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date: 24 February 2024

Postcolonialism in International Relationsfree

Postcolonialism in International Relationsfree

  • Jan WilkensJan WilkensGlobal Governance, Universität Hamburg


Some of the main genealogies within postcolonial scholarship are discussed, with a focus on key thinkers, such as Edward Said, Homi Bhabha, Gayatri Spivak, Aníbal Quijano, and Walter Mignolo. Key concepts, such as colonial discourse theory, development, and subaltern studies are presented. The discussion of postcolonial thought is embedded in a reflection on its relation to other theoretical paradigms and social theories (e.g., poststructuralism, world-system theory, Marxism). This focus seeks to highlight some of the main contours of the field, while also pointing out the ways postcolonialism has shaped the discipline of international relations (IR).


  • International Relations Theory


Postcolonialism as an academic approach initially focused on the social, cultural, political, and economic consequences of European colonization. Since the 1970s, postcolonialism developed into a multiplicity of ideas and concepts informing academic scholarship and social activism through a focus on (post-)colonial practices and conditions in different contexts. A central notion of postcolonial scholarship is the bifocal approach that aims to empirically analyze (post-)colonial power relations and derive normative strategies to resist or decolonize dominant historiographies as well as epistemological and ontological assumptions that draw on Eurocentric experiences. The focus on these two components connects the thought of key postcolonial intellectuals (compare Kohn & McBride, 2011, p. 4) and scholars of postcolonialism alike, leading to the image of postcolonialism as “more than just a theory” (Chibber, 2013, p. 2). Most prominently this is formulated in subaltern studies, in which a “commitment to the recovery of subaltern politics, culture, and traditions of resistance is not simply empirical but also political” (Mallon, 1994, p. 1496). However, it is frequently emphasized that postcolonialism is a highly contested term and that there is no postcolonial theory as such advancing a specific methodology (Young, 1998, p. 5). The fact that scholars commonly identified as contributors to the field have at times expressed their discomfort about the notion, further undermined a coherent image of the field. Hence, postcolonialism, contrary to what the suffix “–ism” suggests, can neither be understood as a single nor as a substantive theory in the sense of major international relations (IR) theories. Postcolonial scholarship entails a diversity of concepts and methodologies drawing on literature, history, and social sciences, some of the most prominent fields in which postcolonialism evolved as a crucial perspective (Moore-Gilbert, 1997, p. 4; Brennan, 2014). Further, postcolonialism is not a substantive theory because it neither develops an a priori understanding of human behavior nor a specific explanation of action within a given issue area of social sciences.

The plurality of perspectives emerged from the different interpretations about (post-)colonial conditions and their very nature, particularly in comparison across temporal and spatial settings. This multiplicity of contexts in which the “postcolonial subject” is (re-)constituted generates the most fundamental puzzle, given that postcolonial and colonial conditions strongly diverge in form and substance across historical periods as well as places around the globe. However, despite efforts of postcolonial scholarship to account for this complexity, the notion of postcolonialism is often presented as a historical continuity. The prefix “post-” is understood as a historical marker that requires determination of a starting point in history (Seth, 2013, p. 1) or the end thereof (Dabashi, 2012). Robert Young, a prominent postcolonial scholar, has described the Bandung Conference in April 1955, the first meeting of Asian and African states that had gained formal independence, as the beginning of “the postcolonial” (Young, 2001, p. 191). This perspective draws on the analysis of Edward Said, who argued that this date marked a change in type of imperial confrontation postcolonial states had to face (Said, 2003, p. 104). However, linear perspectives have been problematized in at least two ways: first, they tend to reduce the diversity of histories and cultures of formerly colonized people through a specific lens by not only overemphasizing the colonial period but also neglecting other historical trajectories (Ahmad, 1995, p. 9; Loomba, 1998). Second, postcolonialism highlights the changing character of colonial power relations that reemerge over time (Appiah, 1996; Castro Varela & Dhawan, 2015, p. 16). Postcolonial scholars argue that despite the formal end of direct control, colonial structures continue to characterize modern power relations in global politics, which has been described as “imperialism-without-colonies” (McClintock, 1992, p. 89). Notably, this has been already a major criticism by postcolonial intellectuals in the 1960s, based on their personal experiences. Kwame Nkrumah has captured the problem of continuing dependencies in the concept of neocolonialism (1966), while Frantz Fanon has further conceptualized the psychological and sociological aspects of domination in post-independence states (see Fanon, 1963, 1967).

Thus, in a broader sense, postcolonialism as an intellectual endeavor is “a performative mode of critical revisionism, consistently directed at the colonial past and assessing its legacies for the present, but also focusing on those forms of colonialism that have surfaced more recently in the context of an increasingly globalized but incompletely decolonized world” (Huggan, 2013, p. 10). This broad definition formulated by Graham Huggan not only contests Eurocentric narratives, but also rejects teleological conceptualizations more generally. However, it is not the aim here to assess the growing academic field of postcolonial studies, with all its internal differences, that developed within a range of academic disciplines. Postcolonialism turned into an institutionalized, albeit not coherent, movement with the outstanding works of Edward W. Said (2003), Homi K. Bhabha (1994), and Gayatri C. Spivak (1988). While previous authors, such as Fanon and Nkrumah, are often described in terms of anti-colonial intellectuals, these three authors formed the basis of postcolonial studies within a dominantly academic environment.

