The Historicity of the Concept of "Emancipation"
Entered by Leong Yew, Research Fellow, University
Scholars Programme, National University of Singapore
The concept of emancipation, like any other contested term, has gone through
numerous transformations in time regarding its context, use, and political implications.
For this reason, the concept cannot be historically understood because that
would merely reaffirm one instance of its many meanings, projected and narrated
backwards in time. Emancipation should therefore be historicized, each meaning
and its associated history having some immediate relevance to the period in
which it is used.
According to Nederveen Pieterse, emancipation
- comes from the Roman experience, "emancipatio," referring
juridically to the "release from authority." Specifically, it concerned
the relinquishing of "parental authority" over children
- later meant the freeing of slaves
- during the 16th and 17th century, it meant in a legal sense the "early
attainment of majority status"
- it became connected with French revolutionary causes
- it referred to the liberation of the bourgeousie from "absolutism and
clericism" before it came to be used by the working class as the objective
of their struggles
- towards the middle of the 19th century it was deployed by more groups of
people seeking various forms of liberation, for example serfs in Russia, Jews,
Catholics, and women.
- from this point onwards, emancipation came to be tied to privilege and the
extension of rights of these privileges. In the 20th century, particularly,
it is the notion of "self-liberation" among these groups of people
that resonate. In most cases, it has come to be used largely by women and
- Nederveen Pieterse, Jan. Empire and Emancipation: Power and Liberation
on a World Scale. London: Pluto Press, 1989. 52-53.
3 May, 2002