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Edward Said and Orientalism

In his famous work Orientalism, the literary scholar Edward Said proposed that the nineteenth-century literary Western conceptions of ‘the Orient’ did not only reflect views of the past but had real and long-lasting social and political effects. Much of the information and knowledge about Islam and the Orient that was used by the colonial powers to justify their colonialism derived from Orientalist scholarship’. Indeed, he argued, that American foreign policy in the 1980s was still heavily shaped by the ‘orientalist’ perspectives of the 19th century. But Said’s work also became famous because he was one of the first to use Foucault’s notion of power/knowledge in combination with Gramsci’s Marxist concept of hegemony to explain how ‘orientalism’ works. Orientalism has produced one of the most vivid debates in academia and the public since the 1980s.


See Moodle for links to readings

Core Reading

Said, E., Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient (London, 1978), pp. 1-28 (‘Introduction’), pp. 31-49 (‘Knowing the Oriental’), pp. 73-92 (‘Projects’), pp. 92-110 (‘Crisis’)

Background Seminar Readings:

Claus, P., and J. Marriott, History: An Introduction to Theory, Method and Practice (Harlow, 2012), 98-102.

Iggers, G. G., A Global History of Modern Historiography (London, 2008), pp. 281-284, pp. 342-344.


Seminar/Essay Questions 

  • Said was a professor of comparative literature. Why, do you think, he is important to a module on historiography?
  • ‘The study of Orientalism is only relevant for those who study the Orient’. Discuss.
  • ‘There is no such place as the Orient’. Discuss.
  • According to Said, what does ‘representation’ mean? Why do ‘representations’ matter for the study of historical sources and the wirting of history?


Truffle Hunt

Said's Orientalism is principally a study of European representations of the 'Orient', which tracks the career of Orientalism not only as a tradition of research but also as a wider tradition of discourse. So an initial and useful entry point into researching 'Orientalist' representations might consist of examining the very texts Said talks about - eg. British Parliamentary debates about colonial possessions; Orientalist scholars like Anquetil-Duperron, William Jones, Edward William Lane and Silvestre Sacy; literary artists like Flaubert and Kipling; even revolutionary critics like Marx. The list is potentially endless, and many of these writers' works (including translations) will be easy enough to locate online. You could examine these texts, or part of them, and either test Said's hypotheses about them, or embark on independent explorations.

Orientalism of course extends beyond written discourse: its effects can be traced in works of art depicting the Orient, in material objects curated in museum collections, and so on. The holdings of the British Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London - as well as their online catalogues and images - might be useful.

There are also useful websites of primary historical materials that can be consulted. You might want to look at Empire Online in particular: its holdings extend from travel writings and memoirs to missionary accounts to government papers and correspondence. The website India, Raj and Empire is also useful. If you explore Warwick Library's extensive online databases you will find any number of 19th and 20th century newspapers, periodicals, government records - all of which should be useful for constructing your own sense of what Orientalism was.

A word of caution. Since studying Orientalism involves delving into a fraught and bloody history of colonial power and imperial authority (and the violent and often deeply racist ways in which these worked), it is often tempting to simply 'shoot from the hip', and to confine one's understanding to what one finds objectionable or 'problematic' about Orientalist/imperial texts and representations. While this may be a laudable moral attitude, it can often act as an unconscious barrier to serious research and understanding. If all Said had tried to do was show that Orientalism was 'bad', then there would be very little value to his work. To study Orientalism - as Said fully realized - meant understanding how it worked, how it held together, and the forces that gave it so much weight for so long. His work was an attempt to understand the power of Orientalist representations, and it's this attempt that gives his critique its value. So if you write an essay related to Saidian ideas, try to aim higher than a mere 'exposure' of what is racist or 'problematic' about a text or a painting. This is fine as a starting point, but if it's the destination for the essay you might fall into the loop of endlessly repeating the obvious. However 'objectionable' a source you're handling might be, it should be treated with great seriousness and care: indeed, the more objectionable it is, the more careful and scrupulous its handling should be.

to be completed soon

On ‘Orientalism’:

Ahmad, A., In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures (London, 1992)

Ashcroft, B., & Ahluwalia, P., Edward Said: The Paradox of Identity (London, 1999)

Bhaba, H., The Location of Culture (London, 1994)

Bove, P. A. (ed.), Edward Said and the Work of the Critic: Speaking Truth to Power (Durham NC, 2000)

