Political Science Postcolonialism and International Relations
Lena Tan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 February 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 April 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0214


At the heart of postcolonial studies are insights regarding the centrality of colonialism to social, political, and economic relations, representations of the Global South, the construction of identities and postcolonial subjectivity, the coeval nature of East-West relations, the ties between knowledge and power, epistemic violence, the importance of provincializing Europe in the humanities and the social sciences, and the ethics and politics involved in postcolonial theorizing. Although these insights have long opened up new vistas of research in a range of disciplines, much of International Relations (IR) has—until recently—remained immune not only from them, but also from the pointed and important questions raised regarding how and why it was possible that the Global South and important areas of international history like colonialism and the violent encounters between the West and the rest of the world have been mostly absent from the empirical and theoretical work of the discipline. As a result of this marginalization, the existing literature within International Relations that incorporates and draws on insights from postcolonial theory in an explicit manner is currently characterized more by breadth and variety in empirical and theoretical focus rather than by specific debates and conversations. Nevertheless, it is now possible to discern several general thematic areas in this small but growing body of literature. These areas include the importance of colonialism in the development and evolution of the international system, and its social structures, rules, and norms, the relationship between discourse and power in the representations and construction of identities, and the role of race, class, gender, and sexualities in the making of hierarchies. Finally, issues related to ontology, epistemology, and methodology are also a significant part of research in postcolonial IR. These pertain to two interrelated areas. First is the critical importance of unpacking the knowledge/power nexus in constructing categories of understanding in the discipline and the practices of international relations, and in its sustenance of relations of power, hierarchy, and domination. Hence, an explicitly postcolonial IR is not one that simply includes narratives from other parts of the world. Rather, it is also involved in provincializing and decentering IR’s Western-centric epistemic, conceptual, and theoretical frameworks in areas like security, war, global governance, and norms in constructivist research. Second, the challenging issue of how empirical research can be conducted in a way that truly decolonizes IR is also the subject of important debate and discussion.

General Overviews

Why should International Relations (IR) take the insights of postcolonialism and postcolonial theory into account? What does postcolonial International Relations encompass? And how can we reach an international relations that is truly postcolonial? These questions are central to much of the literature that engages with the task of introducing the insights of postcolonial theory to IR. Two early and notable efforts are Darby and Paolini 1994 and Krishna 2001. The former made one of the earliest arguments for the need for IR to engage with postcolonial theory while Krishna 2001 did so by asking what is still one of the discipline’s most important questions: how and why has theoretical and empirical IR forgotten the Global South, colonialism, and large areas of history? Beyond these contributions are the valuable, systematic, and sustained efforts by Krishna 2009 and Chowdhry and Nair 2004 that outline the parameters of what can be enclosed within postcolonial International Relations. Krishna’s comprehensive discussion of postcolonialism, postcolonial theories, and their critical interlocutors complements the edited volume by Chowdhry and Nair 2004 which showcases colonial representations, the role of capital, and gendered and racialized relations of domination, hierarchy, and power in world politics. Also important to the task of demarcating postcolonial International Relations is Seth 2009, which attempts to clear the conceptual ground that has become somewhat muddled with the proliferation of work challenging the discipline’s Eurocentricity from a number of different approaches. Seth 2009 stresses that a key characteristic of the postcolonial approach is the deconstruction of the universalist pretensions of social science categories, and converges with Beier 2009 which argues that IR is itself an “advanced colonial practice” and must be decolonized in order to reach an international relations that is truly postcolonial. Other strategies that have been introduced and explored as means for achieving this goal include forgetting IR (Krishna 2001), contrapuntal analysis (Chowdhry 2007, Krishna 2001), and an ethics of responsibility (Beier 2009). Darby 2004, however, takes the important step of moving beyond existing postcolonial critiques of the failings of mainstream IR to call postcolonial theory and the politics of its own criticism into question. For example, how relevant are colonial legacies and anti-colonial strategies today? While postcolonial theory’s recognition of the imbrication of power and knowledge is an extremely important insight, Darby argues that working through the everyday and understanding the processes of collaboration and resistance of contemporary global politics are just as necessary in order to develop such a critical politics.

  • Beier, Marshall. International Relations in Uncommon Places: Indigeneity, Cosmology and the Limits of International Theory. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

    A sophisticated monograph that engages with many of the key themes and issues of postcolonialism and IR through examining the intersections between indigeneity and international theory. Argues explicitly that IR is itself “an advanced colonial practice” and complicit in the production and reproduction of colonial discourses and practices.

  • Chowdhry, Geeta. “Edward Said and Contrapuntal Reading: Implications for Critical Interventions in International Relations.” Millennium 36.1 (2007): 101–116.

    DOI: 10.1177/03058298070360010701

    First article-length treatment of Edward Said’s concept of contrapuntal analysis in IR. Argues for contrapuntality as a methodology and tool for scholarship and teaching that questions dominant assumptions and histories, and incorporates the voices and histories of the marginalized, enabling the creation of “a different international relations.”

  • Chowdhry, Geeta, and Sheila Nair, eds. Power, Postcolonialism and International Relations. New York: Routledge, 2004.

    An excellent and comprehensive introduction for graduate students and all who are new to the topic. Useful introductory chapter that lays out a systematic discussion of key themes like power, representations, gender and race, global capitalism and class, and resistance and agency. Chapter contributions augment the Introduction effectively.

  • Darby, P. “Pursuing the Political: A Postcolonial Rethinking of Relations International.” Millennium 33.1 (2004): 1–32.

    DOI: 10.1177/03058298040330010101

    Puts the political in ir/IR front and center and argues for the development of a more critical contemporary politics of the international. To do so, postcolonial theory must question the politics of its own criticism and be redeployed. Stresses working through the everyday and understanding contemporary processes of change.

  • Darby, P., and A. J. Paolini. “Bridging International Relations and Postcolonialism.” Alternatives 19 (1994): 371–397.

    DOI: 10.1177/030437549401900304

    One of the earliest published works in International Relations that engages with postcolonialism. Clearly laid out genealogies of both IR theory and postcolonial theory. Discusses their differences and why there has been little engagement of the former with the latter. Introduces and raises significant themes and issues still discussed today.

  • Krishna, Sankaran. “Race, Amnesia and the Education of International Relations.” Alternatives 26 (2001): 401–424.

    DOI: 10.1177/030437540102600403

    Explores how IR can “forget” colonialism and slavery. Calls attention to the politics and discursive power involved in the construction of IR knowledge and challenges claims to objectivity of its mainstream theories. Introduces contrapuntal analysis for understanding the interconnected histories, identities, relations, and epistemic categories in international relations.

  • Krishna, Sankaran. Globalization and Postcolonialism: Hegemony and Resistance in the Twenty-First Century. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009.

    Excellent and comprehensive introduction to postcolonialism and postcolonial theory for senior undergraduates. In contrast to others, emphasizes the role and importance of the international economic system. Chapters on “Genealogies of the Postcolonial” and “Critiques of Postcolonial Theory” are helpful for those who are new to postcolonial theory.

  • Seth, Sanjay. “Historical Sociology and Postcolonial Theory: Two Strategies for Challenging Eurocentrism.” International Political Sociology 3.3 (2009): 334–338.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1749-5687.2009.00079_4.x

    Performs important conceptual clearing by demonstrating that historical sociology and postcolonial theory challenge Eurocentrism through two distinct strategies. States that postcolonial theory’s problematization of Eurocentric epistemic categories in the social sciences will take us further in interrogating their universalist assumptions.

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