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date: 28 February 2021

Ethnicity, Nationalism, and Colonialismfree

  • Mehmet Sinan BirdalMehmet Sinan BirdalDepartment of Middle East Studies, University of Southern California


International relations theory has much to gain from studying ethnicity, nationalism, and colonialism. Research on nationalism has produced important theoretical contributions to constructivist approaches in international relations. Similarly, postcolonial theory can contribute to international relations theory by exploring aspects of identity construction that are neglected in studies with exclusive focus on Western states. For example, postcolonial theory can be used in the study of ethnic conflict by combining both aspects of identity construction and strategizing, and how research on ethnicity and nationalism and postcolonial studies can benefit from closer dialogue. Moreover, postcolonial studies raise important epistemological and normative questions that need to be taken seriously by international relations scholars. Postcolonial and subaltern studies question the knowledge claims made by area studies by criticizing their representational strategies of colonialism and the postcolonial situation. They pose a challenge for international relations as a discipline by questioning the knowledge–power nexus. They assert that the presumably “scientific” accounts of the non-West carry the ideological baggage of colonialism. What is needed therefore is to account first for the historical representation of the non-West in Western scientific discourse and produce a critique of this knowledge system as a legitimating and administrative discourse in the service of colonialism.


Studying ethnicity, nationalism, and colonialism provides international relations with important opportunities for theoretical refinement and empirical enrichment. First, it draws attention to the levels of analysis, the causes of systemic change, and the concept of sovereignty. Second, the challenge facing postcolonial states, i.e. the establishment of a nation-state in a multiethnic environment demarcated by former colonial administrations, offers an opportunity to integrate the research on state formation and nation building into international relations. Third, the study of postcolonial states raises epistemological and normative questions by revealing Eurocentric biases and fostering critical self-awareness. This essay argues that international relations theory, postcolonial theory, and research on nationalism and ethnic conflict have a lot to gain from interdisciplinary cooperation in order to tackle analytical and theoretical questions as well as epistemological and normative questions.

Colonialism in International Relations Theory: The Problem of Sovereignty

Decolonization emanated from the interplay of state-level and interstate-level processes and had transformative consequences for both levels. It can neither be explained by the change in the distribution of material capabilities in a Waltzian fashion nor by the social interaction of states in a Wendtian fashion. Any explanation of decolonization and its effects in the international system must go beyond state centricism of prevailing systems theories (Waltz 1979; Wendt 2000) and problematize the levels of analysis in international relations theory (Buzan 1998).

Although classical realists did not focus on decolonization, they were more aware of the impact of decolonization on “power politics.” Writing at the onset of decolonization, Hans Morgenthau argued that the “disappearance of the colonial frontier” meant that the balance of power was becoming worldwide, leaving no peripheries for great power competition. In a bipolar world, the challenge for the two superpowers was to win the uncommitted newly independent states to their blocs (Morgenthau 1962/1948:355–60). Thus, the main issues raised by decolonization were the problem of the globalization of the balance of power and the disappearance of free space, which could serve as a buffer for avoiding war. In his analysis, Morgenthau assumed that postcolonial states would only imitate Western states by invoking their political and moral principles.

Like Morgenthau, Hedley Bull and Adam Watson acknowledged that decolonization made the international system truly global. But they also suggested that decolonization raised new demands for international justice in addition to the demand for international order (Bull and Watson 1985). Bull argued that anticolonial liberation movements caused violence and disorder, subordinating international order to demands of international justice. Justice could only be realized without disorder if there was an international consensus, especially among great powers. If there were a discrepancy between the two, one had to choose order over justice, since order was the precondition for the realization of other values. Without international order based on sovereignty anticolonial movements could not assert equal rights of states to independence (Bull 1977:95–8). Watson focused on the implications of the emergence of postcolonial states with different cultures for an international society based on Western values. He left the question open ended and argued that new ethical rules of conduct might emerge especially from a multicultural superpower such as the US (Watson 1992:306–9). He attributed the stability of the age of decolonization to the hegemonic control of the US and the USSR (Watson 1992:297).

Another classical realist, E.H. Carr, questioned the application of the concept of sovereignty to mandated territories and predicted that the gap between formal sovereignty and effective power would widen in the future (Carr 1995/1939:213). During the Cold War, however, due to their strategic importance for the rival superpowers postcolonial states had some influence in world politics. The nonaligned movement emerging from the Bandung Conference in 1955 became a significant actor profiting from the superpower competition. Thus, it is hardly surprising that the question of whether some postcolonial states can in fact be counted as possessing “real” sovereignty surfaced largely at the end of the Cold War. In the 1990s, Robert Jackson coined the term “quasi-states” to refer to third world states. Quasi-states “appear to be juridical more than empirical entities” (Jackson 1993a:5) and have “negative sovereignty” defined as “freedom from outside interference” but lack the characteristics of “positive sovereignty” (Jackson 1993a:1, 27). Decolonization was the product of normative change in the legitimating principles of international society rather than of the colonies satisfying positive criteria of statehood (Jackson 1993a:15). Since the postcolonial states became independent not by their own powers but by virtue of changes in the principles of international society, the correct level to analyze them is not the state but the states-system (Jackson 1993a:26; 1993b). Recently, Daniel Philpott defined decolonization as an “expansion of European political values” that culminated in the UN Declaration on colonial independence in 1960. Resolution 1514 recognized the right to self-determination and emphasized the maintenance of the national unity and territorial integrity of a country. Resolution 1541 stressed that self-determination would only apply to colonies but not to nations or regions within them. According to Philpott, decolonization represented the consolidation of the Westphalian system rather than a new creation (Philpott 2001:153–67).

While the study of sovereignty as an idea can be linked to a discussion on the effect of ideas in international politics, it also leads some to question the statehood of postcolonial states. Jackson attributes decolonization to an ideational change and remains skeptical whether those newly sovereign states can in fact be regarded as “real states.” European sovereign states were credible because they had domestic authority to be independent. In contrast, decolonization recognized the sovereignty of former colonies regardless of their factual capacities. By excluding ethno-national groups within postcolonial states from the right to sovereign statehood, decolonization also paved the way for ethnic conflict (Jackson 1993a:32–49). However, Jackson makes no effort to study the impact of colonialism for postcolonial state formation.

Jackson’s emphasis on the different degrees of the exercise of sovereignty among independent states highlights the shortcomings of state-centricism in IR theory (Jackson 1993a:10, 27–9). Similarly, Barry Buzan argues that sovereignty – defined as the independence of making one’s own choices – is in fact unevenly distributed across the globe. This weakens the analogy of states to individuals (Buzan 1991:68–9, 97).

