The cultural imperialism thesis states, broadly, that a powerful country uses cultural means to achieve or support the political and economic ends of imperialism that were historically attained through military force and occupation. In this view, the tools of culture can smooth the way for domination by exposing people to lifestyles to aspire to, products to desire, and even new sources of allegiance.
Overall, the notion of cultural imperialism appears embedded in critiques of the substantial US export of media programming to other countries. Those lodging the charge of cultural imperialism – found mainly in scholarly, political, activist, and diplomatic realms – have asserted that western films, TV shows, and commodities serve as propaganda for a consumerism-based capitalist model of society. Gaining adherents for this model, the argument goes, would create overseas markets and political environments favorable to western – particularly US – interests. In the process, the autonomy of receiving countries, as well as their cultures, values, and identities, would be weakened or destroyed.
Origin And History Of The Concept
This idea is not limited to the contemporary setting: it has been applied to practices of, for example, Britain, Japan, the Ottoman Empire, France, Spain, and other imperial powers throughout history. The phrase “cultural imperialism” appeared in late-1940s discussions of the nascent United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, expressing trepidation about the potential activities of countries with technologically advanced media systems. Although the term is not new, it first gained wide attention in the 1970s, in the context of the expansion of the US and western European mass media export industries.
The intellectual roots of the cultural imperialism thesis lie in world systems theory (Galtung 1971; Wallerstein 1974), which categorizes the countries of the world by their degree of development and of trade domination. It sees the developed countries – the “center” – dominating the non-industrialized countries – the “periphery” – in ways that do not allow the peripheral countries to establish their own paths. Dependency theory, a Latin American outgrowth of world systems theory that attained prominence in the 1960s and 1970s, elaborated the notion that underdevelopment was not simply a matter of some countries’ progress lagging behind others, but rather conferred structural advantages on developed countries. Therefore it was in the interest of powerful countries to maintain their domination. During the same period, analyses of the global trade in entertainment products, particularly film and television programs, confirmed that the US was by a large measure the world’s principal exporter of audiovisual material, while importing very little (Nordenstreng & Varis 1974). Together, these concepts – of center and periphery, of the advantage to industrialized countries of domination, and of the “one-way flow” of audiovisual material internationally – contributed to the charge that in their search for worldwide markets and ideologically sympathetic populations, states and transnational corporations were practicing cultural imperialism.
The name most prominently associated with the cultural imperialism thesis is Herbert Schiller. In Mass communication and American empire he stated that, “Directly by economic control, indirectly by trade and a foreign emulation effect, communications have become a decisive element in the extension of United States world power” (1969, 163). Schiller set forth a fundamental claim of cultural imperialism exponents: that activities labeled as cultural imperialism constituted a threat to “the cultural integrity of weak societies whose national, regional, local or tribal heritages are beginning to be menaced with extinction” (1969, 109).
In his later book Communication and cultural domination, Schiller employed the term “cultural imperialism,” defining it as “the processes by which a society is brought into the modern world system.” Mass media, he contended, are the principal vehicle for “shaping social institutions to correspond to, or even promote, the values and structure of the dominating center of the system” (1976, 9). In Schiller’s view, this was intentional – US government and business sectors were attempting to mold developing countries’ values and institutions to benefit US objectives.
Related Concepts And Limitations
Other analysts modified and adapted the notion in various ways, often focused on political and institutional relationships. The terms “media imperialism” (Boyd-Barrett 1977) and “electronic colonialism” (McPhail 1981), for example, were coined to describe phenomena recognizable as variants of the cultural imperialism thesis, drawing attention with the labels to the centrality of mass media in the analyses.
Another approach to these questions focused on media content. How to read Donald Duck, a seminal study by European scholar Armand Mattelart and Latin American author Ariel Dorfman, was first published in Chile in 1971. This book parsed Disney comic books distributed in Latin America and found messages of native inferiority that the authors maintained were designed to induce readers to discard their own values and cultural identities, and to accept US superiority.
These diverse analyses both paralleled and intersected international debates about the regulation of media imports in the interest of national development. This controversy pitted the US/UK conception of the “free flow of information,” which promoted unregulated markets in news and entertainment, against many other countries’ insistence on the need for balance in media exchanges, particularly of news. This position was expressed in the UNESCO-based call for a new world information and communication order (NWICO), which centered on concerns recognizably related to cultural imperialism claims. Exemplifying these concerns, the 1980 report of the UNESCO International Commission for the Study of Communication Problems signaled the problems caused by “certain powerful and technologically advanced States [that] exploit their advantages to exercise a form of cultural and ideological domination which jeopardizes the national identity of other countries” (MacBride Commission 2004, 37).
There exist few explicit formulations of cultural imperialism as a theory. John Tomlinson has noted that cultural imperialism is a “generic concept” that has been used as an umbrella term for various propositions that, while related, do not share a precise meaning (1991, 9). Critics have argued not only that the concept lacks a clear definition, but also that it overlooks the complexities of culture and cultural interaction, and disregards the role of audiences in interpreting media texts. Overall, the specific claims of proponents of the cultural imperialism thesis have not been supported by empirical research. As a critical theory, however, cultural imperialism has provided a framework for thinking about global media flows and the power of state and commerce.
In the twenty-first century, the term “cultural imperialism” has been eclipsed. As a way of conceptualizing and analyzing multidirectional cultural interactions, the concept of hybridity has gained attention. Ongoing international trade liberalization and the advent of the Internet have also brought the notion of “globalization” to the fore. The latter has largely supplanted cultural imperialism in discussions of international media flows, with analysts stressing that the concept of media globalization lacks the intentionality implicit in the cultural imperialism thesis.
- Boyd-Barrett, O. (1977). Media imperialism: Towards an international framework for analysis of media systems. In J. Curran, M. Gurevitch, & J. Woollcott (eds.), Mass communication and society. London: Edward Arnold, pp. 116 –135.
- Dorfman, A., & Mattelart, A. (1983). How to read Donald Duck: Imperialist ideology and the Disney comic. New York /Bagnolet: International General.
- Fejes, F. (1981). Media imperialism: An assessment. Media, Culture and Society, 3(3), 281–289.
- Galtung, J. (1971). A structural theory of imperialism. Journal of Peace Research, 13(2), 81– 94.
- MacBride Commission (2004). Many voices, one world: Towards a new, more just, and more efficient world information and communication order [Twenty-fifth anniversary edition of the “MacBride Report”]. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
- McPhail, T. (1981). Electronic colonialism: The future of international broadcasting and communication. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
- Nordenstreng, K., & Varis, T. (1974). Television traffic: A one-way street? Paris: UNESCO.
- Schiller, H. I. (1969). Mass communications and American empire. New York: Beacon Press.
- Schiller, H. I. (1976). Communication and cultural domination. White Plains, NY: M. E. Sharpe.
- Tomlinson, J. (1991). Cultural imperialism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
- Wallerstein, I. (1974). The modern world system. New York: Academic Press.