Colonialism and Its Legacies: A Comprehensive Historical Dataset

The era of globalization began in 1415 with the Portuguese conquest of Ceuta (contemporary Morocco), which resulted in the first enduring overseas European colony. In subsequent centuries, Anglo-Europeans and Japanese managed to control, at various times, virtually the entire inhabitable planet. Only a few nations escaped direct control of these colonial powers. None escaped their spheres of influence. The goal of the Colonialism and Its Legacies is to marry the virtues of case study and crossnational approaches so that the influence of colonialism on the modern world can be measured in ways that are satisfying to scholars working with in-depth historical studies as well as global datasets. The project aims to develop a comprehensive, cross-national time-series study of Anglo-European and Japanese colonization that should stimulate future research concerning the causes and effects of colonialism by scholars in all fields of the social sciences—regardless of method, theoretical framework, or area of interest.

Despite extensive study, the academic world has yet to render a clear verdict on colonialism’s legacy. Persistent methodological problems associated with dominant research strategies contribute to the lack of clear conclusions in the field. The dominant case study approach is informative, but unsystematic. By contrast, the crossnational approach is systematic, but it generally flattens what should be a multidimensional analysis. Despite its ubiquity in the contemporary fields of anthropology, economics, history, political science, and sociology, the subject of colonialism is rarely studied in a detailed and systematic manner.

Without a comprehensive historical dataset, scholars lack the means to adjudicate among causal hypotheses. What has colonialism wrought? Under what circumstances might colonialism leave favorable or unfavorable legacies? How shall we understand the immense variety of colonial experiences? How might the various eras of globalization be compared with each other? Such questions are among those addressed by the Colonialism and Its Legacies project.


This project was funded from 2007-2010 by the National Science Foundation.


Co-Principal Investigators:

  • James Mahoney, professor of political science and sociology, Northwestern University
  • John Gerring, professor of political science, Boston University


  • Paul Barclay, Department of History, Lafayette College
  • Neil Englehart, Department of Political Science, Bowling Green State University
  • Andrew Harris, Department of Government, Harvard University
  • Charles Kurzman, Department of Sociology, University of North Carolina
  • James Robinson, Department of Government, Harvard University
  • Nicolas van de Walle, Department of Government, Cornell University


Mahoney, J. (2010). Colonialism and Postcolonial Development: Spanish America in Comparative Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.