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date: 06 April 2020

Postcolonial Approaches to Communication and Culture

Summary and Keywords

The decolonization of nations in Asia, Africa, and Latin America in the late 20th century made possible the arrival of postcolonial academics who engaged in a critical and thoroughgoing analysis of the ways in which colonial histories have affected and continue to influence not only our understanding of phenomena, such as culture, but have influenced the very frames and processes of the creation and dissemination of knowledge about phenomena such as culture. While this work was initiated by postcolonial scholars of literature, postcolonial theory and frameworks have been adopted by several allied fields, including the communication field. Since the 1990s, communication scholars have been using postcolonial frameworks to deconstruct the colonial and neocolonial representations and tropes present in news and popular culture discourses. They have also brought communication theory to bear upon key concepts within postcolonial study, such as hybridity and diaspora. In the mid-1990s communication scholars joined the larger debate on the continued relevance of the postcolonial framework, and as with postcolonial scholars in other fields, they have continued to insist that the interruptive and political impetus of postcolonial theory provides an important entry point for the study of a world still shot through with colonial and neocolonial power relations. Although there is still a lot of scope to make the postcolonial approach more central to the communication field and its subfields, communication scholars have continued to use postcolonial theory to shed important insight on several vital communication issues. Feminist scholars of communication have been at the forefront of the effort to increase awareness and use of postcolonial frameworks for the study of communication.

Keywords: postcolonial studies, communication studies, media studies, feminist scholarship, feminist postcolonial studies, rhetorical studies, journalism, hybridity, diaspora

Elements of a postcolonial framework deconstructing imperialist discourse in communication and popular culture have been used as far back as Dorfman’s and Mattelart’s incisive critique published in 1975, How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic (with the original Spanish version published in 1971), and in critiques of the modernization paradigm in communication research leveled by Latin American scholars such as Louis Beltran also as far back as the 1970s. However, it was with postcolonial theory’s gradual institutionalization within U.S. academia with the publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism in 1978 and Gayatri Spivak’s essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in 1988, but also the work of Lata Mani (1987), Chandra Mohanty (1984), Homi Bhabha (1994) and others, that a small subsection of communication scholars, including notably feminist scholars, began to explore the use and applicability of postcolonial theory per se for enduring and emerging questions and problematics within the field and subfields of communication. It is important to note here that a number of scholars bringing the postcolonial theory lens to the study of communication have been influenced by the work of the Subaltern Studies Group, including Spivak as well as Guha (1983), Chatterjee (1989, 1986), Tharu (1989), Prakash (1990) and others, with their key emphasis on re/writing the history of postcolonial countries from below, or from the vantage point of subordinated or marginalized populations. The impetus to engage postcolonial theory for the study of communication became particularly visible in the 1990s, with communication scholars from formerly colonized nations, now situated in the U.S. academy, at the forefront of proposing possible points of cross fertilization between various subfields of communication and postcolonial theory. Embodying a double consciousness as intellectuals being shaped by and yet straining against a colonial episteme (Black, 2007; Du Bois, 1903; Fanon, 1952, 1968) this small but growing number of scholars has been well situated to carry news of the continued relevance of the postcolonial perspective while also recognizing the gaps and blind spots of the postcolonial scholarly legacy. They have urged their peers to sharpen and use reflexively its theoretical and methodological frameworks as they analyze the continued processes of epistemic violence (Spivak, 1988), more sophisticated and yet still present processes of othering, in media and popular culture. Although communication scholars had continued to be influenced by and selectively use ideas from an evolving postcolonial studies tradition throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s, it was in the mid-1990s that the question of the relevance of postcolonial theory for communication study was put squarely on the table.

