Krieckhaus (2006) estimates that, in what continues to be a period of unprecedented prosperity of the capitalist world-economy, and despite the present economic crisis, more than half of the population of the world is increasingly poorer, earning less than US$2.00 per day, while 14 percent produces so little that they suffer from absolute malnourishment. Almost without exception, those people are geographically located in regions that have not managed to overcome the effects of a long-term historical imposition of colonialism. Similarly, and according to Hensel et al. (2004), the most acute of the motives for armed conflict are related not only to the colonial past but principally concern what was then an artificial set-up of colonial borders. From the Middle East to southern Africa, from Asia to Latin America, and increasingly within the Euro-American core, a majority of local conflicts presently affecting the world are directly or indirectly related to colonialism or have their roots in its political, economic, and ideological consequences. The above-mentioned world-economic crisis of 2008, another “failure of capitalism” as Richard Posner (2009) characterized it, is making even more acute and tragic what was already a critical global situation.

Since at least the second half of the twentieth century and the beginnings of the global process of decolonization, a great number of theories have addressed this systemic situation at the same time as trying to understand, explain, or confront it in remedial terms. All have as their main subject matter the historical and present interrelationship between the Euro-American core of the modern world-economy and its previously colonized periphery and semi-periphery.

Most of those theories, including the more influential ones, were conceived within universities located in the US or Europe. Following a conviction already present in newly independent countries, they do not contend that political independence by itself was the solution to the great problems left behind by European colonialism. During the first 20 years after decolonization, those theories were dominantly constructed as modernization and, in their less common peripheral expression, as dependency theories. Both held that a quick process of economic development and social progress was possible in the postcolonial world. For the modernizers, who were usually also deeply involved in the Cold War and its politically different sides, this would be reached through a number of stages and measures according to the historical example of capitalist countries like the United States and Great Britain, or of non-capitalist ones like the Soviet Union. For the dependency theorists, modernization was a possibility if and only if the historical relation with the former colonizers and the core of the world-economy was controlled, incrementally reduced, or cut off. Both theories collapsed with the rumble of their limitations: for the modernizers, from the systemic impossibility of catching up and progress; for the dependentistas, from not being able to detach national economies from the core in order to construct a better future in single, de-linked and prosperous nation-states.

Since the late 1960s, however, the assumption of those failures has led to important theoretical and methodological changes. The theories of modernization were changed into what became known as a variation of the neoclassical economy of development based on neoliberal principles of a self-regulating economy. This meant the implementation of an increasing laissez faire in all economic relations, including international flows of trade, manufacture production, and finance as well as, at the local level, labor. This reconceptualization of global economics also asserted that the role of the state, particularly in the postcolonial independent states, had necessarily to be secondary in relation to global markets and private interests. Adopted by the major core countries under the designation of Washington Consensus, the global imposition of these principles as a body of coherent practices that became known as structural adjustment was attributed to international organizations like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. As with the general conceptualization of modernization theories, those practices were mostly conceived and defined within the core to be applied in the periphery and semi-periphery, without taking into account either local postcolonial conditions or the participation and knowledge of local cadres and populations in their implementation. One of the results was that the beginning of a generalized criticism of structural adjustments was almost coincident with the start of its implementation. Besides being denounced as a new form of colonialism for the sole benefit of the core, it became the object of a multiplicity of forms of active and passive resistance in most of the postcolonial world where it was being implemented almost exclusively by cadres of both organizations. This on-the-field exclusivist isolationism and the radical nature of the principles that characterized the following 30 years of neoliberal structural adjustment were denounced by a generalized criticism, which increased in direct relation to its implementation and the multiplication of failures that soon started to be registered. Moreover, it became obvious that most of the very few peripheral and semi-peripheral countries whose levels of development increased were those that managed to avoid or at least control the IMF application of structural adjustment. If we do not take them into account, what this means is not only that the colonial legacy has been consolidated in the contemporary worldeconomy but also that it has, in many situations, been considerably aggravated.

