Difference between colonialism and imperialism

It is essential to know the difference between colonialism and imperialism. These streams of thought, which formally emerged in the 15th century, have many similarities. But they also have differences that should be known.

Difference between colonialism and imperialism

For this reason, at Economipedia we have investigated these two concepts and we are going to expose you, in an easy and enjoyable way, those differences that we have found the most notable, which should be noted.

However, we must, first of all, point out that we are talking about two economic, political and social systems. Two currents of thought, two political practices that consist of submitting, based on greater economic, technological, military, as well as general power, other less capable territories.

The objective of both practices is to exercise the political, economic, military and even cultural power of one powerful nation over another. That is, to control other territories through practices based on a greater power of these imperialist powers.

Both practices formally emerged in the 15th century. Proof of this is the conquest of America by the European powers, or the conquest of India. However, since the beginning of time and empires, colonialism and imperialism, or what is the same, the subjugation of other peoples by more powerful ones, was a very common practice.


Thus, to know the differences between imperialism and colonialism, it is best to know the two concepts and, in this way, understand what they consist of.

That said, let’s start with colonialism.

Colonialism is the set of practices that advocate the domination of a foreign territory by a "superior" country. This is a country that has greater economic, military, political or technological power, for example. In this way, after the conquest, this power exercises political, economic and cultural power over the new subdued territory.

Colonialism emerged in the 15th century, and the best example is found in the conquest of America by the European states.

In colonialism, the power that dominates the other controls that territory in every way. This new territory is considered a colony of the most powerful territory, which is why it is fully subdued, establishing a formal relationship of submission with the colonialist power.

And it is important to highlight this last paragraph, because, as we will see below, it is key to understanding the difference between imperialism and colonialism.

The imperialism

Imperialism, like colonialism, refers to the set of practices that advocate the control of a State through the power of another “superior” State, as well as the extension of its authority in other territories.

Therefore, imperialism is the political doctrine that defends the domination of a people based on the power of another State, considered superior, which has greater power. For this, this doctrine advocates extending the authority of a Government to other States that, therefore, are subject.

Imperialism, in the same way as colonialism, formally emerged in the 15th century.

However, unlike colonialism, imperialism is a broader concept, which integrates colonialism among its variants. But what does this mean?

Let’s see!

Difference between colonialism and imperialism

Thus, the difference between colonialism and imperialism is that imperialism is a much broader concept than colonialism.

Colonialism can be a type of imperialism, but in the same way there can be situations in which one country dominates another without there being a formal relationship between the powerful and the subjugated. That is, without this power-colony relationship existing.

Imperialism, therefore, is the practice that consists of subjugating other territories, this subjection may be through a formal or informal relationship, that is to say, indirect.

Imagine a country that controls another through military threats. Or a country that controls another by owning its debt.

Let us also imagine those economies in which their industrial fabric is controlled by foreign capital, which therefore control politics in the country. Imagine, in the same way, those countries that, through trade, dominate other states dependent on this trade to survive.

All these practices entail the submission of one country by another, regardless of whether there is a formal relationship or not. It may be that we are facing colonial imperialism if these countries become colonies of the colonialist power. Or, also, that we are facing economic imperialism, if one country dominates another by controlling its finances.