Cultural Imperialism - Critics of cultural imperialism theory

Cultural Imperialism Critics Of Cultural Imperialism Theory 4060
Photo by: FlemishDreams

Students who are interested in the concept of cultural imperialism should be aware of the unresolved theoretical and methodological problems within the debate. A number of scholars have claimed that the cultural imperialists "have shown remarkable provincialism, forgetting the existence of empires before that of the United States." Since the sixteenth century, European governments have developed a variety of cultural exchange programs, although they may not always have hoped to expand their empire by exporting their culture. The British in India and the Middle East, the Germans in Africa, and the French in Indochina all imposed their own culture abroad as a powerful tool to strengthen trade, commerce, and political influence and recruit intellectual elites for their own purposes. The historian Lewis Pyenson has shown that between 1900 and 1930, "technological imperialism"—the attempt on the part of state officials to employ scientific learning to form an international network of communication and prestige abroad—skillfully complemented German expansion in China, Argentina, and the South Pacific. In addition, new studies on U.S. policies in Asia and Europe have demonstrated that American policymakers did not hesitate to sacrifice economic (and ideological) objectives in order to realize geopolitical interests.

Individual case studies on private interest groups, such as philanthropic foundations, the American Library Association, and the press corps, show that often neither policymakers nor businessmen, but rather nongovernmental American organizations, were among the most active advocates of American culture and values abroad. The State Department as well as Congress were often reluctant to develop a full-fledged policy of cultural diplomacy. Often, these institutions were omitted from the process altogether.

Yet by far the most emphatic attacks against the critics of cultural imperialism came from Tomlinson, Frederick Buell, and others, who reproached authors such as Schiller for falling into the very trap they originally wished to avoid. Tomlinson stated that their rhetoric "repeats the gendering of imperialist rhetoric by continuing to style the First World as male and aggressive and the Third as female and submissive." In doing so, Schiller and others had assumed an imperialist perspective that viewed the Third World as made up of fragile and helpless cultures while at the same time serving the interests of Western modernity. It was said that the critics of cultural imperialism employed a theory suffering from a vague language of domination, colonialism, coercion, and imposition. Thus, ironically, the critics of cultural imperialism were made to seem the worst cultural imperialists.

Cultural imperialism, according to John Tomlinson, consists of the spread of modernity. It is a process of cultural loss and not of cultural expansion. There never were groups of conspirators who attempted to spread any particular culture. Instead, global technological and economic progress and integration reduced the importance of national culture. Therefore, it is misleading to put the blame for a global development on any one culture. The notion of imperialism—that is, purposeful cultural conquest—is irrelevant; instead, all countries, regardless of whether they are located in the northern or southern hemisphere, are victims of a worldwide cultural change.

Since the mid-1980s, scholars have paid closer attention to both global and local aspects of the American and Western cultural transfer. Sociologists, anthropologists, and historians have stressed the peculiarity of individual cultures in the context of a nonbipolar world. Under the influence of resurfacing nationalism the world over, one group of scholars has studied the periphery in greater detail, producing analyses of individual communities that came in contact with American (or Western) culture after World War II. Inspired by the growing debate on globalization, a second group has opted for precisely the opposite approach. Instead of unilateral imperialism, it has developed a concept of global modernization.

Scholars of local responses to American culture have investigated individual case studies, weighing resistance against acceptance. Borrowed from both psychology and literary criticism, response theory addresses the preconceptions influencing the reactions of human beings exposed to an external impression such as a text, a sound, or a visual perception. Response theory moves the focus of research from the question of agency to the question of audience and reaction. Instead of looking at broadcasters and producers, these scholars investigate, for example, the audience of television shows like Dynasty.

Inspired by the public debate abroad over the impact of U.S. cultural imperialism, since about the mid-1980s response theory has affected nearly all studies of cultural transfer in history, sociology, and cultural studies. For example, Culture and International Relations (1990), edited by Jongsuk Chay, studies particular aspects of culture such as literature, music, religion, or television programs to calibrate the effects of American culture abroad. The authors' findings vary in their assessment of the impact of American culture, but they agree that indigenous people never simply accepted consumer goods from the United States. Reinhold Wagnleitner, for example, argued that Austrian youth revised the original meanings of jeans, Coca-Cola, and rock and roll into something new that accorded with their own needs; those consumer products offered not only comfort but also freedom from social constraints as well.