This general failure of structural adjustment has uniformly been confronted by the more directly involved international organizations, not by an efficient adaptation to localized circumstances, by the effective involvement of local cadres and populations, or by changes in its basic orientation and practices, but rather by what can be described as an unprecedented multiplication of publications aimed at the public in general and so-called opinion makers or, more often, to an academic and specialist audience. To a great extent, this procedure started with the beginnings of the implementation of structural adjustment in the 1970s and 1980s to become increasingly what is now a regular, extensive, and massive flow of reports, studies, books, working papers, academic journals, TV documentaries, web pages, and other types of publications.

Besides its informative function, the objective of this permanent media campaign of public and academic relations seems obvious: to uphold structural adjustment and defend all its effective or possible levels of past, present and future implementation. At the same time, it hides its failures and, in so doing, promotes the international organizations that are responsible for its implementation and, ultimately, pay the writers, editors, economists, statisticians, media specialists, and publishers responsible for the publication of these self-congratulatory data flows. On the other hand, this immense outpouring of information is often assessed and reproduced in an acritical way as the dominant and, in general, the only source of statistical data about the world-economy. An interesting characteristic common to all this literature is that it always avoids the use of the term “colonialism” or references to related concepts like colonial situation or colonial legacy. Nevertheless, it can be and is often used as an important tool to evaluate the growing consequences in our world of that legacy. This was one of the many possible directions of its utilization as suggested by a highly informative collection of critical readings that cultural and literary critics, social scientists, economists, and public policy analysts made of that literature and published under the title World Bank Literature (Kumar 2003).

To a great extent, it was the realization of the failure of the dominant theories of modernization in addressing the general underdevelopment characteristic of the colonial legacy that led to their change, a change without transformation, into structural adjustment. A similar process of failure leading to attempts of renewal has also characterized important intellectual and methodological transformations assumed since the late 1960s by the social sciences in general. This coincided with, and is at least in part explained by, the intensification of antisystemic confrontation of an increasing number of new social movements globally; the political and theoretical influence of the anticolonial and national liberation struggles; and the consequences of the economic crisis of the early 1970s. These changes, usually defined as a response to a general breakdown of historically accepted means of knowledge, took place at the epistemological and methodological levels but affected as well the characterization of the subject matter and its unit of analysis. They implied, as well, new ways of considering the various disciplines into which the social sciences had been divided in response to the argument that only specialization could guarantee knowledge and to institutional and administrative requirements of the university establishment. It was also within this conjuncture of change in the social sciences that new academic approaches and conceptualizations in the general study of colonialism and its legacy were formulated as a central requirement for the better understanding and knowledge of the contemporary world-system.

Two of the most important, intellectually stimulating, and scientifically sound of those new or renewed attempts to understand colonialism as colonial encounter, colonial situation, and colonial legacy are world-systems analysis and postcolonial studies. Although usually considered as independent academic disciplines, both world-systems analysis and postcolonial studies constitute major theoretical backgrounds of epistemological reference and knowledge for all the other social sciences disciplines and fields of inquiry. They are new ways of thinking and understanding the social reality of the modern world-economy at all levels of its existence. Both world-systems and postcolonial studies became and are very influential but, at the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, none of them is yet among the dominant modes of knowledge at the academic level or, even less, at the public level.