In this regard, Mohammed Ayoob’s subaltern realism “presents a coherent explanation for the large majority of conflicts in the international system by tracing their origins, both as beginnings and causes, to the premier ongoing political endeavor in the Third World, namely, that of state-making (and its obverse state breaking and state failure)” (Ayoob 1998:34). According to Ayoob, with their common focus on great power politics, “both neorealism and neoliberalism share a neocolonial epistemology that privileges the global North over the global South, the powerful minority over the weak but numerous majority” (Ayoob 1998:37). The major concern for third world states is neither balancing nor establishing economic and security communities, but becoming effective and legitimate states. Subaltern realism argues for the analytical priority of domestic politics – like Machiavelli and Hobbes – since it provides the basis upon which the international order is predicated. Subaltern realism can predict the location and intensity of third world conflict with the help of five variables: (1) the level of state formation of a state; (2) the ethnopolitical composition of a state’s population; (3) the existence or otherwise of contested territorial and demographic space between states undergoing state building; (4) the impact of great power rivalries; and (5) the impact of international norms that promote or discourage intrastate and/or interstate conflict related to state-making (Ayoob 1998:37–46).

In a similar vein, Steven David argues that although concepts such as the balance of power and the security dilemma are applicable to internal wars, neorealism fails to predict the way in which the threat of internal war influences state behavior. He asserts that in the context of the third world state facing internal war, not the state but leadership becomes the level of analysis (David 1998). Neorealism also neglects the effect of nationalism as a source of conflict although neorealists such as Barry Posen acknowledge the role of nationalism in mustering mass armies (Posen 1993). David asserts that most third world states do not develop mass armies because they do not face major threats from other states. Since third world leaders usually threaten internally, establishing mass armies only exacerbates these threats. Neorealism also neglects the connection between internal warfare and state building, which had taken place in early modern Europe. The same state-building process – rather than external security threats – constitutes the main cause of warfare in the third world. Moreover, the legitimacy of government needs to be taken into account to understand internal wars. Similarly, with its emphasis on anarchy as the cause of warfare, neorealism cannot distinguish conflict arising from state formation from conflict caused by state collapse. Finally, most people in the third world are threatened by their leader rather than anarchy (David 1998:86–94; also Holsti 1998).

Thus, integrating third world experiences in international relations theory reveals important shortcomings of major theories in the discipline. The question of levels of analysis is at the center of such an enterprise. Buzan favors a “structural realist approach” that recognizes the functional and structural differentiation of states. If the international system is structurally differentiated among states, then the incorporation of the “regional level” to the individual, state, and system levels of analysis is warranted (Buzan 1998:226–31). In this respect, comparative politics and area studies yield important categories, taxonomies, and causal mechanisms for system-level theory building. The study of nationalism offers a fruitful connection among these fields.

Ethnicity and Nationalism

Studying nationalism and ethnicity has direct implications for international relations theory in analyzing how national identity is constructed, how states can ensure the allegiance of their populations from diverse ethnic backgrounds, what causes ethnic conflict, and, more generally, how malleable national and ethnic identities are. As Anthony Smith put it, “International relations […] though they deal in the first place with the relations between states, are built around the premises of nationalism” (Smith 1996:106).

Most postcolonial states face the challenge of building a nation-state in multiethnic societies. Indeed, the problem of a multiethnic state has been a central theme of the scholarship on nationalism since the nineteenth century. For John Stuart Mill, multination states tended toward authoritarian government, while Lord Acton suggested the opposite. In the twentieth century Ernest Barker supported Mill by suggesting that the evolution of political organization worldwide is leading toward a convergence of nation and state, while Alfred Cobban emphasized the virtues of the nationally heterogeneous state. These debates questioned whether a multination state is viable and whether there is a connection between regime type and national homogeneity. In this context, multination states face a dual threat: demands for national selfdetermination from various ethnic groups and governmental assimilation policies from above (Connor 1994:4–27). Scholars like Karl Deutsch emphasized the importance of social mobilization for nation building. Modernization (urbanization, industrialization, schooling, advanced communication, and transportation) increased state capability to reach larger segments of the population and the chances of assimilating various ethnic identities into a dominant national identity. Later, Deutsch recognized that modernization could also enable ethnic groups to mobilize against the emerging nation-state. He argued that if assimilation stayed ahead of mobilization the state would be stable. If mobilization were faster than assimilation then the state would be destabilized. Modernization in postcolonial states, which had much less time for assimilation compared to European states, led to instability.

Walker Connor criticizes Deutsch for failing to establish causality between mobilization and assimilation and questions the truism that modernization dissolves ethnic loyalties. He argues that successful integration of various groups in multinational states requires nation destroying rather than nation building. Moreover, he emphasizes that the psychological aspects of ethnic identification are neglected by a concept of assimilation that focuses exclusively on culture. In his view, assimilation is not a one-directional process and can be reversed, and the absence of ethnic strife does not indicate the presence of a single nation. Connor also focuses on the duration of assimilation: a slow and long assimilation process is essential for internalization of national identity by various ethnic groups, while state-induced assimilation policies to speed up the process might be counterproductive. He points out the confusion between the symptoms and causes of political disintegration, especially in postcolonial states: institutional weaknesses and authoritarian regimes identified as causes are actually symptoms of ethnic fragmentation (Connor 1994:29–66, 68–86).

Similar to Deutsch, Benedict Anderson argues that modern communication and transportation provided the state elites with a powerful tool for mobilization. He defines the nation as an “imagined community” because, like any community larger than primordial villages, it does not consist of face-to-face communication but rather exists in the minds of its members (Anderson 1991:6–7). He emphasizes that the colonial boundaries determined the political boundaries of the postcolonial state and created meanings with which the population can identify. Focusing on Latin America, Anderson claims that the pilgrimage of Creole functionaries within the imperial province and the provincial Creole printmen accomplished the construction of a national identity. The anticolonial nationalism of the twentieth century followed the same pattern (Anderson 1991:47–65, 113–40). A recent critic points out that Anderson’s exclusive focus on the role of the Creole elites disregards the bulk of the population in the colonies. The impact of the printed press was very limited in the Mexican rebellion and the rebellion relied on the indigenous people rather than Creole functionaries. The Creole imagined community explains the later Mexican nationalist discourses but not the anticolonial movement (Van Young 2006:35–67). Another researcher’s observation that Mexican elites were not successful at mobilizing Indian villagers points out the need to distinguish the early anticolonial movement from the nationalism of elites (Wimmer 1997:638). In this context, James Gelvin distinguishes between elite and popular nationalisms. While both shared an essentialist notion of cultural authenticity, a tripartite of history into divisions of communal awakening, corruption, and reawakening, and the movement of the community through linear, homogeneous time, they differed in the symbolic components of their respective discourses. As opposed to modernist discourses of the elites, popular nationalisms resorted to self-consciously antimodernist discourses that cannot be simply understood as the resurgence of primordial characteristics (Gelvin 1999). In this regard, Haim Gerber argues that nationalism in the Middle East cannot be explained solely by the advent of modernity. Syria and Egypt were conceived by their inhabitants as meaningful territorial entities long before Westernization (Gerber 2004). These findings from area studies reveal a need to distinguish between elite and popular nationalisms as well as to specify the historical conditions and limits of social construction of national identities.

