Skip to main content Accessibility help

The postcolonial perspective: an introduction

  • Charlotte Epstein (a1)


In this article I consider what it means to theorise international politics from a postcolonial perspective, understood not as a unified body of thought or a new ‘-ism’ for IR, but as a ‘situated perspective’, where the particular of subjective, embodied experiences are foregrounded rather than erased in the theorising. What the postcolonial has to offer are ex-centred, post-Eurocentric sites for practices of situated critique. This casts a different light upon the makings of international orders and key epistemological schemes with which these have been studied in international relations (IR), such as ‘norms’. In this perspective colonisation appears as a foundational shaper of these orders, to a degree and with effects still under-appraised in the discipline. The postcolonial perspective is thus deeply historical, or rather genealogical, in its dual concerns with, first, the genesis of norms, or the processes by which particular behaviours come to be taken to be ‘normal’. Second, it is centrally concerned with the power relations implicated in the (re)drawing of boundaries between the normal and the strange or the unacceptable. Together, these concerns effectively shift the analysis of the ideational processes underpinning international orders from ‘norms’ to the dynamic and power-laden mechanisms of ‘normalisation’. In addition, I show how theorising international politics from a postcolonial perspective has implications for IR’s conceptions of time, identity, and its relationship to difference, as well as agency.


Corresponding author


Hide All
Acharya, Amitav. 2004. “How Ideas Spread: Whose Norms Matter? Norm Localization and Institutional Change in Asian Regionalism.” International Organization 58:239275.
Adler-Nissen, Rebecca. 2014. “Stigma Management in International Relations: Transgressive Identities, Norms and Order in International Society.” International Organization 68(1): 143176.
Aronowitz, Stanely. 1988. Science as Power: Discourse and ideology in Modern Society. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Bailey, Jennifer. 2008. “Arrested Development. The Case to End Commercial Whaling as a Case of Failed Norm Change.” European Journal of International Relations 14(2):289318.
Barnett, Michael. 2011. Empire of Humanity: A History of Humanitarianism. Ithaca, NJ: Cornell University Press.
Barnett, Michael and Finnemore, Kathyrn. 1999. “The Politics, Power, and Pathologies of International Organizations.” International Organization 53(4):699732.
Bartelson, Jens. 1995. A Genealogy of Sovereignty. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Bhabha, Homi. 2004. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge.
Blaney, David L., and Inayatullah, Naeem. 2012. “The Dark Heart of Kindness: The Social Construction of Deflection.” International Studies Perspectives 13(2):164175.
Bob, Clifford. 2012. The Global Right Wing and the Clash of World Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Chakrabaty, Dipesh. 2000. Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Crawford, Neta. 2002. Argument and Change in World Politics: Ethics, Decolonization, and Humanitarian Intervention. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Engelkamp, Stephan, Glaab, Katharina, and Renner, Judith. 2012. “In der Sprechstunde: Wie (kritische) Normenforschung ihre Stimme wiederfinden kann.” Zeitschrift für Internationale Beziehungen 19(2):101128.
Epstein, Charlotte. 2011. “Who Speaks? Discourse, the Subject and the Study of Identity in International Politics.” European Journal of International Relations 17(2):327350.
Epstein, Charlotte 2012. “Stop Telling us How to Behave: Socialization or Infantalization?International Studies Perspectives 13(2):135145.
Epstein, Charlotte 2013a. “Theorizing Agency in Hobbes’s Wake: The Rational Actor, the Self or the Speaking Subject?International Organization 67(2):286316.
Epstein, Charlotte 2013b. “Constructivism or the Eternal Return of Universals in International Relations. Why Returning to Language is Vital for Prolonging the Owl’s Flight.” European Journal of International Relations, special issue on The End of Theory? 19(3):499519.
Fanon, Frantz. 1952. Black Skin Whit e Masks. London: Pluto Press.
Fanon, F. 2002. Les Damnés de la Terre. Paris: La Découverte.
Finnemore, Martha, and Sikkink, Kathryn. 1998. “International Norm Dynamics and Political Change.” International Organization 52(4):887917.
Finnemore, M., and Sikkink, K. 2001. “Taking Stock: The Constructivist Research Program in International Relations and Comparative Politics.” Annual Review of Political Science 4:391416.
Foucault, Michel. 2009. Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France 1978–79. New York: Picador.
