Internal colonialism

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Internal colonialism is a term used to describe the distinct separation of the dominant core, from the periphery in an empire (Howe, 2002). This term derives from Colonialism which is "the subjugation by physical and psychological force of one culture by another... through military conquest of territory" (McMichael, 2012, p. 27). The term was created to describe the "blurred" lines between geographically close locations that are clearly different in terms of culture (Howe, 2002, p. 18). Some other factors that separate the core from the periphery are: language, religion, physical appearance, types and levels of technology, and sexual behaviour (Howe, 2002, p. 19).

For those familiar with the subject, 'internal colonialism' is a notion of structural political and economic inequalities between regions within a nation state. The term is used to describe the uneven effects of economic development on a regional basis, otherwise known as "uneven development", and to describe the exploitation of minority groups within a wider society. This is held to be similar to the relationship between metropole and colony, in colonialism proper.

According to Nicholas Thomas, who draws on the work of Michel Foucault, modernity can be understood as a colonialist project, wherein “societies internal to Western nations, and those they possessed, administered and reformed elsewhere”; and were framed as objects to be surveyed and regulated (Thomas, 1994: 4). The cultural and integrative nature of ‘internal colonialism’ is understood as a project of modernity, and has been explored by Robert Peckham, in relation to the formation of a ‘national’ modern Greek culture during the nineteenth century, when Greece gained independence from the Ottoman Empire (Peckham, 2004).

The first known use of the concept 'internal colonialism' was in 1957, in a book by Leo Marquard, regarding South Africa. However, widespread use followed the publication of an article on Mexico by Pablo González Casanova in 1965. Gonzalez Casanova was both critiqued by, and influenced Andre Gunder Frank, who further theorised internal colonialism as a form of "uneven development". Sergio Salvi, a poet, essayist, and historian of minority languages, used the term "internal colonies" in the cultural sense in Le nazioni proibite: Guida a dieci colonie interne dell'Europa occidentale ("The forbidden nations: Guide to ten internal colonies of western Europe") (1973), among which he included Catalonia, Scotland, Brittany and Occitania. Other pivotal works on the subject were published during the mid-1970s by Harold Wolpe and Michael Hechter.

An internal colony supposedly produces wealth for the benefit of those areas most closely associated with the state, usually the capital area.

The main difference between neocolonialism and internal colonialism is the source of exploitation. In the former, the control comes from outside the nation-state, while in the latter it comes from within.


Sri Lanka is a very good example of internal colonialism:

International Dimensions of the Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka, Prof John P. Neelsen (Tuebingen University, Germany), 20th European Conference on Modern South Asian Studies, 8–11 July 2008: A shortcoming in international law as to internal colonialism and the right to self-determination renders the current types of international intervention not just inadequate to contribute to a negotiated solution of ethnic conflicts, but tends to inflame them.

Power Sharing as Peace Structure: The Case of Sri Lanka, IICP Working Paper, No. 2, 2005, Johan Galtung, Professor of Peace Studies: ‘’External Colonialism: Democracy :: Internal Colonialism: Human Rights’’

National Liberation Movements in Global Context, Dr. Jeff Sluka, Massey University, New Zealand Proceedings of the Conference on 'Tamils in New Zealand', July 1996 - Wellington, New Zealand. This situation, where a state exploits and oppresses peoples and regions within their own boundaries much the way the European colonial powers used to exploit and oppress foreign colonies, has been described as "internal colonialism" (Hechter 1975). Sri Lanka is an example of this. Many Third World peoples found that after "independence" they had simply traded one set of oppressors (white) for another (brown and black). The result is that today many Third World states, most of them the direct or indirect result of national liberation wars themselves, are now fighting against national liberation movements within their borders.

Fourth World Colonialism, Indigenous Minorities And Tamil Separatism In Sri Lanka, Bryan Pfaffenberger (Virginia University), Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars, Vol. 16, 1984: Despite the withdrawal of colonial power from Third World countries, forms of oppression that might well be termed "colonial" still persist in many of them — the oppression wrought by nationalist Third World governments whose regimes fail to respect the rights of indigenous minorities. For ethnic and regional minorities in many Third World countries, the arrogance and injustice of these governments matches — and often exceeds — those of the departed European colonial regime. The island nation Sri Lanka presents a case in point. Little public investment appears to reach the Tamil lands….

Another example of internal colonialism is Ireland (Howe, 2002). Ireland was formerly a part of the United Kingdom (Howe, 2002). "It was far more common and apparently easier, to think of oneself as British and Irish" (Howe, 2002, 20). It was increasingly more difficult to choose between the two (Howe, 2002).

One of the exceptions of internal colonialism as the subsistence of 'blurred lines' between the core and periphery is, French Algeria. There were clearly distinct features separating the core from the periphery. "The core was Christian, French-speaking, light-skinned, and comparatively prosperous" (Howe, 2002, 19). The other side was Muslim, Arabic/ Berber-speaking, and significantly poorer (Howe, 2002). The grey section of French Algeria, was the large Jewish population which did not belong in either the core or periphery, in terms of common cultural factors (Howe, 2002).

A common topic amongst 'postcolonial' writers was their description of feelings, such as "schizophrenia" (Howe, 2002, 20). Being torn between local tradition, and global modernity (Howe, 2002).


  • Abercrombie, Nicholas, Stephan Hill & Bryan S. Turner (2000). The Penguin Dictionary of Sociology. 4th edition. London: Penguin Books.
  • Gonzalez Casanova, Pablo (1965). "Internal Colonialism and National Development", Studies in Comparative International Development, vol. 1, no. 4, pp. 27–37.
  • Gunder Frank, Andre (1970). Latin America: underdevelopment or revolution: essays on the development of underdevelopment and the immediate enemy, New York/London: Monthly Review Press.
  • Hechter, Michael (1975). Internal Colonialism: The Celtic Fringe in British National Development, Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Howe, S. (2002). Empire: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • McMichael, P. (2012). Development and Change: A Global Perspective (5th ed.). California: Sage Publications, Inc.
  • Marquard, Leo (1957). South Africa's Colonial Policy, Johannesburg: Institute of Race Relations.
  • Peckham, Robert (2004). “Internal Colonialism: Nation and Region in Nineteenth-Century Greece”, in Maria Todorova, Balkan Identities: Nation and Memory. New York: New York University Press, pp.41-59.
  • Thomas, Nicholas (1994). Colonialism’s Culture: Anthropology, Travel and Government. Cambridge: Polity.
  • Walls, David. (2008). "Central Appalachia: Internal Colony or Internal Periphery?" (web article), Sonoma State University. Access date: January 5, 2011.
  • Wolpe, Harold (1975). "The Theory of Internal Colonialism: The South African Case", in I. Oxhaal et al., Beyond the Sociology of Development. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.