Cultural imperialism occurs when a dominant community imposes their culture on a less politically or economically powerful community.
It is a theory widely used in sociology, anthropology, as well as cultural and media studies. It’s often referred to as cultural colonialism.
To get a better understanding of the term, let’s break down its two components
|Culture||“The distinctive ideas, customs, social behaviour, or way of life of a particular nation, society, people or period” (OED, 2008) For example, culture includes a community’s customs and traditions, social and moral norms, language and religion. The term is very broad and is often understood as the way of life in a particular region.|
|Imperialism||Derives from the word empire. It is a “state policy, practice, or advocacy of extending power and dominion, especially by direct territorial acquisition or by gaining political and economic control of other areas” (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2019). Examples of imperialism include Britain’s control of several countries in the 19th c., and the U.S. colonies in Puerto Rico and the Philippines in the 20th c.|
Scholarly definitions of cultural imperialism
Cultural imperialism is when a financially, politically, or technologically advanced nation or coalition of nations use culture to create and sustain domination or unequal relationship between another country or group of nations. It is a major cause of global stratification.
It’s an unequal human and cultural relationship between social groups founded on beliefs of superiority and dominance.
There are examples in which military violence was used to implement cultural imperialism. Consider, for instance, the cultural colonisation of the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia by Alexander the Great, discussed below.
- “The influences of an economically dominant culture on others, typically spread through trade, the mass media, and the internet. Often applied pejoratively to the global diffusion of American brands, popular culture, values, customs, and practices, allegedly at the expense of other cultures” (Oxford Reference, 2022).
- “Cultural imperialism is a process of disproportionate influence over social practices and ideologies by one socio-political group over a politically weaker and (frequently) less-wealthy group” (Mains, 2009, p. 322).
Cultural Imperialism Examples
- Netflix is an excellent representation of American cultural imperialism in the form of media imperialism. It replaced local television in hundreds of countries in the world. Although it offers films and series in local languages it mostly conveys the American way of life and values.
- African languages were replaced by European ones after the colonisation of Africa. The same occurred with North and South America, where indigenous languages were replaced by English, and Spanish and Portuguese, respectively.
- Non-Western cultures, particularly from developing countries may give up traditional values and distinct cultural identities because they’re most exposed to Western social media, music, cinema, and the internet.
- The Holocaust, the genocide of minority groups in the mid-20th century resulted from a cultural idea promoted by Germany in WWII. The ideology of the Aryan race (superior to others) and prejudice fuelled the passions of the German army.
- Alexander the Great conquered Persian and Indian territories in the 4th century BCE. Along the way, he spread the Greek language, pagan religion, artistic expression, and scientific knowledge. This led to the emergence of Hellenistic (Greek-like) kingdoms throughout Egypt, the Near East, and Central Asia where Greek culture merged with indigenous peoples’ cultures.
- The West uses practices of cultural imperialism to commodify and market indigenous culture, like artistic expression. For example, furniture or clothing inspired by indigenous communities is commercialised and sold to western people.
- Another case in point is the practice of yoga, a spiritual and religious practice developed by a civilization in Northern India over 5,000 years ago. In contemporary Western yoga studies, yoga is essentially a form of physical exercise marketed as a way to relax and take a break from our busy lifestyles. This has led to accusations that westernized yoga is cultural appropriation.
- Most people born today in the African nations of Mozambique, Angola, and Guinea Bissau have Catholic names. This is because these nations were once colonized by Portugal (an Iberian European country). As a result, you couldn’t tell the difference between Portuguese and Angolan citizens based on their names.
- Language is a key aspect of cultural imperialism. Until the 18th century, Latin was the lingua franca of European scholars. Since the 19th century and up to the present, English is the dominant language of global communication.
- Thanks to Hollywood, television channels, and technological globalization (e.g., Apple, Microsoft, Amazon), American popular culture has spread globally. Many scholars claim this has led to cultural homogenization, the development of a hegemonic global culture, and the McDonaldization of culture, all at the expense of local cultures.
Orientalism: The origins of cultural imperialism
The concept of cultural imperialism was popularised in the 1970s. The Palestinian-American scholar and political activist Edward Said (1935-2005) first developed the theory in his books Orientalism (1979) and Culture and Imperialism (1993).
Said’s work illustrated that colonialism does not merely imply the territorial occupation and domination of a foreign land, but also speaks to a particular way of thinking about the other and understanding the world.
Said’s Orientalism explored the Western (European and American) understanding of the Middle East as a place full of mysterious, charming women and male villains controlled by Islamic fundamentalism. He argued that this is a profoundly misleading and reductive image of the intricacy and diversity of Middle Eastern peoples.
