Ambivalence in Postcolonialism: Navigating the Complexities of Power Relations

In postcolonial theory, the concept of ambivalence arises from the field of psychoanalysis. It refers to a continuous oscillation between desiring one thing and its opposite, as well as simultaneous attraction and repulsion towards an object, person, or action (Young, 1995: 161). Homi K. Bhabha, a prominent figure in colonial discourse theory, adapted this term to describe the complex mix of emotions characterizing the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized. Ambivalence challenges the simplistic binary of complicity and resistance, suggesting instead a fluctuating and nuanced dynamic within the colonial subject (Bhabha, 1994: 87).

The Ambivalent Relationship Between Colonizer and Colonized

The relationship between the colonizer and the colonized is characterized by ambivalence. The colonizer sees the colonized as both inferior and exotic, while the colonized regards the colonizer as both enviable and corrupt (Mitchell, n.d.). This ambivalence is rooted in the power dynamics of colonialism, where the colonizer seeks to dominate and control the colonized, but also finds fascination and attraction in the culture and resources of the colonized people.

Disrupting Colonial Domination: Ambivalence as a Challenge to Authority

Ambivalence poses a significant challenge to colonial domination as it disrupts the clear-cut authority of the colonizer. Colonial discourse aims to produce compliant subjects who mimic and reproduce the values and assumptions of the colonizer (Bhabha, 1994: 87). However, this desire for exact replication is met with ambivalence, as the mimicry of the colonized is never far from mockery. The fluctuating relationship between mimicry and mockery unsettles the foundations of colonial dominance and undermines its monolithic power (Bhabha, 1994: 87).

The Seeds of Destruction: Ambivalence and the Downfall of Colonialism

According to Bhabha, the inherent ambivalence in the colonial relationship generates the seeds of its own destruction. This proposition challenges the notion that resistance or rebellion from the colonized is the sole cause of disruption in the colonial relationship. Bhabha argues that colonial discourse is compelled to be ambivalent because it fears the complete replication of the colonizer by the colonized, which would pose a significant threat to its authority (Bhabha, 1994: 87).

Also Read: Appropriation and Abrogation in Postcolonial Literature

The conflict within imperialism itself, as exemplified by Charles Grant’s attempt to induce an empty imitation of English manners in Indian subjects, ultimately leads to an ambivalent situation that undermines and disrupts colonial power (Bhabha, 1994: 87).

Ambivalence and the Role of Hybridity

The concept of ambivalence is closely intertwined with the idea of hybridity. Just as ambivalence destabilizes authority, hybridity challenges the notion of a pure and singular colonial identity. When colonial discourse engages with other cultures, it becomes inflected by them, giving rise to hybrid forms of expression and identity (Bhabha, 1994: 87). For instance, Charles Grant’s suggestion to mix Christian doctrines with divisive caste practices demonstrates the hybrid nature of his approach and highlights the ambivalence inherent in colonial discourse (Bhabha, 1994: 87).

Implications of Ambivalence for the Colonizer and the Colonized

Ambivalence affects both the colonizer and the colonized. For the colonizer, ambivalence is an unwelcome aspect of colonial discourse as it disrupts the assumption of complete authority. The colonizer desires compliant subjects who mimic their values, but ambivalence produces subjects whose mimicry is tinged with mockery (Bhabha, 1994: 87). This challenges the colonizer’s power and authority, making ambivalence fundamentally unsettling for colonial dominance.

On the other hand, ambivalence is not necessarily disempowering for the colonized. It can be seen as “ambi-valent” or ‘two-powered’, suggesting that the colonized subject can navigate between complicity and resistance within the fluctuating terrain of colonial discourse (Bhabha, 1994: 87). Ambivalence enables the colonized to challenge and disrupt the authority of the colonizer, creating opportunities for agency and subversion.

The Role of Ambivalence in Shaping Postcolonial Discourse

Ambivalence has become a pivotal concept in postcolonial discourse, enabling a reconfiguration of power dynamics and challenging the monolithic authority of the colonizer. By recognizing the complexities of ambivalence, postcolonial scholars have been able to highlight the simultaneous attraction and repulsion within the colonial relationship, shedding light on the multifaceted nature of power and resistance (Young, 1995: 161).


Ambivalence plays a crucial role in postcolonial theory, offering insights into the complex dynamics between the colonizer and the colonized. It disrupts the clear-cut authority of colonial domination, challenging the desire for complete replication and undermining the foundations of colonial power.

Through the lens of ambivalence, postcolonial scholars navigate the complexities of power relations, resistance, and hybridity, shedding light on the multifaceted nature of the postcolonial experience. By embracing ambivalence, we can continue to challenge and dismantle the structures of colonial dominance, paving the way for a more inclusive and equitable future.


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