Media Forms and Claims of Cultural Imperialism Essay

How might theories of economic power prove limited when exploring the relations between media forms and claims of cultural imperialism?

By its very nature a theory must simplify reality to fit within definable boundaries. Economic theory is no different from any other in this manner, but it is characterized by the sheer number, complexity and often ambiguity of the facts that it is attempting to explain. The reason that economists need theory has been succinctly stated by Kenneth Boulding, in his introduction to one of the best texts on theory:

People want “facts” not “theories” . . . But facts without theories are meaningless. It is only “theory” – i.e. a body or principles – which enables us to approach the bewildering complexity and chaos of fact, select the facts significant for our purposes, and interpret that significance.

The ‘facts’ of media forms and their potential for producing global imperialism are difficult to explain through theory for a number of reasons. First, much of the theory was developed before the massive acceleration in change that has occurred since the development of computers. Second, different forms of media power create an overwhelming complexity that is difficult to fit within theory. Third, the concept of “cultural imperialism” is ill-defined.

Before delving into the world of media forms and cultural imperialism it will be useful to exactly define how theory can and cannot help in an understanding of economic, cultural, political and social patterns. For the concept of “cultural imperialism” moves well beyond any attempt at neatly defined disciplinary boundaries. It is perhaps the very ubiquity of western media in many parts of the world that is the key to its imperialistic nature. Whether this ubiquity is a deliberate or accidental attempt at imperialism will be discussed later, but theory needs to be placed within a firm context:

A theory is a model…, a description … that is stripped of all inessential particulars — much like a road map of a city. How accurate should the theory be?… If the purpose is to drive through a town from one end to the other, a crude sketch of a few lines is often sufficient… [If the purpose is to install] a sewer system, [the map] must show elevations, street widths, power lines, and so on. Like road maps, models or theories of economic phenomena come in various degrees of detail — but all models describing the same set of phenomena are consistent with each other. No map or theory will be perfectly complete in every detail… So ask not, “Is the theory accurate?” but rather “Is the theory good enough for our purposes?”

So, to put it succinctly, are any theories of economic power “good enough” for the purposes of explaining the relationship between media forms and cultural imperialism.? What degree of detail is needed in an economic map of media/cultural imperialism? Can such complex and ambiguous a relationship be explained by the simplified model of reality that a theory implies?

This paper will analyze these questions in two parts. First, it will explore what the relationship between ‘media forms” and ‘cultural imperialism’ is, and whether the latter actually exists. Second, an attempt will be made to place this relationship within present theories of economic power. Some initial definitions are in order. Media is defined as “a means of mass communication . . . the communications industry or profession.” Culture is defined as “the behavior patterns, arts beliefs, institutions, and all other products or human thought at work; especially as expressed in a particular community of period.” Imperialism is “the policy of extending a nation’s authority by economic and political means over other nations.” ‘Media’ is then, at least superficially, quite easy to define. In the modern age media includes books, newspapers, films, TV programs and, perhaps, the Internet. Yet professional sports and educationWhen looking at the definitions of “culture” and “imperialism”, problems start.

Within the definition of imperialism a deliberate act is visualized in which one country seeks to extend its power over one other or many other countries. The Roman Empire, the British Empire and the German Third Reich are perhaps classic examples of imperial power, and it is from such systems that most models of economic power in which one nation asserts control over another have been built. But within the 21st Century world can a deliberate kind of cultural imperialism be identified? Within what might be termed as the hold-overs from the Twentieth Century system of Imperialism there clearly are deliberate attempts at cultural control through the power of the mass media.

One example is the “Voice of America”. Started during the Cold War as an attempt to counter what was perceived as a propaganda machine being created by the USSR, the Voice of America (VOA) was transmitted into eastern Europe, Cuba and whatever countries were deemed as needing the service. Financed and supported by the US government, VOA claims to be “a trusted source of new and information” on its internet homepage. The move from pure radio transmissions to the internet shows how while the media may change, its basic nature does not. VOA seeks to present the American view of the world to the populations of countries that might not necessarily hear it otherwise. The move to the internet, with written news available in more than sixty languages, represents the growth of VOA into what is termed “the information age”. However, the VOA is available to anyone in the world who has access to the internet, so can it be regarded as a specific attempt to extend a “nation’s authority”? Here is an example of how language has yet to catch up with the reality of the world.

Cultural imperialism seems to imply a kind of ‘soft imperialism’ that contrasts with the hard imperialism imposed by armies, laws and strict economic systems. The land-grab by European countries during the Nineteenth Century was an example of hard imperialism, the existence of satellite televisions in impoverished Indian village is soft imperialism. The exact relationship between the two has yet to be determined.

