Decolonising Geography LogoDecolonising Geography

What Is Decolonisation and Postcolonialism?

This post will explain what decolonisation and postcolonialism are and where they come from

A simple guide to the idea.

Friend of the blog Kit Rackely has made a great video that provides a great start to understanding the what decolonisation/postcolonialism is. I would thoroughly recommend watching it. This post will start to explain what the twin ideas of decolonisation and postcolonialism are and where they come from. Other posts will deal with issues surrounding these ideas and how they can be used in your classrooms.


Both ideas are a reaction to the way that most explanations for the rise of capitalism and world empires in Western Europe ignore and downplay non-European people and places. They are, as Gurminder K. Bhambra writes, from two distinct locations and intellectual traditions. Postcolonialism comes from South Asia and groups using ideas such as Orientalism and the Subaltern. Decolonisation comes from South America and is linked to World Systems Theory and the Frankfurt school of Marxism. These theories are clearly from those two places and both seek to undermine the idea that modernity emerged from Europe as a result of internal European factors.

What both ideas ask us as teachers and curriculum makers is to really think about what we are producing. They both see knowledge as a product of the societies and social groups that have power. When we look over our old textbooks in the cupboard there are clearly some very specific attitudes toward ethnicity, gender and the selective presentation of ‘far places’. What the postcolonial/decolonisation theorist do is ask where are these ideas from and embed ideas in social relations of power. If you are using a specific picture in your SOW on China then you are making a powerful choice to represent that country in a certain way. You are also yourself a product of power relations and we will all reflect the biases and world views that have shaped us.

What this leads to is a really careful and critical look at what our biases are. Geography educators Dr. Fran Martin and Dr. Fatima Pirbhai-Illich have written extensively on the need to and difficultly of interrogating our biases and an engagement with their work will help you to start on your own interrogation of biases. It is a tough process but one that is necessary if we are to provide our students with a truly welcoming classroom and critical education fit for the 21st century.

I would recommend anyone who wants to engage with the ideas of postcolonialism to read Dr. Tariq Jazeel‘s two articles in the GA’s Geography magazine (2012). His work can and should be a key component of the A Level Changing Places unit. I have radically altered how I teach migration as a result of reading his work and it has moved my department away from a simplisitic use of Lees model with Stacey Dooley showing us border crossings. Similarly, for those of us wanting to teach development in a broad and theoretically rich way should read the fantastic work of Dr. Pat Noxolo. Her work along with the work of Jason Hickell, Vandana Shiva, Amartya Sen and Kate Raworth are often overlooked by teachers who don’t realise that development isn’t just Keynesianism, World System Theory and Neoliberalism.

In the UK we are so lucky to have such exceptional academics producing amazing work and their ideas and expertise are allowing us to develop our students geographical lenses.

References and links

Tariq Jazeel