Four Views of Imperialism and the Transformation of its Meaning

Leong Yew, Research Fellow, University Scholars Programme, National University of Singapore


1. Empirical Imperialism

This is the strict, historically specific, and territorially bound imperialism articulated by conventional historians, human geographers, and political scientists. With such an understanding, there is an immediate reference to particular events based on world social relations framed according to a division between a hegemonic metropolitan centre and a subordinate periphery. Because this conception of imperialism requires various tangible signs such as the imposition of colonial administrative structures, repatriation of colonial acquired funds and mineral resources, the stationing of outposts, and enactment of unfair treaties, the actors involved, definition, and physical extent of imperialism are easily quantifiable. In this regard, it recognizes the West European states and Britain, and possibly the United States as either erstwhile or current imperialist powers. It allows for such a definition as Tony Smith's:

Imperialism may be defined as the effective domination by a relatively strong state over a weaker people whom it does not control as it does its home population, or as the effort to secure such domination… [On] a political level, imperialism may be said to exist when a weaker people cannot act with respect to what it regards as fundamental domestic or foreign concerns for fear of foreign reprisals that it believes itself unable to counter… When imperialism manifests itself directly its presence is unambiguous enough: A political authority emanating from a foreign land sets itself up as locally sovereign, claiming the final right to determine and enforce the law over a people recognized as distinct from that of the imperial homeland. (6)

Furthermore, empirical imperialism makes it possible to declare "factually" that by the 1930s, the geographic reach of empire had covered 84.6% of the world's land surface (Fieldhouse, 373) or that postwar decolonization legalistically ended the era of high imperialism. By saying that this historical, geographical, or political view possesses certitude over what constitutes imperialism, it is not my intention to generalize or to ignore the myriad of disagreements subsisting within it. Although there may be a lack of agreement over such aspects as the causes or consequences of imperialism, or whether certain ambiguous action like Britain's in early 20th century China were imperialistic, there are undoubtedly essences (in the metaphysical sense) that retain purity it the meaning of imperialism. In other words, under this view one can speak about British or French imperial experience as if it could point unproblematically to a set of historical events.

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Last Modified: 9 April, 2002