Cultural Imperialism Essay


The end of the cold war marked the beginning of a ‘cultural turn’ in the globalized world. The worldwide dissemination of the values and attitudes of the West in general and the United States of America in particular has been the focus of attention for not only academicians but also for ordinary people from across the world. There have been intense debates over the impact of globalization and the consequent transformations in the realm of culture from a number of conflicting standpoints. The idea of cultural imperialism has been particularly influential in the understanding of the profound transformations that are taking place in the sphere of culture. Regardless of the difference among these contesting perspectives on the characterization of this cultural turn, there exists a consensus on the incredible role of global media as carrier of the unprecedented changes pertinent to culture at both global and local levels.

Since media plays a vital role in the cultural lives of millions of people and the fact that media sector is by and large controlled by Western interests, there have been arguments in favor of the idea ‘cultural imperialism’. Although the central postulate of cultural imperialism thesis remains valid due to the lopsidedness in the global media market, the so-called cultural imperialism through the Western cultural products cannot be seen as one sided as the theorists of cultural imperialism perspective understood it to be. In the light of the recent developments taking place in the media sector, especially the regional media in the developing countries and the changes bought by the new media technologies, this paper intends to present the basic theoretical tenets of cultural imperialism and the challenges to it from various perspectives. The core concern of the essay is to examine what is remaining relevant with the arguments and concerns regarding cultural imperialism and the criticisms provided by the contesting theoretical doctrines from the vantage point of the tremendous transformations occurring with the global media culture from the very beginning of twenty first century.

Explaining Cultural Imperialism

The widespread availability of American cultural products such as music, television channels, entertainment and informational commodities is one of the important factors that enable the lopsided influence of American culture over the rest of the world. Therefore, Schiller famously defines cultural imperialism as “the sum of 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” (Schiller, 1976: 9). Importantly, Schiller (1969) has found a common ground between the study of media dominance and theories of economic imperialism. For him, it is necessary to look at theories such as world systems and dependency theories in order to explore the dynamics of domination in the sphere of communication. For Schiller, it is nothing but the viability of American industrial economy that furthers “the movements towards international commercialization of broadcasting” (Schiller, 1969: 9). And, hence, the enhanced spread of cultural imperialism.

On the economic realm, the proliferation of American products has a penetrating impact over the determination of the cultural aspects of the lives of millions of people from outside the United States. Many theorists have almost equated cultural imperialism with American cultural imperialism as if the United States alone is the conductor of the concert of global cultural imperialism. What is important to note that there is no single culture that alone oppresses other cultures. With reference to the nation state as the overwhelming reality in the modern world, it is possible to classify cultural imperialism as cultural imperialism from within and without. The idea is that cultural imperialism is not only a compound, multi-layered phenomenon that encompasses a wide array of practices of a number of hegemonic cultures but also could only be defined from the standpoint(s) of the subaltern cultures from around the world.

The cultural imperialism perspective shares many arguments and concerns of International Political Economy. For instance, the key insights of the cultural imperialism are certainly drawn from the political economy tradition, importantly on the questions related to “the adverse political and cultural implications of the unequal distribution of international communications power and resources, and how they intersect with broader structures of dominance and Western hegemony in the international political economy” (Flew and McElhinney, 2006: 292)

Many theorists have noted that contemporary media globalization ensures the one-way flow of cultural commodities from the Western backgrounds. The domination of the West is being reproduced through the hegemony of its cultural formations. Capitalism is not only a political or economic force. It is a cultural force too, capable of changing the cultural life of millions and millions from around the world in accordance with its need to reproduce its values and norms which are happened to be deeply embedded in the social cultures of the dominant countries. Although, there have been developments in the ‘regional’ quantity and quality of the cultural products from the developing countries, a content analysis would show that such programmes are more or less share the cultural formulas of the Western products even when they adopt the form from the local cultures.

Challenging the Hegemony of Cultural Imperialism Perspective

Cultural imperialism thesis was so influential even for to shape the debates on media for two or three decades. However, there have been criticisms which try to shake the very intellectual foundations of cultural imperialism perspective. Basing on such criticisms, the cultural globalization perspective challenges the validity of cultural imperialism thesis. In an increasingly globalized world, the processes and patterns of cultural interactions and integration are not linear or one-dimensional. It has been noted that the theorists of cultural imperialism overstate the centrality of media in transforming the cultural lives of the people. The fact is that the cultural production even in the West is not a monolithic process but plural. Apparently, there are wide varieties of counter media initiatives such as independent media centres which consciously try to break the mould of stereotypical western programmes.

