Postcolonialism Essay

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Postcolonialism describes an era, worldview, and intellectual discourse of the events of the mid-20th century. Like other schools of thought, it reflects a paradigmatic shift buoyed by new material conditions. Postcolonialism both celebrates the end of colonialism and examines the aftereffects of colonialism in contemporary times. It is also a movement for the emancipation of colonized peoples. It seeks to explain the events and relationships among countries following the end of colonialism. Postcolonialism focuses on the relationships among the world’s races and the effects of racism. Postcolonialism examines both the direct and enduring effects of colonialism.

Colonialism describes a political system whereby one country with military and historical advantage invades and occupies another country or people. To take full control of the country and people that are colonized, the colonial power imposes its religion, education, economic, and political systems on the people. In line with the underpinning Marxist thoughts and moral philosophy, postcolonialism interrogates the provided assumption that the goal of colonialism is the civilizing and modernizing of the colonized people. It posits colonialism for what it is: an instrument for the exploitation of the colonized people, their land and natural resources, and the subjugation of the people.

Dependency and Modernization Theories

There are two main theories that developed from the postcolonialism literature. The dependency theory seeks to account for the underdevelopment of the postcolonial states of Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Underdevelopment is differentiated from undevelopment. The latter describes a condition where a nation’s natural and human resources are not fully harnessed for the benefits of the people and structural development. The former, on the other hand, describes a situation where resources from a country are exploited from a colonized state for the benefits and development of the dominant state. The dependency theory provides explanation for the global inequality that currently exists. According to this school of thought, colonialism created two kinds of relationships between the colonized and colonial states: (1) dominant/dependent states, and (2) center/periphery, or metropolitan/ satellite states. Simply put, the economies of the dependent states are determined by the economic interests and conditions in the dominant states. Ali A. Mazrui identified two types of dependency, namely, structural and cultural dependency. Structural dependency provides explanations for the disadvantaged economic relationship that exists between the dominant and the dependent states. Cultural dependency, according to Mazrui, provides explanation for how the relationship between the dominant states and the dependent states affects social stratification and motivation. Furthermore, the dependency theory provides alternative development principles to the neoclassical or modernization theories.

Dependency theory blames the economic and technological underdevelopment of the neocolonial states of Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean on colonialism. Some postcolonialism theorists question the neoclassical socioeconomic theories that argue that economic growth in the West was also beneficial to the rest of the world, in line with the “trickle down” economic thesis. Instead, they characterize the relationship between the industrialized countries and the postcolonial states as that of unequal and unhealthy partnership. The relationship, they insist, is not reciprocal and serves the interests of the former colonial authorities at the expense of the colonized states. Postcolonialist theories further observe that the power structure and institutions of the so-called postcolonial states are controlled by the former colonial authorities from outside.

Specifically, Africa’s political and economic crises, according to this view, resulted from the negative effects of slavery, colonialism, and neocolonialism. It is pertinent to observe that the African continent’s initial contact with the Europeans was in about 1444 C.E. One of the consequences of this contact was slavery. By the time slavery was abolished the slave trade had lasted for more than 400 years, with several million Africans transported overseas as slaves. Millions of Africans perished at sea in the course of their shipment across the Atlantic. Available records show that most of the Africans who were captured as slaves were often the young and healthy and of sound physique. Those selected were believed to be those who were capable of bearing children and of doing productive work. The slave trade is known to have contributed to the stagnation of Africa’s population, which impacted negatively the economic development of the continent. With Africa’s productive labor force carted away to Europe and North America to work the land and mines for free at the time Africa was in most need of their labor, Africa’s economy experienced a major setback and is still struggling to recover from that shock. Above all, the negative effect of slavery goes beyond the human loss. The psychological problem it created is yet to be resolved.

One of the positive outcomes of industrialization was the abolition of slavery in 1865 in the United States through the 13th Amendment. With machines performing some of the functions performed by slaves, the need for slaves was basically eliminated. However, industrialization created other needs, that of raw materials, which Africa had in abundance. To have access to Africa’s raw materials, Europeans at the 1884 Berlin Conference partitioned Africa among the participating nations.

