By Livingston A. White
Florida State University
Introduction: Cultural imperialism--The nascent stages
Critical theorists have coined various phrases in reference to notions of "cultural
imperialism." An examination of the international communication literature will
reveal several different terms such as "media imperialism" (Boyd-Barrett, 1977);
"structural imperialism" (Galtung, 1979); "cultural dependency and domination"
(Link, 1984; Mohammadi, 1995); "cultural synchronization" (Hamelink, 1983); "electronic
colonialism" (McPhail, 1987); "communication imperialism" (Sui-Nam Lee, 1988);
"ideological imperialism", and "economic imperialism"(Mattleart, 1994) - all relating
to the same basic notion of cultural imperialism. Different international scholars
who have written on the subject attribute its beginnings to different sources
According to Salwen (1991),
the issue of cultural imperialism emerged largely from communication literature
involving development and political economy. These orientations ultimately constructed
formulations concerning cultural heritage and behavior based on an analysis of
government, corporate policy and practice. Mattelart (1994) argues that since
the end of the 1960s, these terms, used by a Jacques Rigaud, alarmed about the
loss of French cultural influence in the era of information technologies, and
by a Zbigniew Brzezinski, who believed them outmoded, have run through studies
on the role of communications in the relations among nations.
Cultural imperialism gained
prominence in the 1970s. The theory, according to Roach (1997), was most prominent
in Latin America producing "a host of adherents including Antonio Pasquali (1963),
Luis Ramiro Beltran (1976), Fernandez Reyes Matta (1977) and Mario Kaplun (1973)"
(p. 47). The theory provided one of the major conceptual thrusts behind the movement
for a New World Information and Communication Order, involving international organizations
such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization
(UNESCO), and regarding the flow of information between nations of the world.
At that time, scholars proposed grouping the various currents of critical research
on international communication under the heading "media imperialism." Among them
was British scholar J. Oliver Boyd-Barrett who defined media imperialism as "the
process whereby the ownership, structure, distribution, or content of the media
in any country are singly or together subject to substantial external pressures
from the media interests of any other country or countries, without proportionate
reciprocation of influence by the country so affected"(Boyd-Barrett, 1977, p.
117). However, many felt that Boyd-Barrett's definition was much too narrow to
account for the multiplicity of forms taken by power relations among various cultures.
Herbert Schiller in his
1976 work "Communication and Cultural Domination" proposed the use of the term
"cultural imperialism" to describe and explain the way in which large multinational
corporations, including the media, of developed countries dominated developing
countries. He has been lauded as one of the major proponents of cultural imperialism
theory and his 1976 publication is often cited in studies relating to cultural
imperialism. Roach (1997) identifies other main proponents of the theory besides
Schiller, purporting that "some of the most influential theorists in the field
have been Westerners: the Belgian Armand Mattleart…and the Canadian Dallas Smythe"
Although Schiller's work
focused mainly on the area of communication, a review of the cultural imperialism
literature reveals that cultural imperialism has been used as a framework by scholars
of other academic backgrounds and various disciplines to explain phenomena in
the areas of international relations, anthropology, education, sciences, history,
literature, and sports. Indeed, cultural imperialism has a broad scope when one
acknowledges the various disciplines in which it has been applied. However, in
an attempt to narrow the focus of the following analysis, I have chosen to focus
on cultural imperialism as it relates to the communication discipline.
The Central Proposition
of Cultural Imperialism
Although several authors have posited their own interpretations of cultural imperialism,
the main proposition of the theory can be identified in the work of one of the
main cultural imperialism theorists. Cultural imperialism proposes that a society
is brought into the modern world system when its dominating stratum is attracted,
pressured, forced, and sometimes bribed into shaping its social institutions to
correspond to, or even promote, the values and structures of the dominating center
of the system (Schiller, 1976).
