American Cultural Imperialism: Fact or Myth?
The phenomenon known as globalization has brought sweeping changes to the world. Forces associated with globalization like the spread of capitalism, advancements in communications and information technology, and expansion of the media have contributed to these changes. The main trademark of globalization has been an increasing flow of exchange in trade and culture. With this lowering of barriers, some people have begun to talk of a global culture. Others go even further to fear cultural imperialism from powers dominant in trade products, multinational corporations, and media. More specifically, critics are attacking the American hegemony on culture, with its domination in media and commercial products. However, it is easy to cry wolf in these situations. To determine if American cultural imperialism is occurring, we must examine concepts of cultural imperialism, how it is spread, and cultural imperialist theories in relation to media and commercial products of capitalism, and the counterarguments against those theories. After this careful examination, I will show that the cultural imperialism thesis is severely weakened in the face of human agency and hybridization, and that fears of American hegemony in culture are exaggerated.
Establishing a general concept of cultural imperialism is important. The problem with many cultural imperialism arguments is that often they refer to different meanings. For instance, Petras defines cultural imperialism as "the systematic penetration and domination of the cultural life of the popular classes by the ruling class of the West in order to reorder the values, behavior, institutions, and identity of the oppressed peoples to conform with the interests of the imperial classes" (Petras 139). However, his definition may clash with the concept of cultural imperialism formed by other imperialist theorists. In fact, many will find it difficult to provide substantial evidence of the "systematic penetration" of the dominant class, while others may find the definition too narrow. As Tomlinson points out, achieving a single definition of cultural imperialism is difficult because it would not encompass every sense in which the term is used. Much of the problem of defining cultural imperialism stems from the definitional complexities of the two components of the term, culture and imperialism. Culture and imperialism themselves cannot be reduced to a single meaning. For example, imperialism refers to political and economic systems. Our focus, American imperialism, refers primarily to the economic denomination associated with the global reach of capitalism. Tomlinson claims that it is even harder to tie down culture to a broadly accepted definition because it would likely lead to a level of generality as to make the definition useless. Thus, our goal should not be to find a working definition of cultural imperialism, but to discern how people use the term in contemporary discourses. In a general sense, culture refers to the signifying system of a particular way of life. Thus, for our purposes, cultural imperialism refers to the domination of a foreign culture over a native way of life. We can add that political and economic power is often associated to this spread of cultural imperialism.
Using this general concept of cultural imperialism, we can examine the ways in which cultural imperialism is said to be transmitted. The cultural imperialism thesis claims that "authentic, traditional, and local culture in many parts of the world is being battered out of existence by the indiscriminate dumping of large quantities of slick commercial and media products, mainly from the United States" (Tomlinson 8). The main focus of cultural imperialism debate, especially American imperialism, has been on the use of commercial and media products to spread American culture and values that threaten to "suppress" local cultures. Critics...
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