Colonialism in Question: Theory, Knowledge, History

By Saunders, Janice M. | African Studies Review, December 2006 | Go to article overview

Colonialism in Question: Theory, Knowledge, History


Saunders, Janice M., African Studies Review


Frederick Cooper. Colonialism in Question: Theory, Knowledge, History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. xii + 327. Index. $19.95. Paper.

With what could be called his "state of colonial historiography address," Frederick Cooper offers historians, as well as other professionals in the humanities and social sciences, an invaluable handbook of methodology. Although roughly one-quarter of the book (chapters 2, 3, and 4) has been previously published elsewhere, the inclusion of these essays furthers Cooper's overall purpose. He challenges us to rethink the way we research and write history, appealing to practitioners to use their skilled imagination and to consider "contested and contingent histories" (235), that is, various human visions and networks of interaction within spaces in time. I think it is fair to say, however, that while it examines some interesting episodes in the colonial history of Africa, Asia, and Europe, the book in its entirety holds little appeal for the lay person or general public. Such readers will probably find part 1 ("Colonial Studies and Interdisciplinary Scholarship") and part 2 ("Concepts in Question") difficult to digest. On the other hand, the third and final part, "The Possibilities of History," may well engross a lay audience, not to mention amateur historians. It includes, inter alia, an intriguing piece on the demise of the French empire in Africa.

But Cooper leaves little doubt that Colonialism in Question is really intended for graduate students and for working historians, inasmuch as he explicitly addresses issues of historiography. He reminds us, for example, how crucial it is in our research to utilize clear and powerful concepts that allow us to evaluate and explain situations, events, and behaviors in the most valid way possible. The author questions many of the widely employed ideological constructs in history, economics, and political science paradigms. Thus he contends that concepts such as "identity," "globalization," and "modernity" are so widely used under such varying circumstances that they are practically meaningless.

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