Relevance of Postcolonial Theory for Rhetorical Studies

Shome (1996) proposed that postcolonial theory would lead to a useful reexamination of the field of rhetoric, which has been steeped in unacknowledged assumptions centering Western and Euro-American ways of knowing. Shome recognized that “postcolonialism, which is a critical perspective that primarily seeks to expose the Eurocentrism and imperialism of Western discourses” (Shome, 1996, p. 41) had already influenced the fields of mass communication and development communication. She made the case that rhetorical studies have lagged in this regard, and that engaging with postcolonial theory will enrich the field. She argued persuasively that “it is important to place the texts that we critique or the theories that we produce against a larger backdrop of neocolonialism and racism, and interrogate to what extent these discourses and our own perspectives on them reflect the contemporary global politics of (neo)imperialism” (Shome, 1996, p. 41). More specifically, Shome points to three aspects of postcolonialism that provide useful openings to enrich the study of rhetoric. One is challenging “discursive imperialism” or “the colonizing and imperialistic tendencies manifest in discursive practices of ‘first world countries’ in their constructions and representations of the subjects of ‘third world’ countries and/or racially oppressed peoples of the world” (Shome, 1996, p. 42). Shome makes the important point that deconstructing discursive imperialism makes it possible to see how Western discourse erases differences and individualities of the colonized other, but also how such discursive practices not only reflect but also serve the political practices of empire, both past and present. The second useful aspect of postcolonialism for rhetorical study highlighted by Shome (1996, p. 45) is the study or borderlands or hybridity, being between nations, a lens that allows one to see that “national and cultural identities cannot be essentialized.” The third aspect is “academic self-reflexivity,” encouraging scholars to ask: “To what extent do our scholarly practices . . . legitimize the hegemony of Western power structures?” (Shome 1996, p. 45). Shome (1996, p. 50) shows how taking postcolonial approaches to the study of rhetoric would make it possible to see the Euro-American limits of existing rhetorical paradigms and the kinds of rhetorical knowledge that have been, and continue to be, “privileged, legitimated and displaced.”

Relevance of Postcolonial Theory for Feminist Scholarship of Communication

Echoing an earlier call to pay heed to postcolonial approaches in feminist communication research (Ganguly, 1992), Hegde (1998, p. 283) argued for the importance of taking a transnational feminist perspective within feminist communication scholarship, and highlighted the importance of postcolonial theory in this endeavor, saying that it expands critical scope by “(a) offering a way of situating and historicizing difference by studying the systematic manner in which exclusions have been legitimized in Western scholarship, (b) dismantling binaries of West-rest, tradition-modernity, and showing how the colonizer-colonized are in fact dialectically related and constituted, and (c) problematizing culture as a ‘pure,’ homogenous entity and providing the analytical construct of hybridity.” In an edited collection a few years later, Circuits of Visibility, Hegde (2011) showed how using postcolonial approaches in a transnational feminist perspective on communication issues expands the ways of knowing and seeing.

Debate on Usefulness of the Term “Postcolonial”