Anthony Smith’s classification of approaches to the study of nationalism is useful in identifying different theories on the construction of national identity. The globalist approach regards nationalism as a phenomenon of the past and argues that it will be replaced by a cosmopolitan culture. The modernist approach considers nationalism as a modern phenomenon. The perennialist approach argues that nations date back to primordial ethnies. Smith questions whether a global culture can provide strong symbols such as myths, memories, and values as nationalism can. Although the modernist approach provides important insights into modern nation building, it underestimates the power of premodern ethnic ties. The perennial argument does not recognize the mass, legal, public, and territorial form of modern nations, which distinguish them from premodern ethnies (Smith 2000).

Smith distinguishes between two models of the nation. The Western or “civic” model is based on historic territory, legal-political community, legal-political equality of members, and common civic culture and ideology. The non-Western or “ethnic” model comprises genealogy and presumed descent ties, popular mobilization, vernacular languages, customs, and traditions. Smith asserts that in reality every nationalism contains elements from each model (Smith 1991:8–14). However, Western models cannot be applied to postcolonial states with heterogeneous nations. Despite having centralized states and monopoly of coercion, postcolonial states need to resort to the ethnic model for national integration (Smith 1988:144–9; also Biswas 2001:501). In addition to the legacy of colonial boundaries, Smith also emphasizes the presence of dominant ethnie for nationalism in postcolonial states (Smith 1991:114).

While Smith and Anderson concur that nationalist identities are socially constructed, they differ in the limitations on the political imagination. Etienne Balibar offers a solution to the controversy by pointing out that linguistic construction is not enough to produce ethnicity. The discourses produced by the elite have to be internalized by the masses. Since linguistic construction is by definition open to contestation, the internalization of nationalist discourses needs to be supplemented by reference to race and kinship in order to fix identity (Balibar 1996:142). In this regard, the scholarship on ethnicity, which emerged as an independent field of study in the 1970s (Kaufmann 2005:179), provides an important insight into state and nation building in postcolonial states. As Rogers Brubaker and David Laitin argue, the importance of ethnic conflict increased after the end of the Cold War due to the collapse of the Weberian state in the former colonies and the decline of the left-wing/right-wing ideological axis (Brubaker and Laitin 1998:424–5).

Max Weber defines ethnic group as a moment which facilitates the emergence of a political community but as such it is not a community like a kinship group. An ethnic group helps the emergence and maintenance of a political community by providing it with a belief in an ethnic communality. In this regard, the artificial construction of an ethnic group corresponds to the reinterpretation of rational associative relations as personal communal relations. Warfare with other groups is a major force in fostering the subjective belief of communality within an ethnic group. Although the emergence of the nation-state made nation and linguistic community almost identical, linguistic unity is not enough for national identity nor is linguistic plurality a hindrance for national unity (Weber 2002/1922:234–44). Donald Horowitz amends this definition by adding that “ethnic membership transcends the range of face-to-face interactions” (Horowitz 2000:53). Thus, ethnic identities like national identities are socially constructed, but they are nevertheless exclusionary and putatively ascriptive. Ethnic groups can be located along a continuum of ways in which humans organize themselves: from groups based on birth to groups based on choice. Horowitz emphasizes that “both principles of membership are capable of accommodating fictive principles” (Horowitz 2000:55). Horowitz also recognizes that territorial boundaries determine ethnic boundaries, which are mutable but do not change for the sake of mere economic interest or convenience (Horowitz 2000:66).

The nature and salience of ethnic identity also constitutes the major debate in the scholarship on ethnic conflict. Chaim Kaufmann identifies four main approaches in the field: rational choice, essentialism, constructivism, and structuralism (or realism). Rational choice scholars such as James Fearon and David Laitin focus on individual level cost–benefit calculations to explain ethnic conflict and deny that ethnic conflict has a particular dynamic compared to any other political conflict. However, forsaking preference maximization to support an ethnic group constitutes a major anomaly for the rational choice approach. Essentialist scholars such as Roger Petersen and Donald Horowitz emphasize the psychological needs of the individuals for ethnic identity, while constructivists such as Stuart Kaufman, Crawford Young, and Benedict Anderson focus on how identities are socially constructed and emphasize the role of colonialism in the formation of the ethnic structure in postcolonial states. The structuralists such as Barry Posen and Monica Toft highlight the security dilemma as a structural condition leading ethnic groups to conflict. Chaim Kaufmann argues that eclectic approaches combining essentialism, constructivism, and structuralism provide fruitful research agendas, whereas whether rational choice approaches will develop eclectic research remains to be seen (Kaufmann 2005; for a similar call for eclecticism see Brubaker and Laitin 1998).

These discussions highlight major theoretical and methodological questions in the study of ethnicity and nationalism in colonial and postcolonial societies. The postcolonial states were not only defined by the boundaries of colonial units, they also inherited the political institutions and ethnic categorizations of colonial administrations (Laitin 1986; Young 1994; Wimmer 1997; Cockell 2000; Horowitz 2000; Watson 2001; Posner 2005). The recency of ethnic and national identities in postcolonial states makes an eclectic approach combining constructivism and rational choice an imperative for the study of ethnic conflict in these societies. As Anthony Giddens points out, postcolonial states differ from Western states in having less linguistic and cultural homogeneity. This has important consequences for postcolonial nationalism since any interpretation of origins can produce as much tension as it can create harmony (Giddens 1987:272–3).

Thus, an analysis of state formation is essential to understand ethnic politics and nation building in postcolonial states. In a seminal book, Crawford Young argues that the postcolonial state was a direct offspring of the colonial state, which had three defining features distinct from the “Westphalian” state: it was denied sovereignty; the ultimate power was vested in the colonizing state and not the nation; and finally it had no agency in the state system (Young 1994:43, also 283). Young emphasizes that postcolonial states not only inherited territorial boundaries and ethnic categorizations but also authoritarian government from the colonial state. The first agents of colonization were military members and logic of warfare dominated state reason since “effective occupation” became the basic criterion for colonial sovereignty in the competition among European powers. This phase was followed by the construction of regional administrations whose tasks were simply to impose a basic order and to extract taxes. The personnel for these administrations were recruited from military ranks and professionalization of colonial administrations did not occur until World War I (Young 1994:95–103). In this regard, one should ask whether the negative characteristics associated with quasi-states are in fact a legacy of the colonial state. Young acknowledges that new elements were soon added to the characteristics of the colonial state. In the 1970s postcolonial states adopted policies to transform their societies in line with modern and rational statecraft. These policies further sharpened the line between state and society and reduced the subjects to “passive citizens, whose civic obligations were enacted through public rituals of allegiance: support marches, applause for leaders, unanimous plebiscite votes for the ruler” (Young 1994:288). This process created what Young calls the “integral state.” Another characteristic of the postcolonial state was the patrimonial management of the ruler. According to Young, “the heart of the African state crisis of the 1980s lies in [the] lethal combination of the colonial state heritage, the failed vision of the integral state, and the prebendal realities of political management” (Young 1994:292). How African states will evolve in the future remains to be seen. However, as Carolyn Warner points out, there were multiple political organizations before the advent of colonialism in Africa. She emphasizes that scholarship should focus on communal self-identifications rather than definitions imposed by international law (Warner 2001). In this regard, ethnic identity lies in the center of the relationship between self-identification and state formation.

