The concept of cultural imperialism is not a new one. The idea of winning the hearts and minds of another society via exporting values and cultural tendencies dates back to at least the Roman Empire (Rothkop 1). The basic concept of cultural imperialism is that a stronger, usually larger and with more military might, has forced its culture on another nation, usually a smaller and less politically powerful nation. Cultural imperialism can be either deliberate, as a conscious effort of the more powerful society, or as an unintended consequence of the larger society’s actions.
Generally, those who use the term cultural imperialism use it as insult against the larger nation. The claim is that cultural imperialism, sometimes also referred to globalization, is detrimental to smaller cultures around the world, including the destruction of the indigenous cultures, languages, foods and art forms. This paper will examine the claim that this is a detrimental effect and determine if globalization is a negative force on the world or an acceptable part of an internationally aware world.
“Cultural imperialism involves much more than simple consumer goods; it involves the dissemination of ostensibly American principles, such as freedom and democracy. Though this process might sound appealing on the surface, it masks a frightening truth: many cultures around the world are gradually disappearing due to the overwhelming influence of corporate and cultural America. The motivations behind American cultural imperialism parallel the justifications for U. S.
imperialism throughout history: the desire for access to foreign markets and the belief in the superiority of American culture. ” (Galeota 1) The first discussion of cultural imperialism in the mainstream discussion of political science began in the 1970s in relation to Latin America (Tomlinson 36). “The definitions of cultural imperialism appear to range along a continuum. On the one side, there are quite narrow and polemic definitions of cultural imperialism as ‘the domination of other cultures by products of the U. S.
culture industry. ’ On the other hand, there are more formal and abstract definitions like Shiller’s which states that cultural imperialism is ‘the sum of the processes by which a culture is brought into the modern world system…” (Hamm 3). But then what does it actually mean? The short version is that the United States’ exports of everything from movies to McDonald’s are destroying native cultures around the world. The longer argument is that cultural imperialism is part of the growing process, a natural aspect of development.
Determining which of these theories is the actual reality of the process is a sociological debate that has been raged for nearly forty years. The first question is whether the exportation of American culture is responsible for the destruction of native cultures around the world. To determine this, we must first look at the track record of history and use it as a measuring stick. When the term cultural imperialism began to take root in the 1970s it was universally applied to mean the impact, primarily by American media, on the remainder of the world.
While it was initially applied primarily to Latin America and other regions where the United States displayed a colonial type relationship with the emerging nations, it would later be applied to the American media domination worldwide and credited/blamed for everything from the downfall of Soviet communism to the rise of English as the primary language of business worldwide. (Dunch 302). But this argument needs to be placed in a historical context. “The Soviet Union fell in part because a closed society cannot compete in the Information Age. These countries will fare no better.
They need look no further than their own elites to know this. ” (Rothkop 4). While American media is popular worldwide, many of the countries which have adopted English as an official language in conjunction with their native culture are former British colonies, part of the great empire. It may be, then, that people who were once citizens, reluctant or otherwise, of the British Empire have assimilated that portion of their history into their national identity and the loss of historical culture has more to do with the history of conquering nations than the worldwide media.
(Dunch 304). And, as Rothkop points out, it is the Information Age that is making the difference. Further complicating the question is the discussion of what “lost cultures” are under consideration. Certainly, traditional values have changed worldwide, but nowhere more so than in the United States itself. The country was founded largely by religious, agrarian people seeking to be free from state-sponsored religion and the only one of those things that is still representative of American society is the desire to avoid state-sponsored religion (Dunch 308).
Who then is to be blame for the deterioration/changes in American society? The possibility exists of course, that American media has even influenced its own culture, drawing it away from its Puritanical roots, but another explanation would be that this is the natural progression of civilization. No longer are we the nomadic hunters and gatherers of prehistory or even the agrarian societies that we once were (Chilcote 81). Perhaps, the destruction of these “indigenous cultures” is in fact a move away from prehistory to a modernization.
