old map of Africa

Key Concepts in Post-colonial Theory


Post-colonialism analyses the destructive impact of colonisation on cultures and societies around the world. It raises questions about the intersection of race, ethnicity, colonialism, culture, economics, politics, gender, and language. Critically assessing the cultural representations of the past can also help disrupt new forms of colonialism and subordination, especially the negative social and economic practices of globalisation.

This glossary of key concepts is a good starting point to understanding the post-colonial approach to representation.


We are focusing on the imperialist expansion of European powers who imposed their own social, economic, political, and cultural practices on other people and territories around the world. For example, by 1913, the British Empire controlled over 400 million people and covered a quarter of the Earth’s land surface.

George Macartney (1773) wrote: “This vast empire on which the sun never sets, and whose bounds nature has not yet ascertained”.

What is Post-colonialism?

The study into the complex effects of colonialism on cultures and societies is called post-colonialism. We can divide the analysis into three stages:

  1. The awareness of the social, psychological, and cultural impact of European imperial powers on people and states.
  2. The struggle for ethnic, cultural, and political autonomy and independence.
  3. A greater awareness of cultural exchange, diversity, and hybridity.

Post-colonialism explores the relationship between imperialism and identity, especially the representation of ethnic minorities in the media. It also draws attention to new forms of colonialism, including the global economic system and the use “soft” power.


In post-colonial discourse, essentialism is the assumption that groups of people have defining features which are fixed and exclusive to their cultural identity. By simply denying the existence of diversity and difference within groups, the coloniser could exert power over an entire population because the individuals all shared those essential qualities.

However, the Indian literary theorist, Gayatri Spivak, argued there could be a pollical and social need for strategic essentialism to create a sense of belonging to a group. This solidarity is important for social action and campaigns for cultural and political independence.

Binary Opposition

Ferdinand de Saussure argued signs derived meaning through their relationships with other signs, including a binary opposition. For instance, the word “east” only makes sense when you also understand “west”. Or “good” is defined by its opposite term “evil”.

Structuralism is a critical framework which explores the relationships between elements of human culture and how they function within the larger system. Theorists, such as Claude Lévi‐Strauss, believed binary logic was not just a feature of language, but it could also explain aspects of culture, society, and modes of thought.

Post-colonialism deconstructs the colonial discourse which represented the European powers as superior and civilised compared to the indigenous populations who were seen as inferior and uncivilised.

  • Coloniser vs Colonised
  • Good vs Evil
  • White vs Black
  • Educated and scientific vs Primitive
  • Rational vs Irrational
  • Civilised vs Uncivilised

It is really important to note the hierarchy in these binary opposites. This dangerous ideology gave the colonisers an excuse to go on a “civilising mission” around the world.


Eurocentrism is the representation of European cultural practices as the natural and universal order because it is civilised, industrialised and progressive. By contrast, other societies were conceptualised as barbaric and irrational. This bias is epitomised by the Mercator projection of the world which inflates the size of places away from the equator. Europe, Canada and Russia are ridiculously exaggerated in this wonderful image of the British Empire from 1886. Africa is 14 times larger than Greenland yet they look the same size on this map.

map of colonial Britain
Source: Wikipedia

The sketches around the edges encode the exotic fantasy of colonial expansion, the lines link the major ports and shipping routes, and the tables feature statistics about trade and revenue. Notice how the map centres Britain to give it more prominence on the world’s stage. Maps have always been weapons of mass imperialism.

The belief in European superiority meant other cultures were often ignored or condemned. For example, many religions were dismissed as strange and superstitious from the Christian perspective. Or other societies were represented as cruel and despotic compared to the supposedly scientific and progressive thinkers in Europe.

There are many contemporary examples of eurocentrism. For example, the beauty industry is often criticised for “whitewashing”. Take a look at this article about L’Oreal digitally lightening Beyonce’s skin in advertisement for hair dye. Dove also had to apologise for a Facebook advertisement promoting their body wash which featured a black woman transforming into a white woman. Sephora’s Black Beauty is Beauty campaign is a good contrast because it celebrates the impact of Black beauty culture on the world.

The Self and the Other

The colonisers promoted European ideologies as the superior forces and practices in the world. The discourse also created essentialist representations of the colonised as different, evil, irrational, and uncivilised.

This representation of the primitive and despotic Other was fundamental to the construction of the civilised and rational Self. The binary opposition was also used to justify European imperialism.

Gayatri Spivak coined the term Othering to describe the process by which imperial discourse creates its others. Another useful term here is subaltern which means “of inferior rank”. The Marxist theorist, Antonio Gramsci, used subaltern to refer to those groups in society who are subject to the hegemony of the ruling classes.


Antonio Gramsci suggested the ruling classes were able to dominate other classes and the agenda because they successfully argued their elite interests were the interests of everyone. If you control the media, education and other agents of socialisation, your ideology is quickly accepted as natural.

Hegemony can be applied to the process of colonialisation. The European elite forced their biased ideology on entire countries who learned to accept the Eurocentric values and beliefs while dismissing their own interests.


The word diaspora comes from the Greek meaning “to disperse”. It is the voluntary or forced movement of people from their homelands into new regions.

Colonialism is a diasporic movement, involving the temporary or permanent dispersion of settlers from Europe to the rest of the world. The demand for cheap labour soon led to economies based on slavery. Millions of West Africans were abducted from their homes and shipped across the Atlantic Ocean to work in the cotton fields and sugar plantations in the Americas.

After slavery was abolished, a new system of indentured labour was established. There are also more recent economic migrations, such as the Windrush generation. Britain and France, for example, now have substantial minority populations who are from the colonies. Paul Gilroy’s Black Atlantic identity takes account of these diasporas and is certainly worth a closer look.


We are all affected by economic and cultural forces that operate worldwide and beyond the control of the nation states, including the movement of people, trade and investment, information, and knowledge. The term globalisation describes this incredible interaction and interdependence.

Dependency Theory

Many countries and societies are unable to benefit from globalisation because the capitalist system forces them to remain underdeveloped. The dependency theory draws attention to the flow of resources from underdeveloped states to the elite “core” of wealthy states. For example, many colonies exported cheap raw materials to the factories in Europe who then manufactured the more profitable products.


Race is the classification of human beings into physically and biologically distinct groups, but the concept has also been used to imply our capacity and moral behaviour. Although race was not an invention of imperialism, it was quickly adopted by the European powers to justify the need to spread enlightenment by conquering and colonising the world.

Therefore, racism is not a product of the concept of race, but the very reason for its existence. Without the underlying desire for the hierarchical binary opposition implicit in racism, race would not exist.


Ethnicity the fusion of culture, tradition, social patterns, behaviours, experiences, and everything else that makes up our experiences. In contrast to race, concepts of ethnicity are usually seen as an expression of positive self-perception and identity. It is also important to note, ethnic identities are not fixed and they are prone to change.

Macartney, George (1773) “An Account of Ireland in 1773 by a Late Chief Secretary of that Kingdom”.

Further Reading

Thanks for reading!