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Case Studies in Imperialism

Provide a balanced account of the historical relations between imperialistic powers and local people for an assigned case study of historical imperialism and assess the impact on local societies and cultures of the imperialist practices.

Outcomes References Related Resources

Suggested Activities

Students examine the legacy of historical imperialism by writing a balanced account of the historical relations between an imperialistic power and local people in one region of the world. Students also assess the long-term impact of these imperialist practices on the society and culture.

Introduction to concept: Imperialism
By the late 20th century the European empires, which had begun with the voyages of explorers, had largely been dismantled, but their legacy lives on. According to a Eurocentric Victorian perspective, British imperialism was the vehicle best suited to spreading the benefits of civilization to the far corners of the earth. To the colonized, imperialism often seemed an insensitive assault on their culture. Regardless of the motivating factors, imperialism left a legacy in many areas of the world.

In this challenge, groups of students will explore the effects of historical imperialism in these areas:

  • British imperialism in India
  • French imperialism in Africa
  • Japanese imperialism in Korea
  • Spanish imperialism in South America
  • American imperialism in Latin America.

The purpose of this task is not to vilify or to whitewash past practices, but to engage students in a thoughtful exploration of the events viewed in historical context from the various parties involved and to assess the effects of these practices on the people who suffered under them.

Many of the tools needed for this challenge are described in other challenges: Understanding Historical Worldviews (Critical Challenge) and Rewriting History (Critical Challenge).

In preparation for this case study, assemble a variety of materials that represent differing perspectives on the event and its legacy. Include both primary and secondary sources, historical and contemporary, for each of the case studies. You may ask students to assemble additional materials.

Review concept: Worldview
Prior to directing students to the materials, review the notion of a "worldview" and the importance of trying to understand the worldviews of people living in different historical times.

Research case studies on imperialism
As students study the documents, encourage them to consider four questions:

  • What are the writer's assumptions, beliefs and values?
  • How do aspects of this worldview differ from what is generally accepted today?
  • What aspects of this worldview are similar to what is generally accepted today?
  • Why might intelligent people at the time have held these beliefs?

You may want to use one of the charts and strategies in Collecting Information (Support Material) to structure and assess analysis of documents.

Write a fair-minded account of a historical event
Invite students to draw upon the various sources you have assembled (or they have collected) to create a fair-minded account of their assigned historical event. The account might be a two-page history that students would find in a textbook or encyclopedia. Remind students to explore the historical context in which this instance of imperialism took root.

Discuss the fair-minded accounts
Ask students to assess critically their individual accounts with one or two other students and then share their results with the whole class.

Evaluate responses by looking for evidence of fair-mindedness–accounts that expressly recognize and give fair treatment to conflicting perspectives. The accounts may contain positive or negative judgements, but they must be clearly sensitive to the various perspectives and differing worldviews.

Research and assess the impact of imperialism on five dimensions of peoples' lives
After completing their balanced history of the event, direct students to research maps, eye-witness accounts, government policy statements, political cartoons and a variety of secondary sources to find evidence of the impact of imperialism. Next, students may assess the impact of imperialism on local peoples in five dimensions of human life:

  • population
  • political autonomy
  • culture and language
  • territory
  • economic well-being.

You may want to adapt one of the charts and strategies in Rating Options (Support Material) to structure and assess this activity.

Share findings within small groups
Invite each group to discuss its findings by considering the kinds of imperialist policies and the extent of impact on each of the five dimensions.

Share findings with whole class
After students discuss the case studies, arrange for each group to present its findings to the whole class. Invite students to share their thoughts on lessons to be learned about historical globalization. Students could be extended an opportunity to make decisions about the use of appropriate presentation software with which to share their findings.

Extension: Prepare a counterfactual account
Invite each group to consider how the profiled society might look today if imperialism had not occurred. See Re-imagining a Past without Imperialism (Critical Challenge) for ideas on how to support students in writing counterfactual accounts.

Last updated: May 30, 2008 | (Revision History)
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