Major constructs of
Emanating mainly from a critical perspective, cultural imperialism does not employ
a precise set of terms to describe the phenomenon it attempts to explain. Most
of the key terms are treated as primitive concepts (Chaffee, 1991) as it is assumed
that their basic meaning is understood. Based on the proposition outlined above
by Schiller (1976), some of the key constructs are:
"modern world system":
a primitive concept which implies capitalism
"society": a primitive
concept which implies any country or community within specific geographic boundaries,
considered to be lesser developed than the dominating center
"dominating center of
the system": refers to developed countries or what has been commonly referred
to in the discourse on the international flow of information as center nations
or Western power, contrary to the notion of center nations is that of peripheral
nations-"developing countries," "dependent areas," "Third World," or "lesser developed
"values and structures":
refers to the culture and actual organizations that originate from the dominating
center and are foreign to the country considered to be lesser developed than the
Although not mentioned
in Schiller's original expression of the main proposition, there are other concepts
that have been used by various authors, as was seen in the first paragraph of
this essay. Constructs such as "culture," "dependency," "domination," "media imperialism,"
"structural imperialism," "cultural synchronization," "electronic colonialism,"
"communication imperialism," "ideological imperialism," and "economic imperialism"
are all present in the cultural imperialism literature. Although these are mostly
treated as primitive concepts, an awareness of these is integral to an understanding
of the theory of cultural imperialism.
After reviewing all the
differing interpretations of cultural imperialism, it becomes apparent that the
essence of cultural imperialism is domination by one nation over another. That
relationship may be direct or indirect and based on a mixture of political or
economic controls. The ways in which information is exchanged between nations
has been explored through scholarly effort as a manifestation of cultural imperialism.
The Axioms of Cultural
Ontologically, cultural imperialists can be considered actional realists (Potter,
1996) who believe that there is a fixed reality that exists alongside an individual's
or an organization's own created meaning of reality. Epistemologically, the proponents
of cultural imperialism can be considered constructivists (Potter, 1996) who assume
that ways of interpreting information about culture are created by transnational
media organizations. These are the very basic assumptions guiding cultural imperialist
In addition to these,
one can identify other axioms of cultural imperialism that were present when the
theory was just gaining prominence. However, these have been tested and can no
longer be seen as assumptions of the theory. Sui-Nam Lee (1988), for example,
purported that "an active role on the part of the dominating country and a deleterious
effect on the dominated one are assumed" (p. 69) in cultural imperialism. Ogan
(1988) posited another axiom that "Third World consumers of [foreign] media products
will be influenced by the values inherent in that content, the values of an alien
and predominantly capitalist system" (p. 94). Arguably, at the time the theory
was gaining currency in the 1970s, these were major assumptions behind the thinking
of some theoreticians who proposed the theory.
However, taking into consideration
all the scholarly work that has been conducted since that time, one can make a
case that in retrospect these assumptions have been tested and disproved (see,
for example, Liebes and Katz, 1990); therefore, they are no longer assumptions
but now propositions that are mostly refuted by empirical research. This is not
unusual as in conducting a review of the literature, one will not only find a
large body of sources favoring the use of the theory but also a similar number
opposing its utility and highlighting its limitations.
Another assumption of
cultural imperialism is that media play a central role in creating culture. This
axiom is linked to the interchangeable use of various terms to refer to cultural
imperialism. Writers who talk about "cultural imperialism" as "media imperialism,"
treating the two terms as synonyms, bring into question the centrality of the
media in claims of cultural imperialism. This practice implies that the media
have such an overwhelming role in the process referred to as "cultural imperialism"
that the word "cultural" can be interchanged with "media" from time to time. Of
course, one must be careful in attributing this massive central significance to
the media. To understand claims about media imperialism, one would need to examine
the relationship of the media to other aspects of culture without assuming its
centrality from the outset (Tomlinson, 1991).
Another assumption of
the theory is that it presumes a centralized approach to the development and distribution
of media products. The thinking here is that all media products originate from
only center nations that have devious ulterior motives of deliberately wanting
to dominate the media of periphery nations. This belief is based partly on the
view that no periphery country will ever be able to produce media products of
The major weaknesses
of the theory
There are a number of weaknesses that have been identified by various critics
of the cultural imperialism thesis. These include:
- the theory lacks explanatory
power and needs to be advanced beyond the level of pure description (Ogan, 1988);
- the economic component of media imperialism may be expressed in statistics,
but the cultural component is much more difficult to measure (Ogan, 1988);
- the theory lacks conceptual precision (Lee 1988);
- the theory does not acknowledge an audience's ability to process information
and interpret messages differently based on their individual background (Liebes
& Katz, 1990); and
- the theory does not hold true in all situations of the phenomenon that it attempts
to explain (Sinclair, Jacka, and Cunningham, 1996).
In the following paragraphs,
I address three of these weaknesses. continued
Next page: An
evaluation of the criticism
Various definitions of cultural imperialism
A list of authors who have written on cultural imperialism