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What Is Colonial Discourse?

By A. Leverkuhn
Updated May 23, 2024
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Colonial discourse is generally defined as discourse or communication that revolves around the phenomenon of colonialism. Some experts define it as a specific sort of statement or set of communications that is based on colonial relationships. Generally, colonial discourses reveal aspects of these relationships between a colonial or imperial power, and those included in the communities that it colonizes.

Experts point out that colonial discourse can occur on many different levels. Some of these are formal types of discourse, such as those included in bureaucratic documents or government policy proposals. Others are literary or social in nature. A novel that revolves around a colonized area could be said to include a kind of colonial discourse.

Generally, this field is supposed to inspire a deeper understanding of the colonial relationship. These colonial relationships vary widely based on the specific scenario. While some such discourse regards ongoing colonialization, other types of these sorts of conversations focus on historic colonialism, where the previously colonized areas have since obtained their own independence from a colonial power.

As a specific kind of category of communications, colonial discourses often studied in an academic context. Again, the use of literature is critical to many colonial studies. For example, the works of famous writers such as Joseph Conrad or Jack London often center on colonial relationships and all of the difficulties they impose on involved parties. Any basic review of either author’s work will turn up profound and serious examples of colonial discourses that are effective in asking questions about the challenges and questionable morality of colonialism.

In formal studies, colonial discourse can be used in various ways. In conflict resolution studies, this can be a resource for developing solutions to a colonial relationship that has damaged one or more cultures, or inflicted great pain on colonized subjects. In general historical studies, such discourses can lead today’s societies to a fuller understanding of human rights and compassionate international relationships. In economics, this kind of conversation about colonialism can be useful in determining how individual national or regional economies work, and in finding solutions to economies that have not thrived under a colonial relationship, or in independence. These are just some of the uses for colonial discourses, which cover a wide set of historical relationships between regions and peoples.

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Discussion Comments
By pleonasm — On Feb 06, 2014

@bythewell - I don't think it's because the world has had time to forget. I think it's because there are all too many inequalities still around for us to remember. If the colonization of half the world by countries in Europe had just been a historical curiosity with no long term ramifications then that would be one thing.

But there are still many countries where the native folk are treated like second hand citizens. And that's why we need to have colonial discourse that takes a long view into account. If you just look at their positions today it might be tempting to say that it is their own fault, or something like that. But in reality a lot of poverty, racism and general inequality stems from the fact that one grandfather happened to have access to technology that another grandfather did not, and he used that technology to conquer.

That leaves scars and we need to see them clearly before we can even begin to try and heal them.

By bythewell — On Feb 06, 2014

@irontoenail - It's important to remember, though, that it wasn't just the Europeans who were colonizing. They were only the most recent ones to make a mark on the world. I'm sure that if the hordes of Genghis Khan had been positioned differently in time you might have been learning about how many cultures they destroyed as they passed through.

But because the world has had time to forget, we don't hear about that.

By irontoenail — On Feb 05, 2014

I guess my first introduction to this was during history classes in high school, although I don't remember ever being told that we were discussing colonial discourse exactly. I just realized that over the course of one year we had basically done almost every unit on how terrible the English and other Europeans were as they conquered other countries, or at least spread to them and bought up their land.

I guess it wasn't always on purpose, because some of it was things like the spread of disease into vulnerable populations, but they really did a lot of damage and there's no wonder it's still being felt today.

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