Cultural impositions are values, beliefs, or practices that are forced upon a person or group of people.
It typically occurs when one group of people representing a culture, impose their views and opinions on another culture. However, it can also occur by a ruling political party and the citizens of that nation.
It often involves forcing them to believe in something, limiting their right to believe in something, or insisting that their cultural practices are inferior or wrong.
Definition of Cultural Imposition
Cultural imposition is a multi-faceted and complex subject to define. It can exist on an individual basis, at a workplace, in a school setting, or in the historical context, seen time and time again through the course of humanity.
It is traditionally understood as one dominant culture or group imposing its ideas on another.
Both cultural imperialism and colonialism exemplify the concept of ‘cultural imposition’ well:
- Cultural imperialism often involves one dominant social group controlling a less dominant group through force. The dominant social group forces its customs, traditions, religion, language, and values on the less dominant group.
- This is also the case for colonialism, when one country attempts control over another country by military or economic means.
Said (1994) stated, in reference to cultural imperialism, that it is:
“a twinning of power and legitimacy, once force obtaining in the world of direct domination, the other in the cultural sphere”(p. 291).
Or as Tomlin (1991) explains,
“Cultural imperialism is essentially about the exalting and spreading of values and habits-a practice in which economic power plays an instrumental role”(p. 3). The following itemized ten examples should help to better clarify this concept.
Cultural Imposition Examples
- Forcing a certain language on a population.
- Imposing a religion on a population
- Imposing a certain political system
- Encouraging a certain way of dress
- Media Control and suppression of information
- Asserting certain system of values on other people
- Imposing a different calendar or numerical system
- Ethnocentrism: Belittling or dismissing another culture’s customs and traditions as being inferior to your own
- Forcing people to eat a certain food
- Using education in schools to promote one dominant culture
Case Studies of Cultural Imposition
1. Banning Native American Languages
There are multiple cases of Native American languages being banned in North America, and the English and French languages being enforced on the indigenous populations. This is widely seen as social Darwinist policy.
Imposing language on a population refers to the act of forcing an entire group of people to adopt a certain way of speaking, writing, or thinking. This can be done by dictating how people should think or speak, as well as by forcing people to speak a language other than their own native language.
In Lomawaima’s (1994), They Called It Prairie Light, portrays this exact concept. It is the historical narrative of an early 20th century Chilocco Indian School.
Lomawaima (1994) explains that white educators sought to strip Native American identity:
“Tribal/communal identity, primitive language, heathen religion: these pernicious influences would be rooted out and effaced in the construction of a new kind of American citizen”(p. xi).
She explains that the United States government attempted to ‘civilize’ Native Americans came in the forms of oppressive laws, misrepresented treaties, and deceptive manipulations.
In particular, the United States Government imposed mandatory English language acquisition on Native Americans in an effort to attempt to erase their language and heritage.
2. Linguistic Imperialism in Japan
Another example of linguistic cultural imperialism occurred in Japan in the late 1800s.
According to Henrich (2005) during the periods between 1872 and 1879, the Ryukyu kingdom was forcibly assimilated into the Japanese peninsula, forming the Okinawan Prefecture.
Japanese foreign ministries provided Ryukyuan-Japanese dictionaries to every resident. Government offices and schools prohibited the use of Ryukyuan, and it was a criminal offense to use the language instead of the governmentally sanctioned standard Japanese (p. 3).
3. Imposing a religion on a population (e.g. Spanish Inquisition)
In the history of humanity, the use of religion to impose one’s values is a reoccurring theme.
Even before the 5th century A.D., prior to the European Middle Ages, the ancient Egyptians and Greeks were known for building temples and erecting statues to their gods and imposing that people worship them.
Many rulers have also used their religious authority to justify or support actions that are in contradiction of their faith. For example, in 1478, Catholic Spaniards launched a ruthless campaign against both Muslims and Jewish people.
In recent research from (Drelichman et al., 2021) the modern effects of the Spanish Inquisition, which lasted from 1478 to 1834, on the social strata of Spain was examined.
This group of sociologists and historians explain that the societal:
“…persecution often relies on denunciations from local neighbors, colleagues, and friends, undermining trust. Instrumentalized religion can therefore become part and parcel of totalitarian control of people’s lives, with severe repercussions for how society functions, destroying trust and social cooperation” (para. 2).
People were forced to hide their religious belief, and even feared trusting the people around them.
If people were arrested for practicing another religion, or were found to not believe in Catholicism, they were often questioned, and in some cases tortured until they provided the truth. However, in his book, The Anatomy of Torture, historian Hassner (2022) reveals:
“The Inquisition tortured ruthlessly and unhesitatingly, but it also tortured comprehensively, systematically, and meticulously. It practiced bureaucratized torture. It did not seek confessions of faith but state- ments of fact regarding specific religious offenses. Many of its victims provided that information. Most did not, yet were released. Very few died in the torture chamber” (p. 21).
4. French Schools in Africa Promoting French Culture
Education, in general, is intended to impart knowledge and skills that empower citizens to live productive, engaged lives. However, the education system can also a powerful tool for imposing dominant cultural values and beliefs on minority student groups.
Public education can be used to teach children that certain genders are unfit for leadership roles or certain races are inferior to others. It can be used to reinforce the idea that women are only valued when they conform to a narrow definition of femininity, or to perpetuate nationalistic ideas and xenophobia ideologies.
Colonial powers have used education to influence and control populations in many areas of the world. Clignet & Foster (1964) highlight this in a journal article about French colonial education in Africa towards the end of the 19th century.
The main focus of French colonial education was “assimilation“; essentially an attempt to make African people more like Frenchman (p. 191).
This was partially achieved by forced language training and western educational ideals, which still stand as a dominating force in French post-colonial areas of Africa today.
5. Media Control and Suppression of Information
Media is one of the most subtle yet insidious ways in which media spreads dominant cultural values and suppresses minority values.
Tomlinson (1991) ask a variety of questions to open a discourse on the topic:
“How does the consumption of foreign TV programs and so forth affect the patterns of culture within a society? Does it significantly alter cultural values, for example spreading Western ‘consumerism’? Does it destroy, swamp or crowd out authentic, local, traditional culture?”(p. 36).
How does the media we consume affect our culture, and the way we think? A modern example is how information is controlled, suppressed, and manipulated by the Communist Party of China.
The Chinese Communist Party and their control over media and information is a well-documented phenomenon. Censorship in China extends to all forms of media: print, audio, video, digital and even artistic performance.
The government owns or controls most broadcast media outlets, book publishers, film distributors and cinemas. Internet providers must also register with the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), radio programs must carry government identification at the end of each program, and movies must meet government standards before being shown in theaters.
Tai (2014) writes that: “…the goal of censorship is to suppress dissent and to prune citizen expression”, and any “journalist or citizen who present a perspective that is in conflict with state propaganda directives face harassment, dismissal, and abuse”(p. 189).
Ethnocentrism refers to the tendency of people from one culture to view cultures from other cultures as being less sophisticated, less advanced, and even inferior. When this sort of thinking becomes the way of thinking for a particular dominant culture or society, it can lead to instances of ethnocentrism.
The term ethnocentrism comes from the Greek word’s “ethnos” and “kentron” which mean “nation” and “center”. Ethnocentric people are those who put their own group at the center of things while considering other groups as secondary.
For more on ethnocentrism, check out our article on examples of ethnocentrism.
When considering cultural imposition, it is necessary to take into account that cultural imposition is not a new phenomenon in history. It has occurred throughout the world as long as there have been cultures and civilizations in one form or another.
In terms of western imperialism, indigenous cultures, have typically been the most susceptible and vulnerable.
However, whether an imposition be a large-scale infringement from one dominant culture to a lesser dominant culture, or there is an intentional suppression of information and forced ideology from a political party, this concept it remains both dense and complicated.
Clignet, R. P., & Foster, P. J. (1964). French and British Colonial Education in Africa. Comparative Education Review, 8(2), 191–198. https://doi.org/10.1086/445061
Drelichman, M., Vidal-Robert, J., & Voth, H. J. (2021). The long-run effects of religious persecution: Evidence from the Spanish Inquisition. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 118(33). doi: https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2022881118
Lomawaima, T. K. (1994). The Story of Chilocco Indian School: They Called It Prairie Light. Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press.
Hassner, R. E. (2022). Anatomy of Torture. Amsterdam University Press.
Heinrich, P. (2005). Language Loss and Revitalization in the Ryukyuan Islands. The Asia Pacific Journal, 3(11), 1-12. Retrieved from http://apjjf.org/-Patrick-Heinrich/1596/article.pdf
Said, E. W. (1994). Culture and Imperialism (25447th ed.). London: Vintage.
Tai, Q. (2014). China’s Media Censorship: A Dynamic and Diversified Regime. Journal of East Asian Studies, 14(2), 185–210. https://doi.org/10.1017/s1598240800008900
Tomlinson, J. (1991). Cultural Imperialism: A Critical Introduction. New York: Pinter.
Wistrich, R. S. (2003). Hitler and the Holocaust (Modern Library Chronicles) (Reprint). Modern Library.