Illinois State University
Even at first glance, the words “cultural imperialism” are striking. The tension between the two words is strong. “Culture,” after all, speaks to those aspects of human life that shape and define us. Culture engages our language, our social practices, our values and our ideals. To be “cultural” is to be human.
“Imperialism,” by contrast, suggests the destruction of some way of life by another. It evokes the notion of one group of humans interacting with another not in cooperation but in conquest. One group or community seeks to dominate another by destroying the cultural essence that defined the dominated group. One culture, in effect, dies—or perhaps more accurately, is destroyed—by another, stronger group.
While the concept of “cultural imperialism” is relatively new, cultural imperialism has been common across time. History is replete with examples. The Roman Empire sought to turn the known world “Roman.” China’s multiple dynasties made a similar effort but with China as the center of the world. The Roman Catholic Church aided, abetted and assisted the extension of European colonial power across Asia, Africa and Latin and South America to advance the cause of creating a global Catholicism. It took Western Europeans less than 300 years to conquer, replace and very nearly obliterate the indigenous persons who had inhabited the Western Hemisphere for 30,000 years. The plain fact of thousands of years of human history is that various groups and communities have sought to and successfully managed to destroy and replace others. This may not be seen as right or moral by contemporary ethical standards, but it is nonetheless true.
The concept of cultural imperialism is not usually employed to describe the whole of human history, however. Rather, since the 1970s those using this term have usually focused on the United States as a new kind of global power potentially capable of dominating not just the world’s economic and political life, but its cultural life as well. Whether in economic, military or cultural affairs, analysts and commentators have worried that the United States’ global reach and appeal is so strong that other societies would see their distinctive cultures replaced by some Americanized alternative. These concerns have only multiplied in the context of contemporary globalization, a period in which the United States’ cultural and economic power has extended to places previously unreached by its effects. The fear is that as a consequence of US cultural imperialism, the world might not be a diverse place with lots of ways of life, but instead could become a version of the United States in language, economy and social norms.
This chapter explores the development of the concept of cultural imperialism paying particular attention to why, exactly, persons around the world have expressed fears about the imperial power of American culture. The chapter then offers a critique of the cultural imperialism concept grounded in the notions of adaptation and hybridity. Finally, the chapter concludes with a discussion of the long-term prospects for cultural imperialism in our globalizing world.
A Brief History of the Concept of Cultural Imperialism
The concept of “cultural imperialism,” rather than the practice of cultural imperialism, is a relatively new one in political history. It first emerged for wide consideration in Latin and South America in the late 1960s. With the United States’ allegedly imperial war in Vietnam as background, writers like Antonio Pasquali and Mario Kaplún drew on analyses from Louis Althusser, Antonio Gramsci and Theodor Adorno and others in the Frankfurt School to assess and evaluate the growing influence of the United States’ economic and cultural products in what today is often termed the “Global South” Their insights joined with those of Armand Mattelart, Herbert Schiller and Dallas Smythe to shape early analyses of cultural imperialism .
Echoing Frankfurt School predecessors worried that communications media could distort and remake persons’ cultures and values in ways that empowered the elites who controlled those technologies, early analysts of cultural imperialism worried that the United States would link its military and economic power to its cultural appeal to establish cultural hegemony on a global scale. American corporations—especially but not exclusively audiovisual (AV) industries like movies, music and television—would overwhelm local industries and firms as they extended their scope across international boundaries. In such circumstances, global corporations and the United States government could interact to compel, through a variety of economic and other means, weaker societies to transform themselves into rough copies of American society. Over time, then, local communities unable to resist the spread of global capitalism would lose their distinctive social and cultural practices, including their languages, as they were replaced by norms, values, ideals and behaviors conducive to the spread of and support for global capitalism. As Schiller put it in 1976:
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 value and structures of the dominating center of the system .
