In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Colonialism and Postcolonialism

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Textbooks
  • Book Series and Journals
  • Data Sources
  • Postcolonial Theory
  • Decolonizing Atlantic Empires and Nations
  • Postcolonial Legality
  • Knowledges, Sciences, and the Environment
  • Hybrid and Queer Bodies and Identities

Atlantic History Colonialism and Postcolonialism
Eva Botella Ordinas
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 July 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0174


Postcolonialism is a disciplinary field and an interdisciplinary methodology grounded in post-structuralist and postmodern critique. As a discipline, it studies the effects of imperialism, colonialism (until the independence of colonies), and neocolonialism (in the 20th and 21st centuries) on societies and individuals. It addresses questions about identity, hybridity, gender, sex, race, species, language, knowledge, modernity, transnationality, multiculturalism, and cosmopolitanism, among many others. As a methodology, postcolonialism provides several theories as a guide for transdisciplinary research to give voice to agents, relations, practices, representations, knowledges, narratives, and subaltern cultures silenced by traditional disciplines. It tries to avoid binary concepts (East-West, colonizer-colonized, subject-object, male-female, human-animal), which are conceived as imperialist, and to study how subaltern and colonized peoples transformed in relation to colonizers, opening processes of hybridity and creating creative resistances, sometimes digested by dominant/imperial/hegemonic discourses. Postcolonialism might become colonialist or neocolonialist because it was shaped within academic elites in an inaccessible language belonging to a Western imperial tradition of knowledge, and it is disseminated through neocolonial discourses and practices, while it is supposed to destabilize Western assumptions. Recent critics call for a Marxist approach against imperialist trends of capitalist globalization, while avoiding universalizing and essentializing theories and methods, and for an emphasis on Iberian, Latin American, and indigenous modernities (“decoloniality”). Postcolonial publications are increasingly contesting copyright licenses and are published under “copyleft” licenses (such as “creative commons”) to allow a wider public to participate in academic knowledge and research. In history, postcolonialism created an enormous impact, affecting especially cultural history, history of gender, empires, slavery, and science/ecology, in promoting the study of identities, migrations, hybridizations, and subaltern cultures previously dismissed by national, progressive, and imperial histories. Not only Atlantic history is increasingly pervaded by postcolonial theories due to its transdisciplinary and transnational subject of study, but also many postcolonial theorizations come from the study of Atlantic historical realities. Whether understood chronologically (the study of early modern Atlantic empires, their collapse, and aftermath) or epistemologically (the study of realities inhibited by “Western” traditional historiography or through “decoloniality”), postcolonialism has become one of the main foci of Atlantic studies. There are current trends demanding a transatlantic perspective for Atlantic studies, meaning their study from a “transmodern” point of view. Transmodernity refers to the fluid present within a transnational space interconnected through unstable balances of nets and webs and its reality as a mixture between materiality and its representation (Transmodernity, cited under Book Series and Journals).