The West’s implicit assumptions about the otherness of the Arab people produce an essentialist (that is, pre-existing and timeless) image of the ‘Orient’, set up in opposition to the West.
Cultural Imperialism Case Studies
1. Cultural Imperialism in the ancient world: the case of Rome
The Ancient Roman Empire was a forerunner of Cultural Imperialism.
The Roman Empire imposed the use of Latin on the people of Etruria during its conquest of Italy.
In so doing, it replaced the Etruscan language, eventually leading to the extinction of the language and other elements of Etruscan culture (Goldhill, 2006).
The Roman culture also replaced or adapted aspects of Greek culture. For example, the ancient Greek practice of exercising naked in public areas was banned because Romans considered this behavior inappropriate (Goldhill, 2006).
2. Cultural imperialism in the modern world: the British empire
The British Empire’s expansion in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is a prominent example of economic, political, and cultural imperialism (Bell, 1995).
The British colonized nations and imposed their cultural norms, values, and customs through
- The imposition of Christianity on cultures with other religions.
- Imposing educational material in English on the colonies, promoting the values and history of the empire through books.
- Imposing the British dress code and sports (e.g., rugby).
Lord Macaulay was the man responsible for introducing the English language and British education to India. His words encapsulate the essence of cultural imperialism.
“We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect” (Babington, 1835).
3. Cultural imperialism today: the production of scientific knowledge
The production and dissemination of scientific (academic) knowledge in the 21st century exemplify cultural imperialism.
Researchers mostly based in the West and having access to advanced technical equipment conduct most scientific research in English (Galtung, 1971).
They use the “periphery” (e.g., developing countries) to collect raw data: e.g., biological samples, archaeological finds, or human subjects for participatory research.
These data are processed and analysed in western scientific institutions.
The knowledge produced (e.g., a medicine or a public policy) is shared with and put into practice in the periphery; although it had little say and participation in this process.
Criticisms of Cultural Imperialism
The main criticism of cultural imperialism is that people worldwide do not passively imitate and follow American (or broadly western) cultural products.
Instead, they interact with the cultural exports and assimilate them in creative and even subversive ways.
The meeting of different cultures might also create new cultural forms. A good example is indigenous artists fusing traditional music or chanting with modern music genres, like electronica, reggae and hip-hop.
Other critics of cultural imperialism and defenders of cultural globalization argue that the spread of international corporations like McDonald’s (food service) and Walmart (supermarket) can bring positive local change.
That’s because they create new jobs for local people and get relatively cheap goods to other countries. Furthermore, local cultures have the freedom to pick and choose global cultural elements in a process called glocalization.
Cultural imperialism is when a dominant community— economically, politically, and technologically—imposes its culture to defeat all or some manifestations of a less influential culture.
Cultural imperialism can create one homogenous culture or society worldwide and eliminate or distort foreign and local customs and values.
It can take multiple forms; a few core countries might impose their food, music, film, art, dress, language, religion, social norms, and many others on many non-dominant nations or communities.
Cultural imperialism works together with economic and political imperialism to achieve the complete domination of a community. It differs from cultural diffusion, because there’s always a ‘superior’ culture imposed over the ‘weaker’ one(s).
Babington, T. (2019). Minute on Education (1835) by Thomas Babington Macaulay. Available at: http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00generallinks/macaulay/txt_minute_education_1835.html.
Bell, M. (1995). Geography and Imperialism, 1920-1940. Manchester University Press
Encyclopedia Britannica (2019). Imperialism: Definition, History, Examples, & Facts. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/imperialism .
Galtung, J. (1971). A Structural Theory of Imperialism. Journal of Peace Research, 8(2), pp. 81–117.
Goldhill, S. (2006). Being Greek Under Rome: Cultural Identity, the Second Sophistic and the Development of Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Mains, S.T. (2009). “Cultural Imperialism. In International Encyclopedia of Human Geography, Kitchin, R., and Thrift, N (Ed.s) Elsevier.
Oxford English Dictionary. (2008). Culture. Oxford University Press. Available at: http://oed.com
Oxford English Dictionary. (2014). Imperialism. Available at: http://oed.com
Oxford Reference. (2022). Cultural Imperialism. In A Dictionary of Media and Communication. Available at: https://www.oxfordreference.com/display/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803095652857;jsessionid=82CE222BE6C9C2EAFB235E53DF0A872B
Said, E.W. (1979). Orientalism. 1st edition. New York: Vintage Books. Said, E.W. (1993). Culture and imperialism. London: Vintage Books.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.