In light of the global outreach of (post-)colonial structures and historiographies, an attempt is made outlining key aspects of postcolonial thought and its understanding of the “international” in order to highlight the inroads it has made into the discipline of the field of international relations as well as postcolonial literature that has been given little attention in the discipline. It does so by discussing concepts developed by eminent postcolonial intellectuals and scholars with different regional backgrounds. This enables both the demonstration of how postcolonial thought took shape within local contexts and how these differences mattered for their meaning in a discipline like IR. Yet, this is not to suggest that the approaches could be seen in isolation, as they relate and draw on each other. Additionally, postcolonial scholarship has strongly developed in reference to poststructuralism and other approaches commonly summarized under the term critical theory. Thus, an illustration of how postcolonial scholars from different geographical contexts have developed their concepts in reference to each other and how they related and distinguished their work in light of other paradigms is presented. This is important in order to understand some of the trajectories within the field and analyze why postcolonialism has been less influential within IR than critical theory. Two obvious caveats have to be made explicit here: the highlighting of major trajectories will necessarily leave a range of postcolonial thought aside in order to enable a closer look at some of the dominant themes. This, further, leads to a simplified presentation of postcolonial thought that does not account for all points of contention. Against this background, however, at least two general genealogies in postcolonial thought can be identified: these are approaches focused on the discursive construction of identities and colonial subjects. In contrast, socioeconomic approaches emphasize the material conditions of (post-)colonial relationships. Although there are clearly overlapping issues, these two general genealogies have produced distinct scholarship in the field. While the “holy trinity” of postcolonialism (Young, 1995, p. 163), consisting of Said, Spivak, and Bhabha, can be mainly seen in the realm of the former, prominent scholars from or with a focus on Latin America have dominantly addressed issues concerned with the latter. Drawing on the poststructuralist works of Foucault (Said), Althusser and Lacan (Bhabha), and Derrida (Spivak), colonial discourse theory turned into a major field of study that focused on the social reproduction of (post-)colonial relationships. Although the issue of global neoliberal structures is important to different strands within postcolonial scholarship, its socioeconomic implications have most notably been studied by Latin American scholars in terms of (under-)development theories (Escobar, 1995; compare also Sylvester, 1999) or with reference to world system theory (Quijano, 2000; Mignolo, 2002; Quijano, 2007). Subaltern studies, another major field in postcolonial scholarship, is characterized by a strong influence of both material and nonmaterial approaches. Initially a South Asian and Indian project (Guha & Spivak, 1988), the Latin American Subaltern Studies Group as well as subsequent Chinese, African, and European contributions to the subaltern literature developed different lenses to study subaltern historiographies. Yet, while Spivak’s poststructuralist-inspired work on subaltern studies is a prominent exception, Marxism and Gramscian Marxism loom large in this field (Chaturvedi, 2012).

These three broader strands of postcolonialism will be reflected on and the extent to which they shaped international relations theories discussed. The different trajectories at the intersection of postcolonialism and international relations theories will be illuminated by discussing the postcolonial scholarship informed by discursive approaches and their influence on IR. While this postcolonial strand certainly has the strongest influence on IR, it has not yet played a bigger role in IR compared to other strands of critical theory. The works of important Latin American scholars Mignolo, Quíjano, and Escobar will be discussed, as will the problem of accounting for subaltern actors and the question of de-colonization of thought. Emerging themes at the nexus of postcolonialism and IR as well as puzzles at this intersection will be highlighted.

Colonialism, Knowledge and the Creation of the “Other”

Critical theorists in the social sciences have argued that the discourse of modernity is in crisis. This observation has substantial effect in terms of knowledge production, as it questions the very “grounds of knowledge” (Brown, 1994, p. 215). Hence, the foundations of European knowledge production since the Enlightenment and its critical inquiry constitute the common theme of different paradigms under the label critical theory. Most prominently, the Frankfurt school of critical theory, poststructuralism, and postmodernism are identified under this label. Postcolonialism shares the aim to disrupt the hegemonic discourses that reproduce truths based on European experiences. Thus, it is concerned with scrutinizing terms and concepts that are often taken for granted within social sciences. In this regard, a key term for scholars of postcolonialism is intervention (Young, 2001, p. 58; Huggan, 2013, p. 12; Castro Varela & Dhawan, 2015, p. 17) into epistemological, ontological, and historical assumptions seen as given in Eurocentric perspectives. Drawing on critical theory, postcolonial scholars seek to dismantle the formal appearance of equality, often assumed in Eurocentric and liberal accounts, as to unravel hidden practices and reproductions of domination. Thus, postcolonialism entails different but interrelated sets of issues. In empirical terms, it is particularly interested in dissecting political, cultural, or socioeconomic processes of colonization, decolonization, or neo-colonization. Postcolonial theories thereby advance a critical engagement with historical narratives countering teleological or linear notions of modernity. In contrast to Eurocentric narratives, postcolonial studies have pointed out the complexities of colonialism and imperialism as part of global history and present conditions.

Postcolonialism particularly focuses on the historical relation between Europe and colonized people in order to identify what has been called colonial modernity (Sen, 2002; Aching, 2011) or entangled histories (Conrad & Randeria, 2002, p. 17) in order to understand how global modernity has emerged. The history of postcolonial studies itself is a case in point, because initial interventions on postcolonialism were formulated by scholars of former colonies working in English Literature departments that Great Britain had installed (Rattansi, 1997, p. 485). The relational character of power and domination, describing the different effects on the colonized and the colonizers, through which hegemonic processes are reconstituted but are also able to change, is a general interest of postcolonial studies. This has increasingly influenced the debate on global order and has recently been taken up within international relations (IR) by Barry Buzan and George Lawson (2015). Hence, postcolonialism seeks to understand modern conditions by rejecting the notion of modernity being globalized with Europe as its source of origin, and rather highlights how the modern world is constituted through processes of colonization. The term modernity and the question of what it means to be modern is deeply ingrained in the field of postcolonialism.

