6.1A: Rationales for Imperialism


AP Theme

Cultural Developments and Interactions

Learning Objective 6A

Explain how ideologies contributed to the development of imperialism from 1750 to 1900.

Historical Development 1

A range of cultural, religious, and racial ideologies were used to justify imperialism, including Social Darwinism, nationalism, the concept of the civilizing mission, and the desire to religiously convert indigenous populations.


Imperialism: The 2nd Wave of European Conquest

In the 19th century, the second wave of European and western expansion occurred. This wave of European conquest took place in Africa, Asia, and the South Pacific. While Europe had interacted with these regions since the 16th and 17th centuries, European nations primarily established trading post empires and coastal settlements. Europeans established direct colonial control only in a few places, such as the Philippines in Southeast Asia or Goa along the western Indian coast.  

In North America, the newly formed American and Canadian nations continued their westward expansion into native nations’ territories. Later in the 19th century, Japan began an empire of its own.

What is imperialism?

Imperialism is when one nation extends its power over foreign territories and people. This extension of the outside group’s control can occur through military force or without force by gaining control over a nation’s economy and resources. 

The terms colonization and imperialism are often used interchangeably. 

Rationales for imperialism

Like first-wave colonization in the 16th and 17th centuries, second-wave imperialism conquered other peoples’ societies, economies, and territories. By the 19th century, voices of opposition against imperialism and colonization were getting louder. Those who supported the practice needed justifications for their policies. Supporters of imperialism created various cultural, religious, and racial ideologies to rationalize the theft of land and export of native culture and wealth to colonizing nations.

Scientific Racism and Eugenics

Scientific racism was the attempt to use science to justify racist ideas that white Europeans were genetically superior to people of color and Asian races. 

Scientific racism had roots back to the 1600s during the European Scientific Revolution. Colonizers were obsessed with categorizing colonized peoples. Scientific racism developed as a pseudoscience (not scientific but tried to look scientific) that used biological identifiers to rank various races and subgroups within a hierarchy of inferiors and superiors. Whites placed themselves at the top of the hierarchy and people of color at the bottom.


Eugenics developed from scientific racism by arguing that scientists could control human reproduction to prevent the reproduction of inferior people. Eugenicists advocated for the forced sterilization of those deemed inferior. 

Scientific racism and eugenics lost most of their advocates following World War 2 after Hitler used these ideas to rationalize genocide in his extermination camps in NAZI-occupied Europe.