Orientalism Research Paper

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The term ‘Orientalism’ underwent a revolutionary shift in meaning after the publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism in 1978. Before Said, the term conveyed several meanings, all of them quite affirmative of the Orient and of those who pursued knowledge of Oriental culture. In one meaning, Orientalism denoted an academic specialization—the study of the Orient, which, in widest compass, included the Near East, the Indian subcontinent, and East Asia. The term also demarcated a Western art, music, and literary style influenced by Eastern esthetics and philosophy, as, for example, to be found in the New England Transcendentalists in the USA. Most positively, it referenced the appreciation by Europeans of the great learning of the East. This appreciation and respect was in evidence, for example, among eighteenth-century British colonial administrators in Eastern India, who celebrated the sacred philosophic writings they uncovered from Bengal’s ‘golden’ period, that is, from the period of Hindu rule before the Muslim conquest. In the nineteenth century, European affirmation of the Orient was expressed, for example, in Theosophy’s appreciation for the religious teachings of Eastern ‘Mahatmas’ (‘great souls’) (Campbell 1980). In the same century, Edward Carpenter praised the Orient for what today we would call alternative sexualities (Carpenter 1914). Nineteenth-century Orientalism also included scholarly research, such as that of Max Muller, in philology and philosophy that pinpointed the Orient, especially India, as the ultimate source of the Indo-Aryans and, subsequently, the Greek and Roman civilizations (Schwab 1984, Muller 1883). If politics adhered to the term in any way, it was in the supposition that Orientalists respected and conserved the cultural traditions they studied.



1. Orientalism After Said

Edward Said, a professor of comparative literature at Columbia University in New York and a major commentator on Near Eastern politics, especially the Palestinian question, radically altered the meaning of Orientalism. His book Orientalism questioned the reality of the place called the ‘Orient’ and turned Orientalism into a pejorative term that carried political meanings. ‘Orientalism’ acquired, so to speak, permanent quotation marks around it to indicate that it can never again be used in an unself-conscious, nonreflexive, and uncritical way. After Said, to be called an ‘Orientalist’ is very often not a compliment, it is an accusation. Drawing mainly on material from the Near East (but with implications far beyond), Said argued that ‘Orientalism’ is something very different from what its adherents claim it to be, and that it functions to create inequalities of which they might not have been aware. The literary, philological, and historical studies of the Orient, the travel accounts, the depictions of its religions and arts—these, Said says, pretend to reflect or represent the Orient when, in fact, they construct it—and the image of it they build up is of a place different from and inferior to the West. The Orient is thereby created as feminine (and, consequently, weak and uncourageous), childish, superstitious, traditional (and therefore backward), despotic, otherworldly (and therefore unchanging), and sensual (and therefore passionate, not rational). The result is a Western portrayal of the East that dominates it by claiming to truly represent it.

For Said, the Orient fashioned in Western scholarship is complicit with European colonialism. Both colonialism and ‘Orientalism’ exercise empire over the societies of the Near East, India, and East Asia. The exact relationship between colonialism and Orientalism is unclear in Said’s volume, as Aijaz Ahmad (1992) has noted. Said can be read to say either that the West’s image of the Orient preceded and facilitated colonial conquest or that colonialism and Orientalism developed in conjunction and were mutually supportive.

Said thus made the Orient disappear as a real object or place, and appear only as a fabrication of the West. At times, Said seems to allow that a real Orient exists, and at other times he seems to deny it (as Clifford 1988 points out), but the salient issue for Said is that ‘Orientalism’ exists—and dominates. Similarly, although Said has received criticism for seeming to deny entirely that Western scholars might represent the Orient truly, his important message is that the representations are stereotyped and conform to a customary discourse that extends over centuries.

Said’s Orientalism presents a critical viewpoint and an interpretive methodology that initiates the approach often called ‘postcolonial studies’ in today’s social science and humanities. In this approach, determining who controls knowledge and representation and who constructs representations in colonial situations is just as important as determining who owns the productive resources or who exercises the powers of government.

