Captive Minds, Coloniality and International Relations

Jan 24, 2024 | Blogs

Ever since Stanley Hoffman1 exposed International Relations as a hegemonized discipline, there has been a growing trend among International Relations scholars to unveil the knowledge and power structures which sustain the hegemony of the West in knowledge production processes. Among the various trajectories which this discourse has taken, such as post-colonialism, post-structuralism, sociology of International Relations, etc. there has been a notable emergence of scholarly work which seeks to situate the discussion on International Relations by focusing on the colonial origins and legacies of the discipline. By problematizing the history, ontology, epistemology and methodology, which mainstream International Relations promotes, this scholarly community frames ‘the distortions and exclusions of mainstream IR in relation to a “colonial matrix of power” that reproduces colonial forms of domination in international politics and contributes to ongoing Eurocentrism in the discipline’.2

These voices in International Relations go beyond disciplinary critiques and have often elaborated on strategies through which the coloniality of IR—might be overcome. In other words, the question they pose is: how do we decolonize knowledge. However, while the coloniality of knowledge is a global phenomenon, it operates on two planes i.e. firstly, the means and methods through which coloniality is imposed as a global standard on the (post)colonial societies and secondly how the coloniality is received and sustained by dominant structures in the (post)colonial spaces. Each (post)colonial society experienced colonialism differently and developed their local knowledge structures in ways which harmonized trans-national coloniality with indigenous cultures. Hence any effort to decolonize International Relations within a (post)colonial space has to be a targeted agenda which must unveil the concrete practices and processes, both international and local, which contribute to the marginalization of local knowledges and the reproduction of colonial patterns of racial domination. Knowledge depends on the personal privileges, oppression and social position of the people within an epistemic structure. The dominance of discursive power and knowledge does not only occur between the West and the rest but also finds itself manifesting between segments of the oppressed. For instance, both Fanon and Alatas observed the propensity of segments of the oppressed to emulate the oppressors. Alatas terms this phenomenon “Captive Minds”. He argues that

Mental Captivity or the phenomenon of captive minds refers to a way of thinking that is dominated by Western thought in an imitative and uncritical manner… The captive mind is trained almost entirely in the Western sciences, reads the work of Western authors, and is taught predominantly by Western teachers, either directly or through their works. The captive mind uncritically imitates Western Social Sciences.3

Paulo Freire another decolonial thinker,4 who developed the pedagogy of the oppressed, argued that oppressed people often find themselves in situations of powerlessness and uncritically internalize, not only the oppressor’s consciousness, but also their dominant thinking and behaviour. Those among the oppressed who do possess power, draw their powers from the status quo and defend the status quo to preserve their power. This implies that epistemic oppression happens not only between the West and the rest, but also between the segments of oppressed, where one draws power from the colonial epistemic structures in place and the other is subjugated and powerless in the face of these structures. The consequence of such uncritical assimilation of Western knowledge in postcolonial societies results in the marginalization of indigenous thought, popular wisdom, and ideological deconstruction efforts.

Since the Western knowledge production processes are more disposed towards works authored by western scholars, in effect then, the works of western authors garner more prestige and consequently wider circulation. This means that most writings on histories of the previous colonies emanating from western corridors are subjective and divorced from indigenous experiences of the oppressed. At the same time, since the “captive minds” possessing intellectual power through their emulation of western knowledge episteme are busy in mimicking western knowledge and consolidating an intellectual status quo, their works also continue to marginalize and ignore historical memories in their intellectual discourses. The recovering of lost historical memory plays a vital role in the process of decolonization. In essence then, ‘reclaiming one’s history, deideologizing understandings of cultural truths, … and using this process as a method for making sense of current oppressive circumstances is critical consciousness. Critical consciousness is not only making one’s own reality but also becoming awake’.5 Consequently, it is not enough that through the process of decolonization, new, indigenous, alternative knowledges should be valorized but also that such knowledges should follow critical consciousness, where the oppressed are provided a deeper understanding of their condition of oppression by critically unveiling before them the structures which sustain such oppressive regimen.

