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World Development

Definition of Colonialism


While in 17th and 18th century the term ‘colony’ was applied to ‘plantations’ of settlers and then to any area to which European emigrants had traveled by numbers, it underwent a change in 19th century, when it was used to describe the African and Asian acquisitions of the great powers whether settled by the conquering country or not (Cain/Harrison 2001: 1). Accordingly, the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (1968) defines colonialism as follows:

„Colonialism is the establishment and maintenance, for an extended time, of rule over an alien people that is separate from and subordinate to the ruling power. It is no longer closely associated with the term ›coloni¬zation‹, which involves the settlement abroad of people from a mother country as in the case of the ancient Greek colonies or the Americas. Colonialism has now come to be identified with rule over peoples of different race inhabiting lands separated by salt water from the imperial center [...]“ (Emerson 1968: 1)

Chase-Dunn (1989: 226) defines colonialism as “the direct organization of formal political-military control over peripheral areas by core states”, a colonial empire as “an empire in which one of the core states within an interstate system exercises formal political domination over territories abroad” (ibid., 346). As such, colonialism is a specific form of the articulation of core-periphery-relations.

For the historian Osterhammel (1997):

„A colony is a new political organization created by invasion (conquest and/or settlement colonization) but built on pre-colonial conditions. Its alien rulers are in sustained dependence on a geographically remote ‚mother count¬ry’ or imperial center, which claims exclusive rights of ‚possession’ of the colony.“ (Osterhammel 1997: 10)
„Colonialism is a relationship of domination between an indigenous (or forcibly imported) majority and a minority of foreign invaders. The fundamental decisions affecting the lives of the colonized people are made and implemented by the colonial rulers in pursuit of interests that are often defined in a distant metropolis. Rejecting cultural compromises with the colonized population, the colonizers are convinced of their own superiority and of their ordained mandate to rule.“ (Osterhammel 1997: 16f)

Our Perspective

We follow these definitions insofar as we define political domination as crucial: Without a significant reduction of the level of political sovereignty, we would not speak of colonialism. This definition implies that not all forms of political, economic and social asymmetry and dependence fall under colonialism. We suggest a concept in which the level of intensification of political domination increases from level to level, the first one defined as semi-colonialism (level 1), indirect rule with little interference in internal affairs (level 2) and with strong inter-ference in internal affairs (level 3) and the fourth as direct rule (section 3). From an sociological viewpoint, the legal status of the colony (e.g., colony or protectorate) or the degree of formalization of political domination (“formal”/“informal”) is not crucial.

Our perspective is different from previous research insofar as we focus on the impact of colonialism on political, economic and social structures and processes during colonial domination.