With regard to world-systems analysis, its contribution to a better knowledge of our global reality starts with the characterization of the long sixteenth-century European geographical expansion and colonialism as intrinsic and foundational processes in the construction and development of the capitalist world-system. Developing to its ultimate consequences basic assertions of dependency and its theories, world-systems analysis confirmed, gave substantive expression to, and expanded the thesis made famous and applied to Latin America in the United Nations context of the Economic Commission to Latin America or ECLA by Raúl Prebisch (1950; 1959). The dependency thesis is also present in the important work of Paul Baran, Paul Sweezy, Harry Magdoff, Samir Amin, and Gunder Frank, In its world-systems reformulation, it asserts that the increasing economic and social disparities that contrast the core with the peripheral regions of the globe, as well as the economic development of the former, were historically constructed by the structural relationship between the core and the periphery and semi-periphery of the world-economy. In other words, they were determined by the intrinsic interests of the structures of capital accumulation of the core. The result was the increasing underdevelopment of the periphery, a process famously characterized by Gunder Frank as “the development of underdevelopment. This unequal relationship is one of the major dynamics of the modern world-system. In other words, the periphery and semi-periphery were created and continue to reproduce today their conditions of unequal existence through the direct and indirect exploitation of their human and natural resources by the core. Basically, this approach allows the construction of the historical trajectory of the structural interrelationship between the core and the periphery and semi-periphery of the capitalist world-economy, starting in the second half of the fifteenth century with the beginnings of the European maritime expansion, largely based on slavery and, after its abolition, its replacement by colonialism which, after decolonization and national liberation, has been replaced today by structural adjustment (Mota Lopes 2005).

It was also the failure of existing methodologies and disciplines of social knowledge that led to the emergence and quick diffusion of so-called postcolonial studies, postcolonialism, or coloniality. Similarly to what happens with world-systems analysis, postcolonialism can also be considered as being more than an individual discipline and as a kind of theoretical background or epistemological matrix implicit or possible of being used by all forms of social knowledge. Postcolonial studies makes clear that, more than 30 years after decolonization, many of the characteristics inherent in colonialism continued to be present and to influence the world-system deeply by influencing the vast majority, if not all, of its structures of knowledge and social interrelationships. This is common both to the core and to the periphery and semi-periphery of the world-economy. An obvious conclusion was that the pervasive weight of colonialism also affected the methodologies and disciplines of the social sciences, distorting their respective approaches and conclusions. To denounce and to try to confront such a usually ignored reality, postcolonial studies assumed and started to use a certain number of methodological procedures of interpretation usually found in the wider field of cultural studies, which was by then also in a phase of intensive epistemological renewal. The use and application of those procedures allowed a closer and more in-depth understanding of the colonial legacy, its permanent influence in the structures of knowledge of the modern world, and its impact on disciplines like history, anthropology, sociology, economics, literary criticism, or political economy. At the same time, it became the central reference in the areas of race studies, identity, ethnicity, and multiculturalism.

Besides the generalized influence of the work of Michel Foucault, Louis Althusser, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, E.P. Thompson, and others, usually combined with a highly critical rereading of Karl Marx and of nonorthodox thinkers like Antonio Gramsci, Walter Benjamin, and those belonging to what was then known as Western Marxism, postcolonialism brought together many other intellectual references. Among them was the direct influence of the militant and collective thought and practice of the anticolonial national liberation struggles as expressed in the work of Frantz Fanon, C.L.R. James, Julius Nyerere, Ali Shariati, Amilcar Cabral, among others; of Critical Theory and the work of Theodor W. Adorno and, more recently, of Jürgen Habermas; of sociology as understood, for instance, by Pierre Bourdieu or Edgar Morin; of linguistics through Ferdinand de Saussure; and of semiotics as popularized by Roland Barthes and Umberto Eco. Postcolonialism was also influenced in its genesis by, and ended up deeply influencing, already established approaches like literary, feminist, and gender studies. A particularly important influence was that of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies founded at the University of Birmingham in 1964, in general, and of some of its most prominent members, in particular. Among the latter must be mentioned the direct impact of Stuart Hall and his studies on the relationship between race, ethnicity, and colonialism, and of Paul Gilroy and his discussion of the characterization of what he called the Black Atlantic and of the relation between modernity and double consciousness. These characteristics of postcolonialism at its inception complicate its more precise characterization. Usually, however, it is the publication of one of its major references, the study of Orientalism by Edward W. Said in 1979, that is considered as inaugurating the field. It was followed, in a first phase of consolidation, by the influential work of remarkable theorists and cultural critics like Homi K. Bhabha, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Bill Ashcroff, Jan Mohammed, Gyan Prakash, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Ania Loomba, Sylvia Wynter, Paul Ahluwalia, V.Y. Mudimbe, Ann Marie Pratt, Achille Mbembe, Ranajit Guha (the founder of Subaltern Studies), and many others. The great majority of the scholars here related to the beginnings and consolidation of what became known as postcolonial studies generally belong, by birth, personal choice, or identity, to the periphery and semi-periphery of the modern world-system. Most of their work, however, was developed within the academic context of core universities.