Yet, the extent to which postcolonial scholarship has developed contributions that can be seen as equal to the former paradigms is contested. Along this line, a strong criticism is its reliance on postmodernism and poststructuralism as European modes of knowledge production (Dirlik, 1994; Ahmad, 1995). In contrast, poststructuralism and postmodernism have been described as European, or “internal” critiques of modernity, while postcolonialism describes a distinct mode of critique from Asia, Africa, and Latin America that contests the hegemony of the West (Mignolo, 1993). Indeed, as any theory, poststructuralism has neither evolved in a social vacuum nor is it a pristine European product, but rather it emerged in the complex colonial context of Franco-Algerian encounters (Ahluwalia, 2005). Edward Said, whose seminal work Orientalism (1978) draws on Michel Foucault’s conceptualization of discourse, has inspired a global perspective on domination through knowledge production. For him, academia is “at a point [. . .] when we can no longer ignore the empires and the imperial context in our studies” (Said, 1994, p. 5). Accordingly, a central aspect of postcolonial studies is the critical reflection of discursive productions of truth. Said offers an analysis of how hegemonic discourses within and beyond academia have constituted a barbaric and inferior other, the Oriental, in opposition to a modern, rational, and superior Europe and North America. This binary production based on “the ontological and epistemological distinction between the ‘Orient’ and the ‘Occident’” (Said, 1978, p. 1) exemplifies how knowing turns into a mode of domination through the construction of the “other.” This relationship of power is reproduced through the different institutions and cultural productions of the West, which constructs a suitable Orient that confirms Eurocentric narratives of superiority. A central critique, which Said has also addressed in his later works, is the absence of agency of the “Oriental” in the production of the discourse of Orientalism (al-Azm, 1980).

His contribution inspired further investigation of the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized. Homi Bhabha and Gayatri Spivak, both drawing on the notion of postcolonial discourse, have highlighted the complexity of (post-)colonial relationships. Nevertheless, their conclusions are different with regard to the possibilities and constrains of subaltern agency and resistance. While Spivak is rather skeptical, Bhabha, critically drawing on Said and Fanon, seeks to disrupt the rigid notion of a West-East dichotomy. Colonial identity is, something he shares with Spivak, not monolithic but heterogeneous (Bhabha, 1994, p. 2). This identity is not given and primordial but constructed in the interaction of colonizers and the colonized. Hence, it is important to dissect the meaning of whiteness in the establishment of dominant orders. However, it is crucial to understand how whiteness as an ethnic construction, just as “East” and “West” as geographical constructions, enabled the reproduction of colonial power relations. Yet, as Bhabha stresses, the binaries as presented in Fanon’s or Said’s work are not clear cut. Instead, Bhabha emphasizes how the colonial discourse is not simply replicated within colonized societies but rather creates hybrid forms of identities shaping social, political, economic, as well as other realms of human life. However, the term hybridity and its potential for subaltern agency is fiercely contested. Robert Young acknowledges the usefulness of the concept yet points out that the term has also been used in imperial and racist discourses (Young, 1995). Hybridity has also often been understood as a form of cultural exchange in which critics see a neglect of power structures. However, in Bhabha’s understanding hierarchy is not absent. A specific form of colonial domination can be understood as mimicry in which the colonized is reproduced as a subject, by mimic dominant practices, norms, or habits, yet, “almost the same, but not quite” (Bhabha, 1994, p. 86) as the colonizer. Although this “repetition with difference” (Bhabha, 1994, p. 92) is a form of control, it cannot be equated with total subjugation according to Bhabha. Rather, mimicry creates a discursive space for the subaltern to menace colonial powers through irony or exaggeration. The colonizer is never able to force the colonized to mimic and copy the colonial perspective in total. In this ambivalence the colonized are able to disrupt colonial power that, however, never leads to a total break with the hegemonic discourse. According to this concept, subalterns do have the agency to contest dominant structures, but the colonial subject has no ability to fully escape the colonial script. Nevertheless, Bhabha shows that a Eurocentric notion of modernity should be contested by accounting for the different temporal and geographical sites of global encounters (Bhabha, 1994, p. 254). In IR, Vivienne Jabri has argued that the “international” is the site of postcolonial encounters that, drawing on Bhabha’s notion of hybridity, allow the colonial subject, whether in the form of a colonized state or individuals, to gain agency (Jabri, 2013). In a more radical reading of Bhabha, she claims, the colonial subject cannot only disrupt international order, but substantially shape the “production of the international as an essentially hybrid site wherein the ‘in-between’ of cultures is instantiated at the intersection of discursive practices” (Jabri, 2014, p. 381). Yet, as she argues, understanding this encounter through Fanon’s perspective positions the colonized in a more radical relation toward hegemonic structures. Fanon, substantially influenced by Marxism, yet specifically also by psychoanalytic concepts, emphasized the importance of the body as a site of representation. The postcolonial subject is constructed in the production of difference along racial categories. Here, Fanon amplifies in his writings how constructions of subjectivities materialize for the individual in the sense of lived experiences within hierarchical systems (Fanon, 1967) and the possibilities of resistance (Fanon, 1963). This, non-Marxist, material understanding of the body as a site of discursive reproductions, Jabri argues, lends itself to a more radical understanding of agency that unfolds with the very presence of the postcolonial subject in the international realm (Jabri, 2014, p. 385). While it is convincing that the presence of the postcolonial subject interrupts hegemonic discursive practices as it allows critical reflection on dominant understandings, a Fanonian understanding of the postcolonial subject may not be sufficiently sensitive toward the heterogeneity of postcolonial subjectivities. Further, his approach to the postcolonial subject and the colonizer in terms of clear identities in binary opposition to each other, tends to reiterate essential categories of actors that are rarely able to change.

However, binary constructions, on the ontological and epistemological level, are contested in recent postcolonial scholarship that focuses on the production of identities and on subjectivities through the increasing interaction between societies around the globe (Matin, 2013, p. 358). Postcolonial scholars have problematized how othering reproduces hegemony through the rationalization of Western standards as normal, constituting them as the ultimate standard for knowledge production (Scott, 1999, p. 8). The Eurocentric (or Westcentric) idea that conceptualizes Europe and North America as modern has substantially reinforced the assumption that the West constitutes the source of modernity that eventually went global (Bhambra, 2007). Although the issues raised by postcolonialism related directly to the concerns of international relations as a discipline through its international gaze, the term postcolonialism appears relatively little in much of the IR literature. Retrospectively, it seems to be surprising that postcolonial approaches gained access to IR only during the 1990s, despite their interest in power relations on a global scale. Yet, the ahistorical conception and particular focus on the Westphalian state-system of IR theories that long dominated the academic debate can be seen as an ontological and epistemological obstacle in this regard. In a nutshell, the inability of IR to substantially assess colonial as well as neocolonial structures and account for postcolonial experiences stems to a great extent from the colonial legacy of the discipline itself, shaping the patterns of knowledge production (Inayatullah & Blaney, 2004, p. 2). More generally, the specificity of the discipline’s development and long processes of internal debates about dominant theories have maintained a relative closure of IR as a field (Darby, 2004, p. 2). Yet, critical scholarship since the late 1980s opened up the discursive space for different concepts from other fields of social science. Postcolonial thought entered the realm of international relations theory in the context of more critical engagement with positivist approaches and what became an increasingly criticized practice of artificially dividing IR from social theory (Brown, 1994, p. 213). In particular an opening allowing criticism to develop within IR emerged through the debates drawing on critical theory and its belief that dominant thought in the West, since the time of Enlightenment and the subsequent discourse of modernity, is in a deep crisis (Brown, 1994, p. 214).