Further, an exact definition of “cultural imperialism”, assuming that is not merely a combination of the pure definitions of the words, which the above discussion suggests it cannot be, has yet to be created. An online source that has been accused of being a very soft type of cultural imperialism (but no less effective because of it) is the online encyclopedia, It defines “cultural imperialism” in the following manner:

Most countries outside of the US feel that the high degree of cultural export through business and popular culture – popular and academic books, films, music, and television – threatens their unique ways of life or moral values where such cultural exports are popular.

Some countries, including France, have policies that actively oppose Americanization. Some American cultural producers such as Reader’s Digest have responded to or altogether avoided such resistance by adapting their content (or the surface of it) to local audiences.

A fascinating scenario thus emerges, and one that at least partially explains why economic theory will have difficulties with explaining cultural imperialism.

The export of business from the United States can be fitted into various theories of economic power. Indeed, Adam Smith’s original definition of the “science” of Economics as “the science relating to the laws of production, distribution and exchange,” can be applied to the apparent dominance of American business within many markets. The rise of Wal-Mart to be largest retailer in the world is a case in point. Through a simple model of providing as many retail goods for as low a price as possible, Wal-Mart has grown from a one-store operation in the early 1960’s to a several thousand store monolith in this century. Wal-Mart imports many of its goods from undeveloped and developing countries into the United States and, increasingly, its European stores.

Wal-Mart’s massive market share enables it to dictate price of a product and, to a certain extent, the conditions under which that product is made. Many of the goods that Wal-Mart sells are made in China, and Wal-Mart has contributed to the increased growth of a Capitalist, market economy in that country. This is a case of what one might term “corporate imperialism”, which may be differentiated from the traditional kind because it is based in large, multinational companies whose economic practices are support by, if not actually officially organized by, the government.

One might powerfully argue that this kind of imperialism is a one that contrasts in degree rather than kind: colonial companies such as the British East India Company were largely in control of the land that they located in. Indeed, in America, that supposed bastion of current cultural imperialism, “all colonies except Georgia emerged as companies of shareholders or as feudal proprietorships stemming from charters granted by the Crown.” As such, might an approach such as Rostow’s The Stages of Economic Growth be applied to a growing cultural imperialism?

Rostow’s theory includes a series of well-defined stages that an economy will run through:

Traditional society

Preconditions for take-off


Drive to maturity

Age of high mass consumption

These can be quite effectively applied to a traditional economic imperialism, such as existed in Africa during the nineteenth century. Before Europeans arrived there was a traditional society and their arrival brought about the preconditions for take-off. The take-off which occurred was normally limited in nature and geographically concentrated on the coastal regions and the routes into the interior of the country where the raw materials for good were to be found. European powers left most African countries before a drive to maturity or high mass consumption could occur, and this is the source of many of these countries current problems.

While Rostow has been criticized for over-simplification of reality (the bane of all economic theories), his ideas face even more trouble in the 21st Century. A country such as China displays all five of his stages simultaneously in different geographical areas. The manufacturing plants that produce the goods for companies such as Wal-Mart are thrusting certain parts of the country into the last three stages, and some major cities near the coast are in the final stage; but many rural, interior areas are still traditional societies in most ways.

If we move away from the “corporate imperialism” represented by the economic and political influence that multinational companies based in the West on developing countries, more problems for theory arise. The influence of “popular culture” is almost universally recognized, but is very difficult to quantify. An economist who uses econometrics as her methodology will find it very difficult to apply statistical techniques to variables such as the rapid introduction of English words into many languages. But these kinds of processes are supposedly at the heart of this cultural imperialism.

The use of social psychology within many of the more recent forms of economics may actually offer a more powerful tool for studying cultural imperialism through media. Behavioral economics, as it is currently named, studies discrepancies from the predictions that neoclassical economics would make about a system. Consider once again the subject of the apparently rampant spread of the English language throughout the world at the current time. This has been linked to the cultural imperialism under consideration here. But the exact process by which English is being imperialistically spread through the world is too complex to fit within a particular theory.

English has been thread through the domination of American media within the world. English newspapers have been published in many countries in the world since the time of the British Empire and English has remained, almost by default, the language of business. But the current spread of English through the world has a myriad of origins. First, English the language of computers due to the fact that the computer industry has largely developed in America. The Windows platform that runs more than 90 of the world’s computers is based upon code written by English-speaking programmers and thus has an English-speaking bias to the manner in which its various components can be run.

