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The Challenges Postcolonial Theory Poses to Mainstream Understandings of International Relations Dominated by Western Political Thought

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The Challenges Postcolonial Theory Poses to Mainstream Understandings of International Relations Dominated by Western Political Thought Essay

Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Disregard of the Importance of History
  3. Edward Said's Orientalism
  4. Post colonialism/ Feminism
  5. Conclusion

Introduction

Post colonialism is one of the many critical perspectives that seek to challenge our understanding of conventional international relations (IR). Postcolonial theory is best seen as a site of critical inquiry or a set of shared ideas rather than a single theory or unified body of though. It essentially analyses how, society, states, and people in formerly colonised countries experience IR. Furthermore, it continues to challenge much of international politics past and present, and reinforces the notion that international politics requires a global perspective. It is concerned with both how European nations conquered and controlled third world cultures and how these groups have since responded to and resisted those encroachments. Post colonialism as both a body of theory and study of political and cultural change has gone and continues to go through three broad stages. Firstly an initial awareness of the social psychological and cultural inferiority enforced by being in a colonised state. Secondly, the struggle for ethnic, cultural and political autonomy and lastly a growing awareness of cultural overlap and hybridity. In order to identify its challenges it is important to understand the use of “post,’ this is not to suggest that the effects or impact of colonial rule are now long gone but highlights the impact that colonial and imperial histories still have on the shaping a colonial way of thinking about the world and how western forms of knowledge and power marginalise the non-western world. Furthermore, it refuses to treat “post-colonial” as a synonym for European decolonisation. The world can only be considered ‘post-colonial’ if we assume that historic patterns of economic control and command necessarily ended with formal colonial rule. Patterns of continuity amid change mean that international power relations have moved beyond colonialism in some ways while remaining thoroughly colonial in others. Ultimately it goes further to look beyond the traditional focus of IR on states but instead it focuses on themes such as identity, the problem of grand narratives and so forth. It aims to give a voice to those people and regions muted by colonialism, to deconstruct and destabilise the discourses surrounding colonialism and attempts to transcend colonial patterns of discourse. With this being said, this essay will explore some of the main challenges postcolonial theory offers to mainstream understanding of international relations, such as its disregard of the importance of history, the problem with identity and othering, IR theories neglect of critical intersections of race, gender, and class in the workings of global power that reproduce a hierarchy.

Disregard of the Importance of History

One of the key challenges that post-colonial theory offers to our understanding of mainstream international relations is its sweeping disregard of the importance of history and the provincialising of Europe. It challenges much of the centrality accorded to Europe as the historical source and origin of the international order (and the history that is included is always that of the victors.) Unfortunately a large proportion of IR theories shows very little interest in history because “history is unimportant of the feature of the international order is considered to be the Trans historical fact of anarchy”. According to Waltz “the enduring anarchic character of international politics accounts for the striking sameness in the quality of international life through the millennia” he recognised that there have been differing international systems in the course of the millennia, differing according to whether their primary political units were city-states, empires or nations, but different ‘international political systems, like economic markets, are individualist in origin, spontaneously generated and unintentional.’ Therefore not only is history not necessary given that the fundamental nature of international life has changed little over the millennia, but it would also be difficult to construct an intelligible account of historical change in the international arena.

