Cultural imperialism

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Cultural imperialism is the cultural aspects of imperialism. Imperialism, here, is referring to the creation and maintenance of unequal relationships between civilizations favoring the more powerful civilization.[1] Therefore, it is 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. The term 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.

Background and definitions[edit]

Although the Oxford English Dictionary has a 1921 reference to the "cultural imperialism of the Russians",[2] John Tomlinson, in his book on the subject, writes that the term emerged in the 1960s[3] and has been a focus of research since at least the 1970s.[4] 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.[5]

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."[6]

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."[7] 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."[8] 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."[9]

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."[10] Needless to say, all these authors agree that cultural imperialism promotes the interests of certain circles within the imperial powers, often to the detriment of the target societies.

The issue of cultural imperialism emerged largely from communication studies.[11] 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.[5]

Theoretical foundations[edit]

Many of today's academics that employ the term, cultural imperialism, are heavily informed by the work of Foucault, Derrida, Said, and other poststructuralist and postcolonialist theorists.[5] 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 [5]

Michel Foucault[edit]

The work of French philosopher and social theorist Michel Foucault has heavily influenced use of the term cultural imperialism, particularly his philosophical interpretation of power and his concept of governmentality.

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.[12] 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.[13] 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. In his lectures at the Collège de France, Foucault often defines governmentality as the broad art of "governing," which 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".[14] 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.)

Edward Saïd[edit]

Informed by the works of Noam Chomsky, Michel Foucault, and Antonio Gramsci, 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”.[15][16][17] 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.[17] In Culture and Imperialism (1993), the sequel to Orientalism, Saïd proposes that, despite the formal end of the “age of empire” after the Second World War (1939–45), 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.[18]

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak[edit]

Another influential voice in discussing matters of cultural imperialism is the self-described " practical Marxist-feminist-deconstructionist,"[19] 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).[20]

In "Can the Subaltern Speak?" Spivak 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 able to represent themselves through their own voice.[20]

In A critique of Postcolonial Reason, Spivak argues that Western philosophy has a history of not only exclusion of the subaltern from discourse, but also does not allow them to occupy the space of a fully human subject.

Contemporary ideas and debate[edit]

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".[21]

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 United States-based communication giants.

Cultural diversity[edit]

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.

Ideas relating to African colonization[edit]

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 has led to the elimination of many various cultures, worldviews, and epistemologies.[22][23] This, arguably has led to uneven development, and further informal forms of social control having to do with culture and imperialism.[24] A variety of factors, scholars argue, lead to the elimination of cultures, worldviews, and epistemologies, such as "de-linguicization" (replacing native African languages with European ones) and devaluing ontologies that are not explicitly individualistic.[24] 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."(2000: 12)[24] Therefore, all imperialism would always, already be cultural.

Ties to neoliberalism[edit]

Neoliberalism 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.[24] Other Scholars, such as Elizabeth Dunn and Julia Elyachar have claimed that neoliberalism requires and creates its own form of governmentality.[25][26]

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.[25] Cultural conflicts occurred most notably the company's inherent individualistic policies, such as promoting competition among workers rather than cooperation, and in its strong opposition to what the company owners claimed was bribery.[25]

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." [26] Youth microentrepreneurs would receive small loans to build their own businesses, similar to the way that microfinance supposedly operates.[26] 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 [26]

Ties to development studies[edit]

Often, methods of promoting development and social justice to are critiqued as being imperialistic, in a cultural sense. For example, 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.[27] 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.[28]

Ties to media effects studies[edit]

