The terms “colonialism” and “imperialism” have been used interchangeably outside academic discourse. However, scholars have maintained that these two should be used separately because they have their own distinctive definitions.
Colonialism vs. Imperialism: The Difference
The word “colonialism” comes from the English word “colony,” which in turn, comes from “colonus,” the Latin word for farmer. On the other hand, “imperialism” comes from the English word “imperial,” which comes further from the Latin word “imperium,” meaning “to command.”
Colonialism essentially involves the migration of an existing population to a new settlement. Despite occupying a new territory, the migrants would maintain political allegiance to their country of origin, thus making the colony a part of an established political entity.
Meanwhile, imperialism actually describes the way a political entity, such as a country or state, exercise power and control over its subjects, territories, or colonies. It is both an ideology and policy centered on gaining and maintaining political and economic control of other areas, often through military force and political subjugation.
It can be considered that colonialism is a subset of imperialism. To expand their territories, countries would explore new areas beyond their boundaries and colonize them through by sending their people who in turn, would establish new settlements, deploy a prescribe structure for governance, and initiate relevant economic activities.
Take note that colonization can involve either the use of force through invasion, especially if there is an existing population in the target territory, or an unarmed and harmless occupation, particularly if the local population is cooperative or if there are no other settlers at all.
Nevertheless, the difference between colonialism and imperialism centers on a definitional scope. In summary, colonialism is a process that is part of the greater imperialistic ideology and policy. Both terms are part of empire-building aimed at expanding political influence and exploring economic opportunities.
The modern usage of the two terminologies has now become interchangeable. Furthermore, both colonialism and imperialism are obsolete and morally reprehensible practices prohibited by international law. However, others have used “imperialism” in the context of international relations to describe the modern ways a country or state exerts its political and economic influence through its foreign policy. Photo credit: Pedro Lira/Fundacion de Santiago/Public Domain/Adapted