Postcolonial Theory for Beginners

It might be random or merely related to the lunar cycle, but it seems that everything I’ve read this summer mentions “postcolonialism” in some form or another. And, to be truthful, I really don’t think I’m up to speed on the latest developments in postcolonial theory and am not entirely sure how they relate to the work I’m doing. I thought that I’d share some of my preliminary explorations on postcolonial theory in this posting.

So, what is postcolonialism? Finding a helpful definition was a little trickier than I thought. But I guess like any movement or area of research and intellectual thought, there are a myriad of perspectives, views, and ideas. I found Fidel Fajardo-Acosta‘s definition to be a good starting place. Postcolonialism is “a cultural, intellectual, political, and literary movement of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries characterized by the representation and analysis of the historical experiences and subjectivities of the victims, individuals and nations, of colonial power. Postcolonialism is marked by its resistance to colonialism and by the attempt to understand the historical and other conditions of its emergence as well as its lasting consequences.”

Notable theorists in postcolonial thought include Edward Said (who coined the term “Orientalism”), Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (known for defining terms such as “subaltern” and “essentialism”), and Homi K. Bhabha (especially known for his discussion of cultural hybridity).  Other major concepts and themes in postcolonial theory are power, subjectivity, identity, ethnicity, race, and nation.

In the context of health and health care, postcolonial theory can be helpful in understanding and addressing the social aspects of health and illness and inequalities in health. Postcolonial theoretical perspective can contribute to “understanding how continuities from the past shape the present context of health and health care” (Browne et al, 2005, p. 19)

Here are two recent papers which use postcolonial perspectives in a Canadian context.

The first describes a study exploring ways to improve health care for pregnant and parenting Aboriginal people in British Columbia (Smith et al, 2006). Postcolonial perspectives informed all aspects of the study from research question to study design to the writing of the research findings. Themes from the study included: pregnancy as an opportunity for change, safe health care places and relationships, responsive care, and safe and responsive interventions.

The authors comment in their discussion on how evaluation approaches of services and programs also need to change in response to analysis from postcolonial theory: “[C]olonizing approaches to evaluation attribute positive changes solely to health service organizations, and position Aboriginal communities and individuals as passive objects in care. Thus, outcomes reflecting both the values and priorities of Aboriginal participants as well as the more conventional outcomes for maternal and child health programs (such as the degree of infant attachment, or breastfeeding initiation and duration rates) must be included in order for care to be seen to make a difference.” (Smith et al, 2007, p. 324)

The second paper uses postcolonial theory to analyze traditional approaches to health promotion. In working with Aboriginal peoples, the authors argue that health promotion must be “linked to decolonization efforts, a process that centres on regaining political, cultural, economic and social self-determination as well as positive identities as individuals, families, communities and nations …. Decolonization can be seen as a solution that draws on ‘colonized time’ and ‘pre-colonized time’ addressing the legacy of colonialism and drawing on knowledge and practices from pre-colonial times.” The authors describe the development of a decolonizing approach to health promotion in the context of an urban community garden project in Vancouver, BC.

It is important to note that postcolonial theory is not only relevant to practitioners and researchers working with Aboriginal populations. The forces of colonization have had global effects and many of us have direct and indirect experiences of colonization that we bring with us from other parts of the world. At some level, it could be argued that we have all internalized colonization and we are both “the oppressor and the oppressed.” And, then, there’s “neo-colonialism”… But that’s a posting for another day.


Browne, A.J., Smye, V.L., and Varcoe, C. (2005). The Relevance of Postcolonial Theoretical Perspectives to Research in Aboriginal Health. Canadian Journal of Nursing Research, 37(4): 16-37.

Macey, D. (2000). Dictionary of Critical Theory.  London: Penguin Books.

Mundel, E. and Chapman, G.E. (2010). A decolonizing approach to health promotion in Canada: the case of the Urban Aboriginal Community Garden Project. Health Promotion International, 25(2): 166-173.

Smith, D.A., Edwards, N.C., Martens, P.J., and Varcoe, C. (2007). “Making a Difference”: A New Care Paradigm for Pregnant and Parenting Aboriginal People. Canadian Journal of Public Health, 98(4): 321-324.

3 thoughts on “Postcolonial Theory for Beginners

  1. Excellent for someone who has a basic understanding of postcolonialism! Do keep in the mind the important, yet subtle difference between post-colonial vs. postcolonial vs. post/colonial. Excellent work you have here.

  2. The authors critically examine the relevance of postcolonial theoretical perspectives to nursing research in the area of Aboriginal health. They discuss key theoretical underpinnings of postcolonial theory, citing differences and commonalities in postcolonial theory, postcolonial indigenous thinking, and other forms of critical theory. Drawing on insights from Aboriginal scholars, they critique the relevance of postcolonial discourses to issues of concern to Aboriginal peoples, and the potential limitations of those discourses.

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