Hart, W. D., Edward Said and the Religious Effects of Culture (Cambridge, 2000)

Heehs, P., ‘Shades of Orientalism: Paradoxes and Problems in Indian Historiography’, History & Theory 42 (2003), 169-95

Inden, R., Imagining India (Oxford, 1990)

Irwin, Robert, Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and its Discontents (New York, 2006)

Kennedy, V., Edward Said: A Critical Introduction (Oxford, 2000)

Macfie, A. L., Orientalism (London, 2002)

MacKenzie, J., Orientalism: History, Theory and the Arts (Manchester, 1995), esp. ch.1

Majeed, J., Ungoverned Imaginings: James Mill’s The History of British India and Orientalism (Oxford, 1992)

Moore-Gilbert, B., Postcolonial Theory: Contexts, Practices, Politics (London, 1997)

Said, E., ‘Orientalism Reconsidered’, in F. Barker et al (eds), Literature, Politics and Theory: Papers from the Essex Conference, 1976-84 (London, 1986), 210-29

Said, E., Out of Place: A Memoir (London, 2000)

Sardar, Z., Orientalism (Buckingham, 1999)

Sarkar, S., ‘Orientalism Revisited: Saidian Frameworks in the Writing of Modern Indian History’, Oxford Literary Review 16 (1994), 205-24. A critical view of Said’s impact on history-writing.

Spanos, W.V., The Legacy of Edward Said (Urbana-Champaign IL, 2009)

Sprinker, M. (ed.), Edward Said: A Critical Reader (Oxford, 1992)

Thomas, N., Colonialism's Culture: Anthropology, Travel and Government (Cambridge, 1994), esp. Intro & chs.1-2

Turner, B. S., Orientalism: Postmodernism and Globalism (London, 1994)

Williams, P. (ed.), Edward Said, 4 Vols. (London, 2001), esp. Vol. 2


On Hegemony and Alterity (the ‘Other’, ‘Otherness’)

Buci-Glucksman, C., ‘Hegemony and Consent’, in Sassoon, A. S. (ed.) Approaches to Gramsci (London, 1982), 116-126

Buruma, I. & Margalit, A., Occidentalism. A Short History of Anti-Westernism (London, 2004), esp. 1-12 (‘War against the West’) & 101-136 (‘The Wrath of God’)

Chartier, R., ‘Michel de Certeau: History, or, Knowledge of the Other’, in idem. On the Edge of the Cliff. History, Language and Practices, (Baltimore MD, 1997)

Hobsbawm, E. J., ‘Gramsci and Marxist Political Theory’, in A. S. Sassoon (ed.), Approaches to Gramsci (London, 1982), 20-36

Hochberg, G. Z., ‘Edward Said: “The Last Jewish Intellectual”. On Identity, Alterity, and the Politics of Memory’, Social Text, 87 (2006), 47-66

Jones, S. ‘Hegemony’, and ‘Hegemony in Practice’, in Antonio Gramsci ((London, 2006).

Lears, T. J., ‘The Concept of Cultural Hegemony: Problems and Possibilities’, The American Historical Review, 90:3 (1985), 567-593

Martin, C. G., ‘Orientalism and the Ethnographer. Said, Herodotus, and the Discourse of Alterity’, in J. Herron et al (eds), The Ends of Theory (Detroit MI), 86-103


The Reception of Edward Said: From Early Reviews of Orientalism to the Present

Asad, T., ‘Review [of Said, Orientalism]’, English Historical Review 95 (1980), 648-49

Clifford, J., ‘Review [of Said, Orientalism]’, History & Theory 19 (1980), 204-23

Gellner, E., ‘Review [of Said, Orientalism]’, Times Literary Supplement (19 Feb 1993)

Lewis, B., ‘The Question of Orientalism [Review of Said, Orientalism]’, New York Review of Books 29:11 (24 June 1982) [& cf. E. Said, C. Grober & B. Lewis, ‘Orientalism: An Exchange’, New York Review of Books 29:13 (12 Aug 1982)

Mani, L., & Frankenberg, R., ‘The Challenge of Orientalism’, Economy and Society 14 (1985), 174-92

Parry, B., ‘Problems in Current Theories of Colonial Discourse’, Oxford Literary Review, 9 (1987), 27-58

Varisco, D. M., Reading Orientalism: Said and the Unsaid (Washington DC), 2007.

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