Horowitz emphasizes how colonial administrations introduced centralization, reduced intraethnic divisions, and increased interethnic differences. Particularly, the British method of “indirect rule” was based on the notion that the ethnic group was the basic administrative unit. Thus, under colonialism natural endowment, educational opportunities, and migration led to the creation and consolidation of large ethnic groups. Colonialism unified loosely connected regions and created an environment where colonial ethnic categorizations provided new identifications for subjects (Horowitz 2000:66). Moreover, under colonialism geographic location of ethnic groups, education opportunities, and migration policies created differential modernization of ethnic groups, leading to a dichotomy between backward and advanced groups. Advanced groups with access to trade and administrative posts became increasingly more demanding toward colonial administrations. Backward groups were slower in developing anticolonial sentiments and, therefore, were backed by colonial administrators. These tensions among advanced and backward groups had important consequences for the postcolonial ethnic conflicts (Horowitz 2000:149–66). Horowitz also recognizes that independence did not create democratic state structures and did not advance belief in the impartiality of state institutions. Thus, ethnic groups were politicized without socializing according to democratic values, exacerbating the distrust among these groups (Young 1994; Horowitz 2000:191–4).

Andreas Wimmer shows that the dominant ethnie can lead to the ethnicization of postcolonial bureaucracy and thus to the politicization of ethnic cleavages. This process unfolds especially in states where the formation of state bureaucracy precedes the emergence of a civil society. The legacy of authoritarian colonial administrations played an important role in the absence of civil society institutions and left no procedures to transform fundamental conflicts into negotiable ones (Wimmer 1997; also Prakash 1999). Thus, postcolonial state institutions do not reach to ethnic groups who base their legitimacy on traditional values. As they prevent political expression of ethnic identity, ethnic groups refuse to recognize the legitimacy of these institutions. This process results in the absence of mutually accepted procedures of resolving conflict, and ultimately the militarization of ethnic conflict erodes popular deliberative mechanisms within ethnic groups (Cockell 2000). This vicious circle leads to the reproduction of a neo-patrimonial state combining bureaucratic and patrimonial norms, which enables leaders to manipulate the public along ethnic lines as a guarantee of clientelistic loyalty (Bøås 1997).

Researchers focusing on the dominant ethnies stress the need for conceptualizing the minority–majority dynamics in ethnic politics. Statist approaches do not differentiate between the dominant ethnie and the nation, and fall short of explaining the shifts from dominant minorities to dominant majority ethnies. The dominant minorities who took over the authoritarian colonial regimes after decolonization employed a nationalist ideology to ensure the allegiance of majorities to the state. However, as the power shift to dominant ethnic majorities in the 1990s attests, nationalism was not always successful as a legitimating discourse (Kaufmann and Haklai 2008). The legitimacy deficit in states with dominant ethnic minorities and the transition from minority to majority rules is not only important to reveal the disenfranchisement of ethnic minorities (Tangseefa 2006) but also to analyze the changes in Western states due to the emergence of subordinate or dominant ethnic minorities due to globalization (Kaufmann and Haklai 2008).

David Laitin and Daniel Posner also explore the impact of colonial administration for postcolonial identity formation. In an attempt to combine sociological and rational choice approaches, Laitin introduces the Gramscian concept of hegemony to conceptualize the effect of colonialism on identity politics in Nigeria. Influenced by social Darwinism, British “indirect rule” stipulated that primitive societies be governed by tribal leaders, more developed societies by religious leaders, and fully developed societies by secular leaders. Based on this policy, the British rule in Nigeria identified tribal leaders as local leaders and the ancestral city as the prevalent social identity. While tribal leaders had legitimacy but lacked coercive power, the British had coercive power but lacked legitimacy. The combination of tribal leaders and colonial administrators yielded legitimate political authority (Laitin 1986:150–1). Admitting different colonial ruling strategies and different colonial societies will yield different political cleavages, Laitin argues that an exogenous power trying to rule a weak state will form an alliance with the elites who have legitimacy. And once a hegemonic political order comes into being it has long-term consequences (Laitin 1986:168).

Combining constructivism and rational choice, Posner argues that the salience of ethnic identities in postcolonial Africa can be explained by two processes: identity construction and identity choice. Identity construction is a long-term process involving subconscious social learning and conscious investment in group membership, while identity choice is a short-term process involving strategic choices made by individuals. Ethnic identities are situational and strategic. However, this finding led to a hesitation in the scholarship to generalize about why and how certain identities become salient. Posner suggests that a person will choose membership in a bigger group due to expected payoffs. He admits that this strategic choice might not account for all aspects of individual identity but he insists that it explains adequately the political competition among various ethnic identities (Posner 2005:1–25).

Posner demonstrates that tribal membership and language form the two aspects of ethnic identity in Africa. To explain the dynamics of tribal membership, Posner points to British colonial practices in Zambia that used indigenous chiefs to extract taxes from the male population, leading to the reinforcement of tribal identities not only in rural but also in urban areas. Fearing African unemployment, colonial administrations fostered urban–rural ties, which would provide a social support system for urban workers in sickness and in retirement. Moreover, colonial administrators believed that closer urban–rural ties would have less damaging effects on the paternalistic rural structure and circulate cash among rural districts. Thus, colonialism organized urban life according to tribal cleavages by establishing councils of tribal elders and tribal courts in urban and industrial areas. Facing the impossibility of remaining in the towns after employment urban workers had incentives to maintain these tribal connections. In order to account for linguistic communities, Posner again focuses on the colonial policies in Zambia, which created a linguistic landscape dominated by four languages out of one that consisted of more than fifty languages. He shows that missionary activity, colonial education policies, and labor migration led to the linguistic consolidation of the country. The colonial policies that led to the saliency of tribal identity and language groups also prevented the emergence of rural–urban divisions or class differences as political cleavages (Posner 2005:26–90).

After demonstrating the impact of colonial policies on identity construction, Posner explains the saliency of ethnic identity by the widespread expectation of ethnic favoritism that defines Zambian political behavior. The availability of multiple ethnic identities to individuals enables them to base their identity choices on cost–benefit calculations. Finally, Posner illustrates how changes in political institutions can alter the boundaries of the political arena and identity choices. In multiparty elections the electorate is broadened to include the entire nation, and thus political competition involves cleavages that define national-scale groups. In this context, political institutions influence the identity choices of Zambians who identify as members of either one of the country’s four language groups or seventy tribes: Zambian tribal identity becomes prevalent in rural areas in periods of one-party rule, while linguistic identities dominate in periods of multiparty rule (Posner 2005:91–160). Thus, accounting for identity construction and identity choice, Posner provides an account that emphasizes not only the importance of colonial legacies but also that of political institutions for ethnic politics in postcolonial states.

