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Orientalism is the study of the ”Orient” and its ”eastern” arts, languages, sciences, histories, faiths, cultures, and peoples by Christian theological experts, humanist scholars, and natural and social scientists since the 1500s. Orientalist writers consider the ”Orient” as consisting of societies geographically east of Christian Europe to be explored, acquired, and colonized for their raw materials, abundant labor, and pieces of seemingly opulent civilizations in decline. These colonial explorations resulted in man-made, imaginary geographies and political demarcations such as the Near East, the Middle East, Central Asia, the Far East, the Pacific Isles, the New World, and the ”Dark Continent.”
Since the 1950s, critics of Orientalist scholarship objected to the essentialization, exoticization and racialization enacted through imperialist projects. These critics object to their claims of validity and objectivity and to the authoritative statements and classroom materials on topics such as Islam, Middle Eastern affairs, Indian civilization, and Chinese philosophies. Moreover, they charge that Orientalism assists in the economic and political domination and restructuring of the ”Orient” through its denials, distortions, and suppressions of lived experiences under western imperialism with its claims of western and Christian superiority in knowledge, commerce, gender relations, and ways of life.
Cultural theorist Edward Said offers, in his landmark Orientalism (1978), a sustained study of Eurocentric discourse representing itself as innocent, objective, and well-intentioned. He argues that it is never simply negative racial stereotyping and prejudice by those who never had contact with the orientalized ”other.” Instead, US, British, French, and other first world scholars often have had and needed direct contacts with their ”others” to produce Orientalist knowledge in attempts to explain and justify imperialist projects during their respective periods of conquest and empire.
Said argues that US, British, and French Orientalisms produce racialized discourses in the arts, media, politics, and social science knowledge that are erroneous abstractions, in particular, of people of Islamic faith and from the Middle East. To legitimate and maintain western dominance since the late 1960s, US Orientalism, for instance, represents the Middle East as an Islamic place bursting with villains and terrorists and denies the historical, lived, and racially and religiously diverse realities of dispossessed Palestinians. These varying strategic deployments of Orientalist discourse produce a global politics and civic engagement tinted by a deeply distorted image of the social complexity of millions of people practicing Islam or residing in the third world.
Feminist scholars document how Orientalist constructions have been significantly sexualized and gendered. Prominent male scholars are not the exclusive producers of these constructions; some feminists and women’s studies scholars historically have participated in Orientalism too. These feminists and women’s studies scholars analyze the ways Orientalist scholars deploy problematic gendered, sexualized, and racialized discourses to further ”the [western and liberal] Feminist Project” and to liberate women from seemingly ”oppressive,” ”traditional” third world cultures.
Sociologists Bryan Turner and Stuart Hall contend that Orientalist discourse exists in the underlying assumptions, fundamental concepts, epistemological models, and methodological procedures of modern sociology. Turner, Hall, and others trace the origins of this discourse in the writings of early influential theorists in western European sociology and examine their varied legacies. Consequently, sociology has participated in fostering Orientalism, and unduly assists first world imperialist projects through its varied theoretical, research, and policy practices.
- Hall, S. (1996) The west and the rest. In: Hall, S., Held, D., Hubert, D., & Thomson, K. (eds.), Modern Societies: An Introduction. Blackwell, Malden, MA, pp. 184-227.
- Lewis, R. (1996) Gendering Orientalism: Race, Femininity, and Representation. Routledge, London.
- Said, E. (1978) Orientalism. Vintage, New York.