ARTICLE 59: Research Methodology for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Post-colonialism

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

Was colonialism a success?

Who benefited from colonialism?

Who were damaged by the empire building process?

What would the empires and colonies of old have looked like if the transitive process did not take place?

Does it still matter or is it water under the bridge?

Questions like these show that there is lots of potential for interesting social research in the colonial past.

I discuss post-colonialism in the article.

Post-colonialism is the study of the impact of colonial rule on colonised people and how it impacted on their culture, economy, religion, government, etc. The key to post-colonialism, as to colonialism, can be found in the presence of any form of oppression. It is often a reaction to what especially the victims of colonial rule would regard as a variety of different injustices.

Post-colonialism is mostly based on a description of the colonial past, often by writers from the colonies; a tradition of gaining insight and knowledge by learning from the past. Ironically, it was academics from colonial powers that mostly studied and wrote about the social and political power relationships between the colonial powers and their colonies. This, however, gradually changed as colonies regained their freedom and started delivering their own academics, writers and researchers.

Post-colonialism is a set of approaches to the interpretation and understanding of colonialism that draws both continuities with, and challenges, the grand narratives of colonial rule.

Political power, cultural identity and culture are often the focus of post-colonial studies. The purpose of such studies is often the redress of injustices of the past and regaining cultural, intellectual, political, national and judicial independence and autonomous status. 

Both qualitative and quantitative research methods can be used to do research in post-colonialism.

Feminism, critical race theory, ethnomethodology and post-modernism are closely associated with post-colonialism in the sense that all these paradigms can be used to investigate oppression.

In a feministic vein post-colonialism is seen as an effort to subjugate women. In a critical race-theory vein, an attitude of superiority towards people of a different culture, gender, language, or colour are often indications of post-colonialism that can, and often should be researched with the aim of achieving equity and growth.

In an ethnomethodological vein post-colonialism focuses on common-sense reality as it plays out in interaction between people, i.e. social life.

In a post-modernistic vein, it is believed that independence and freedom are Western ideologies used to colonise foreign cultures.

Post-colonialism is a good example of a paradigm that exposes a rather unsettling disagreement amongst academics about the true meanings of paradigms. This can be found in discussions and arguments about paradigms in books, to some extent, and magazine articles, to a much larger extent. Different writers discuss paradigms from different perspectives and in different contexts, making it difficult to generalise about which paradigms are in opposition to which others and in terms of what criteria they differ. The disruptive nature of post-colonialism is yet another characteristic that it shares with post-modernism.

Post-colonialism, for example, differs from colonialism in the sense that it focuses more on the results of colonialism rather than the nature of colonialism as a philosophical point of view. It, furthermore, can be said to be in opposition to any of the technicist paradigms in the sense that it focuses more on the study of subjective interpretation of social interaction, whereas technicist paradigms, such as positivism, focus more on statistical analysis and cause and effect. Both, however, explore social reality. That is why claims to opposition or association between paradigms should be qualified, or at least understood as being true in a specific context and in terms of specific criteria. This means that the same paradigm can be associated with and opposed to a second paradigm. Even this, however, is not perfectly accurate because every opposition or association should be qualified.

Some writers focus on the disappointing results of colonialisation, for example inequalities, cultural conflicts, fragmentation and refugee problems, while others emphasise the benefits of colonialism, for example educational systems, infrastructure and technology as elements of post-colonialism. These, however, are often sensitive issues that lead to conflict and heated arguments.

Because of its historical nature (colonies belong in the past) research in post-colonialism leans heavily on written documents. Written documents invariably require a measure of deconstruction, which should not be a problem seeing that it is typical of virtually all qualitative research.

Some academics feel that most literature on colonialism is written by countries that were colonial powers. This, however, is rapidly changing as academics in colonies of the past increasingly write about topics such as colonialism, racism, discrimination, equity and justice.

Post-colonialism is also criticised for its obsession with national identity. Some researchers feel that national identity is a rather fluid concept that changes over time and, therefore, does not justify any claims to what could have been, or what could not have been, if a particular country was not colonised.


Post-colonialism mostly deals with oppression, learning from and describing the colonial past.

The research process focuses on interpretation and understanding.

Post-colonialism draws continuities with and challenges the grand narratives of colonial rule.

A quantitative or qualitative research approach can be followed.

However, a qualitative approach is preferred.

Post-colonialism can be associated with ethnomethodology, post-modernism, critical race theory and feminism. 

It is opposed to positivism and structuralism.

Criticism against post-colonialism includes:

  1. That it is too dependent on literature study.
  2. It is mostly written by die “wrongdoers”.
  3. It is often obsessed with national identity.
  4. And that colonization was a failure.

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