After a first phase of quick expansion in terms of theme, influence, and institution, postcolonialism entered into a period of contraction and relative decline in the 1990s. It was then the object of growing criticism, which usually emphasized what were considered as three major problems. The first one is understandable if we consider the national and cultural identities and intellectual interests of a majority of its major theorists. It pointed out, as a negative trend, the reduction of its initial subject matter to what became a dominant historical characterization of British colonialism in India. The second, to a great extent determined by the first, condemned postcolonialism for having become increasingly elitist and apolitical in its analytical methodology, as well as for the increasing narrowing of its dominant field of interest to English literary studies. Finally, the third criticism was that postcolonialism had become little more than a derivative of dominant Western theories, having accepted in an acritical way the deep influence and epistemological distortions of both postmodernism and poststructuralism. This approach has been carefully analyzed and convincingly deconstructed in a recently published study by Paul Ahluwalia (2001), presently one of the most influential theorists of postcolonial studies.

Conclusion: From Colonial to Liberation Studies?

In the field of colonial or postcolonial studies today, two or three major evolvements can perhaps be expected in the near future. In their convergence they accentuate the effective renewal of postcolonialism, its increasing expansion, and the increase of the importance of its study according to renewed approaches and different schools, particularly those located in South Africa, Australia, Canada, and probably China, India, Brazil, and other countries of Latin America.

The first of these evolvements consists in the recovery of what started to be the initial subject matter of postcolonialism, that is, its emphasis on the prevalence and characterization of the colonial legacy in our world and in all its manifestations, ideological, political, economic, literary, and cultural. This will imply a slowing down and problematizing of the present trend which tends to collapse postcolonial studies with English literature and literary studies. As emphasized above, there are important examples that show not only the possibility, but the importance, of expansion of the field. Among them, those of Latin American theorists of coloniality like Henrique Dussel and Anibal Quijano, and of influential African intellectuals like Achille Mbembe, Paul Ahluwalia, and V.Y. Mudimbe, are important references. The renewal of the field will be a consequence of the multiplication of their kind of work.

A second possible development of postcolonialist studies arises from the requirement of a return to its political, historical, and economic origins. Consequently the field will be opened up to a wider, more complex, and deeper perspective on the world. The epistemological and methodological relationships with some of the defining features of the historical–social sciences in general, and of world-systems analysis in particular, may be a solution for this important necessity. What this means is that a better and more in-depth understanding of the colonial encounter and its legacy, notably as Balandier characterized it under the concept of colonial situation, can be attained through the application of the basic theses of world-systems analysis to colonialism. Both approaches have similar intellectual and philosophical origins, were similarly influenced in political and cultural terms by the theories and practices of the anticolonial struggles and liberation movements of Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and Latin America, and they tend to speak the same liberatory language. World-systems analysis and postcoloniality also have in common the direct engagement of its major theorists with the political practice of anticolonialism, the direct knowledge of colonized peoples in struggle, and the enlightenment that scientific field-work and personal experience sometimes bring to a more in-depth knowledge of the reality. These are some of the reasons why world-systems analysis appeared as a turning point in the development of new and more efficient sociohistorical analytical methodologies for radically new approaches to the study of colonialism and its legacy. These and other similar approaches seem essential to the further development of postcolonial studies.

