Orientalism | Study Guide

Edward W. Said

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Orientalism | Chapter 1, Part 1 : The Scope of Orientalism (Knowing the Oriental) | Summary



In Chapter 1, Part 1, Said defines what he means by Orientalism. He does so through the evaluation of specific Orientalists at a time when the Orient itself was defined generally as "Asia or the East, geographically, morally, culturally." In 1910 Arthur James Balfour addressed his qualifications for being "superior with regard to people you choose to call Oriental." He argued he was able to speak regarding the Orient based on his knowledge of the Orient civilization.

Another well-known Orientalist was Lord Cromer, England's representative in Egypt between 1883 and 1907. Rather than speaking about the Orient as an abstract, Cromer spoke more specifically about his experiences in India and Egypt, emphasizing that both knowledge and power made the management of these countries easy. Said argues that these aspects of Orientalism did not serve to justify colonialism after the fact but rather provided the premise for colonial rule at the outset. The initial creation of a framework of domination during the 18th and 19th centuries allowed for domination to occur. This framework was initially characterized as an "us" versus "them" dichotomy, established by those who were in power, and thus in a position to act as knowledge producers. Said states that this is the basis of the "main intellectual issue raised by Orientalism." In those cases where an "us" versus "them" dichotomy arises, is it possible to avoid the "hostility expressed by the division"? Said argues that to understand how the framework of Orientalism arose, it is necessary to understand the historical context under which it was generated. At its core, Orientalism represented a system of "knowledge" and perceived "power" regarding the Orient that framed interactions with the West. Said concludes the chapter by setting up the historical timeline for the development of Orientalism through the 18th–20th centuries he goes on to describe in later parts.


Said sets up his argument against Orientalism by focusing on the views of two early Orientalists, Arthur James Balfour and Lord Cromer. By beginning the text with specific definitions of Orientalism, Said sets the tone for the rest of the text. Rather than focus on flushing out a purely theoretical argument, he uses specific, textual examples to support his ideas. While previous scholarly works had broached similar ideas regarding Orientalism, the strength of Said's text—and why it continues to be considered one of the seminal anthropological works—is the level of detail he provides across a wide span of history. In order to do this, Said provides sections of Balfour and Cromer's speeches, breaking down their arguments sentence-by-sentence and word-by-word. From the outset, he provides historical evidence for the use of the terms Orient and Orientalism within literature.

Thus, Said is able to make the argument that these terms have a historical basis found in literature. This is a fundamental concept for his argument that Orientalism was formed from previously conceived definitions and understandings. These archaic understandings of a complex group of people, clumped under the term Orient, were continuously used for centuries and up to the present day. Said claims their basis is in original, literary texts such as "Chaucer and Mandeville ... Shakespeare, Dryden, Pope, and Byron."

Furthermore, by breaking down the individual arguments of Balfour and Cromer, Said is able to evaluate their tone and perspective to illustrate how they create an "us" versus "them" dichotomy, how the Orient is dehumanized, and how the natives' power to speak is removed. Using both Balfour and Cromer, Said is able to show that, in the case of two different Orientalists—one removed from the Orient and the other directly involved in the everyday management of the Orient—the framework for talking about the Orient remained the same. Thus, Orientalism was not confined to a specific group of people, but was a pervasive paradigm.

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