Internal Colonialism Essay

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The concepts of “internal colonies” and “internal colonization” embrace expansive interdisciplinary efforts to explain economic, class, cultural, and racial domination and subordination of groups and geographies within the boundaries of a single society. Internal colonies refer to geographic sites that are often spatially controlled, dominated, and destabilized cultural lifeworlds and to underdeveloped and exploited regions, communities, and groups. Internal colonies exist even when dominant and subordinated groups intermingle and geographies are blurred. Internal colonization refers to the historical and contemporary processes of maintaining domination and subordination. These explorations examine the incorporation and cross-fertilization of class, racial, and sexual domination in a country’s internal colonies; the role of the state, market, and dominant civic organizations in disciplining the colonial order; the presence of political subjugation; the function of legal and extra-legal forms of domination and violence; and the significance of ideology and culture.

Studies of internal colonies and internal colonization overlay a broad swath of groups and countries from blacks and Chicanos/as in the United States to Northern Ireland as an underdeveloped English internal colony. Studies utilize the concepts to investigate realities as disparate as the underdevelopment of poor children in public schools to environmental racism.

The concepts have a contentious history. Lenin, Marx, and Gramsci referred to internal colonies in their characterizations of peripheral underdeveloped areas in European countries. W. E. B. Du Bois, Robert Blauner, and other U.S. scholars employed a similar framework in looking at the underdevelopment of blacks.

Despite the promise of the initial conceptual developments, antipathy to Marxist analyses, particularly in the United States, limited the full integration of the concepts of internal colonies into the social sciences, public administration, and development studies. Even though some U.S. analysts at the turn of the 20th century encouraged the study of American colonization and empire, official exhortations and academic texts minimized the country’s colonizing history of Native Americans, Mexicans, blacks, Puerto Ricans, and Filipinos/as under the rubric of “American exceptionalism.” Furthermore, the cold war erected a particularly inhibiting barrier to the integration of the concepts. The United States promoted capitalist modernization as an alternative to socialism, promising newly independent countries that lessons learned from the history of Western industrialization translated into concrete, positive prescriptions for modern industrial development. Few American analysts, notably those shaping and writing the dominant theories and texts on race relations, attempted to show that the underdeveloped “ghettos”—Appalachia and similar peripheral areas in the United States—were not modernized by industrialization. U.S. diplomats also squashed efforts by blacks to present their case of internal underdevelopment to the United Nations.

The concepts reemerged in the 1960s and the 1970s, influenced by a confluence of events and studies, including the global anti-colonial struggles and the civil rights movement, especially the Black Power movement; new theories of colonial hegemony; renewed global interpretations of the core, periphery, and semiperiphery represented by dependency theories; world-systems theory and labor market segmentation; new historical interpretations of colonialism and imperialism; and the emergence of postcolonial studies.


  • Hechter, Michael. 1999. Internal Colonialism: The Celtic Fringe in British National Development. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

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