The future of settler colonial studies: Jeffrey Ostler, ‘Locating Settler Colonialism in Early American History’, The William and Mary Quarterly, 76, 3, 2019, pp. 443-450


Excerpt: IS settler colonialism simply a trendy buzzword, or will it become an enduring and useful concept in North American history in general and early American history in particular? Recent criticisms (some seen in print, some heard in conference sessions and hallways) object to theorizations and applications of settler colonialism that appear reductionist and teleological, arguably leave little room for contingency, and risk reversing advances in the field that highlight Native agency and resist declensionist narratives of Native disappearance. Other critical commentary seems to imply that settler colonialism may be a useful framework (at least for some times and places) if modified and more carefully applied, while still other commentary suggests that the concept is more or less useless, if not dangerous, and should be encouraged to expire. Whether or not criticisms of settler colonialism will lead to the concept’s elimination is anyone’s guess. In my view, however, the concept is useful not simply as a theoretical construct but because it identifies an actual historical phenomenon. For that reason, it should be interrogated and refined, but it should also be retained. In other words, in the same way that scholars who object to particular theories of capitalism seldom deny capitalism’s reality, problems in theorizing settler colonialism do not mean that it does not exist. If settler colonialism is a name for an actual historical phenomenon, where and when can it be found in early American history?

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