In addition, to disregarding the importance of history, another key challenge that post colonialism presents to IR is that even when history is used the discipline is constructed on Eurocentric foundations. This is key for both critical and conventional IR theories because by basing our theories on Eurocentric assumptions or viewpoints then we fail to include multiple perspectives and voices that are key to our understanding of ‘international’ politics. Many of the conventional IR theories are seen as reliable due to their positivist and relatively scientific principles. If we accept the premise that the basis of all IR theories is western-centric then these conventional theories with positivist’s perspective can be seen as a way to hide the truth that these theories are entirely Eurocentric. In the world today, a contrast is commonly assumed to exist between the wealthy and modern west and the poor and undeveloped rest of the world. By the West, we mean Europe and North America with the more recent addition of the Middle East and Japan. However as the process of modernity originated in Europe, it is then seen as the history of Europe and the extension of Europeans norms and values across the world. This then means that the rest of the world is seen to exist in some sort of subordinate state. Europe is seen as fully developed and modern and believes the rest of the world must catch up to their level. When European powers began to colonise, they started writing history on the regions that they had conquered. This account of history was written from their own perspective and subsequently depicted Europeans as civilized because of their ‘apparent’ sophisticated social and political institutions. Whilst people who lived in countries located in Africa and certain parts of Asia were seen to be living in severely underdeveloped and almost backward nations. This was explored extensively by scholar Dipesh Chakrabarty in his book Provincialising Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. In which he claimed that the discipline of history, as it developed at the time of the enlightenment, was rooted in the idea of human progress. Chakrabarty argued that that there were subthemes embedded within particular national histories. According to him the aim of this type of history was to show people how societies had either developed or failed to. This lead to history being written in a particular way that praised or benefited the colonisers even though it was about and for colonised regions. They wrote the history that supported and explained the reasons for colonisation and why the nations ‘needed’ intervention. This adaptation of colonial history sought to explain why particular colonised regions lacked certain critical qualities, such as a commitment to democracy, or human rights, or capitalist enterprise. The focus was not on the positive parts of the cultures they encountered but more so on what they were lacking, and whilst they were the first to write such adaptations of history, many of the people in these colonised nations that studied in these European style school, wrote the same as that is all the history they knew. The consequence of which we still suffer today, because most literature is written to praise the western world for colonising these ‘failing nations’ rather than showing the realities of what happened and incorporating all cultures and experiences within our history. Furthermore, key critic and post-colonialist Franz Fanon noted in his book Black Skins, White Masks, that colonised black people had not only suffered due the oppression and domination of European rulers but also from extreme indoctrination that convinced them that they were not only inhumane but inferior to the white man. He claimed that the only answer was for the black man and colonised people to free themselves from the psychological control of their masters by rejecting this mentality completely. This was made it extremely difficult because the colonisers had destroyed their identities and wholeness of their pre-colonial past. Rather, the pre-colonial fragments that existed had to be rearranged in creative new ways in conjunction with the colonial system of rule and culture to forge a new unity.

Although it is true there are important traditions of oppositional forms of history-writing in the west, such as socialist or feminist history, it can be argued that they continue to be rooted in an overall paradigm of progress and development. Thus, socialist historians still maintain a narrative of progress, the difference being that this is progress towards the working class revolution. There has been a tendency to focus on the white working class, ignoring black workers. Feminists have their own narrative of progress, towards the liberation of women from patriarchal controls. However again, feminist historians tend to construct women as white, leaving black women invisible. Once again, these are agendas that originated in the West, and in which the West is seen to be in the lead.

Edward Said’s Orientalism

Edwards Said’s Orientalism is one of the best known and controversial studies of its sort, Orientalism is a scholarly and polemic examination of how scholars and other writers in the West have long viewed the east. Orientalism is the process by which the Orient was constructed as an exotic other by European studies and culture. Orientalism is not so much a true study of other cultures as it is a broad western generalisation about Oriental, Islamic and/or Asian cultures that tends to erode and ignore their substantial differences. Said claimed that the Europeans divided the world into two parts, the east and the west or the occident and the orient. However, he saw this as a totally artificial boundary that was laid on the basis of the concept of them and us.

Said argued that “so far as the West was concerned during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, an assumption had been made that the Orient and everything in it was, if not patently inferior to, then in need of corrective study by the West. Orientalism, then, is knowledge of the Orient that places things Oriental in class, court, prison, or manual for scrutiny, judgment, discipline, or governing.” (Said, Orientalism, p40) His key issues with IR theories was the fact that the division between the monolithic west and the Orient was man-made debates about identity are important and missing within many of the mainstream theories. By identity, I mean the way in which an individual and or group defines itself. Identity is important to self-concept, social mores, and national understanding, often involving both essentialism and othering. By not having such discussions divides are created and the idea of us vs them is intensified. He argued it was important to see people as more diverse than these binaries because “the terrible reductive conflicts that herd people under falsely unifying rubrics like ‘America’ ‘the west’ or ‘Islam’ and invent collective identities for large numbers of individuals who are actually quite diverse, cannot remain as potent as there are, and must be opposed’ The basis of Said’s argument here is that the concept of the Orient used by the West is not the real orient, it is rather a constructed understanding of what citizens believe the orient to be. This fundamental misunderstanding is based on centuries-old descriptions and entrenched power dynamics between the West and the West. International relations and security studies can be used as examples of orientalist discourse, primarily because the West are portrayed as a force for good and therefore any interventions made are legitimised. This then feeds the common tendency with IR to separate us from the ‘other’ by this I mean the social and/or psychological ways in which one group excludes or marginalises another group. By declaring someone ‘other’ people tend to stress what makes them dissimilar from or opposite of another, and this carries over into the way they represent others, especially through stereotypical images. Mainstream theories have no interest in the question of culture and how it relates to the states. Since states simply exist and by their nature pursue their interests, the rules that govern state interactions are not seen as having anything to do with culture. The assumption amongst most IR theorists is that culture belongs to other disciplines and therefore isn’t relevant within mainstream theories. However, if we constantly disregard history, or make everything Eurocentric, othering is almost inevitable because anything we don’t understand we immediately distance ourselves from creating us vs them when it may not be necessary.