Finally, it will perhaps be at the point of conjunction of world-systems analysis with postcolonial studies that a fundamental problem affecting our world will find the beginning of a possible solution. That problem is to a great extent related to historical colonialism and implies the usually a priori and often nonconscientious recognition of colonialism as a positive historical factor of European “civilization,” modernization, and progress to the “benefit” of the non-European world. What is complicated about still generally accepted ideas like this is not that they are false and distort our understanding of reality. It is rather that it implies, and is shaped, by what constitutes a permanent influence of the dominant ideology of the capitalist world-economy, that of Eurocentrism or Euro-American universalism. Always present, deeply affecting, and usually distorting our existing structures of knowledge, such an influence has part of its origins in, was historically constituted by, and is itself a consequence of what became the need to legitimize European world expansion as unequal exchange, as the slave trade and, later on, as political colonialism. This means that what we today call Eurocentrism or Euro-American universalism was also generated by, and evolved with, the geographical expansion of Western Europe to be later structured and consolidated with the global implementation of colonialism. In this process, the ideology of Eurocentrism became the generalized source of legitimization of that implementation, survived its institutional ending in the twentieth century, and continues today to justify it in historical and cultural terms. To a great extent, such an ideology makes us blind to the reality of colonialism, as well as to racism and ethnicity and their deleterious consequences. In an implicit way and usually unconsciously, it changed colonial expansion and colonialism in all its forms into what became pseudo-evidence for the centrality and historical “superiority” of Europe – at the same time demoting or ignoring other cultures and other peoples as inferior, backward, insignificant, and marginal. In a direct or indirect way, consciously or in general unconsciously, this deep ideological influence affects, consistently and permanently, not only the public understanding of colonialism but also its scholarly study and the literature on it. Against all this, the coming together of world-systems analysis with postcolonial studies can become a fundamental intellectual instrument to understand, as well as to detect and if possible nullify, some of the most deleterious features of the dominant ideology of the modern world-system. In particular, the combined application of both approaches will make it possible to confront, as an integral part of that ideology, the in-depth influence of Eurocentrism or Euro-American universalism in the current practice and teaching of the social sciences. Some of the most pungent but also among the most beautiful pages in Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks (1986 [1952]) are precisely about his struggle with the permanent ideological influence of Eurocentrism in his works and about the individual need to locate, control, and destroy it.

Writing at the beginning of the twentieth century, Du Bois (1995 [1903]) stated that the problem of the following 100 years was going to be the problem of racism. To a great extent he was right – but not entirely right. As we know now, the problem of “the color line,” as he called it, will not be solved without the elimination of Eurocentrism. One is not possible without the other. Paraphrasing Du Bois, maybe we can say that a major problem of the twenty-first century will be Eurocentrism or Euro-American universalism, an intrinsic part of the colonial legacy in all its forms and systemic manifestations. Its solution will finally open the possibility of changing the controversial designation of postcolonial studies or coloniality into what is their intrinsic meaning, that of liberation studies.


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Selected statistics about the extension of historical colonialism since 1871 can be accessed at, accessed July 2009.

Le Site Noir du Colonialisme. At, accessed July 2009. In French, includes a great number of documents, studies, and other sources about the colonial encounter, the colonial situation, and the colonial legacy as seen from the perspective of anticolonial movements and authors from the French colonial empire, its metropolitan center, and what is known today as Françafrique. It includes documentation and a detailed discussion about the struggle against contemporary attempts to approve national legislation emphasizing what are seen as the “positive” aspects of colonialism.

Electronic transcriptions of sources and other documents about the Portuguese maritime expansion and Portuguese colonialism are still very scarce. Some of those mentioned in the present work, including Alvaro Velho and Gomes Eanes da Zurara, can be accessed in the following addresses: Portugal's National Library at, accessed July 2009; Projecto Vercial, organized by the University of Minho, at, accessed July 2009; and the mirror-site Scribd at, accessed July 2009.

Enrique Dussel's complete works. At and, accessed July 2009. Includes those in which he renews the study of colonialism and coloniality, are available in at least two complete websites. The access is free and his books and papers are included both in Spanish and in many of their English translations.