Critical Theory: Postcolonial Critical Theory

Postcolonial critical theory is another critical school characterized by a social-political focus. 

In their overview of postcolonialism, Persoon and Watson describe this school of thought as a “literary theory used to highlight issues of empire, colonization, and cultural marginalization in literature.” Cultural marginalization here is closely linked to the concept of “the other,” an important concept in several critical theories.

They also highlight another major emphasis within this approach to analyzing texts, saying, “postcolonial theory […] seeks to confront the socially constructed hierarchies of gender, race, culture, and history.” 

Socially constructed? The idea here is that the social biases that exist within a society are not innate or “naturally occurring.” Rather, they have been created – often intentionally – to elevate the status of one group over another.  

Postcolonialism, Hegemony & “the Other”

Here we see where the idea of hegemony is important to postcolonial critical theory. A dominant group (such as a colonizing group that takes over another country) can be seen as intentionally creating an ideology that justifies its status and authority. For example, an invading group might rationalize its invasion by saying that the native population is “uncivilized” and needs to be saved from its pagan ways. 

Postcolonial criticism examines the ways in which literary texts participate in perpetuating this kind of ideology. Postcolonial criticism will also look at ways that a state of cultural hegemony is challenged through literature and through other modes of art. 

In other words, postcolonial critical theory is very directly aimed at how social biases are embedded in societies that experienced colonization (or systemic minority oppression). The postcolonial critic will examine how these biases assume a social reality that serves a dominant group while justifying the oppression of “the Other.”

Postcolonial & Postmodern

Karen L. Taylor also offers an overview of postcolonial critical theory on Bloom’s Literature. In her article, she picks up on the connections between postcolonialism and postmodernism. And she suggests that this school of critical theory is, at its heart, interested in investigating the complex relationships between Western culture and non-Western cultures: “Postcolonialism is associated with Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) and Culture and Imperialism (1993), in which Said argues that Western literature depicting non-European societies has served as a means to maintain Western political and cultural dominance over others.”

She goes on to write that “The question of identity is central to these works. The theme of the center and periphery is equally significant.”

For these reasons, social norms have an important resonance in postcolonial criticism. Depictions of “insider” and “outsider” status can be analyzed as indications of social-political ideas in a text. 

In applying postcolonial criticism, we are looking for ways that “otherness” is embedded in a cultural landscape. In particular, we are looking for systems and structures of the social world that favor some groups over others as the result of either official government preferences (such as in colonial settings) or inherited/historical biases that perpetuate a distinct power structure. 

Applying Postcolonial Critical Theory

Here are some questions we might ask in our analysis of a text using postcolonial critical theory:

  • If we apply postcolonial critical theory, where can we see social status depicted in the text?
  • How does ethnicity connect to social status?
  • Is there both a dominant group and an oppressed group depicted in the text? What ideas, values or or conflicts are associated with each group?
  • What commentary is being presented in the text regarding the relationship between power, social status, and ethnicity?
  • In what ways is the concept of “the Other” linked to notions of agency, status, and social norms?
  • How do any of these ideas connect to the themes and/or the social commentary presented in the text?

Works Cited

Persoon, James, and Robert R. Watson. “Postcolonialism.” Encyclopedia of British Poetry, 1900 to the Present, Second Edition, Facts On File, 2013. Bloom’s Literature, online.infobase.com/Auth/Index?aid=106412&itemid=WE54&articleId=11857. Accessed 24 Jan. 2021.

Taylor, Karen L. “Postcolonialism.” The Facts On File Companion to the French Novel, Facts On File, 2007. Bloom’s Literature, online.infobase.com/Auth/Index?aid=106412&itemid=WE54&articleId=24049. Accessed 24 Jan. 2021.

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