Orientalism Summary

Edward Said

Orientalism

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Orientalism Summary

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Orientalism is a 1978 non-fiction book by Arab-American historian Edward Said. Exploring themes including colonialism, racism, and imperialism, the title of Orientalism refers to the way Western academia studies Eastern cultures. Considered one of the most important works regarding how Western and Eastern cultures interact, Orientalism is critically acclaimed for its exhaustive work in chronicling the history of cultural exchange and the negative implications towards Eastern cultures that followed, although it is considered controversial for the negative view it casts on traditional scholarship in the field. Orientalism is considered a foundational text in the field of post-colonial culture studies, and has been debated extensively both during Said’s life and after.

Orientalism is a historical text, and as such does not have a conventional narrative. Rather, it moves from topic to topic, exploring how the imperial-minded study of Orientalism influences the cultures it purports to be exploring. Said states that Orientalism is the exaggeration of difference, the presumption of Western superiority, and the use of clichés and outmoded analytical models for interpreting the Eastern world. Said holds Orientalism responsible for the inaccurate cultural representations that until recently have served as the foundation of Western study of the Eastern world. Said has a particular focus on the way the Middle East is portrayed, and considers Orientalism a source of persistent Eurocentric prejudice against Arabs and Muslims. He states that East Asian cultures dominate Western perspective of the region, and all others are frequently ignored.

Said holds the Arab elites of the region partially responsible for the spread of Orientalism as well, stating that Europeanized Arab elites have internalized the fictional, romanticized portrayals of Arab culture. As such, they often pattern their cultures not after Arab historical influence but after what Western cultures portray as their heyday. Said states that Orientalist stereotypes of the cultures of the Eastern world serve as implicit justifications for colonial ambitions, and that his people are frequently viewed as little more than oil suppliers or potential terrorists, which frequently leads to military action against the region.

Orientalism proposes that most Western study of Islamic civilization comes not from an honest perspective, but from one of political intellectualism. Its goal is to affirm European identity and leave the student with a sense of superiority, rather than examining another culture from an objective perspective. As such, Orientalism served as a method of cultural discrimination and was used as justification of empire. Thus, Said asserts that the Western portrayals and writings of Eastern cultures from earlier time periods cannot be trusted due to their biased perspectives. European colonial rule distorts all intellectual objectivity, even of the most renowned and sympathetic Western student of Orientalism.

According to Said, the Western world dominated the Eastern world for over two thousand years, beginning with Greek conquests of the Persians and proceeding until the time Orientalism was written. As such, the practice of Orientalism was normalized. Eastern languages and arts were appropriated and became believed in time to be Western creations. The East became known as exotic and inscrutable, and Western scholars viewed it as inherently inferior. One of Said’s most well known concepts is that of The Other. Said states that Western scholarship tends to cast the Orient as an irrational, psychologically weak and feminized other, which is contrasted negatively with the West, which is usually portrayed as rational, strong and masculine. This leads to Western scholars separating themselves psychologically from the people they study. This binary relationship is used to justify colonialism and other harmful policies towards Eastern nations.

Orientalism is considered one of the most significant texts in the study of East-West relationships, and came to prominence during the 1970s when great upheaval was occurring in the Middle East. It is considered to have perpetrated a sea change in the study of literary theory, cultural studies, and human geography. All fields were heavily reformed to purge themselves of Orientalist thought, and the field of post-colonial studies was born out of this reform.

Edward Said is considered one of the forefathers of the field of post-colonial studies. A professor of literature at Colombia University, he was best known for Orientalism, although he also wrote an additional seven books in the areas of literary criticism and decolonization. Said was as known for his politics as for his writings. Heavily active in left wing and anti-colonialist politics, he was known for speaking out against western powers including the United States. He was prominent as a member of the Palestinian National Council and advocated for the establishment of a Palestinian state. He was also an accomplished pianist, and co-founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which brings together young Arab and Israeli musicians. Said won many award prior to his death in 2010, including Harvard’s Bowdoin Price, the New Yorker Book Award for Non-Fiction, and the Wellek Prize of the American Comparative Literature Association. His work, Orientalism in particular, is still taught extensively in colleges.