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Negotiating social change: Ugandan discourses on Westernisation and neo-colonialism as forms of social critique*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 May 2012

Julia Vorhölter*
Institute for Social and Cultural Anthropology, Georg-August-University Göttingen, Theaterplatz 15, 37073 Göttingen, Germany


A common claim, in public discourses and in post-colonial theory, is that colonialism, and more recently the aid industry and the media, have created global hegemonic norms, which have been enforced on non-Western societies. While this may be true in some respects, this article takes a different stance on the debate. It scrutinises perceptions of Western-influenced social change in Uganda, and differentiates between discourses on Westernisation and discourses on neo-colonialism. Both are analysed as forms of social critique – one internally and the other externally oriented. The largely elitist discourse on neo-colonialism is explicitly critical of the West and its interventions in Uganda. But it is not representative of the more ambiguous perceptions of Westernisation among ‘ordinary’ people, who use references to the West to comment on contemporary Ugandan society. The article is based on empirical research in Northern Uganda. It focuses on discourses on gender, kinship and sexuality, and the recent debate on homosexuality.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2012

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This article benefited from valuable comments by Elfriede Hermann, Roman Loimeier, Sascha Kesseler, Ulrich Braukämper and two anonymous reviewers. Furthermore, I would like to thank my interlocutors and friends in Gulu for their support during my research.



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Newspapers (all published in Kampala)

Daily Monitor; New Vision; Rolling Stone.

Interviews (all conducted in Gulu Municipality unless otherwise stated)

David, male youth, urban, Level of Education (LoE): completed O-Level, 16.4.2010.

Esther, female adult, urban, Ker Kwaro Acholi Project Officer GBV, 23.3.2010.

James, male youth, urban, LoE: currently enrolled in Junior Secondary School, 30.4.2010.

John, male youth, urban, LoE: completed O-Level, 14.12.2010.

Julie, female adult, urban, NGO Forum – Gulu Youth Leadership Programme Officer, 23.3.2010.

Male elder 1, semi-urban, group discussion 28.6.2010.

Male elder 2, rural, group discussion 17.10.2010, Paicho, Gulu District.

Male elder 3, semi-urban, group discussion 28.6.2010.

Morris, male youth, urban (i.e. living in an urban setting), LoE: completed O-Level (Junior Secondary School), 21.4.2010.

Olara, male youth, urban, LoE: university student, 27.4.2010.

Opio, male elder, urban, 26.9.2010.