The importance of political institutions and the strategic construction and manipulation of ethnic identity is also emphasized by scholarship inspired by postcolonial theory. Sankaran Krishna studies how postcolonial political regimes favoring ethnic majorities cause ethnic conflict. In India the central government’s policies to include the Tamils in local government allowed the Tamil movement to move away from pursuing secession to seeking accommodation. In contrast, the increasingly majoritarian policies in Sri Lanka alienated the Tamils and caused the emergence of a secessionist movement. In postcolonial states nationalist discourses represent nation building as an endless effort and designate the state as being in a constant state of transition. In this respect, multiple ethnic identities are perceived as a threat to national unity and security. In India the central government used this perception to undermine opposition groups and even to instigate unrest (Krishna 1999:29; see also Chatterjee 1999b:111–12). Krishna’s analysis also demonstrates how India used ethnic politics as a foreign policy tool in order to build its hegemony in South Asia after the war with Pakistan in 1971. The emergence of Bangladesh affirmed the success of the Indian foreign policy of combining formal diplomacy with covert support for dissident ethnic groups in neighboring countries (Krishna 1999:26–7). India used the same strategy of destabilizing neighboring countries in Sri Lanka by supporting Tamil groups (Krishna 1999:103–28).

Insights from research on nationalism produced important theoretical contributions to constructivist approaches in international relations (Bloom 1990; Hall 1999). Similarly, postcolonial theory can contribute to international relations theory by exploring aspects of identity construction that are neglected in studies with exclusive focus on Western states. Krishna’s work exemplifies how postcolonial theory can be used in the study of ethnic conflict by combining both aspects of identity construction and strategizing, and how research on ethnicity and nationalism and postcolonial studies can benefit from closer dialogue. Moreover, postcolonial studies not only provide important insights into identity construction and manipulation, but also raise important epistemological and normative questions that need to be taken seriously by international relations scholars.

Postcolonial Theory and the Question of Knowledge

Postcolonial and subaltern studies question the knowledge claims made by area studies by criticizing their representational strategies of colonialism and the postcolonial situation. They pose a challenge for international relations as a discipline by questioning the knowledge–power nexus. They assert that the presumably “scientific” accounts of the non-West carry the ideological baggage of colonialism. What is needed therefore is to account first for the historical representation of the non-West in Western scientific discourse and produce a critique of this knowledge system as a legitimating and administrative discourse in the service of colonialism.

According to Sandra Harding, the postcolonial standpoint defends an interactionist global history against a Eurocentric isolationist history. Asserting that value neutrality is a culturally specific value, she argues that objectivity is not identical with value-neutrality. She proposes the standpoint which starts from marginalized lives as a strategy to maximize objectivity (Harding 1998). Marginality provides a standpoint against common sense (Bhabha 1994:292). Chandra Mohanty argues that “any discourse that sets up its own authorial subjects as the implicit referent i.e. yardstick by which to encode and represent cultural others [is] ethnocentric universalism.” “It is in this move,” Mohanty continues, “that power is exercised in discourse” (Mohanty 1991:55). In this regard, postcolonial approaches in international relations point out that the discipline ignores and “marginalizes the struggle of non-European peoples for economic justice and racial equality and discounts their historical experience of dispossession” (Darby 2004:3).

In his incorporation of postcolonial theory in international relations theory, Albert Paolini defines postcolonialism as “a Third Worldist discourse about modernity critically received” (Paolini 1999:7). Paolini groups postcolonial critique in two broad approaches. The first approach is grounded in anticolonial nationalism, which is interested in the constitution of self-identity and difference against the imperial project. Authors such as Frantz Fanon, Albert Memmi, and, partly, Edward Said are included in this first category. The second approach reflects the disillusionment in the postcolonial third world. Writers in this approach such as Homi Bhabha, Gayatri Spivak, Arjun Appadurai, Tejaswini Niranjana, and Kwame Anthony Appiah followed the writings of Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Lacan and defended a less totally oppositional standpoint. They rather emphasized hybridity and ambivalence (Paolini 1999:53–4).

Fanon identified the early principles of the postcolonial project as the rejection of the colonialist representations of otherness and the construction of agency against colonialism. Drawing on Freud, Fanon emphasized the emancipation of colonial subjects through resistance based on self-identity (Paolini 1999:66–8). Randolph Persaud used Fanon’s ideas to show that the key roles played by civilization and race in colonial domination were concealed by the realist ontology, which focuses on fixed universals such as interests, states, and power. Claiming that race and civilization still play an important role in the enclavization created by the globalization of production, Persaud argues that Fanon’s ideas can be used for a normative and transformative theory of international relations (Persaud 1997). Scholars emphasizing the importance of race in international relations point out the silence of the discipline regarding race and racism. Although race provided colonial powers with a discourse to establish a hierarchy of peoples and a criterion to deny sovereignty to the colonized, international relations currently neglects the historical racial context of its fundamental concepts such as nation-state and sovereignty. Postcolonial approaches point out that Japan’s proposal for unreserved recognition of the equality of races was vehemently rejected by Great Britain and France, which were eventually joined by Woodrow Wilson. However, postcolonial approaches emphasize that race and racism cannot be regarded as a historical phenomenon, as is usually presumed by “colorblind” scholars who argue that racial discrimination is a concern of a bygone era. Postcolonial scholars demonstrate that race as an analytical category can still be used to analyze global inequalities such as racialized markets, migration movements, the framing of gender and environmental issues, and resistance movements (Grovogui 2001; Krishna 2001; Watson 2001; Shaw 2002a; Hobson 2007; Chin 2009; Chowdhry and Rai 2009; Le Melle 2009; Mittelman 2009). Moreover, as exemplified by the Indian argument on “nuclear apartheid,” racial hierarchies still matter for international politics and security concerns (Biswas 2001).

Fanon’s ethos of resistance is shared by authors who emphasize the question of discourse and knowledge. However, Fanon’s use of Freudian psychoanalysis posits a challenge for postcolonial approaches. As Harold Lasswell emphasized in the 1930s, the anticolonial movement might not lead to full emancipation in the Freudian sense. He defines “emancipation” as the “release from an internalized symbol of authority […] when certain of the older superego patterns are thrust aside, and the personality has been restabilized on a new basis” (Lasswell 1965/1935:75). In comparison to domestic revolutions, in which the revolutionaries rise against their own cultural symbol of authority, the independence movements are not bound to the ruling foreign power with the same cultural ties and, therefore, are less iconoclastic (Lasswell 1965/1935:76). However, independence movements do involve “mass emancipations” defined as “passages from old to new symbols.” During these mass emancipations wholesale releases from superego or social conventions can occur, leading to violence, orgiastic sexuality, and property destruction. In this context, the independence movement can impose restraints upon this release through the reinstatement of new symbols and myths (Lasswell 1965/1935:77).

