HST6053: Debating Cultural Imperialism in the Nineteenth-Century British Empire

School Begins (Puck Magazine 1-25-1899)

15 credits

Module Leader: Esme Cleall

Module Summary

The nineteenth-century British Empire was ruled through a complex colonial bureaucracy, violent conquest, and exploitative economic relationships. But, arguably the most controversial element of British colonialism was its cultural projects. Missionaries, humanitarians, educationalists and doctors all had their own aspirations for indigenous people and came bearing 'western' and ostensibly very different ways of understanding the mind and the body. This module will introduce you to debates around cultural imperialism in the nineteenth-century British Empire. The seminars will explore the texts and issues around specific areas of ‘cultural’ intervention: religion; medicine; violence and what is discussed today as 'women’s rights'.

Module aims

This module aims to introduce you to an exciting and expanding field of research on the cultural influence Britain exerted over its colonial subjects. You will be introduced to postcolonial arguments about cultural influence and engage critically with complex debates about the cultural side of colonial intervention. The module aims to offer you guidance in the exploration of source-based problems as well as a forum for the exchange of informed views over issues which have generated scholarly debate and which often raise thorny moral questions today.

Learning outcomes

By the end of the module, you will be able to demonstrate:

  1. An understanding of themes, concepts, and approaches relevant to the cultural history of the British Empire and the lively debate about cultural imperialism;
  2. A critical awareness of theoretical and historiographical arguments around cultural imperialism and human rights imperialism and their legacies;
  3. A sophisticated engagement with case studies of cultural imperialism, such as questions about language; religion; medicine and women’s rights;
  4. An ability to present your ideas in seminars and contribute to group discussions of interpretive issues;
  5. An ability to construct arguments concisely and persuasively through the completion of assessed written work;
  6. An awareness of the contribution made by other academic disciplines - cultural studies, political science, postcolonial studies - to the field of colonial history.


Learning hours
Seminars Tutorials Independent Learning
10 1 139

The module will be taught in five, two-hour seminars. The first four seminars will focus around a specific areas of 'cultural' intervention: religion and missionaries; policing ritual violence; women’s rights and 'imperial feminism'; medicine and the body. The last class will invite you to reflect more generally on the issues raised and on the current debates around cultural and 'human rights' imperialism. Preparation for classes will involve reading both primary and secondary sources. Classes will enable you to research and present their ideas, share knowledge and debate controversial issues. You will, in addition, have individual tutorial contact with the module leader in order to discuss your written work for this module.


Assessment methods
Assessment % of final mark Length
Coursework 100% 3000 words

You will prepare a 3,000 word essay which explores key themes raised by an in-depth study of a particular topic in the debate about cultural imperialism in the British Empire. You will have individual tutorial contact with the module tutor in order to discuss your written work for this module and you are encouraged to approach the tutor for guidance in choosing and shaping your topic.


Selected reading

  • David Armitage, The Ideological Origins of the British Empire (Cambridge, 2000)
  • Carol A. Breckenridge and Peter van der Veer (eds), Orientalism and the Postcolonial Predicament: Perspectives on South Asia (Philadelphia, 1993)
  • Hilary M. Carey, Empires of Religion (Basingstoke, 2008)
  • Esme Cleall, Missionary Discourses of Difference: Negotiating Otherness in the British Empire, c.1840-1900 (London, 2012)
  • John Comaroff and Jean Comaroff, Of Revelation and Revolution, Volume I: Christianity, Colonialism, and Consciousness in South Africa (Chicago, 1991)
  • John Comaroff and Jean Comaroff, Of Revelation and Revolution, Volume II: The Dialectics of Modernity on a South African Frontier (Chicago, 1997)
  • Frederick Cooper and Ann Laura Stoler (eds), Tensions of Empire: Colonial Cultures in a Bourgeois World (London, 1997)
  • Martin Daunton and Rick Halpern (eds), Empire and Others: British Encounters with Indigenous Peoples, 1600-1850 (London, 1999)
  • Catherine Hall and Sonya Rose (eds), At Home with the Empire: Metropolitan Culture and the Imperial World (Cambridge, 2006)
  • Catherine Hall, Civilising Subjects: Metropole and Colony in the English Imagination, 1830-1867 (Chicago, 2002)
  • Catherine Hall (ed.), Cultures of Empire: A Reader (Manchester, 2009)
  • Ronald Hyam, Empire and Sexuality: The British Experience (Manchester, 1990)
  • Philippa Levine (ed.), Gender and Empire (Oxford, 2004)
  • John M. MacKenzie, Imperialism and Popular Culture (Manchester, 1986)
  • Kenan Malik, The Meaning of Race: Race, History and Culture in Western Society (Basingstoke, 1996)
  • Clare Midgley (ed.), Gender and Imperialism (Manchester, 1998)
  • Andrew Porter, Religion Versus Empire? British Protestant Missionaries and Overseas Expansion, 1700-1914 (Manchester, 2004)
  • Bernard Porter, The Absent-Minded Imperialists: Empire, Society and Culture in Britain (Oxford, 2004)
  • Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (London, 1993)
  • Edward Said, Orientalism (London, 1978)
  • Sarah Stockwell (ed.), The British Empire: Themes and Perspectives (Oxford, 2008)
  • Ann Laura Stoler, Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule (London, 2002)
  • Ann Laura Stoler, Race and the Education of Desire: Foucault’s History of Sexuality and the Colonial Order of Things (London, 1995)
  • J. Tomlinson, Cultural Imperialism: A Critical Introduction (1991)



*The content of our courses is reviewed annually to make sure it's up-to-date and relevant. Individual modules are occasionally updated or withdrawn. This is in response to discoveries through our world-leading research; funding changes; professional accreditation requirements; student or employer feedback; outcomes of reviews; and variations in staff or student numbers. In the event of any change we'll consult and inform students in good time and take reasonable steps to minimise disruption.