Postcolonialism and religion: in what ways are history and the contemporary world relevant not only to the topic of religion, but also to how we analyse and understand religions and cultures?


Episode notes

For some postcolonialism is merely a buzz word — perhaps like intersectionality — that is heard frequently but little understood.

For others it is quite simply a methodology, a way of looking to approach a series of questions about a topic. Or as a description of the composition and power relations of the contemporary world.

In historical terms, perhaps, postcolonialism is the world that has superseded the colonial era (whenever that may have been).

For those who identify most strongly with the term postcolonialism, however, it is much more than this — it is a framework that helps to generate the key questions of our studies, and to contextualise not only what we observe and think about, but also what we are doing as scholars looking at the topic of religion

Postcolonialism is certainly a historical tool for analysis and it relies on asking questions (and trying to analyse) a series of unequal power relations.

Postcolonialism relies on other approaches, such as gender studies, studies of race and racism, and in particular approaches that examine issues of intersectionality — between various categories, such as race, class, gender, culture, language, religion.

What this means in practice is that:

1) Those who are doing the study of religion in contexts in the non-western world have by necessity to understand what is meant by such a contemporary postcolonial context.

2) However, postcolonialism is not solely a study of the impact of colonialism on non-western societies. The impact of colonialism in earlier centuries, and the transformation of colonialism in the twentieth century to the present, has had an impact that has been important right across the globe.

3) But this is not only about history and the development of the political relationship (and imbalance) between the west and the non-west (i.e, the rest of the world — the west and the rest). A postcolonial approach is also about how we think, how we have been taught to think, and the assumptions that we make and take for granted.

In conclusion
We can understand the postcolonial in various different ways:

On a straightforward level, the postcolonial is a time — it refers to the contrast with the colonial era (roughly 1492 to 1945). Thus the postcolonial is the era after the fall of the British and other European empires, the age of less obvious empires — such as US power and hegemony (the Cold War, Vietnam, Iraq, etc.), and the rise of globalisation.

The postcolonial is also a geographical classification — it draws attention to non-European history and analysis. It aims to make us think less eurocentrically.

The postcolonial is also a way of asking how the history of European and American colonialism has produced what we think we know. It challenges our categories and theories, by dislocating our assumptions based on particular histories.

Postcolonialism is an approach that asks and examines how the colonial histories changed the world. It is not only about the colonial — now postcolonial societies — it is also how Europe itself is a product and beneficiary of this colonial and postcolonial history.


Useful links

Edward Said’s Orientalism

Gayatri Spivak, ‘Can the subaltern speak?‘(this is a complex and difficult paper to read, and you might wish to watch a YouTube video by Jason Campbell, where he goes into a lot of details trying to unpack the themes of Spivak’s paper)

If you would like to try out my other podcast, called History’s Ink, then click here


About the Religion Bites Podcast


Religion Bites is a podcast by Malory Nye, an academic and writer based in Perth, Scotland.

The Religion Bites podcast gives you quick and simple intros to the study of religion, to help you think a bit further about the issues of religion and culture in the contemporary world. If we want to understand today’s world, we need to ‘get’ why people are religious – why they ‘do religion’ in the many ways that religion is done. This is not a podcast about being religious, it is about understanding religion and the role that religion has in the contemporary world.