In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Postcolonial Theory

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anticolonialism
  • Postcolonialism
  • Postcolonial Theory’s Interventions
  • Affiliations and Alliances
  • Critics and Criticism
  • Modernity, Transnationalism, and Globalization
  • Postcolonial Politics and Ethics
  • Postcolonialism versus Decoloniality and Anticolonialism in Latin America
  • New Directions in Postcolonial Theory

Literary and Critical Theory Postcolonial Theory
J Daniel Elam
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 January 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0069


Postcolonial theory is a body of thought primarily concerned with accounting for the political, aesthetic, economic, historical, and social impact of European colonial rule around the world in the 18th through the 20th century. Postcolonial theory takes many different shapes and interventions, but all share a fundamental claim: that the world we inhabit is impossible to understand except in relationship to the history of imperialism and colonial rule. This means that it is impossible to conceive of “European philosophy,” “European literature,” or “European history” as existing in the absence of Europe’s colonial encounters and oppression around the world. It also suggests that colonized world stands at the forgotten center of global modernity. The prefix “post” of “postcolonial theory” has been rigorously debated, but it has never implied that colonialism has ended; indeed, much of postcolonial theory is concerned with the lingering forms of colonial authority after the formal end of Empire. Other forms of postcolonial theory are openly endeavoring to imagine a world after colonialism, but one which has yet to come into existence. Postcolonial theory emerged in the US and UK academies in the 1980s as part of a larger wave of new and politicized fields of humanistic inquiry, most notably feminism and critical race theory. As it is generally constituted, postcolonial theory emerges from and is deeply indebted to anticolonial thought from South Asia and Africa in the first half of the 20th century. In the US and UK academies, this has historically meant that its focus has been these regions, often at the expense of theory emerging from Latin and South America. Over the course of the past thirty years, it has remained simultaneously tethered to the fact of colonial rule in the first half of the 20th century and committed to politics and justice in the contemporary moment. This has meant that it has taken multiple forms: it has been concerned with forms of political and aesthetic representation; it has been committed to accounting for globalization and global modernity; it has been invested in reimagining politics and ethics from underneath imperial power, an effort that remains committed to those who continue to suffer its effects; and it has been interested in perpetually discovering and theorizing new forms of human injustice, from environmentalism to human rights. Postcolonial theory has influenced the way we read texts, the way we understand national and transnational histories, and the way we understand the political implications of our own knowledge as scholars. Despite frequent critiques from outside the field (as well as from within it), postcolonial theory remains one of the key forms of critical humanistic interrogation in both academia and in the world.

General Overviews

There are a number of good introductions to postcolonial theory. Unique to postcolonial theory, perhaps, is that while each introductory text explains the field and its interventions, alliances, and critiques, it also subtly (or not) argues for a particular variety of postcolonial criticism. Loomba 2005 gives an overall sense of the field, and the theoretical relationships between colonialism and Postcolonialism. Given that postcolonial theory has repeatedly come under attack from outside (and from within) the field, these introductions often argue for the necessity of the field, seen most vibrantly in Gandhi 1998 and Young 2003. Additionally, there have been a number of very helpful edited volumes, each of which take place at key points in the field’s history, that keep important texts in circulation where they might not otherwise be available; among these remain Williams and Chrisman 1994 and Afzal-Khan and Seshadri-Crooks 2000. Because so much postcolonial theory is built on or responds to colonial texts, Harlow and Carter 2003, a two-volume set of colonial documents, is a necessary resource to scholars at all levels. Young 2001, an understated “historical introduction” to postcolonialism, is an invaluable resource. For students interested in psychoanalytic or psychological approaches to postcolonial theory, Hook 2012 is a good resource.

  • Afzal-Khan, Fawzia, and Kalpana Seshadri-Crooks, eds. The Pre-occupation of Postcolonial Studies. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000.

    This collection, though frequently overlooked, is a valuable resource of essays about postcolonial theory at a moment of alleged crisis. The volume includes essays that argue for the expansion of postcolonial studies to new contexts, as well as critiques of the theoretical underpinnings and commitments of the field. Noteworthy essays include those by Walter Mignolo, R. Radhakrishnan, Daniel Boyarin, Joseph Massad, and Hamid Naficy.

  • Gandhi, Leela. Postcolonial Theory: An Introduction. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.

    Gandhi’s introductory text to postcolonial theory is useful for undergraduates, but it is also a helpful resource for anyone working within the field at any stage. The short book covers the emergence of postcolonial theory in the US and UK academic worlds, its subsequent debates and fissures, and possibilities for its political affiliations. The book is mostly neutral in its approach but does offer critiques of certain postcolonial theorists and theoretical trajectories.

  • Harlow, Barbara, and Mia Carter, eds. Archives of Empire. 2 vols. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003.

    Harlow and Carter’s two-volume work is the most extensive collection of legal, philosophical, scholarly, and literary original source materials relating to European colonialism. The collection includes Hegel’s writing on Africa, T. B. Macaulay’s “Minute on Indian Education,” and Charles Dickens’s image of the “noble savage,” among many others. This is a crucial resource to scholars in postcolonial theory, which has drawn on, responded to, or discussed these key texts.

  • Hook, Derek. A Critical Psychology of the Postcolonial: The Mind of Apartheid. London: Routledge, 2012.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203140529

    Hook’s book is a very good introduction to the relationship between postcolonial theory and psychology (and psychoanalysis). Drawing on works by Homi Bhabha, Frantz Fanon, and others, Hook analyzes anticolonial, postcolonial, and critical race theory approaches to and critiques of psychology. The book is a good introduction to postcolonial theory, especially for students in the social sciences, and does a good job illustrating the contributions of anticolonial and postcolonial critique to psychology.

  • Loomba, Ania. Colonialism/Postcolonialism. London: Routledge, 2005.

    Loomba’s volume offers a lucid synthesis of postcolonial theory, both as it emerged from colonial rule as well as within the US/UK academy. The book does a particularly good job aligning the historical and theoretical components of the field. Loomba is also interested in the field’s commitment to other forms of political theory, especially feminist thought. The book is ideal for undergraduates. Originally published in 1998.

  • Williams, Patrick, and Laura Chrisman, eds. Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

    This edited volume remains the most widely available source for many important influential essays that are foundational to the field but difficult to find, some of which are listed here (Senghor 1994, cited under Anticolonialism; Hall 1994, cited under Affiliations and Alliances). In other cases, it offers a good selection of longer texts for undergraduate classes, like those by Aijaz Ahmad, Cesaire, and Said. The book also includes good examples of early postcolonial literary criticism.

  • Young, Robert J. C. Postcolonialism: An Historical Introduction. London: Blackwell, 2001.

    This sweeping account of the emergence of Postcolonialism not only offers a phenomenal introduction to anticolonial thought, but it illuminates the ways in which postcolonial theory is directly indebted to anticolonial thought. Young also argues for understanding anticolonial thought and postcolonialism as inherently transnational by foregrounding its circulation across the “tricontinental” world (South America, Africa, and South Asia; a term first coined by Fidel Castro) in the 20th century.

  • Young, Robert J. C. Postcolonial Theory: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

    DOI: 10.1093/actrade/9780192801821.001.0001

    Young’s primer to postcolonial theory is perfect for scholars new to the field. It provides an overview of the field’s theoretical and political commitments, while also demonstrating how postcolonial theory can be used to examine texts and politics. In the guise of a neutral text, it is actually a vibrant defense of the field and a reconceptualization of its origins. It is also, therefore, an excellent manifesto for the field.

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