Postcolonial authors studying nationalism recognized the oppressive aspects of anticolonial nationalism inherited from colonialism (Chatterjee 1999a; Prakash 1999). The originality of Lasswell’s analysis lies in its anticipation of oppressive regimes in postcolonial states before the decolonization movement in the second half of the twentieth century.

For authors such as Edward Said, who are not only critical of colonialism but also of anticolonial nationalism, resistance involves the critical study of the colonial past and its representations. In contrast to Fanon, who dismisses any effort of colonial history as irrelevant for the emancipation through agency, this approach takes discursive analysis seriously as “writing back to” the empire (Paolini 1999:69–70). Drawing on Foucault, Edward Said in his Orientalism argues that discourse as a tradition not only produces knowledge but also a reality it appears to describe (Said 1994:94). Said delineates four dogmas of the discourse of Orientalism, which prevails over the literary representations, media coverage, historiography, and scientific study of the Middle East. The first dogma is the absolute and systematic difference between the West as rational, developed, humane, superior and the Orient as aberrant, undeveloped, and inferior. The second is the preference of general statements and abstractions over the direct evidence from modern Oriental experiences. The third is the presumption that the Orient is uniform, eternal, and incapable of defining itself, whereas the Western approach to the Orient is inevitable, objective, and scientific. The fourth dogma assumes that the Orient is at the bottom of something either to be feared or to be controlled (Said 1994:300–1).

Said refuses the call for a truthful representation of the Orient (Said 1994:12). He neither defends an “insider” against an “outsider” perspective nor searches for the reappropriation of the true self-identity of the Orient (Said 1994:322). He simply delineates the relations between colonialist practices and the body of knowledge about the Orient. Said’s work provides an important check for the self-reflection of scholars who are professionalized and socialized in one culture but devote themselves to the study of another (Kapp 1980:481). Said’s warnings about anachronistic imputations of meanings derived from ancient texts to contemporary political behavior are crucial for theorizing contemporary international politics (Said 1994:301, 318). Said eloquently criticizes contemporary depictions of Islam as essentially evil and aggressive or good and peaceful: “History, politics, and economics do not matter. Islam is Islam, the Orient is the Orient, please take all your ideas about a left and a right wing, revolutions, and change back to Disneyland” (Said 1994:107). In his later book, Culture and Imperialism, Said sets out to complement his study of Western representations with the history of resistance. Three topics are emphasized by Said: the construction of a whole and coherent history of community free of colonial contamination; the transformation of Western narratives on the Orient and the acknowledgment of marginalized histories; and the pull away from separatist nationalism toward an integrative view of humanity (Paolini 1999:55–6). In international relations several scholars used Said’s approach to develop a self-reflective methodology. They point to the need to adopt a critical standpoint toward political power, to historicize and contextualize knowledge, and to the responsibilities of scholars as public intellectuals (Biswas 2007; Chowdhry 2007; Duvall and Varadarajan 2007; Ling 2007).

The critique of Western representation of the non-West leads to the questioning of nationalism – a Western ideology – in the postcolony (also see Mudimbe 1994; Mignolo 1995). This critique constitutes the main problematique for Partha Chatterjee, who asks the question of why “colonial countries have no alternative but to try to approximate the given attributes of modernity when that very process of approximation means their constituted subjection under a world order which only sets their tasks for them and over which they have no control” (Chatterjee 1999a:10). Chatterjee distinguishes between the problematic and the thematic of an ideology. The problematic involves the identification of historical possibilities or the practical program of an ideology, which is justified with reference to its thematic. The thematic of an ideology denotes the validity claims raised by an ideology. It is both an epistemological and an ethical system, which provides a legitimate model for making inferences. Chatterjee claims that postcolonial nationalism changed the problematic but retained the thematic of nationalism. Therefore, postcolonial nationalism adheres to the same East–West divide of Orientalism. In Chatterjee’s words, “it reasons within a framework of knowledge whose representational structure corresponds to the very structure of power nationalist thought seeks to repudiate” (Chatterjee 1999a:38).

Chatterjee traces the development of Indian nationalism and argues that ending colonial rule did not resolve its inherent contradictions (Chatterjee 1999a:167–70). He employs Antonio Gramsci’s concept of the “passive revolution” to understand the social dynamics of nationalism and state building. Passive revolution denotes a condition in which “where an emergent bourgeoisie lacks the social conditions for establishing complete hegemony over the new nation, it resorts to a ‘passive revolution’, by attempting a ‘molecular transformation’ of the old dominant classes into partners in a new historical bloc and only a partial appropriation of the popular masses, in order first to create a state as the necessary precondition for the establishment of capitalism as the dominant mode of production” (Chatterjee 1999a:30). In Chatterjee’s view, “‘Passive revolution’ is the general form of transition from colonial to postcolonial states in the 20th century” (Chatterjee 1999a:50).

Chatterjee criticizes Marxist sociological and functional approaches to nationalism (notably Gellner and Anderson) for explaining postcolonial nationalism as merely the adoption of “modular forms of Western nationalism.” He argues that if this approach is valid, then there is not much left for the non-West to imagine. The imagination of the non-West will remain colonized forever. However, Chatterjee argues that anticolonial nationalism creates its own sovereign domain before its actual battle with the colonial state. It divides the social world into the material and the spiritual domains. The material is the domain of the outside: economy, statecraft, science, and technology. Here anticolonialism admits Western superiority and adopts its accomplishments. In contrast, the spiritual marks the domain of the inside: culture, religion, family. Here anticolonialism reasserts its distinctiveness, especially in the areas of language, education, and family. Thus, anticolonialism demands equality in the domain of the colonial state, which was based on the “colonial difference” between the rulers and the ruled. Simultaneously, however, it insists on the cultural difference with the West (Chatterjee 1999a:17–22; 1999b:3–13). Nevertheless, taxonomies of colonial rule distinguishing between various religions, languages, and tribes continue to be used by postcolonial politics (Chatterjee 1999b:224).

The disappointment with the postcolonial state and the diasporic experience in the metropolitan states led some postcolonial writers to question the concept of resistance. According to Bhabha, resistance is neither necessarily an oppositional political act nor the simple negation of the content of another culture. It is the effect of an ambivalence produced within the rules of recognition of dominant discourses, which articulate the signs of cultural difference. In this context, Bhabha emphasizes hybridity as “the revaluation of the assumption of colonial identity through the repetition of discriminatory identity effects. It unsettles the mimetic or narcissistic demands of colonial power but reimplicates its identifications in strategies of subversion that turn the gaze of the discriminated back upon the eye of power” (Bhabha 1995:34).

