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Settler colonialism and sociological knowledge: insights and directions forward


What can the analytical framework of settler colonialism contribute to sociological theorizing, research, and overall understanding of the social world? This essay argues that settler colonialism, a distinct social formation with common statuses and predictable dynamics, has much to offer towards new sociological insight regarding the United States. In expanding the scholarly models of colonialism applied to the United States, settler colonial analysis suggests that an underlying logic of Indigenous elimination and settler replacement informs a diverse set of contemporary outcomes and structures. It provides a coherent and overarching framework for explaining such political phenomena as the vigorous presence of “extraconstitutional” tribal governments within the United States, recurrent Native-white conflicts, and the distinctive nature of contemporary Indigenous social and political agency. The essay also analyzes how settler supersession and the desire for Indigenous lands shapes the intensive state management of Indigenous identity, the differing racialization of African Americans and American Indians, and the contrasts between Indigenous and black sociopolitical agendas. Insights from a reconceptualization of the US as a settler colonial society are not limited to a focus on politics, American Indians, race, or the past. The article suggests additional directions for new research that have the potential to reveal contemporary social forces operating at multiple levels and in numerous fields of social action. Finally, the essay offers simple suggestions to sociologists who wish to incorporate settler colonialism in their research and teaching within the discipline or to contribute to interdisciplinary scholarship about American settler colonialism.

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  1. 1.

    The particular framing of tribes as mediating institutions comes from James Fenelon (personal communication).

  2. 2.

    Indeed, a 1978 Congressional study found 33 different definitions of Indian in federal legislation alone (Garroutte 2003, p. 16).

  3. 3.

    To contextualize this notion of “traditional” Indians as employed by settlers, it is important to note that prior to the arrival of Europeans Indigenous peoples of North America engaged in extensive trading networks that reached thousands of miles, with cultural objects traveling, for example, from the Andes to the northern Atlantic seaboard. Indigenous groups interacted and shared technology and in doing so experienced cultural change stimulated by external relations. As the English, French and Spanish appeared in North American these Indigenous peoples continued these practices by borrowing, adapting and selectively incorporating European technology and culture.


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I am thankful to the many people who contributed directly and indirectly to this paper, and I in particular I would like to acknolwedgement Kari Norgaard, Matthew Archibald, Azamat Junisbai, Theory and Society Editors, and three anonymous reviewers for the insightful comments.

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Steinman, E.W. Settler colonialism and sociological knowledge: insights and directions forward. Theor Soc (2021).

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  • American society
  • Indigenous nations
  • Racialization
  • Settler colonialism
  • Sociological theory
  • Whiteness