Whilst the ‘post-colonial’ critique is said to be bolstering the ‘cultural turn’ in human geography, reaffirming the importance of historical perspectives within the discipline, and bringing many new objects of study into critical play, there are also complaints about the type of work that post-colonialism is encouraging within and beyond geography. Clayton suggests that post-colonialism can be described as a powerful interdisciplinary mood in the social sciences and humanities that is refocusing attention on the imperial/colonial past, and critically revising an understanding of the place of the west in the world.
Yeoh (2000), however, points out that work on the historical geography of colonialism overshadows the difficult but crucial task of uncovering ‘the historical geographies of the colonised world’. Thus, the issue of what post-colonial study must include comes into question. Yeoh maintains that it is vital that geographers complement their deconstructive work on (and in) ‘the centre’ with research on (and at) the margins of empire and the agencies of the colonised. Furthermore, Perera (1998) argues that adding the prefix ‘post-‘ may impose ‘the continuity of foreign histories’.
Critics argue that the postcolonial discourse is out of touch with postcolonial realities and may itself serve to mask and at the same time perpetuate the presence of a Eurocentric pall over current efforts at (re-) constituting the world in discursive and material terms (Yeoh, 2003). As Shamsul (1998) proposes, ‘to have an academic discourse beyond ‘Orientalism’ and ‘Occidentalism’ is rather a tall order as long as we cannot break away and become totally independent of colonial knowledge’.
Yeoh (2003) continues to argue that the colonial project invaded and conquered territorial space and has systematically colonised indigenous epistemological spaces, reconstituting these using a wide corpus of colonial knowledge, policies and frameworks. With decolonisation, ex-colonies have regained political territory, but seldom the epistemological space. Thus, even if ‘other’ geographies are incorporated with the aim of forging a ‘post-colonial geography’, it is dubious whether such a feat is possible.
The discussion so far has served to highlight both the complexities of defining what is meant by ‘post-colonial’, whether such a state can or does at present exist, as well as the confounding problem of geography’s roots within a colonial/imperial discourse with a Eurocentric focus. This foundation within imperialist history has had numerous repercussions on the study and the structure of geography as a discipline.
As already noted, many of the international geopolitical issues of today, which are studied within the bounds of human geography, can be linked to colonialism in any. one of a number of ways as highlighted by Sidaway’s (2000) multiple postcolonial conditions. Furthermore, Pulido (2002) and Anderson (2002) draw attention to racism in geography. Pulido argues that the overwhelmingly white composition of the discipline has very real implications for both individual experiences and our intellectual production and disciplinary culture.
She notes the discipline’s role in imperialism as a historical obstacle to the study of race within geography and that an increased number of geographers of colour would enhance our disciplinary discourse on race. Anderson suggests that the ‘identity-targeting by race shows few signs of diminishing in the diverse societies shaped by the long legacy of European empire-building since the fifteenth century’. Thus, once more, the discipline is heavily influenced by past imperial imperatives including unconscious colonial practices and practitioners.
The discussion within this essay has highlighted many of the difficulties of attempting to forge a post-colonial geography. Primarily, the problem of definition of a post-colonial era arises. In many senses, we are far from living in a post-colonial society which would deem a ‘post-colonial’ geography impossible. There remain imperialistic tendencies throughout the modern global society manifested in the social and political structures of former colonies, internal colonies, and in breakaway settler colonies.
In addition, the term ‘neo-colonialism’ has become something of a buzzword in human geography with reference to studies of development strategies. In addition, the structure of the discipline of geography itself, founded as it was predominantly upon ideals of imperialism and exploitation, continues to reflect such trends. As Gregory argues, it is both a European and a Eurocentric science in the form in which it exists today. Concepts of ‘us and them’, which characterised imperialism, persist in many instances within the discipline.
Potter (2001) suggests that the ‘unproductive schism of essentially dichotomous thinking in British Geography has been apparent over the last fifty years and displays little sign of abatement as we enter the new millennium’. Prakash also maintains that this is unlikely to change in the future – ‘If ‘the west is now everywhere, within the West and outside’ (Nandy), then it is nai?? ve and politically self-defeating to expect a critique to arise from the ‘outside’, from some supposed uncontaminated postcolonial experience’ (Prakash, 1995). This would once more suggest that to forge a post-colonial geography is impossible.
Perhaps, however, the way forward is not to accept the paralysis of such an impasse but to take advantage of the ‘shape-shifting instability of the concept’ (Hau, 2000) and to strategically and critically mine this variegated field for insights and impulses (Yeoh, 2003). There is little doubt, however, that ‘postcolonial geographies’ pose important challenges to the world and to the discipline of geography, and the multifaceted task of decolonising geography will continue to be crucially important in the twentieth century (Blunt ; Wills, 2000).
Bibliography A. Blunt and J. Wills (2000) Dissenting Geographies D. Clayton (2003) Critical imperial and colonial geographies, in K. Anderson et al. (eds) The Handbook of Cultural Geography B. Yeoh (2003) Postcolonial geographies of place and migration, in K. Anderson et al. (eds) The Handbook of Cultural Geography J. Sidaway (2000)
Postcolonial geographies: an exploratory essay, PHG 24(4): 591-612 D. Gregory (1998) Power, Knowledge and Geography, Geographische Zeitschrift 86(2): 70-93J. Sidaway (1997) The (re)making of the western ‘geographic tradition’ Area 29(1): 72-80 R. Potter (2001) Geography and development: ‘core and periphery’?
Area 33(4): 422-39 S. P. Jones (2000) Why is it alright to do development’ over there’ but not ‘here’? Area 32(2): 239-42 K. Anderson (2002) The racialization of difference: enlarging the story field, Professional Geographer 54(1): 25-30 L. Pulido (2002) Reflections on a white discipline, Professional Geographer 54(1): 42-49.