Postcolonialism (international relations)

Postcolonial International relations scholarship posits a critical theory approach to International relations (IR), and is a non-mainstream area of international relations scholarship. According to Baylis postcolonial international relations scholarship has been largely ignored by mainstream international relations theorists and has only recently begun to make an impact on the discipline. Postcolonialism focuses on the persistence of colonial forms of power and the continuing existence of racism in world politics.[1]

Postcolonial IR challenges the eurocentrism of IR—particularly its parochial assumption that Western Enlightenment thinking is superior, progressive and universally applicable. Postcolonialists argue that this is enabled through constructing the Other as irrational and backwards.[2]

Postcolonial IR attempts to expose such parochial assumptions of IR; for example, in the construction of white versus coloured peoples. An example is the IR story of a "white men's burden" to educate and liberate coloured men and women, to protect coloured women from coloured men. Often this is linked to other postpositivist theories, for example, through Postcolonial feminism, which analyze issues in IR through the lenses of gender and culture.

Examples of the parochialistic nature of IR include geographical parochialism and cultural chauvinism. For the former, the construction of the Cold War era as a time of peace ignores the reality that major conflicts continued in the developing world. Furthermore, the oft-cited history of IR is constructed in western terms (more information under history); and IR has been used to justify everything from imperialism to a playground for skirmishes between the two Cold War superpowers. For the latter, the West (through IGOs such as the IMF's quick rush to "save" Asia in the aftermath of the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997–8) could be seen as both a white men's burden to save Asia or to reformulate Asian capitalism in a Western image.[3]

Criticisms and defense

Such IR stories are purposefully limited in scope in terms of statecentric modelling, cataloguing and predicting in formal terms; and like other postpositivist theories, they do not attempt to form an overarching theory as after all, postpositivism is defined as incredulity towards metanarratives. This is replaced by a sensitivity and openness to the unintended consequences of metanarratives and their negative impacts on the most marginalised actors in IR. In defence, postpositivists argue that metanarratives have proven unworkable. Thus, such theories, although limited in scope, provide for much greater possibilities in the normative work of developing an emancipatory politics, formulating foreign policy, understanding conflict, and making peace, which takes into account gender, ethnicity, other identity issues, culture, methodology and other common issues that have emerged from problem-solving, rationalist, reductive accounts IR.

See also

International relations theory


  1. Baylis, Smith and Owens, The Globalisation of World Politics, OUP, 4th ed, p187-189
  2. Edward Said (1979), Orientalism, New York: Vintage Books
  3. Cultural Chauvinism and the Liberal International Order - ‘West vs Rest’ in Asia’s Financial Crisis - Forthcoming in G. Chowdhry and S. Nair (eds), Power in a Postcolonial World: Race, Gender and Class in International Relations (London: Routledge)
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