Theoretically speaking, three components of new media studies are “the artefacts or devices used to communicate or convey information; the activities and practices in which people engage to communicate or share information; and the social arrangements or organizational forms that develop around those devices and practices” (Lievrouw and Livingstone, 2006: 2). The characteristics of media have changed profoundly in the last two to three decades. They are not merely technological advancements. The social, political, economic and cultural aspects of such changes are important to take account of when a critical understanding of the cultural imperialism thesis is attempted. The times of mass society as well as mass media have faded away. Therefore, it is necessary to examine the historical conditions in which the new media proliferates. In other words, unless the processes and patterns through which the new media socialization takes place, it is not possible to understand them as a whole. The conditions for the emergence of cultural imperialism which existed in the second half of the twentieth century has paved way for a more dynamic, complex and qualitatively different epoch in terms of global media culture. “Linear narratives and genres that were associated with particular media technologies and forms in the past- the novel, the Hollywood film, the LP record album, the crime drama- are absorbed into hyperlinked, hybrid content that is generated and shared via diverse channels” (Lievrouw and Livingstone, 2006: 3). It is to say that the defining characteristics of the global media culture have changed in an unprecedented way so that the contemporary global media culture has become more postmodern.

In his critical interpretation of cultural imperialism, Tomlinson (1992) identifies the defining characteristic of cultural imperialism as the hegemonic application of political and economic capabilities by an imperialist power in order to subsume a foreign culture. ”. The problem here is the selection of the parameters to determine what is foreign and what is native in terms of culture. The predominant understanding of such a dichotomy between the foreign and the native culture presupposes the nation state as homogeneous community and as the primary and overwhelming reality of one’s life. While exploring the construct of ‘Englishness’, Hall (1997) argues that such a national construct is a manufactured homogeneity. “It was always negotiated against difference. It always had to absorb all the differences of class, of religion, of gender, in order to present itself as a homogeneous entity” (Hall, 1997, p.22). A more realistic understanding of the processes and patterns of cultural domination must take account of the cleavages that exist between various social groups within the nation state. Importantly, Anderson’s (1983) claim that nation is an imagined community in the era of print capitalism itself points out the mutations occurring with nation state as it confronts the reality of digital capitalism.

The contemporary era of globalization has marked by the emergence of a global market for what is commonly known as cultural commodities. However, this global market of cultural commodities too is characterized by unevenness and lopsidedness. The structural adjustment plan and other neoliberal policies followed by a number of governments in the developing countries are instrumental in initiating this shift in the media sector. It is worthwhile to notice that the expansion of the big media conglomerates “has not been primarily the result of technological change or market competition, but is indicative of the extent of transnational corporate influence over national policy-makers and the hegemonic role that has been played by global media in the international dissemination of ideas” (Flew and McElhinney, 2006: 293). While analyzing the media and its impact on culture, it is possible to see that cultural change take place in dialectical relationship between the forces at the local and global levels. No culture is simply paving way for its own death since cultures have their own inherent capacity to reproduce themselves. It has been widely observed that there is a significant growth in the regional production of television programmes and other cultural products in competition with the global media.

While the culture flow is imbalanced, it is not, however, one-way flow from the west to non-west. It is also evident that there are increasing amount of culture inflows to Western society from Asia. E.g., Japanese animation is very popular in U.S.; films such as “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Hero” which were directed by Chinese directors have gain popularity in Western world. Also, the brilliant film which succussed greatly in the 79th Oscar Awards 2006 “The Departed” actually used the recomposed play book of a Hong Kong film named “Infernal Affair” (imdb, 2006)). The original playbook was entirely based on the local Hong Kong values and thoughts. This indicates that eastern media sources also inspire the western cultural products.

While lopsided and uneven flow of information and exchange is unquestionable reality in today’s information world order, there is no fixed or determined way for the people to grasp the content of information. For Banerjee (2002), cultural imperialism thesis assumes that audiences are passive and unreflective recipients of cultural contents. However, viewers across the cultures do not produce similar meaning to the media signifiers. Instead, spectators from different cultures read programmes through their own cultural frameworks. Similarly, Berger (1995) argues that semioticians claim that people decode media messages differently according to their cultural backgrounds, socioeconomic levels and so on. Audiences do not assimilate information without selection based on their cultural attitudes, values and norms, and the interpretation of media content takes place in heterogeneous ways.

