Skip to content
quijano on coloniality

Aníbal Quijano on Coloniality and Modernity/Rationality

Aníbal Quijano, a Peruvian sociologist, in his essay “Coloniality and Modernity/Rationality”, originally published in the 1990s, makes a case for the role of modernity/rationality in sustaining colonialism in Latin America. He is known for developing concepts such as “coloniality of power” and “coloniality of knowledge”, which this essay discusses in detail. His essay is a vital addition to the decolonial approach.

Quijano and Colonialism in Latin America

The European colonial project has had varied effects on societies all across the globe. The conquest of societies and cultures through domination and repression for over five-hundred years in the Americas, Africa, Asia and Oceania have permanently left an imprint on these societies.

Although colonialism has been dissipated in today’s world, its imprints in relations between Europe/West and the rest continue to be colonial domination. Quijano posits this is due to the “colonisation of other cultures”—more specifically, the “colonisation of the imagination of the dominated” that would sustain the colonised.

quijano coloniality
Depiction of Latin America’s Encounter with the Western Colonialism

Quijano distinguishes “Eurocentered colonialism” and “Western Imperialism” to establish this. For instance, Eurocentered colonialism refers to “a relation of direct, political, social and cultural domination established by the Europeans over the conquered of all continents” (p. 168). It is a formal system of political domination of the West over the rest.

Western imperialism is “an association of social interests between the dominant groups of countries with unequally articulated power, rather than an imposition from the outside” (p. 168). These specific colonial “structures of power” produced categories of social discrimination through racial, ethnic, national and cultural categories.

Moreover, these social categories were attributed to objective, rational, and scientific status. These categories sustain in our minds. Therefore, even when there is no colonialism, Quijano notes, “the relationship between the European – also called Western – culture, and others, continues to be one of colonial domination” (p. 169).

Quijano on the Colonial Project of Global Domination

Initially, colonialism was sustained through expropriating knowledge of the colonised, specifically in mining, agriculture and engineering. Then, there was an imposition of their own patterns of expression, beliefs and ideas, images, symbols, etc. More specifically, there was an effort to impose a “mystified image of their own patterns of producing knowledge and meaning”. How did they do so, you may ask?

Quijano answers: First, the colonisers ensured that their knowledge was beyond the reach of the colonised. Then, they selectively taught parts of their knowledge. And then, their culture was made “seductive: [as] it gave access to power”. Cultural Europeanisation became a mode for other societies to aspire and become it.

More so, European culture became the universal cultural model. Its imprints are seen in today’s world everywhere.

atrocities Balboa deBry
Black Legend/Spanish Attrocities

But, the intensities of this cultural Europeanisation differed in places. In Asia and the Middle East, its influence was the least. Their high cultures could not be entirely destroyed. In Africa, cultural destruction was certainly more destructive than in Asia. However, the Europeans could not fully succeed in destroying their culture.

Whereas, in the Americas, the cultural repression of colonialisation was massive. It accompanied large-scale extermination of natives through violent conquest and diseases the Europeans carried along. Latin America, by far, is the most extreme case of European cultural colonisation.

Race and Coloniality of Power

Coloniality of power loosely refers to the practices and legacies of European cultural colonialism on contemporary societies. Coloniality of power sustains “race” as a critical component of the social classification of colonised and colonisers.

First, new identities were shaped by race: whites, blacks, Indians, Negros, Yellows, etc. Then, based on it, there were new geocultural identities: Europeans, Americans, Asian, African, etc.

There were also capitalist jobs/workforce forms: white-collared jobs (primarily for Europeans) and blue-collared jobs (for others). The racial sense of social stratification, which makes for the coloniality of power, pervades through and modulates the Eurocentered capitalist colonial/modern world.

Coloniality, Modernity/Rationality, and Knowledge Production

Even as colonial domination was consolidating, there was simultaneously an effort to constitute the world cultural complex, European modernity/rationality. The intersubjective world was formalised as an exclusively European product, as “a universal paradigm of knowledge and the relation between humanity and the rest of the world” (p. 172).

To make sense of it, we need to understand what knowledge was for a European. The European paradigm of knowledge was rational—as a “product of a subject-object relation” (p. 172). What does it mean?

Subject-Object Paradigm

A subject is an isolated individual who constitutes themselves without the outside world. It is the Cartesian “cogito, ermo sum”.

An object is a category referring to an entity not different from the subject, but external to it. However, it is identical to itself because it is constituted by properties which give it its identity and define it.

The subject-object paradigm of knowledge inevitably leads to a division of subject as a bearer of “reason”, and object as “nature”. Individualism, as atomistic, has been the core of European modernity/rationality. In this paradigm, the “other” is present as an object. Not as other subjects constituting the social totality. Therefore,

The radical absence of the ‘other’ not only postulates an atomistic image of social existence in general; it denies the idea of the social totality. As European colonial practice was to show, the paradigm also made it possible to omit every reference to any other ‘subject’ outside the European context, i.e., to make invisible the colonial order of totality, at the same moment as the very idea of Europe was establishing itself precisely in relation to the rest of the world being colonised. The emergence of the idea of the ‘West’ or the ‘Europe’, is an admission of identity – that is, of relations with other cultural experiences, of differences with other cultures.