The partitioning of Africa failed to take into consideration the ethnic, cultural, and historical differences of the continent. Many argue that Africa’s political instability is directly related to the way African countries were created through political fiat by European leaders. The lumping together of incompatible ethnic groups into one state gave rise to tribal politics and cultural rivalry, which made governance difficult. This marked the beginning of direct political and economic control of Africa by Europeans. In addition, Africa’s economy was restricted to serve the economic needs of Europeans. Africans, instead of directing their agricultural efforts to meet the local consumption needs of their people, focused on producing export crops such as cocoa, coffee, and tea. The prices of the products were not determined by market forces but by European merchants. Colonialism tied Africa’s political economy to an international economic system that was not favorable to Africa.

The modernization theory provides alternative explanations for global inequality. This theory emerged in the 1950s at the height of the modernization and industrialization debate. According to this school of thought, global inequality is a result of the different levels of technological development among the different societies of the world. In other words, it has nothing to do with colonialism. Rather, it has to do with the cultures and worldviews of the countries. Society from this perspective is viewed as an integrated social system. Change and development occur when adjustments are made in related sections of the society. For example, for science and technology to develop, there has to be transformations in the religious, political, and cultural lives of the people. Development in the Western countries followed changes in the religious, cultural, and family lives of Europeans. From this perspective it is affluence rather than poverty that requires explanation, since the world until recently was characterized by deprivation.

Furthermore, the modernization theory explains global inequality and poverty in the neocolonial states as resulting from a “cultural lag.” This perspective argues that certain cultural practices like the ones that obtain in most colonized countries are not compatible with technological innovation. The cultural practices in some of the Asian and African countries foster corruption and nepotism. Political appointments, for example, in these countries are based on ascriptive criteria rather than on merit. Communitarian values are known to stifle personal initiatives, and are also associated with high birth rates that are inimical to scientific and technological development. According to this school of thought, it is rather the culture of poverty thesis that better explains global inequality and poverty in the neocolonial states. The culture of poverty thesis argues that the poorer nations’ cultural values and practices constitute impediments to change and development. Also suggested as hampering socioeconomic development are certain cultural practices and worldviews in the poorer nations, such as mutual distrust in interpersonal relations, hostility to government authority, limited aspirations, and inability to defer gratification.

  1. J. Hall’s argument in support of the modernization theory questions the dependency theory claim that the dominant state influences development in the dependent states. The trade figures, according to him, do not support the claim that the dominant states exploit the dependent states. To buttress his argument, he cites the economic success story of southeast Asia. For him, development and modernization occur because of changes in the internal dynamics of a country. James D. Cockcroft and his colleagues disagree and observe the evidence on the ground does not support Hall’s position. This is because the liberal development policies similar to the one advocated by Hall have been implemented in some countries with little to show for it but the socioeconomic empowerment of the few at the expense of the majority. From their perspective, there is little or no merit in the modernization theory’s development strategy.

Proponents of the dependency theory further reject the argument and premise for underdevelopment in neocolonial states advanced by the proponents of the modernization theory. They assert that the development process followed by the Western countries cannot be duplicated as historical time is not linear. Besides, there is evidence to support the claim that the rich countries exploited the human and natural resources of the neocolonial countries. In addition, the richer countries put their military and technological advantage to good use. To illustrate, they give the example of Japan, which lacks natural resources but has attained economic and technological development simply because it escaped colonization. Instead, it was a colonial power of its own. Advocates of the dependency theory further question modernization theorists’ assumption that the poorer countries lack of institutions and other cultural practices are compatible with scientific and technological innovation.

They insist instead that it is the rigid international division of labor imposed by the Western countries that best explain underdevelopment. For example, the comparative advantage principle promoted by the Western countries in the 1950s argued that countries should concentrate on the economic activities in which they have a comparative advantage. For example, the resource-rich countries should focus on cultivating and mining raw materials rather than investing in science and technology. They were also to position themselves to be the recipients of surplus capital as manufactured goods from the West. Advocates of dependency theory insist that the dependent states must break the stranglehold of the dominant states in order to transform their societies.

Other Contributors to Postcolonialism Theories

Postcolonialism’s intellectual focus has been to examine and challenge the ideology of imperialism through which colonized peoples’ exploitation and subjugation is predicated. One notable thinker, Frantz Fanon, a psychiatrist, used medicine as a framework for demonstrating the destructive effects of colonialism on the colonized people. According to Fanon, colonialism succeeds through physical and mental terror as the colonial masters seek to instill a servile state of mind among the colonized people. The colonized people are stripped of their humanity and dignity, and this is harmful to the physical and mental well-being of the people. He advocated violent resistance by the colonized people against their oppressors as the only way to restore their humanity and self-respect. Other postcolonialist scholars like Chinua Achebe and Edward W. Said have observed how Europeans used their military and political advantage to define others. By defining others as perpetually inferior and heathenish, and therefore needing civilization and salvation, Europeans thereby justified the colonization and subjugation of other people.

Biko Agozino lent his own criticism against imperialist reasoning in criminology. According to Agozino, criminological theories promote the worldview and interests of the dominant classes, just like colonialism. As such, behaviors of the underclass are criminalized and portrayed as harmful to individuals and society while neglecting the atrocities and the far more harmful behaviors of states and the dominant class, such as pollution, genocide, war crimes, and human rights violations. In support, Joachim J. Savelsberg describes human history as replete with atrocities. Such atrocities include slavery in the United States, the Holocaust in Europe, colonialism, forced adoption of Australian Aboriginals, Ottoman genocide against Armenians, and the genocide in Darfur, Sudan. These atrocities, committed by governments and their agents, corporations, and even religious groups, inflicted immense suffering on a mass scale, but were not always defined as crimes. This is because there is no absolute agreement on the definition of atrocities as crimes. One remedy for the discrepancy in the definition and enforcement of human rights violations, according to Savelsberg, is the universalization of human rights laws and norms. He also argues for the individualization of human rights law, such that aggrieved persons can seek remedies from governments and also from individuals acting on behalf of states.

Janna Thompson makes a case for the present generation to take responsibility for the atrocities committed by their predecessors. Past atrocities have continued relevance for the understanding of the peoples’ present conditions. For example, Australian Aboriginals loss of their land to European settlers from which their well-being depended is partly responsible for their loss of self-esteem and culture, notes Thompson. Again, many Aboriginal communities were wiped out by white settlers. Treaties they entered into with white settlers were not honored. Thompson demands that the present generation should pay reparation for the atrocities committed by their ancestors. In addition, reparation should be paid to African Americans for their enslavement. Africans should also be compensated for the harm they suffered due to slavery and colonialism. Again, many governments, churches, and corporations should go beyond apologizing for the atrocities committed by their predecessors and compensate those who suffered through the actions of their forebears.


  1. Achebe, C. Things Fall Apart. London: Heinemann, 1958.
  2. Agozino, B. Counter-Colonial Criminology: A Critique of Imperialist Reason. London: Pluto Press, 2003.
  3. Ake, C. The Political Economy of Crisis and Development in Africa. Lagos, Nigeria: JAD, 1989.
  4. Carnoy, M. Education as Cultural Imperialism. New York: David McKay, 1974.
  5. Cockcroft, J. D, A. G. Frank, and D. L. Johnson. Dependency and Underdevelopment: Latin America’s Political Economy. Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1972.
  6. Ekeh, P. P. “Colonialism and the Two Publics in Africa: A Theoretical Statement.” Comparative Studies in Society and History, v.17/1 (1975).
  7. Fanon, F. The Wretched of the Earth. Constance Farington, trans. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1963.
  8. Hall, A. J. “Classical Liberalism and the Modern State.” DAEDALUS–Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, v.116/3 (1987).
  9. Leys, C. The Rise and Fall of Development Theory. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996.
  10. Mazrui, A. A. World Culture and the Black Experience. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1974.
  11. Savelsberg, J. J. Crime and Human Rights. Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2010.
  12. Thompson, J. Taking Responsibility for the Past: Reparation and Historical Justice. Cambridge: Polity, 2002.

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