The problem


THE idea of intellectual imperialism is an important starting point for the understanding of the state and conditions of knowledge production in the Third World or Global South. Identified decades ago, it persists as a problem up till today. Furthermore, it is related to two other problems, those of academic dependency and the captive mind.

Among the earlier discussions on the problems was the 1968 issue of Seminar, which referred to the intellectual dominance that North American academics exerted over academics and others in other parts of the world.1 A year before that Johan Galtung defined scientific colonialism as ‘that process whereby the centre of gravity for the acquisition of knowledge about the nation is located outside the nation itself.’2 Another important work is that of the Indian scholar, Abdur Rahman, entitled Intellectual Colonisation.3

Intellectual imperialism and the related concept of the captive mind were further conceptualized by Syed Hussein Alatas.4 Intellectual imperialism is analogous to political and economic imperialism in that it refers to the ‘domination of one people by another in their world of thinking.’5 Intellectual imperialism was more direct in the colonial period, whereas today it has more to do with the West’s control of and influence over the flow of social scientific knowledge rather than its ownership and control of academic institutions. Indeed, this form of hegemony was ‘not imposed by the West through colonial domination, but accepted willingly with confident enthusiasm, by scholars and planners of the former colonial territories and even in the few countries that remained independent during that period.’6

Intellectual imperialism means at least two things. One has to do with the role of research and scholarship in the service of political and economic imperialism. This refers to the political dominance of foreign academics and their attempts to influence political processes in countries that they do research in.7 On the other hand, we may also think of intellectual imperialism as analogous to political and economic imperialism, that is, the ‘domination of one people by another in their world of thinking.’8 There are imperialistic relations in the world of the social sciences and humanities that parallel those in the world of international political economy.

Intellectual imperialism in this sense began in the colonial period with the setting up and direct control of schools, universities and publishing houses by the colonial powers in the colonies. It is for this reason that it is accurate to say that the ‘political and economic structure of imperialism generated a parallel structure in the way of thinking of the subjugated people.’ These parallels include the six main traits of exploitation, tutelage, conformity, secondary role of dominated intellectuals and scholars, rationalization of the civilizing mission, and the inferior talent of scholars from the home country specializing in studies of the colony.9

Today, intellectual imperialism is more indirect than direct. If, under political economic imperialism the colonial powers had direct control over the political systems, production and marketing of goods of the colonies, today that control is indirect via international law, the power of major commercial banks, the threat of military intervention by the major powers, and covert and clandestine operations by various governments of advanced nations. Similarly, it can be said that in the post colonial period what we have is intellectual neo-imperialism or intellectual neo-colonialism to the extent there is western monopolistic control of and influence over the nature and flows of social scientific knowledge, even though political independence has been achieved.

By the West, I do not refer to the entire western world. I am referring specifically to what we may call the contemporary knowledge powers, which are the United States, Great Britain and France. These are defined as countries which (i) generate large outputs of research in the form of scientific papers in peer-reviewed journals, books, and working and research papers; (ii) have a global reach ofthe ideas and information contained in these works; (iii) have the ability to influence the knowledge production of other countries due to the consumption of theworks originating in the powers; and (iv) command a great deal of recognition, respect and prestige both at home and abroad.

Looking at the past, we could possibly consider Germany and Spain as social science powers, to the extent that the former influenced knowledge production in Europe and North America from the 19th century up until the Second World War, and the latter to the extent that it dominated social thought in Latin America during the colonial period. Today, however, the global influence of German sociology is much diminished with the exception of those works that are successfully ‘marketed’ globally as a result of having been translated into English, and read and taught in the US and Great Britain. In the case of Latin America today, it is influenced more by French, German and American sociology than by Spanish ideas.

Today’s knowledge powers constitute a kind of ‘world system’ of knowledge in which the three core countries, that is, the United States, Great Britain and France, determine the nature of the discourse.10

 According to Garreau and Chekki, it is no coincidence that the great economic powers are also the great social science powers.11 This is only partially true as some economic powers are actually very peripheral as knowledge producers, Japan being an interesting example.There is, therefore, a centre-periphery continuum in the social sciences that corresponds roughly to the North-South divide.12 Kuwayama refers to the idea of the world system of anthropology in which ‘the centre of gravity for acquisition of knowledge about a people is located elsewhere.’13

If in the colonial past, academic imperialism was maintained via colonial power, today academic neo-colonialism is maintained via the condition of academic dependency. Academic dependency theory is a dependency theory of the global state of the social sciences. It defines academic dependency as a condition in which the knowledge production of certain scholarly communities are conditioned by the development and growth of knowledge of other scholarly communities to which the former is subjected. Then relations of interdependence between two or more scientific communities, and between these and global transactions in knowledge, assumes the form of dependency when some scientific communities (those located in the knowledge powers) can expand according to certain criteria of development and progress, while other scientific communities (such as those in the developing societies) can only do this as a reflection of that expansion, which generally has negative effects on their development according to the same criteria.