As Schiller notes, the mechanisms of cultural imperialism are many. Ideology plays a key role in the process of drawing various communities into the cultural orbit of the imperial power, for example. As Edward Said most famously argued, modern imperialism legitimates the act of replacing one culture with another by constructing a fundamental misapprehension of the “Other” culture. Said notes that the imperial culture both: 1) fails to understand and appreciate the complex details and history of the culture it seeks to dominate, preferring to construct a false image of the “Other” as barbarians and savages in need of “civilizing”; and 2) uses this false image of the cultural Other to justify the Other’s destruction . Cultural imperialism, then, is more than just a process of replacing one set of social mores, practices, languages and ways of being with another’s. It is a self-justifying act of cultural erasure.
Violence can also play a role in cultural imperialism. Political scientists Samuel Huntington and Benjamin Barber have suggested that violent culture clash is inevitable in their respective books, The Clash of Civilizations and Jihad vs McWorld. Huntington argues that one’s civilization is the highest social order to which one can be reasonably be said to belong. One common civilizational boundary is that of religion. Thus, for example, Huntington argues that one is either within the general confines of the Judeo-Christian religious tradition, or one is not. Huntington predicts violent conflicts in communities where adherents of the Judeo-Christian tradition literally run into followers of other traditions, particularly Islam. Importantly, such civilizational conflict is often zero-sum: one usually ends up Christian or Muslim (in this example) based on who wins the war of the borderlands .
Benjamin Barber, in Jihad vs McWorld, argues that the values, products, and processes of globalization inevitably provoke what he calls "jihad," or "bloody holy war on behalf of partisan identity that is metaphysically defined and fanatically defended” . Jihad is in symbiotic tension with “McWorld,” which Barber defines as those parts of the world where ideas and traditions and persons flow freely across borders and cultures. Jihad can flare up against McWorld either across the kinds of political boundaries that Huntington describes or within countries where some areas are globally integrated while others are not. In such circumstances, Barber notes that it is common for violence to be deployed in defense of a particular way of life—or in an effort to destroy it.
The replacing of one culture by another need not be a violent, directly destructive act, however. As political scientist Joseph Nye has argued, power has a “soft” as well as a “hard” side. If hard power is direct force, such as the use of a military to defeat an enemy , soft power is the appeal of a society’s goods, ideals, values and cultural practices. It is the lure of ways of life that seem better, richer, more dynamic. This soft appeal, Nye notes, is a profound power for the United States since American cultural values and products are broadly admired around the world. Accordingly, Nye argues, it is possible and even preferable for the United States to seek to shape world politics by exploiting the soft power of American culture rather than the hard power of American might .
Cultural imperialism, then, is the systematic and fundamental replacing of one way of life with another, whether through direct overthrow or gradual displacement. As Downing, Mohammadi and Sreberny-Mohammadi put it in 1995:
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 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 been insinuated that Western cultures are superior to the cultures of the Third World .
The resulting culture so closely adheres to the imperialist’s that members of the conquered society may not even notice that “their” culture has been destroyed. Instead, they will have been integrated into a new, “better” system—one which is a reflection of the dominant power’s cultural order.
The United States as Cultural Imperialist
Early proponents of cultural imperialism theory paid particular attention to the products of the American audiovisual industry—an industry whose components are often collectively summarized with the label “Hollywood.” The reason for this is clear: while other American products have significant global presence, American movies, music and television programs have been globally pervasive for most of the last century.
As of the end of 2011, for example, most of the worldwide top-grossing films were recognizably American. They had themes and values recognizably American, were made either by American or American-based studios, were set in an American context, or starred Americans. Taking this definition of “American” as a starting point, the list of biggest grossing movies includes the top-selling film all time, Avatar, which had worldwide ticket sales exceeding $2 billion, as well as other American blockbusters like Jurassic Park, Independence Day, Star Wars (three of its six parts), The Lion King, and Spider-Man 2 and 3. Of the top fifty movies of all time (by box office), thirty-three, or sixty-six percent, were American. Notably, not only were these films recognizably American, in most cases they had greater sales overseas than in the United States. (Of the remaining eighteen films, fourteen were segments of three film franchises: Harry Potter, the Lord of the Rings, and Pirates of the Caribbean) .
