What is the ‘cultural imperialism’ thesis and how valid is it today? Discuss with reference to relevant theory and examples.
The best way to understand what cultural imperialism is, is by analysing its difference from the traditional modes of imperialism. This theory has been developed through a long line of historical events, especially ones that developed around the relationship of the west with the rest of the world and led to our contemporary society and whether or not this society is a big global culture due to cultural imperialism. In this essay I intend to explain the difference between imperialism and cultural imperialism, present the multiple forms it can be discussed and understood based upon and go through some historical events, important to define its concept. The second part of the essay will be more focused on the global perception of western media within non-western countries and several globalization and cultural globalization developments, in order to understand whether or not cultural imperialism is valid in our modern society, as far as these globalization developments are concerned.
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Imperialism, as a concept we have come across through history, is the policy of expansion of control or authority exercised in foreign entities as a means of obtaining and/or maintaining an empire (Hopper,2007, Ritzer,2011). This term is usually used to describe the political domination of one, usually stronger, nation to other countries, whether that domination is practised with direct territorial conquest or indirect methods of political and economic controlling. This political or traditional imperialism though is quite different from cultural imperialism, although the lines of distinction are usually blurred (Harvey,2003). Even though imperialism is usually used in conversations about politics or wars, cultural imperialism thesis describes the process within which a dominant culture penetrates the modern world system and how its dominating stratum, values and attitudes are spread to foreign cultures, creating unequal relationships between them, favouring the more developed and powerful one (Hopper,2007, Schiller,1976). In other words, it is the concept within which certain dominant cultures, mainly western ones, threaten to overcome other more vulnerable ones (Tomlinson,1993). This term therefore is usually associated with globalization processes and deterritorialization, where culture seems to not necessarily be related only to geographical and social territories (Ritzer,2011).
The fact that some cultures appear to be subordinate to others, within the concept of cultural imperialism is a natural social phenomenon which occurs at a later stage of a long historical chain of colonialism (Hopper,2007), that allowed western cultures to force their beliefs and values on areas, such as Africa or Asia, that were not traditionally inhabited by populations same as the metropolitan authority that conquered them. Since at some point in history West Europe controlled most of the world, they had easily penetrated societies for centuries, introducing the western civilisation to them and undermining their local heritages. All those undermined localities and cultures resulted to a modern world system, where West Europe does not rule most of the world anymore but has left its fundamental characteristics there, only to be re-enforced by the contemporary Trojan horse ‘for penetrating foreign cultures’, the media. After the Second World War and the end of the traditional European colonization, the two superpowers that emerged, the USA and the USSR, realised early enough their benefits from cultural imperialism and, more specifically, media imperialism to promote their authority along with their ideals. Media imperialism is the theory which suggests that smaller nations are in risk of losing their traditional cultural identities due to western mass media dominance (Ritzer, 2011). The USA’s use of cultural imperialism and the mass media then, empowered their position as the most powerful and, consequently influential, country in the world, enabling them to lead the way in terms of food or drink ( McDonalds, KFC, Coca Cola) or film and entertainment industry (Hollywood cinema). The promotion of American culture therefore has become another layer of cultural imperialism and the mere exposure of western media to other nations has created a sense of American superiority in the world, resulting to individual and traditional cultural identities to risk being forsaken forever (Hopper, 2007).
Debates on media imperialism as a sub-category of cultural imperialism appeared first during the 1970’s when unequal media flows and absolute control over them by dominant nations increased over developing countries. By the time new and more powerful media appeared, during the 1980’s-1990’s, it became much more difficult for smaller nations to resist them and for local media outlets to survive (Boyd-Barret, 1998). This new form of imperialism did not only affect developing countries’ media but also the shaping of their local cultures, receiving also a lot of criticism over the years, since according to Ritzer, ‘it undermines the existence of alternate global media from developing countries, as well as their influence of the local and regional media’ (2011). Also, it considers the audience to be passive and ready to accept and interpret the same medium exactly the same way as everyone else in the world. This is problematic since audiences around the world have many, big or small, differences between them which cause them to interpret things their own way. For example, The Simpsons is a very popular show throughout the world, translated in several languages and shown in many countries. However it contains various references of drugs, sex and drinking which make it difficult for the show to be shown as it is in every country, since references like that may cause offence in certain places, like Pakistan for example. That is why it is edited to be suitable for its target audience, which proves that audiences can interpret the same medium in lots of different ways. Another reason why media imperialism is criticised, is the fact that most media flows from developed countries to developing ones are controlled entirely by one company or owner, who decides what gets to be shown or gets censored. Those media therefore, could be very biased and untrustworthy and since they create a type of cultural dependency between the developed and developing countries, being biased means that the smaller nations would be completely controlled and exploited. Moreover, capitalism came to re-enforce media imperialism and the contemporary, capitalist driven system it creates as ‘the primary driving force behind cultural globalization’ (Ritzer, 2011).