Gallagher, Julia. 2009. “Can Melanie Klein Help Us Understand Morality in IR?: Suggestions for a Psychoanalytic Interpretation of Why and How States Do Good.” Millennium 38(2):295316.
Haraway, Donna. 1988. “Situated Knowledges. The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspectives.” Feminist Studies 14(3):575599.
Hopf, Ted. 1998. “The Promise of Constructivism in International Relations Theory.” International Security 23(1):171200.
Inayatullah, Naeem, and Blaney, David. 2004. International Relations and the Problem of Difference. London and New York: Routledge.
Jabri, Vivienne. 2013. The Postcolonial Subject: Claiming Politics/Governing Others in Late Modernity. Milton Park and New York: Routledge.
Jabri, Vivienne 2011. “Cosmopolitan Politics, Security, Political Subjectivity.” European Journal of International Relations 18(4):625644.
Jackson, Robert. 1993. “The Weight of Ideas in Decolonization Normative Change in International Relations.” In Ideas and Foreign Policy, edited by Judith Goldstein, and Robert O. Keohane, 111138. Ithaca, NJ: Cornell University Press.
Katzenstein, Peter J. (ed.). 1996. The Culture of National Security. New York: Columbia University Press.
Landolt, Laura K. 2004. “(Mis)constructing the Third World? Constructivist Analysis of Norms Diffusion.” Third World Quarterly 25(3):579591.
Lecour Grandmaison, Olivier. 2005. Coloniser. Exterminer: Sur la guerre et l’Etat colonial. Paris: Fayard.
Lynn Doty, Roxanne. 1996. Imperial Encounters. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
MacKenzie, Megan, and Sesay, Mohamed. 2012. “No Amnesty From/For the International: The Production and Promotion of TRCs as an International Norm in Sierra Leone.” International Studies Perspectives 13(2):146163.
March, James G. and Olsen, Johan P. 1998. “Institutional Dynamics and International Political Orders.” International Organization 52(4):943969.
Matin, Kamran. 2013. “Redeeming the Universal: Postcolonialism and the Inner Life of Eurocentrism.” European Journal of International Relations 19(2):353377.
Mehta, Uday Singh. 1999. Liberalism and Empire. A Study in Nineteenth Century British Liberal Thought. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Milliken, Jennifer. 1999. “The Study of Discourse in International Relations: A Critique of Research and Methods.” European Journal of International Relations 5(2):225254.
Panke, Diana, and Risse, Thomas. 2007. “Liberalism.” In International Relations Theories, edited by Tim Dunne, Milja Kurki, and Steve Smith, 89108. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Park, Susan. 2005. “Norms Diffusion Within International Organizations: The Case of the World Bank.” Journal of International Relations and Development 8(2):111141.
Sajed, Alina. 2012. “The Post Always Rings Twice? The Algerian War, Poststructuralism, and the Postcolonial in IR Theory.” Review of International Studies 38:141163.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. 1943. L’Etre et le néant. Paris: Gallimard.
Shiva, Vandana. 1997. Biopiracy: The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge. Boston, MA: South End Press.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. 1998 [1981]. “French Feminism in an International Frame.” In Other Worlds, 184211. London: Routledge.
Taylor, Lucy. 2012. “Decolonizing International Relations: Perspectives from Latin America.” International Studies Review 14(3):386400.
wa Thiong’o’s, Ngũgĩ. 1986. Decolonising the Mind. London: J. Currey.
Weldes, Jutta, Laffey, Mark, Gusterson, Hugh, and Duvall, Raymond. (eds.). 1999. Culture of Insecurity. States, Communities and the Production of Danger. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Wendt, A.E. 1992. “Anarchy is What States Make of It: The Social Construction of Power Politics.” International Organizations 46(2):391425.
Widmaier, Wesley W., and Park, Susan. 2012. “Differences Beyond Theory: Structural, Strategic and Sentimental Approaches to Normative Change.” International Studies Perspective 13(2):123134.
Wiener, A. 2004. “Contested Compliance. Interventions on the Normative Structures of World Politics.” European Journal of International Relations 10(2):189234.
Wiener, A 2009. “Enacting Meaning-in-Use: Qualitative Research on Norms in International Relations.” Review of International Studies 35(1):175194.
Young, Robert J.C. 2003. Postcolonialism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Zarakol, Ayse. 2011. After Defeat: How the East Learned to Live with the West. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Zehfuss, Maja. 2002. Constructivism in International Relations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

International Theory
  • ISSN: 1752-9719
  • EISSN: 1752-9727
  • URL: /core/journals/international-theory
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed