Cultural Imperialism

Jessica C. E. Gienow-Hecht

Jamie Uys's humorous yet moving film The Gods Must Be Crazy narrates the story of what happens when a pilot flying across the Kalahari Desert of Botswana drops a Coca-Cola bottle into the midst of a tribal group. The confused aboriginals explain the object as a gift from the gods. But the bottle challenges and destroys the traditions and social mores of their world. To defy the object's destructive influence, the tribe sends out one of its members to toss the evil thing over the edge of the earth, a distance the clan believes is some twenty days' walk away. Uys's movie was so popular on the international market that its producers created a sequel. The Gods Must Be Crazy offered a conspicuous sample of American consumer imperialism and its victimization of the Third World. Released in 1981, the film struck a vital chord in the middle of what has come to be known as "The Grand Debate": Have Americans become cultural imperialists? Do manufacturers, policymakers, and other interest groups attempt to conquer and corrupt the rest of the world by flooding it with consumer products made in the United States of America?

Since 1945, the study of cultural transfer has formed a powerful tool for the analysis of America's interaction with other nations. But in contrast to other approaches, neither historians nor their peers in neighboring fields have ever devised a clear-cut terminology. Indeed, they have not even employed a single line of argument. Originating in political think tanks after World War II, the investigation of cultural transfer has made its way through academic institutes the world over, until it finally arrived in the public sphere in the 1980s. By far the most popular—or notorious—approach has been termed "cultural imperialism," a notion and an ideology that appealed to a long list of supporters in the 1960s and after, and that—because of its persistence and influence—deserves the attention of all scholars interested in the study of culture and foreign relations. However, sociologists, historians, anthropologists, and others have suggested that the notion of "cultural imperialism" should be replaced with a more fluid term that avoids what they regard as the naive active-passive dominator-victim dualism. Alternative terms include, for example, "cultural transmission" and "transcultural interaction." Students of culture and foreign relations should therefore use these terms with great caution and realize that they are based on specific arguments and interpretations.


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See also Cultural Relations and Policies ; Globalization ; Imperialism ; The Press ; Propaganda ; Television .

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