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This is an edited version of an early essay that appeared on Zero Anthropology, and which stemmed from a graduate-level seminar on Decolonizing Anthropology at Concordia University.

Phrases such as “decolonizing anthropology” and “anthropology and the colonial encounter” have become salient in anthropology especially since they are the titles of two of the better known, most widely quoted books on the subject. But what exactly is the subject? Sometimes clarity is missing on this point. Why is that titles such as “anthropology and imperialism” or “de-imperializing anthropology” are absent among prominent publications? What choices are we making when we choose the term colonialism, rather than imperialism?

Throughout the course my writing I admit that “imperialism” and “colonialism” have frequently been used interchangeably, especially with reference to anthropology. I have written about “re-imperializing” anthropology, as I have about “re-colonization,” and “decolonizing anthropology.” Aside from anthropology, dealing with the two phenomena can lead to choices of when to use one term and when to use the other. The choice of term can depend on the historical setting that one has in mind (whether writing about actual colonies, or the exertion of force at a distance); the ultimate intentions of the given forms of intervention (the effective inhabiting of another society and efforts to remake it to suit the desires of the intervening power, or, the effort to exert and monopolize power in a given space); or the proximity of the actors (colonialism usually being an “up close and personal” kind of relationship). Abstracting these ideas to the epistemic and methodological level (“methodological colonialism”) would seem to create even greater ambiguity around the choice of terms. It also seems, at first glance, that “imperial anthropology,” “imperialist anthropology,” and “anthropological imperialism” are not all the same thing necessarily.

Colonialism and imperialism should not be treated as solely academic concepts to be defined and circumscribed by analysts (usually within imperial institutions that we call “universities”), or to see colonialism as primarily something that is done to others. The colonized’s “decolonization” (at best, a work in progress), will always only be a truncated “achievement” as long as the colonizers have not challenged their own colonial drives.

In this piece I refer primarily to two items (there are many more, but these are the simpler and more condensed pieces I have used for teaching purposes). One is Ronald J. Horvath’s “A Definition of Colonialism” (Current Anthropology, 13 (1), Feb. 1972: 45–57)—the first article about colonialism to ever be published by that journal, and even at that late stage we did not have an article by an anthropologist as such (Horvath was a professor of geography). The second is from a large production, that opens with a decent review of the histories and theories of colonialism, imperialism, neocolonialism, and postcolonialism. That is Robert J.C. Young’s Postcolonialism: An Historical Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001).


Young shows concerns about the careless use of distinct concepts such as colonialism and imperialism, as if they were simply synonyms:

“The use of the term ‘postcolonial’ rather than ‘post-imperial’ suggests that a de facto distinction is being made between the two, yet a characteristic of postcolonial writing is that the terms ‘colonial’ and ‘imperial’ are often lumped together, as if they were synonymous terms. This totalizing tendency is also evident in the way that colonialism and imperialism are themselves treated as if they were homogeneous practices. Although much emphasis is placed on the specific particularity of different colonized cultures, this tends to be accompanied by comparatively little historical work on the diversity of colonialism and imperialism, which were nothing if not heterogeneous, often contradictory, practices”. (Young, 2001, p. 15)

There is also basic confusion about if or when the terms, colonialism and imperialism, should be separated from one other: colonies constitute an empire, but imperialism does not necessarily require colonies.

That the terms are often used synonymously can also be seen in the work of Edward Said. Frantz Fanon and Jean-Paul Sartre also tended to speak of colonialism as a single formation, a single system (Young, 2001, p. 18). Quoting Said, Young reminds us that his conception of colonialism was centered on a fundamentally geographical act of violence employed against indigenous peoples and their connections to the land.

On the other hand, Young offers some useful ideas about why the terms have been understood by some as referring to distinctly different phenomena:

“The term ‘empire’ has been widely used for many centuries without, however, necessarily signifying ‘imperialism’. Here a basic difference emerges between an empire that was bureaucratically controlled by a government from the centre, and which was developed for ideological as well as financial reasons, a structure that can be called imperialism, and an empire that was developed for settlement by individual communities or for commercial purposes by a trading company, a structure that can be called colonial. Colonization was pragmatic and until the nineteenth century generally developed locally in a haphazard way (for example, the occupation of islands in the West Indies), while imperialism was typically driven by ideology from the metropolitan centre and concerned with the assertion and expansion of state power (for example, the French invasion of Algeria). Colonialism functioned as an activity on the periphery, economically driven; from the home government’s perspective, it was at times hard to control. Imperialism on the other hand, operated from the centre as a policy of state, driven by the grandiose projects of power. Thus while imperialism is susceptible to analysis as a concept (which is not to say that there were not different concepts of imperialism), colonialism needs to be analysed primarily as a practice: hence the difficulty of generalizing about it”. (Young, 2001, pp. 16-17)

As many others observed previously, Young also recognizes that if we restrict discussion to colonialism alone, then one has to be mindful that historically there has been immense diversity in colonial forms. There have been colonies of settlement (for example, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the U.S.); colonies of exploitation (where no large European settlement was the aim, as much as the extraction and export of local resources); and various dominant colony-like enclaves, such as military bases on islands, in harbours or other strategic points, that sometimes forged commercial relations with a nearby mainland. There is the added fact that colonies could allow for limited forms of local rule, while in other cases they were administered directly from the colonial metropole (sometimes the very same colonial power could use both strategies, at different times). Some colonies were governed through native intermediaries, while others implanted officials from the “mother country.” Some colonial powers tried to effect cultural assimilation, while others did not. Some stationed their armies in the colonies, and others instead preferred to rely more on locally recruited armies. Thus, as Young argues, a “general theory” of colonialism is more than just a challenge.

Young prefers to see “imperialism” as referring to a “global political system,” but that too begs the question as to why he would leave out the economic dimension, and whether there has not also been a diversity of global political systems.

The very interesting question that Young raises, is whether this discussion in the end boils down to: (a) a rather sterile and abstract academic discussion, and, (b) one that is meaningful mostly from the perspective of the colonizers themselves:

“the apparent uniformity or diversity of colonialism depends very largely on your own subject position, as colonizing or colonized subject. From the position of the ruling colonial power, its administrators, and from the perspective of historians of British colonial history such as John MacKenzie, Britain’s different colonies do indeed look, and were, different in the ways in which they were acquired and administered….From the point of view of the indigenous people who lived their lives as colonial subjects, however, such distinctions have always seemed rather more academic. As far as they were concerned, such colonial subjects lived under the imposition of British rule, a view not discouraged by the imperial ideology of Pax Britannica. Anti-colonial practices of cultural resistance to the dominant ideology of imperialism encouraged the critical analysis of common forms of representation and the processes of knowledge-formation. At another level, the links established between Irish, South African and Indian nationalists at the end of the nineteenth century were developed to share knowledge of anti-colonial techniques and strategies. An attack on a police station in Ireland functioned in a very similar way, and with very similar objectives, to an attack on a British barracks in India. The differences in colonial history, in administrative practices, or constitutional status…made for very little difference as far as anti-colonial revolutionary strategies were concerned. From the point of view of anti-colonial political activists, the British Empire looked much the same everywhere….Postcolonial critique tends to take the same point of view because it identifies with the subject position of anti-colonial activists, not because of its ignorance of the infinite variety of colonial history from the perspective of the colonizers”. (Young, 2001, pp. 18-19)


Imperialism as a term became current in English only in the second half of the 19th-century (Young, 2001, p. 26, drawing on Hobsbawm). The concept originated in Britain, and it was not a concept that originated with Marx. As Young explains, while originally referring to direct conquest and occupation (nation-states develop empires by making colonies, thus becoming imperial states whose action over others is imperialist), thanks to Marxism the concept usually became one that referred to a general system of economic domination, with or without direct political domination (i.e., there could be imperialism without colonies). Why “post-colonialism” ultimately makes sense, Young suggests, is that those subjected to it have most often used the term colonialism to refer to previous systems of domination they suffered under the British and French for example, while using the term imperialism to refer to American domination in the present—essentially a distinction between “old” imperialism and “new”. As Young says, “history has not yet arrived at the post-imperial era” (Young, 2001, p. 27).