Following Shome (1996) and Hegde’s (1998) call in the Communication Theory journal to include postcolonial approaches more centrally in the various fields and subfields of communication, an issue of CSMC took up the question of the usefulness of the term “postcolonial,” with Kavoori (1998) arguing that the term “postcolonial” is highly problematic and Shome (1998) defending both the use of the term “postcolonial” and the usefulness of the research done under its umbrella. As Shome pointed out, this debate is an echo of an earlier debate in the cultural studies field delineating very similar concerns (Dirlik, 1994; McClintock, 1992; Shohat, 1992) and with Stuart Hall (1996) coming to the defense of the term and the theoretical rubric “postcolonial.” Echoing McClintock and Shohat, Kavoori (1998) points out that the “post” in postcolonial suggests that colonialism and its effects are over, not taking into account the legacies of colonialism and the many reconfigurations of colonialism and imperialism today as expressed by the term “neocolonialism.” Kavoori (1998, p. 198) adds that the term also lacks a comparative perspective in contrast to the terms “neocolonial” or “third world” and “reflects a complete lack of agency in contemporary global power relations.” Kavoori also points out the term’s ambiguity, with “postcolonial” referring to going not only past an anti-colonial framework, but also to a time period after colonization and independence struggles. Further, Kavoori (1998, p. 199) holds that the term remains captured in the single binary opposition of colonial/postcolonial, and this works against the stated goal of postcolonial theorists of “undoing eurocentric frames of reference.” Finally, Kavoori asserts that the “colonial” portion of the term subsumes within it the “national” aspect, thus carrying the baggage of nationalism and going against postcolonial scholars’ aim to open up and deconstruct the “national” and admit subaltern identities centrally into the mix. At issue is not the work being done by postcolonial scholars but rather that the term “postcolonial” does not do justice to the concerns and scope of the work. In a very convincing rebuttal to the temporal argument, Shome (1998, p. 204) says that, contrary to Kavoori’s assertion, “the prefix ‘post’ used in such theoretical vocabulary does not mean a final closure, nor does it announce the ‘end’ of that to which it is appended; rather it suggests a thinking through and beyond the problematics of that to which it is appended.” In other words, postcolonial scholars think through the processes as well as the discursive constructions of colonialism as they affected the colonized subject and continue to affect the postcolonial subject, while understanding that power inequities work through multiple vectors today. Shome also quotes Hall’s (1996, p. 247) earlier defense of the term, when he said that the postcolonial “is characterised by the persistence of many of the effects of colonization, but at the same time their displacement from the coloniser/colonised axis to their internalisation within the colonised society itself.” There is a sharp recognition on the part of postcolonial scholars of both the continuities and discontinuities between old and new colonial processes. It is because the term encompasses such a relational aspect between the two time periods—during colonization and after decolonization—that it needs to be retained. Shome (1998, p. 206) says that, while the term “neocolonial” is very useful in describing the conditions in the time period after decolonization, retaining the term “postcolonial” makes available the recognition that in many ways these conditions “were unleashed by and are an ‘aftermath’ of formal colonial rule(s).” This dual aspect of the continuity but also re-articulation of colonial practices and discourses in the current historical moment is reminiscent of Loomba’s (2005, p. 218) observation that:

it is no accident that it is Muslims who are regarded as barbaric and given to acts of violence and Asians who are seen as diligent but attached to their own rules of business and family, both modes of being which are seen as differently incommensurate with the Western world. These views not only reverberate with older colonial views about Muslims as despotic and intractable and Asians as inscrutable and hard working, but speak to contemporary global economic and political rivalries.

