Postcolonial Analysis Research Paper

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Postcolonial analysis is a mode of inquiry into the nature and aftereffects of European colonial rule in different parts of the world, from the Americas to India and Africa. It has emerged since World War II as one of the most dynamic if not controversial modes of inquiry to be articulated in the humanities.

Much thought in postcolonial analysis is of recent origin, having developed during the past century out of the confluence of traditions that are strongly anticolonial, highly theoretical, and interdisciplinary in their orientations. Drawing from an eclectic range of theorists (Homi Bhabha, Jaccques Derrida, Frantz Fanon, Michel Foucault, Mohandas K. Gandhi, Antonio Gramsci, Edward Said, and Gayatri Spivak) and intellectual traditions (feminism, Marxism, postmodernism, and psychoanalysis), postcolonial theory has opened new fields of inquiry across diverse disciplines that have reframed the phenomena of European colonialism and its legacies. It continues to critique social inequality and structures of power around the globe, supporting the resistance of subordinated peoples to dominant traditions. Postcolonial analysis tends to be self-consciously critical as it attempts to fashion new forms of cultural and political activity.

Canonical in the development of postcolonial analysis has been the work of Edward Said, whose book Orientalism (1978) discussed the ways in which European representations of the “Orient” were responsible for producing enduring stereotypes that have persisted to this day. More recently, postcolonial historians have also been deeply concerned with recording the lives and voices of subaltern (disempowered) peoples. Drawing from a range of theories spread across disciplines, these subaltern historians have generated a renewed interest in questions of power, inequality, and human agency. But this mode of inquiry has its share of critics. While some have critiqued the possibility of ever writing subaltern histories, others dismiss these postcolonial writers as migrant “Third World” intellectuals enjoying the benefits of a restructured capitalist global economy. Still others criticize postcolonial theorists for their use of incomprehensible language and excessive indulgence in intellectual gymnastics.

Postcolonial Analysis and World History

Postcolonial writings examine a range of topics that interests world historians, such as colonial encounters, diasporic (scattering) and immigrant experiences, and modern capitalism and its discourses of development. In such writings postcolonial analysts tend to unpack long-held views of scholars to reveal the nuances that are inherent in any historical phenomena but that are often ignored by others. For instance, postcolonial writings have contributed significantly to broadening our understanding of long-studied phenomena such as European colonialism. Colonizer-colonized interactions are no longer seen as colliding worlds but rather as complex, hybrid, and sometimes contradictory flows that shape both the colonizer and the colonized. Postcolonial writers have been careful to take into account the role of class, gender, race, sexuality, ethnicity, and nationality in explaining historical processes. Writers have given critical attention also to how Europe’s intellectual legacies (eighteenth-century Enlightenment thought based on rationalism, science, the modern state, and colonial knowledge) have shaped our world, engendering dangerous stereotypes, misrepresentations, and inequalities. Writers have given special attention to questions of religious conversion, Western science and education, travel writing, literature, and nationalism.

Postcolonial analysis is a valuable addition to the repertoire of approaches being used by world historians to conceptualize global flows, processes, and connections across time. It has provided world historians with a repertoire of tools for analysis drawn from feminist studies, literary criticism, Marxism, philosophy, and psychoanalysis. Postcolonial analysts study global phenomena such as imperialism, colonialism, decolonization, capitalism, world systems, nationalism, and migration not only in terms of neatly bounded nations, culture regions, civilizations, time periods, and abstract processes but also in terms of complex flows that embrace a wide range of actors across societies and time periods. The advent of subaltern studies approaches has impressed on world historians the need to critique structures of power and social inequalities and to recognize the presence of disempowered and subordinated groups (women, indigenous peoples, peasants, tribals, low castes, gays and lesbians) throughout the history of the world. Recent postcolonial writers have taken a philosophical turn in their attempt to critique the very discipline of history—especially its intellectual debts to Western thought. These writers seek to include alternative understandings of the world that do not conform to the standards of Western reason or modern disciplinary conventions.


Yet this focus on complexity and agency in the study of historical processes has not always transitioned neatly to the study of large-scale processes. Perhaps what distinguishes postcolonial analysis from other forms of writing in world history is its reluctance to produce grand theories or analyze large-scale processes and instead to focus more on specific texts and historical situations concerned with the politics of identity formation and the agency of human beings. With many of its creators themselves migrants to the “First World,” it is not surprising that postcolonial analyses are particularly interested in the dynamics by which social identities based on class, caste, gender, nationality, ethnicity, race, and sexuality are informed and unsettled by global phenomena such as capitalism, colonialism, migration, and international politics. Postcolonial writers frequently engage in self-criticism, or auto-critique, and so postcolonial narratives can seem to break up no sooner than they take shape.

Nevertheless, postcolonial analysis has contributed significantly to the study of world history by cautioning against the development of simplistic macro (large-scale, general) frameworks and categories that usually end up losing sight of the variety of historical actors and the nuances that make up global processes. World history practiced in this vein becomes theoretically sophisticated, thematically focused, and self-critical, its dominant narratives and grand theories constantly breaking down to reveal the world full of differences, contradictions, and variations. Although we cannot yet see the full impact of these trends in world history, postcolonial analysis continues to offer one of the most exciting frameworks for cultural study and will invigorate the study of world history for some time to come.


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