What is Orientalism in Postcolonialism?

Orientalism, a concept coined by Edward Said in his influential book of the same name, has become a crucial aspect of postcolonial studies. Said’s work challenges the prevailing assumptions and stereotypes about the East that have been perpetuated by Western societies. This article aims to delve into the key ideas and arguments presented in Orientalism, while also exploring its significance in the field of postcolonial literary studies.

The Origins of Orientalism

The notion of Orientalism emerged in the 19th century when European scholars began translating and studying the writings of the East, believing that a comprehensive understanding of the conquered peoples was essential for effective colonial control. However, Said argues that Orientalism is not simply a collection of scholarly works but a systematic way of thinking and representing the East that is deeply rooted in political and ideological biases.

The Oriental as the “Other”

Central to Orientalism is the construction of the Oriental as the “Other”, an exotic and inferior figure in opposition to the Western self. The Oriental is often depicted as weak, feminine, and sexually dangerous, posing a threat to the purity of white, Western women. This portrayal is a sweeping generalization that overlooks the diversity of cultures and nations within the East, reducing them to a single, homogenized image.

Latent and Manifest Orientalism

Said distinguishes between latent and manifest Orientalism. Latent Orientalism refers to the unconscious and unquestioned assumptions about the Orient that are deeply ingrained in Western consciousness. These assumptions view the East as separate, eccentric, and inferior, constantly judged in comparison to the West. Manifest Orientalism, on the other hand, encompasses the explicit expressions and actions that stem from latent Orientalist thinking, shaping policies and knowledge about the Orient.

The Myth of the Oriental

The myth of the Oriental is a product of Orientalist scholarship, where the Orient is presented as a static, backward, and exotic entity. Western scholars essentialize the Orient, creating a cohesive whole out of diverse cultures and countries. This construction of the Oriental serves to justify Western domination and perpetuate power imbalances between the East and the West.

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Contemporary Orientalism

Said argues that Orientalism is not confined to the past but continues to influence contemporary Western representations of Arab cultures. The Arab is often depicted as irrational, menacing, and anti-Western, perpetuating the Orientalist stereotypes that have been ingrained in Western consciousness. These representations shape not only ideologies but also policies and actions towards the Arab world.

Said’s Project and Postcolonial Studies

Said’s project is to challenge the underlying assumptions and biases of Orientalist thinking. He rejects the generalizations, cultural constructions, and prejudices that form the foundation of Orientalism. However, this rejection does not deny the differences between the East and the West; instead, it calls for a more critical and objective evaluation of these differences. Said advocates for the use of narrative and self-representation by the Oriental, allowing their voices to be heard and challenging the dominance of Western scholarship.

Postcolonial Criticism and Orientalism

Orientalism has been instrumental in the development of postcolonial criticism as a whole. The field began with a combative spirit, rejecting Western hegemony and seeking to give voice to the colonized. However, it has since evolved to recognize the complex and intertwined histories between the colonizer and the colonized. Postcolonial criticism acknowledges that decolonization is not a simple process and that the effects of colonialism persist in various aspects of society, including language, bureaucracy, and economic development.

The Legacy of Orientalism

Said’s Orientalism has left an indelible mark on various academic disciplines, including literary studies, history, anthropology, sociology, area studies, and comparative religion. It has prompted a critical reevaluation of Western representations of the East and has opened up avenues for more nuanced and inclusive perspectives. Orientalism continues to be a vital concept in postcolonial studies, reminding scholars to question and challenge prevailing narratives and power structures.


In conclusion, Orientalism, as conceptualized by Edward Said, has revolutionized the field of postcolonial studies. By critiquing Western representations of the East, Said has shed light on the power dynamics and biases that underpin Orientalist thinking. His work invites scholars to examine their own assumptions and encourages a more inclusive and nuanced understanding of the East-West relationship. Orientalism remains a significant and enduring concept that continues to shape the discourse on postcolonialism and cultural studies.


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