Special Journal Issue on Postcolonial Studies and Communication Studies

While the late 1990s saw a growing recognition of the possibilities offered by postcolonial theory for the study of communication, 2002 marked the first time a top-tier national communication journal in the United States, Communication Theory, devoted an entire issue in August 2002 to the question of the possible cross-fertilization between postcolonial studies and communication studies. This time the case is made by Shome and Hegde (2002, p. 249) in an article in the issue: not only would communication studies benefit from the inclusion of postcolonial theory and perspectives, but also postcolonial studies would benefit by including more centrally communication issues and phenomena because “the politics of postcoloniality is centrally imbricated in the politics of communication.” This case about how the study of popular culture can open new vistas in terms of our understanding of (neo)colonial processes would be made again by Featherstone (2013). However, the main emphasis in the journal issue is still on advocating the usefulness of postcolonial theory for the study of communication. Shome and Hegde (2002) demarcate postcolonial studies from mainstream communication approaches by pointing to its critical and interventionist impulse, observing that engaging in postcolonial scholarship is not just about describing colonial conditions and their aftermath but also about attempting to understand why these exist and ultimately working to overturn these conditions. The critical impulse is also seen in the ways in which postcolonial scholarship interrupts and interrogates structures of knowledge steeped in colonial and neocolonial histories. While Shome and Hegde (2002, p. 251) recognize that postcolonial scholarship shares its critical and interventionist impulse with other critical, left-leaning scholarly traditions such as cultural studies, Marxist theory, feminist theory, postmodern theory, race theory and queer theory, they pinpoint postcolonial approaches’ unique contribution by saying that “no other critical discourse has collided against the structures of colonial modernities in such a head-on fashion as postcolonial theory has.” Through apt examples we are shown how postcolonial scholarship “provides a historical and international depth to the understanding of cultural power” (Shome & Hegde, 2002, p. 252). One such example Shome and Hegde give is how Spivak’s take on subjugated knowledges in the colonized world helped us to problematize Foucault’s work on madness, prisons, and (homo)sexuality, asking whether characterizing these aspects and unearthing them as subjugated knowledges once again “normalized the subject of Europe” (Shome & Hegde, 2002, p. 252) to the further erasure of the far more subjugated knowledges of the subaltern colonized other. Another such example is how the work of postcolonial feminist scholars such as Chandra Mohanty (1984), Rey Chow (1991), and Trinh Minh-ha (1989) problematized the enterprise of locating sexual difference and positing the performativity of gender, insisting that this endeavor be “connected to larger international histories, geopolitics and colonial modernities” (Shome & Hegde, 2002, p. 252). Postcolonial feminist scholars point to the necessity of understanding the vectors of race, nation, and imperialism as they intersect with gender to create multiple and differentiated patriarchies. Therefore, all areas of communication scholarship, including critical approaches to the study of communication, must take into account the very Anglo/European grounds upon which various knowledges were constructed, conditioning scholarly ways of knowing and seeing. They must also take into account “the colossal failure of the project of European modernity and its master tropes such as democracy, self-determination, civil society, state, equality, the individual, free thought and democratic justice” (Shome & Hegde, 2002, p. 254). While arguing for the continued relevance of postcolonial thought, Shome and Hegde do broach some of its blind spots. By dint of its material history, postcolonial scholarship has tended to be centered on British and European colonialism, leaving relatively untouched America’s neocolonial relations, including U.S. relations with the Philippines, Vietnam, Mexico, and Korea as well as its internal colonies such as Hawaii. Shome and Hegde point to some important work being done in this area, such as by Mignolo (1995) on Latin America and San Juan (1996) and Rafael (2000) on the Philippines, to which one could add the work by Akindes (2005) on Hawaii, but clearly there is a lot of scope for further research in this area. Shohat (1992) had earlier brought attention to the important aspects of colonialism and neocolonialism left unaccounted for in postcolonial scholarship, such as U.S. neocolonialism of Central America and the Caribbean, Euro-Israeli oppression of Palestinians, and the struggles of aboriginals in Australia and indigenous peoples in the Americas. Although Shohat considers postcolonial theory inadequate to the task while Shome and Hegde urge postcolonial theorists to take on the task of filling these important gaps, both do alert us to the aspects within postcolonial theory that have not yet been given the attention that they deserve. They also urge postcolonial scholars to attend to, borrowing from Grewal and Kaplan (1994), the “scattered hegemonies” created by complicated pathways of power between colonies, neocolonies, and the colonized, but also the internal colonies of post-independence states, in this last aspect linking up with the project of the Subaltern Studies Group to write in the lives, histories, and knowledges of subjugated groups within the nation. Ong’s (1993) work on Hong Kong also harkens to the complex temporalities and geographies of colonialism, including British colonialism. Kumar and Parameswaran (2018) reiterate this concern more than a decade later, stating that it is still difficult to find work on Native Americans and other indigenous communities in postcolonial communication and media studies, with the primacy still being given to British colonialism.

