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

  • Introduction
  • Basic Definitions: Empire
  • Basic Definitions: Imperialism
  • Bourdieusian Theory and Colonialism

Sociology Empires and Colonialism
George Steinmetz
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 January 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0090


Empires have been the main form of large-scale political organization for at least two millennia, in contrast to modern bureaucratic states, which have existed for just a few centuries. Empires and colonies have been analyzed by sociologists for as long as sociology has existed as an intellectual field, starting with Auguste Comte in the early 19th century and the founders of the academic discipline in the late 19th century in Europe and the United States, and continuing into the present. Between the 1970s and the end of the 20th century, empires receded in the sociological imagination, but they have reemerged powerfully since then as part of the closely linked domains of “empire studies,” “colonial studies,” and “postcolonial studies.” This resurgent interest in empires corresponds in part to events in the real world, including the collapse of the Soviet Union and the reappearance of a fortified “American empire” and US military interventions overseas. The imperial and colonial turn in scholarship has also been inspired by trends inside academe, including revisionist histories of the British and French colonial empires and Nazi Germany, the emergence of global history, and theoretical developments such as postcolonial theory and subaltern studies. Although scholars are always eager to announce that rival schools and turns are passé or that they were never more than mere fashion, such gestures have been unable to stop the growth of imperial and colonial studies. This unabated enthusiasm corresponds to the power of the empirical and analytical work and to the real-world importance of the objects of analysis. The concept of empire encompasses colonialism and imperialism. Empires are political organizations that are expansive, militarized, and multinational, and that place limits on the sovereignty of the polities in their periphery. In colonialism, the conquered polities or populations are not just ruled over by foreign conquerors but are configured as inferior to their occupiers—inferior in legal, administrative, social, and cultural terms. Imperialism involves political control over foreign lands without the annexation of land or sovereignty. The sociological study of empires overlaps with the study of the state, political domination, geopolitics/political geography, international relations, indigenous peoples, and the historiography of specific empires and colonies. It overlaps with disciplines like anthropology, political science, and cultural studies. The topic of empire is central to several schools of social and cultural analysis, including world-system theory and postcolonial theory. Sociological work on empires can be found in several disciplinary subfields (see Sociology of Culture, Comparative Historical Sociology, Economic Sociology; Marxist Sociology Political Sociology; World-Systems Analysis. This essay focuses on (1) definitions of empire, colonialism, and related terms; (2) the different types of imperial practice or configurations of empire; and (3) theories and research concerning the origins, development, effects, and aftermaths of empire.

Basic Definitions: Empire

Empire is the overarching concept in all discussions of imperialism and colonialism. An empire can be defined minimally as a relationship “of political control imposed by some political societies over the effective sovereignty of other political societies” (Doyle 1986, p. 19). An empire usually involves a core polity governing peripheral spaces and populations; peripheries are typically subjected to different legal and administrative practices than the core. As Suny (Suny 2001, p. 25) writes, an empire is “a particular form of domination or control between two units set apart in a hierarchical, inequitable relationship, more precisely a composite state in which a metropole dominates a periphery to the disadvantage of the periphery.” As Max Weber (Weber 2010, cited under Premodern Empires) pointed out in his study of the Roman Empire, and as historians of European colonial empires and the Russian empire have shown, imperial centers usually deploy a variety of policies in the regions they dominate rather than applying a single uniform approach (Steinmetz 2007, cited under Colonies and Colonial Empires). Although the concept of empire is capacious, it is neither hopelessly vague and blurred, nor artificially restrictive—as long as we follow a historical approach in defining it (Ab Imperio). We can then exclude definitions that reduce empire narrowly to economics as well as definitions that are impossibly broad, equating empire with any form of hegemonic domination or influence (Darwin 2008). We can also disregard, for present purposes, all metaphorical usages of the words empire and imperialism. The noun imperium initially signified the legitimate power of princes, magistrates, and officials to command and punish their subjects (Weber 1978, pp. 650, 839). The concept of imperium was then “extended by analogy to mean Rome’s right to command obedience from the peoples it had subjected” (Lieven 2000, p. 8, cited under Modern Territorial, Land-Based Empires). During the medieval and early modern eras the concept of empire took on three dominant meanings in western Europe (Folz 1969; Lieven 2000, pp. 13–17, cited under Modern Territorial, Land-Based Empires): the German idea of Reich, as in the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation; the Carolingian empire of Charlemagne; and the “universal” empire of the pope and Latin Christendom. In the 19th and 20th centuries empire came to refer to large territorial political organizations formed by conquest and to the collected overseas possessions of a single ruler or polity (Doyle 1986; Pagden 2003). Some empires, as exemplified by early modern Spain, 20th-century Britain, and the current United States, exist on a scale that is truly global; other empires have encompassed a single overseas colony (e.g., Belgium before World War I) or a handful of colonies (as in the German and Portuguese colonial empires). See also Burbank and Cooper 2010, Mann 1986–2012, and Münkler 2007.