Scholars of IR have increasingly drawn on postcolonial critiques and a variety of important publications, at times without identifying themselves as postcolonial theorists. These scholars share the belief that epistemological essentialism and given categories need to be questioned, like the “state” or a “nation,” because they reify dominant structures (Seth 2013, p. 2). Notably, however, not all liberal international relation theories, identified as Eurocentric, are unaware of their normative implications (Hall & Hobson, 2010, p. 211). Conversely, even critical theory that claims to be more self-reflective nevertheless bears resemblance to classical theory. Although critical theory questions dominate narratives of modernity, they often pay little attention to non-Western context and postcolonial practices of contention (Hobson, 2007, p. 93). While scholars in IR increasingly draw upon overlapping issues, postcolonial perspectives have not gained the impact in comparison to other paradigms understood as critical theory. While critical theories address the crisis of modernity from a European or Western position, there is an epistemological and ontological difficulty for contemporary theorists to rethink “the emancipating ideals of modernity in the perspective of coloniality” (Mignolo, 2007, p. 469). The challenge to think beyond or in alternative ways about social order and visions of modernity is a case in point, whether in hegemonic or subaltern terms (Zarakol, 2011).

Eurocentrism in IR

The development of postcolonial theories as critical interventions into European and North American narratives of modernity has led to groundbreaking scholarship on the issue of Eurocentrism across disciplines. In a nutshell, it seeks to deconstruct the notion of Europe as the only active producer of world history. This myth entails the narrative of Europe as inherently qualified to be modern and progressive throughout its history, which has mysteriously led to Europe’s autonomous rise as a global power. According to this narration, the backwardness essentially enshrined in “traditional societies” outside of Europe led to a logical diffusion of modern ideas to the global peripheries (Blaut, 1993). The creation of nation-states in Europe and the colonial enterprise of creating states in the rest of the world is a specific practice that was informed by this idea. As a consequence, the problems (post-)colonial states face today as well as the normalcy of the nation-state in contemporary politics and dominant international relations (IR) theories, are a central issue for postcolonial and non-Eurocentric scholarship.

Sudipta Sen has exemplarily highlighted how the construction of a European polity outside of Europe resulted in colonial modernities in the 18th and 19th century, especially in India and other parts of the world. The relationship between civil society and the state, which was seen as naturally given in Europe, did not correlate with indigenous imaginations nor had the colonial state tried to account for them in the creation of these new structures. Indigenous people were placed into a state of perpetual unfreedom, excluded from rights in which the created state became a structure of dominance (Sen, 2002; Halliday, 2005; Hinnebusch, 2013). Radical positions claim that postcolonialism in IR is a contradiction in terms because dominant narratives, concepts, and terms draw upon Western experiences unable to account for the plurality of non-European and non–North American experiences. It is even accused of being complicit with colonial projects due to the singularity of the story it tells (Krishna, 2001, p. 407). Although, this radical criticism is in many respects shared by critical scholars of IR, colonial discourse approaches focus on the reproduction of the colonial subject in the context of colonial encounters, drawing on especially Said and Bhabha, and have had a profound effect on scholars in rethinking the discipline.

L. H. M. Ling’s contribution furthers the debate about the ahistorical character of IR (as well as international political economy) theories introducing “postcolonial IR” as a more inclusive approach and alternative to existing readings of international relations and global order (Ling, 2002). Although dominant theories, like (neo-)realism, had been substantially criticized by that time, her contribution added a profound postcolonial critique with regard to not only the ahistorical character that ignored the colonial roots of European states, but also its reinforcement of Eurocentric conceptions. In this reading, she argues, dominant theories have underpinned the idea that only great powers matter and reproduced the dichotomy between an active “us” that is Europe and a passive “them” outside of the so-called West (Ling, 2002, p. 46). The crucial element of her analysis, next to the general postcolonial critique of dominant theories in IR, is her use of feminist insights to uncover the patterns of (post-)colonial dominance. The “self” is empowered through the construction of hypermasculinity and the feminized “other” who is silenced, claiming an inability to be an active agent. On the other hand, she argues “that colonizer and colonized are intimately constructed identities that lead to an inseparable subjectivity” (Ling, 2002, p. 69). Hence, drawing on Bhabha’s concepts of hybridity and the constitution of (post-)colonial subjectivities (Fanon, 1963), allows one to not only deconstruct the monolithic façade of states-as-units, but also carve out the effect on individual conditions in changing hegemonic contexts.

