Difference Between Colonialism and Imperialism

Difference Between Colonialism and Imperialism

The concepts of colonialism and imperialism describe one’s superiority, domination and influence upon a person or group of people. Although these two concepts are interrelated, some scholars insist that there is a distinctive difference between colonialism and imperialism. Colonialism is the practice of acquiring partial or full control over another country and exploiting it economically. Imperialism is the ideology that drives colonialism. Thus, the key difference between colonialism and imperialism is the fact that imperialism is a concept whereas colonialism is a practice.

This article explains,

1. What is Imperialism?
     – Definition, Characteristics, Types

2. What is Colonialism?
     – Definition, Characteristics, Types, Impacts

3. What is the difference between Imperialism and Colonialism?

Difference Between Colonialism and Imperialism - Comparison Summary

What is Imperialism

Imperialism is a policy of extending a country’s power and influence through military force or diplomacy. In other words, it refers to the practice by which a country increases its power by gaining control over other areas of the world. The term imperialism is derived from Latin imperium, meaning supreme power.

There is no exact definition of imperialism, and many scholars have put forth different views to explain the concept of imperialism. But it is generally accepted that imperialism occurs when a strong nation takes over a weaker nation and dominates its political, economic, and cultural life. Generally, this term is applied to the political and economic dominance of Africa and Asia by the Western countries in the 19th and 20th centuries. The term imperialism also emphasizes the control one group (a state power) has over another group of people.

Types of Imperialism 

There are two forms of imperialism known as formal and informal imperialism. Formal imperialism refers to the complete colonial rule or the physical control. Although less direct, informal imperialism is also a powerful form of dominance, which is less costly than directly taking over territories. In informal imperialism, the control is less subtly spread through ownership of private industries, technological superiority, uneven trade agreements, and offering loans that cannot be repaid.

Main Difference - Imperialism vs Colonialism

A satirical political cartoon reflecting America’s imperial ambition

What is Colonialism

Colonialism is the practice of acquiring partial or full control over another country and exploiting it economically. Colonialism results in a set of unequal relationships between the colonizers and the colonized (natives of the colony) and between the colonial power and the colony.

If we take a look at instances of colonialism in the history, several European countries such as the Great Britain, France, Spain, Portuguese, and Netherlands established colonies in Asia, Africa and the Americas during the period from 16th century to mid-20th century.

Types of Colonialism

Colonialism too can be categorized into two main types known as settler colonies and dependencies  

Settler colonies involve foreign people moving to a new region. This is a large scale immigration, motivated by economic, political or economic reasons. Europeans moving to the Americas, Australia, and New Zealand is an example of settler colonialism. The original residents of these regions are often forced to move to other regions or exterminated.

Dependencies are colonies where a small number of colonizers act as the administrators over the native population. This does not involve large-scale immigration. Egypt, British Raj (where British controlled India), and Dutch East Indies (where Netherlands controlled a part of the East Indies) are examples of dependencies.

Impact of Colonialism

Colonialism has both negative and positive impacts. Some of the negative impacts of colonialism include

  • Creation of unequal social relations
  • Economic exploitation of a country
  • Spread of virulent diseases
  • Enslavement and exploitation of the native population
  • Endangerment and obliteration of culture, religions, literature of native people

Positive impacts of colonialism include,

  • Medical advances
  • Improved infrastructure
  • Abolishment of oppressive cultural practices
  • Technological progressDifference Between Imperialism and Colonialism - 02

Difference Between Imperialism and Colonialism


Imperialism is a policy of extending a country’s power and influence through military force or diplomacy.

Colonialism is the practice of acquiring partial or full control over another country and exploiting it economically.

Concept vs Practice

Imperialism is the ideology that drives colonialism.

Colonialism is a practice of extending territories, forming colonies and settlements, and exploiting the resources of them.


Imperialism can be categorized into formal and informal imperialism.

Colonialism produced two main types of colonies: settler colonies and dependencies. 

Scholars on the difference between Imperialism and Colonialism

Edward Said states that imperialism involves “practice, the theory and the attitudes of a dominating metropolitan center ruling a distant territory” whereas colonialism involves ‘implanting of settlements on a distant territory.

Robert J. C. Young suggests that colonialism is a practice while imperialism is the concept that drives it.


Gilmartin, Mary. “Colonialism/Imperialism.” Key Concepts in Political Geography. Carolyn GallaherCarl T. Dahlman and Mary Gilmartin. London: SAGE Publications Ltd, 2009. 115-123. SAGE Knowledge. Web. Key Concepts in Human Geography. 15 Dec. 2016.

Image Courtesy:

“Victor Gillam A Thing Well Begun Is Half Done 1899 Cornell CUL PJM 1136 01” By Victor Gillam – Cornell University: Persuasive Cartography: The PJ Mode Collection (Public Domain) via Commons Wikimedia

“Colonialism in 1945 updated legend” By AniRaptor2001 at English Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0) via Commons Wikimedia

About the Author: Hasa

Hasanthi is a seasoned content writer and editor with over 8 years of experience. Armed with a BA degree in English and a knack for digital marketing, she explores her passions for literature, history, culture, and food through her engaging and informative writing.