“history has not yet arrived at the post-imperial era”

Imperialism became a target of anti-colonial struggle, and understood as a general concept of domination, probably with the advent of the Communist International of 1919 (see: archive of the Communist International, 1919-1943; League Against Imperialism). Young situates imperialism in a way that it pertains to rivalry between expansionist states, seeking to enhance national prestige and domestic political and social stability, and finding outlets for expanded capitalist production and consumption (Young, 2001, pp. 30-33).


Neo-colonialism has come to refer to a system of formal political independence, with direct economic control exercised by a foreign power. If we were meant to have clear definitional boundaries between “colonialism” and “imperialism,” the concept neo-colonialism would seem to merge the two: “Neo-colonialism is…the worst form of imperialism. For those who practise it, it means power without responsibility and for those who suffer from it, it means exploitation without redress (Kwame Nkrumah, 1965, p xi)” (quoted in Young, 2001, p. 44). The first and most prominent theorist of neo-colonialism was not a Western academic, but rather the Ghanaian independence leader, Kwame Nkrumah. Nkrumah saw neo-colonialism as the American stage of colonialism, of an empire without formal colonies (Young, 2001, p. 46).

“Neo-colonialism is...the worst form of imperialism”

Anthropological Correlates of Imperialist Theories?

Regarding imperialist theories of indigenous cultures, Young’s synthesis is one of the more useful ones. On the one hand, the French mission civilisatrice, “assumed the fundamental equality of all human beings, their common humanity as part of a single species, and considered that however ‘natural’ or ‘backward’ their state, all native peoples could immediately benefit from the uniform imposition of French culture in its most advanced contemporary manifestation” (Young, 2001, p. 32). This shares the identical assumptions of cultural evolutionism and more recent international development theory. It is also an unstated premise of the “democracy promotion” campaign of American liberal imperialism today. To the upholders of the idea of essential sameness, critics appear to be denying the humanity of humans: all humans want freedom, so the story goes, and if you don’t believe that Iranians “deserve democracy,” and want to live like us, then you are denying their essential humanity. If you do not want “democracy” for Iranians, then it is probably because you think “they aren’t good enough” to have it. As Young argues, the “very assumption [of equality] meant that the French model had the least respect and sympathy for the culture, language and institutions of the people being colonized—it saw difference, and sought to make it the same—what might be called the paradox of ethnocentric egalitarianism” (Young, 2001, p. 32).

The irony is that the alternative was no less imperialist. British imperialism from the mid-1800s onwards assumed a radical, racially-based difference between the British and their subjects. Assimilation, strictly speaking, would be impossible: assimilating Africans would make as much sense as putting suits on chimps or trying to teach table manners to dogs, so the thinking went. As Young explains,

“the British system of relative non-interference with local cultures, which today appears more liberal in spirit, was in fact also based on the racist assumption that the native was incapable of education up to the level of the European— and therefore by implication required perpetual colonial rule. Association neatly offered the possibility of autonomy (for some), while at the same time incorporating a notion of hierarchy for the supposedly less-capable races”. (Young, 2001, p. 33).

Today such a position would be held as less-than-liberal, particularly with the revival of liberal interventionism under the banner of the “responsibility to protect” (R2P).

