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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Postcolonialism: Themes and Critiques
  • Anticolonialism and Decolonization
  • African American Political Thought, Race, and Slavery
  • Colonialism, Empire, and Western Political Thought
  • Multiculturalism and Cultural Diversity
  • Theories and Practices of Citizenship
  • Democracy and Democratic Theory
  • Comparative Political Theory, Cosmopolitanism, and Global Justice

Political Science Postcolonial Political Theory
Rachel Busbridge
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 April 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0334


Postcolonial political theory is an emerging subfield of political theory, although its parameters and particular meanings are less than clearly defined and subject to contestation. Related to a more general critique of political theory’s traditional Eurocentric bias, postcolonial political theory is motivated by three key issues: first, how colonialism shaped the traditional Western canon; second, the broad silence on colonialism and its legacies in mainstream political theorizing; and third, the tensions, particularly within liberal political theory, between its universal pretentions and culturally specific Western location of articulation. The scope of inquiry in postcolonial political theory is broadly responsive to postcolonialism, a body of thought concerned with tracing, engaging, and responding to the cultural, political, social, and economic legacies of Western colonialism, particularly the period of European colonial rule between the 18th and mid-20th centuries. With a particular emphasis on the relationship between power and knowledge, postcolonial theories and approaches take the development of modernity as coterminous with European colonial and imperial projects, and therefore examine the ways in which modern systems of knowledge are implicated in colonial relations of power. Postcolonial political theory similarly treats political modernity as imprinted by Western colonialism and imperialism, making for distinct political dynamics, problems, and forms of injustice, on the one hand, and shaping the history of European political thought, on the other. In this regard, postcolonial political theory does not just call for a widening of the remit of political theory beyond the traditional European canon to include non-Western texts, voices, and perspectives. It also raises profound questions about the ways in which the categories, ideas, and assumptions of political theory have been complicit in and served to legitimize the domination of colonized peoples and indigenous, non-Western, and subaltern minorities. Postcolonial political theory seeks to articulate alternative modes of theorizing that can better speak to the concerns of justice for the formerly colonized, indigenous peoples, and those affected by the neo-imperial features of the current global order. An important element of this is concerned with methodology, in particular the use of multidisciplinary insights from history, cultural studies, and anthropology, among others, as well as thinkers and texts that would not conventionally be considered “political” according to dominant Western conceptions of politics.

General Overviews

Compared to the related fields of political science and international relations, political theory came relatively late to postcolonial issues and approaches. The status of postcolonialism within political theory remains somewhat fraught, with focused inquiries patchy and considerable disagreement over the bounds of its application. Some notable texts began to explore the implications of European colonialism and imperialism for political theory in the 1990s, although they were not strictly informed by postcolonial theory. Of these, Tully 1995 (cited under Cultural Pluralism and Interculturalism) stands out as an early and exemplary example of postcolonial political theorizing that seeks to reckon with and address colonial legacies in the context of cultural diversity. Parekh 1995 and Eze 1997offer valuable historical examinations of, respectively, liberal attitudes to colonialism and ideas of race in Enlightenment thought. One of the earliest texts bringing postcolonial writing into dialogue with liberal political theory is Ivison 2002 (also cited under Cultural Pluralism and Interculturalism), while Seth 2001 lays out an early postcolonial-informed critique of the foundational premises of political theory. Persram 2007, however, is the first edited collection to expressly bring political theory and postcolonialism together into an overall frame of inquiry. More recently, Pitts 2010 identifies postcolonial political theory as a part of, albeit not commensurate with, a growing interest in theorizing the politics of empire. Two texts serve particularly well as introductions to the emerging field and are also demonstrative of the broad split between the two projects informing it: the critique of Eurocentrism as imbricated in Western colonialism, and the articulation of postcolonial alternatives that could help end colonial legacies. Levy 2011 showcases the diversity of theoretical and empirical inquiries applying postcolonial insights to political theory, including work in the history of political thought and theorizations of colonialism as a phenomenon. Notably, while postcolonialism is identified alongside these two strands of inquiry, it is suggested that the relatively blurred lines between them make “postcolonial” a helpful general descriptor. Kohn and McBride 2011 (cited under Anticolonialism and Decolonization) is an influential and pioneering exploration of how struggles against colonialism compel a rethinking of core political concepts and categories. While methodologically distinguished from postcolonialism, it calls for postcolonial political theorists to ground their analyses in the experiences of the colonized and consider non-Western forms of political thought and action.

  • Eze, Emmanuel Chukwudi, ed. Race and Enlightenment: A Reader. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1997.

    A groundbreaking anthology considering the hitherto neglected place of race in Enlightenment thought. Includes extracts from writings on race by key Enlightenment thinkers like Hume, Linnaeus, and Kant, as well as a short introduction situating them within a “universe of discourse.”

  • Ivison, Duncan. Postcolonial Liberalism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

    An excellent account of the relevance of postcolonial theory to contemporary political thinking, with a particular focus on indigenous political claims. Chapter 2, “The Postcolonial Challenge,” is a valuable introductory port of call.

  • Kohn, Margaret, and Keally McBride. Political Theories of Decolonization: Postcolonialism and the Problem of Foundations. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195399578.001.0001

    The first book to examine the ideas of anticolonial thinkers through the lens of political theory, charting a creative project of rearticulating political theory from the perspective of decolonial struggle. The introductory chapter helpfully lays out the thematic concerns and conceptual debates that characterize postcolonial political theory.

  • Levy, Jacob T., with Iris Marion Young, eds. Colonialism and its Legacies. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2011.

    This well-edited volume serves as a terrific introduction to the nascent field and includes an esteemed list of contributors. Young and Levy’s introduction traces recent developments in political theory that have rendered it more amenable to postcolonial insights and argues that political theorists bring a distinctive set of methods and questions to the study of colonialism and its legacies.

  • Parekh, Bhikhu. “Liberalism and Colonialism.” In The Decolonization of the Imagination: Culture, Knowledge, Power. Edited by Jan Nederveen Pieterse and Bhikhu Parekh, 81–98. London: Zed Books, 1995.

    Explores Locke’s and Mill’s writings on colonialism as a way of highlighting the paradoxes of liberalism. A good and accessible text for those wanting to acquaint themselves with postcolonial critiques of liberal political thought and the theories of “man” and society underlying it.

  • Persram, Nalini, ed. Postcolonialism and Political Theory. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2007.

    Foregrounds the epistemic issues arising from the inextricability of political modernity and European colonialism. Contributors draw on insights from cultural studies, postmodernism, and aesthetics, demonstrating the multidisciplinary foundations of postcolonial political theory. A strong emphasis on the theoretical insights deriving from Latin American and Caribbean variants of postcolonialism similarly demonstrates the diversity of the field.

  • Pitts, Jennifer. “Political Theory of Empire and Imperialism.” Annual Review of Political Science 13 (2010): 211–235.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.polisci.051508.214538

    Offers a richly detailed assessment of recent political theory literature reckoning with questions of empire and imperialism, covering the history of political thought, neoliberalism, globalization, and international law, among others. Working from an American perspective, Pitts locates much of the urgency of this task within the constellation of United States neo-imperialism and unilateral militarism post-9/11.

  • Seth, Sanjay. “A Critique of Disciplinary Reason: The Limits of Political Theory.” Alternatives 26 (2001): 73–92.

    DOI: 10.1177/030437540102600104

    Challenges political theory as insufficiently engaged with the historical and cultural particularity of its disciplinary foundations, and thus limited in how usefully it can be applied to explain the non-Western world.

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