No. 6, Spring/Summer 2001
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Where the Global Meets the Local: Media Studies
and the Myth of Cultural Homogenization

By Larry Strelitz

If globalization can be described as having the following features: the worldwide interconnection between societies, cultures, institutions, and individuals; the compression of time and space; and the loss of national sovereignty, then it is not difficult to appreciate the centrality of the media to these processes, especially when you look at technological developments such as digitalization and satellite transmission.

Globalization is a phenomenon not possible without a particular kind of media environment. In fact so pervasive have global media become that media critic Douglas Kellner argues that we are witnessing the onset of a "new form of global culture" in which globally produced "images, sounds and spectacles help produce the fabric of everyday life ... providing the materials out of which people forge their very identities."

In Kellner we observe a claim for the spread of a global culture, usually American in origin underpinned by a notion of a media powerful enough to shape our self-identities and our views of the world. According to a number of media and cultural critics, this "global culture"--with the hallmarks of homogenization and convergence--is obliterating local cultures, creating in its wake mirrors of American consumer society. Thus media theorist Cees Hamelink believes that "the impressive variety of the world's cultural systems is waning due to a process of 'cultural synchronization' that is without historic precedent." This particularly pessimistic view of the obliteration of local cultures, a result of the impact of the globalization of (largely) American electronic media, has come to be known in media studies as the "media/cultural imperialism thesis."

In criticizing global domination, media/cultural imperialism theorists see media operating within a single world market organized by the global imperatives of the American and the West European-controlled multinational corporations. Central to the process of economic domination is the role played by the communications-cultural corporations. The media products are largely determined by the same market imperatives that govern the overall system's production of goods and services. Their role is not only informational, but also ideological in that they promote and develop popular support for the values and artefacts of the capitalist system. As Herbert Schiller, one of the strongest proponents of this view, argues, "Media-cultural imperialism is a subset of the general system of imperialism. It is not free-standing; the media-cultural component in a developed, corporate economy supports the economic objectives of the decisive industrial-financial sectors." Furthermore, he argues that "it is the imagery and cultural perspectives of the ruling sector in the center that shape and structure consciousness throughout the system at large."

There is no doubt that at an economic level we are witnessing profound changes characterized by the consolidation of media providers into the hands of an increasingly smaller number of transnational conglomerates. For these large, capitalist enterprises, economic considerations are the primary determinants in what meanings get produced and circulated on a global scale. The increasing monopolization and commodification of culture by an increasingly smaller number of primarily Western media providers does raise questions and concerns as to the nature of the images and meanings being globally circulated. However, there has been the tendency by the media/cultural imperialism theorists to simply read of the cultural effects of global media from their contents. Underlining this assumption is a model of weak receivers of the global message who are unable to withstand the cultural-ideological onslaught of the center (primarily America).

These assumptions have, however, not gone unchallenged by media theorists. It has been observed, for example, that those theories which argue for the spread of a homogenized global culture, usually focus on the production, distribution, and content of global media, largely ignoring their reception. Those researchers who have examined the local reception of global media texts, usually through ethnographic studies of media consumption, often arrive at conclusions regarding the media's power over audiences quite at odds with those claims made by media and cultural imperialists.

Furthermore, many media theorists argue that we need to examine media consumption within the context of people's ongoing attempts to make sense of their lives and the specific class, gender, and other identities they inhabit. For example, writing on the attraction of global media, John Thompson argues that their appropriation enables "the accentuation of symbolic distancing from the spatial-temporal contexts of everyday life" on the part of the local consumer. As he points out in this regard, the appropriation of these materials enables individuals "to take some distance from the conditions of their day-to-day lives-not literally but symbolically, imaginatively, vicariously." Through this process, he argues, "individuals are able to gain some conception, however partial, of ways of life and life conditions which differ significantly from their own." Thus, he notes, images of other ways of life provide a resource for individuals to think critically about their own lives and life conditions.

The British media theorist David Morley takes up this point in writing on the attraction that American popular cultural forms had for the British working class in the 1950s and 1960s (in the face of much criticism from the British cultural elite). Morley argues that "for those consumers, these products represented positive symbols of massive improvements in the material quality of their lives. For them 'America' was a very positive symbol functioning largely by opposition to what they perceived as the dead hand of traditional English culture, as defined by the cultural elite."

The Swedish anthropologist Ulf Hannerz makes a similar point in his discussion of the attraction of American popular cultural forms for the residents of Sophiatown, the black South African township, in the 1950s and 1960s: "To the people of the township, a cosmopolitan esthetic thus became a form of local resistance. Accepting New York could be a way of rejecting Pretoria, to refuse the cultural entailments of any sort of 'separate development.'" continued

Next page: "Occupying a space in which traditional and Western values coexist"

Copyright 2001 Transnational Broadcasting Studies
TBS is published by the Adham Center for Television Journalism, the American University in Cairo