Both forms of imperialism are arguably variations of liberalism. One, ethnocentric egalitarianism, promises to open the doors of empire to all subjects willing (or not) to undergo cultural transformation, which serves to spread empire into the hearts and minds of the dominated. The dominated are thus “liberated”—liberated from the “burden” of being themselves, of being different. The other variant, a racist “respect” for difference, substitutes tolerance for equality. Both equality with the other, and, tolerance of the other, are vaunted as lofty and noble liberal values. Both are equally imperialist. One understates difference, the other overstates it. Both, arguably, recognize difference only to the extent and in the manner that suits the particular goals of power.

Anthropology seems to have had its own “Dual Mandate” of “protection” and “exploitation” with regards to the peoples at the focus of its mission as a university discipline (when anthropology, by definition, became that which you never did at home). Protection came in the form of salvage ethnography, cultural resource management, and some forms of advocacy. Exploitation: by recruiting natives to transcribe their cultures, for academic projects, and by lifting cultural artefacts and even human remains and amassing them in academic institutions. This is not to mention various types of “applied anthropology,” in service of corporations, development programs, international lending institutions, and military and intelligence agencies.

Ethnographic Colonialism, Anthropological Imperialism, and Abduction

Back to the terminological problem underscored at the very start. It turns out that even some imperialists could be anti-colonialist, because maintaining colonies was expensive and inefficient where economic dominance and hegemonic political power were concerned. This poses a problem for us then, in our choice of terms: hypothetically at least, it seems one could be in favour of “decolonizing” anthropology while defending anthropological imperialism, not that what this would mean is clear.

Colonialism may be better coupled specifically with ethnography, superficially at least, since both require physical presence and a form of settling within someone else’s home—entering their territory, and setting up camp. This is what we might call “ethnographic colonialism” and it seems to make more sense than calling anthropology colonial, unless one is focusing on anthropologists working in colonial settings. Otherwise, it would seem better to couple anthropology as a broad endeavour, with another equally broad endeavour, imperialism. “Anthropological imperialism” could then refer to institutionalized, professionalized, theoretical practice, where anthropologists speak about what is humanity, “on behalf of” all of humanity.

Is there an “anthropological neo-colonialism”? One could argue that various national anthropologies, instituted in (few) universities in Africa and Asia following formal political decolonization, were in fact neo-colonial in their political positioning with respect to the state and its nation-building mission, and with respect to its content which was focused on national development.

Ultimately, however, the plethora of concepts (empire, imperial, imperialist, colonial, colonialist, neo-colonial, etc.) can be see as variations, fluctuating in time and space, of a much broader phenomenon that encompasses them all, that renders them means toward and end. That end would be what I refer to as abduction which involves both incorporation and exploitation. Neither imperialism nor colonialism make sense by themselves, until one relates them to their fundamental premises, ideals, and goals: to make use of others by various means of exploitation, drafting others into one’s sphere in order to extract from them whatever is valued.

The purpose here has been to signal the understandable confusion that can arise in discussing the relationship between anthropology and empire, at least on a conceptual level.

* Since this essay was first written circa 2009, with some revisions and edits in the version above, the author’s work has expanded considerably on the following fronts: (1) elaborating the history of the development of the concept of “imperialism” since its origins, and by examining early theories; (2) “anthropological imperialism” now more closely resembles what Johan Galtung called “scientific colonialism”—not mentioned in the essay above; (3) “abduction” is a relatively recent emphasis or lens in the author’s work.


Asad, Talal (Ed.). (1973). Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter. London: Ithaca Press.

Harrison, Faye (Ed.). (1991). Decolonizing Anthropology: Moving Further Toward an Anthropology for Liberation. Washington, DC: Association of Black Anthropologists, American Anthropological Association.

Horvath, Ronald J. (1972). “A Definition of Colonialism”. Current Anthropology, 13(1), 45–57.

Young, Robert J.C. (2001). Postcolonialism: An Historical Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.


Image: E.E. Evans-Pritchard. Archival photograph in the public domain.



© 2011-2020, Maximilian C. Forte.