Cultural imperialism Essay

Cultural imperialism takes after the concept of imperialism, only that instead of economic, military or political dimension, we have culture as the tool in enforcing the will of a superior country to other, weaker nation-states. This distinguishes cultural imperialism; say from other forms of imperialism in the past, which are more on the use of force or physical compulsion. The rise of the United States as a global power practically gave birth to the concept of cultural imperialism. Since the 1970s it has become a favorite subject of research and debate and it continues to garner renewed and increased interest these past decades. According to Bernd Hamm and Russell Smandych (2005) there are numerous reasons why this is so but these include the shrinking of the world into a global village due to technology, particularly the internet and other forms of information and communication technologies; the phenomenal growth and influence of American-exported cultural industries; and, the shifting state of international relations and global politics. (p. 3)

“In his lucid appraisal of the term ‘cultural imperialism’, John Tomlinson identifies four ways of employing this composite notion: as media imperialism, as a discourse of nationality, as a critique of global capitalism and as a critique of modernity.” (Colas 2007, p. 153)

Cultural Imperialism as ‘Media Imperialism’

Tomlinson based his assumption that media imperialism can be equated with or could be used as a way of talking about cultural imperialism on the fact that media is intimately connected with other aspects of culture in terms of people’s ‘lived experience’. In his discourse of the media imperialism and cultural imperialism Tomlinson extensively referred to Chin Chuan Lee and his account on media imperialism. He particularly gives credence to Lee’s suggestion that links exist between media and other aspects of culture and that there are indeed connections between economics, politics and culture. (p. 224)

Tomlinson underscored Lee’s argument that the Marxist and pluralist approaches can be reconciled and that media imperialism is a viable concept and could very well stand on its own ground.

After establishing the background of the media imperialism concept through Lee, Tomlinson listed several and added his own points pertaining to media’s relationship with culture.

Media and culture are interconnected through what he called as people’s lived experience.

To understand media imperialism is to understand a priori a context of dominion.

It is necessary to see arguments about the media aspects of cultural imperialism and not to separate media imperialism having no imputed connection with a broader cultural totality.

People’s experience of television, for example, is very often within the cultural context of the family and this context has significant mediating effect.

Media imperialism is a way of discussing cultural imperialism because it involves all the complex political issues – and indeed, the political commitments – entailed in the notion of cultural domination. (p. 224-225)

In the spirit of Tomlinson’s disaggregation of cultural imperialism, we quote Cunningham and Jacka as they explain the disaggregation of the concept of the global media:

There are global media events, when virtually everyone with access to a television set is able to witness major events at the same time (for example, the Gulf War, the Bosnian conflict). Then there is the regional and potentially global spread of service delivery platforms (for example, Star TV, CNN, BBC World TV). On a broader scale, it can mean the formation of global media firms, which own and/or control media outlets in most regions of the world. (p. 8)

Discourse of Nationality

The rationale behind cultural imperialism as a means in the discourse of nationality, writes Tomlinson, stems from the idea of the invasion of an indigenous culture by a foreign one and that the media becomes the most common tool in such phenomenon. According to him, nearly everyone who talks about cultural imperialism talks in this way at some point. Tomlinson elaborates:

The reason why this discourse has such common currency is that it is highly ambiguous way of speaking and thus very accommodating. Here is one ambiguity to be going on with: ‘indigenous culture’. This trips pretty easily off the sociological tongue, but what does it mean? Indigenous may be taken uncontroversially as a synonym for ‘native’, meaning ‘belonging to a geographical area’. But how does culture ‘belong’ to a geographical area? (p. 226)

These, among other questions, arise out of the ambiguity that Tomlinson has talked about. For instance, how local is local? Do we mean the culture of a village, a region, a nation or a supra region like Latin America? Or as Campbell, Davies and McKay (2004) asked, whose empire are we really talking about given that Americanisation is much more a product of a concern with European authority and cultural hegemony. (p. 19) In using cultural imperialism in the discourse of nationalism, a teeming number of controversies revolve around the idea of national cultural identity, and hence, Tomlinson’s theory is supposedly justified.

Critique of Global Capitalism

Tomlinson also referred to the critique of globalisation or global capitalism as the critique of universalism. He explained that some of the points critical to globalisation are extensions of Marxist critiques. However, in his discourse on cultural imperialism, he emphasized that globalisation is the latest phase in the long story of an expanding Western cultural hegemony. And hence, his theory of cultural imperialism covers the discussion and attacks on the concepts of “Westernisation” or “Americanisation”. According to him, “globalisation is frequently taken in this tradition of thought to imply a trend toward a simple ‘globality’ – a cultural homogenization which, whilst rhetorically persuasive, remains anthropologically implausible.” (2001, p. 45) Specifically, Tomlinson gave the case of the discourse of the global techno-enthusiast – those who see in the technological modalities of globalisation – as a target of cultural critique. To quote:

This sort of celebration of the cultural benefits of time-space compression attracts criticism not just on account of its wide-eyed naïveté, but because it has a putative ideological function. (p. 45)

