The Importance of Contact Zones in Studying History

“In the global story of human interactions… we return constantly to the ways people make contact with each other: migration, trade, war, imperialism, pilgrimage, gift exchange, diplomacy, travel - and to their social frameworks: the economic and political arenas, the human groups and groupings, the states and civilizations, the sexes and generations, the classes and clusters of identity… We observe the world as it is, imagine it differently and try to fend off our fears and realize our hopes.”
Felipe Fernandez-Armesto (pg xxiv)

Contact Zones

The term ‘contact zone’ was coined in the 1990s to overcome deficiencies inherent in the predominantly linear European expansionist perspective implied in the much used concept of the ‘colonial frontier’. The contact zone refers to a more holistic approach towards studying the spatial, temporal, geographic, economic, political and bodily interactions that exists between people of culturally diverse backgrounds during historic initial encounters with one another. (Pratt, pg 4-6)

The collision of cultures during episodes of initial contact are highly contestable areas that have typically recorded from an objective European colonialist ideological framework which gives a unique, but ultimately tunnel visioned, imperialist focus. Broader study of cross-cultural encounters, not just as singular Eurocentric meeting points, but rather as wide ranging areas of ethnographically diverse contemporaneous interactions, attempts to expand the field of view to incorporate the preconceptions, intentions, motivations, compromises, conflicts and accords as well as intellectual, emotional and corporal experiences from all sides of the encounter. By encompassing all interactions be they positive or negative, significant or seemingly trivial, across various international, intercultural and interpersonal levels, historians are able to gain greater insight into the import and impact of these important initial cultural engagements.

Why are contact zones useful in rethinking colonial history?

The traditional historical paradigm has been customarily composed of the authoritative voice of documents and narratives recording social, economic, political, exploratory, military deeds and various other interactions with a predominantly Eurocentric agenda . (Black & MacRaild, pg 84-85) As such, the ethnographically diverse cultures encountered by Europeans during the most dynamic eras of discovery and expansion were often spuriously represented or suffer from being absent entirely.

Autoethnographic expressions of initial contact with Europeans also prove problematic for the historical scholar. The imperial conquest rhetoric used to report on ethnographically diverse cultures is unfortunately mirrored in self representations of many indigenous cultures. Lacking their own methods, subordinated people adopted and employed the communication and documentation techniques of the dominant party. This utilization of the dominant culture’s media has led to depictions of subjugated people as lacking in agency in historically significant events, unable to self represent without resorting to the heterogeneous avenues of the dominant Europeans in the predominantly asymmetrical power interactions and leaving little or no authentic indigenous voice on the historical record. (Pratt, pg 7-9)

The study of ‘new’ history attempts to address the representational imbalance of ethnographic cultures as well as those of gender. Developments in the areas of gender and women’s history have made significant contributions to remapping historical narratives by taking a revisionist approach to imperialist history. Traditional historical narratives see women being subordinated by the predominantly masculine empirical focus and positivist ideology leaving women’s perspectives largely under represented or silenced entirely which in itself is remarkable given that women comprise approximately half the world’s population (Black & MacRaild pg 12-13). In studying the historical perspectives of women, the interlocking experiences of other minority groups, including ethnographically dominated groups, have also been given a voice including those who are doubly marginalized by being both indigenous and female. (Ballantyne & Burton pg 411).

By widening and applying focus to many individuals’ experiences in contact zones and critically re-examining interactions between indigenous peoples and dominant European expansionists we aim to critically investigate the impact and transculturation experienced between ethnographically disparate cultures. The more inclusive of varying perspectives and experiences from both cultures within a contact zone, the more accurate a depiction of that initial encounter can be portrayed. Studying contact zones with the intent of revisiting or rewriting colonial historical narratives is important in order that historically significant events encompass virtually all areas of human activity in and surrounding these interactions. It is through critical in depth scrutiny that disingenuous and selective interpretations of colonial narratives are able to be dispelled and a more systematic, accurate and meaningful knowledge of the past becomes more accessible. (Black & MacRaild pg 11)


  • Ballantyne & Burton - Bodies in Contact: Rethinking colonial Encounters in World History
    Duke University Press, Durham and London 2005
  • Black & MacRaild - Studying History - Third Edition
    Palgrave Macmillan, New York 2007
  • Fernandez-Armesto, Felipe - The World: A Brief History
    Volume One to 1500; Prentice Hall, New Jersey 2008
  • Pratt, Mary Louise - Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation
    Routledge, 1992