In capitalist societies, while the majority of the population is degenerated as mere consumers, a minority triumphs without actually engaging in the process of production. Barthes (1974) sees the replication of same crisis into the realms of art and writing where readers are considered as passive consumers of ‘finished cultural products’ delivered constantly to them. The practice of considering the author as the producer is, in the ultimate analysis, the source of cultural corruption. Barthes (1974: 5) challenges this dominant formulation by asserting that ‘the text is experienced only in an activity, a production’. A text is a ‘galaxy of signifiers, not a structure of signifieds’ (Barthes, 1974: 5). The belief that there is a fixed content for any cultural product that is determined by the author is not a correct understanding of the author-text relationship. Moreover, the cultural content of a cultural product would not be equally received across the cultures. In other words, one could read the cultural content of a product in a radically different way from another depending on a number of factors such as personal beliefs, intellectual standings, ethnicity and class.

In Baker’s (1999) analysis, it is problematic to think of globalization as a simple process of homogenization as suggested by cultural imperialism because the forces of hybridization are equally strong. The various hybridized cultural products, such as Hollywood action movies directed by John Woo, are neither global nor local, but draw from many cultures. The phenomenon of franchising the U.S.-originated television program format can also be seen as a manifestation of cultural hybridization. For instance, The Dictionary of happiness was a successful Chinese quiz show that has re-fashioned Celador’s global format ‘Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?’ by incorporating three key elements—the “life-lines”, “phone a friend” and “ask the audience” (Keane, 2004:91); the reality television show Into Shangri-La was based on the format of international version of Survivor. Survivor is about leaving healthy people in the wildness to fend for themselves. The local version brings two teams of eight young Chinese from different provinces to battle against the elements and nature in the Himalayan foothill in co-operation to win the prize rather than merely seeking to outdo each other as compared to Survivor (Keane, 2004:101). Both the two examples of reproduction can be seen as the result of cultural hybridization, where socialist ideology of collectivism (i.e. ‘ask the audience’ in The Dictionary of happiness and team co-operation in Into Shangri-La) was added into the domestic versions to replace the elements of westernized individualism in the original format. Thus, “the impact of Anglo-American television in a global context may be understood as the creation of a layer of western capitalist modernity which overlays, but does not necessarily obliterate, pre-existing cultural forms” (Baker, 1999:42). It is important to realize that there is something original and creative in the current phase of globalization, especially at the realm of culture. Globalization cannot be seen as being imposed from the so-called imperialist metropolises since “[g]lobal and local are the two faces of the same movement from one epoch of globalization, the one which has been dominated by the nation-state, the national economies, the national cultural identities, to something new” (Hall, 1997: 27). In this new situation, the oppressed of the past are not being oppressed in the sameway or by the same oppressors of yesterday. On the contrary, the subordinate classes from the ‘rest of the world’ constantly find new ways for emancipating themselves from the old imperialist guise. “The emergence of new subjects, new genders, new ethnicities, new regions, new communities, hitherto excluded from the major forms cultural representation, unable to locate themselves except as de-centred or subaltern”, as result of the discovered space in the globalized world and its postmodern time-space, “have acquired through struggle, sometimes in very marginalized ways, the means to speak for themselves for the first time” (Hall, 1997: 34).


In twentieth century, the mass media played a vital role in the export of cultural values from the imperialist metropolises to the developing world. However, as the organizing logic of capitalism has undergone mutations in the twenty first century, the form and content of cultural imperialism too have changed. The resistance from the new anti-colonial subjects created by the unprecedented unleashing of the global market forces itself is challenging the remnants of cultural imperialism that are embedded in the new mode of capitalist advancement in the contemporary era. On the other hand, nothing like a global media culture exist in reality. The media culture in itself is multiple and varied even from genre to genre. At present, it is possible to see that forces of hetrogenization are actively countering homogenizing forces, both are the products of a one and same culturally colonializing capitalism, although in a lopsided manner. Nevertheless, the dominant cultural discourse originating from the United States and other imperialist metropolises and spreading through the new media has a significant role in shaping the cultural outlook of the rest of the world directly or indirectly and the same time, being confronted actively by the forces from below. To conclude, many of the arguments and concerns regarding cultural imperialism still remain valid although as theoretical devise it is not sufficient to deal with the changes brought by the new media, changing equations in the balance of power of the nation states in the era of globalization, the rise of some of the developing countries such as India, China and Russia, and the strengthened, multilayered struggles and resistance at the realm of global media culture from the previously marginalised groups and the advent of counter hegemonic media practices. The cultural imperialism thesis must not be rejected but revised without loosing its original vigour, from the standpoint of such earthshaking changes confronting the global media culture.


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