Cultural imperialism refers to the way dominant and wealthy countries assert dominance in other countries by forcing aspects of their culture onto nondominant communities. Cultural imperialism is a way for powerful nations to dominate others. They do this by changing the entire culture to look like their own.
This involves social norms, conventions, foods, religions, beliefs, traditions, media, education, and sometimes even architecture. The culture of a non-dominant community is rebuilt to look exactly the same or very similar to the dominant nation’s culture. This also includes legislation and language that have a sweeping effect on the political state of a country or region.
Cultural imperialism is a form of imperialism because it involves extending the authority of one way of life over another community. This shifts power dynamics and social norm. Then the dominant culture will hold influence, political power, and economic superiority over the non-dominant culture(s). Historically, we can see that the Roman Empire provides evidence of some of the earliest examples of cultural imperialism.
The term originates from discussions in the 1960s from a neo-Marxist perspective on culture, media, and postcolonial studies. These discussions aimed to address the post-WWII wave of independence. Many new nations arose and claimed independence.
In most conversations today, cultural imperialism is a term used to critique the US’ exploitation and manipulation of consumer culture in other countries. However, it has been used to describe the influence of the British Empire on American colonies and other regions.
There was a mix of cultures and nationalities – many Dutch and German people also settled in the American colonies but the most dominant culture was still British. With the military and economic power, Britain destroyed native culture by implementing its own. We can see this in the current social structure of North American society and the suppression of indigenous people and their culture. Indigenous culture is still alive and there are still many indigenous tribes in North America – with appreciable variation in their different cultures. However, European imperialism changed the face of North America. Indigenous cultures aren’t appreciated. Large portions of their land have been stolen and the dominant political sentiment is prejudiced against the native community.
This is one example that explains the significant role of cultural imperialism in colonisation. Colonisation is usually thought of as being entirely military force or purely political but, historically, there is evidence that shows us that colonisers have used education, social norms, language, religion and more as part of cultural imposition on other nations/regions. This forces nondominant regions to bend to the will of dominant nations, which plays a key role in the process of colonisation.
Another feature of cultural imperialism is the fact that colonisers always despise the supposedly ‘uncivilised’, ‘uneducated’ and ‘thuggish’ societies of other cultures. They look down on many elements of other cultures that disagree or ignore the conventions they follow. As a result, colonisers tend to seek the absolute and conclusive abolition of any and all traces of other cultures. At the very least, they’ll attack any aspect of the culture that could challenge the dominance of their own.
One of the most infamous examples of this is the French colonisation of Africa. While the most significant aspect of the French colonisation of West Africa was military, culture was also a huge component. Evidence of their cultural imperialism can still be seen today. The clearest evidence is in the languages of West Africa. African French is the generic name for the many variations of French that are spoken by roughly 141 million people. For many regions of Africa, French is the dominant first language.
Today, in discussions about cultural imperialism, we often hear the term being used to describe the widespread influence and consumption of modern American culture. Through the spread of American culture, there are many multinational corporations that can now manipulate and reshape the cultures of other regions and communities. Cultural imperialism has many negative effects on the well-being and overall functionality of a nondominant region. Mass media has promoted the spread of Western beauty standards throughout Asia and many parts of the world.
Cultural hegemony refers to the ability of a dominant culture to extinguish local cultures. The concept was introduced by Antonio Gramsci, who borrowed principles and ideas from the German philosopher Karl Marx. Marx famously introduced the concept of ‘class consciousness’, which described his idea that the workers (proletariat) can be awoken to their oppression and rise up to abolish capitalism. However, Gramsci argues that culture and the media are far too powerful and influential that the workers are encouraged to support the system they live in and remain in a state of false consciousness.
Globalisation is defined as ‘the process by which business or other organisations develop international influence or start operating on an international scale’. This involves the integration and increased interconnection of national or regional economies. There are several areas where this is highly significant: financial markets, product markets and commodity markets. This has a huge impact on the cultural, social and political environments of different regions and nations.
Culturally, globalisation refers to the spread of singular norms and conventions of society. This includes gender, race, foods, language, fashions, entertainment, etc. Cultural changes also have an evident impact on the social aspects of the region. Ultimately, this can lead to cultural imperialism – where one culture overshadows another and takes over as the dominant culture. This means that cultural globalisation can lead to political changes because of the changes in norms, conventions and social attitudes.
One of the major issues with globalisation is the fact that it severely increases the wealth gap between the richest and the poorest. The Bill Gateses, the Jeff Bezoses and the Elon Musks of the world – all of whom are located in the USA – receive billions by spreading their products (and their influence) across the globe to mainly high-income economies. Each of these major companies has a major market share in multiple national markets. However, it’s fairly well-known that these countries do not abide by ethical practices and regularly exploit low labour costs in low-income countries to maximise their revenue.
When talking about cultural imperialism, it’s important to address the modern concept of ‘Americanisation’. This is a fairly new concept that arose after the Second World War when the US secured its position as the leading economy of the world. The US has been at the apex of the global economy since the 1920s but during and after the war there was, of course, a lot of instability and uncertainty that developed. However, since then the US consumer culture has only grown exponentially and the wealth of their economy has increased. This has resulted in the spread of American tastes, conventions and values.