This definition of academic dependency parallels that of economic dependency in the classic form in which it was stated by Theotonio dos Santos:

‘By dependence we mean a situation in which the economy of certain countries is conditioned by the development and expansion of another economy, to which the former is subjected. The relation of interdependence between two or more economies, and between these and world trade, assumes the form of dependence when some countries (the dominant ones) can expand and be self-sustaining, while other countries (the dependent ones) can do this only as a reflection of this expansion, which can have either a positive or a negative effect on their immediate development.’14

What is crucial about the structure of academic dependency is the global knowledge division of labour which is founded on a three-fold division as follows: (a) the division between theoretical and empirical intellectual labour; (b) the division between other country and own country studies; and (c) the division between comparative and single case studies. The evidence to empirically verify that this division of labour is in operation in today’s global social science is not difficult to provide. For example, data can be gathered from social science and area study journals, textbooks and encyclopaedias. One can also cite personal and anecdotal evidence.

The first characteristic refers to the phenomenon of social scientists in the social science powers engaging in both theoretical as well as empirical research while their counterparts in the Third World do mainly empirical research. A glance at several issues of leading theory journals in the various disciplines of the social sciences will reveal this. Most of the authors would be based in universities in the US, despite the fact that the journals often call for submissions in all areas of social thought and social theory and do not specify any particular theoretical or geographical area of interest.

The second characteristic refers to the fact that scholars in First World countries undertake studies of both their own countries as well as other countries, while scholars in the Third World tend to confine themselves to research on their own countries. The third characteristic refers to the far greater frequency of comparative work in the West as compared to generally single case studies which almost always coincide with own country studies in the Third World. The distribution of authors by country of residence for many journals that publish comparative studies would show some trends along the lines of the second and third characteristics described earlier. Most of the authors would be based in the US, the UK and Europe.

The mode of conditioning and subjection of the social sciences in academically-dominated countries depends on the dimensions of academic dependency that are operating. While there has been recognition of the phenomenon of academic dependency, there have been few attempts to delineate its structure. Among the exceptions are the works of Altbach (1975) and Garreau (1985, 1988, 1991) and Alatas (2003).15

The dimensions of academic dependency can be listed as follows: (i) dependence on ideas; (ii) dependence on the media of ideas; (iii) dependence on the technology of education; (iv) dependence on aid for research as well as teaching; (v) dependence on investment in education; (vi) dependence of recognition; and (vii) dependence of Third World social scientists on demand in the knowledge powers for their skills (brain drain).16

The first dimension refers to the dependence on ideas at the various levels of social scientific activity, that is, metatheory, theory, empirical social science and applied social science. In both teaching and research, knowledge at all these levels overwhelmingly originates from the US and the UK and, in the case of the former French colonies, France. There is hardly any original metatheoretical or theoretical analysis emerging from the Third World. While there is a significant amount of empirical work generated in the Third World much of this takes its cues from research in the West in terms of research agenda, theoretical perspectives and methods. This is the most important dimension of academic dependency.

The other dimensions discussed later facilitate in one way or another the flow of ideas from the social science powers, but are in and of themselves meaningless without this first dimension. The consequence of this dimension of dependency is that the West, particularly the Americans, British, French and Germans, are seen as the sole originators of ideas in the social sciences. The question of the multicultural origins of the social sciences is not raised. Many social thinkers from India, China, Japan, and Southeast Asia during the nineteenth and early twentieth century who were contemporaneous with Marx, Weber and Durkheim are either only briefly mentioned in works on the history of sociology or totally ignored. Examples of such thinkers are Jose Rizal (Philippines, 1861-1896), Benoy Kumar Sarkar (India, 1887-1949), and Kunio Yanagita  (Japan,1875-1962). A more serious consequence of all of this is that what dominates in the social sciences are theories, concepts and categories in social sciences that were developed in Europe and North America. This domination has been at the expense of non-European ideas and concepts.

The second dimension refers to dependence on the media of ideas such as books, scientific journals, pro-ceedings of conferences, working papers and electronic publications of various kinds. The degree of academic dependency in this case can be gauged from the structure of ownership and control of publishing houses, journals, working paper series and websites. An excellent illustration of this problem is the current case in the Delhi Hight Court against Sci-Hub and LibGen, websites said to be guilty of copyright infringement as they provide free downloads of scientific papers and books.