International Relations scholars6 have recently begun questioning the Eurocentric nature of knowledge dominating the discipline and in doing so share similar vantage points as those of the anti-oppressive decolonial thinkers such as. For instance, Jones argues that ‘the modern discipline of IR and its twentieth century trajectory is presented to the newcomer in a huge number of textbooks and compilations. What is remarkably absent from IR’s self-presentation…is awareness of its colonial and imperial roots’.7 Capan maintains that ‘the narrative of International Relations through Western conceptions of Modernity works to silence the colonial past of International Relations and the constitutive role of colonialism’. Sharma claims that ‘the colonial logic of modernity silences alternatives as being non-credible, denying visibility and validity to claims made counter to those propagated by its own hegemonic position’. The growing call to decolonize International Relations is based on the realization that there exists a ‘reproduction of colonial patterns of racial domination, hierarchization, and marginalization in the discipline which needs to be overcome’. Consequently, decolonization of International Relations becomes a multiple level process which engages with colonialism and imperialism and at its heart aims at unsettling and de-centring Eurocentrism in its various manifestations which sustains the coloniality of knowledge and power in the (post) colonial societies.

Examining the contemporary International Relations discourse, Alejandro8 identifies three key aspects of Eurocentrism: firstly, “the West” as a “proactive subject” connotes how the South is deprived of its agency as it is considered a passive object in comparison to “the West” which is upheld as an “active subject” of world politics or as Capan would argue: ‘The production of knowledge and who gets to be the knower and who the known is an important component in reproducing the coloniality of International Relation’;9 second, “the West” as the “only one game in town” refers to a teleological self-seeking West as being the center around which world politics naturally revolves; third, “the West” as the “ideal normative referent” standardizes and universalizes “Western” practices and values and renders diverse non-Western histories and experiences invalid.

In this way Eurocentrism in International Relations becomes the epistemic locus of coloniality, through which colonial forms of domination are sustained. The hegemonic nature of Eurocentric knowledge is sustained through Western-centric global structures and eurocentrism kept alive through the books and journals publishing circuit, and in the criteria for academic performance.10 Western standardized practices of publishing, the use of English as a primary language for academic qualification, and knowledge gatekeeping processes continue to mire the (post)colonial world even more deeply into Western practices and ideas. However problematizing eurocentrism is not enough without examining the complacency of local scholars to programmatically and uncritically pursue Western ideals. As Alatas argues:

If in the colonial past, academic imperialism was maintained via colonial power, today academic neocolonialism is maintained via the condition of academic dependency. The West’s monopolistic control of and influence over the social sciences in much of the Third World are not determined in the first instance by force via colonial power but rather by the dependence of Third World scholars and intellectuals on western social science in a variety of ways.11

About the Author

Dr. Ahmed Waqas Waheed

The author is the Executive Director of Roads Initiative.

1Stanley Hoffmann, “An American Social Science: International Relations,” Daedalus 106, no. 3 (1977): 41–60,

2 Karen Tucker, “Unraveling Coloniality in International Relations: Knowledge, Relationality, and Strategies for Engagement,” International Political Sociology 12, no. 3 (2018): 215–32,

3 Syed Farid Alatas, “On the Indigenization of Academic Discourse,” Alternatives: Global, Local, Political 18, no. 3 (July 1, 1993): 307–38.

4 Paulo Friere, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Herder and Herder Publishers, 1970).

5 Edil Torres Rivera, “Concepts of Liberation Psychology,” in Liberation Psychology: Theory, Method, Practice, and Social Justice, ed. Lillian Comas-Díaz and Edil Torres Rivera (American Psychological Association, 2020), 41–51.

6 Zeynep Gulsah Capan, “Decolonising International Relations?,” Third World Quarterly 38, no. 1 (January 2, 2016): 1–15,; Manuela L. Picq, “Critics at the Edge? Decolonizing Methodologies in International Relations,” Http://Dx.Doi.Org/10.1177/0192512113493224 34, no. 4 (June 24, 2013): 444–55,; Ananya Sharma, “Decolonizing International Relations: Confronting Erasures through Indigenous Knowledge Systems,” International Studies 58, no. 1 (January 28, 2021): 25–40,; Tucker, “Unraveling Coloniality in International Relations: Knowledge, Relationality, and Strategies for Engagement.”

7 Branwen G. Jones, ed., Decolonizing International Relations (Boulder: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2006).

8 A. Alejandro, Western Dominance in International Relations?: The Internationalisation of IR in Brazil and India (New York and London: Routledge, 2019).

9 Capan, “Decolonising International Relations?”

10 Diana Jeater, “Academic Standards or Academic Imperialism? Zimbabwean Perceptions of Hegemonic Power in the Global Construction of Knowledge,” African Studies Review 61, no. 2 (2018): 8–27.

11 Syed Farid Alatas, “Academic Dependency and the Global Division of Labour in the Social Sciences,” Current Sociology 51, no. 6 (November 30, 2003): 599–613.