The west see themselves are more capable of talking about the other than the other himself, which gives no voice to the other or in Said’s example the Orient

Post colonialism/ Feminism

Lastly, another more current challenge of mainstream IR is of the Eurocentrism when it comes to feminism. Postcolonial feminism is essentially a critique of white Euro-American attempts to “save” women outside of the western world. Postcolonial feminists pay particular attention to the continued damage Euro-American imperialism and global capitalism has inflicted on people in eastern countries, and the resulting violent exploitation of women from less ‘developed’ parts of the world. The white savior complex is used by Euro-American politicians through the trope of the “third world woman,” who is oppressed by a supposedly backward regime, as justification for war and occupation in non-Euro-American countries, as the Bush administration did in regard to Afghanistan. Postcolonial feminism reminds us “equality” looks different for, say, a white, middle-class woman in the U.S. and a Muslim woman in Iran, and it denies the idea of universal oppressions. If Euro-American feminist movements focus on the gender pay gap, unpaid domestic labor, or the dehumanizing aspects of pornography, these forms of oppressions and subsequent resistance is not necessarily useful for women outside of Euro-America. Therefore, postcolonial feminism goes beyond Euro-American ideas about what gender equality looks like, depending on the social, political, and historical context of the country to which the discussion is based around. In this capacity, postcolonial feminism is a branch of intersectional feminist thought.

As mentioned previously feminists have their own narrative of progress, but more times than not, many mainstream feminists and other theorists ignore the many intersections that exist and make assumptions of women’s experiences irrespective of race. Postcolonial feminists are primarily concerned with the representation of women in once colonised nations and those in the west. They argue that these marginalised women suffer from ‘double colonisation’ as she simultaneously suffers from the oppression of colonialism and patriarchy. This internal debate amongst postcolonial scholars has significant overlaps with feminism particularly resonating with third wave feminists. For example, Bell Hooks (2000) observed that the so-called ‘second wave’ of feminism that emerged in the late 20th century had emerged from women in a position of privilege and did not represent African American women such as herself who remain on the margins of society, politics, and economy. She was one of the first people to call for an alternative, critical and distinctive feminist activism, and politics. Essentially her analysis highlighted the disparities between women and asked questions like; does a black woman from a poor neighborhood in downtown New York experience the same level of sexism in the same way a white woman from a wealthier suburb does? So whilst conversations around feminism have entered IR, a feminist theory like many conventional theories is biased due to its Eurocentric perspective. The issue with most mainstream theories is that it fails to acknowledge that women who don’t share the same ethnic identity might experience sexism and so forth in completely different ways due to their race.

Conclusion

To conclude, I believe that it is evident, that post-colonial theories pose many feasible challenges in regard to mainstream international relations, from the detrimental effects of disregarding history to the whitewashing of the history presented in mainstream theories they ultimately fail to include the whole narrative. This selectivity and one-sided account of politics makes theories subject to extensive criticism and scrutiny. Can we really call these theories international relations if it concentrates solely on the experiences and view post of the western world? Too many assumptions are made and presented as fact within IR theories yet with closer analysis, this is not always the case. Too many conventional theories do not take into account how society, governments, and people in the formerly colonised regions of the world experience international relations. Post colonialism continues to challenge much of international politics past and present, and reinforces the notion that international politics requires a global perspective.

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The Euro-American System Kills The State. (2022, December 01). GradesFixer. Retrieved January 26, 2023, from https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/the-euro-american-system-kills-the-state/
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