Geography Postcolonialism
Lindsay Naylor
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 March 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0226


In the colonial period imperialism advanced in uneven ways across time and space globally. European exploration in the late 15th century first brought destructive, exploitative, and deadly changes to what became known as the Americas. The subjugation and elimination of Indigenous groups, which commenced during this period, created the conditions for accumulation by dispossession, enslavement (of both Indigenous groups and people stolen from Africa), plantation-style production systems, and the extraction of resources—the legacies of which still mark political, social, economic, and environmental landscapes today. Following rebellion and successful de jure (legal) independence from Europe in the late 1700s and early 1800s (starting with the radical uprising of enslaved peoples in Haiti), Western powers turned to new regions to regain such systems of control and resource extraction. In 1848, the Berlin Conference was held— also called the “Scramble for Africa,” where European powers divided the continent and created new sites of extraction. Such patterns followed in South and Southeast Asia as well as North Africa and Central Asia in the latter parts of the 19th century. As a result of these violent campaigns, there are very few places on the globe that did not sustain, at some point, a form of colonial-imperial relation. Independence movements were ongoing and by the end of the 20th century, de jure colonial control had all but disappeared. Decolonization had occurred and the global periphery entered the period of being postcolonial. Former British colonies were assembled into the Commonwealth, which changed relations from direct control and subjugation to allegiance to the Queen and for some, drastic changes in economic relations, (this had the effect of marginalizing Indigenous struggles in many of these places). Notwithstanding the legal separation of the colonies from imperial powers, de facto (in effect) colonial arrangements lingered and remain today, giving rise to a series of critiques and new ways of thinking about imperialism and the impact of colonialism, such as the theory of postcolonialism.

Core Texts

The body of postcolonial theory emerged from historical context, literary studies, and political philosophy (Fanon 2007 [1961] and Fanon 2008 [1952]) that sought to critically analyze and explain the past and present conditions of colonialism. These examinations range from, for example, discourse analysis, analyses of uneven development, discussions of neocolonial relations of power that reinforce those of the colonial era, and rereadings of history. As Escobar 1995 notes, the creation of the so-called “developing world” called into question the lasting impacts of colonial-imperial relations and prompted scholars to examine contemporary colonialism, something Gregory 2004 takes up in The Colonial Present. The intellectual project of postcolonial critique is largely thought to have proliferated with the publication of Edward Said’s examination of Orientalism in 1978. The representation of the “Orient,” Said argued allowed for an otherization and exoticization of those places and peoples not considered part of the “West,” which assisted with justifying conquest and control over the non-“West.” Said was focused primarily on the region many times referred to—as a result of these long-standing discourses—as the “Middle East.” Picking up these threads, many scholars used these ideas, as well as historical accounts of past movements for independence (e.g., Gandhi and the use of satyagraha in 1930), and ongoing political projects (e.g. the film the Battle of Algiers in1966) to critique the discourses, subjectivities, and material character of the colonial. Homi Bhabha, beginning in the 1990s, draws on poststructuralist theory to deconstruct and better understand domination, resistance, and ambivalence in past and present settings of colonial-imperial relations (Bhabha 2012 [1994] and Bhabha 2013 [1990]). In this work, Bhabha introduced the idea of ambivalence to explain the complexities and emotions imbued in relations between the “colonizer” and the “colonized,” thereby disrupting simple explanations of colonial power. Moreover, Bhabha has argued that colonial discourses served to create colonial subjects based on socially constructed ideas about race. Introducing the idea that the colonial experience produced layered oppressions, a number of feminist scholars, who are women of color, drew attention to the gendered differences of imperial colonial relations (Mohanty 1984; Moraga and Anzaldúa 2015 [1987]). Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Spivak 2012 [1987] and Spivak 1988) starting in the late 1980s elaborated on this feminist lens enunciating the differences experienced on the basis of gender, particularly the marginalization of women. The essay “Can the Subaltern Speak” (Spivak 1988) draws attention to the production of knowledge, asking who has agency and who can speak for whom. With this foundation, a bevy of literature drawing on postcolonial theory has proliferated across the academy over the past decades.

  • Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. Hoboken, NJ: Taylor and Francis, 2012.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203820551

    Core text where the ideas of mimicry, interstices, hybridity, and liminality are introduced and used to consider colonial and postcolonial identities and cultures. First published in 1994 (London: Routledge).

  • Bhabha, Homi K. Nation and Narration. London: Routledge, 2013.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203823064

    A deeply literary text, which draws on a number of works of fiction to help explain the discourses and practices of the nation. First published in 1990.

  • Escobar, Arturo. Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995.

    Using the techniques of deconstruction developed as part of the poststructuralist turn in the academy and drawing on postcolonial thinkers, Escobar examines development discourses and their basis in colonial constructs.

  • Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Atlantic, Inc., 2007.

    Provides insight into the struggles and subjugation of knowledges of colonized people during postindependence and the politics and discourses at play. First published in 1961.

  • Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove Press, 2008.

    A deep consideration of Black knowledges and subjectivities while inhabiting a world built on white supremacy and structural racism. First published in 1952 (Paris: Seuil).

  • Gregory, Derek. The Colonial Present: Afghanistan, Palestine, Iraq. Wiley-Blackwell, 2004.

    Focuses on post-9/11 political and cultural responses, noting the colonial character that they have taken on.

  • Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses.” Boundary 2.12.3–13.1(1984): 333–358.

    DOI: 10.2307/302821

    A feminist-focused essay that pushes back against Western-branded feminism and the ways it otherizes women in the global periphery.

  • Moraga, Cherríe, and Gloria Anzaldúa, eds. This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. 4th ed. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2015.

    An anthology that focuses on the experiences of women of color, specifically their layers of oppression and racial and gendered subjectivities. Introduces a challenge to so-called feminist solidarity and a homogenous feminist agenda. First published in 1981.

  • Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.

    A foundational text that uses literary critique to unpack the discourses and othering of the cultures, knowledges, and ways of being of peoples outside the “West.”

  • Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” In Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Edited by Lawrence Grossberg and Cary Nelson, 271–316. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-349-19059-1_20

    A hugely influential essay that critiqued scholars for ‘speaking for’ the marginalized—instead of amplifying their voices—while also arguing that in many cases scholars were describing the colonial-postcolonial experience as if it were homogenous.

  • Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics. Hoboken, NJ: Taylor and Francis, 2012.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203441114

    Putting feminist and Marxist theory in conversation, this set of essays focuses on a heterogeneous group of women to better understand divergent postcolonial cultural contexts. First published in 1987 (New York: Methuen).

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.