Cultural imperialism

Cultural imperialism

Cultural imperialism is the domination of one culture over another. Cultural imperialism can take the form of a general attitude or an active, formal and deliberate policy, including (or resulting from) military action. Economic or technological factors may also play a role. A metaphor from colonialism can be employed: the cultural products of the first world "invade" the third-world and "conquer" local culture.[1] In the stronger variants of the term, world domination (in a cultural sense) is the explicit goal of the nation-states or multinational corporations that export the culture.[1] The term is usually used in a pejorative sense, often in conjunction with a call to reject such influence.


Background and definitions

The term appears to have emerged in the 1960s.[2] and has been a focus of research since at least the 1970s.[3] 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.[4]

Various academics give various definitions of the term. American media critic Herbert Schiller wrote: "The concept of cultural imperialism today [1975] 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."[5]

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."[6] 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."[7] 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."[8]

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."[9]

The issue of cultural imperialism emerged largely from communication studies.[10] However, cultural imperialism has been used as a framework by scholars to explain phenomena in the areas of international relations, anthropology, education, science, history, literature, and sports.[4]

Theory and debate

It 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." Some believe that the newly globalised 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 US-based communication giants.

Cultural diversity

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.

Said and post-colonial studies

Palestinian writer, philosopher, and literary theorist, Edward Said, who was one of the founders of the field of post-colonial study, wrote extensively on the subject of cultural imperialism. His work attempts to highlight the inaccuracies of many assumptions about cultures and societies, and is largely informed by Michel Foucault's concepts of discourse and power. The relatively new academic field of post-colonial theory has been the source for most of the in-depth work on the idea of discursive and other non-military mechanisms of imperialism, and its validity is disputed by those who deny that these forms are genuinely imperialistic.

Rothkopf on dealing with cultural dominance

David Rothkopf, managing director of Kissinger Associates and an adjunct professor of international affairs at Columbia University (who also served as a senior US Commerce Department official in the Clinton Administration), wrote about cultural imperialism in his provocatively titled In Praise of Cultural Imperialism? in the summer 1997 issue of Foreign Policy magazine. Rothkopf says that the US should embrace "cultural imperialism" as in its self interest. But his definition of cultural imperialism stresses spreading the values of tolerance and openness to cultural change in order to avoid war and conflict between cultures as well as expanding accepted technological and legal standards to provide free traders with enough security to do business with more countries. Rothkopf's definition almost exclusively involves allowing individuals in other nations to accept or reject foreign cultural influences. He also mentions, but only in passing, the use of the English language and consumption of news and popular music and film as cultural dominance that he supports. Rothkopf additionally makes the point that globalization and the Internet are accelerating the process of cultural influence.[11]

Culture is sometimes used by the organizers of society — politicians, theologians, academics, and families — to impose and ensure order, the rudiments of which change over time as need dictates. One need only look at the 20th century's genocides. In each one, leaders used culture as a political front to fuel the passions of their armies and other minions and to justify their actions among their people.

Rothkopf then cites genocide and massacres in Armenia, Russia, the Holocaust, Cambodia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Rwanda and East Timor as examples of culture (in some cases expressed in the ideology of "political culture" or religion) being misused to justify violence. He also acknowledges that cultural imperialism in the past has been guilty of forcefully eliminating the cultures of natives in the Americas and in Africa, or through use of the Inquisition, "and during the expansion of virtually every empire."[citation needed]

The most important way to deal with cultural influence in any nation, according to Rothkopf, is to promote tolerance and allow, or even promote, cultural diversities that are compatible with tolerance and to eliminate those cultural differences that cause violent conflict:

"Multicultural societies, be they nations, federations, or other conglomerations of closely interrelated states, discern those aspects of culture that do not threaten union, stability, or prosperity (such as food, holidays, rituals, and music) and allow them to flourish. But they counteract or eradicate the more subversive elements of culture (exclusionary aspects of religion, language, and political/ideological beliefs). History shows that bridging cultural gaps successfully and serving as a home to diverse peoples requires certain social structures, laws, and institutions that transcend culture. Furthermore, the history of a number of ongoing experiments in multiculturalism, such as in the European Union, India, South Africa, Canada and the United States, suggests that workable, if not perfected, integrative models exist. Each is built on the idea that tolerance is crucial to social well-being, and each at times has been threatened by both intolerance and a heightened emphasis on cultural distinctions. The greater public good warrants eliminating those cultural characteristics that promote conflict or prevent harmony, even as less-divisive, more personally observed cultural distinctions are celebrated and preserved."[12]

See also


  1. ^ a b Alexander, Victoria D. (2003). "The Cultural Diamond - The Production of Culture". Sociology of the arts: exploring fine and popular forms. Wiley-Blackwell,. pp. 162. ISBN 0631230408, 9780631230403. 
  2. ^ Tomlinson (1991), p. 3
  3. ^ Hamm, (2005), p. 4
  4. ^ a b White (2001)
  5. ^ Schiller, Herbert I. (1976). Communication and cultural domination. International Arts and Sciences Press, 901 North Broadway, White Plains, New York 10603. pp. 9–10. ISBN 0873320794, 9780873320795. 
  6. ^ McPhail, Thomas L. (1987). Electronic colonialism: the future of international broadcasting and communication. Volume 126 of Sage library of social research. Sage Publications. pp. 18. ISBN 0803927304, 9780803927308. 
  7. ^ Lee, Siu-Nam Lee (1988). "Communication imperialism and dependency: A conceptual clarification". International Communication Gazette (Netherlands: Kiuwer Academic Publishers) (41): 74. 
  8. ^ Ogan, Christine (Spring 1988). "Media Imperialism and the Videocassette Recorder: The Case of Turkey.". Journal of Communication, 38 (2): p94. 
  9. ^ Downing,, John; Ali Mohammadi, Annabelle Sreberny-Mohammadi (1995). Questioning the media: a critical introduction (2, illustrated ed.). SAGE. pp. 482. ISBN 0803971974, 9780803971974. 
  10. ^ Salwen, Michael B. (March 1991). "Cultural imperialism: A media effects approach". Critical Studies in Media Communication 8 (1): 29–38. 
  11. ^ [1] Rothkopf, David, "In Praise of Cultural Imperialism," Foreign Affairs, Summer 1997, Volume 107, pp. 38-53; all descriptions of Rothkopf's points and his quotes are from this article
  12. ^ O'Meara, Patrick.; Mehlinger, Howard D.; Krain, Matthew. (2000). Globalization and the challenges of a new century : a reader. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press. pp. 445–446. ISBN 978-0-253-21355-6. 


  • Tomlinson, John (1991). Cultural imperialism: a critical introduction (illustrated, reprint ed.). Continuum International Publishing Group. ISBN 082645013X, 9780826450135. 
  • Hamm, Bernd; Russell Charles Smandych (2005). Cultural imperialism: essays on the political economy of cultural domination. Reference,Information and Interdisciplinary Subjects Series. University of Toronto Press. ISBN 155111707X, 9781551117072. 
  • White, Livingston A. (Spring/Summer 2001). "Reconsidering cultural imperialism theory". Transnational Broadcasting Studies (The Center for Electronic Journalism at the American University in Cairo and the Centre for Middle East Studies, St. Antony’s College, Oxford) (6). 

External links

  • "In Praise of Cultural Imperialism?", by David Rothkopf, Foreign Policy no. 107, Summer 1997, pp. 38–53, which argues that cultural imperialism is a positive thing.
  • "Reconsidering cultural imperialism theory" by Livingston A. White, Transnational Broadcasting Studies no. 6, Spring/Summer 2001, which argues that the idea of media imperialism is outdated.
  • "What American Culture?", by Alexander S. Peak, 14 September 2004, which argues that what the world is witnessing is the gradual evolution of a new, global culture.
  • Academic Web page from 24 February 2000, discussing the idea of cultural imperialism

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