Third, there is the technology dimension of the dependency relation in the social sciences and humanities. Western embassies, foundations and other nongovernmental institutions often set up resource centres in Third World countries equipped with the latest information retrieval systems that are often absent in local universities and institutions. While such resources are able to provide data and knowledge that would not be otherwise available, the choice of selection would naturally be limited to what is specified by the foreign organization providing these services.

The fourth dimension refers to aid dependence. Foreign funds and technical aid originating from governments, educational institutions and foundations in the US, Great Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Japan routinely find their way to scholars and educational institutions in the Third World. These funds are used to sponsor research, purchase books and other instructional materials, finance the publication of local books and journals, and buy expertise in the form of visiting scholars.

The fifth dimension of academic dependency concerns investment in education. This refers to the direct investment of educational institutions from the West in the Third World. An example would be the various degree programmes offered by North American, British and Australian universities in Asia, sometimes involving joint ventures with local organizations. Without such direct investment, there would be fewer opportunities for tertiary education and fewer teaching jobs available in Asian countries.

The sixth dimension, dependency on recognition of our works, manifests itself in terms of the effort to enter our journals and universities into international ranking protocols. Our universities and journals strive to attain higher and higher places in the rankings. Institutional development as well as individual assessment are undertaken in order to achieve higher status in the ranking system with a system of rewards and punishments in place to provide the necessary incentives that centre around promotion, tenure and bonuses. The consequences of this form of dependency include the de-emphasis on publications in local journals to the extent that local journals are not listed on the international rankings. One of the consequences of this is the underdevelopment of social scientific discourse in local languages.17

Many scholars are torn between satisfying the requirements of publishing in high ranked ‘international’ journals, particularly those listed in the citation indices of the ISI (Institute of Scientific Information/Web of Knowledge), and publishing locally in their own languages. Many opt for the former due to the greater international recognition they would gain and also the reward system set up in their own universities. Rajni Kothari made an important observation that intellectual colonization results in the undervaluing of ‘local collegiate opinion’ and instead leads to the quest for ‘sustenance and stimulus from external criteria of culture and style.’18

The seventh and final dimension of academic dependency may also be termed the brain drain. The brain drain can readily be seen to be a dimension of academic dependency in the sense that Third World scholars become dependent on demand for their expertise in the West. The brain drain may not necessarily result in the physical relocation of these scholars in the West. In cases where there is no physical relocation, there is still a brain drain in terms of the using up of mental resources and energy for research projects conceived in the West but which employ Third World personnel as junior research partners.

Academic dependency at the level of ideas should be seen in terms of the domination of social science teaching and research by the captive mind, the consequence of which is the persistence of Eurocentrism as an outlook and orientation as well as a condition. There is a psychological dimension to academic dependency whereby the dependent scholar is more a passive recipient of research agenda, methods and ideas from the social science powers. This is due to a ‘shared sense of … intellectual inferiority against the West’.19 The psychological dimension to this dependency is captured by the notion of the captive mind.20

Academic dependency is linked to the pervasiveness of imitation, a condition conceptualised by Syed Hussein Alatas as mental captivity. The captive mind is defined as an ‘uncritical and imitative mind dominated by an external source, whose thinking is deflected from an independent perspective.’21 The external source is western social science and humanities and the uncritical imitation influences all the constituents of scientific activity such as problem-selection, conceptualization, analysis, generalization, description, explanation, and interpretation.22

Among the characteristics of the captive mind are the inability to be creative and raise original problems, the inability to devise original analytical methods, and alienation from the main issues of indigenous society. The captive mind is trained almost entirely in the western sciences, reads the works of western authors, and is taught predominantly by western teachers, whether in the West itself or through their works available in local centres of education. Mental captivity is also found in the suggestion of solutions and policies.

Furthermore, it reveals itself at the levels of theoretical as well as empirical work. The ‘essence lies in the attitude of those who are colonized towards those whom they recognize as their patrons or masters’, something that Saberwal noted as pathetic.23 The manifestation of the captive mind is what Kothari referred to as ‘dependence and servility as attitudes of the mind’ and ‘deference to external authority.’24

Intellectual imperialism may or may not be accompanied by academic dependency and the captive mind. In other words, scholars in the South, subjected as they are to intellectual imperialism, may or may not become captive minds that are academically dependent, especially in terms of dependency on ideas.

What are the prospects for academic dependency reversal? I am pessimistic as far as the structure of academic dependency is concerned. However, as scholars there is much we can do at the individual and intellectual level in our research and teaching to spread awareness about the problem of academic dependency and go beyond merely talking about the problem to actually practice alternative discourses. Indeed, many examples of alternative, decolonised discourses can be cited from various countries in Asian, Africa and Latin America.

