Cultural Imperialism

Cultural imperialism is the practice of promoting, distinguishing, separating, and artificially injecting the culture or language of one nation in another. It is usually the case that the former is a large, economically or militarily powerful nation and the latter is a smaller, less affluent nation. Cultural imperialism can take the form of an active, formal policy or a general attitude. Cultural imperialism is a form of cultural influence distinguished from other forms by the use of force, such as military or economic force. Cultural influence is a process that goes on at all times between all cultures that have contact with each other. Cultural Imperialism is also very different from other imperialistic ways, in the sense that no military or economic intervention is needed to be able to influence countries. What one also needs to take into consideration is that culture is not static. Webster's Third New International Dictionary defines culture as the "total pattern of human behavior and its products embodied in speech, action, and artifacts and dependent upon man's capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations."1This is just a brief Overview of American imperialism and what will be discussed.What is Cultural Imperialism?

The American Empire

When discussing cultural imperialism involving the United States, one often refers to the U.S. as the "American Empire". The American Empire is a term sometimes used to describe the historical expansionism and the current political, economic, and cultural influence of the United States on a global scale. Many argue that U.S. imperialism, traces its beginning not to the Spanish-American War, but to Jefferson’s purchase of the Louisiana Territory, or even to the re-location of Native Americans prior to the American Revolution, and arguably, still continues to this day. Some even argue that Imperialism didn't really start until the immigration boom in the late 1800's/early 1900's.

Cultural imperialism involves much more than simple consumer goods; however, it involves the teaching and implementation American principles, such as freedom and democracy on to other nations. However, it is in popular culture that the reciprocal relationship between America and the rest of the world is demonstrated best10. Cultural Imperialism is also made possible through marketing. When selling an item, a brand, or even an entire culture, marketers have created an association of American products with this idea of "modernity" in the minds of consumers throughout the world. This marketing strategy views America as the "Land of the Cool" as marketers refer to it, associating American products with that of the "popular" culture worldwide.3

Although many argue that cultural imperialism is America's way of trying to control and benefit from other countries (an example of Anti-imperialism -- the argument is that the greater the cultural disparities in the world, the more likely it is that conflict will occur), many argue that American cultural imperialism is in the interest not only of the United States but also of the world at large. This is an argument as to why cultural imperialism isn't necessarily a bad thing. Arguably, the removal of cultural barriers through U.S. cultural imperialism could promote a more stable and consistent world. America's history, while complete with both good and bad, doesn't include that of conquest. The character of America is wrapped up in the dual needs of security and self-defense, which doesn't equate to the desire to conquer and occupy, which many believe is what America is after (especially in dealing with foreign affairs).

The world both admires and fears America, in part because of it's military strength, but also because of the popularity of its culture. The popularity and pervasiveness, combined with our economic and military power make us seem relentless and thus unconquerable and threatening to other countries around the world. This information has been gathered in many studies to help explain and understand how American Cultural Imperialism seems to be the most successful around the globe.

Another reason as to why other countries resist cultural imperialism from America is because they're afraid of the power that would be lost among a certain class of people in their nation. This is apparently in the Muslim world as well as Europe. Europe opposes America for much the same reason as Muslims, but it isn't as violent or deep a disagreement because in reality, Europe and America share many cultural roots and practices. Much of Europe's opposition is based in pride in their cultural traditions. Europeans fear the pervasiveness and allure of the American culture toward the younger generations, will cause these traditions to go by the way side after a few generations. The reason Europeans fear this "brainwashing" effect on the younger generations is because America's culture is symbolized in branded goods (i.e. Coke, iPods, etc.), which tends to appeal to the younger portion of the population at large, which in due time, will be the culture that takes over for the more "traditional" cultures.

Richard Pells argues that as a nation of immigrants from the 19th to the 21st century, the United States has been a recipient as much as an exporter of global culture. Indeed, the influence of immigrants on the United States explains why its culture has been so popular for so long in so many places. American culture has spread throughout the world because it has incorporated foreign styles and ideas (from the immigrant decades). What Americans have done more successfully and creatively than their competitors overseas, is in repackaging the cultural products we received from abroad and then retransmiting them to the rest of the world. That is why a global mass culture has come to be identified, however simplistically, with the United States 10. This argument suggests that the United States was the first sight for cultural imperialism and is just "repackaging" all that was promoted or "artificially injected" here, and is distributing it out to other countries. In the end, Pells argues, American mass culture has not transformed the world into a replica of the United States, instead, America's dependence on foreign cultures has made the United States a replica of the world10.