The August 2002 issue of Communication Theory also gives a view of productive thematics spawned by postcolonial theory that have been taken up by communication scholars, including hybridity, diaspora, and discourse analysis informed by postcolonial perspectives. Kraidy (2002, p. 317) shows through an incisive analysis of a series of articles from The Washington Post that the concept of hybridity “needs to be understood as a communicative practice constitutive of, and constituted by, sociopolitical and economic arrangements.” He shows how the discourse of hybridity can become hijacked in the service of global media conglomerates based in the United States, occluding both global and internal power asymmetries and allowing continued U.S. media dominance to parade as a benign global multiculturalism. He argues for a sharpened critical theory of hybridity that retains the focus of power asymmetries from cultural imperialism theory while still being able to capture the global cultural complexity glimpsed through the work of globalization theorists such as Appadurai (1990). Only by seeing “hybridities as practices of hegemony” (Kraidy, 2002, p. 335) will researchers be equipped to see that hybridity can work both in the service of colonial and neocolonial projects and in the attempted subversion of them, and perhaps both at the same time.

As with Kraidy’s approach to the study of hybrid formations, Drzewiecka and Halualani (2002) point to the need to take multiple contexts of power and determination into account when understanding a kind of transnational hybrid formation: diasporas. They note that neither privileging structural nor cultural aspects of diasporic politics will make it possible to understand the complex negotiations and articulations of identity made by diasporic groups in relation to, and in tension with, both homelands and the lands where they reside. Particularly in their study of the fluctuating identifications and positioning of the Hawaiian diaspora, Drzewiecka and Halualani (2002, p. 361) show that postcolonial concepts of nation, diaspora, and colony need to be revised to take into account “‘hard-to-classify’ indigenous land-based groups such as Native Americans and Pacific Islanders whose identity claims and historical memories are based on indigeneity.” The authors conclude that, “as the Hawaiian case suggests, diaporas may be displaced from the homeland by the subsuming nation-state” (Drzewiecka & Halualani, 2002, p. 361). The authors show convincingly that the Hawaiian diaspora’s complex articulations of identity, belonging, and sometimes willing disconnection cannot be understood without considering its peculiar colonial history and displacement.

In a deft and insightful analysis of the August 1999 millennium issue of National Geographic, Parameswaran (2002, p. 287) shows how postcolonial theory and approaches can be used to deconstruct neocolonial representations of nation, gender, and race contained in popular discourses about global culture, and that such representations “subtly echo the othering modalities of Euroamerican colonial discourses.” In doing so, Parameswaran demonstrates convincingly the usefulness not only of postcolonial theory and approaches for the journalism and photojournalism disciplines, as she herself asserts, but also of postcolonial theory and concepts for the study of discourse, rhetoric, feminist scholarship of communication, and race and ethnicity in communication. By applying postcolonial theory successfully to current popular communication phenomena, she reinforces the relevance of postcolonial theory for the study of neocolonial hegemonies. Finally, she shows that postcolonial theory can help to demystify easy notions of multiculturalism, gender progress, and benevolent globalization, pointing out the ironic complicity of seemingly progressive images and characterizations with a neocolonial agenda. As Parameswaran (2002, p. 313) puts it:

From a more traditional vantage point of locating negative stereotypes, the modern Indian woman daring the camera, the young Chinese girl dancing with abandon, the Malaysian actress suspended in midair, the laughing and spiritual Asian men, and the athletic black man, would be diagnosed as positive images that challenge the invisibility and passivity of non-Western subjects in popular culture. However, when refracted through the critical lens of postcolonial theory, these positive images begin to narrate another story.

In a postscript to the special issue of Communication Theory, Grossberg (2002, pp. 367–369) points out the three vital contributions that postcolonial theory makes to communication disciplines:

First, postcolonial studies decenters simple notions and distributions of identity. . . . Second, postcolonial studies suggests that much of our common sense, both popular and academic, is deeply implicated in the colonial history of modernity, especially notions of history and development, identity and subjectivity, public and private, and even culture and communication. Lastly, postcolonial studies delivers the final blow to an illusory understanding of objectivity, which assumes that rigor requires the denial of all passion and the erasure of all political commitment.