(Quijano 2007: 173)

Subject is the Rational, and the Object is Irrational

For the European mind, these differences “were admitted primarily” as inequalities in the hierarchical sense. And such inequities, for the Europeans, were of nature.

Meaning: Only European culture could be rational. And therefore, subjects could be only from Europe. More so, people from other cultures were different—in the sense, unequal, irrational, and inferior. Therefore, they were objects of knowledge. They must be studied and taught what it is like to be a subject.

This perspective of subject and object was maintained between European culture and others. It was applied to everything—from living to knowing to being. Many social sciences (like Anthropology and Ethnography) have influenced “knowing the other”—through a dominant gaze in their infancy. In these subjects, other cultures were the object of study.

Totality in Knowledge

Quijano further delves into how knowledge is shaped by European colonialism. He writes, “European-Western rationality/modernity is constituted…in the process of restructuration of power, on the one hand, in capitalist and urban social relations and nation-states; and, on the other hand, in the colonisation of the rest of the world” (p. 175).

Now colonialism did not just stop with the otherisation. It became an “organicist image” of social totality—i.e., society. Using this frame, two arguments are made: One, society is a structure of functional relations among each and every part linked to one logic, therefore, a closed totality. Two, society as an organic structure followed rules of hierarchy between body parts.

anibal quijano coloniality modernity
“Folding Screen With Indian Wedding, Mitote and Flying Pole,” circa 1660–90, depicts an Indigenous wedding in Iztacalco, near Mexico City. Credit: The New York Times

For instance, the brain and the rest of the body parts were hierarchised in the social sense. The owners of capital were brains, and the workers were body parts. The parties are the head, and the unions are the feet. Both of them coexisted in a hierarchical structure, knowing their places. In this sense, the ruling party, the brain of the total organism of the world, was Europe. And the rest of the world, under the clutches of colonialism, was, as Rudyard Kipling put it: “White Man’s Burden”.

Not surprisingly then, history was conceived as a evolutionary continuum from the primitive to the civilised; from the tradition to the modern; from the savage to the rational; from pro-capitalism to capitalism, etc. And Europe though of itself as the mirror of the future of all the other societies and cultures; as the advanced form of the history of entire species. What does not cease to surprise, however, is that Europe succeeded in imposing that ‘mirage’ upon the practical totality of the cultures of that it colonised; and much more, that this chimera is still so attractive to so many.

(Quijano 2007: 176)

Quijano on Decolonisation

Quijano’s essay does not just stop at presenting a critique of rationality/modernity, but it proposes decolonisation as a way forward. Quijano argues that there is no need to reject totality as elaborated in European colonial/modernity wholly. Instead, we must “liberate the production of knowledge, reflection, and communication from the pitfalls of European rationality/modernity” (p. 177).

Outside of the West, every other society, culture, and cosmic vision is associated with a particular perspective of totality. But, in those cultures, the totality acknowledges heterogeneity of all reality.

The social reality in these societies not only does not deny but complements society’s historical diversity and heterogeneity. These cultures require the idea of “other” to sustain along. It means acknowledgement of the other rather than a hierarchical reductionist subject-object categorisation of the other.

Quijano notes the critique of colonial rationality is paramount. More specifically, one must extricate themselves from the linkages between rationality/modernity and coloniality. And also from the power not constituted by “free decisions made by free people”.

In their quest for epistemological decolonisation, or decoloniality, it is essential to pave the way for “intercultural communication, for an interchange of experiences and meanings” as a basis of another rationality that may lead to another universality.

Liberating intercultural relations from the colonial prison would mean all people’s freedom to think freely and choose independently, individually or collectively. It is also a freedom to choose between various cultural configurations.

It is a freedom to “produce, criticise, change, and exchange culture and society” (p. 178). In essence, Aníbal Quijano presents an epistemological critique of the European colonial project and proposes an alternative to the decolonisation of the cultural project.


Citation: Aníbal Quijano (2007) COLONIALITY AND MODERNITY/RATIONALITY, Cultural Studies, 21:2-3, 168-178, DOI: 10.1080/09502380601164353


This website and the newsletter (fuzzy notes) have been a labour of love. While they are free to access (and will continue to be free), they are not free to create. I spend significant time researching, writing, and proofing every article I publish here, apart from all the logistical aspects of buying and managing the domain and hosting plans. Each article is written meticulously to help fellow readers (such as yourself) get the best knowledge, which is also witty and articulate in this outlook. You may reach out to me at [email protected] (and tell me what you liked about the essay you may have just read or if you want me to write on anything you wish to read). If you have benefitted from reading articles on my website and the newsletter, consider buying me a coffee (as a token of love and appreciation ♥). If you cannot do so now, it’s okay! (understandably, each of us has our problems to deal with every day.) You can still do something else: share the article with someone who may like it.



what do you think of the above post?

Discover more from Adarsh Badri

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading