The Scientific Shortcomings of Postcolonial Theory

Published date01 January 2023
Date01 January 2023
Subject MatterResearch Articles
International Studies
60(1) 113 –130, 2023
© 2023 Jawaharlal Nehru University
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DOI: 10.1177/00208817221142485
Research Article
The Scientific
Shortcomings of
Postcolonial Theory
Maximilian Felsch1
In the social sciences, there is a trend towards normative, identity based and
activist understanding of science. This trend is particularly evident in the rise of
postcolonial theory. This paper critically engages with its impact in International
Relations. Postcolonial theory aims to challenge established methodologies and
arguments in all social science disciplines but shows little interest in rigorous
research and the production of scientific knowledge. This paper highlights the
most fundamental flaws of postcolonial theory, such as ideological bias, the
application of blurred and one-sided concepts, the preference for anecdotal
evidence over empirical evidence and ignorance of the major social and political
trends of our time. Subsequently, it is argued that postcolonial theory contributes
to a distorted perception of reality. Perhaps, this article can stimulate a debate
about the function and scientific nature of social sciences at a time when feelings
and emotions, not facts, increasingly dominate academia.
Critique of postcolonial theory, International theory, Methodology, Post-truth,
Postcolonial theory, Postcolonialism
This article critically examines the growing influence of the postcolonial school
of thought in academia. Its different strands (postcolonial theory, postcolonial
studies, postcolonial thought, de-colonial thought and neo-colonial theory) have
gained prominence across the social sciences and beyond, including political
science, international studies, anthropology, sociology, area studies, geography,
history, philosophy, literature and art.
1 Political Science Department, Haigazian University, Beirut, Lebanon
Corresponding author:
Maximilian Felsch, Associate Professor and Coordinator of the Political Science Department,
Haigazian University, Beirut, Lebanon.
114 International Studies 60(1)
Many European universities offer graduate programmes in postcolonial studies
and run respective research units. This is particularly the case in the UK, for which
the Postcolonial Studies Association’s website lists 14 postcolonial university-
based research centres and 12 Master programmes in the field. Besides, more than
20 academic journals are more or less specialized in postcolonial studies. Statistics
aside, postcolonial ideas and frames have almost become mainstream in much of
today’s media and civil society organizations’ discourses.
Postcolonial theory (and its variants) emerged from anticolonial movements
(Young, 2016) and began as a critique of British imperial literature approach
(Bauchspies, 2007). As no other work, Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) inspired
and motivated intellectuals, particularly in Europe, to further research the impact
of Western colonization on communities in developing countries. Said’s main
criticism of the European Orientalists was their perception of the Orient as
mystical, irrational and backward, which, in his opinion, said more about Western
attitudes than about the realities of Middle Eastern societies.
Today’s postcolonial theory documents anticolonial thought and addresses
experiences and perceptions of formally colonized communities, which are
referred to as ‘subaltern’ and ‘indigenous’, since their knowledge and experiences
are regarded as oppressed, silenced, or simply ignored (Bauchspies, 2007). The
prefix ‘post’ is supposed to point to the continuing effect of power relations
between the former colonial powers and the formerly colonized, often identified
in continuing colonial discourses. Some of them establish a link to globalization
(During, 2000; Krishna, 2009). Homi Bhabha, one of the founders of postcolonial
studies, clarifies: ‘Postcolonial criticism bears witness to the unequal and uneven
forces of cultural representation involved in the contest for political and social
authority within the modern world order’ (Bhabha, 1994, p. 171).
As non-Western communities are arguably excluded from universal
epistemology, postcolonial theory also presents a fundamental critique of (social)
science and argues in favour of subaltern alternatives to what it regards as the
dominant Western knowledge and research (Spivak, 1988, pp. 197–221; Young,
2016, pp. 337–359). The discipline of IR, for example, is denounced as
‘Eurocentric’ (Seth, 2011) and a tool of power politics (Chernoff, 2005). What is
more, traditional IR, in particular Realism, is seen by some as a racist ‘white
man’s theory’ (Vitalis, 2015). In particular, the Realist and liberal concept of
anarchy is believed to erase non-Western history and to preserve neo-imperialism
and ‘racial hierarchy’ (Henderson, 2013). Therefore, postcolonial scholars
demand a ‘decolonization’ of IR (Jones, 2006).
Similar to other critical theories, postcolonial theory aspires to take sides for
the supposedly underprivileged and oppressed and pursues the agenda of their
liberalization and empowerment. Unlike Feminism and (Neo-)Marxism, however,
postcolonial theory is less interested in explaining social reality than in interpreting
it (Dirlik, 1994), and similar to gender studies and critical race theory, it assumes
a division of humanity into identity groups that compete with each other in a zero-
sum power game. Nevertheless, the theory can be credited for compelling the
social sciences to reflect on possible Western bias and privileges of white

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