  • Ab Imperio: Studies of New Imperial History and Nationalism in the Post-Soviet Space. 2000–.

    This journal is a venue for studies of empires past and present, including, but not limited to, Russian empires. The editors argue against the idea of a universal theory of empires and suggest that empires cannot be lumped into a single category, since empires build on other earlier and contemporary empires, embracing some aspects and rejecting others. While resolutely historical, Ab Imperio publishes articles by anthropologists and sociologists.

  • Burbank, Jane, and Frederick Cooper. 2010. Empires in world history: Power and the politics of difference. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    A historical survey of world empires from the Romans and ancient Chinese to the present. The authors focus on imperial statecraft, emphasizing the techniques these regimes used in attempting to regulate diversity. They contrast empires with nation-states, which seek sociocultural homogenization rather than reproducing difference. After the contrast between the unconnected Roman and Chinese cases, the second section presents a “connected history” of the Byzantine, Islamic, and Carolingian empires, which coexisted “in the post-Roman space” and shaped and influenced each other.

  • Darwin, John. 2008. After Tamerlane: The global history of empire since 1405. New York: Bloomsbury.

    A history of the modern world organized around the idea of empire, culminating in the post-1945 dismantling of the European imperial system and its replacement by the “American ʻsystemʼ” that was “imperial in all but name”—a “colossal imperium . . . on an unprecedented scale” (pp. 469–470). Darwin argues that the dual grand narratives of imperial history as exploitation and world history as modernization and progress are of limited value unless empires and states are viewed in their political and cultural dimensions.

  • Doyle, Michael W. 1986. Empires. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press.

    A systematic treatment of the concepts and theories of empire. Doyle concludes that the success of empires was predicated on a power differential between metropole and periphery, political unity among the imperial elite, and the existence of some medium of transnational connectivity.

  • Folz, Robert. 1969. The concept of empire in Western Europe from the fifth to the fourteenth century. London: Edward Arnold.

    The author traces the survival and transformations of the idea of empire after the fall of the western Roman Empire under the influence of the papacy and Christian Church. The book reconstructs the transformation of the idea of universal empire into the notion of an empire as a specific group of territories, just prior to the Early Modern era.

  • Mann, Michael. 1986–2012. The sources of social power. 4 vols. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511570896

    A conceptually organized study of “higher order crystallizations of power” that generalizes about vast swathes of history while paying attention to contingency and blurred categorical boundaries. Volume 1 deals with ancient empires; Volume 2 treats the period in which empires gave way partly to nation-states (1760–1914). Volume 3 reanalyzes the 19th century in terms of “global empires and revolution” and carries this focus forward to 1945. The final volume culminates in the American empire and the present-day global crisis.

  • Münkler, Herfried. 2007. Empires: The logic of world domination from Ancient Rome to the United States. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

    An analytically organized overview of the logic and history of empires by a leading German political theorist. The book details the differences and similarities between ancient and modern empires and concludes with a discussion of the recent return of the American empire.

  • Pagden, Anthony. 2003. Peoples and empires: A short history of European migration, exploration, and conquest, from Greece to the present. New York: Modern Library.

    An elegantly written survey of European empires by a leading historian of the Spanish Empire and the Conquest of America.

  • Suny, Ronald Grigor. 2001. The empire strikes out: Imperial Russia, “national” identity, and theories of empire. In A state of nations: Empire and nation-making in the age of Lenin and Stalin. Edited by Ronald Grigor Suny and Terry Martin, 23–66. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    The first section of this influential article is an analytic survey of imperial terminology and concepts ranging across various historical empires and literatures. The second section examines Russian and Soviet history from the standpoint of empire.

  • Weber, Max. 1978. Economy and Society: An outline of interpretive sociology. 2 vols. Edited by Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    Weber agreed with writers like Hobson that capitalism had shifted to an aggressively imperialist stance and that the “political drives for expansion” were reinforced by capitalist interests. But political impulses sometimes trumped or violated these economic imperatives. States and empires were also driven to expand by “honor” and “prestige” (pp. 910–915).

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