What is Imperialism? Types, History, Advantages, Disadvantages

Imperialism-Past, Present and Future

Imperialism is the policy, practice or advocacy of extending the power and dominance of one nation over the other. It can be practiced both by directly acquiring geographical territories or by gaining indirect control over the economy or polity of other areas. This article will discuss the history and motives behind imperialism all over the world. It will also shed light on the types of imperialism that currently exist, with a special focus on advantages and disadvantages of it in contemporary times.

imperialism meaning
An American cartoonist in 1888 depicted John Bull (England) as the octopus of imperialism, grabbing land on every continent. HWC925

What is Imperialism?

During the 15th and 16th centuries, large European nations such as Spain and England put forth considerable effort in order to assert dominance over other countries and territories. The roots of imperialism are based on this expansion of force and coercion in early history. However, with time, the act of imperialism was established as a social system. This system was no longer looked down upon and was credited as something that most nations would aspire for. The United States of America is one such modern-day imperialist. It has a strong and extensive military budget, and it exerts dominance over most third-world countries. The wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iran and Afghanistan are some examples of America’s imperialist tendencies. The United States of America is also expanding its influence on the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Guam.

There are four different types of imperialism that exist in present-day society:

  1. Colony Imperialism: It is the most direct form of control over other nations. In this form of imperialism, a powerful nation installs its government and legislation within another country. The people of the country thus become second-class citizens, with no say in the laws and policies that are put forth by the foreign country. Foreign officials are posted in the homeland, to keep a check on the functioning of their authority. Great Britain had over 13 colonies during the 17th century, including India during the pre-independence era.
  1. Protectorate Imperialism: In protectorate imperialism, the country is able to govern itself through an internal government. However, it is still majorly controlled by an outside power. Homeland officials are allowed to retain their authority and run the country, yet they have no control over it. There is limited self-rule, while the foreign power deals with all important matters such as economic decisions and international relations. The kingdoms of Numidia, Macedonia, Syria, and Pergamum were examples of protected states under the control of Rome.
  2. Sphere of Influence Imperialism: A sphere of influence is when an outside power claims certain rights and privileges over nations that border already existing territories. They are most often established through treaties and documents. These contracts usually exist as a precursor to a colony or protectorate imperialism. There are various examples of spheres of influence in Asian history. For instance, the spheres were established by the British and Russians in Persia in the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907. Another example is how Great Britain, France, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Germany, Italy, Russia, the United States, and Japan each had exclusive special trading rights, including low tariffs and free trade, within Chinese territory.
  • Economic Imperialism: It refers to the control of newer and weaker countries by private businesses. In this form of imperialism, the nation is not controlled by indirect political affiliations. Instead it functions on economic power, trade and investments. Thus, the foreign power has a lot of economic dominance and influence over others. The dole fruit company in the United States of America controls many plantations over the continent and almost exclusively controls the pineapple trade in Hawaii.


Three periods in the modern era saw the rise of massive empires, mostly colonial in nature. Between the 15th and mid-18th centuries, England, France, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain established empires in the Americas, India, and the East Indies. Following it, there was a period of relative quiet in empire construction as a consequence of a vigorous response against imperialism. The decades between the mid-nineteenth century and World War I (1914–18) were then marked by aggressive imperialistic practices. Russia, Italy, Germany, the United Nations, and Japan were among the entrants to the imperialistic states, and indirect, particularly financial, control became the preferred type of imperialism. For a decade following World War I, the League of Nations’ enormous hopes for a better world placed the challenge of imperialism on hold. Then, in 1931, Japan resumed its empire-building campaign with an attack on China. In the 1930s and 1940s, Japan and the totalitarian states—Italy under the Fascist Party, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union—launched a new era of imperialism.


