How Useful is the Cultural Imperialism Thesis? Essay

Globalisation is expanding its horizons. Giants like Coca-Cola, McDonalds, Benetton, and Sony are not only selling their products globally but also specific images and lifestyles. This phenomenon raises the query of how this process is influencing homogenisation and differentiation of global cultural development. It is becoming more common that people come across efforts by these corporations to infiltrate into their cultural experiences. The consumer is seemingly losing the fight for control as these transitional corporations are not only selling their products and technologies but are also trying to pervade capitalist values and to some extent venerate the Western or American lifestyles; the value system of many developing economies gets suppressed by global capitalism and/or Western value systems in this process. When these capitalist corporations establish their business in the developing countries they deploy their work ethic, punctuality, thrift, conformity, and hierarchical organisational structures that contribute to amassing economic surpluses. Though these corporations pay a good wage to the employees they hire, ultimately the accumulated surpluses are carried across to the developed Western and/or capitalist societies. The ‘cultural imperialism thesis’ caters to this phenomenon of subordination and domination


We generally refer to the phrase ‘cultural imperialism thesis’ to elucidate the process of deterritorialization. Deterritorialization is reducing the time and space barriers between physical territories hence restructuring the old cultural geographical and social territories. For that reason it is appropriate to say that cultural imperialism thesis is a comprehensive framework intended to account for this complex global cultural build-up and the resulting relationships. The key elements that this thesis caters to are cultures that are suppressing other weak cultures. First and foremost of these dominant cultures are Western and/or American culture. Therefore, this thesis expounds on the strategies used to regulate, deregulate and re-regulate the domination.

Often there are historical cultural events that condense a culture’s value systems and its ability to overpower the other. The inequality of conditions that takes place is a key issue discussed in this thesis. This occurrence of historical dominance can be exemplified by referring to the course of colonialism that empowered Western cultures to subordinate the cultures of Asia, Africa, the Americas and certain other regions of the world. The colonisation shows the cultural superiority of the ‘West over the Rest’ because the West had a strong economy and liberal democracy that set standards for the weak cultures to follow. On this basis, we can say that cultural imperialism works at the conscious and the unconscious level, as it gives people the appropriate standards for their being to which they ought to identify.

The emergence of capitalism in the Western world is another key element that is covered by the cultural imperialism thesis. Capitalism in the Western world originates from both Western and capitalist values. But when we look into examples of capitalism in Japan we see it was dictatorial to a certain extent, whereas capitalism in the UK was not. Therefore, we know that there is a difference between these. The economic superiority of the first world resulted from the rise of capitalism. It is a well-known phenomenon that the organization, structure and regulations of cultural exchange between the dominant first world and the subordinate developing world have been based on capitalistic principles. Now, the capitalist classes of the first world meander around the world in pursuit of trading opportunities to multiply their trade and profits. The transnational business is a name given to the model of business that could multiply the trade and profit options of the capitalistic class from the first world. Therefore, now the transnational businesses are flourishing across the world to increase the trade, wealth and power of the bourgeoisie. In their desire to maximize trade and profit, this bourgeoisie forgot that there are cultural boundaries that need to be considered. The current trend of homogeneous production and consumption of goods/services has sprung from the negligence of the capitalist class regarding cultural differences since all these giant corporations across the world belong to the capitalist class.

American cultural exports to the rest of the world are another element covered in the cultural imperialism thesis. The Second World War gave the USA military and economic supremacy over other countries of the world. As a result, the Americanisation has become the flag carrier of Western dominance.

As American culture is eating up the local cultures and values of other countries though corporations, movies, television programmes, Pizza Hut, McDonalds, and Coca-Cola. Americanisation is disseminated through the media and communications industries by programmes like Dallas and comic books relating to Batman, Superman and other fictional heroes. Unfortunately, they too promote the philosophy of corporate capitalism. According to Barker, American capitalism is making people across the world believe that they want to live their lives in accordance with the American ways, thus letting everyone admit to American superiority. All the key world institutions including the International Monetary Fund (lMF), the World Bank, the World Trade Organisation (WTO), United Nations and its branches (e.g. UNESCO) have been established in accord with all the historical, economic and cultural perspectives mentioned earlier. The objective of the IMF and the World Bank is to surge secure economic strength. In reality it seeks a specific kind of economic stability that is beneficial to the long-term well being of market economies. These institutions are another way of preaching Americanisation across the globe via ideas like liberal democracy.


