What is Postcolonialism? An Overview

Postcolonialism (postcolonial theory, postcolonial studies) is the academic study of the impact colonization has had and continues to have on cultures and societies around the world, and surrounding discourse on the same. It is an umbrella term and thus does not have one single definition. It is a term rooted in literary criticisms and used first in the context of studying literature, but over time expanded to its above definition.

what is postcolonialism

The field of postcolonial studies is one that emerged after what the academic Quayson writes was a long process whose impulses stemmed from various developments such as:

“..the changing face of global politics with the emergence of newly independent states; in the wide-ranging re-evaluation begun in the 1980s of the exclusionary forms of western reason and in the perception of their complicity with imperial expansion and colonialist rule; in the debates that raged about empiricism and culturalism in the social sciences from the 1960s; and in the challenges to dominant discourses of representation from feminist, gay, lesbian and ethnic studies in the 1970s and 1980s.” (Quayson, 2020)

To understand postcolonialism better, let us first establish what colonialism is. 

Colonialism – an overview:

Colonialism is defined as “a practice of domination, which involves the subjugation of one people to another” (Kohn and Reddy, 2017). Colonialism is often mixed up with imperialism, as the two concepts are very similar – since imperialism too comprises of establishing political and economic dominance over another territory. However, the difference lies in that under colonialism the colonizers moved to the region and settled there while still remaining loyal to their home country whereas with imperialism “one country exercises power over another, whether through settlement, sovereignty, or indirect mechanisms of control” (Kohn and Reddy, 2017).

Basic Premises and Ideas:

What is post in postcolonialism?

Colonialism and postcolonialism studies are often clubbed together. The prefix ‘post’ used here does not denote that colonialism or its effects are of the past, rather it refers to how this fields aims to present things from the perspective of the colonized rather than the colonizer, and showcases how our world till date is influenced and shaped by imperialist powers. It examines the eurocentrism present in our world wherein everything apart from western culture, i.e., colonized peoples and lands were regarded as the Other. It emerged after postmodernism, which is influenced by and shares similarities with- the latter is a response to modernism, this being a response to colonialism (Raja, 2019). Scholars and academics have also emphasized that postcolonialism is an ongoing, continuous process, rather than a time period or a stage in history.

Postcolonial theory operates on the premise that “the world we inhabit is impossible to understand except in relationship to the history of imperialism and colonial rule” (Elam, 2019). It concerns itself with challenging the colonial systems of knowledge production in place, which reinforce western perspectives as universal and also disregard all other perspectives and systems of knowledge. For example, for the longest time (till today even), western culture has been regarded as civilized and progressive, whereas other cultures are deemed primitive, backward, and in need of reform, despite the reality being different.

A seminal text that greatly influenced this field is that of Edward Said’s Orientalism, wherein the philosopher established the term ‘Orientalism’ to refer to the way in which non-European cultures and people were portrayed by the West (Kohn and Reddy, 2017). French thinker Frant Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, in which he examines the dehumanizing effects of colonization using psychology, is another such significant text. Important thinkers in this field other than Said include Homi Bhabha and Gayatri Spivak, the latter of whom wrote the famous essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” The main methodology used in postcolonial theory is known as colonial discourse analysis, which looks into critiquing and breaking down “the discourses in which colonial relations are constituted, exploring the representational strategies and subject positions of colonialism” (“Postcolonialism,” n.d.) Within the field, there are diverse approaches and perspectives as some postcolonial scholars are Marxists, whereas others are structuralists and post-structuralists (Raja, 2019).

Read: Subaltern Perspective

It is also a lens that can be applied when looking at various issues in the world. Postcolonialist theory or analysis can be found in various fields such as history, sociology, literary studies, philosophy, international studies, and cultural studies, amongst others. In international relations theory, postcolonialism brings focus to the often ignored intersection of various factors such as gender, race, class. Most importantly, it highlights how colonization and imperialism shaped hierarchal international power structures and led to how certain nation-states have far more power than others today. Sheila Nair, an international relations professor, has written about how postcolonialism states that race and not just class play a significant role in history. They talk about the process of “racialized othering” (wherein colonized peoples are framed as the ‘Other’ who are inferior) which “frames not just history, but contemporary debates such as national security, nuclear politics, nationalism, culture, immigration, international aid and the struggle for indigenous rights” (Nair, 2017).

Postcolonial literature:

Postcolonial theory is prominent in literary studies as a huge part of it involves looking into the ways in which representation in literature and cultural practices continue to uphold and reproduce colonial thought when it comes to discourse about the non-West. Postcolonial literature includes not only literature by writers from colonized regions and diaspora writers but also readings and interpretations of canonical western works through a postcolonial lens (Quayson, 2020).

Postcolonial literature looks into the various themes talked about above, mainly addressing the aftermath and consequences of colonization on countries that have become independent. Some important postcolonial works from around the world include: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, The God Of Small Things By Arundhati Roy, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Beloved by Toni Morrison. (Quayson, 2020)


Elam, D. (2019, January 15). Postcolonial Theory. obo. https://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780190221911/obo-9780190221911-0069.xml

Kohn, M., & Reddy, K. (2017). Colonialism. In Stanford encyclopedia of philosophyhttps://plato.stanford.edu/entries/colonialism/#PosColThe

Nair, S. (2017, December 8). Introducing Postcolonialism in International Relations Theory. E-International Relations. https://www.e-ir.info

Postcolonialism. (n.d.). Oxford Reference. https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803100339303

Quayson, A. (2020, January 2). What is postcolonial literature? The British Academy. https://www.thebritishacademy.ac.uk/

Raja, M. (2019, April 2). What is postcolonial studies? Postcolonial Space. https://postcolonial.net