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Why Study Colonialism?
Professor Leela Fernandes - Rutgers University
Department of Political Science & Women's and Gender Studies

The study of colonialism represents one of the most important ways of understanding the roots of contemporary global political and economic processes. Some of the most pressing issues that affect the world today, including political conflicts such as the Israeli-Arab conflict, the India-Pakistan conflict and nuclear arms race and the rise of "Third World" nationalisms are the historical legacies of colonialism. Meanwhile, some argue that the persistence of vast global economic disparities between and within nations can be traced back to both the effects of past forms of colonialism and the emergence of new forms of economic colonialism in the current world order in which we live. Is nationalism a threat to global peace or a necessary counteracting force to colonialism? Do multinational corporations represent a new form of economic colonialism? What models of nationalism and of economic development can lead to political stability and economic inequality? The study of colonialism is crucial in helping students to understand such questions and to begin to develop practical solutions that can bring about peace and stability in the world.

The module enables students to move beyond superficial answers and dig deeper into the complex historical factors that shape the central political and economic issues of today's world. It seeks to give students the tools both to understand the detailed histories of particular regions of the world as well to analyze broader international issues. The module is aimed at empowering students to become global citizens who can effectively navigate and respond to the very real complexities of an interconnected, globalized world.

Colonialism, as a historical phenomenon, conventionally refers to the expansion of European political influence and control over most of Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America that took place from the seventeenth century to the middle of the twentieth century. Such expansion first began through informal contacts and travel as European traders, missionaries and travelers began to establish a presence in the non-Western world. These informal relations soon evolved into formal political, economic and military control of these regions. The module enables students to understand the motives of the European powers, the differing strategies which these powers used to rule the native populations and the devastating effects that such rule had for these subjugated populations. European strategies of rule often differed in striking ways. Some forms of rule were direct forms of control over local populations while others were more indirect through native rulers who were selected or supported by the colonial powers. Some strategies such as those of Portuguese colonizers tried to substantially transform the local societies which they ruled, for instance through forced religious conversion, while others such as the British tried to use native religious and legal traditions as part of their system of colonial rule. All of the various strategies had critical effects on the colonized populations. The strategies of rule changed local social and economic practices and politicized cultural traditions as the colonized populations began to resist European rule. Some of the public issues which we see today such as debates over veiling and the rise of religious nationalism can be traced back to these dynamics during the colonial period.

A central issue which the module addresses is the rise of such resistance and of nationalism in response to colonialism. By focusing on this issue, the module begins to show students the intricate connections between the historical legacies of colonialism and the various forms of nationalism that emerged in response to colonialism and that continue to shape current global politics. Nationalist movements that led to decolonization and the emergence of independent nation-states in what became known as the "Third World," varied greatly, ranging from Gandhi's non-violent nationalism in India to more militant cases such as the Algerian nationalist resistance to France. The module helps students to understand different cases of nationalism and provides students with the tools to understand and assess the ongoing significance of nationalist politics in regions such as the Middle East. The module avoids simplistic responses and seeks to help students to carefully analyze the causes and implications of nationalism in different regions of the world.

Finally, the module addresses colonialism in terms of its economic dimensions. Colonialism had devastating economic effects on the colonized regions. European colonial powers were able to use the colonies as sources of raw materials and resources that fueled European industrialization. The colonies were thus kept in an economically dependent relationship with Europe that many have argued led to continued poverty and economic backwardness even after decolonization. More recently, some critics have argued that this kind of economic colonization continues today in new ways, such as through multinational corporations exploiting cheap labor and resources in non-Western countries and through international organizations such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank that have kept these countries weighed down by large debts. The module seeks to explore such dynamics in order to give students the tools to understand and debate global economic processes and to understand the ways in which such important international financial organizations work. In this process, students are also given the foundation to understand and assess the growing political resistance to these international organizations and the models of economic globalization that they advocate. Finally, the module enables students to devise practical solutions to these issues, for instance by working on projects to develop business strategies and models of development that can respond to the problems of past and present economic colonialism.

The study of colonialism can provide students with critical tools both to understand and respond to some of the pressing political and economic questions of the world. Such tools can empower students to develop practical solutions to problems that hinder global peace, stability and economic equality. In this way, the study of colonialism provides a central foundation for today's global citizen.


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