That is not to say that there are not things being lost and that this loss does not profoundly affect society, it does. However, evidence that the blame should be placed on the prevalence of American-based fast food chains worldwide or an international love affair with “Grey’s Anatomy” seems weak, at best. Likewise, the discussion and blame of the American culture for the loss of indigenous languages also seems far-fetched. Americans cannot even agree on a single language of their own.
While countries around the world often have standards adopting a native language as one of their official languages, the United States as a whole does not recognize a national language. In New Zealand, Maori is recognized as an official language as is Welsh in the United Kingdom, protecting the indigenous languages. According to the U. S. Census Bureau, there are major portions of several states where as much as 25 percent of the population does not speak English in the home and in some parts of Alaska, Colorado, California, Arizona, Texas, New Mexico and Florida more than 50 percent of the population is non-English speaking (Census 2000).
It would then seem off to hold the United States responsible for the decline of native languages around the world when the country does not even enforce English-speaking within its own borders. Another oft thrown brick in the debate about cultural imperialism is the concept that the proliferation of American fast food around the world is leading to a decline in the native foods of some regions. The concepts centers on the idea that somehow the existence of McDonald’s means that people have stopped eating whatever their native cuisine is in favor of a quarter pounder and fries.
But despite their prevalence worldwide, McDonald’s is by no means homogenous everywhere. In India, for example, where the great majority of the population is Hindu, the traditional Big Mac has been replaced by a lamb and chicken “and there is a vegetarian burger, the McAloo Tiki” (Adams 1). If American fast food were the demise of national cuisines, why would the menu ever vary from one country to the next? But here are just a few variations on the traditional American McDonald’s menu served worldwide” • In fish-loving Norway, they have the McLaks, a sandwich made of grilled salmon and dill sauce.
• In parts of Canada, have a lobster dinner with the McLobster lobster roll. Pardon me – “McHomard” (in French). • Japan totally reinvents McDonald’s with its Ebi Filet-O (shrimp burgers), Koroke Burger (mashed potato, cabbage and katsu sauce, all in a sandwich), Ebi-Chiki (shrimp nuggets) and Green Tea-flavored milkshake! • In Israel, McDonald’s has 3 kosher restaurants where cheeseburger and dairy products are not served because Jewish Law forbids serving “the child [cow/beef] in its mother’s milk [dairy]. ” They have McShawarma, meat in a pita bread roll (Adams 1)
The accusation then that America is destroying international cuisine with the exportation of American fast food companies is a bit like saying that Chinese food as made in China is the same as Chinese food made in America. Food, lie civilization, evolves and adapts. As more things become available around the world, local cuisine adapts. Oftentimes, the cuisine was dictates by a local prevalence of certain foods, spices, etc. and now with refrigeration and shipping techniques evolving, so can the local foods.
Another criticism some scholars have of globalization is that it destroys local art forms, but again, the international community has taken action to protect international indigenous art. Furthermore, the globalization of the world environment has meant that there are more markets for international art, giving greater exposure to the traditional arts and artists. To argue that globalization is destructive to the artistic community is a broad statement with no real basis (Winslow 711).
Ultimately all the critics of globalization, who use loaded terms like cultural imperialism to describe what might be a natural process, point to factors that may be just part of the natural development process. Globalization may be a nature function of the move forward into the information age. “Globalization has economic roots and political consequences, but it also has brought into focus the power of culture in this global environment – the power to bind and to divide in a time when the tensions between integration and separation tug at every issue that is relevant to international relations.
The impact of globalization on culture and the impact of culture on globalization merit discussion. The homogenizing influences of globalization that are most often condemned by the new nationalists and by cultural romanticists are actually positive; globalization promotes integration and the removal not only of cultural barriers but of many of the negative dimensions of culture. Globalization is a vital step toward both a more stable world and better lives for the people in it” (Rothkop 1)
The problem is that people are not willing to understand that the economic power of the United States is going to mean that it plays an important role in globalization. That the economic development of globalization has to revolve around the economic powerhouses. Instead of blaming the changing world culture on the economic domination of the United States, countries need to look at the valuable consequences of the process. The best potential affect of globalization is a new understanding of other cultures and their interrelatedness to our own.