Similarly, the most popular music genres across the planet—rock, country and hip hop—were created in the United States and can be seen to express American cultural and social values . A brief review of the top-selling albums of all time offers one way to assess the dominance of American music. As of November 2011, for example, there were twenty-seven albums that were certified to have sold at least 15 million copies worldwide. Sixteen were created by Americans: The Eagles' Their Greatest Hits tied with Michael Jackson's Thriller for the number-one selling album of all time at 29 million sales. Other albums on the list included works by Billy Joel, Boston, Hootie and the Blowfish, Garth Brooks, and Guns n' Roses. Notably, the top-selling non-American albums were made by groups performing in genres created by Americans: rock (Pink Floyd's The Wall; Led Zeppelin's Led Zeppelin IV; the Beatles' The Beatles) and country (Canadian Shania Twain's Come on Over) .
Finally, even the newest of the AV industries, television, has an American global tint. The most popular television programs in the world are American, and global television audiences are regularly offered broadcasts of older American movies. For example, the American television show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation is now the most popular program in the world , and Four American television shows—The Simpsons (season one), Sex and the City (complete season one), the HBO series Band of Brothers, and Seinfeld (seasons one and two) are on Amazon.com’s top twenty-five in DVD . In 1996, of the 50,000 hours of fiction broadcast in the five major European markets, only 8.42 percent of programming was produced in Europe. Most of the rest of those 50,000 hours were filled by American television programs and broadcasts of American movies .
When evaluating the power and appeal of American culture and its potential power as an imperial force it is important to remember that American culture’s appeal extends beyond its AV industries. The list of globally pervasive American cultural products is too large to create, but consider that American styles of clothing like blue jeans have become globally ubiquitous. American sports like basketball and baseball have large global audiences; professional American football is making an effort to join the ranks of American sports played worldwide. McDonald’s has over 32,000 restaurants worldwide and is expanding rapidly . It is committed to opening at least one McDonald’s in China every day for the next three to four years, for example . Coca Cola is globally prominent and has what one agency has termed the most valuable brand in the world . Apple Computers has grown from a small garage-based operation to the most valuable corporation in the history of capitalism . The devices it builds, from the iPod through the iPad, iPhone, MacBook laptops and iMac desktop computers have powered much of the socially networked connectivity revolution in communications that has come to characterize the modern age. Finally, more than one billion people worldwide have joined Facebook’s social network site, and Facebook has become a tool by which global corporations can market and build brand identity for their products . It has also been used as a platform for promoting and organizing political revolutions like those commonly called the “Arab Spring.”
While one might think that things like fast food restaurants, clothing styles and entertainment media are particularly consequential in shaping (and reshaping) cultures. it is not difficult to understand why the cultural effects of one American product—say, McDonald’s—might become worrisome when connected to the cultural influence of blue jeans and hip hop and Disney and all the other cultural artifacts that spread from the United States around the world. After all, American pop culture products are particularly appealing to younger people. As often happens with new technologies or practices, it is younger people who are most likely to be first adopters of the newer entertainment or behavior. When this happens, many cultural traditionalists fear that this embrace of new ways of living signals an end to their established cultural way of life. This fear rises because, as is discussed later in this chapter, when one’s community evolves as people grow and adapt to circumstances that arise over time, changes appear normal and natural. However, when it appears that values and ideas are imposed on a group by others—outsiders—people tend to resist change. This is particularly the case when it seems that the most naive, least experienced persons in a community (e.g., young people) actively and willingly adopt “alien” principles and practices—like happens when young people flock to Facebook, become fans of hip hop, obsess over the next Batman movie or otherwise embrace American products like those made in Hollywood. In such circumstances it is common for cultural traditionalists to fear and resist the integration of “alien” cultural products into “their” culture. Thus the appeal that American cultural products hold among many younger people seems to older people to portend that their community is at risk of destruction by American cultural imperialism.