There are several motives behind the act of imperialism. Some of these motives outlined are:

  1. Exploratory Motives –  Several nations imperialize other territories for exploratory reasons. They want to map new areas, identify indigenous people and look for natural resources that can lead to profits.
  2. Political Goals – This form of imperialism usually involves certain aspects of nationalist tendencies, where countries want to procure more territory for their motherland. They want to ensure that they have more resources than other nations and control other countries’ governments and legislation.
  3. Ideological Motives – Imperialists often assert control over other nations in order to spread their ideologies and enforce a certain way of thinking. For instance, European imperialists aim to spread a European way of life to other countries. They also want more people to adopt a European perspective.
  4. Religious Motives– This form of imperialism is extremely common in countries that are dominated by Christian religions. Imperialist nations want to spread their religious beliefs in other territories in hopes to convert people.
  5. Economic Motives– The most common form of imperialism, is used to profit off other countries’ natural resources, supplies and goods. Countries aim to get native people to purchase their properties, leading to economic benefits.

Colonialism and Imperialism

Although colonialism and imperialism are often used synonymously with each other, there are some essential differences between the two that separate them. Some of these differences are:

  • Colonialism occurs when one country physically establishes dominance over another country, typically via a mix of violence and diplomacy, in order to exploit its resources. On the other hand, imperialism occurs when one country creates an empire and expands its borders in order to display its influence. Imperialism can occur through both direct physical control and indirect control.
  • In colonisation, individuals will migrate to the new region, eventually becoming permanent settlers in the country. Imperialism, however, does not require permanent settling. It can be done through other governing forces.
  • Imperialism is far older than colonialism and dates back to the Roman Empire. Colonialism dates back to the 15th century, and it began with European settlement over Asian and African territories.
  • Imperialism comes from the Latin word ‘imperium’ which means to ‘command’, while colonialism comes from the Latin word ‘colonus’ which means to farm.
  • The takeover of Southern and Central Africa by Britain is an example of colonialism. Examples of imperialism include the Chinese domination of Vietnam from 111 BC to 983 AD.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Imperialism


  1. Cultural fusion- Imperialism allows for constructive engagement among individuals. Nations might rediscover their lexicon and legacy via imperialism, resulting in intercultural connections.
  2. Global Modernization– Imperialism has led to rapid advancements in technology. The whole world is now interconnected, leading to increasing accessibility towards all global events.
  3. Industrialization Boost– Through imperialism, countries have benefitted from machines and technology. Improved technology has led to mass production of goods, effectively utilizing resources and maximizing profits.
  4. Better Market Access- Imperialistic nations are market-oriented and focus more on profit-seeking. Therefore, they maintain cordial available markets with other nations, in order to facilitate trade and development. For example, Americans have better access to agricultural products due to their open market trade with the Carribbean.
  5. Global Defense– Imperialism has contributed to global peace and stability. With better access to military technology and global cooperation, most countries resolve their conflicts without turning to moral and physical threats.

Other advantages of imperialism are social cohesion, globalization and structured foreign policies and trade.


  1. Conflict Creation– While imperialism has introduced peace and stability around the world, it has also led to conflicts among nations. The interference of one nation in another country’s private matters leads to war and conflict.
  2. Expensive to maintain– Imperialism, while helpful in some situations, can also cause incredible expenses to countries. Nations spend significant amounts of money on troops, military and other resources to safeguard themselves from imperialists while also preparing for dominance themselves.
  3. Spread of diseases- The COVID-19 pandemic is a testament to the fact that better connectivity can also lead to the spread of diseases. For instance, the European invasion of the African continent led to the introduction of devastating diseases such as HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis, leading to many fatalities within the continent.
  4. Exploitation- According to the World-Systems Theory, imperialism leads to interconnected economic and political systems, where powerful first-world countries exploit weaker nations for their resources and labour. For instance, European brands using exploiting labour in Bangladesh for cheap wages in order to make clothes and other fast fashion products.
  5. Division of people- Imperialism divides people on the basis of boundaries and borders, leading to other forms of racist and colourist divides between people. They also favour particular elitist groups, leading to division and discrimination within the country itself.

While imperialism has certainly proved useful in a variety of arenas, it does not come without its drawbacks.

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Ishita Bhambri is an undergraduate student of Psychology and Sociology at FLAME University, Pune. A raging feminist and a mental health advocate, she is deeply interested in gender studies and film literature. In her free time, she enjoys reading books and baking desserts.