Language and Cultural Imperialism

Language is another consideration when speaking about cultural imperialism. English is indeed the language of business, higher education, diplomacy, the Internet, science, popular music, entertainment and international travel. The importance of learning English is not just a political or economic issue4. Logically and arguably, the world needs to have one kind of universal language at a basic level. Economically, having a central language could prove as a great advantage when companies can use the same computer programs in one language. As of 2006, an estimated 1 billion people speak English 5. There has been a greater desire to learn English since the Internet has made such a big impact on the world. The reality is that language and cultural barriers and misunderstandings can get in the way of effective communication and create complications in the work world, including problems with safety. When a person speaks little English, he/she can be intimidated and frustrated trying to communicate with English-speaking supervisors or co-workers and visa versa. Workers may act like they know what is being said, but in fact, may not know. In some jobs, this can be dangerous 6. With the aid of having a "universal" language, work can be done more efficiently, safer, and with fewer complications than when there is the factor of a language barrier. For international companies, which have branches all over the world in hundreds of different countries with different languages, this universal language could mean a whole new level of production and growth, and in essence, raise the standard of living for many. Richard Pells states that the effectiveness of the English language as a mass communicator has been essential to the acceptance of the American culture. Unlike other languages, the simpler structure, grammar, and use of more concise sentences in the English language, are all advantageous for the composers of ad slogans, cartoon captions, newspaper headlines, and movie and TV dialogue. English, Pells says, is thus a language exceptionally well suited to the demands and spread of American mass culture10.

The Internet and Cultural Imperialism

The Internet has been one of the most rapidly adopted communication technologies2. The Internet now brings together over 30 million people on-line worldwide. Before the Internet, it was argued that information was only available to the economic "elite", however, with the growth of this electronic database, which is available to anyone in reach of a computer, information is available to all. Media tends to have the ability to shape minds and provide information in a way which changes how those who engage in it feel and think. The ability to have a website on almost any topic, from any company or individual, leaves a lot to be viewed, processed and learned. Some argue that this vast world of cyber space leads to cultural imperialism throughout the world. For example, someone in China can view an American website about popular clothing or music, and decide this is what's "in" and this is what they want to reflect. Currently, over 90% of worldwide traffic on the Internet is in English, which leads to the assumption that America dominates and has almost full control over the Internet phenomenon7. In addition, the popularity of even movies such as Jurassic Park, was identified as a "threat" to other country's "national identity." Strict programming quotas were enacted to prevent U.S.-made films from overwhelming foreign prime time or theatres. This leads to the question; will the internet serve as another means of cultural imperialism?

However, there is a flipside to this argument over whether cultural imperialism is implemented through the Internet. There are several aspects of the Internet which suggest that the correlation of cultural imperialism through the Internet is impractical. Firstly, with the Internet there is no central location of power, meaning it's completely decentralized (unlike other media such as television or newspapers). Secondly, the Internet doesn't lie in the hands of a select few people, it is open to any and all people, and everyone on the Internet becomes a potential communicator of ideas. This means there's less chance for bias and more opinions, ideas, and thoughts circulating at all times (much like the concept of the website, Wikipedia). With this argument, it's not to say that every site isn't biased in their own way, but it's to argue that there are millions of sites that each hold completely different viewpoints. With so many sites to look at, one viewpoint is not being shoved down the viewer's throat without having a complimentary site to argue against it. Thirdly, the Internet also allows for people to keep in touch with their "local" culture by checking local newspapers online, or looking up information about their geographic location. This, in essence, does the exact opposite of what cultural imperialism implies; it actually preserves one's culture in their native land. Also, in conjunction with the argument above, Internet users aren't having information shoved in their face with no ability to refute it. Instead, users of the Internet "pull up" information as desired or requested. This argument justifies that the Internet isn't like cultural imperialism at all, because cultural imperialism is seen as forcing a culture on that of a different culture, while the Internet, is an optional venture. Lastly, users are not ever forced to jump into and submit to the domination of U.S popular culture. In other words, what's stopping the Chinese from creating Chinese chat rooms or news boards?

