Cultural Imperialism

Cultural imperialism is defined as the cultural aspects of imperialism. Imperialism, here, is referring to the creation and maintenance of unequal relationships between civilizations favoring the more powerful civilization. Therefore, it can be defined as the practice of promoting and imposing a culture, usually of politically powerful nations over less potent societies. It is the cultural hegemony of those industrialized or economically influential countries, which determine general cultural values and standardize civilizations throughout the world.

Many scholars employ the term, especially those in the fields of history, cultural studies, and postcolonial theory. It is usually used in a pejorative sense, often in conjunction with a call to reject such influence. Cultural imperialism can take various forms, such as an attitude, a formal policy, military action, so long as it reinforces cultural hegemony.

The term emerged in the 1960s and has been a focus of research since at least the 1970s. Terms such as ‘media imperialism,’ ‘structural imperialism,’ ‘cultural dependency and domination,’ ‘cultural synchronization,’ ‘electronic colonialism,’ ‘ideological imperialism,’ and ‘economic imperialism’ have all been used to describe the same basic notion of cultural imperialism.

American media critic Herbert Schiller wrote: ‘The concept of cultural imperialism today best describes the sum of the processes by which a society is brought into the modern world system and how its dominating stratum is attracted, pressured, forced, and sometimes bribed into shaping social institutions to correspond to, or even promote, the values and structures of the dominating centre of the system. The public media are the foremost example of operating enterprises that are used in the penetrative process. For penetration on a significant scale the media themselves must be captured by the dominating/penetrating power. This occurs largely through the commercialization of broadcasting.’

Canadian professor of media studies Tom McPhail defined ”Electronic colonialism’ as the dependency relationship established by the importation of communication hardware, foreign-produced software, along with engineers, technicians, and related information protocols, that vicariously establish a set of foreign norms, values, and expectations which, in varying degrees, may alter the domestic cultures and socialization processes.’ Sui-Nam Lee observed that ‘communication imperialism can be defined as the process in which the ownership and control over the hardware and software of mass media as well as other major forms of communication in one country are singly or together subjugated to the domination of another country with deleterious effects on the indigenous values, norms and culture.’ Professor of communications Christine Ogan saw ‘media imperialism often described as a process whereby the United States and Western Europe produce most of the media products, make the first profits from domestic sales, and then market the products in Third World countries at costs considerably lower than those the countries would have to bear to produce similar products at home.’

Downing and Sreberny-Mohammadi state: ‘Imperialism is the conquest and control of one country by a more powerful one. Cultural imperialism signifies the dimensions of the process that go beyond economic exploitation or military force. In the history of colonialism, (i.e., the form of imperialism in which the government of the colony is run directly by foreigners), the educational and media systems of many Third World countries have been set up as replicas of those in Britain, France, or the United States and carry their values. Western advertising has made further inroads, as have architectural and fashion styles. Subtly but powerfully, the message has often been insinuated that Western cultures are superior to the cultures of the Third World.’

Many of today’s academics that employ the term, ‘cultural imperialism,’ are heavily informed by the work of French social theorist Michel Foucault, French philosopher Jacques Derrida, Palestinian–American literary theoretician Edward Said, and other poststructuralist (focused on the impossibility of fully escaping structures in order to study them) and postcolonialist theorists. Within the realm of postcolonial discourse, cultural imperialism can be seen as the cultural legacy of colonialism, or forms of social action contributing to the continuation of Western hegemony. To some outside of the realm of this discourse, The term is critiqued as being unclear, unfocused, and/or contradictory in nature.

Foucault has been particularly influential in this context because Cultural imperialism fits into his philosophical interpretation of power and his concept of governmentality (the art of government). Following an interpretation of power similar to that of Machiavelli, Foucault defines power as immaterial, as a ‘certain type of relation between individuals’ that has to do with complex strategic social positions that relate to the subject’s ability to control its environment and influence those around itself. According to Foucault, power is intimately tied with his conception of truth. ‘Truth,’ as he defines it, is a ‘system of ordered procedures for the production, regulation, distribution, circulation, and operation of statements’ which has a ‘circular relation’ with systems of power. Therefore, inherent in systems of power, is always ‘truth,’ which is culturally specific, inseparable from ideology which often coincides with various forms of hegemony. Cultural imperialism may be an example of this.

Foucault’s interpretation of governance is also very important in constructing theories of transnational power structure. The art of government goes beyond the traditional conception of governance in terms of state mandates, and into other realms such as governing ‘a household, souls, children, a province, a convent, a religious order, a family.’ This relates directly back to Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince,’ and Foucault’s aforementioned conceptions of truth and power. (i.e. various subjectivities are created through power relations that are culturally specific, which lead to various forms of culturally specific governmentality such as neoliberal governmentality.)

