The experience of Empire: the cultural turn and the impact of imperialism on the periphery

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The discourse approach

One might identify a specific discourse of race in the late nineteenth century; when people spoke of different ‘races’, they used similar language to express and transmit the ‘knowledge’ that white Anglo-Saxons were racially superior.

Michael Foucault expanded the definition of discourse to include all linguistic communication that may affect how one perceives and interacts with the real world. For example a job application may include tick boxes relating to ethnicity and race. Human society decides whether a biological, cultural or linguistic difference is significant enough to form a new classification, creating stereotypes which influence how people treat each other.
Foucault believed that the knowledge conveyed by a discourse is the result of power relations. Rules and regulated practices place limitations on what information is valid and can conceal other possible interpretations. An article written by an academic which has footnotes and appears in journals is considered more authoritative than an article that does not.

Certain individuals possess the right to speak authoritatively, for example a teacher carries more weight than a student. The Marxist linguistic Michel Pecheux carried out an experiment where he gave the same text to each student but he told one half of his students that the text was left-wing interpretation and the other half that it was right-wing. The students read the within the bounds that Pecheux had set them.    

The Orientalism approach

Edward Said identified a discourse of Orientalism in many colonial texts and argued that European authors had described colonial subjects and colonised countries in a negative way in order to make their own countries seem civilised. Said argued that the ‘Orient’ was an idea created by Europeans their perception of the East which often reinforced stereotypes of indigenous peoples and cultures and legitimised exploitation and dehumanised them. Enlightenment ideas of scientific truth enabled Orientalists to claim their view of the East was an objective ‘view’ thereby invalidating alternative interpretations.

The development of colonial discourse theory interpretation

Some argue that classifications such as the African ‘tribe’ and the ‘Hindoo caste’ were in fact European inventions as the political and social organisation in Africa varied, some communities were organised around a central state whereas many others were not. The hierarchy of caste in India was strengthened by the British as


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