Volume 9, Issue 4
Fall 2007

Colonialism in Question: Theory, Knowledge, History. Frederick Cooper. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. 327pp.

In this strongly analytical historiographical exploration of colonialism, Frederick Cooper challenges a range of accepted concepts, raising crucial questions concerning key issues of identity, globalization and modernity. Rather than taking a particular stance on many of these issues, he prefers to engage with them intellectually, opening them to questioning. In so doing, he draws out the complexities and distinctiveness of various forms of colonialism, taking on many of the beliefs which pass as ‘postcolonial theory.'

Colonialism in Question: Theory, Knowledge, History consists of three main sections. Addressing colonial studies and interdisciplinary scholarship, Cooper begins by giving a historical overview of the rise and fall of colonial studies, exploring the relationship between anthropology and colonial studies. He draws on and synthesizes the wealth of new scholarship in African, imperial and world history to argue for a more balanced and contextualized understanding of colonialism than that offered by the works of Partha Chatterjee, Homi Bhabha, Ranajit Guha, Franz Fanon, and Edward Said, as well as a number of historians who followed in their footsteps. Surveying recent scholarship on colonial studies, Cooper's study addresses the changing focus, not as a succession of turns, but instead as overlapping and often conflicting perspectives, all in relation to the shifting politics of decolonization.

Cooper suggests that the insights gained from several decades of critical theorizing about imperial formations, colonial difference and postcoloniality must be recognized, as he calls for greater conceptual clarity among all those interested in questions related to colonialism. The second part of the volume turns to three central and related concepts that, he argues, epitomize the current direction of scholarship in colonial studies and in other interdisciplinary areas of research. Rethinking the concepts of identity, globalisation and modernity, Cooper draws out the limitations of such concepts, problematizing a terminology which is so often taken forgranted. His use of case studies serves to illustrate the need for these categories to be understood in the often-conflicting ways in which they are deployed.

So it is that part three of Colonialism in Question moves from the critique of generalizing claims in the scholarship of colonial studies to examine the possibilities of history. Using two case studies, Cooper demonstrates a method of going about the study of colonial history without falling into the traps he identified earlier in his argument. The first is a wide-ranging comparative essay on the historiography of empire, from ancient Rome to the contemporary United States . It challenges the notion that ostensibly modern empires are inherently different from ancient or non-Western empires. A second case study draws on Cooper's previous research on post-World War II tensions between French and British imperial ambitions.

Although a challenging book that deals with often-difficult concepts, Colonialism in Question is clearly written and accessible on many different levels. A comprehensive introduction gives an overview of the topics covered in the book, while extensive notes expand on certain points, giving suggestions for further reading where necessary.

Charlotte Baker
University of Nottingham