Friday, October 20, 2006



The word imperialism, which has often been used interchangeably with colonialism, has a highly contested meaning. Deriving from the noun ‘empire’, ‘imperialism’ is understood as the extension by one group of rule or influence over another group. Unlike ‘colonialism’, however, which necessitates direct political control, imperialism could occur without the existence of a formal colony. This absence of a formal colony is perhaps why it has become so difficult to identify a definitive meaning for ‘imperialism’. Despite this vagueness, ‘imperialism’ is widely used to refer to the process of domination. Further complicating definition, ‘imperialism’ can also be used in conjunction with others words, as in ‘cultural imperialism’, ‘informal imperialism’ and ‘neo-imperialism’, which are attempts to describe the nature of this domination and control.

Underlying the generally understood definition of imperialism is the use of power to preside over others. Power is often understood as the conquest of other territories due to more sophisticated military apparatus and better political organisation. As Bernard Porter warned, however, this understanding can only capture a description of ‘formal imperialism’[1]. He went even further, suggesting that in its more subtle aspects - or in ‘informal imperialism’ - when one set of cultural values and beliefs dominates others, power is more difficult to measure. For example, in Southeast Asia, missionary promulgation of Christianity, or the spreading of Islam via trade relations was not intended to expand the respective imperial territories, even though their practices had imperialistic features. These cases exemplify how empire can be boundless, or without geographical borders. This phenomenon gives raise to the question of how power worked to influence peoples’ conversion.

The emphasis in this analysis on the exertion of power seems to result in imperialism being seen as a binary, one-way relation, with the superior dominating the inferior, as in a ‘formal imperialism’. Is this always the case, however? In the colonial period, the peripheral territories were seen as an extension of the metropole, yet it would be na├»ve to assume that power was only working in a single outward direction. Control could also be exercised by people in the periphery, despite the presence of people from the core[2]. It could be possible for empowered locals to play an even more antagonistic or malicious role then their rulers, in order to satisfy their interests. Another example might be Aboriginal people in Australia feeling dominated by white settlers, who in turn regarded themselves as victims of British imperialism. In reality, imperialism is not strictly a long-distance, binary domination or exclusively a state-enterprise.

It could be said that these various definitions of ‘imperialism’ demonstrate that no single meaning can be given to the word. Dissimilarities in process, genesis, and form imply that imperialism is not a single concept. The impossibility in ascribing one single definition has driven some commentators to use the Foucaultian concept of discourse, in particular those who are concerned with cultural imperialism[3]. This is perhaps a fair conclusion, in that it accepts the differing views from the various disciplines, and recognises a multiplicity of articulations from the metropole to the periphery. This new approach is, however, a challenge for some scholars, particularly historians who think that clear definition is crucial. Whether we regard imperialism as discourse or thesis is necessary to understand reality beyond the word ‘imperialism’.

[1] Bernard Porter, The Lion’s Share: A Short History of British Imperialism 1850-2004, (Harlow: Pearson Longman, 2004), p.4.
[2] Stephen Howe, Empire: A Very Short Introduction, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), p.15.
[3] John Tomlinson, Cultural Imperialism, (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1991), p. 9.