No. 6, Spring/Summer 2001
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Paper Competition Winner: Global Fusion 2000

Reconsidering cultural imperialism theory

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 as well.

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" (p. 48).

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 cultural imperialism
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 country"

"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 dominating center

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 Imperialism
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 thinking.

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 its own.

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

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