A number of scholars delineated a profound appeal of Western culture to non-Western countries, but challenged the assumption that U.S. policymakers and businessmen sought to manipulate certain target groups. Other studies focusing on the effects of cultural imperialism underlined the difference between foreign people and foreign governments. James Ettema, D. Charles Whitney, and others suggested in their studies of the media that audiences make conscious choices concerning what they listen to, read, and watch. Studies of underground movements in China and Eastern Europe in 1989 also demonstrate that in many cases, Western television programs inspired audiences to start a revolution against their own political leaders.

Another group of scholars concluded that audiences not only simply accepted the fruits of Western cultural imperialism but developed a strong resistance to American products and culture. Scholars of Islamic societies have consistently emphasized the stark opposition of orthodox Muslims to Western influences. Individual studies in cinematography, drama, literature, and cultural studies in Latin America, Asia, and Africa demonstrate that, notwithstanding the influence of Western goods, since the mid-1970s local audiences began to reject individual aspects of Western culture.

In many cases, a more detailed analysis of the origins of local resistance shows that peculiar local conditions informed it more than an outright condemnation of American culture. Under the intriguing title Seducing the French (1993), Richard F. Kuisel investigated economic missions, foreign investment, and U.S. consumer products in postwar France. He emphasizes that French opposition to U.S. culture "was (and is) about both America and France," because it intensified French fears of losing their cultural identity. Kuisel concedes that the French underwent a process of Americanization. But at the same time, they succeeded in defending their "Frenchness." French consumers found some American products appealing but they also continued to cherish and idealize French national identity, notably the idea of a superior French high culture.

Likewise, the average German citizen traditionally tended (and tends) to adhere to a more exclusive image of culture than his or her American counterpart. German Kultur traditionally stressed high culture and was closely linked to the enhancement of Bildung . It was ethnically bound, deeply rooted in German history, and—particularly in the case of the arts, music, and performance—dependent on state funding. After World War II, West Germans did not view the intrusion of American popular culture as cultural imperialism. To them, American culture remained always incompatible with Kultur. In other words, adoption of cultural artifacts does not necessarily translate into cultural and political adaptation.

The response theorists concluded that the model of a unilateral attempt to force consumer products and ideas on foreign nations is fundamentally flawed: resistance and cultural identity played a powerful role in the perception of American culture abroad. U.S. officials, in turn, were uncertain of the scope and nature of cultural exports. Their actions, furthermore, were quite comparable to the efforts of cultural diplomats of other countries. As Will Hermes concluded in the periodical Utne Reader, "American pop culture isn't conquering the world." Perhaps, he wondered, American cultural imperialism is "just part of the mix."

Informed by the poststructuralist approach, scholars from a variety of disciplines suggested in the late twentieth century that the term "cultural imperialism" be replaced with another term that seeks to circumvent the simplistic active-passive, dominator-victim dualism. For example, musicologists and anthropologists developed a variety of concepts seeking to broaden our understanding of global music interaction. Their suggestions, including "artistic sharing" and "transculturation," could easily be translated into other fields as well.

"Cultural transmission," for example, became one of the most appealing "post-imperialist" interpretations. The notion stemmed from the vocabulary of psychology, where it alluded to the interaction between cultural and genetic influences on human behavior. One of the most important historical accounts is a collection of essays, Cultural Transmissions and Receptions: American Mass Culture in Europe (1993). The contributors addressed diverse issues such as rock music in Italy and the reception of Disneyland in France. Cultural Transmissions describes the various avenues of acceptance, rejection, and alteration that audiences may choose when confronted with American culture.

Spurred by the vision of a "global village," another group of scholars has advanced a theory of "globalization." That term alludes to the compression of the world as well as to humans' increasing perception of the earth as an organic whole. Many understand this phenomenon simply as an economic development. Yet globalization is multidisciplinary in its causes and its effects. Its vague meaning allows researchers to interpret the term broadly; thus, it includes many features of modernization, including the spread of Western capitalism, technology, and scientific rationality.

Once again, the theme—globalization—was not at all new. Modern ideas on the interconnectedness of the world could be found as early as the writings of turn-of-the-twentieth-century German sociologists. Max Weber, for example, offered various conceptual frameworks of universalism beyond political borders. In "Soziologie des Raumes" (The sociology of space, 1903), philosopher-sociologist Georg Simmel argued that a national border is not a geographical fact with sociological consequences but a sociological fact that then takes a geographical shape.