Despite the debates and arguments against media imperialism though, the existence of new global media which subsequently allowed several cultural characteristics to flow easily all over the world, creating a more global culture, is a fact. Culture, as in the shared sense of habits, traditions and beliefs of a country, society or a group of people (Cambridge Learner’s Dictionaries) is usually associated and defined within specific geographical barriers. For example, there is Cypriot culture in Cyprus, French culture in France and so on. The possibility though, that cultural and media imperialism create for a globalized culture to exist is mostly based on the deterritorialization theory. Based on this concept, the growing presence of social forms of control and involvement goes beyond the limits of a specific territory (Giddens, 1990). Deterritorialization therefore, is the transformation that occurs on local cultures from the impact the media and communications have on them, causing them to no longer be as defined with local geography as they once were (Tomlinson, 2007). Deterritorialization then has become a general cultural condition, re-enforcing the idea that more and more cultures throughout the world are the same. Examples of instantaneous global communications, such as television or the internet, support the formation of a globalized culture, along with the English language considered to be the world’s global and information language. Another example of how traditional cultures can easily be derived from globalization and deterritorialization concepts, is how the residents of Fiji, particularly women, changed their traditional preferences of robust, full figure bodies and started dieting for the first time, resulting in health problems like anorexia or bulimia, after being introduced to television and western media in 1995 (BBC News). This influence of the USA or other western countries on smaller nations, as far cuisine, technology, business practises, political techniques, entertainment, fashion or food are concerned is known as Americanization or Westernization and is one of the effects of cultural imperialism (Hopper, 2007).
Another theory is the cultural hybridization theory, which emphasizes on how the world seems to have become a smaller place and also on the interaction between the global and the local that has created new types of unique hybrid cultures that are neither global or local (Hopper,2007, Ritzer, 2011). In other words, it describes the ways in which different cultures create new forms and connections with each other, developing new types of cultures from the blending of their individual characteristics. A specific term about cultural hybridization came out of Roland Robertson’s (2011) work on the interaction of the global and the local and how the first, instead of eliminating the second, combines itself with it resulting to new forms of localities, based on the global. This term is glocalization and an example of it could be how internationally known companies slightly alter some of their products based on their locations and audiences. More specifically, Pringles’s flavours in the USA range between original, salt or vinegar while in Asia you can find flavours such as seaweed or peppered beef. Due to phenomena like this and according to Ritzer (2011) ‘globalization leads to increasing sameness throughout the world’, resulting in cultural convergence, with the McDonaldization theory as a main example of it.
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McDonaldization theory was first introduced by George Ritzer in 1993 and uses the principles of the fast-food restaurant company as its model, to prove how some specific principles ‘are coming to dominate more and more sectors of American society, as well as the rest of the world’ (Rtizer, 2011). With five principles, McDonaldization theory shows how the world can become more globalized, exactly the same way the fast-food restaurant became globally known and successful, with restaurants built in almost every country in the globe. The five dimensions, according to Ritzer, are efficiency, as in the way of finding the best possible method for accomplishing a task, calculability, which means emphasizing on the quantity rather than the quality of products, so that customers get more amounts of product in less period of time; predictability, as in the stereotypical way in which employees and customers are expected to behave in everywhere in the world and control, as in the controlling or even replacement of employees by technology. The fifth dimension, is the so-called irrationality of rationality, which refers to when something that is normally considered to be rational is in fact exactly the opposite and sometimes can also be described as dehumanization, for the employees and/or the customers. These principles have Mcdonaldized many aspects of contemporary society, emphasizing the convergence even more. The modern trend of ‘speed-dating’ for example, is a McDonaldized way of the traditionally time-consuming process of meeting new people, since in this case potential partners gather up for short face-to-face meetings with each other. Also, the use of the Internet as the standard tool for the process of getting and exchanging information, making libraries more and more obsolescence is another example.
Based on the aforementioned aspects of globalization and global culture in relation to cultural imperialism, there appears to be a general view that one cannot adequately grasp the relevance of globalized culture through the cultural imperialism thesis alone. That is because it oversimplifies the process of information flow, which is normally complex and unpredictable, by suggesting there is only a one-way flow of imperialism, from stronger nations to less powerful ones. Such a suggestion could not possibly be absolutely valid, especially nowadays, when more non-western countries, such as India, have started to grow into powerful, out-sourcing exporters, e.g. Bollywood movies (Hopper, 2007). It also overlooks the importance of the international relations between developed and developing countries, since the influence of the western media on non-western societies is somehow bound to them. Where those relations are not as good, then it is obviously unlikely that the influence of the media will affect the local population. This, in addition, is proven by the national media systems and protectionism applied by some European countries, like Canada and France as a form of rejection and protest against the American domination in the European film market. This form of resistance to Americanization is overlooked by the cultural imperialism thesis, as well as Stuart Hall’s (1973) encoding and decoding theory, which suggests that there are various different ways in which audiences can decode the same media text.
To conclude, it is understandable that cultural imperialism is a very vague concept which can be understood in specific forms regarding specific contexts of imperialism, media and globalization processes. It establishes connections between developed and developing countries for print media, television, radio, film or consumer goods, creating a new form of imperialism in its core, the media imperialism, which allows western media and therefore culture to easily spread the information they want to convey the world and continue being a superpower. That makes cultural imperialism an expansion of cultural values re-enforcing a dominating ‘global’ culture through products or commodities diffused with cultural values that are strengthened by media imperialism. The media are after all a very important part of people’s daily lives. The cultural imperialism thesis though has created several debates and arguments over the years, about whether or not it is the right thesis to describe and evaluate our contemporary culture, as far as globalization processes are concerned. Due to all the critiques about how it overlooks important aspects of society, information flow and media theories in general, it is mostly considered to be a negative way of understanding media globalization and global culture and therefore it is not as valid as it seems to be in our contemporary society.
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