Defining ‘Settler Colonial Studies’ (updated)

Edward Cavanagh (Whitwatersrand) and Lorenzo Veracini (Swineburn) are doing a great deal to advance the field of settler colonial studies. In addition to their published work they have established what looks to be an excellent new journal and a website/blog, settler colonial studies, with updates on important research. If you are working in this area I would highly recommend getting involved.

Cavanagh and Veracini provide a definition of ‘settler colonialism’ on their website that is very helpful in distinguishing it from other forms of coloniality:

Settler colonialism is a global and transnational phenomenon, and as much a thing of the past as a thing of the present. There is no such thing as neo-settler colonialism or post-settler colonialism because settler colonialism is a resilient formation that rarely ends. Not all migrants are settlers; as Patrick Wolfe has noted, settlers come to stay. They are founders of political orders who carry with them a distinct sovereign capacity. And settler colonialism is not colonialism: settlers want Indigenous people to vanish (but can make use of their labour before they are made to disappear). Sometimes settler colonial forms operate within colonial ones, sometimes they subvert them, sometimes they replace them. But even if colonialism and settler colonialism interpenetrate and overlap, they remain separate as they co-define each other.

While acknowledging that the account is necessarily concise and that much more can and is being worked out in the field to define its parameters, I would like to briefly discuss one aspect of this definition that in my estimation needs modification. I don’t think it is entirely accurate to say, as Cavanagh and Veracini write, that settlers necessarily “want Indigenous people to vanish”. I do not agree, therefore, with Patrick Wolfe’s (2006) argument (audio of Wolfe’s account can be accessed here) that settler colonialism is or ought to be defined by the elimination of Indigenous ways of life. It seems to me that this characterization overlooks the ways in which coloniality works through a settler community’s willingness and efforts to preserve Indigenous ways of life, not to eliminate but to contain them. Settler states can be perfectly content to preserve Indigenous ways of life up to the point that, for example, self-determination starts impinging on state sovereignty.

More dangerous perhaps, at least in Canada (the case with which I am most familiar) is that there are significant segments of settler society which are engaged in a struggle to preserve Indigenous ways of life by channelling Indigenous claims through institutional processes that may perpetuate rather than challenge colonial relations. It remains a question, for instance, whether the representation of Indigenous ways of life in democratic institutions such courts, legislatures, and commissions works to protect those ways of life or whether it ensnares and assimilates Indigenous communities in a colonial structured discourse. While many in settler society may attempt to secure political space for a diversity of voices, still Indigenous peoples contend that they are forced to either operate strategically within democratic institutions by adopting the discourse of rights, or they must abandon dialogue altogether. Settler colonialism, I suggest, often works through the well-intentioned efforts of settlers to confront colonial relations.

I should add that I wholly appreciate Joanne Barker’s concern that the term ‘settler colonialism’ is perhaps too suggestive in connoting that dominant and marginalized communities must, or have already, in some way ‘settled’ or ‘reconciled’ (see 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6; see Veracini’s response here, and a response from Patrick Wolfe here and Barker’s response to Wolfe here). While I agree that the terms ’empire’ and ‘colonialism’ still capture most sufficiently the depth and range of cultural and economic domination, I think that the ‘settler’ designation is important insofar as it specifies the unique dynamics of occupation and presence. Settler colonialism, I suggest, is best thought of as a form or strategy of empire, if for no other reason than because decolonization in the context of the persistent physical and material presence of the colonizer takes on a different tone and trajectory than it does when an empire rules through local elites from a distant metropole.

 I offer that we need to find a way of interpreting settler colonialism that captures the variety of ways that settlers partake in exclusionary and assimilative practices. Perhaps, then, it might be more precise to include in a definition of settler colonialism that often despite their most genuine anti-colonial or decolonizing intentions, settlers can nevertheless work within and to propagate colonial structures.