Continued Relevance of Postcolonial Theory for Media Studies

The issue of including postcolonial approaches in the study of communication has continued to resurface since the release of the special issue, with postcolonial communication scholars continuing to make the case not only that communication studies and media studies will be greatly enriched by using postcolonial approaches, but also that the study of communication and popular culture will deepen insight within postcolonial studies. Kumar (2014) deploys the ideas of postcolonial theorists such as Prakash (1990), Chatterjee (1986), Chakrabarty (2001), and Bhabha (1994) to think through their implications for the field of international communication, for how the way in which the term “nation” has been understood in international communication research may be problematized, and how the complex elaborations of “nation” within the field of international communication may be understood. Kumar (2014, p. 397) concludes that the greatest potential lies in both postcolonial studies and international communication tackling “the question of how we address–theoretically, methodologically, politically and ethically–the hybrid creativity and the transformative potentiality of the heterogenous, contentious, and contingent subaltern positions in the contemporary contexts of globalization and culture of the twenty-first century.”

Shome (2016, p. 247) makes the important observation that, although in the intervening years since the early calls to include postcolonial studies in communication there have been calls to de-Westernize and/or internationalize media studies (Park & Curran, 2000; Thussu, 2009; Wang, 2011), these endeavors unwittingly “shore up a pluralist, additive, logic of international diversity that occludes colonial power relations that link media spheres in the West/North with societies in the non-West South in unequal ways.” She asserts unequivocally that “decolonization of our frameworks” and not “internationalizing” must be the goal (Shome, 2016, p. 247). She then shows convincingly how exactly Western frameworks of knowledge about not only media history but also current media phenomena may be interrupted using postcolonial frameworks. Using an effective example, Shome problematizes a stagist, periodizing view of media history that has become paradigmatic in media studies, seeing media development as a linear progression from oral to print to electronic and then digital eras. Using Chatterjee’s (1993) insights, she then shows the narrow scope of Anderson’s (1991) claims about how the emergence of print capitalism enabled the emergence of national culture. Taking a postcolonial perspective problematizes claims about “nation,” “modernity,” and “the people.” For example, in the Indian colonial context there was nothing simple about what constituted the “national” and when and how the “national” emerged, as “the space and time of the colonial nation itself was multilayered” (Shome, 2016, p. 248)—this multilayered aspect with respect to temporalities recalls Canclini’s (1995) elaboration of “tiempos mixtos” in the Latin American context. The postcolonial space is one with colliding and coexisting national cultures and multiple temporalities, an aspect Anderson’s schematization does not admit. The linear story of mass media development told by Anderson and that has become hegemonic in mass media education in the United States is also belied by the differential and complex development of media in postcolonial nations, such as the rise of mass photography in India with the mobile phone rather than the progression in the West, with mass photography an earlier 20th-century invention and cell phones a late 20th-century one. By placing the stagist and linear model of media development against the realities of media development in postcolonial nations, the inapplicability of the Western model comes into sharp relief, as does the fact that the Western chronology has become normalized by dint of the West’s position in global knowledge creation and dissemination.

One of the most recent reiterations of the relevance of postcolonial theory for the study of communication has been made in Kumar and Parameswaran (2018). The authors make a very convincing case by applying “postcolonial theory’s finely tuned historicized approach to global power, conflict, culture, politics and economics” (Kumar & Parameswaran, 2018, p. 347) to the ironic and troubling cultural and political developments of our time, developments central to the concerns of a globally oriented study of communication and media. As with Kumar (2014) and Kraidy (2002) the authors acknowledge that development communication and cultural imperialism approaches have tackled the question of the power relationships between the Global North and the Global South. However, they have done so in a way that does not adequately historicize these power relationships and does not adequately theorize non-Western subjectivity, aspects that postcolonial approaches can lend to the understanding of old and new communication hegemonies and power asymmetries in operation today, as well as the relations between them. In one example, while cultural imperialism theory has shown the media and cultural dominance exerted by the West, particularly by the United States, using postcolonial perspectives makes it possible to see that the foundation for this asymmetric flow of culture and media was partially laid by the “vestigial structures of colonialism (language, educational institutions, cultural practices)” (Kumar & Parameswaran, 2018, p. 350). While arguing for the ways in which postcolonial theory can open up new avenues for communication study, Kumar and Parameswaran (2018, p. 354) also urge communication scholars to take a self-reflexive stance and to attempt to avoid the blind spots of postcolonial theory, including