Reference Works

Major authors on postcolonial theory focus, in various degrees, on post-structuralism (Bhabha 1994, Said 1978, Spivak 1988), psychology (Fanon 2004), materialism (Parry 2004, cited under Textbooks, and Huggan 2001), and cultural studies (McLeod 2007, cited under Textbooks), which is at the center of postcolonial studies as well. In general, these authors deploy a complex and highly academic language to explain their theories with the perhaps paradoxical intention to serve the subaltern. Some (Huggan 2001) argue that academic postcolonialism is another neocolonial commodity. Theorists from different latitudes show diverse approaches to postcolonialism, according to the specificity of the colonial pasts and postcolonial presents of their regions. A common distinction exists between Anglo-Saxon and Latin American postcolonialism, which has been criticized for reproducing national, imperial, or colonial narratives and neglecting, precisely, the subaltern (Rodríguez 2001, cited under Textbooks). A characteristic of the most mediatic Latino branch, usually misrepresented in Anglo-Saxon academic works, is the use of the terms “decolonial” and “coloniality” (e.g., Mignolo 2000; Mignolo 2011, the latter cited under Textbooks). Perhaps the exceptions are studies centered in race and gender because feminists and “queer” (beyond sexual binaries such as gay/lesbian-heterosexual) perspectives (see Anzaldúa 1987, Hybrid and Queer Bodies and Identities, and Knowledges, Sciences, and the Environment) influenced the rethinking of Atlantic slavery (Fanon 2004) and Atlantic science and knowledges. There are also authors, in works such as de Sousa Santos 2009, trespassing academic boundaries and traditions and regional and national narratives, sometimes coining new concepts (such as abyssal thinking, ecology of knowledges, and intercultural translations) and recovering old and forgotten ones, claiming the subaltern probably cannot speak in colonial or neocolonial terms. This selection includes major texts from diverse latitudes covering local and global problems affecting Atlantic history and postcolonial studies. Although some of the reference works on postcolonialism do not engage directly with Atlantic history, many of the examples cited in these reference works come from Atlantic history as part of the history of an entangled colonialism, postcolonialism, or neocolonialism. Moreover, Atlantic historians, writing within a transdisciplinary field to study early modern and modern colonization, imperialism, exploitation, subalternity, hybridity, and entanglement within the Atlantic basin, are increasingly concerned to take a postcolonial turn, and they quote many of these works in their writings.

  • Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute, 1987.

    Discuss the concepts of identity and borders in Spanglish, queering the idea of “mestizaje” and questioning binaries and fixed identities. This work is fundamental for Chicana studies, new waves of feminism, and the debates around the notion of miscegenation.

  • Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994.

    Criticizing the binary position colonizer-colonized, Bhabha claims there is a space between (an interstice) identities and cultures (as fixed identifications) creating cultural hybridity in blurring assumed or imposed hierarchies. Bhabha introduces wide concepts, such as hybridity mimicry, interstice, and liminality, to discuss identity. It was criticized for supporting a non-nuanced hybridity.

  • de Sousa Santos, Boaventura. Una epistemología del sur: La reinvención del conocimiento y la emancipación social. Buenos Aires, Argentina: Siglo XXI Editores, 2009

    Explores the means to visualize and make plausible subaltern’s cognitive experiences and knowledges. The subaltern inhabits the South, a metaphor for the suffering created by Western colonialism and capitalism, first in the Atlantic and then in all geographical regions. A very clear narrative supported by a vast list of references.

  • Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. Translated by Richard Philcox. New York: Grove, 2004.

    Analyzes the psychology of the colonized (“Negro neurosis”) caused by colonialism along with the postcolonial disempowerment of the masses by the elites and intertribal disputes from an anticolonial perspective. A basic text for the study of critical race theory. First French edition (1961) introduced by Sartre; now with a foreword by Bhabha.

  • Huggan, Graham. The Postcolonial Exotic: Marketing the Margins. New York: Routledge, 2001.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203420102

    The production of the “postcolonial” is linked to the globalization of consumer society becoming an academic commodity (as “exotic”) of the transnational culture industries and global trade; it is also the oppositional system of postcolonial resistance. Latin American postcolonialisms are not represented.

  • Mignolo, Walter. Local Histories/Global Designs. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000.

    Describes modernity as ontologically colonial; the colonial difference fixes the hierarchization of cultures and identities. Border thinking (the demand of recognition of the colonial difference from subaltern perspective) builds a universal project of decolonization. Cañizares-Esguerra 2001 (cited under Hybrid and Queer Bodies and Identities, pp. 64–67, 89) criticizes his historical perspective from a postcolonial, Atlantic point of view.

  • Said, Edward. Orientalism. Penguin, 1978.

    In his 1978 book, Said argues that Orientalism is an ideologically biased misrepresentation by self-defined Western scholarship of any inferior “other” as feminine, weak, isolated, passive, backward, and despotic. Occident would be defined as the opposite, legitimating its conquest.

  • Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” In Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Edited by Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, 271–313. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

    A case study about how the banning of self-immolation by oppressed women is never narrated by women, and a theoretical discussion about identity, the “other,” and the subaltern: the gender/ethnic/class excluded from neocolonial and capitalist narratives, condemned to silence, promoted also by academic knowledge (Deleuze and Foucault included).

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