Two fundamental assumptions direct the cultural imperialist thinking. Speaking as per the Epistemological views, the advocates of cultural imperialism may be the people assuming that the method of construing information about culture is devised by transnational media organizations. According to Ontological views, cultural imperialists are actional realists who deem a fixed reality exists along with an individual’s or an organization’s own created meaning of reality.

Other adages have also influenced cultural imperialism. These do not serve as the assumptions of this theory because when they were tested they failed to the theory of imperialism. Consider that in cultural imperialism “an active role on the part of the dominating country and a damaging effect on the dominated one are assumed”. A different adage supposes “Third World consumers of [foreign] media products will be influenced by the values inherent in that content, the values of an alien and predominantly capitalist system”.

It is quite a common practice that when you review literature, there is a large number of unfavourable content besides the content supporting the theory. When scholars started to review the work on this theory, these assumptions were tested and shown to be false; now, they do not serve as assumptions for this theory instead they are thought as suggestions only made by empirical research.

The scholars often use different terms for referring to cultural imperialism. Among such terms “cultural imperialism” is often used interchangeably with “media imperialism.” This interchangeable use of the terms deduces them to be replacements for each other and suggests that the media is critically important. Thus, a culture based on media is another assumption of cultural imperialism. This points us toward the notion that the media plays a prodigious part in “cultural imperialism”. The contribution of the media is substantial enough to replace the word “cultural” with “media”. The relationship between the media and culture need to be examined.

One more assumption of the cultural imperialism theory is that it believes in a centralized approach for the production and distribution of media products. It is believed that all the media products devised by centre nations have ulterior intentions; namely, to take over the world media.

In the 1970s as an effort to justify the current media situation, the theory of cultural imperialism was conceived. The concept of a passive audience and a powerful media prevailed at that time as all forms of media including print, radio and television supported one-way, top-down transmission system from dominant country to dominated country. At that time there was no radical media that enabled the audience to communicate with the sender, but the scenario changed and today media comprising of telecommunications, computers and satellite technology is available. It enables interaction between both the parties. This advancement calls for a review of this axiom of cultural imperialism that states that dominant centre nations dictate the media of disempowered side-lined countries. Contextually is a collection of organised concepts, definitions and statements that give a logical outlook to a phenomenon by laying down relationships among the concepts to elucidate that phenomenon.


The cultural imperialism thesis can be described in light of the economies of developing nations with some important Western institutions. Let’s see how the World Bank functions in countries like Trinidad. The basic purpose of giving economic aid to these countries is to strengthen the economic, social and global relations. Trinidad wanted to flourish its economy in the 1970s and at that time the world oil prices were high. On these bases Trinidad borrowed money. Later, in the 1980s, oil prices fell and Trinidad was unable to pay its debt, therefore it went to the IMF in the hope of aid. The IMF imposed ‘structural adjustments’ on the Trinidadian government. These changes stood for no public subsidies, state intervention and exchange controls, introduction of flexible labour markets and opening the local markets to global competition from Western based transnational firms. These ‘structural adjustments’ meant observance to the stance of the IMF and that of its Western/American backers. As a consequence of these conditions Trinidad was bound to produce only the things it was capable of producing cheaply to be able to compete in world markets. These conditions were based on the fact that Trinidad suffered from colonialism in the past and does not have enough resources to compete with Western competitors.

Even though the Western competitors of Trinidad had abundant capital, technical resources and institutional advantages, they failed to beat it. Even if not on purpose, the aid by The World Bank to countries such as Trinidad is a way of side-lining them from economic dominance and making them permanently subservient to Western capitalist values.

The cultural imperialism thesis may not as appropriately serve to explain other grounds such as the effects of Western and American values. To foster hybridization and new pressures the local and global competitors seem to combine their forces; an example of this is the open display of Western and American cultural dominance shown in films and television programmes. These programmes like Dallas and Dynasty celebrate wealth and consumption. Wealth and consumption are two elements essential for capitalism and higher profits for transnational corporations. Therefore, such media proposes that everyone should live by consumerist values. The programs on television and films show that prosperity is a product of better technology and rationalism that happen to be Western values. These programmes preach the supremacy of Western heroes such as the James Bond films where he always overpowers the non-westerners because they are gawky, unkind, backward and senseless. However, Iran and other countries show resistance against the media preaching Western supremacy by regulating the sale of satellite dishes and prohibiting programmes exhibiting Western values of sexuality. Resistance to this exhibit of Western supremacy is not limited to the governmental level but the public also shows confrontation against TV programmes that the broadcasters fail to alter according to the Asian cultures. As a result, cable companies, like the Zee TV had to produce custom made programmes for a local market. Globalisation forced local and ethnic cultures to come forward due to the growth and availability of radios and televisions at local scale. Therefore, we can say that the reflectiveness of local experiences and hybridization results from globalisation.