The core of cultural imperialism thesis is integrated with the political-economy traditional approach in media effects research. Critics of cultural imperialism commonly claim that non-Western cultures, particularly from the Third World, will forsake their traditional values and lose their cultural identities when they are solely exposed to Western media. Nonetheless, Michael B. Salwen, in his book Critical Studies in Mass Communication (1991),[29] claims that cross-consideration and integration of empirical findings on cultural imperialist influences is very critical in terms of understanding mass media in the international sphere. He recognizes both of contradictory contexts on cultural imperialist impacts. The first context is where cultural imperialism imposes socio-political disruptions on developing nations. Western media can distort images of foreign cultures and provoke personal and social conflicts to developing nations in some cases.[30] Another context is that peoples in developing nations resist to foreign media and preserve their cultural attitudes. Although he admits that outward manifestations of Western culture may be adopted, but the fundamental values and behaviors remain still. Furthermore, positive effects might occur when male-dominated cultures adopt the “liberation” of women with exposure to Western media[31] and it stimulates ample exchange of cultural exchange.[32]

Criticisms of "cultural imperialism theory"[edit]

Critics of scholars who discuss cultural imperialism have a number of critiques. Cultural imperialism is a term that is only used in discussions where cultural relativism and constructivism are generally taken as true. (One cannot critique promoting Western values if one believes that said values are absolutely correct. Similarly, one cannot argue that Western epistemology is unjustly promoted in non-Western societies if one believes that those epistemologies are absolutely correct.[5]) Therefore, those who disagree with cultural relativism and/or constructivism may critique the employment of the term, cultural imperialism on those terms.

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. Summarizing research on the Third World’s reception of American television shows, he challenges the cultural imperialism argument, conveying his doubts about the degree to which US shows in developing nations actually carry US values and improve the profits of US companies. Tomlinson suggests that cultural imperialism is growing in some respects, but local transformation and interpretations of imported media products propose that cultural diversification is not at an end in global society.[33] He explains that one of the fundamental conceptual mistakes of cultural imperialism is to take for granted that the distribution of cultural goods can be considered as cultural dominance. He thus supports his argument highly criticizing the concept that Americanization is occurring through global overflow of American television products. 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.

Other major critiques are that the term is not defined well, and employs further terms that are not defined well, and therefore lacks explanatory power, that cultural imperialism is hard to measure, and that the theory of a legacy of colonialism is not always true.[5]

Rothkopf on dealing with cultural dominance[edit]

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 United States 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.[34]

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.".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:

Successful 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.[35]

Cultural imperialism in history[edit]

Although the term was popularized in the 1960s, and was used by its original proponents to refer to cultural hegemonies in a post-colonial world, cultural imperialism has also been used to refer to times further in the past.

Ancient Rome[edit]

The Roman empire has been seen as an early example of cultural imperialism.

Early Rome, in its conquest of Italy, assimilated the people of Etruria by replacing the Etruscan language by Latin, which led to the demise of that language and many aspects of Etruscan civilization.[36]

Cultural Romanization was imposed on many parts of Rome's empire by "many regions receiving Roman culture unwillingly, as a form of cultural imperialism."[37] For example, when Greece was conquered by the Roman armies, Rome set about altering the culture of Greece to conform with Roman ideals. For instance, the Greek habit of stripping naked, in public, for exercise, was looked on askance by Roman writers, who considered the practice to be a cause of the Greeks' effeminacy and enslavement.[38]

The Pax Romana was secured in the empire, in part, by the "forced acculturation of the culturally diverse populations that Rome had conquered."[36]

British empire[edit]

British worldwide expansion in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was an economic and political phenomenon. However, "there was also a strong social and cultural dimension to it, which Rudyard Kipling termed the 'white man's burden'." One of the ways this was carried out was by religious proselytizing, by, amongst others, the London Missionary Society, which was "an agent of British cultural imperialism."[39] Another way, was by the imposition of educational material on the colonies for an "imperial curriculum". Morag Bell writes, "The promotion of empire through books, illustrative materials, and educational syllabuses was widespread, part of an education policy geared to cultural imperialism".[40] This was also true of science and technology in the empire. Douglas M. Peers and Nandini Gooptu note that "Most scholars of colonial science in India now prefer to stress the ways in which science and technology worked in the service of colonialism, as both a 'tool of empire' in the practical sense and as a vehicle for cultural imperialism. In other words, science developed in India in ways that reflected colonial priorities, tending to benefit Europeans at the expense of Indians, while remaining dependent on and subservient to scientific authorities in the colonial metropolis."[41]