This theme received renewed attention in the late 1980s when sociologists came to believe that socioeconomic relations everywhere were undergoing a profound change that resembled the Industrial Revolution in scope. No longer could cultures and societies be analyzed in the framework of the nation-state, these scholars believed. They argued that, first, any society is in a constant exchange with other societies; that, second, most countries consist of a multitude of cultures; and that, third, cultures do not necessarily reflect the borders of a nation-state. Sociologist Roland Robertson, one of the most prominent advocates of a global theory, proposed that a new concept replace the prevalent social scientific system of mapping the globe into three different worlds after the end of colonialism in the 1960s. Instead of a tripartite worldview, he outlined a vision of the globe as a more organic, interconnected, single network.

Inspired by this argument, students of cultural transfer moved their research away from its anti-American focus and toward a more global level, with no one identifiable enemy. Scholars replaced the concept of U.S. cultural domination with the study of Western cultural influence, but they disagreed over the relationship between manipulation and globalization. A few, like Orlando Patterson, still maintained that the modern process of worldwide cultural interaction could be interpreted as a clandestine American push for global uniformity. Others, however, like Peter Beyer, believed that globalization comes "quite as much at the 'expense' of" Western as of non-Western cultures, since both are part of a dramatic change.

Scholars such as Karen Fog Olwig employed the global approach to reflect on the tension between local and supranational cultural and political developments. Some of these analyses presented a despairingly bleak picture of the future cultural world order. Samuel Huntington, for example, invoked the specter of a "clash of civilizations," a World War III, where Western and Eastern societies would battle not for political and ideological reasons but as a consequence of cultural conflicts. Huntington argued that in the future people would identify themselves by reference to their faith, food, and local traditions instead of ideas and national political systems.

Charles Bright and Michael Geyer's 1987 account painted a more optimistic picture. They interpret the shift from Westernization to globalization as the fusion of tradition and modernity: "This is not Spengler's Decline of the West, but the beginning of a global reordering in which the West seeks its place in a world order it must now share with radically different societies. It is the beginning of a truly global politics." John Urry and Scott Lasch (1987) even theorized that the globalization of economic, political, and social relationships indicates the "end of organized capitalism." In a completely interconnected global economy, no one country will be able to control the market. Frederick Buell claimed in his book National Culture and the New Global System (1994) that for almost every academic discipline the "world of hybrid cultural production" was becoming the rule.

Interestingly, major critics of U.S. cultural imperialism, too, revised their earlier reproaches along these lines. Herbert I. Schiller, for example, reframed his argument in terms of world-systems theory. In an article published in 1991, he portrayed an expansive, transnational corporate authority that has replaced an autonomous United States in influencing all economic and cultural activity. Literary critic Edward Said, who analyzed the image of Orientalism in Western society, argued in Orientalism (1978) that the West culturally dominated the Orient by creating an artificial cultural vision of the latter "as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience." His later study, Culture and Imperialism (1993), detailed how Western authors and audiences developed a literary perspective on imperial geography distinguishing between "us" (the West) and "them" (the Third World). "Western imperialism and Third World nationalism feed off each other," Said summed up, "but even at their worst they are neither monolithic nor deterministic."

It would be misleading to abandon the notion of cultural imperialism and replace it with another, equally exclusive term. Scholars who are interested in the study of cultural transfer need to understand that culture, just like power, may be used to attain any number of objectives and to pursue any number of policies. Therefore, cultural imperialism is as suitable or unsuitable a designation as any other one. In the end, each term provides only one perspective on the chaos of cultural interaction. To understand and partake in the research in this field is to realize that there is no central paradigm. Instead, scholars must borrow insights from all three discourses retraced above. Originally begun as an almost public debate among politicians, journalists, and scholars, the discussion focused on the political advantage of cultural diplomacy and called for the dissemination abroad of more information on the United States and on American cultural artifacts. In the 1960s and 1970s, the topic became part of the nascent discussion of U.S. imperialism, which stressed the economic and psychological implications of culture; there was too much American culture abroad, scholars implied. But under the impact of worldwide resistance against American cultural imperialism and the influence of poststructuralism in the late 1980s, leading scholars in the field reconsidered their findings or developed new approaches. As the twentieth century ended, many no longer viewed the spread of American and Western culture exclusively as unilateral "imperialism" but as an ongoing process of negotiation among regional, ethnic, and national groups.

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic:


Cultural Imperialism forum