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Week 9: Imperialism



Tutor: David Lambert


Imperialism is a concept that we all believe we understand. But its historical development in modern times, since the sixteenth century, has been more varied and complex than many of us fully realise. It is often thought of only in terms of European global expansion, yet it also has non-European forms that have had profound impacts in some parts of the globe. Wealth, power, technology, and race are key to understanding imperialism, but their configurations vary enormously from case to case. This seminar will consider the variety of imperialisms, and their historical development, and consider whether they are comparable to one another, and whether that comparison gives us any insights as to the impulse and trajectory of empire?


Questions to consider

Q1 To what extent was the ‘Great Divergence’ the catalyst for modern European imperialism?

Q2 Are there differences to be noted between European and non-European imperialisms?

Q3 Can empires be adequately compared, and what are the perils in doing so?

Q4 What is the point of difference between MacKenzie and Porter on popular imperialism in Britain, and why does this debate matter?



Read as much as you can from the ‘Imperialism and Empire’ section below. These readings have been chosen to give you a variety of approaches and theories about empire.

Then move to the case study on the idea of popular imperialism in Britain, from the 'Popular Imperialism in Britain' section. You MUST read at least one piece by MacKenzie and one piece by Porter, in order to understand the debate between them, but of course the more you read the better your understanding will be.

Imperialism and Empire

Barbara Bush, ‘Untangling imperialism: comparisons over time and space’, ch.1 from Barbara Bush, Imperialism and Postcolonialism (London, 2006).

Jane Burbank and Fred Cooper, ‘Imperial Trajectories’, in Empires in World History: power and the politics of difference (Princeton, 2010), pp. 1-22.

S. Reynolds, 'Empires: a problem of comparative history', Historical Research, Vol. 79, No. 204 (2006), pp. 151-165.

P. Wolfe, ‘History and Imperialism: a century of theory, from Marx to Postcolonialism’, The American Historical Review, Vol. 102, No. 2 (1997), pp. 388-420

J. Osterhammel, The Transformation of the World: a global history of the nineteenth century (Princeton, 2014), pp. 392-468.

C. Newbury, 'The semantics of international influence: informal empires reconsidered', in M. Twaddle (ed.), Imperialism, the State and the Third World (London, 1992).

Dag Henrichsen, Giorgio Miescher, Ciraj Rassool & Lorena Rizzo (2015) Rethinking Empire in Southern Africa, Journal of Southern African Studies, 41:3, 431-435,


Popular Imperialism in Britain:

J.M. MacKenzie, Propaganda and Empire: The Manipulation of British Public Opinion, 1880-1960 (Manchester, 1984), esp. introduction and chap. 7

Bernard Porter, ‘Empire, What Empire? Or, Why 80% of Early- and Mid-Victorians Were Deliberately Kept in Ignorance of It ’, Victorian Studies, 46, 2 (2004), pp. 256-263.

Bernard Porter, ‘Further Thoughts on Imperial Absent-mindedness’, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 36, 1 (2008), pp. 101-117.

J.M. MacKenzie, ‘Comfort and Conviction: A Response to Bernard Porter’, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 36, 4 (2008), pp. 659-668.

S.J. Potter, ‘Empires, Cultures and Identities in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Britain’, History Compass, Vol. 5, No. 1 (2007), pp. 51–71.

R. Price, ‘One Big Thing: Britain, Its Empire, and Their Imperial Culture’, Journal of British Studies, 45, 3 (2006), pp. 602-627.