Such fears are grounded in the fact that American cultural norms, values and practices can be shown to have real effects in other societies. To take McDonald’s as an example, there is evidence that many Asian countries have seen changes in their cultural practices resulting from the integration of McDonald’s and other fast food restaurants into their communities. It was once rare for Japanese people to eat with their hands, for example, but is becoming more common as fast food restaurants increase in number in that country. Whereas Chinese people have no history of lining up single file waiting to be served, preferring a more free form style of ordering and getting food, McDonald’s has imposed the single file line on this cultural norm: when one eats at McDonald’s in China, one waits in line to take one’s turn. And where it was once rare for people from Hong Kong to know their specific birth date, since days mattered only to the degree they figured later in life for making horoscopes about marriage and other important life choices, specific birth dates have come to matter there for the simple reason that parents need to know when to schedule their child’s McDonald’s birthday party .
Such cultural changes can remake more than cultural rituals. Local business practices and norms might change as well. George Ritzer has suggested that there might be a “McDonaldization” of various societies as local businesses are forced to adopt McDonald’s (and the other global corporations’) business practices to compete won a global stage . All businesses everywhere can develop a sameness to them that washes away cultural distinctiveness in favor of an artificial universalism—as anyone who has visited an international airport has seen.
Just as ways of engaging in economic activities can change as American culture products and practices come into new societies, so too, can a community’s environment and ecology change. McDonald’s (to continue the example) is a hamburger restaurant, after all, and so requires large amounts of beef to stay in business. Accordingly, whole ecosystems have been remade to satisfy McDonald’s need for hamburger. But hamburger is only part of the story. The company’s restaurants need potatoes and chicken and buns and fry oil and condiments and soda products and packaging materials to remain open. And that of course, is just McDonald’s: American culture comes in jeans and sports and movies and music as well. Combined, such forces can effect an array of cultural, social and ecological changes that can in turn have a profoundly transformative effect on a population’s eating, farming and cultural habits. In time, such changes can reshape the kinds of common cultural practices that have defined a community for generations.
This brief discussion of the scope and influence of American cultural products points to their potential to disrupt and remake social and cultural relations worldwide. Sociologist Todd Gitlin has gone so far as to suggest that we need to see American popular culture as “the latest in a long succession of bidders for global unification. It succeeds the Latin imposed by the Roman Empire and the Catholic Church, and Marxist Leninism” . To the degree that cultural products are carriers of cultural values, then, the integration of new cultural artifacts into existing cultures can change those cultures in substantial ways. As French President Francois Mitterand put it in 1993, “creations of the spirit are not just commodities; the elements of culture are not pure business. What is at stake is the cultural identity of all our nations—it is the freedom to create and choose our own images. A society which abandons the means of depicting itself would soon be an enslaved society” . In such a world, local distinctiveness and cultural uniqueness would be subsumed into globally available, corporate-controlled products marketed and managed to maximize corporate profit. A peculiarly inauthentic American version of “culture” would be left, one which could be manipulated to the benefit of capitalist interests rather than being the expression of a people’s way of life.
Critiquing Cultural Imperialism
As might be expected for any concept as complex and wide-ranging as cultural imperialism, the idea has been subject to numerous critiques. Some of these are of the power relationships embedded in the term. Others derive from the concepts of cultural hybridity and cultural change. A third category centers on the methods by which the concept has been tested.
The Agency Problem
One group of criticisms of the notion of cultural imperialism is grounded on a rebuke of the relations of power implicit in the concept. Analysts employing the concept of cultural imperialism regularly imagine that cultural imperialism exists when what are seen as weaker cultures are influenced by the ideas, practices, norms, products and values of stronger cultures. In this view, so-called “weaker” cultures are passive: they simply receive the artifacts of hegemonic cultures, which in turn displace the ways of life once-prevalent in the subject community. Much like a stronger military force overwhelming a weaker one, the dominant culture rolls over a helpless foe, leaving cultural devastation in its wake.
What is missing from this account, critics note, is any sense of agency on the part of the “weaker” culture’s members. After all, actual people have to adapt and adopt the “stronger” culture’s ways, and they can be expected to accept new ways of life for any number of reasons . All change is not necessarily the result of imperial actions.
When McDonald’s opened a store in Zacatecas, the last state in Mexico to have one, for example, Harper’s reporter Jake Silverstein traveled to the region to interview people about how the restaurant might change their traditional way of life. Fear of cultural imperialism lay at the heart of his intended story: the reporter imagined that McDonald’s represented or augured substantial changes in this formerly McDonald’s-free zone. However, locals in Zacatecas did not see things this way at all. As one respondent put it, if he wanted to heat up leftovers from last night’s dinner for lunch, he was free to do so. If he wanted he could go to McDonald’s. The new restaurant was not seen as a threat to the old way. Instead, it simply added an option to one’s life .
Put another way, the men and women of Zacatecas did not think of themselves as passive victims of a global mega-corporation. Instead, they saw themselves as agents, as people capable of making choices. It is true, of course, that integrating McDonald’s into Zacatecas might well change the established culture there, but such changes were not perceived solely as the imposition of an alien, hegemonic way of life onto a helpless culture.
What is true for individuals can be true for societies as well. Numerous countries and communities have constructed laws to attempt to challenge or reduce the spread and cultural power of American culture. In 2001, for example, UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, passed a Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity. That document insisted that cultural diversity is a "common heritage of humanity" and was ratified by member states in December 2006; it went into international effect in March 2007 .
International trade agreements have likewise featured language governing and seeking to protect local cultural products and practices against American competition. One, the 1947 General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), set in motion the economic integration central to so much of globalization today. GATT contained explicit language that allowed the European film industry to protect their domestic markets from American products as a tool to rebuild their economies and reestablish their communities after the devastation of World War Two. Similar language has remained in successive GATT treaties, as well as in discussions at the World Trade Organization (WTO) that succeeded GATT in 1995. Such cultural exemptions have continued, it should be emphasized, despite the United States’ consistent efforts to have protections for local cultural products and producers removed from these agreements .
Efforts to protect local culture from alleged American imperialism have been undertaken at the national level as well. Perhaps the most famous example is France’s law 94-665, passed in August 1994. Law 94-665 requires that French "shall be the language of instruction, work, trade and exchanges and of public services.” The law states: "The use of French shall be mandatory for the designation, offer, presentation, instructions for use, and descriptions of the scope and conditions of a warranty of goods, products and services, as well as bills and receipts. The same provisions apply to any written, spoken, radio and television advertisement" . French authorities have in fact used this law to punish numerous companies and organizations that have advertised in or used English to promote their work. Affected institutions have included American pop culture mega-maker, the Walt Disney Company, as well as British cosmetics company The Body Shop and Georgia Tech University .
France is not alone in its efforts to protect its cultural heritage from American imperialism. In 2005, for example, Venezuela passed a law requiring radio stations to play music of Venezuelan origin at least 50% of the time. The nation also played a key role in derailing negotiations over CAFTA, the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which Venezuela alleged would provide the United States too much access to South and Central American markets. China has worked to keep American culture and products out of its society: it aggressively censors its internet access to the wider world, and resisted opening a Disney theme park in Shanghai even after allowing the opening of one in Hong Kong because, officials explained, Disney wanted to broadcast its programming on Chinese television to introduce the Chinese market to Disney’s characters while China did not want Disney to do this .
Clearly then, neither societies nor individuals are simply passive recipients of hegemonic, usually American, cultural artifacts. They have agency, and can influence how American culture influences theirs—at least to some degree. Failure to account for this fact undermines simplistic analyses of cultural imperialism.
The question of agency leads to a second criticism of the cultural imperialism concept: the fact that cultures change. Whether we recognize it at the time or not, cultures change continuously. As a consequence it is not always clear whether a given change is the result of “imperialism” or is the result of what seem to culture members to have been ordinary, reasonable changes over time.