Informed by the works of Foucault (as well as Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci and American linguist and political theorist Noam Chompsky), Edward Saïd is a founding figure of Post-colonialism, established with the book ‘Orientalism’ (1978), a humanist critique of The Enlightenment, which criticizes Western knowledge of ‘The East’— specifically the English and the French constructions of what is and what is not ‘Oriental.’ Whereby said ‘knowledge’ then led to cultural tendencies towards a binary opposition of the Orient vs. the Occident, wherein one concept is defined in opposition to the other concept, and from which they emerge as of unequal value. In ‘Culture and Imperialism’ (1993), the sequel to ‘Orientalism,’ Saïd proposes that, despite the formal end of the ‘age of empire’ after WWII, colonial imperialism left a cultural legacy to the (previously) colonized peoples, which remains in their contemporary civilizations; and that said cultural imperialism is very influential in the international systems of power.

Another influential voice in discussing matters of cultural imperialism is the self-described ‘practical Marxist-feminist-deconstructionist,’ Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Spivak has published a number of works challenging the ‘legacy of colonialism’ including ‘A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Towards a History of the Vanishing Present’ (1999), ‘Other Asias’ (2005), and ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ (1988), in which she critiques common representations in the West of the Sati, as being controlled by authors other than the participants (specifically English colonizers and Hindu leaders). Because of this, Spivak argues that the subaltern, referring to the communities that participate in the Sati are not allowed or able to ‘speak.’ In ‘A critique of Postcolonial Reason,’ Spivak argues that Western philosophy has a history of not only exclusion of the Subaltern (the colonized) from discourse, but also does not allow them to occupy the space of a fully human subject.

American economist Joseph Stiglitz states that ‘globalization has meant different things in different places.’ This highlights the underlying issue of how globalization has been managed. For example, ‘countries which have managed globalization on their own have reaped huge benefits, on the other hand, countries which have had globalization managed for them by the International Monetary Fund and other international institutions have not done so well.’ Furthermore, ‘a disproportionate part of the gains have accrued to the developed nations, and there have been instances where lesser developed nations are now worse off.’

He also argues that ‘International institutions like the World Trade Organization, the IMF, the World Bank, and others provide an ad hoc system of global governance, but it is far cry from global government and lacks democratic accountability. Although it is perhaps better than not having any system of global governance, the system is structured not to serve general interests or assure equitable results. Furthermore, The IMF has pushed for far higher interest rates in countries with a far less hospitable investment environment. High interest rates mean that new jobs and enterprises are not created. What happens is that trade liberalization, rather than moving workers from low-productivity jobs to unemployment. Rather than enhanced growth, the effect is increased poverty. To make matters even worse, the unfair trade-liberalization agenda forces poor countries to compete with highly subsidized American and European agriculture.’

Cultural imperialism can refer to either the forced acculturation of a subject population, or to the voluntary embracing of a foreign culture by individuals who do so of their own free will. Since these are two very different referents, the validity of the term has been called into question. Cultural influence can be seen by the ‘receiving’ culture as either a threat to or an enrichment of its cultural identity. It seems therefore useful to distinguish between cultural imperialism as an (active or passive) attitude of superiority, and the position of a culture or group that seeks to complement its own cultural production, considered partly deficient, with imported products.

The imported products or services can themselves represent, or be associated with, certain values (such as consumerism). According to one argument, the ‘receiving’ culture does not necessarily perceive this link, but instead absorbs the foreign culture passively through the use of the foreign goods and services. Due to its somewhat concealed, but very potent nature, this hypothetical idea is described by some experts as ‘banal imperialism.’ For example, it is argued that while ‘American companies are accused of wanting to control 95 percent of the world’s consumers,’ ‘cultural imperialism involves much more than simple consumer goods; it involved the dissemination of American principles such as freedom and democracy,’ a process which ‘may sound appealing’ but which ‘masks a frightening truth: many cultures around the world are disappearing due to the overwhelming influence of corporate and cultural America.’

Some believe that the newly globalized economy of the late 20th and early 21st century has facilitated this process through the use of new information technology. This kind of cultural imperialism is derived from what is called ‘soft power.’ The theory of electronic colonialism extends the issue to global cultural issues and the impact of major multi-media conglomerates, ranging from Viacom, Time-Warner, Disney, News Corp, Sony, to Google and Microsoft with the focus on the hegemonic power of these mainly United States-based communication giants.

Cultural imperialism is often spoken of with regard to Western moral concepts, products, and political beliefs. The propagation of American values in the world is at the leading edge of a wave of Western goods and consumerist culture. Some people believe that the spread of American beliefs and concepts of universal values are beneficial to most nations because their ideas, such as freedom, democracy, equality, and human rights are desired in most places. Proponents argue that their contributions of modern ways of thinking and standards of becoming part of the industrialized and modernized world, make world society better-off.

However, others consider this American cultural hegemony a threat. Though the US may be positively helping countries in some cases, these benefits weaken local markets and cultures. While traditional cultural values are progressively being wiped away, critics argue, the world is stepping towards cultural synchronization in which a common global culture based on imperialists societies is becoming more evident. This cultural uniformity would predictably lead to the extinction of minority cultures and make the world less culturally rich and diverse.