In conclusion about the connection between the Internet and cultural imperialism, it can be argued either way. However, the main argument is that the Internet is an optionalavailability. No one is forcing anyone to use the Internet, to read American websites, or to submit to anything that is said on the web. Therefore, can the Internet really be seen as a mechanism for cultural imperialism?

Another Viewpoint on Cultural Imperialism

Some (other non-U.S. nations) argue that United States cultural imperialism has two major goals, one economic and the other political: to seize markets for it's own cultural commodity and to establish domination over another country by shaping the popular consciousness of its citizens8. These people argue that the export of entertainment and media is one of the most important sources of global profits for the United States. In addition, cultural imperialism is seen as playing a major role in dissociating people from their own culture and bombarding them with another culture to inevitably separate individuals from each other. This idea, although completely radical and theoretical, is how some view the United States' use of cultural imperialism across the world. They argue that cultural imperialism encourages the working class to view themselves as part of a "heirarchy" emphasizing the differences in lifestyle with those below them rather than those above them. They also use the argument that cultural imperialism really targets the political and economic exploitation of the youth generation (with the argument that entertainment and advertising target younger people who are most "vulnerable" to the commercial propaganda of the United States). This argument links to and reflects that American products embody this "cool" and "popular" culture. America is seen as the popular kid in school; the one with the cool clothes and friends, and the one who throws the best parties. The argument reflects how everyone wants to be the United States, yet everyone hates the United States. Those that argue these statements sometimes look beyond the obvious McDonald's or MTV appearances in other countries and go on to argue that these subtle influences are America's way of slowly turning the entire country into a "mini-America".4

Is this argument necessarily true? No, because this argument leaves out the idea that other countries may actually welcome American products, TV shows, chain stores, etc. into their country. However, this is not to say that both arguments can't be true at the same time. The main downfall with the argument that all America wants to achieve is to slowly turn every other country into another America, is that it neglects the idea that other countries like and sometimes prefer American products over that of their own. America is not forcing Europeans to eat McDonald's, if Europeans don't want to eat McDonald's, they can choose not to patron a McDonald's in France, however, there are McDonald's all over the world because they are successful and popular worldwide. Does this mean that America is opening various McDonald's across the world to impart our culture on the world? No, it means that by opening McDonald's in hundreds of locations, McDonald's is able to increase profits and further their business.

Some argue however, that nations around the world are too weak to fight the "strength" of the United States, but are able to resist cultural imperialism from other countries. Some countries (i.e. France, China, etc) have attempted to mediate America’s cultural influence by limiting access to American cultural programming and Internet. But is this restriction to information a good thing? Don't people have the right to learn what they want, when they want? Governments should not have the power to restrict their citizen's quest for knowledge just for the sake of preserving their own culture.2

Many of the countries that have been affected by American cultural imperialism aren’t blind to the subversion of their cultures. This idea of cultural imperialism is instantly linked to America controlling other countries, however, there are other countries in the world that have cultural imperialistic strategies as well. For example, al-Queda (the name given to an international alliance of militant terrorist organizations established in 1988 by Osama bin Laden) has shown examples of cultural imperialistic ways. Al-Queda's dispersed network structure, as opposed to a hierarchical structure, is its primary strength. The decentralized structure enables al-Queda to have a worldwide distributed base while retaining a relatively small core. While an estimated 100,000 Islamist militants are said to have received instruction in al-Queda camps since its inception, the group is believed to retain only a small number of militants under direct orders. Estimates seldom peg its manpower higher than 20,000 worldwide9. The question is, how are these terrorist cells spread? What is being spread? The answer is, a culture and an ideology is being spread to these terrorist regimes through a linked bond. The spreading of this culture and it's beliefs is a common day example of cultural imperialism throughout the world.

In John Tomlinson's book, Cultural Imperialism: A Critical Introduction, the author seeks to 'problematise' the idea of cultural imperialism. The author systematically articulates his criticism of the idea that certain cultures (e.g. 'American' culture) dominate others, drawing on many recent and past examples. In his conclusion, he argues that a better model of understanding cultures would be that all cultures are evolving over time, with reciprocal influences from other cultures, rather than one 'nation' or 'people' changing another one. He warns against assuming that changes are unwelcome and to look at each case individually and carefully.