Critique on Modernity

In this discourse, Tomlinson asked what is wrong with homogeneity or whether it is necessarily a bad thing. Essentially, this is aimed at a critical discourse which tackled and attacked the perceived features of modernity such as universalism, consumerism and materialism. These concepts were posed as agents of cultural imperialism or vice versa. Timothy Gorringe (2004) discussed this extensively on the premise that in attacking modernity, one has to remember the drudgery, injury and anxiety brought about by concepts such as the consumerism. (p. 91) Tomlinson, for his part, agreed much with John Gray’s assumptions and has based this particular discourse on the latter’s view that the modern notion of a universal civilization is inherently in tension with the sustenance of human cultural life. Tomlinson argued that ‘difference’ is central to the existence of culture and that universalism or homogeneity is bad to the extent that it threatens to undermine this ‘natural plurality’ of different ways of life. (p. 68)


Tomlinson’s assumption places media imperialism as some form of omnipotent phenomenon which cannot be sufficiently justified. The most obvious flaw in his argument is his notion that media exhaust culture. One should not underestimate culture because it is not all media – media is only a part of it. Then there is also the problem about concretely establishing the relationship between the political, economic and cultural dimensions. There are some scholars who brand such assumption of interconnection as some Marxist topology and that it is inadequate in base and superstructure in cultural studies. (Cunningham & Jacka, p. 6)

We also underscore the gap about the absence of an adequate way, or at least as yet, in theorizing the media’s effects. According to Cunningham and Jacka, textual and audience studies since the 1970s indicate that individual texts can be read in various ways while empirical research is required to determine what role imported media products actually do play in formations of culture in any particular localities and moments. (p. 6)

Borrowing Eric Louw’s critique on the cultural imperialism, we point out another flaw that undermines some of Tomlinson’s notions. This is with regards to the cultural imperialism’s tendency to offer simplistic solutions to the problems it posed. “The assumption is that destroying ‘the villain’ will necessarily fix ‘the problem’. Hence, cultural imperial theory became entangled with ‘solutions’/’alternatives’.” (Louw 2001, p. 141)

We argue our final critique based on historical grounds. One could say that Tomlinson’s theory was influenced by the global domination of the United States back in the 1960’s when the theory was formulated. This was also accompanied by the then one-way flow of the US media products to other countries. However, today the case is different because the system has changed. For one, the US no longer dominates the world economy since it has globalised. The globalisation of the media no longer requires that it should be based or headquartered on a single location. The movements of the global economy and the economies within it is very dynamic and that there is a rapid exchange people, money, goods and, of course cultural artifacts. If this trend holds, the idea that one single power could dominate other societies via cultural imperialism may no longer be possible. This is highlighted by Roger Bell’s argument that the collapse of the Soviet Union underscored the limits to ‘Americanisation’ as a homogenizing international force as the twentieth century and beyond is and would be dominated by nationalism, regionalism, ethnicity, gender, class divisions amid the surprising backdrop of globalisation.

As discussed elsewhere in this paper, the export of cultural goods is no longer dominated by the United States. Because of globalisation there are already dominant products in the US culture industry which came from other countries this include Japanese animation and other Japanese fixture in the American pop culture. In my opinion this is partly attributed to the steady stream of immigrants to the US. And so the culture that the Africans, Asians, Caribbeans and Latin Americans bring to Europe and the US reflect that cultural influence is no longer a one-way flow.

Indeed, perhaps these are the reasons why the discourse of cultural imperialism is no longer as popular in academic circles as it was during the 70s and the 80s. However, as Jonathan Xavier Inda and Renato Rosaldo (2002) put it, its theories are still some of the most important critical positions for understanding the process of globalisation. (p. 29)

It is also worth mentioning that some cultural theorists, according to Colas, have even calling for a shift away from national or local conceptions of cultures towards a notion of global culture or, more recently, a global modernity characterized by transnational flows in media, finance, ethnic identity and technology, which create different, decentred yet often overlapping global spaces of cultural expression. (p. 153-154)

All four discourses of Tomlinson regarding cultural imperialism are central to our discussion essentially because they point to, in one way or another, to the imposition, through direct or indirect means, of a homogenizing, dominant culture by an imperial metropole onto subordinated cultures. Yet it is perhaps the first two that are most of salient relevance to the transnational power of Western culture the capacity to undermine and even erase national or local forms of cultural practice.

We underscore the technological factor in Tomlinson’s arguments which seem to be prophetic. For instance, the significance of communication technologies in the cultural front is seen in their capacity to shrink the globe into a small village, as it “re-spatialises” the globe by creating cultural geographies which connects people and communities at a speed no one previously thought possible.

All in all as our analysis has shown, the discourse of cultural imperialism is actually an amalgamation of a variety of complicated, ambiguous and, sometimes, conflicting concepts. But the point that I want to highlight here is that Tomlinson has introduced certain significant tenets that until influences and do apply to the continuing process of globalization and the media’s role in it. For example, we have cited beforehand that the theories he espoused are still very important critical position in order to understand globalisation and perhaps tell us where it is going.


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