One of the reasons often given for opposing any form of cultural imperialism, voluntary or otherwise, is the preservation of cultural diversity, a goal seen by some as analogous to the preservation of ecological diversity. Proponents of this idea argue either that such diversity is valuable in itself, to preserve human historical heritage and knowledge, or instrumentally valuable because it makes available more ways of solving problems and responding to catastrophes, natural or otherwise.

John Tomlinson, professor of cultural sociology in Nottingham Trent University, claims the need of distinguishment between the spread of culturally imperialistic influences and the spread of uniformity. In his article, ‘Cultural Imperialism,’ He supports his idea by introducing some empirical experiments on the impact of cultural imperialism done by Ien Ang and Elihu Katz & Tamar Liebes. Their experiments showed that audiences of media accept cultural values in selective manner and are more resistant to manipulations or invasions of Western (American) cultures than assumed by many critical media theorists.

Tomlinson writes, ‘This meticulous and sophisticated empirical survey of the formation of cultural and political values in relation to exposure to news media dispels some persistent myths and casts new light on a discourse which has become dominated by entrenched positions. More than this, it offers an original and persuasive thesis on the significantly moderating effects of local cultural and institutional conditions on cosmopolitan communications. A landmark study and an essential point of reference for analysts, activists and policy makers alike.’ Moreover, while cultural synchronization, with capitalist modernity, imposes direct threat to ‘survival of the culture itself,’ Tomlinson argues that cultural imperialism is to be considered as a process of adaptation to a new environment. According to him, cultural imperialism is neither the failure of a culture to survive in its original form nor the spread of uniform badness; rather it is the spread of uniformity in itself.

Of all the areas of the world that scholars have claimed to be adversely affected by imperialism, Africa is probably the most notable. In the expansive ‘age of imperialism’ of the nineteenth century, scholars have argued that European colonization in Africa led to the elimination of many cultures, worldviews, and epistemologies. A variety of factors played a role, such as ‘de-linguicization’ (replacing native African languages with European ones) and devaluing ontologies that are not explicitly individualistic. One scholar, Ali A. Obdi, claims that imperialism inherently ‘involve[s] extensively interactive regimes and heavy contexts of identity deformation, misrecognition, loss of self-esteem, and individual and social doubt in self-efficacy.’ Therefore, all imperialism would always, already be cultural.

Neoliberalism (an ideology devoted to the free market) is often critiqued by sociologists, anthropologists, and cultural studies scholars as being culturally imperialistic. Critics of neoliberalism, at times, claim that it is the newly predominant form of imperialism. Other Scholars, such as Elizabeth Dunn and Julia Elyachar have claimed that neoliberalism requires and creates its own form of governmentality. In Dunn’s work, ‘Privatizing Poland,’ she argues that the expansion of the multinational corporation, Gerber, into Poland in the 1990s imposed Western, neoliberal governmentality, ideologies, and epistemologies upon the post-soviet persons hired. Cultural conflicts occurred due to the company’s inherently individualistic policies, such as promoting competition among workers rather than cooperation, and in its strong opposition to what the company owners claimed was bribery.

In Elyachar’s work, ‘Markets of Dispossession,’ she focuses on ways in which, in Cairo, NGOs along with INGOs and the state promoted neoliberal governmentality through schemas of economic development that relied upon ‘youth microentrepreneurs.’ Individuals who would receive small loans to build their own businesses, similar to the way that microfinance supposedly operates. Elyachar argues though, that these programs not only were a failure, but that they shifted cultural opinions of value (personal and cultural) in a way that favored Western ways of thinking and being.

Often, methods of promoting development and social justice to are critiqued as being imperialistic, in a cultural sense. For example, postcolonial feminist theorist Chandra Mohanty has critiqued Western feminism, claiming that it has created a misrepresentation of the ‘third world woman’ as being completely powerless, unable to resist male dominance. Thus, this leads to the often critiqued narrative of the ‘white man’ saving the ‘brown woman’ from the ‘brown man.’ Other, more radical critiques of development studies, have to do with the field of study itself. Some scholars even question the intentions of those developing the field of study, claiming that efforts to ‘develop’ the Global South were never about the South itself. Instead, these efforts, it is argued, were made in order to advance Western development and reinforce Western hegemony.

John Tomlinson provides a critique of cultural imperialism theory and reveals major problems in the way in which the idea of cultural, as opposed to economic or political, imperialism is formulated. In his book ‘Cultural Imperialism: A Critical Introduction,’ he delves into the much debated ‘media imperialism’ theory. He points to a myriad of examples of television networks who have managed to dominate their domestic markets and that domestic programs generally top the ratings. He also doubts the concept that cultural agents are passive receivers of information. He states that movement between cultural/geographical areas always involves translation, mutation, adaptation, and the creation of hybridity.

3 Responses to “Cultural Imperialism”

  1. Article Reblogged by – amazing work! –SWB Editor


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