Although sociology came late to the study of empire, it would be erroneous to think that sociologists have made no significant contribution to discussions pertaining to imperialism or colonialism. Close to a half of the sociologists working in Britain, France, and their numerous colonies during the 1950s were directly involved in some kind of colonial research or another (Steinmetz, 2014:78). They played an important role in the research on development and under-development that emerged at the height of the decolonization period. They were also among the first to produce comparative historical research on colonies. For those sociologists interested particularly in historical and transnational analyses, empires represented an interesting subject that could not be avoided or ignored. This explains the emergence of a “self-described postcolonial sociology” focused primarily on the topic of colonialism and empire (Steinmetz, 2014:78).

Unlike anthropology that engaged in an assessment of its participation in the Western colonial project, “sociologists’ amnesia about their discipline’s engagement in the colonial empires set in almost immediately at the end of the colonial era (…)” (Steinmetz, 2014:78). Any sociological analysis pertaining to colonialism focused almost exclusively on the economic aspects of imperialism. Sociology’s own involvement in the colonial project was, for the most part, completely overlooked. Lately however, an impressive body of work on postcolonialism is starting to emerge in the discipline. Breaking away from traditional anthropological approaches, sociology focuses instead on the study of colonies as historical formations (Steinmetz, 2014:77). Sociologists insist on examining the interactions between colonizers and colonized in order to understand how both parties are being transformed by this encounter. Recent discussions of postcolonial sociology “question the applicability of Western social scientific concepts and theories to the global South and ask how sociology itself has been shaped by empire” (Steinmetz, 2014:77). It is becoming quite an effervescent subfield that cooperates closely with many other disciplines. It continually generates an impressive array of new theoretical, empirical, and methodological insights. Some of the emerging topics in this research domain include: interactions among different European empires, imperial urbanism, gender and familial relations and ideologies in imperial settings, postcolonial culture and literature, imperial violence, and new technologies of geopolitical domination (Steinmetz, 2014:93).

Postcolonial theory has been gaining ground in sociology since the early 1990s. While initially postcolonialism was incorporated into existing sociological endeavors—such as the study of migration and multiculturalism—four distinct postcolonial approaches have since gained traction in sociology. The first one examines how European ethnography, racism, social ontologies, and other aspects of culture have shaped colonial empires. The different imperial strategies used to shape these empires resulted in hybrid political formations. Sociologists study the transition from one imperial configuration to another in order to disclose the process through which the political landscape is rearranged and reorganized to fit the newly established imperial pattern (Steinmetz, 2014:82).

“An example of predominantly colonial strategies evolving into more imperialist approaches is the nineteenth-century British shift to an imperialism of free trade. The 1880s then saw a movement back to formal colonialism by Britain and other European powers. Another imperial pattern involves chartered companies. Such companies were created by investors for trade, exploration, and exploitation throughout the medieval and modern eras” (Steinmetz, 2014:82).

The colonial state is organized like a field. Its internal dynamics ensure the production of a constant stream of ethnographic representations and projects meant to facilitate and regulate native governance. These idées–forces define, according to Bourdieu, “the performative ideas that both represent and divide the social world” (Steinmetz, 2008:607). The modern colonial state becomes the sphere of production of a new kind of “noblesse de robe” (Bourdieu, 1996:377). This new nobility however finds its legitimacy in scholarly titles rather than “pedigrees of noble birth” (Steinmetz, 2008:607). The state helps to validate this new nobility by acknowledging its credentials and endorsing its claims to dominate the state.

