Empire in Asia

A New Global History

Colonialism in Question

Book Cover

Book Title

Colonialism in Question: Theory, Knowledge, History. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005


Cooper, Frederick


Cooper takes a highly theoretical approach to colonialism, providing a meta-analysis of colonial studies as an interdisciplinary field while defending the importance of the historical perspective. He critiques existing approaches to colonialism and problematizes the concepts most commonly used in existing literature: identity, globalization, and modernity. He actively avoids the Europe-centred narrative of “progress” as well as the abstract narrative frames of “rationality” and the “Enlightenment”, arguing that these methods suffocate discussion. For instance, assuming a linear development from empire to nation-state implies that nation-states were the only alternative to imperialism, when in fact—as Cooper shows in the case study of Senegal and France—leaders of social movements could work within the imperial framework and reform the imperial unit itself. In doing so, they changed this framework and contested the very concepts of empire. Ultimately, Cooper reminds us that the meanings of these concepts will always be internally changed by their usage. He also aims to spell out a larger range of possibilities and trajectories and to recognize a much wider imaginative space in the study of empire.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

Because Cooper’s discussion is heavily theoretical, there is no stipulated time frame or geographical boundary. However, he uses Senegal and France as a case study, and emphasizes in particular the repercussions of colonial histories on today’s nation-states. He is interested in what an understanding of colonial studies can tell us about modern multinational politics; thus, his examination of colonialism spills over into the world as we know it today. He also makes frequent references to “rationality”, “modernity”, and the Enlightenment, which are historically loaded concepts and which require contextual knowledge in order to extract the full essence of his argument.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

Cooper’s overarching argument is that current literature on colonialism has not explored all possibilities. It has instead been boxed in by flawed assumptions on the theoretical level. Cooper aims to revisit these assumptions and explore the parts of colonial imaginative space that have been neglected.

Firstly, Cooper tackles the three most utilized concepts in colonial studies: “identity”, “globalization”, and “modernity”. He points out that “identity” is always fluid and contested; more importantly, “globalization” and “modernity” have assumed a teleological, Europe-centered character which limits fruitful discussion about empire by implying that the end-goal of former colonies is their achievement of Western standards of living. He also attempts to reframe globalization as a concept, arguing that it is in fact linear and artificial in that it creates “containers” of interaction—the state—when there are many other fluid groupings scholars have failed to acknowledge. On that note, Cooper argues that existing literature about post-colonialism has limited its discussion of political mobilization to the nation-state, when in reality empire faced other alternatives, such as pan-Arabism or pan-Christianity and the proletariat. It was only in the 1960s that the nation-state became the clear favorite as a replacement of empire. Scholars also do not sufficiently acknowledge that empires faced challenges other than indigenous desires for independence in the form of nation-states; Senegal, for instance, turned French colonization into claims for French citizenship. France was then faced with the dilemma of either abandoning the colony, or granting the Senegalese the citizenship benefits they could not afford.

Cooper also strongly warns against the attribution of history to abstractions such as “modernity” and rationality” over human agency. This is hardly meaningful, as it denies human responsibility for the decisions made, and also fails to acknowledge the workings of various historical factors in the shaping of events and trends. 

Annotated by Jennifer Yip