Questions on American Imperialism: Is it necessarily bad?

After the United States dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima, Japan to end World War II, the United States came into Japan to try and revive it from it's once militant dictatorship. Japan was occupied by the U.S and aided by Commonwealth troops, until the peace treaty took effect in 1952. The American Soldier's call to duty in Japan presented a variety of challenges. There were differences in language and culture that had to be overcome. However, of even greater importance was the reality that Japan was a nation so beat-up as reflected in widespread destruction, poverty and starvation, that many wondered if it would ever survive as a nation on it's own. Yet, out of the destruction of World War II and Hiroshima, Japan rose a new nation, far removed from a past of oppressive militarization, and empowered with a new vision of democratic ideals. These democratic ideals were instilled by Americans, trying to mold Japan into a more "American" nation with a similar government set-up. By instilling these American practices and culture into a country which, was in complete ruins, was a form of cultural imperialism. However, in this instance, the practice of promoting American ideals to another country actually saved that country from a complete downfall. The most important achievement of the occupation in Japan was the creation of the new Constitution. In the Constitution, rules such as the people's right to vote for their own leaders was introduced and for the first time ever, Japanese women could participate in voting. Another achievement of the United States occupation in Japan was reflected in Japan's business sector. Workers in factories were now able to create independent labor unions and get the money they so diligently worked for. The United States also supported the rebuilding of Japan by giving them money to aid in the recovery post World War II. By instilling a Constitution (a document derived by the U.S.), the spread of Communism was ambushed. In a case like post-World War II Japan, was America so wrong in their imperialistic approach? Because of all the positive things the U.S. did to rebuild Japan, they became allies after the war officially ended. Whether the U.S. had alternative reasons for rebuilding Japan (i.e. to prevent the spread of Communism, to add a country to it's allies, etc.) what the United States did for Japan was incredible for their country. They were given rights and freedoms just like those that Americans possess.

A picture representing how some view Imperialism


In conclusion, Cultural imperialism is the practice of promoting, distinguishing, separating, artificially injecting the culture or language of one nation into another. This practice is not illegal and not completely defined in it's practices. The answer to which came first-- America imparting their culture on other countries or America evolving the European culture influences it was given and just "repackaging" and distributing them -- is a question that doesn't have a definitive conclusion. Some argue that America's power, control of media sources, use of a centralized, easy language, etc. aid in it's ability to influence other countries with it's culture (either with or without forcing or imparting it on other nations). However, some argue that due to the immigration of so many foreigners to the United States, America has absorbed all their cultures, and repackaged them into what is now associated as "American". And others argue that Cultural Imperialism is the best thing for other countries; it promotes technology and advances, as well as freedom and Democracy. And lastly, some argue that cultural imperialism is a way of America showing it's dominance over as many cultures as possible. None of these answers or ideas are correct or deemed as the answer to cultural imperialism's start or success, however, each argument validates it's point and could be argued differently in every case of imperialism. _________________________________________________________________________________


1. "Cultural Imperialism". Searched March 10, 2007.

2. "Cultural Imperialism on the Internet". The E-Journal of Intercultural Relations, Fall 1998, Vol. 1(4). Searched March 20, 2007.

3. Galeota, Julia. "Cultural imperialism: an American tradition". The Humanist, May-June 2004.

4. Cowen, Tyler. "Cultural Imperialism". (c) February 22, 2007. Searched March 10, 2007.

5. "World's Most Widely Spoken Languages". (c) Saint Ignatius High School, June 22, 2006. Searched April 22, 2007.

6. "Cultural And Language Barriers in the Workplace". (c) February 2002. Searched April 22, 2007.

7. Kim, Seongcheol. "Cultural Imperialism on the Internet". (c) November 2006. Searched April 2, 2007.

8. Tomlinson, John. Cultural Imperialism: A Critical Introduction. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.

9. Hayes, Laura and Borgna Brunner. "Al-Queda: Osama bin Laden's Network of Terror". Information Please® Database, © 2006 Pearson Education, Inc. Searched April 22, 2007.

10. Pells, Richard. Not Like Us: How Europeans Have Loved, Hated and Transformed American Culture Since World War II Basic Books; Reprint edition, 1998.


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