These problems, identified with the very nature of dominant IR theories, gained increasing prominence under the term Eurocentrism. While critical theory contests notions related to the discourse of modernity, postcolonial and non-Eurocentric scholars seek to contest the idea of Europe (or “the West”) as the single explanandum and explanas of contemporary modernity. Taking seriously the idea to account for the temporal and spatial conditions of knowledge production, scholars advance a socio-historical perspective that provides alternative readings. In IR the most substantial contribution that challenges the Eurocentric narrative of Europe and North American’s autonomous rise to today’s power is John Hobson’s The Eastern Origins of Western Civilization (2004). In contrast to the isolated perspective on Europe, Hobson traces different developments within important fields, economics, trade, or science, over the course of more than a thousand years in various regions and empires around the globe. Particularly, he aptly outlines how the West has benefited from dynamic interactions, especially in a material sense, with other parts of the world, like China, Islamic empires, and Africa, and how racism, for example ingrained in European nationalism, paved the way for the violent abuse of available resources around the globe. However, the neglect of Eastern agency has to be viewed also in respect to global discourses that emerged in the course of history. While Hobson rightly points to the effects of racist identity constructions within the West, a crucial account that has been little noticed in IR points to the absence of Eastern actors in the analysis of the clash-of-civilization discourse. Arshin Adib-Moghaddam emphasizes that the “zeitgeist of modernity” (Adib-Moghaddam, 2011, p. 177) has been over the course of European history connected to deeply racist motifs of civilization and sovereignty articulated by various authors of European Enlightenment. Yet, to fully grasp the perceived divide between “East” and “West” scholars of IR need to get a better understanding of how the “clash regime” (Adib-Moghaddam, 2011, p. 4) has not only developed throughout the history of global thought, but also constituted itself as inevitable truth on a global scale through discursive interactions. Central political categories used in contemporary politics, like the West or Islam(ism), are of course not irrelevant, yet, as he argues, they are social formations created at the intersection of European and non-European discourses that enable the created categories to function as powerful concepts in global politics (Adib-Moghaddam, 2011, p. 267).

Against this background, Ayşe Zarakol has pointed out that “domestic narratives in both Japan and Russia bear a striking resemblance to those in Turkey” (Zarakol, 2011, p. 9) in reaction to the notion of Western modernity. In all cases the respective societies, as she argues, are deeply constrained by this ideal because especially elites and political leaders used it to discipline their people by placing themselves as gatekeepers between the modern West and their “backward” societies. The power of Western actors is enshrined in the very idea of normality and the ability to reproduce certain institutions as a modern requirement. It obscures this power at the same time and leaves non-Western societies with little agency (Zarakol, 2011, p. 242). Zarakol critically points out the unreflective nature of dominant IR theories working with a priori assumptions about the existence of a nation-state system on a global scale. Yet, this ultimately requires an understanding of contemporary global conditions because actors “who have grown up in countries whose modernity has never been in question may not fully understand how all-consuming the stigma of comparative backwardness may become for a society” (Zarakol, 2011, p. 6).

Her analysis not only provides a strong empirical case for the exclusionary practices within and outside academia, but also contributes to the question of whether IR theories account for cultural differences and non-Western experiences. Her mostly negative answer to this underpins the observation made by Inayatullah and Blaney’s (2004) contribution that critically examines the ignorance of IR and International Political Economy (IPE) with respect to colonial and neocolonial processes. A particularly valuable point is the aim to bring the question of global ethics into the debate about IR theory. By constructing absolute and objective standards, dominant theories have normalized, to use Zarakol’s term, their indicators of judgement (Inayatullah & Blaney, 2004, p. 4). Yet, as they argue, the attempt to create absolute and universal categories plays out as a unifying force that ultimately produces violence for the sake of theoretical purity (Inayatullah & Blaney, 2004, p. 168). As Arlene Tickner has aptly stated, “this is because theory does not mirror nature, but rather, scientists are responsible for converting nature into words (or theory)” (Tickner, 2013, p. 630).

In sum, (post-)colonial scholarship that focuses discursive production of power has raised several aspects in regard to epistemological and ontological problems of dominant IR theories. John Hobson’s The Eurocentic Conception of World Politics (Hobson, 2012) constitutes a comprehensive and detailed work that zooms in on the specificities that characterize different Western international theories between 1760 and 2010. He shares the general observation of postcolonial scholarship that IR “does not so much explain international politics [. . .] but seeks, rather to parochially celebrate and defend or promote the West as the proactive subject of, and as the highest or ideal normative referent in, world politics” (Hobson, 2012, p. 1).

However, postcolonialism not only addresses narratives of modernity and its implications of Eurocentric conceptions of global order. It also forces scholars to reconsider specific concepts that are taken for granted in IR whether in theoretical terms or in practice. A radical postcolonial reformulation of a central concept is Achille Mbembe’s notion of sovereignty that he identifies in “Necropolitics.” He argues “that the ultimate expression of sovereignty resides, to a large degree, in the power and the capacity to dictate who may live and who must die” (Mbembe, 2003, p. 11). This understanding stands in stark contrast to the conceptualization in Western political science. “Necropolitics” is about different forms of subjugation of life to the power of death. These forms have appeared during colonial rule in the past, but, as he argues, illuminate how, through the use of weapons and violent destruction of individuals, death-worlds are constructed (Mbembe, 2003, p. 39). Hence, African and Asian experiences of colonialism, domination, violence, and resistance have resulted in multiple theoretical and methodological perspectives on how the discursive constitution of the colonizer and the colonial subject can be understood.

Modernity/Coloniality and Development in Latin American Thought

In light of different colonial experiences of what is today known as the Americas (on the social construction of “Latin America” see Mignolo, 2005), Latin American postcolonial scholarship offers important perspectives to understand contemporary global structures. Similar to postcolonial scholarship, the issue of colonial encounters is a central theme. The European colonization from the 15th century onward emerged with the development of a capitalist structure that became increasingly globalized. This colonial enterprise substantially increased the awareness among European powers that colonies constitute a source for all kinds of (raw) materials for the new economies. The subsequent processes of colonization dramatically changed the relation of colonizers and the colonized. A central contribution of Latin American postcolonialism is the analysis of modernity in material terms, particularly, the ramifications of global capitalist structures for the colonial subject and the modern world system. Thus, it emphasizes that coloniality is constitutive for modernity. Aníbal Quijano and Walter Mignolo are the most prominent postcolonial scholars to have developed this perspective and will therefore be discussed here in more detail.

