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  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: June 2014

Chapter 7 - Colonial society


It is impossible to speak of a single ‘colonial society’. In fact, the colonies were made up of a number of different societies. A large local population, itself often extremely heterogeneous, can be contrasted with a small minority of European (or American, or Japanese) inhabitants. These two groups were clearly delineated and separated, in theory and often in practice. Colonial policy was devised largely to produce and maintain this difference, although this does not necessarily mean that colonialism excluded the possibility of any kind of integration. In fact, the French policy of assimilation, practised most commonly in northern Africa, aimed to achieve cultural homogenization. (The policy was by no means egalitarian, however: Algerians who wanted to obtain French citizenship had to abandon Islam.) Integration went even further in the Japanese empire, where, according to the policy of assimilation (dôka), colonial subjects in Taiwan and Korea were, in principle, treated like Japanese citizens, though with some discriminatory limitations. This policy was based on ideological beliefs about ethnic affinity and the cultural closeness of eastern Asian countries with a shared history of Confucianism; and it was based on repression, as the forced name changes of Koreans testify. These examples show that colonialism could cover a wide range of different degrees of distinction and assimilation. These could range from integration, sometimes forcible, to apartheid. A tension existed between these different forms of colonial policy. But at a more fundamental level, this tension was an inherent part of the colonial project. Strategies of difference and of convergence, in complex and ambivalent ways, went hand in hand. The differentiation between the colonial masters and the colonized, a differentiation that was increasingly expressed in terms of ‘race’, stood in opposition to the concept of ‘elevation’ preached by the proponents of the cultural mission that was one of the main ideologies driving the colonial project. At the same time, the colonizers always felt that those at home suspected them of adapting too much to local conditions – of going native. This double tension – colonial difference vis-à-vis the civilizing mission on the one hand, and going native on the other – formed the deep ideological structure of colonialism.

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