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

  • Introduction
  • General Overview
  • Journals and Other Reference Sources
  • Critical Indigenous and Decolonial Theory
  • Sovereignty
  • Future Directions

Anthropology Settler Colonialism
Tate A. LeFevre
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 September 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0125


Though often conflated with colonialism more generally, settler colonialism is a distinct imperial formation. Both colonialism and settler colonialism are premised on exogenous domination, but only setter colonialism seeks to replace the original population of the colonized territory with a new society of settlers (usually from the colonial metropole). This new society needs land, and so settler colonialism depends primarily on access to territory. This is achieved by various means, either through treaties with indigenous inhabitants or simply by “taking possession.” Britain, for example, implemented the doctrine of “terra nullius” (“land belonging to no one”) to claim sovereignty over Australia. The entire continent was thereby declared legally uninhabited, despite millennia of Aboriginal occupation. In the late 1980s, during the heyday of postcolonial theory, some scholars started to criticize widespread, generalized use of the term “postcolonial”—a word they considered problematic. They argued that in a settler society like Australia or the United States, colonialism could not be described or theorized in the past tense—there was no “postcolonial.” In these places, the state maintained a colonial relationship with the indigenous peoples (and was complicit in their ongoing dispossession). Following these initial critiques, scholars in anthropology and related disciplines (particularly Indigenous studies) set about analytically disentangling settler colonialism from colonialism while developing new, dedicated theoretical frameworks for settler colonial studies. Eventually, settler colonial studies emerged as a distinct field of scholarly inquiry. An increasingly expansive literature now focuses on the ideological, structural, discursive, social, and political particularities of settler states. As this work emphasizes, settler colonialism is premised on occupation and the elimination of the native population, while colonialism is primarily about conquest. In the oft-cited words of one influential scholar, settler colonialism is a structure rather than an event (see Wolfe 1999, cited under General Overview). In this sense, settler colonialism does not really ever “end.” This insight has shaped new theorizing of political temporalities and their role in projects of domination. As these works indicate, settler colonial theory is increasingly made use of by anthropologists working outside of settler colonial contexts. Indeed, settler colonial analysis draws utility from identifying connections among otherwise disparate seeming experiences of dispossession (see Other Settler Colonies). Moreover, since the study of settlement is the study of an ongoing phenomenon, it includes self-reflexivity about racism, capitalism, and the norms of academic knowledge. An anthropological approach to settler colonialism might be defined by attention to the politics of knowledge production in anthropology. Alliance with indigenous peoples and attention to (and indeed prioritization of) indigenous scholarship and experience is central to this field. A note on terminology: there is no widespread consensus regarding the capitalization of the word “Indigenous.” Usage varies depending on context and involves important cultural and political considerations. For the purposes of this article, I will capitalize Indigenous when using it as part of a proper name of a people (e.g., Indigenous Australians, an Indigenous Kanak woman, Indigenous Mohawk identity). I do not capitalize the word when referring to a more than one Indigenous person rather than the collective group of Indigenous peoples (e.g., the indigenous peoples of Australia, indigenous rights struggles).

General Overview

Though most early anthropologists (Lewis Henry Morgan, Franz Boas, A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, etc.) conducted research in settler colonies, anthropology only recently became concerned with settler colonialism as a specific historical, cultural, and ideological structure. In the late 1970s, during the rise of postcolonial studies, Australian anthropologist Donald Denoon noted that characteristics of settler economic development were in many ways structurally opposed to the dynamics of colonial de-development. Denoon 1979 marks the first time settler colonialism was presented as a discrete category—a distinctive subtype of imperialism requiring a dedicated analytical framework. Wolfe 1999 develops such a framework in theorizing settler colonialism as an ongoing structure. Expanding these arguments further, Wolfe 2006 also identifies settler colonial “logics of elimination.” Both works have become classics within settler colonial studies. Edited volumes on the topic of settler colonialism only began to appear in the past decade, as settler colonial studies emerged as a defined area of scholarly inquiry. Verancini 2010 is a comprehensive theoretical introduction to settler colonialism (the first of its kind) and provides valuable insight into the development and future directions of settler colonial studies. The edited collection Bateman and Pilkington 2011 is representative of a growing interest in comparative settler colonialisms, while Mikdashi 2013 powerfully illustrates the global reach of settler colonial forces in the contemporary world.

  • Bateman, Fiona, and Lionel Pilkington. 2011. Studies in settler colonialism: Politics, identity and culture. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230306288

    This edited collection offers a comprehensive and accessible overview of settler colonialism as a global phenomenon.

  • Denoon, Donald. 1979. Understanding settler societies. Historical Studies 18:511–527.

    DOI: 10.1080/10314617908595611

    One of the first pieces to theoretically analyze settler colonialism as distinct from other forms of empire. Laid the groundwork for future studies.

  • Elkins, Caroline, and Susan Pedersen, eds. 2005. Settler colonialism in the twentieth century: Projects, practices, legacies. New York: Routledge.

    This broadly comparative volume foregrounds the ongoing legacy and practice of settler colonialism in the 20th century. Includes a clearly written historical summary of the development of settler colonialism around the world.

  • Goldstein, Alyosha, and Alex Lubin, eds. 2008. Special issue: Settler colonialism. South Atlantic Quarterly 107:4.

    A good collection for understanding the state of the field of settler colonial studies. Features theoretically grounded essays from a wide variety of settler colonial locations.

  • Mikdashi, Maya. 2013. What is settler colonialism? American Indian Culture and Research Journal 37.2: 23–34.

    A thoughtful, moving essay, originally published in the e-zine Jadaliyya. Explores the meaning and effects of settler colonialism in both Native America and Israel/Palestine.

  • Verancini, Lorezno. 2010. Settler colonialism: A theoretical overview. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230299191

    Currently the definitive theoretical and historical introduction to settler colonialism, this book is a very useful starting point for new researchers.

  • Wolfe, Patrick. 1999. Settler colonialism and the transformation of anthropology: The politics and poetics of an ethnographic event. London: Cassel.

    Examining settler colonialism as “a structure not an event,” Wolfe scrutinizes the interrelated histories of anthropology and settler colonialism. Continues to be one of the most-cited books in settler colonial studies.

  • Wolfe, Patrick. 2006. Settler colonialism and the elimination of the native. Journal of Genocide Research 8.4: 387–409.

    DOI: 10.1080/14623520601056240

    Another influential piece by Wolfe, analyzing settler colonialism as a genocidal process premised, above all, on access to territory.

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