Their work, inspired by Immanuel Wallerstein’s world-system theory, has gained only partial attention within international relations (IR) theory itself, but has inspired, along with other Latin American scholarship, a fundamental critique of development studies. Arturo Escobar’s contribution is seminal in this regard. Yet, although these are major contributions they certainly do not do justice in regard to the plurality of Latin American postcolonial scholarship. While among Latin Americanists the usefulness of postcolonial thought has been contested, as some have argued it is rather an Asian and African issue, authors like Quijano, Mignolo or Dussel “have produced monumental critiques of colonialism during the same period as Said, Bhabha, and Spivak” (Coronil, 2008, p. 404), which have not received the same attention in the social sciences.

Quijano argues that the coloniality of power captures the structure of domination of the colonizers and thereby strongly relates his conception on the experience of European colonization in the Americas. According to his understanding, the power not only emerges with domination by force (colonialism), but crucially through the attempt by the colonial powers to replace the “traditional” systems of knowledge with European knowledge (coloniality). Through Wallerstein’s understanding of historical capitalism Quijano and Mignolo seek to explain how the capitalist ideology shaped what came to be the dominant interpretation of modern epistemology. Yet, as Quijano stresses, the colonized cannot be seen as a simple extension of this system, but have been so deeply ingrained into the structures of European domination that modernity and coloniality can only be thought of as inextricably linked (Quijano, 2007). Mignolo, while further developing Quijano’s approach, criticizes Wallerstein’s theory that does not account for the spatial contexts in which tensions with regard to capitalism as the dominant structure occur. Wallerstein’s totality leaves little space to conceptualize alternative economic visions or other epistemologies. Yet, this is the very focal point for Mignolo that allows for decolonization. While critical of world-system theory, he draws on the spatial perspective to argue that epistemologies have to be understood in the space and location they have evolved in. By focusing on contexts beyond Europe, he argues, histories and thought can be understood in a de-colonial sense (Mignolo, 2000, 2002). This overarching aim firmly resonates with the idea of subaltern studies, which some Latin American scholars have increasingly focused on since the 1990s.

The influence of world-system theory shifted the perspective on the notion of “development,” as it regards economies in the periphery as central in the reproduction of capitalism. While Marxism narrates the development of capitalism in terms of stages all economies have to pass, world-system theory states that peripheral economies remain “underdeveloped” in order to be exploited by the center that leads to a permanent dependency between the center and periphery of capitalism. Notably, Arturo Escobar, whose Encountering Development (1995) best captures his critique of the idea of development, departs from world-system theory and strongly relates to Said’s Orientalism and Foucault’s concept of discourse. Hence, domination not only takes shape in a material sense of capitalism and development agencies, such as the IMF, but also through the very discourse of development that constructed hierarchies. This discourse not only produced the belief of how “the poor” should live, but also places people in poor countries in an inferior position to a superior, modern, West.

Hence, development studies, as a related field of IR, and their postcolonial critique have pointed out aspects crucial for the study of international politics (Sylvester, 1999). In particular, global economic structures, democratization, and what is often described as the “north-south divide” (Doty, 1997) play a key role in the analysis of postcolonial studies. Against this background, the critique of neoliberal structures and global capitalism is a major issue that scholars of IR have focused on. This stems not only from world-system theory, as mentioned, but of course also from Marxism as an intellectual framework that has influenced postcolonial thinkers. In this context the concept of the Third World emerged to classify these states that were perceived to have the choice to either follow the idea of a “western free-market” system, a system based on the notion of Marxism or a mystical “indigenous mixed economy” (Young, 1998, p. 6). This meta-narrative of world order not only produced a normative hierarchy but disguised the relation between capitalism and the reproduction of (post-)colonial structures (Dirlik, 2002, p. 434). However, classical Marxism has been fiercely criticized by Latin American postcolonial scholars, just as in other paradigms of postcolonial studies. The founding of the Latin American subaltern studies group in 1993, which joined a Southeast Asian counterpart, illustrates Latin American scholars’ efforts to emphasize the constitution of the subaltern through a critical lens and further the idea of decolonization by reflecting on Eurocentric aspects of theory.

Subaltern Studies and the Idea of Decolonization

Subaltern studies have a different trajectory within postcolonial theory, whose perception as an important paradigm of postcolonialism started only with Guha and Spivak’s edited volume Selected Subaltern Studies (Guha & Spivak, 1988). Different from early postcolonial scholars, whose perspectives were shaped by language and cultural studies, subaltern scholarship was established by Indian historians. It began as a project in 1982 by Ranajit Guha and turned into a ten-volume book series, whose principal idea was to disrupt elite historiographies and present a revisionist interpretation of India’s Freedom Movement (Brennan, 2014, p. 70). The establishment of the Latin American Subaltern Studies Group in 1993, and the increasing prominence of the subaltern idea in light of other historiographies around the globe, turned it into an influential approach. The field of subaltern studies was founded with a critical engagement with Marxism and is particularly characterized by the use of Antonio Gramsci’s concepts formulated in his Prison Notebooks (Gramsci, 1971). Although different variants of Marxism, and even the Gramscian approach to Indian history, were fiercely debated in the 1980s, the concepts of hegemony and the subaltern have been successfully introduced to postcolonial discourses as well as other social sciences. Hegemony, in this reading, describes the ability of a colonizer to re-produce the power relationship with the colonized by shaping the thought of the latter according to the will of the former. Hegemonic control unfolds in the presentation of the specific interest of the dominator as an interest for all. While Gramsci had anchored his interpretation firmly in the Marxist category of class, subaltern scholarship presented a less static interpretation of his work. Subaltern scholars increasingly joined the poststructural and postcolonial critique of Marxism (Chaturvedi, 2012).