Political scientist Harry Eckstein has identified at least three types of cultural change. One is pattern-maintaining change. Such change occurs when new technologies, artifacts, ideas and practices enter a society but are generally understood to reinforce the cultural norms already in place . For example, while cars have replaced horses in the United States, the underlying practice of people using a technology to go to work, run errands, or otherwise be more productive than they would be on foot remained a cultural norm. Automobiles empowered people even as they changed the cultural landscape. Accordingly, core patterns remained even as cultural practices changed.
A second type of change Eckstein finds is change towards complexity. This is the type of change in which a culture develops new roles, ideas and rituals and integrates them into its practices . Examples can include the inclusion of women in the paid workforce, or the development of a space program. Where once a community did not conceptualize a role for women in public life, or did not have proverbial rocket scientists in it, it now does. Accordingly, the culture is significantly more complex than it once was.
The third type of change Eckstein describes is cultural disruption. Unlike the case with both pattern-maintaining change and change toward complexity, cultural disruption typically occurs rapidly. A society’s norms, rituals and practices are overwhelmed and incapable of dealing with the circumstances facing the community . Disruption is typical, for example, when one group of people loses a war: the enemy that won the war is in a position to force the losing side to change or alter its cultural practices. A similar disruption can occur in the face of natural disaster or disease: traditional ways of life can collapse when the community can no longer survive in new contexts. Cultures get disrupted as a consequence.
Cultural imperialism, as a concept, embodies fear of this third type of change. The concept suggests that cultural imperialism occurs when some alien force enters a community and undermines its core values in favor of those of the imperial power. A cultural other is imagined to invade and occupy a native community and transform local values into those of the occupier.
But as a practical matter the constancy of cultural change makes it difficult to unpack just when cultural change is imperialist versus when it is seen as beneficial, wanted, or worth doing. Change towards complexity can be culturally disruptive, for example. The integration of women into the paid workforce is an obvious case of such change: whatever the causes, the transition from women working primarily in the home/domestic sphere to women working outside the home/in the public sphere has remade the social, political, economic and cultural patterns of numerous societies. Disruptive effects can result from adaptive processes.
The difficulty in distinguishing disruptive from maintaining or diversifying cultural change is nicely captured by the concept of cultural hybridity. Hybridity can be roughly defined as "mixing," or "the ways in which forms become separated from existing practices and recombine with new forms and new practices” . As a practical matter, all of us live in cultures that have borrowed and adapted from others. Consequently, what seem to be core dimensions of unique cultures often turn out, on closer inspection, to be hybrid forms.
To take one example as illustration, consider the horse cultures of the Native American tribes of the Great Plains. No indigenous American had ever seen a horse until Christopher Columbus brought them with him on his second journey to the Western Hemisphere in 1493. Accordingly, the horses that became central to the cultures of the Great Plains tribes were not indigenous to those groups. They were, instead, cultural adaptations to an alien cultural artifact.
Notably, a case can be made that the integration of horses into Native American culture was the result of disruptive cultural imperialism: horses were alien, came from a distant place, and transformed the communities they entered. Millions of indigenous persons died in the aftermath of European contact. Some local cultures flourished while others faded. Whole ways of life were remade. The horse was a powerful tool of cultural change.
Yet it is hard to imagine members of the great horse cultures perceiving things quite this way. Horses obviously changed the way their societies worked compared to the past, but those changes emerged over time. Transport, travel and hunting might not have followed the old ways anymore, and fighting would have changed from foot- to horse-borne conflict. But to members of a horse culture, horses would have seemed as “normal” as the absence of horses had seemed to Native Americans who had never seen a horse.
In other words, cultural hybridities that seem normal, appropriate and deeply embedded in one’s culture today might well have been the result of a disruptive and transformative cultural conflict in the past. It is simply not possible to know what elements of a given culture will interact with those of another, to what end, before such contacts occur. What follows is often, as Jan Nederveen Pieterse has argued, cultural mélange—a system in which many new cultural forms emerge in a constantly evolving process . Marwan Kraidy has gone so far as to state that cultural hybridity is the likely endpoint of globalization . Defining exactly what is and is not cultural imperialism in a world constantly creating hybrid forms is a difficult process at best.
