The concepts of colonialism and imperialism are often confused, but they are not synonymous. It is true that both are political, military and economic phenomena in which one nation subjugates another to exploit it and use it to its advantage for its geostrategic objectives, but beyond this similarity, we must distinguish between what each implies.

In this article we will see what are the differences between colonialism and imperialism and in what ways each one has an impact on people’s lives.

Main differences between imperialism and colonialism

In the present or in the past, most people have been unable to enjoy sovereignty to decide on their territory . The interests of foreign powers often govern everything that happens in both the public and private spheres. The fact is that neither the force of arms nor that of favors bought with money know borders.

Below you can find a list of the differences between colonialism and imperialism.

1. Extent of term

The concept of imperialism refers to the suppression of the national sovereignty of the population of a country , either formally or informally, in favour of another, which dominates the former.

On the other hand, colonialism can be understood as a way of suppressing the sovereignty of a region and in favour of another that is more concrete than imperialism. Thus, colonialism is a relatively specific phenomenon, while imperialism is a broader concept, as we will see.

2. The explicit or implicit nature of dominance

In colonialism it is evident that there is a country that dominates another by force , in the same way that a kidnapper dominates a hostage. This does not prevent the dominating nation from taking advantage of the situation, since it does not need to give the impression that it does not direct all the relevant political and economic events taking place in the dominated part.

In imperialism, on the other hand, it can happen that the country that exploits the other follows a strategy by which its dominant role is concealed, by creating the conditions to make the weak country appear to be sovereign. For example, it does not directly contradict the decisions of the local government bodies, although these are subject to what the foreign authorities dictate . It may be the case that the real authorities of a country are located in an embassy, and not in the national parliament or congress.

3. Use or non-use of direct physical violence

Where there is colonialism, violence towards the population can be exercised with relative freedom , without being accountable to other authorities. This is done both to repress possible popular revolts in the colonies from the metropolis and to make clear the military superiority of the colonizing nation over the colonized one through fear.

In contrast, it is not essential in imperialism to resort to the use of direct military repression against the population to make domination effective. This is because the tools that the dominant country can use to impose its interests are so varied that it will be able to opt for other means, such as propaganda. On many occasions, the dominant elites are not identified with the owners of capital from abroad.

4. Differences in the arrival of settlers

During colonization, there is always an arrival of settlers who arrive at the occupied lands, many times expelling directly their former owners without a purchase being made. These may be families whose emigration may have been promoted by the metropolis in order to weaken the influence of the native ethnic groups, or they may be a minority of families that limit themselves to possessing the great resources of this territory. Moreover, these families live separately from the native population, dealing only with servants.

In imperialism, however, this form of migration does not necessarily occur and, in fact, it is often the inhabitants of the subjugated lands who are forced to migrate to the metropolis. On the other hand, under imperialism the dominated country may be stable enough that the families that control the territory do not have to move to the area.

5. Objectives sought by the dominant country

Where there is colonialism, there is also the will to exploit the natural resources of the subjugated region. Thus, raw materials are extracted from these areas and these are normally processed in the nation that dominates the other, since it is at this stage of production that there is most value added.

In imperialism the above situation can also occur, but it does not always happen. Sometimes, simply a region is dominated to favour military or other interests . For example, it is possible to take control of a country close to another with which one is competing to destabilize the region and harm the adversary by making it always subject to the risk of internal rebellions, secessionist movements, etc.


Both colonialism and imperialism are based on suppressing the sovereignty of a national collective in favour of the extractive or geostrategic interests of the elites of the dominant country , but beyond this both types of power are exercised in a somewhat different way.

Colonialism is generally based on brute force with the aim of plundering the natural resources of the area subjected to it, as well as exploiting the popular classes through slavery or semi-slavery. Under imperialism, this domination can be further disguised under the pretext that each individual is free to offer or not offer the jobs that are offered to him and the commercial deals that he can choose from his clearly inferior position.

In any case, the dominant elites use the already existing material inequalities between their country of origin and the subjugated one to create new inequalities through the exploitation of other countries and a tight control of the borders.