What’s in a Name? Should We Distinguish Colonialism and Imperialism?

  • Krishan Kumar (Prof., Dr., University of Virginia)


Though popular and much scholarly usage does not distinguish between colonialism and imperialism, some scholars have argued for a clear analytical distinction between the two. A prominent example is the classicist Moses Finley, who especially wishes to define “colony” in terms that would distinguish it from “empire”. There are certainly some gains from attempting to do this, notably in emphasizing the distinctiveness of European “settler colonialism” from the fifteenth century onwards. But this article argues that there are also significant losses in trying to draw too hard and fast a line between colonialism and imperialism. It severely limits comparative possibilities, by excluding most of the empires of the ancient world as well as most non-Western empires, such as the Chinese Empire. There are considerabl continuities and overlaps between empires across a wide swathe of space and time; modern colonialism is a sub-species of empires in general, not a separate experience requiring special treatment. Our accounts would be the poorer if we adopt too restrictive a definition of colonialism, blinding us to the many ways in which it fits into the larger and longer story of empire.

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How to Cite

Kumar, K. (2020). What’s in a Name? Should We Distinguish Colonialism and Imperialism? . Comparativ, 30(3/4), 236–247. https://doi.org/10.26014/j.comp.2020.03-04.02