Colonialism in Question: Theory, Knowledge, History

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Colonialism in Question: Theory, Knowledge, History. By Frederick Cooper. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. Pp. xii, 327; 4 illustrations. $50/£32.50 cloth; $19.95/£12.95 paper.

For most parts of Africa, colonial rule ended over forty years ago. Yet colonial studies endures, as historians, anthropologists, political scientists, literary scholars, and others try to understand the political, economic, social, and cultural dynamics of colonial conquest and rule, and how the legacies of the period shaped the present. The voluminous work of Frederick Cooper has been central to many of these debates, from his early work on labor struggles in first East and then West Africa, to his attention (with Ann Stoler) to the "tensions" of empire, to incisive studies of decolonization and development. Colonialism in Question marks his latest and perhaps most broad-ranging contribution to not just the study of colonialism, but its intellectual precursors and legacies-including empire, nation-states, modernity, identity, globalization, postcolonial ism, and poststructuralism.

The linked series of essays, framed by an engaging, pointed introduction and briefer, but impassioned conclusion, draw on the extraordinary breadth and depth of Cooper's comparative scholarship on Anglophone and Francophone Africa, and his voracious and sometimes searing reviews of a dazzling array of scholarly texts and perspectives. A key purpose of the book is to challenge all of us to clarify our language of analysis, in part by distinguishing "categories of practice" from "categories of analysis," but also by grounding our analysis in the details of our cases rather than obscuring our findings by appeal to such imprecise terms as "identity," "globalization," or "modernity" (each a separate essay topic in the volume). A second objective is to argue for and demonstrate the analytic and political value of "good history" (in contrast to the four ways of "doing history ahistorically" that he describes and denounces in the introduction: "story plucking," "leapfrogging legacies," "doing history backwards," and "the epochal fallacy"). …