The problems of intellectual imperialism and academic dependency present itself to us at two levels. At the structural level much of the solution has to do with the awareness, will and resolve of politicians, bureaucrats and administrators, without which the structures of academic dependency cannot be dismantled. Scholars have more autonomy and control where overcoming academic dependency at the intellectual level is concerned. But, whether a decolonised tradition can emerge in much of the South will depend on our ability to make changes in policy, change the reward systems in institutions of learning, reduce corruption and inefficiency, and remove national and local politics from the institutions of learning.

Do our academic institutions have intellectual leadership of sufficient integrity, resolve, and bravery to combat imitative and culturally slavish ideals or are they led by people who are content to be captive minds that are motivated by the current structures of reward and punishment? This is the question to deal with.


Syed Farid Alatas



1. Satish Saberwal, ‘The Problem’, in Academic Colonialism: a symposium on the influences which destroy intellectual independence, Seminar 112, 1968, pp. 10-13.

2. Johan Galtung, ‘Scientific Colonialism’, Transitions 30, 1967, pp. 11-15.

3. Abdur Rahman, Intellectual Colonisation: Science and Technology in West-East Relations. Vikas Publishing House, New Delhi, 1983.

4. Syed Hussein Alatas, ‘Academic Imperialism’. Lecture delivered to the History Society, University of Singapore, 26 September 1969; Syed Hussein Alatas, ‘The Captive Mind in Development Studies’, International Social Science Journal 34 (1), 1972, pp. 9-25; Syed Hussein Alatas, ‘The Captive Mind and Creative Development’, International Social Science Journal 36 (4), 1974, pp. 691-9; Syed Hussein Alatas, ‘Intellectual Imperialism: Definition, Traits, and Problems’, Southeast Asian Journal of Social Science 28(1), 2000, pp. 23-45.

5. Alatas, ‘Intellectual Imperialism’, p. 24.

6. Alatas, ‘Intellectual Imperialism’, pp. 7-8, 24.

7. Saberwal, ‘The Problem’, p. 13.

8. Alatas, ‘Intellectual Imperialism’, p. 24.

9. Alatas, ‘Intellectual Imperialism’, pp. 24-7.

10. T. Kuwayama & J. van Bremen, ‘Native Anthropologists: With Special Reference to Japanese Studies Inside and Outside Japan’, (Kuwayama-van Bremen Debate: Native Anthropologists), Japan Anthropology Workshop Newsletter, 26-27 September 1997, pp. 52-69, p. 54.

11. Frederick H. Garreau, ‘The Multinational Version of Social Science with Emphasis Upon the Discipline of Sociology’, Current Sociology 33(3), 1985, pp.1-169, pp. 64, 81, 89; D.A. Chekki, American Sociological Hegemony: Transnational Explorations. University Press of America, Lanham, 1987.

12. Peter Lengyel, International Social Science: The UNESCO Experience. Transaction Books, New Brunswick, NJ and Oxford, 1986, p. 105.

13. Kuwayama in Kuwayama & J. van Bremen, ‘Native Anthropologists’, p. 54.

14. Theotonio dos Santos, ‘The Structure of Dependence’, The American Economic Review LX, 1970, p. 231.

15. Philip G. Altbach, ‘Literary Colonialism: Books in the Third World’, Harvard Educational Review 45, 1975, pp. 226-236; Philip G. Altbach, ‘Servitude of the Mind? Education, Dependency, and Neocolonialism’, Teachers College Record 79(2), 1977, pp. 187-204; F.H. Garreau, ‘The Multinational Version of Social Science’; Frederick H. Garreau, ‘Another Type of Third World Dependency: The Social Sciences’, International Sociology 3(2), 1988, pp. 171-178; Syed Farid Alatas, ‘Academic Dependency and the Global Division of Labour in the Social Sciences’, Current Sociology 51(6), 2003, pp. 599-613.

16. Alatas, ‘Academic Dependency’; Syed Farid Alatas, Alternative Discourses in Asian Social Science: Responses to Eurocentrism. Sage, New Delhi, 2006.

17. Mary Jane Curry and Theresa M. Lillis, ‘Strategies and Tactics in Academic Knowledge Production by Multilingual Scholars’, Education Policy Analysis Archives 22(32), pp. 1-24, pp. 2-3.

18. Rajni Kothari, ‘The Tasks Within’, in Academic Colonialism: a symposium on the influences which destroy intellectual independence, Seminar 112, 1968, p. 14.

19. This point was made in John Lie, ‘Sociology of Contemporary Japan’, Trend Report, Current Sociology 44(1), 1996, pp. 1-101.

20. Alatas, ‘Academic Dependency’, p. 603.

21. Alatas, ‘The Captive Mind and Creative Development’, p. 692.

22. Alatas, ‘The Captive Mind in Development Studies’, p. 11.

23. Saberwal, ‘The Problem’, p. 13.

24. Kothari, ‘The Tasks Within’, p. 14.