The analysis of cultural imperialism carried out by Edward Said drew principally from a study of the British empire.[42] According to Danilo Raponi, the cultural imperialism of the British in the nineteenth century had a much wider effect than only in the British empire. He writes, "To paraphrase Said, I see cultural imperialism as a complex cultural hegemony of a country, Great Britain, that in the nineteenth century had no rivals in terms of its ability to project its power across the world and to influence the cultural, political and commercial affairs of most countries. It is the 'cultural hegemony' of a country whose power to export the most fundamental ideas and concepts at the basis of its understanding of 'civilisation' knew practically no bounds." In this, for example, Raponi includes Italy.[43]

Other pre-WWII examples[edit]

The New Cambridge Modern History writes about the cultural imperialism of Napoleonic France. Napoleon used the Institut de France "as an instrument for transmuting French universalism into cultural imperialism." Members of the Institute (who included Napoleon), descended upon Egypt in 1798. "Upon arrival they organised themselves into an Institute of Cairo. The Rosetta Stone is their most famous find. The science of Egyptology is their legacy."[44]

After the First World War, Germans were worried about the extent of French influence in the annexed Rhineland, with the French occupation of the Ruhr Valley in 1923. An early use of the term appeared in an essay by Paul Ruhlmann (as "Peter Hartmann") at that date, entitled French Cultural Imperialism on the Rhine.[45]

Nazi colonialism[edit]

Cultural imperialism has also been used in connection with the expansion of German influence under the Nazis in the middle of the twentieth century. Alan Steinweis and Daniel Rogers note that even before the Nazis came to power, "Already in the Weimar Republic, German academic specialists on eastern Europe had contributed through their publications and teaching to the legitimization Of German territorial revanchism and cultural imperialism. These scholars operated primarily in the disciplines Of history, economics, geography, and literature."[46]

In the area of music, Michael Kater writes that during the WWII German occupation of France, Hans Rosbaud, a German conductor based by the Nazi regime in Strasbourg, became "at least nominally, a servant of Nazi cultural imperialism directed against the French."[47]

In Italy during the war, Germany pursued "a European cultural front that gravitates around German culture". The Nazi propaganda mister Joseph Goebbels set up the European Union of Writers, "one of Goebbels's most ambitious projects for Nazi cultural hegemony. Presumably a means of gathering authors from Germany, Italy, and the occupied countries to plan the literary life of the new Europe, the union soon emerged as a vehicle of German cultural imperialism."[48]

For other parts of Europe, Robert Gerwarth, writing about cultural imperialism and Reinhard Heydrich, states that the "Nazis' Germanization project was based on a historically unprecedented programme of racial stock-taking, theft, expulsion and murder." Also, "The full integration of the [Czech] Protectorate into this New Order required the complete Germanization of the Protectorate's cultural life and the eradication of indigenous Czech and Jewish culture."[49]

The actions by Nazi Germany reflect on the notion of race and culture playing a significant role in imperialism. The idea that there is a distinction between the Germans and the Jews has created the illusion of Germans believing they were superior to the Jewish inferiors, the notion of us/them and self/others.[50][relevant? ]

See also[edit]


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  • Tomlinson, John (1991). Cultural imperialism: a critical introduction (illustrated, reprint ed.). Continuum International Publishing Group. ISBN 978-0-8264-5013-5. 
  • 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 978-1-55111-707-2. 
  • 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). 
  • Lechner, Frank; John Boli (2012). The Globalization Reader. John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 978-0-470-65563-4. 
  • Lechner, Frank; John Boli (2009). The Globalization Reader. Wiley-Blackwell. 
  • Salwen, Michael B. (March 1991). "Critical Studies in Mass Communication". Cultural Imperialism: A Media Effects Approach 8 (1). 

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