This type of tension, confrontation and hybridisation is not limited to the media but also other elements of cultural exchange. Consider that the core products of McDonalds are fast-food hamburgers that it sells in the West. When it started its operations in India, it could not have the same core product because cows are holy to Hindus and pigs are dirty for Muslims. In India, McDonalds now is selling different products like lamb, chicken and veg. burgers. From this example, we can deduce that it is not true that non-Western societies are submissive consumers and buy products suitable for Western and/or American culture only. Coca-Cola carries out its advertising campaign by endorsing dazzling examples of American life, freedom and values. Gillespie performed an ethnographic study of young Asians and observed that they favoured Coca-Cola because it gave them a sense of freedom and Americanisation. The nations that were side-lined in the past use global products and feel connected and celebrated globally. The Coca-Cola Company has not documented these assumptions anywhere in its advertising campaign strategies but this is what the consumers think after their experiences. Coca-Cola is favoured not only by young Asians in the UK, but also by people from different surroundings. Coca-Cola is widely accepted by people in Trinidadian because it identifies with the Island’s colonial past and its relationship with American soldiers during and after the Second World War. Hence, it is now produced locally and massively used with rum drinks signifying modernization in Trinidadian culture. Interestingly, we can come across a situation where colonial culture is influencing Western culture as shown by assortments of foods like Indian, Chinese, music such as reggae, rap etc., religion like Buddhism, Islam and philosophies that all are reforming the world.


The complexity and multi-layers of the cultural imperialism thesis is the subject of this essay. Through the example of Trinidad acquiring of economic aid by the World Bank it is evident that the aid was given so that it could become subservient to capitalist and Western value systems. The economists who received their education from the Western world promote neo-classical economic theories necessitating developing countries abide. These economists create a situation where abiding by the Western and capitalist values is the only option for survival.

Nonetheless, when products like food, drink, entertainment and others are exchanged across cultures, these products have to face multifaceted issues connecting to local culture. Cultural imperialism fails to comprehend the multiplicities of cultural life in the Western world. Let’s assume that the Western world is identical and standardised whereas the cultural products of France, Britain, Canada and other countries are inimitable. Soap operas aired on television, like the Eastenders and Coronation Street exhibit a connection that identifies a certain society but cannot reflect other countries across the world. Despite the fact that this thesis distinguishes Americanisation it ignores other elements that are not submissive to the trends of Americanisation and Westernization. Consider that the Canadian Broadcasting industry neglects to search for the invasion of American television programmes, or the way the French government has sought to restrict the import of American films and television programmes. The economies in the Pacific- basin that follow capitalist trends are now supporting authoritarian trends so we know that the Western and capitalist values are not the same.

The trend of hybridisation is stimulated by economic development. With the example of McDonalds opening up in India we know that transnational corporations have to be considerate about local cultures. This does not mean that transnational corporations do not try to endorse Western and/or American values; in fact they promote the concept of streamlining and calculability. In the example of McDonalds the level of time and effort needed to make a want become a satisfaction is reduced. It promotes the commodification, normalization of products, deskilling, calculability, planning, costing, customer control, limiting consumer choice, etc. We may say that whenever a cultural exchange takes place cultural values are also exchanged. We may also say that since the West, the USA or advanced capitalist societies are mostly at the sending end of this exchange their values are transferred to other cultures. But this may not be entirely true since Indian, Chinese, Thai and other foods and garments and other cultural products are also becoming famous in the Western world. However, such cultural exchanges are grounded on the Western neo-classical approach that promotes free trade, competition and much more.

On the grand level, the cultural imperialism thesis is to a certain extent useful when it comes to enlightening cultural connections in economic jurisdiction, but somehow it neglects other elements of global relations.


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