The term ‘McDonaldisation’ was coined in 1993 by George Ritzer in his book ‘The McDonaldization of Society’ (read here). The term refers to a specific form of rationalisation that became extremely prominent in the mid-late 20th century. Since then the topic has grown increasingly central to discussions on the sociology of globalisation.
According to Ritzer, McDonaldisation occurs when society (all organisations and institutions) is structured in the same way as a fast-food restaurant. Unsurprisingly, McDonald’s demonstrates this practice with almost 40,000 outlets in over 100 countries. While there are noticeable cultural adaptations – such as the pork-free, beef-free menu in India – the brand, image and structure of the company is entirely the same (homogenous). Eric Schlosser in Fast Food Nation (2001) described the McDonald’s ‘M’ as “more widely recognised than the Christian Cross”. Essentially, there is one business model that society functions within. This structure relies on four key aspects: efficiency, calculability, predictability and control.
Efficiency involves the managerial focus on maintaining the optimal time it takes to complete the process of production and distribution. This is the amount of time it takes to receive your food – to go from hungry to satisfied. Within this aspect, there are drive-up windows, salad bars, numbers allocated to each order and drinks stations for the customer to fill their own cup. There are endless examples of efficiency in fast-food restaurants, just as there are all around society: cash machines, self-serve at petrol stations, public transport, microwave dinners and many more.
Calculability refers to the prioritisation of quantity rather than quality. This develops an unspoken belief that larger quantity usually does mean quality. Ritzer describes calculability as “an emphasis on things that can be calculated, counted and quantified”. In fast-food restaurants, many of the options are advertised based on their size (‘The Big Mac’, ‘Big Tasty’, ‘Quarter Pounder’, ‘Double Quarter Pounder’, etc). Within society, we see how anything that can be quantified in some way (credits, achievements, wealth, age, etc) is very closely related to how we value identity and status.
Predictability refers to the attempt to maintain a monotonous structure to society to avoid differentness and unfamiliarity. Customers expect that a Big Mac in London will taste the same as it does in Manchester and that a Big Whopper in New York will be identical to one in San Francisco. People expect familiar experiences and repeated benefits. Shopping is a similar experience – if we are familiar with a brand, we will know what to expect from their clothes. Even walking through shopping centres, people learn their way around and where their favourite shops are. Everyday life for the average person has become increasingly standardised since the 1960s with the use of household appliances, utilities and public transport. People are automating their everyday routines.
Control describes the replacement of human employees by non-human technology: machines, computers, etc. It’s the responsibility of management to ensure that employees appear the same (in uniforms and following rules of behaviour) to customers in every interaction.
A key issue with increasing McDonaldisation relates closely to the matter of control. This system reduces the need for a skilled workforce. Employees are trained and instructed on their basic, focused routines that they will follow every single day. Tasks are quick and cheap for employers. New technology means that many job roles are lost to machinery and automated equipment, which is even quicker and even cheaper. All around the world, workers in factories, sweatshops, restaurants and all kinds of markets have had their rights (and access to rights) massively reduced. This is largely due to the fact that human labour has been devalued by the rising prevalence of technology instead of people.
Another common pitfall of McDonaldisation appears in the consumer’s experience. The consumer often acts as a part of the four aspects of McDonaldisation. Self-serve stations require the customer to serve themselves, rather than having an employee do it on behalf of the business. The customer completes the chain of distribution – which means that the business doesn’t have to. This is also done when people construct Ikea furniture themselves. Even though they bought a bed, they didn’t buy a completed bed and now the consumer has to put their own time and effort into completing the production process.
The media functions similarly to fast food and the manner of McDonaldisation. The media desires the same level of consistency to be able to constantly broadcast entertainment, advertisements and more all over the world.
John Tomlinson, in his book ‘Cultural Imperialism’ (read here), argues that the globalisation of American culture is not necessarily an act of cultural imperialism. He describes that, instead, the globalisation of certain cultural aspects are a by-product of the hunt for new markets. The US is always looking to increase its revenue by branching out to new markets. He claims that to secure loyalty, acceptance and customers within this market there needs to be some level of cultural integration.
However, others would combat this by claiming the US doesn’t need to be a part of other cultures anyway. Its market is in the US or within western culture. The ‘hunt for new markets’ is seen to be an evil cash grab that results in cultural imperialism, especially with a culture as dominant as the US. The US exploits foreign tastes and manipulates foreign cultures to buy into American values – but more importantly, the US economy. US interference and presence in foreign countries is not an act of cultural integration. It’s an attempt to grow the US economy to the detriment of working-class people and people in poverty.
In the 1970s several major studies were published that aroused the debate on the significance of audio-visual trade. The role of journalism (especially news agencies owned by the US, UK and French) was highly scrutinised in these discussions. These organisations were seen as having a dangerously exclusive power over the spread of media, information and content. It didn’t take long before people began to engage in heated discussions about the global impact of Western culture being consumed by the worldwide masses.
However, it’s most commonly thought that American media (namely, the entertainment industry) isn’t directly looking to export the American way of life and imperialise the globe. In fact, there are noticeably cultures that accept aspects of Western culture and integrate it suitably into their own. Bollywood is a prime example of this. India’s Bollywood film industry combines traditional Indian culture (clothes, dance, music, language, etc) with US filmmaking. The two cultures have proudly integrated to create one of the biggest industries of today (bigger than Hollywood) and an iconic staple of Indian culture.