A final group of objections to the concept of cultural imperialism rests on concerns about the methods used to both define and assess the concept. Let the following discussion stand in for a primer on the difficulty of translating an apparently powerful and appealing concept—cultural imperialism—into empirical social science.
The Concept of Imperialism: Imperialism is a complex and multi-faceted phenomenon. Notably, the concept emerged in a time when the intersection of local and colonial powers tended to be overtly hostile: one group moved to a region of the world in which they were not indigenous to build economic, social and political systems derived from their home societies, not local ones. Whether for political, military, religious, economic or other reasons—or for all of them—imperial forces overtly entered another society and sought to reshape it for the benefit of the imperial power. Importantly, however, as the discussion of culture change and hybridity offered earlier in this section suggests, it can be hard to label cultural change as a product of imperial action: some amount of change is likely with or without imperialism, and it does not follow that just because change occurs it is the result of or works to the benefit of imperial forces. It is hard to claim some change or another is a result of cultural imperialism if it is not clear what is imperial about the change that is taking place .
The Concept of Culture: Culture, to paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous comment about pornography, is hard to define but you know it when you see it. Everyone lives an enculturated life: we have languages and social mores and ways of doing things and rites and traditions and rituals that orient ourselves one to the other, creating distinctive ways of life that seem to unite an “us” and distinguish “us” from “them.” Yet it turns out to be surprisingly difficult to specifically define what is “culture” and not nature, or self-interest, or ideology, or some other factor known to affect human life. Scholars have adopted many different perspectives to “culture,” and many insist that only one explanation or definition is true or worth examining . Accordingly, one of the criticisms leveled at the notion of cultural imperialism is that those who employ the concept of culture in their research cannot persuasively explain what it is that is undergoing imperial conquest. One cannot have “cultural” imperialism if “culture” cannot be shown to exist, its importance affirmed, and the consequences of changing it demonstrated.
The Locus of Culture: It is hard to determine exactly where “culture” resides as an operative force in our lives. Some scholars argue that culture is an inculcated set of traits that serve as filters and frames on our thinking, meaning that if one wants to assess “culture,” one should ask/assess culture at the individual level, seeing how it shapes individual ideas and behaviors. Other scholars argue that culture is an extrinsic phenomenon, like a force of nature, that shapes behavior and attitudes by embedding us in webs of rituals and mores that we enact in order to fit in amongst our group of cultural cohabitators . Scholars interested in the internal dimension of culture typically use survey research or other individual-level data to aggregate individual ideas and attitudes into an understanding of a culture’s terms and contents, while those who focus on the extrinsic components of culture focus on social norms and rituals that shape human life as they explain social and political phenomena. Debates about how to define and operationalize culture for empirical study are a constant feature of culture research of any type and inevitably challenge assertions that some change or another is a result of “imperialism” as opposed to resulting from one’s conception of culture.
In many ways, the cultural imperialism thesis has lost much of its initial punch. The complexity of the underlying concepts and the difficulty in translating concepts into an actionable empirical research program have diluted the intensity of the critique of Western, particularly American, culture embedded in the term. Thus even as the process known as globalization has promoted a multiplying number of contacts among American culture and cultural artifacts and the broader world, specific allegations that American culture is an imperial force remaking the world have abated.
Whatever the terminology used to describe the global effects of American cultural influence in a globalizing world, however, it is clear that American culture and its products will be a central component of cultural interchanges worldwide for the foreseeable future. As was noted earlier in this chapter, Facebook recently surpassed the one billion member mark worldwide, and seems positioned to remain a prominent platform for the promotion of any number of ideas and messages for a long time to come. Similarly, advances in digital technology like mobile phones, tablets and other handheld devices connected to the internet by cell systems and wifi provide a rapidly increasing number of platforms through which the content and style of American culture can reach the broader world. For example, estimates suggest that the number of internet connected devices will grow globally from 256,000,000 in 2011 to 1.34 billion by 2016—a growth rate of 56% a year . Only about 700,000,000 people had mobile phones in 2000; by 2009 at least 3,000,000,000 did. India added 15.6 million cell phones in a single month alone—March 2009. The number of global mobile phones may hit 6 billion in 2013 . The world is an increasingly interconnected place, and American cultural norms and cultural products can be expected to be at the center of these connections.