This engagement advanced a cultural understanding of hegemony in contrast to material understandings. Notably, Gramsci’s notion of hegemony was introduced to the field of international relations (IR) in the early 1980s by Robert Cox, who argued that states need to create an order that most other states perceive to resonate with their own interest (Cox, 1983). Earlier interpretations of hegemony and power in IR emphasized the material capabilities of states and their ability to force their will onto other states. Yet, while hegemony gained, independently from postcolonial and subaltern scholarship, more prominence among IR scholarship due to its interest in forms of power, the idea of the subaltern appeared only recently in the IR literature. Ranajit Guha, a central founding figure, explained the focus of subaltern studies “as a name for the general attribute of subordination in South Asian society whether this is expressed in terms of class, caste, age, gender and office or in any other way” (Guha, 1982, p. vii). Hence, the fundamental goal was to carve out the historiographies of those groups of society that were subject to hegemonic conditions. However, in the ongoing debates from Marxism to poststructuralism and postcolonial critique, it became increasingly obvious that this aim was rather difficult to achieve. Spivak has most prominently pointed out the challenges of understanding subaltern agency and resistance toward hegemonic structures through Marxist and poststructuralist lenses. On the one hand she argues that resistance along the lines of class cannot simply be substituted for the subaltern. Such a Marxist reading would render the colonized subaltern an agent of political transformation in a capitalist script of the West. On the other hand, she critically highlights by drawing on Derrida, that a simple counter-narrative to hegemonic discourses is not a sufficient strategy to resist these structures. Hence, her famous question “Can the subaltern speak?” (Spivak, 1988) reflects the complex ways in which hegemony is reproduced and not easy to escape. Hegemonic ideologies that are always shaped by and through discourses construct not only the script for hegemony but also the language in which resistance can take place. Thus, the category “subaltern” carries two major problems: it is a theoretical product that needs explanation of elites and thereby faces the problem of representation in terms of speaking for and about subalterns. Furthermore, as a theoretical paradigm it not only constructs subalterns as subjects, but also imagines the subaltern as a monolithic and universal category. Ultimately, this tailors the subaltern into the script of hegemonic and colonial power relationships, because the subaltern subject functions to reconfirm its role as the colonized and the hegemon as the colonizer. Hence, it is essential to focus on the heterogeneity of subject positions instead, in order to disrupt hegemonic narratives.

While Spivak’s chapter caused major debates in different fields of social sciences, it gained little attention in IR. Earlier contributions that sought to account for the subaltern in international politics have rather aimed to modify existing concepts within the confines of dominant paradigms. In this regard subaltern realism, proposed by Mohammed Ayoob (1998, 2002), also criticizes the ahistorical conception of (neo-)realism and its neglect of subaltern actors, which he identifies with the “Third World,” in global politics. Accordingly, the issue of domestic order and the differences of state-making should be highlighted to understand the variety of interests and behavior by Third World and “Great Powers” in global politics. Despite Ayoob’s criticism of the neglect of postcolonial experiences, which he seeks to illuminate by invoking Gramsci’s notion of the subaltern, the state remains the ontological focus in his concept. Drawing on subaltern studies that seek to shift the focus to the historiography of less powerful actors (compare Spivak, 1988; Chaturvedi, 2012; Brennan, 2014), he aptly points out the importance of non-Western experiences in order to explain the peculiarity of interstate conflicts in the “Third World” (Ayoob, 1998, p. 45), yet he ignores hegemonic narratives of dominant IR theories. Nevertheless, Spivak’s contribution has led to critical reflection on the possibilities of including subaltern subjects in the study of world politics and also of thinking about it in terms of decolonization. In their analysis of the Cuban missile crisis, Laffey and Weldes aptly argue that simply adding a Cuban counter-narrative “to an unchanged great power account of the crisis reinforces existing relations of international hierarchy” (Laffey & Weldes, 2008, p. 560). Thus, decolonization cannot be understood as the presentation of counter-discourses. Rather, it is understood as a productive result of postcolonial critique aiming to transform the meaning of norms and institutions on a global scale according to more just and inclusionary visions (Pahuja, 2011). Postcolonial theories envision an alternative understanding of universalism that allows deliberation and contestation of existing processes with equal respect for the diversity of actors. Robbie Shilliam, inspired by Spivak’s critique of the subaltern, has recently highlighted the importance of black diasporas in the context of slavery, a crucial issue of postcolonial studies (Gilroy, 1993) that has rarely been discussed in IR. By focusing on the African and Maori relationship he presents the possibility of analyzing the heterogeneity of subalterns, as well as amplifying how “hidden” practices can be visualized by breaking with the binary focus on subaltern and hegemon (Shilliam, 2015). Within IR, de-colonial approaches range from non-Western IR theories to attempts to ultimately contest epistemological and ontological assumptions. As Sanjay Seth argues “a non-Western IR would still be IR” (Seth, 2013, p. 2). This criticism results from the assumption that anti-foundationalism refutes essentialist categories such as “the West.” Yet, on the other hand, scholars debated the possibilities of a Chinese, Indian, or Latin American IR and its relation to Western thought (Tickner, 2003; Chan & Moore, 2009; Tickner & Wæver, 2009; Acharya, 2011; Ling, 2014b). While this has certainly triggered a variety of interesting aspects to think about in de-colonial approaches, most of them are shaped by the idea of decentering the world, famously introduced in Dipesh Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe (2000).

Decolonizing IR as a discipline needs to move beyond the concepts of the field, and this reflects the center of non-Eurocentric critique, by decolonizing the production of knowledge itself. This is ultimately about taking seriously different aspects of social life including experiences, values, histories, and knowledge of non- and anti-imperial actors (Gruffydd Jones, 2006, p. 13). As such, de-colonial approaches may also draw spiritual, religious, transcendental, or non-Western philosophy conceptions into an account that is often depicted as irrational, unsophisticated, or unscientific in Western academia (Chimni, 2006; Shani, 2007, 2008; Chan & Moore, 2009; Acharya & Buzan, 2010; Acharya, 2011; Shilliam, 2011a; Ling, 2014a, 2014b; Shahi & Ascione, 2015). In this sense, taking non-Western histories seriously, as called for in postcolonialism, alternative visions of world order are not only existent in intellectual thought, but could be identified in periods before European colonization. Yet, the Westphalian narrative that privileges the Eurocentric idea of global order is still prevalent in most IR theories (Kayaoglu, 2010). A division of approaches between modern and premodern not only constructs a hierarchy into available intellectual works, but also stigmatizes non-Western thought as irrelevant to current affairs, as Robbie Shilliam has aptly pointed out (Shilliam, 2011b, p. 15). In fact, as he goes on to explain, it does not mean that Marx, Weber, or Habermas are somehow irrelevant in understanding the experiences of the (post-)colonial subject. It is crucial, however, to acknowledge the trajectories of non-Western thought in European scholarship (Shilliam, 2011b, p. 15).

