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The OCR Glossary

Postcolonial Theory

Debashish Munshi

The conceptual framework of postcolonial theory, as a vanguard of resistance, challenges mainstream, largely Western, theory and practice that reflect colonialist ideas of domination in a globalized world. This framework has its genesis in literary and cultural studies, emerging in the seminal works of theorists of the likes of Edward Said, who exposed the imperialist ways of representing the non-West in colonial times in his much-cited Orientalism, and Gayatri Spivak, who systematically critiqued the legacy of colonialism in mainstream literature and culture. Postcolonial ways of understanding challenge power differentials through critical exploration of the ideas of the encounters between the colonizer and the colonized.

Increasingly now, postcolonial theory is being used to critically examine dominant, taken-for-granted assumptions in studies of management as well as communication. It is against this backdrop that this theoretical approach has opened up a critical line of inquiry into the concepts and processes of constructing and managing corporate reputation. This rapidly emerging field of study, therefore, can gain from the insights provided by the postcolonial scrutiny, developed by scholars in critical management studies and in various subfields of communication studies. This entry covers the legacy of the colonized practice and postcolonial analyses of these strategies. In addition, the entry covers the growing economic influence of some once-colonized segments and the reputation strategies of companies with ownership or with products manufactured in the developing world.

In critical management studies, postcolonial theory has been successfully deployed to unearth the continuing colonial mind-set in contemporary international management and diversity management to effectively critique the lingering Eurocentrism in dominant processes of globalization informed by notions of Western modernity. Similarly, in communication studies, postcolonial theorizing has led to critical analyses of imperialist ideologies and the subliminal Euro-American imprints embedded in communication theory.

Scholarly treatises on corporate reputation see it variously as the management of image and perception or as matching corporate identities with the public image of corporations. In essence, therefore, corporate reputation is about processes of representation that allow corporations to be seen in a good light by their premium stakeholders. From a postcolonial perspective, representation is not a neutral process. It is, as cultural theorist Stuart Hall (1997) says, the “cultural circuit” of “giving and taking of meaning” in which there is a “persistence of difference and power” among the various participants (pp. 2–11).

The disparities of power are reflected in the way organizations manage the corporate image by privileging some publics over others. A well-known example of this is the way Union Carbide managed its communication strategies to make sure it did not lose ground with its Western shareholders despite the industrial disaster that claimed a huge number of Third World lives at its factory in Bhopal, India. Others have noted how the traditional corporate reputation measures for performance (e.g., stock market price, consumer perceptions) marginalize stakeholders not located within the conventional market framework. One example is the affected communities, who may not buy or sell a company’s products or stock.

Paying greater attention to elite publics and marginalizing others is a legacy of the colonialist practice of keeping the core and periphery distinctly apart. In her landmark 1995 work Imperial Leather, postcolonial scholar Anne McClintock shows how colonial-era corporations used communication strategies to maintain this distinction and decisively press home the idea of their own superiority. These companies built their reputation by focusing on this deemed superiority among the inner circle of their stakeholders. McClintock, for example, talks about the “imperial civilizing mission” evident in the colonial-era advertising of Pears soap and its fetish for equating whiteness with purity and progress. She also highlights the ways in which companies stamped “images of colonial conquest” on commodities of everyday use, such as biscuit and tea tins, alcoholic drink bottles, or chocolate bars.

Contemporary corporate reputation strategies are much more sophisticated, built as they are on ideas such as philanthropy and corporate social responsibility. Yet postcolonial analyses of these strategies reveal the same privileging of some publics over others. The high-profile (PRODUCT) RED campaign based on celebrity endorsements, which several corporations such as Apple, Converse, Gap, and Starbucks have been a part of, is a well-meaning effort to raise funds to combat AIDS in Africa. Yet it echoes imperialist discourses by promoting the consumerism of wealthy consumers and painting Africa as an “othered” entity in need of a rescue act by the West.

Developing countries are now seen as major markets for global corporations. Several organizations from developing countries are buying up controlling stakes in Western companies. Yet this changing context is still represented in corporate reputation circles in predominantly Western terms. Research literature still orientalizes emerging markets as never-quite-ready locales that are mired in corruption and instability, ruled by totalitarian regimes, and steeped in customs alien to Anglo-Americans.

On the other hand, the corporate reputation machinery has a different strategy in place for once-Western corporations now owned by companies from the developing world or whose products are manufactured in the developing world. The identities of these corporations are managed to appease Western audiences. For example, strategic communication messages such as “Volvo remains Volvo,” “Jaguar, Land Rover will retain their distinctive identities,” or “Made in China with software from Silicon Valley” discount the passing of the ownership of these companies to Third World–based companies such as the Zhejiang Geely holding group of China and Tata Motors of India. Much like in colonial times, these messages also accentuate the primacy of the West by privileging, for example, Silicon Valley designers over manufacturing hubs in the developing world, hitching the reputation capital of corporations to a dominant Western image. In essence, a postcolonial theory perspective allows us to see the many layers of power in corporate reputation matters.

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