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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Reference
  • Early Ethnographies
  • Theoretical Frameworks
  • Historicizing Colonialism
  • Colonial Construction of Culture and Cultural Representation
  • Contemporary Ethnographies and Colonial Histories
  • Colonial Resistance
  • Decolonizing Anthropology and Decolonial Methodologies
  • Race, Capitalism, and Colonialism
  • Postcolonialism
  • Colonizer-Colonized Relationship
  • Nation and Nationalism
  • Settler Colonialism
  • US Imperialism
  • Colonial and Postcolonial Literature

Anthropology Colonialism
Oren Kroll-Zeldin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0139


Few topics in the discipline of anthropology are as important, and controversial, as colonialism. The historical origins of anthropology are rooted in the colonial enterprise, thus forever linking colonialism and anthropology. As such, colonialism is one of the most widely explored and written about subjects in the history of anthropology. Colonialism can be understood as the establishment of foreign rule over a distant territory and the control of its people. Generally associated with European imperial powers, colonialism and the colonial project include political and legal domination over a subordinate people, the exploitation of human and natural resources and the redistribution of those resources to benefit imperial interests, and the construction of racial and cultural difference that privileged the colonial ruler over the populations they ruled. Colonialism, which started in the late 15th century, is one of the fundamental social, cultural, and political forces that shaped our contemporary world. It is one of the phenomena that have structured modernity with regard to racial and economic hierarchies, which continues to have profound effects on communities worldwide. Though the traditional period of colonialism has ended, anthropological research on colonialism has pointed to the fact that there are lasting impacts of the colonial project worldwide. While anthropologists initially participated in the colonial project and later reproduced colonial relationships in their research projects, contemporary anthropological literature that is critical of the discipline’s historical roots developed alongside decolonial and postcolonial responses and critiques of colonialism and its ongoing legacy. In addition to theoretical and historical contributions to colonialism, anthropological research on colonialism focuses on four main areas. First, anthropologists describe the cultural representation of non-European others and focus on the impacts of colonialism on the communities that were colonized. Second, anthropological research examines the culture of the colonial project itself, focusing on the production of hierarchies and the process of exploiting human and natural resources to serve colonial needs. Third, anthropologists articulate the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized. Fourth, anthropology focuses on resistance to colonialism, highlighting the everyday acts of the colonized in the struggle to overcome colonial rule.

General Overviews

Although anthropology is inextricably linked with colonialism, it wasn’t until the late 1960s and early 1970s that anthropology critically engaged with its colonial history despite the fact that early anthropologists did write about the colonial encounter (see Early Ethnographies). Gough 1968a and Gough 1968b take a powerful stance criticizing anthropology’s collusion with colonialism and its failure to accurately describe the impacts of colonialism on the people that anthropologists studied. Horvath 1972 attempts to define colonialism so that anthropologists can analyze it with a clear understanding of what it is, though the author failed to further Gough’s critique of anthropology’s collusion with colonialism. Perhaps the seminal text in anthropology and colonialism is Asad 1973, a volume that challenges anthropologists to seriously examine anthropology’s colonial roots. Lewis 1973 is an influential essay that engages anthropology’s colonial legacy, specifically critiquing the colonial relationship between the anthropologist and research subject. Despite Asad and Lewis’s call, very few anthropologists conducted critical research on the involvement of anthropologists in the colonial project in the 1970s and 1980s, with the notable exception of the work in Bodley 2008 (originally published in 1975). In the 1990s, more anthropologists took up this call, beginning with George Stocking (Stocking 1991), who published a volume examining the production of ethnographic knowledge in the colonial situation. This was followed by widespread anthropological engagement with colonialism and its effects, including an important collection, Pels and Salemink 1999.

  • Asad, Talal, ed. 1973. Anthropology and the colonial encounter. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press.

    This seminal collection of essays was one of the most important early works that examines the ways colonialism impacted anthropological thought and practice. The book is particularly valuable due to its critique of anthropology’s complicity with colonialism and Western imperialism.

  • Bodley, John H. 2008. Victims of progress. 5th ed. Lanham, MD: AltaMira.

    Originally published in 1975, this is now a fundamental text in anthropology that explores the impacts of colonialism on the indigenous people in colonized territories. It does not only call the colonized victims, but also documents the responses to colonialism.

  • Gough, Kathleen. 1968a. New proposals for anthropologists. Current Anthropology 9.5: 403–435.

    DOI: 10.1086/200925

    Calls anthropology a child of Western imperialism and argues that anthropology should join with revolutionary, anticapitalist struggles in the developing world in order to remain relevant.

  • Gough, Kathleen. 1968b. Anthropology and imperialism. Monthly Review 19.11: 12–24.

    DOI: 10.14452/MR-019-11-1968-04_2

    A highly critical condemnation of the role of anthropologists in the colonial and imperial projects. Also condemns anthropologists for neglecting to study colonialism and imperialism as a world system. Gough revisited the article in 1990 in an article titled “‘Anthropology and Imperialism’ Revisited,” claiming that anthropologists rectified the situation since her initial critique.

  • Horvath, Ronald J. 1972. A definition of colonialism. Current Anthropology 13.1: 45–57.

    DOI: 10.1086/201248

    Horvath attempts to define and classify colonialism in order to consolidate its study among academics so that there is a common definition for scholars to use when analyzing colonialism. The article defines colonialism as a form of domination and exploitation, and roots it in the concept of power.

  • Lewis, Diane. 1973. Anthropology and colonialism. Current Anthropology 14.5: 581–602.

    DOI: 10.1086/201393

    Examines the historical role of the anthropologist in pursuits of colonial interests and compares the anthropologist-subject relationship to that of the colonizer-colonized. One of the most influential texts linking anthropology and colonialism.

  • Pels, Peter, and Oscar Salemink, eds. 1999. Colonial subjects: Essays on the practical history of anthropology. Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press.

    A comprehensive volume of ethnographic practice under colonial rule that sheds light on the myriad ways in which anthropology was entangled with colonial rule.

  • Stocking, George W., Jr., ed. 1991. Colonial situations: Essays on the contextualization of ethnographic knowledge. Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press.

    Examines the history of colonial situations in which ethnographic knowledge was produced. It reopens anthropological conversations about the idea of “colonial situations” first introduced in Balandier 1966 (See Historicizing Colonialism).

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