Decolonizing strategies have to account for the blurred lines and perforated borders in the context of globalization. This not only entails rejecting attempts to define “pure” or “pristine” cultures, but also includes better grasping what constitutes relations on a global scale. Drawing on the postcolonial insights, IR needs to shed light on the social interaction of dominant and subaltern actors. In these postcolonial encounters complex and “differentiated subject-positions” (Sajed, 2013, p. 3) emerge through the experience of colonialism and global encounters at the same time. Specifically, Sajed departs from state-centered Franco-Maghrebian encounters and focuses on the marginalized actors of these encounters to present an alternative reading (Sajed, 2013, p. 205). In this sense, as Meera Sabaratnam has argued, “self-consciously decolonizing strategies aim to articulate different subject-positions from which [a] ‘speaking across’ or ‘dialogue’ can take place” (Sabaratnam, 2011, p. 782) that force scholars to critically reconsider what international relations and its subjects are. There are multiple ways to study international relations, and therefore they need to be acknowledged when tacking critical scholarship seriously.


The literature on (post-)colonialism and non-Eurocentric perspectives is diverse and discusses a broad variety of issues in global politics. Colonialism describes a specific form of domination of European powers. Hence postcolonialism mainly addresses the forms of power between actors from Europe as well as today’s North America, on the one side, and actors from other parts of the world on the other. While this approach is warranted, further lessons can be learned from other contexts, particularly because postcolonial scholars have highlighted that “hegemon” or “subaltern” are neither ahistorically given terms, nor naturally enshrined in the identity of actors. This does not mean that the change of (post-)colonial power relations is easily realized. However, the complex nature of power relations suggests looking at how (post-)colonial conditions are reconstituted through discursive practices around the globe. In this context, the term imperialism is frequently invoked in contemporary international politics. In its classical use, imperialism is understood as a policy by a nation to extend its sovereign power and control over another nation and its territory. Empires have been described as the historical products of “successful” imperialist policies (compare Hobson, 1902; Young, 2001; Lenin, 2010). However, in the wake of the Cold War and the changing status of sovereign states in the context of globalization, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have famously presented a contemporary reading of empire. A central observation is that today’s power structures are de-centered and de-territorialized. In contrast to the idea of a nation-state leading an empire, they identify processes unfolding with global capitalism as the source of power (Hardt & Negri, 2000). Nevertheless, there is still too little interaction between dominant literature in IR and postcolonial insights. The importance of such a dialogue, as Meera Sabaratnam (2011) has argued, lies in the development of decolonization strategies within academic practice and IR scholarship. In light of the entangled histories many postcolonial scholars have in different perspectives focused on, IR needs to better examine the context in which ideas and concepts have emerged. An insightful path has been outlined by Gurminder Bhambra in her book on connected sociologies, in which she seeks to account for the sociologies in a global perspective (Bhambra, 2014). Further, constructivists’ work on norms in international relations can benefit from postcolonial perspective as Charlotte Epstein and others have shown (2017).

The focus here has been on some of the most prominent scholars of postcolonialism and anti-colonial thought. In order to get a better sense of this complex field, two main genealogies of thought have been highlighted. Yet, the temporal and spatial narratives can be further expanded.

One may argue that the potential of postcolonial scholarship informing IR scholarship suffers from the powerful internal logics of the latter (Pasha, 2011). Despite criticism, IR has developed paradigms, epistemological and ontological grids that are reflected in terms of “great debates” or “turns” and that force scholars to position themselves in these sets of categories. Yet, this contrasts with the logic of postcolonial studies characterized not only by internal disputes, but also by a rather loosely related set of approaches. However, this “weakness” in terms of presenting itself as another coherent paradigm in IR, can and should be turned into its strength. It requires an understanding of postcolonialism not in terms of a theory, but rather as a set of different sites that need to be included when accounting for the production of theoretical and methodological assumptions. It does not offer, and this can be perceived as a problem, readily available ontological and epistemological propositions. Yet, it is a source that raises awareness of the complex social relationships that construct the normative grids in the global realm.

Links to Digital Materials

  • Caribbean Philosophical Association. A transdisciplinary platform that focuses on Caribbean philosophy. Yet, Caribbean here is not understood in geographical terms, but rather perspective on multiple sites of modernity.
  • Colonial/Postcolonial/Decolonial Working Group of the British International Studies Association. Provides an international space for students and academics of (post-)colonial and decolonial scholarship in IR. It further provides information about events in the field and new developments in the field.
  • Critical Legal Thinking. This professional blog focuses on the issue of law through mainly, but not solely, sociological, political, anthropological, and philosophical lenses. It discusses the relation of law and power in local and global perspective and accounts for subaltern, indigenous, and (post-)colonial experiences. Adding to the rich literature on critical legal theories, it provides a valuable platform for current issues and an overview of key concepts.
  • Global Social Theory. This is a useful platform introducing key concepts important for postcolonial theory, but also in other fields of critical social theory. Edited by Gurminder Bhambra.
  • Postcolonial Studies @ Emory. Useful introductory website that discusses key issues, terms, and thinkers in the field of (post-)colonialism.
  • The Alternative Reading List Project. This is a useful website providing recent and classical contributions in the field of (post-)colonial studies as well as other fields of critical social inquiry.
  • The Disorder of Things. This blog provides a high-profile platform on contemporary debates within IR scholarship that aims to provide a critical perspective on current debates. Postcolonial and non-Eurocentric accounts are central issues in this regard. In particular, the discussion forum on current monographs in the field of IR is of valuable insight for students and academics alike.
  • Transnational Decolonial Institute. This website addresses the issue of decolonization from a variety of perspectives. In particular, the focus beyond political science into the fields of social science, art, and aesthetics sheds new light on different aspects of de-colonial strategies.


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