“Language, religion, political and legal systems, and social customs are the legacies of victors and marketers and reflect the judgment of the marketplace of ideas throughout popular history. They might also rightly be seen as living artifacts, bits and pieces carried forward through the years on currents of indoctrination, popular acceptance, and unthinking adherence to old ways. Culture is used by the organizers of society – politicians, theologians, academics, and families – to impose and ensure order, the rudiments of which change over time as need dictates.
It is less often acknowledged as the means of justifying inhumanity and warfare” (Rothkop 2) The question becomes is the decision to move to a world culture a bad thing? And, if the answer is that it helps do away with potential sources of conflict then it might be a good thing. The easiest way to make the argument in favor of globalization is to look at the cost of culture in the 20th century. Before we even discuss the individuals who lost their lives because of cultural conflicts, let’s talk about the entire groups lost.
“As a reminder of the toll that such conflicts take, one need only look at the 20th century’s genocides. In each one, leaders used culture to fuel the passions of their armies and other minions and to justify their actions among their people. One million Armenians; tens of millions of Russians; 10 million Jews, Gypsies, and homosexuals; 3 million Cambodians; and hundreds of thousands of Bosnians, Rwandans, and Timorese all were the victims of “culture” – whether it was ethnic, religious, ideological, tribal, or nationalistic in its origins. ” (Rothkop 3).
The hope then is that as the Information Age leads to international globalization that culture as point of contention leading to war can be avoided. “Inevitably, the United States has taken the lead in this transformation; it is the “indispensable nation” in the management of global affairs and the leading producer of information products and services in these, the early years of the Information Age. ” (Rothkop 4). While some people fear this will lead to a homogenous world, sociologists assure that it will not happen with 6 billion people on the planet.
The key though will be to allow globalization to bring people together instead of simply creating a new reason for warfare: economics. “Though the United States does boast the world’s largest, most powerful economy, no business is completely satisfied with controlling only the American market; American corporations want to control the other 95 percent of the world’s consumers as well” (Galeota 2) As the formerly Third World countries emerge and become a larger part of the global market place, the question will be whether the United States can maintain its economic superiority.
“It is in the general interest of the United States to encourage the development of a world in which the fault lines separating nations are bridged by shared interests”. (Rothkop 5) The fear becomes that economic development will be the next issue to create international incident. Indeed, just as the United States is the world’s sole remaining military superpower, so is it the world’s only information superpower. While Japan has become quite competitive in the manufacture of components integral to information systems, it has had a negligible impact as a manufacturer of software or as a force behind the technological revolution.
Europe has failed on both fronts. Consequently, the United States holds a position of advantage at the moment and for the foreseeable future. (Rothkop 5) The United States clearly wants to maintain this position of economic superiority and other countries will attempt to take it over. However, if the world’s nations can learn a form of economic interdependence that goes beyond the borders, then the world may be able to find a way to continue to evolve and to improve conditions for all citizens.
As the world’s economies go beyond national borders, the wealth of the world can be more evenly distributed and all people can live happily. The reality of cultural imperialism or globalization is that it is a fact of life, not something that can be hidden from or condemned. Civilization is progressing and globalization is part of that progress. Is it destroying indigenous societies, via their art, culture, language and cuisine? Probably not. Are those cultures adapting to the world of the 21st century? Yes, they are.
The world is completely different that it was and to be a part of it, cultures must adapt with it. Those who chose not to can attempt to close their borders and minds to the progress that is going on elsewhere, but the reality is that they are cursing themselves and their people to life less rich. While it is possible that shutting out the world can preserve outmoded traditions and cultures, it also restricts the natural processes of life. When life is not allowed to grow, it begins to die. The same with culture.
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