Accordingly, at least some attention can reasonably be paid to the ways that American culture and its artifacts are likely to intersect with and influence social and political life in the context of globalization. For example, American products and values can be expected to have a much larger presence worldwide than global products can be expected to have in the US. This reality, which Roland Robertson has termed “glocalization,” recognizes that the megacorporations that create and market so much of what is today seen as culture have an incentive to being international items into the US when there is a perceived economic opportunity . Thus a product like salsa can be brought into the US and enjoyed by lots of people who are not of Latino/Latina heritage. However, salsa is unlikely to push ketchup and mustard out of American homes in quite the same way McDonald’s might push local restaurants out of a given community. Moreover, salsa’s status as a commodity means that salsa is not seen as a cultural product of an alien, other people. Rather, in the United States it is something enjoyable to eat largely devoid of cultural significance. Cultural exchanges can occur, but are usually felt more strongly outside of the US than inside it.
The global spread of American culture is also likely to continue to promote resistance and fear among groups and peoples facing the United States’ cultural juggernaut. After all, it is the case that even Americans sometimes react with uncertainty and fear when new cultural products arise: both rock and roll and hip hop generated a great deal of pushback from parents and lawmakers when those musical forms exploded in popularity, for example. Even in the United States, then, where Americans are quite used to seeing new products and ideas and whose culture espouses an ethos of tolerance and freedom, people regularly resist new cultural practices, values and ideas. Consequently, it does not take substantial effort to imagine why persons in other communities might react with fear and wonder at the kinds of American cultural products they and their children are exposed to in our digitally connected world. Such fears are even more understandable when we recognize that, from the point of view of people from other cultures, American products and norms are alien artifacts from a distant place that arrive in a local community all at once, giving local people little chance to adapt to them. In such circumstances, conflict seems inevitable regardless of what term is used to label it. Thus even if it seems clear that the term “cultural imperialism” is too vague and too politically charged to provide much explanatory power to contemporary debates about the globalization of American culture, the products and artifacts of American culture are going to be at the heart of the continuing process of globalization around the world. That is, whether or not one considers American culture to be imperialist, its products, norms, styles and other artifacts seem likely to be central to how people around the world experience and react to the globalization of culture.
As the political scientist James Rosenau has thoughtfully explained, it is a significant irony of the modern age that the very globalizing mechanisms that make it possible for people to connect across cultural lines also fuel the fragmentation of older ways of life as well as newly formed social and political arrangements . American culture, products, values and mores seem likely to play a key role in this integrating/fragmenting process that Rosenau called fragmegration, ensuring, as Manfred Steger has put it, that while the end point of globalization may be globality, "a social condition characterized by the existence of global economic, political, cultural, and environmental interconnections and flows that make many of the currently existing borders and boundaries irrelevant,” globality itself will never be achieved . Culture is an elusive, powerful force that seems certain to remain a point of contestation everywhere human beings greet and meet each other on our increasingly interconnected planet.
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1. What is “cultural imperialism”? Why do people fear that the United States is culturally imperialist?
2. What are the major critiques of cultural imperialism as a concept? How do these criticisms affect the notion that the United States is a culturally imperialist power?
3. Does the concept of cultural imperialism add to our understanding and ability to analyze globalization? Or does it detract from such understanding, leading to the conclusion that we should other tools in explaining and assessing the global spread of American and other cultures?
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3. Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 2003).
4. Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996).
5. Benjamin Barber, Jihad vs. McWorld: How Globalism and Tribalism Are Reshaping the World (New York: Ballantine Books, 1996).
6. Joseph Nye, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics (New York: Public Affairs, 2004).
7. John Downing, Ali Mohammadi and Annabelle Sreberny-Mohammadi, eds., Questioning the Media: A Critical Introduction, 2nd Ed. (London: Sage, 1995), 482.
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