Culture and Imperialism | How does Edward Said relate the two?

In simple words, culture is the name of social norms, behaviors, and customs of society; imperialism is a strategy to enhance power by gaining more and more territory; colonialism, on the other hand, is a practice to establish colonies after occupying the land of a specific country. Edward Said has defined all these things in detail in his lecture “Culture and Imperialism”. He inspects the definitions of both culture and imperialism and explains them in detail by citing different writers and their books. He also gives his personal opinions, through which he clears every question from the minds of his listeners/readers. Nonetheless, after defining “culture”, “imperialism” and “colonialism”, he is very much sure that these things are interdependent.

Bundle of definitions of culture has been provided in “Culture and Imperialism”. It is because the author has referred to numerous writers; he does not only quote them due to their praiseworthy estimations but also because he does agree with them. Let’s see how he delineates “culture”, “Imperialism” and the relationship between the two.


 What are the views of Edward Said about culture? It should be a conclusion of all the definitions, cited by him. Meaning thereby, to obtain a final definition, we should consciously study all necessary definitions referred by him in “Culture and Imperialism”.

Clifford James Geertz’ Definition of:

At the top of the list is Clifford James Geertz, who was an American anthropologist. He gives a very minute definition of culture:-

“an ordered system of meanings and symbols in terms of which social interaction takes place and a social system in the pattern of social interaction itself. ”

Clifford James Geertz

This definition seems to be vague and unclear rather incomplete. Culture might be an ordered system of social interaction but this is not only what culture is; it is more than that; he has entirely ignored the concept of customs, practices, and beliefs or perhaps, he has tried to compress everything in the words “system” and “social interaction”.

Matthew Arnold’s Definition:

Then comes Matthew Arnold, a cultural critic as well as a poet; he has a better definition of culture than Clifford James Geertz. According to him, culture is:

“each society’s reservoir of the best that has been known and thought.”

Matthew Arnold

Each society and every nation has its own practices. Thus, every society is best known for these practices and beliefs. The definition provided by Matthew Arnold is self-explanatory. Let’s make it more clear through an example; when someone talks about Nigerian society, their norms and living style come in our mind; Ibo society automatically becomes the topic of our imagination. We think a society living in tribes; each tribe has a leader; they worship a female goddess; they grow yams; everyone has wives as per his status etc. It is the case with other nations. One thing is necessary to be cleared here; Matthew Arnold does not talk about religion; hence, religion is not a culture. Nonetheless, it may be a part of a culture.

If these two definitions are grabbed and put together then the final definition of culture, according to Edward Said is:

“Culture is what a society best known and thought for and it is an ordered system of meanings and symbols.”



Edward Said is the best-known definer of imperialism. He was a literary figure; therefore, whenever he defines a term he makes a reference from literature. While defining culture, he has referred many writers. Likewise, to make his arguments strong, he alludes the names of many literary figures. Certain definitions of imperialism, in the eyes of different writers, mentioned in “culture and imperialism” are as under:-

Solomon Modell:

Solomon Modell, best known for his book “A history of the western world”, says:

“Imperialism is a policy of extending a country’s power beyond its own borders for the purpose of exploiting other lands and other peoples by establishing economic, social or political control over them.”

Solomon Modell

It is the best definition for imperialism though it has been defined negatively. Imperialism has no positivity so far as its practice in history is concerned. There is nothing new in the above-said definition except the purpose i.e. “exploiting other lands”. Solomon Modell believes that imperialism exploits the occupied lands so does Edward Said.

This definition is enough to define imperialism. Edward Said extends it while saying that every practice followed to rule distant territories is called imperialism.

Real Definition of Culture and Imperialism by Said:

Edward Said has something more to say; it was believed that imperialism was good for every country, whether“imperializer-country” or “imperialized-country” as it is a technique to civilize the uncivilized nations. Edward said does not support it. He says that imperialism ruins a nation, its culture as well as its people. It can be witnessed in post-colonial literature. The author has referred a novel in this regard: “Heart of Darkness”, which shows the real face of imperialism. The very best lines of the essay/lecture in the context of the true meaning of imperialism are:-

“Neither imperialism, nor colonialism is a simple act of accumulation and acquisition. It’s not just a matter of going out there and getting a territory, and sitting on it. Both of these practices are supported and even impelled by impressive cultural formations that include ideas that certain territories require and beseech domination. ”

Edward Said – Culture and Imperialism

Thus, Edward Said defines imperialism as a barbaric act of brutality. Furthermore, imperialism has no concern for the welfare of the imperialized country as cleared in the following lines of the essay:-

“The economics were hungry for overseas markets, raw materials, cheap labour and profitable land.”

Edward Said – Culture and Imperialism

There were two purposes of imperialism; first was to gain territory and power and second was to get profit from rich lands of underdeveloped countries. This is what the actual definition of imperialism is. Moreover, Edward Said is of the view that still there are countries in the world who are being imperialized. However, it is not direct as it was in the past.

A relationship between Culture and Imperialism:

It is important to discuss the relationship between culture and imperialism. Edward Said relates it too. Though he directly does not say it, yet throughout the lecture he tries to prove that imperialism always impacts culture.

Edward Said had experienced life from every perspective. After studying a lot of books, he became a man of letter, especially in the field, under discussion. He can explain any topic but a writer can illustrate best what he himself has experienced in his life. Having a background of a colonized country, he knows the drawbacks of imperialism, which is a sick practice to make a nation valueless.

To sum up, according to Edward Said, culture is the identification of a country. Imperialism, on the other hand, is no more than greed for power, resources, and land; therefore, it ruins the identification/culture.

Related Questions:

  • What, according to Edward Said is culture and what, imperialism and how does he relate the two?