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

  • Introduction
  • Textbooks
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals

International Relations Colonialism
Christopher LaMonica
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 July 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 02 March 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0008


The term colonialism refers to a process of domination of one group (the colonizing metropole or core) over another (a colonized other or periphery). Although originally used to refer to political control ov er an external territory or internal estate (from the Latin colonia, meaning “estate”), the Marxist-Leninist/dependency literature has expanded the term to emphasize the role of economic exploitation—specifically, of core state citizens’ exploitation of peripheral state subjects. Furthermore, most scholarship on colonialism focuses on European colonial exploits throughout the world, from the 15th to 19th centuries, during which time Europeans “explored,” conquered, and controlled vast regions of the globe in the name of God, their local monarch, or state. Largely due to the inspiration of Marxist-Leninist ideas, the term imperialism is commonly used in the literature to refer to the particularly ruthless colonial practices used by Europeans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. By contrast, the historical colonist literature of the colonial period (e.g., European journals, travel narratives, and novels) tends to justify, if not glorify, the hardships of the colonial enterprise. For example, the early Portuguese and Spanish conquistadors and Jesuits wrote of the glory of God; the French of their mission civilatrice; the British of their civilizing empire, employing Kipling’s term “white man’s burden,” among others. Largely in response, a postcolonial literature (e.g., “subaltern” essays, literary and cultural criticism, and novels) has developed that tends to criticize the history and ongoing legacies of colonialism. Postcolonial critics use the term neocolonialism to refer to the ongoing economic exploitation of formerly colonized peoples of the world via international economic institutions and their arrangements (e.g., the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, private international banks, multinational corporations) in today’s postcolonial world. Today, “pro-Colonial Empire” literature would be rare, but there does exist a revisionist reaction to the largely critical postcolonial (after colonization) literature.

Reference Works

Larger surveys on the subject of colonialism—largely critical of the colonial enterprise—were more common in the 1960s and 1970s, when there was a seemingly universal optimism and hope for the newly independent former colonies of the world. Since then, the subject has been dominated by a pessimistic “postcolonial” literature that speaks of the phenomenon of neocolonialism; that is, in today’s postindependence world, the colonial era is formally over but the exploitative policies and practices of the colonial state remain largely intact. A sampling of the postcolonial literature is provided later in this article. Below is a breakdown of notable reference works that range from library reference publications, to textbooks, and other individual works.

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