Thus, in Bhabha’s work, “mimicry” replaces Fanonian resistance. Mimicry is both a resemblance and a menace. It provides a way for the colonial subject to evade the full gaze of colonial power. On the one hand, the promiscuity of the colonial subject to the colonial power rules out any outright resistance; on the other hand, it also renders any chance of absolute rule impossible. In this regard, Achille Mbembe points out that the “baroque practices” of the postcolonial subject by virtue of being fundamentally ambiguous, mobile, and revisable can dodge even the most precise rules. Against postcolonial nationalism, Gayatri Spivak proposes “strategic essentialism” allowing some form of essentialized identity for resistance, but simultaneously recognizing the impossibility of any authentic or native identity (Paolini 1999:74–9). The concept of hybridity has been the target of criticism from Arif Dirlik, Aijaz Ahmad, and Sankaran Krishna. First, the postmodern orientation of this approach itself originates from Europe and risks marginalizing third world experiences yet again. Second, hybridity constructs another homogenized and generalized image of the third world. Finally, the postmodern critique of the subject undermines the agency of the third word peoples. Hybridity rules out any meaningful resistance (Paolini 1999:98–102).

The questions of representation and epistemology have important implications for international relations. First, representations can both be a source of power and facilitate certain policies. Tzvetan Todorov’s Conquest of America demonstrates lucidly how a handful of Spanish soldiers were able to conquer Mexico mainly through ideological means. Moreover, their representation of the natives sanctioned and justified Spanish conquest, oppression, and conversion (Todorov 1994). Second, the nexus between power and knowledge also raises epistemological questions. Albert Paolini argues that international relations remains predominantly state-centric and excessively Western in sensibility and orientation. In his view, a postcolonial approach has to integrate issues of culture and identity into the discipline (Paolini 1999:29–46; also Darby 2004). Using postcolonial approaches, Tarak Barkawi and Mark Laffey criticize the tendency of Western scholars to neglect the histories of third world people. In addition to its normative shortcomings, such a neglect also fails to identify the causes of important international conflicts by discarding the relational nature of armed conflict between the strong and the weak (Barkawi and Laffey 2006).

Roxanne Doty and Kevin Dunn provide good examples of the application of postcolonial approaches to the study of nationalism, state formation, and international politics. Doty’s concept of “imperial encounters” denotes asymmetrical encounters, where one entity can construct the realities to be taken seriously and the other entity is denied an equal degree or kind of agency (Doty 1996a:3). In this context, she argues that Enlightenment values have justified and made possible colonial domination (Doty 1996a:25). In the case of US colonialism over the Philippines, Doty demonstrates how race as a natural category was used to establish a hierarchy, in which the Filipinos were denied political agency. The Filipino insurgency was labeled as terrorism and the US was construed as having the responsibility to protect the childlike population from it (Doty 1996a:27–49). In the case of colonial Kenya, Doty analyzes how the “native body” was objectified in order to be put into use in economic activity. British colonial administration controlled land ownership by excluding Africans so that they would be forced to work for others (Doty 1996a:51–71).

Colonial discourses also enabled counterinsurgency tactics. Counterinsurgency is not only a tactic to intervene in an internal struggle, but involves the power to define what is considered legitimate dissent in a country (Doty 1996a:76). The US counterinsurgency in the Philippines redefined the meaning of sovereignty so as to make an intervention possible and legitimate. The Philippines was a third world country characterized by chaos, corruption, and ineptitude. In Kenya, British colonial administration used counterinsurgency tactics, including torture, against the Mau Mau movement by framing it as a hysteria stimulated by forest psychology (Doty 1996a:99–123). Doty’s work shows how colonial discourses continued to inform and shape Western discourses even after decolonization, especially in the political field of foreign aid, democracy, and human rights; and in the academic field. The attributes Jackson imputes to positive and negative sovereignty resemble closely the attributes ascribed by the colonial discourse to the colonizer and the colonized. Jackson’s classification procures justification for future interventions in the third world and conceals the ways in which the international system generates quasi-sovereignty through the asymmetrical relationships between the North and the South (Doty 1996a:145–62).

Similar to Doty, Kevin Dunn’s study on the Congo focuses on the politics of representation and emphasizes that the political space known as the Congo was a creation of the Western mind and not of African sociopolitical dynamics (Dunn 2003:8). Colonial discourses produced the Congolese as a knowable subject upon which the colonizer Belgium could act (Dunn 2003:18). Inventing the Congo also helped the construction of Belgian identity, which itself was a creation of great power politics in the post-Napoleonic European system. As the Belgian king Leopold II expressed, the Congo would prove to the world that Belgium was capable of colonizing like other great powers. The physical space, almost eighty times bigger than Belgium, was construed as unclaimed, empty, timeless, and thus antithetical to Western modernity and progress. Thus, out of preexisting African political organizations, which were multilayered and multiethnic, the Congo was created as a state within the prevailing Westphalian discourse. However, since the inhabitants of this territory were marked as savage, uncivilized, and childlike, the sovereignty was transferred to Leopold II. This transfer was legitimized in the European public through some 400 treaties signed by the king’s representative Henry Stanley and local African leaders (Dunn 2003:21–59).

Thus, Patrice Lumumba had to construct Congolese identity from the shared memories of colonial exploitation. Dunn argues that the US and Belgian intervention against Lumumba in 1960 reveals that they still possessed the international authorship of the Congo’s identity even after independence (Dunn 2003:61–103). In contrast, much of Mobutu’s success and construction of an authentic Zaire was possible thanks to the international discursive space not available to Lumumba. However, the invention of the traditional Zairian identity also risked fragmenting the multicultural country, since regional cultural identities bore little resemblance to the nation-state Congo. Interestingly, primary sources for Zairianization were Western, particularly Belgian, works. Moreover, this “ethnic” nationalism constituted a stark contrast to “civic” nationalism: the African legacy of the village headed by the chief was not compatible with Western democracies. Thus, Zaire was imagined as a family with Mobutu as the father. However, since his Zairianization project was not threatening to the West and even confirmed the Western image of Africa, his rule was accepted. Mobutu’s paternalism justified not only his repressive rule but also Belgian colonialism. In his search for international legitimacy, Mobutu used popular Western images of the Congo (Dunn 2003:105–38). Mobutu’s strategy of using ethnicity to preserve his rule was employed once more against the Kivu rebellion in 1996. This manipulation contributed to ethnic conflicts in the Great Lakes region. Dunn points out that Kabila, who succeeded Mobutu after his removal in 1997, also invoked an ethnically exclusionary Congolese identity (Dunn 2003:147–8).

Postcolonial approaches reveal that the politics of representation is at work simultaneously at all three levels: the international system, the state, and the individual. As such they not only analyze the third world but also offer important critiques to prevailing representations and assumptions in area studies, comparative politics, and international relations. First, postcolonial critique leads to the questioning of Western nationalism. Bhabha points out that every nationalism inherently contains tensions between the historicist temporality of its pedagogical aspect and repetitious, recursive strategy of its performative aspect (Bhabha 1994:297). In other words, on the one hand, nationalism in the West represents the nation as a historical entity, having reached its perfect form in the nation-state; on the other hand, nationalism constantly requires the reproduction of the nation. “The historical necessity of the idea of nation conflicts with the contingent and arbitrary signs and symbols that signify the affective life of the national culture” (Bhabha 1994:293). Nation building is not limited to the third world; the West also is continuously redefining and reproducing national identity (Doty 1996b).