As English is the language of computers it is also the main language on the Internet. Add to this the dominance of American movies and television, together with the music business and those who argue for a cultural imperialism would seem to have a case. But it is difficult to place this process within a theory because a logical deliberation seems to be absent from the process. In previous centuries the enforced adoption of some languages and the banning of others was a clear example of the imperialist urge. The British banned the speaking of Welsh, Gaelic and Cornish in an attempt to gain control over the whole of the British Isles. America committed similar acts with Native American languages in the nineteenth century.

But the spread of English in the late Twentieth Century was far less concentrated and more complex in nature. Windows was not deliberately designed in the English language for the sake of some Machiavellian attempt to spread influence throughout the world; it was designed in this way because the computer industry was at the time based in America. Attempts by some countries, most notably France, to limit the spread of American media through the banning of certain words, limitations on the import of films and curbs on the amount of American TV are both futile and counter-productive.

If the French accuse Americans of trying to impose their culture and language upon their country through television it must be noted that the people watch TV as a choice, not through imposition. Tomlinson suggests that such cultural imperialism presupposes “an economic power in the service of cultural domination and vice-versa.” Here is the confusion inherent within trying to place cultural imperialism within an economic theory: the culture and the economy are essentially in a state of dynamic equilibrium with one another in which each feeds and catalyzes the other.

What attempts have been made to include the cultural imperialism supposedly inherent within the modern world within theory? Tomlinson suggests that the cultural, social and political factors can be taken as variables within a system designed to produce economic dominance. Thus, “economic factors . . . often the implication is that these are what are really at stake, and that cultural factors are instrumental in maintaining political-economic dominance” would seem to place current cultural imperialism within numerous different possible theoretical explanations.

However, for many who criticize cultural imperialism it is the cultural influences that are most important. Thus the modern West, which is mainly a codeword for the USA, is seen as perverting and destroying traditional beliefs, systems and cultures. Whether America introduces a market-driven Capitalist economy is secondary to the fact that teenagers are listening to Eminem and wearing baggy jeans. Before economic theory can say anything definitive about cultural imperialism there needs to be some kind of intellectual concensus on whether it is culture or economy that is the driving force behind the spread or whether, as many might suspect, the two are now inseparable.

If it is the latter then a new theoretical stance is needed. Peter Golding and Peter Harris suggest that scholars should move beyond the idea of “cultural imperialism” to a new paradigm that does not belong to the Twentieth Century world in which national boundaries were the most important divisions within the world. The word Imperialism places a theoretical weight upon the scholar that he cannot escape from.

According to this new approach to cultural imperialism, theorists should take a micro-economic approach to the subject, bringing the process down to the level of the individual and how he/she makes individual economic choices. Thus the choice to buy one product rather than another is studied in a similar way to the choice of how much time to spend with one’s children, or whether to send them out to work. This new vision of how to study cultural imperialism correlates with the growth of an internet economy in which individuals are not necessarily limited by physical or national boundaries in the choices they make.

Thus an Indian computer call service center can work real-time with American customers; software designers can work anywhere in the world and upload their code every day to a central location. These are essentially individual, microeconomic systems that need to be studied at that level. The process by which a teenager in a developing country chooses to buy a shirt with Nike written on it, even though they may have no idea what the company sells is complex and essentially sociological/psychological in nature. As these disciplines have become an essential part of modern economics (but have yet to formalized within major theories) the future may be brighter for economic studies of cultural imperialism.

Works Cited

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Boulding, Kenneth. Economic Analysis. Harper: 1941.

Carney, Martin. Education as Cultural Imperialism. Longman, London: 1974.

Crabtree, Robbin. “A Case Study of Commercial TV in India: Assessing the Organizational Mechanism of Cultural Imperialism”. The Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media. June 2000

“From Revolution to Reconstruction”, an html project at

Golding, Peter. Harris, Phil. Beyond Cultural Imperialism: Globalization, Communication and the New International Order. Sage Publications, New York: 1997.

Guttmann, Allen. Games and Empires: Modern Sports and Cultural Imperialism. CUP, New York: 1996

Hamm, Brand. Cultural Imperialism: Essays on the Political Economy of Cultural Domination. Broadview Press, New York: 2005.


Rostow, WW. The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto. CUP, London: 1991.

Smith, Adam. The Wealth of Nations

The American Heritage Dictionary, Dell, New York: 2001.

Tomlinson, John. Cultural Imperialism: A Critical Introduction. Johns Hopkins Press, New York: 1991.