disproportionate focus on certain parts of the world–India for example–at the expense of others, the dangers of reifying and essentializing difference, an inability to attend to race, the marginalization of settler colonialism, the ambiguity of ‘post’ as a temporal marker, the privileging of textual critique at the expense of ethnographic and qualitative fieldwork methods.

Postcolonial Feminist Studies as Exemplar

Kumar and Parameswaran (2018) point to the area of postcolonial feminist studies, including postcolonial feminist studies of communication, as an example of the kinds of sharp political critiques that can be put forward when postcolonial approaches are used to study communication and popular culture. They take up the work of Lila Abu-Lughod (2013, p. 352) which shows how political actors of different stripes, including Western feminists, have joined in the project of “rescuing Muslim women,” and in the name of this rescue, legitimized imperialist military, legal, and humanitarian projects. While reminiscent of insights from Spivak (1988), Mani (1987), and Mohanty (1984), a work such as this shows the renewed urgency of the need for postcolonial feminist study of current discourses, laying bare the colonial and neocolonial premises of seemingly benign agendas, including Western feminist agendas. The authors also point to the work of Durham (2015) on U.S. media coverage of Delhi as a “rape capital” following the rape of Jyoti Singh Pandey in 2012, such tropes evoking “colonial archetypes of India as a primitive patriarchal nation” (Kumar & Parameswaran, 2018, p. 353). Studies such as these build upon and bring into the current contexts insights from a number of studies done by postcolonial feminist scholars on the cultural essentialism of Western accounts of violence against women in the postcolonial countries, such as Uma Narayan’s (1997) work on “death by culture” explanations for phenomena such as dowry deaths in India. Others have been inspired by the work of Lata Mani (1987) to show how both projects of population control and anti-abortion politics used postcolonial women’s putative suffering as the grounds for advancing their own agendas (Luthra, 1995). Valdivia’s (2000) work on mainstream U.S. media’s treatment of the Guatemalan Nobel Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu also shows that Orientalist tropes continue to be used today, attenuating the possibility of truly learning from subaltern voices. These and several other postcolonial feminist scholars in communication and media studies are showing through their work that postcolonial approaches continue to offer a vital resource for communication studies today, adding layers of complexity to the study of communication phenomena and moving beyond the confining Western parameters of the scholarship.

Postcolonial feminist scholars have combined insights from feminist theory and postcolonial theory, including importantly insights from subaltern studies, to keep in view the “scattered hegemonies” at work, such as the hegemonies exerted by post-independence nations, themselves complex formations incorporating and contesting colonial processes and discourses. By leveling their critique in different directions, they have also been able to move beyond binaries of the global and local, the global and national, the national and local, the religious and the secular, and others. As one example, Lila Abu-Lughod (2013) has shown how Muslim women must negotiate both global and local patriarchies, as well as secular and religious interests at multiple levels. Afghani women have been caught between U.S. military imperialism purporting to save them, the interests of the Taliban, and the interests of mujahedeen opposed to the Taliban. As another example, Butalia (1998), and Menon and Bhasin (1998) have probed the gendered aspects of the nation formation process during the partition of India and Pakistan, building upon subaltern studies’ examination of how the women’s question was negotiated during the nationalist period in India (Chatterjee, 1989) and feminist work on representations of female sexuality and womanhood in the independence movement in India (Katrak, 1992). Through women’ stories Butalia, and Menon and Bhasin are able to point to the complex interrelationships between the constructs of “nation” and “gender” in a way that goes beyond received Western notions about both nation and gender. Mohanty (1984), Chow (1991), Minh-ha (1997), and Anzaldua (1987) among others have been highly influential in problematizing how the categories of “gender,” “nation,” and the “other” are constructed and in pointing to the mutual implications of the “self” and “other.” While Anzaldua (1987) has elaborated on these aspects with her conceptualization of “borderlands” and “mestiza consciousness,” Mohanty (1984) has shown the problematic construction of “third world woman” in Western feminist scholarship. When reflecting upon being questioned by a Western feminist how the events surrounding Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, should be understood in terms of gender, Chow (1991, p. 82) says, “To ask how we can use gender to ‘read’ a political crisis as the present one is to insist on the universal and timeless sufficiency of an analytical category, and to forget the historicity that accompanies all categorial explanatory power.” As with Anzaldua, Minh-ha (1997, p. 418) sees the in-betweenness of one such as herself as carrying the potential for a critique of received categories: “She is, in other words, this inappropriate ‘other’ or ‘same’ who moves about with always at least two gestures: that of affirming ‘I am like you’ while persisting in her difference and that of reminding ‘I am different’ while unsettling every definition of otherness arrived at.” Postcolonial feminist scholars of communication have built upon these insights in studying colonial and neocolonial discursive imperialisms, keeping the interruptive and political project of postcolonial scholarship at the forefront of their scholarly endeavors.