The second approach explores the ambivalence inherent to the colonizer-colonized relationship and the forms of colonial hybridity that emanate from this rapport. In contemporary usage, the concept of colonialism refers to the conquest of a foreign territory and its native population, subsequently controlled and ruled over by members of the “conquering polity” (Steinmetz, 2014:79). The varying degrees of indirectness and informality, of said foreign rule, regulates the ramifications of the loss of sovereignty experienced by the indigenous population. An important characteristic of colonialism is the subservient position the natives are confined into. The conquered population is constituted as legally, administratively, socially, culturally, and biologically inferior to their occupiers. “All colonial states divide their subjects into different tribal or racial groups in an effort to enhance control, but at the same time the colonized are subsumed by the colonial state under a single, overarching category” (Steinmetz, 2014:80). All Western colonies practiced this rule of difference to maintain the status quo and prevent the colonized from ever attaining the same legal rights as their rulers. While some colonies haves shown a certain degree of flexibility in respect to the rule of difference, this tenet was generally more stringent during the nineteenth century than in previous eras.

“Even the supposedly assimilationist French Empire placed limits on genuine assimilation. In a historical study of the training of Algerian teachers in French Algeria inspired by Bourdieu’s sociology of education, Colonna (1975, pp.168-69) showed that the colonial power placed a specific limit on the path to acculturation one that defined the quality of scholarly excellence as being neither too close to the culture of origin nor too close to the culture of the West” (Steinmetz, 2014:80).

The third strand of postcolonial analysis in sociology criticizes Western knowledge as being inadequate for the task of understanding post-colonized non-Western cultures. Some even accuse Western thought of being antagonistic to the very existence of the non-Western world. This argument goes back to the German Romanticism of the eighteenth century, and was reclaimed a century later by certain schools in Central European anthropology (Steinmetz, 2014:93). “This critique of universal categories reached an apotheosis with interwar German neohistoricist sociologists (Steinmetz 2010), some of whom argued that all social scientific categories had to be unique to a single time and place (Freyer, 1926)” (Steinmetz, 2014:93). For some, this is the very reason why a Southern sociology focused on non-Western cultures is necessary. Others however, reject this line of thinking by arguing that a phenomenon like capitalism is “universalized and can be analyzed using the same concepts in the global South and the global North” (Steinmetz, 2014:93).

The fourth strand of postcolonial sociology focuses on the issue of imperial blowback, and Fanon’s observation pertaining to the reciprocal relationship between Europe and the Third World.  Eric de Dampierre (1968) argues for treating “the European, even metropolitan context, in counterpoint with the African context” (Steinmetz, 2014:94). This idea of cultural reciprocity between colony and metropole is a critical element in Said’s study of postcolonial methodology. While historians focused mainly on the impact of imperialism on the configuration of domestic cultures and politics, postcolonial critics such as Spivak, Said, and Gilroy concentrated instead on “metropolitan high culture” (Steinmetz, 2014:94). Sociologists on the other hand, choose to examine both the back flow of colonial culture in the metropoles, as well as the aftermath of colonialism in postcolonial societies.

An increasing number of sociologists are willing to engage in a self-critique of sociology as both a product of empire and an enabler of the colonial project. In fact, Alatas, Berque, Bourdieu, and Stavenhagen are amongst those who openly called for a decolonization of the discipline itself. Steinmetz however calls for caution against false generalizations and states that more empirical research is needed to truly ascertain and understand the role of sociologists in colonial empires. After all, many sociologists were ardent opponents of colonialism and were involved in the Anti-Imperialist League, which is often described as the precursor of the American Sociological Society.

“Bourdieu’s work on the relative autonomy of cultural field, which is inspiring some of the most interesting research in sociology today, is a key resource for preventing postcolonial sociology from failing back into reflectionist or one-sidedly ‘short circuit’ externalist approaches to the sociology of knowledge” (Steinmetz, 2014:94).



  • Steinmetz, George (2008). The Colonial State as a Social Field: Ethnographic Capital and Native Policy in the German Overseas Empire before 1914, Sociological Review, Vol.73, No.4, pp. 589-612.
  • Steinmetz, George (2014). The Sociology of Empires, Colonies, and Postcolonialism, Sociological Review, Vol.40, pp. 77-103.