Resurrecting Media Imperialism1
Colin Sparks 2
Hong Kong Baptist University
This paper makes the case for the re-instatement of a theory of cultural and media imperialism in discussions of international communication. The paper briefly restates the “classical” theory of cultural imperialism as outlined by Schiller and other authors. It reviews and accepts some of the main criticisms that led to the rejection of that approach during the 1980s. Contemporary theories of imperialism are considered and it is argued that the version which best explains contemporary and likely forthcoming international conflicts is one that formulates the problem in a different way to that which underlay Schiller’s account. In particular, the central dynamic of imperialism is the relationship between competing imperial powers, rather than the relationship between imperial centre and dominated periphery. In the light of this revised theory, the cultural consequences of imperialism are revisited and the likely shape of future cultural and media conflicts is discussed.
Manuscript presented to the Global Communication and Social change Division for the annual International Communication Association Conference in Phoenix, held on 24-28 May 2012.
Colin Sparks is Professor of Media Studies in the School of Communication at Hong Kong Baptist University.
The concept of cultural imperialism dominated thinking about international communication in the 1970s and early 1980s. Subsequently, it has been thoroughly discredited and more or less fallen out of mainstream usage. Writers ready to engage with theoretical issues involved in the concept of imperialism are today relatively few (Louw, 2011). While there are some more or less casual uses of the concept in studies of the media, and it retains a surprisingly vigorous life in other fields like linguistics, in most specialist studies it is firmly relegated to a discussion of the history of media and communication theories (Ndlela, 2009). When imperialism is mentioned in discussions of contemporary realities, it is usually in the context of a discussion of its limitations. Kraidy, for example, set his task as “dissecting the deficiencies of the cultural imperialism thesis” (Kraidy, 2005, p. vi). Even those writers who credit it with some lingering importance in that it did identify real disparities in the provision of cultural resources internationally spend much of their time discussing its shortcoming (Morley, 2006). In part perhaps this is the consequence of more general intellectual and political shifts during the period, but it also reflects a theoretical re-alignment of the field. Much of the work on international communication in the last two decades has been dominated by theories that stress regional markets, complex flows, and the relative unimportance to the state in international communication. The dominant current of thinking, globalization, has tended to discount the role of the state in favour of the relations between the global and the local. To the extent that the state has been recognised as a significant factor in cultural exchanges, it is through the lens of “soft power” rather than “imperialism.” This chapter questions whether it is possible to recover anything valuable from the ruins of the cultural imperialism edifice. In order to do that, it first revisits the classical formulations of the theory and considers some aspects of its defining characteristics. It then reviews some of the main criticisms that were levelled against the theory and which were responsible for its loss of influence. In order to reestablish a workable theory, the underlying concept of imperialism is reconsidered and an alternative account to that prominent during the 1970s and 1980s is offered. Building on this, the scope of a redefined theory is advanced. Finally, reasons are given as to why current international developments mean that the concept...
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