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State and Society: Orientalism, Colonialism, and Post-Colonialism


Admission requirements

Admission to the Research Master Area Studies. Please, contact the student advisor, Nicole A.N.M. van Os or Prof. Dr. L.P.H.M. Buskens, if you are interested in taking this course, but NOT a student of the Research Master Area Studies


Our present study of “Oriental” societies and cultures has a long history, in which the lust for knowledge and political dominance are intertwined, and intricately related to other, “artistic” representations of “Others”. Edward Said’s seminal essay Orientalism (1978) on these issues has led to an extensive body of writings, representing strongly opposed points of view. His work has been fundamental in stimulating post-modern and post-colonial visions of the field.

The present seminar is concerned with the history of studies of Middle Eastern and Asian societies and cultures, as well as with current debates on theories, methods, and representations. It has two main lines of analysis.

The first line concerns the Foucauldian theme of the relation between knowledge and power. Scholarship is understood as a social practice. This leads to a critical analysis of the uses and abuses of scholarship in the exercise of power, and the dialectic relations between research and social interests. Special attention will be given to the close relationship between colonial rule and the flourishing of orientalism and anthropology.

The second line deals with theoretical and methodological questions related to study of texts and practices. At present we witness a rather artificial dichotomy between the study of texts, considered to be the domain of philology and history, as opposed to research on social practices through “fieldwork” by social scientists. This division of labour is rather unproductive, or even misleading, for societies in which texts and literacy play such important roles, also at a symbolical level.

In this seminar we will pay attention to both issues through the study of the history of “oriental studies”. This will lead to caution concerning the social dimensions of our work, notably through the study of the colonial roots of much of our present day apparatus. We will see to what extent post-colonial studies offer an effective answer to these criticisms. Among the topics to be discussed are the so called “collaborative” and “indigenous” ethnographies. The dichotomy between philology/history and ethnography will prove to be a rather recent invention. About a century ago scholars still happily combined the study of texts with fieldwork. We will devote ample time to approaches which integrate the study of texts and “contexts”. Ethnographies and histories of reading, writing, orality, libraries, archives, and book production are considered to offer valuable opportunities to bring together studies of texts and practices, and hence important contributions to “area studies”.

Leiden University has played a major role in the development of oriental studies, and as such offers many interesting case studies for a critical history of orientalism. Both colonialism and oriental studies were decidedly international phenomena, while at the same time being linked to the rise of the nation-state and nationalism, which makes it necessary to study the Leiden cases in an international perspective. Post-colonial responses to these orientalist visions will in their turn also be analyzed as social practices. An important aim of the seminar is to study in a comparative way the social uses of texts in different societies in which literacy is important, thereby integrating again the study of texts, history, and social practices.

Course objectives

  • To offer an overview of the history of “orientalism”, the study of “oriental” societies, from philological, historical, and anthropological perspectives. Knowledge production will be studied as a social practice, which implies close attention to the intricate relationships between scholarship and social interests, notably the exercise of power.

  • To study in a comparative way the social uses of texts in different societies in which literacy is important, thereby integrating again the study of texts, history, and social practices.

  • To offer students new perspectives for the study of societies in which texts are of some importance.


This course is (provisionally) scheduled on Tuesdays, 15-18 h. Timetable

Mode of instruction

Seminar, attendance and participation in the discussions is compulsory.

Assessment method

  • Attendance and active participation 20 %;

  • Oral presentation with handout 20 %;

  • Final paper 60 %.


Will be used.

Reading list

Will be made available via Blackboard.


Registration is compulsory.

Exchange and Study Abroad students, please see the Study in Leiden website for information on how to apply

Contact information

Prof. Dr. L.P.H.M. Buskens