Scholars in the communication field and subfields, including notably feminist scholars, have been working to increase not only the visibility of postcolonial theory within the field but also the focus on communication and popular culture within the field of postcolonial studies. They have attempted to retain useful tensions from postcolonial theory while studying communication phenomena, such as the tension between the historical aspects of colonialism and the continuing aftermath of colonialism in neocolonial processes, the tension between resistance and accommodation of Western theories and epistemes, and the tension between global colonialism and internal colonialism. Communication scholars have also attempted to be reflexive in their use of postcolonial frameworks, recognizing and trying to move beyond the disproportionate focus on British colonialism, and bringing into view the intersections between race, gender, sexuality, and colonialism that have not been given enough attention. Postcolonial feminist scholars have been at the forefront of the call to use postcolonial frameworks reflexively to capture current global complexities in communication and media. Through their work and advocacy, they have provided an exemplar for how postcolonial theory can be used to interrupt the ways in which the study of communication is approached, both within mainstream communication research and within critical, left-leaning traditions of communication scholarship.

Further Reading

Communication scholars have been greatly influenced by several giants in postcolonial studies. A truly influential work has been Edward Said’s Orientalism. In its emphasis on the systemic discursive construction of the “Orient” by Western institutions, including Western cultural institutions, and the relationship between this discourse and the power wielded by colonial administrations in colonies such as Egypt and India, his work has provided an important template for the exploration of the discursive construction of the colonial and neocolonial “other” by media and popular culture. An acknowledgement of the transactional aspect of colonialism and neocolonialism has led to important study of cultural hybridity from postcolonial perspectives. An important influence has been Canclini’s Hybrid Cultures: Strategies for Entering and Leaving Modernity, placing an understanding of the development of Latin American hybrid political and cultural forms within a historical perspective that takes account of the workings of colonial and neocolonial power. Bhabha’s work, The Location of Culture, has also influenced an understanding of the multifaceted aspects of hybridity as not only carrying traces of inequitable power relations globally, but also offering openings for resistance.

Some of the pathbreaking postcolonial scholarship in communication has been done by feminist scholars. Foremost among the influences in this area has been Spivak’s essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” published in the edited collection Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Spivak lays bare the colonial conditions, including the discursive conditions, that make it impossible for the voice of the subaltern woman to be heard. Mani’s work, “Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India,” has also been influential in analyzing how various colonial and neocolonial institutions use the figure of the subaltern woman as a discursive ground for their projects. Chandra Mohanty’s now iconic essay, “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses,” laid important groundwork for postcolonial feminist scholars of communication by bringing to the forefront the need for feminist scholarship to understand it’s own complicity in colonial and neocolonial frameworks of knowledge and to consciously work against these.


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