Colonialism vs. Imperialism

Colonialism vs. Imperialism

In this article, we will define and differentiate colonialism vs imperialism. While the two words are often used synonymously, we will examine the meanings of colonialism and imperialism, any similarities between the two terms, and also discuss cases of historical imperialism vs. colonialism. We believe the article on the difference between imperialism and colonialism will be helpful to students of international relations, as the study both of these horrific practices that have existed in global affairs.

What is the Difference Between Colonialism and Imperialism?

The main questions that we will center this article around is that of “What is the difference between colonialism and imperialism?” Therefore, in order to compare colonialism vs imperialism, we will define each of the terms.

What is the definition of imperialism? Imperialism is understood as a policy of a country in which that said country influences other countries or territories through military force, as well as other means of power (Oxford Dictionary, 2016). So, the key point to understanding imperialism has to do with the emphasis on the idea of overtaking others based on power. It is using their power to control others outside of their state (New Encyclopedia of Africa, 2008, in galegroup).

What is the definition of colonialism? Colonialism is defined as a practice in which a power sets up colonies or settlements elsewhere (in other countries or territories) (Singh, 2001) for the political and economic benefit of the colonizing country. So, this state will often take over other areas, setting up their own political and economic systems, with the intent of using the colonies’ materials, land, etc… to benefit the colonizing country. So, the establishment of administrative influence over an area is a type of imperialism (New Encyclopedia of Africa, 2008) that has been implemented in the history of international relations.

Thus, a core difference between colonialism and imperialism is the idea compared to the practice or implementation of the ideas. So, imperialism serves as the underlying ideas, whereas colonialism is an established form of imperialism.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy differentiates colonialism vs. imperialism by saying that “Colonialism is a practice of domination, which involves the subjugation of one people to another. One of the difficulties in defining colonialism is that it is hard to distinguish it from imperialism. Frequently the two concepts are treated as synonyms. Like colonialism, imperialism also involves political and economic control over a dependent territory. The etymology of the two terms, however, provides some clues about how they differ. The term colony comes from the Latin word colonus, meaning farmer. This root reminds us that the practice of colonialism usually involved the transfer of population to a new territory, where the arrivals lived as permanent settlers while maintaining political allegiance to their country of origin. Imperialism, on the other hand, comes from the Latin term imperium, meaning to command. Thus, the term imperialism draws attention to the way that one country exercises power over another, whether through settlement, sovereignty, or indirect mechanisms of control.”

So, it is not only about the idea of expansion in imperialism and colonialism, but also the way that the entity is controlling others. In the case of imperialism, the state conquering completely takes the territory into their own territory or empire. However, in the case of colonialism, the notion of the existing state is not dismissed, but that colonized territory is now under the control, and the benefit of the outside colonizing entity. In cases of colonialism, the colonizing state will send over administrators to set up their own government and often economic structures, as well as citizens to go live and work in the new colony (Koshal, 2015).

But even this differentiation between imperialism vs. colonialism depends on how scholars and writers are using the terms. While we might think that there is either a separation on idea and practice when discussing colonialism vs. imperialism, or the exact way that a power is controlling and ruling another territory,

“The distinction between the two, however, is not entirely consistent in the literature. Some scholars distinguish between colonies for settlement and colonies for economic exploitation. Others use the term colonialism to describe dependencies that are directly governed by a foreign nation and contrast this with imperialism, which involves indirect forms of domination” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2012).

Part of this itself has to do with the shift in the definition of imperialism. The term “imperialism” itself was not a very common one until the 1800s. With regards to which term was used to discuss the British Empire, “Imperialism was understood as a system of military domination and sovereignty over territories. The day to day work of government might be exercised indirectly through local assemblies or indigenous rulers who paid tribute, but sovereignty rested with the British. The shift away from this traditional understanding of empire was influenced by the Leninist analysis of imperialism as a system oriented towards economic exploitation. According to Lenin, imperialism was the necessary and inevitable result of the logic of accumulation in late capitalism. Thus, for Lenin and subsequent Marxists, imperialism described a historical stage of capitalism rather than a trans-historical practice of political and military domination” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2012).


In this article, we have discussed and compared imperialism vs. colonialism. We defined both terms, explained differences, and also addressed points which include the fact that these two terms have often been conflated with one another. We see that imperialism is the idea of expansion, and also the attention to political influence, whereas in colonialism, it is a series of political and economic policies that a colonizing country will implement on their colonial territory. As mentioned, in colonialism, the state will bring along administrative units to govern the society and to receive the economic benefits, sending these resources back to their home country. Again, “Colonialism is a term used to describe the settlement of places like India, Australia, North America, Algeria, New Zealand and Brazil, which were all controlled by the Europeans. Imperialism, on the other hand is described where a foreign government governs a territory without significant settlement. The scramble for Africa in the late 19th century and the American domination of Puerto Rico and the Philippines can be cited as examples of Imperialism.”

Given the evil history of imperialism and colonialism in international relations, it is important to understand these terms, and also to always speak out against this history, and any modern attempts to push these ideas. As the video above discusses, notions of race and racism have been a part of colonial and imperialism actions in history. Imperialists and colonialists have attempted to justify their behavior, all the while citizens in these countries continue to fight to resist these racist and ethnocentric ideas.

Colonialism Vs. Imperialism References

Koshal (2015). Difference Between Colonialism and Imperialism. Difference Between. April 10, 2015. Available Online:

New Encyclopedia of Africa (2008). Colonialism and Imperialism. Available Online:

Oxford Dictionary (2016). Imperialism. Available Online:

Singh, A. (2001). Colonialism/Imperialism. Available Online:

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2012). Colonialism. Available Online:

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