2. The Postcolonial Critique

Important criticisms, revisions, and elaborations of Said’s Orientalism have developed from such postcolonial studies, especially as geographical areas beyond the Near East have come under scrutiny. One major revision has been to bring a strong sense of history and process over time into Said’s basically literary and timeless approach. Said often presents Orientalism as nearly fully formed from its outset and as relatively stable over long periods of time. If ‘Orientalism’ is constructed, however, there must be a building process, and it needs to be chronicled. Tim Mitchell, for example, has provided such a history of how Europeans colonized Egypt in the nineteenth century by importing representations of time, language, texts, the body, and good society. Through this imported knowledge and understanding, they convinced Egyptians that their society and culture were different—as well as inferior (Mitchell 1991). Gauri Visvanathan (1989) traces the history of English education in India, and shows how Indian students learned in their textbooks and classrooms that Western culture was superior. Because studies like these show Orientalism as a historical process rather than a finished state, they break with Said’s understanding of it as an unbreachable discourse (a position he takes from Foucault). They also, however, recover his concept for meaningful historical analysis.

Other critics fault Said for presenting the West as monolithic and unchanging—in effect, he is said to represent the West in just as stereotyped and politicized a manner as he chastises Orientalists for doing to the East (see Clifford 1988 and Ahmad 1992).

One problem with Said’s stereotype of European Orientalism is that it does not distinguish between positive images of the East and negative ones. Although both types of images stereotype the Orient, the positive images often served Europeans as means by which to criticize their own society. These positive images also often allowed nationalists in India and elsewhere to combat the negative stereotypes of their societies (Fox 1992).

3. Orientalism’s Consequences

The other problem with Said’s stereotypic portrayal of Europe is that he does not see the consequences for Europe itself of the construction of Orientalism. Ashis Nandy (1983) has augmented Said’s approach by detailing the effects of colonialism, especially the effects of the representation made of the colonized, on European culture. Nandy argues (without using Said’s terminology) that the construction of images of the colonized, such as Orientalism, had profound effects on Europeans themselves. Because they stereotyped the East as feminine, passive, and cowardly, Europeans had to emphasize a violent, active, hypermasculinity as their distinctive character, and minimize what Nandy calls the ‘recessive’ feminine, nonviolent, and unaggressive elements. Nandy therefore adds two points to the analysis of ‘Orientalism’: that such constructions have consequences even for those who have the power to construct them; and that the object of Orientalism—that is, the Oriental—is involved in an intimate, if also unequal, relationship with the European perpetrator of Orientalism.

Nandy’s second point highlights the greatest limitation in Said’s initial presentation of Orientalism: he did not explore the effects of European Orientalism on the Orientals themselves. This European discourse had profound effects on the self-image of the people whom it referenced. They often came to think of themselves along the same Orientalist lines as did Europeans: as inferior and backward. Sometimes, therefore, they adopted a negative self-image, in keeping with Said’s understanding of the power of European representations. At other times, however, Orientalism could be the source of resistance to European domination. For example, Gandhi took many of the negative stereotypes about India incorporated into Orientalism and turned them into positive attributes (although they were still stereotypes): Oriental ‘otherworldliness’ became Eastern ‘spirituality’ and ‘passivity’ became ‘nonviolence’ (Fox 1989). Such reversals also indicate that Orientalist discourse as a vehicle of domination can be turned back on itself.

Said’s Orientalism signals an important epistemic break in Western social science and humanities, as is evident by the further research it inspired. His overall analytic remains an important entry point for under-standing the power of representations and the domination embedded in European conceptions of other places.


  1. Ahmad A 1992 In Theory: Classes Nations and Literatures. London, Verso
  2. Campbell B F 1980 Ancient Wisdom Revived: A History of the Theosophical Movement. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA
  3. Carpenter E 1914 Intermediate Types Among Primitive Folk: A Study in Social Evolution. Allen & Unwin, London
  4. Clifford J 1988 On orientalism The Predicament of Culture. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, pp. 255–76
  5. Fox R 1989 Gandhian Utopia. Beacon, Boston
  6. Fox R 1992 East of Said. In: Sprinker M (ed.) Edward Said, A Critical Reader. Basil Blackwell, London, pp. 144–56
  7. Mitchell T 1991 Colonizing Egypt. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA
  8. Muller M 1883 India, What Can It Teach Us? J.W. Lovell, New York
  9. Nandy A 1983 The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self Under Colonialism. Oxford University Press, Delhi, India
  10. Said E 1978 Orientalism, 1st edn. Pantheon Books, New York
  11. Schwab R 1984 The Oriental Renaissance: Europe’s Rediscovery of India and the East 1680–1880 [trans. Paterson-Black G, Reinking V]. Columbia University Press, New York
  12. Visvanathan G 1989 Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India. Columbia University Press, New York


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