Second, that state formation and nation building continues to reshape Western states has important implications for fundamental assumptions of international relations. The prevailing truism in the discipline assumes that the Westphalian system of sovereign nation-states displaced all other forms of statehood (Buzan 1998:229; Shaw 2000b). Studies of colonialism, however, point out that World War I was fought among the British, German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires. The Conferences in Berlin (1884–5) and Brussels (1890–91), which reflected the European consensus at the time, regulated imperial expansion (Cooper 2005c:171). “Europe in the 1870s was not a Europe of nation-states but of empires, old and would-be” (Cooper 2005c:182). France only became a nation-state in 1962, after giving up its last imperial territory, Algeria (Cooper 2005a:12, 22; 2005c:156). The political constraints, preferences, choices, and values of the empires were substantially different from those of nation-states. They had to incorporate difference in a polity stretching over vast areas and diverse populations. Empire in contrast to nation-states always had to balance the incorporation of people and territory and differentiation that maintained the power and coherence of the ruling (Cooper 2005a:11; 2005c:200).

Third, as recent critiques of the “Westphalian assumption” point out, “sovereignty has always been contested both with respect to the scope of authority exercised by states and by institutional arrangements that do not conform with exclusive territorial control” (Krasner 1993:238). The idea of sovereignty did not create a new alternative, but rather justified the pursuit of material interests. Postcolonial approaches emphasize that the justification process itself generates power and domination. Sovereignty as a social construct becomes a marker for third world inferiority (Doty 1996a; Dunn 2003). Jackson, for instance, assumes that in contrast to postcolonial states, colonial administrations had full territorial authority over the colonies as the metropolitan government had over its own European territory. He states that “by 1900 the number of sovereign states was at its lowest and the extent of their territorial control was at its greatest, enclosing the entire globe” (Jackson 1993a:55). Studies of colonialism highlight the weaknesses of the colonial state and their dependence on local knowledge (Cooper 2005c:184; 2005e:238–9).

Fourth, postcolonial approaches question the moral and political implications of the “expansion of the international society” thesis. Hans Morgenthau argued that:

the moral challenge emanating from Asia is in its essence a triumph of the moral ideas of the West. It is carried under the banner of two moral principles: national self-determination and social justice […] In the wake of its conquests, the West brought to Asia not only its technology and political institutions but also its principles of political morality. The nations of the West taught the peoples of Asia by their own example that the full development of the individual’s faculties depends upon the ability of the nation to which he belongs to determine of its own free will its political and cultural destinies, and that this national freedom is worth fighting for; and the people of Asia learned that lesson. The West taught the people of Asia also that poverty and misery are not God-given curses that man must passively accept but that they are largely man-made and can be remedied by man and most of the peoples of Asia learned that lesson too.”

(Morgenthau 1962/1948:359–60)

Postcolonial approaches reveal that the “expansion of Western values” involved repression, domination, and violence exerted upon colonial subjects. Thus, they warn IR scholars to be more self-critical about Eurocentric assumptions of the discipline and its epistemological underpinnings. Moreover, they emphasize that postcolonial approaches can offer a more critical and inclusionary humanist ethics (Manzo 1997).

The identification of the critique of Eurocentricism, however, does not grant discarding every intellectual trend originating in Europe as Eurocentric and imperialistic. As Chatterjee points out, the truth of colonial difference was produced within the framework of universal knowledge (Chatterjee 1999b:20, 32–4). He emphasizes “The story of Enlightenment in the colonies; it comes in the hands of the policeman, and the marriage is consummated in the station-house” (Chatterjee 1999a:168). However, the critique of modernity targeting a Eurocentric narrative of progress reproduces it by preserving it as a characteristic of European history to which all other histories have to respond (Cooper 2005a:6). Historian Frederick Cooper criticizes some postcolonial approaches for flattening out European history into a single post-Enlightenment narrative, in which a reference to Hegel suffices to reduce it to a claim of progress. The tension between the identity of the individuals bearing universal rights and cultural difference was an inherent debate of the Enlightenment (Cooper 2005a:20). Cooper insists that the Enlightenment did not imply a certain view of race or difference. It did not provide justification for the subordination of non-European societies on the basis of universalistic criteria or for the claim that cultural differences eliminate critique of different political practices in Europe or elsewhere. “What Enlightenment implied in its time – and since – was the necessity of having the debate” (Cooper 2005a:21).

Cooper criticizes the representation of a “homogenized coloniality,” which reproduces the Eurocentric global historiography (Cooper 2005a:26; 2005b:49–52). “To take the story of European colonization out of metanarratives of globalization, the triumph of the nation-state, colonial modernity, or post-Enlightenment reason is, in fact, to provincialize Europe” (Cooper 2005a:30). Such an approach also reveals the agency of colonial subjects in other areas than anticolonial nationalism. Labor movements in French Africa, for example, attest to the power of the colonial subjects demanding citizenship rights from the imperial center (Cooper 1999d).

Concluding Remarks

The issues raised by postcolonial approaches are relevant for international relations and the study of ethnicity and nationalism. Closer dialogue among these disciplines will greatly contribute to international relations theory and enhance our understanding of problems facing today’s third world. The studies of ethnicity and nationalism as well as postcolonial approaches emphasize the malleability of these identities and how they can be used for power politics. Constructivist, essentialist, and psychological approaches demonstrate how these political strategies are based on the human need to have an identity and the dynamics of group formation. In this respect, the study of ethnicity and nationalism in postcolonial states opens up a possibility to reformulate the basic assumptions and debates in international relations theory.


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Links to Digital Materials

Association for the Study of Ethnicity and Nationalism (ASEN). At, accessed Apr. 8, 2009. ASEN was founded by research students and academics in 1990 at the London School of Economics and Political Science. ASEN is composed of academics, researchers, students, journalists, and others directly concerned with advancing the study of ethnicity and nationalism. Its membership is international and multidisciplinary.

Voice of the Shuttle. At http:/, accessed Apr. 8, 2009. Contemporary postcolonial and postimperial literature in English, launched at the University of California, Santa Barbara. With a focus on literary theory this website offers a variety of links and information on basic concepts, themes, and theorists, and an extensive bibliography.

International Network in Colonial and Postcolonial Studies. At, accessed Apr. 8, 2009. Promotes and encourages collaborative research and teaching activity in the field of colonial and postcolonial studies between members of the Worldwide Universities Network (WUN). The network is characterized by a multi- and interdisciplinary ethos, encompassing all disciplines from across the arts and humanities, including history, English, modern languages and cultures, African studies and Afro-American studies, art history, music, theology and religious studies, philosophy, classics, politics and international relations, and sociology.

Institute of Postcolonial Studies. At, accessed Apr. 8, 2009. An autonomous educational institution located in Melbourne, Australia. It has linkages to major universities and research bodies both in Australia and internationally.

Postcolonial Studies, Emory University. At, accessed Apr. 8, 2009. Provides an introduction to major topics and issues in postcolonial studies.