Cultural Imperialism and Communication
Summary and Keywords
Central to many definitions of the term “cultural imperialism” is the idea of the culture of one powerful civilization, country, or institution having great unreciprocated influence on that of another, less powerful, entity to a degree that one may speak of a measure of cultural “domination.” Cultural imperialism has sometimes been described as a theory, especially where scholars build a case that the cultural influence of the stronger entity has had a pervasive, pernicious impact on the weaker.
The term evolved from 1960s neo-Marxist discourses within cultural, media, and postcolonial studies that contextualized the post–World War II “independence” wave of new nations emerging from colonial servitude. It was propelled by the writings of nationalist revolutionaries, revolutionary theorists, and their sympathizers of the 1950s and 1960s, but it has sweeping relevance across human history. The foremost western theorist of cultural imperialism in the West was Herbert Schiller. The concept was adopted and endorsed in the 1970s by both UNESCO and the Non-Aligned Movement.
Following Oliver Boyd-Barrett, the concept may denote a field of study embracing all relationships between phenomena defined as “cultural” and as “imperialism.” These encompass cultural changes that are (1) enforced on a weaker entity and (2) occur within both stronger and weaker entities through contact, contest, and resistance, including (3) assimilation of social practices encountered by the stronger in the weaker entity, and (4) original hybrids manifesting cultural traces of both stronger and weaker entities.
The concepts of cultural and media imperialism were much critiqued during the 1980s and 1990s, and many scholars preferred alternative concepts such as globalization and cultural globalization to analyze issues of intercultural contact, whether asymmetrical or otherwise. John Tomlinson critiqued the concept, identified four different discourses of cultural imperialism, and argued in favor of its substitution with the term “globalization.” Mirrlees has placed Tomlinson’s work in context by describing the dialectical—parallel but mutually aware—development of both a cultural imperialism and a cultural globalization paradigm. Both are influential in the 21st century.
“Imperialism” commonly references relations of conquest, dominance, and hegemony between civilizations, nations, and communities. “Cultural imperialism” relates primarily to the cultural manifestations of such relations. Culture and empire relate in many different ways, fueling different theories that often play on dichotomous discourses, including territorial/non-territorial, totalistic/partial, benign/malign, ephemeral/perpetual, superficial/essential, voluntary/involuntary, intended/unintended, welcome/unwelcome, forceful/peaceful, noticed/unnoticed, linear/interactive, homogeneous/heterogeneous, and acceded/resisted.
The concept has affinities with hegemony, the idea that stability in conditions of social inequality is achieved not mainly by force but by securing the consent of the masses (starting with co-option of their indigenous leaders)—through persuasion and propaganda—to the elite’s view of the world. This process is commensurate with forms of democracy that provide the appearance but not the reality of choice and control. Fissures within the ranks of the elites and within the masses create spaces for resistance and change.
Culture encompasses the totality of social practices of a given community. Social practices are manifest within social institutions such as family, education, healthcare, worship, labor, recreation, language, communication, and decision-making, as well as their corresponding domains. Any of these can undergo change following a society’s encounter with exogenous influences—most dramatically so when stronger powers impose changes through top-down strategies of command and influence.
Analysis of cultural imperialism often incorporates notions of media imperialism with reference to (1) print, electronic, and digital media—their industrialization, production, distribution, content, and capital accumulation; (2) cultural meanings that media evoke among receivers and audience cultures; (3) audience and media interactions in representations of topics, people, and ideas; and (4) relationships between media corporations and other centers of power in the reproduction and shaping of social systems.
Media are logically subsumed as important components of cultural imperialism. Yet the significance of media can be understated. The concept of mediatization denotes that “knowledge” of social practices draws heavily on media representations. Social practices that are experienced as direct may themselves be formed through exposure to media representations or performed for media.
Discourses of cultural imperialism speak to major current controversies, including: cultural suppression and genocide; ideas of “globalization”; influential economic models of “capitalism” and “neoliberalism”; ideologies that are embedded in the global spread of concepts such as “modern,” “progressive,” “growth,” “development,” “consumerism,” “free market,” “freedom,” “democracy,” “social Darwinism” and “soft power”; cultural specificity of criteria and procedures for establishing “truth”; instrumentalization for the purposes of cultural conquest of academic disciplines such as psychoanalysis, economics, social anthropology, or marketing, or environmental crises, especially as linked to western ideologies that underwrite humanity’s “right” to dominate nature.
Origins and Definitions
This first section examines the origins of the term “cultural imperialism” and the identities of some of those who first employed it. It critically examines some influential definitions of the term, including those offered by Herbert Schiller and John Tomlinson. It considers the relationship between such definitions and the sister term “media imperialism” and looks at how their emergence, in or around the 1960s, maps onto historical events of that period. It considers whether these terms are best thought of as one or a cluster of social science “theories,” as “discourses,” or as fields of study. It summarizes the main postulates of the “cultural imperialism paradigm” identified by Tanner Mirrlees.
As a current of thought, the study of cultural imperialism is often associated with the work of a cluster of Latin American scholars of media and communication in the 1960s and 1970s. These include the Bolivian journalist and communication scholar Luis Ramiro Beltrán (see, e.g., Beltrán, 1980), the sociologist Armand Mattelart (born in Belgium, but whose career spanned a relevant decade in Chile before continuing in Paris—see, e.g., Mattelart & Dorfman, 1975), and the Venezuelan scholar of social communication, Antonio Pasquali (see his foundational 1963 study). Equally, many North American, European, and other scholars have contributed to its foundation, among them the American sociologist Herbert Schiller (see, e.g., his ground-breaking 1969 work); British sociologist Jeremy Tunstall (see, e.g., his seminal 1977 work); and the Irish-American sociologist, Oliver Boyd-Barrett (see his 1977 article).
John Tomlinson (1991) considered that the term is too broad to allow an easy or single definition or a definition that is not controversial and therefore proposed that the concept is one “which must be assembled out of its discourse” (p. 3). A definition offered by Schiller nonetheless touches on many but not all dimensions that are common to studies of cultural imperialism, namely, “the sum of the processes by which a society is brought into the modern world system and how its dominating stratum is attracted, pressured, forced and sometimes bribed into shaping social institutions to correspond to, or even promote, the values and structures of the dominating center of the system,” which Schiller identified as the United States (Schiller, 1976, p. 9). This definition highlights modernity, agency, inequalities of power and of class structure, and allows for multiple centers of power subordinate to the dominating center. More controversially it presumes that the term is appropriate only for the “modern” age, deems that the United States is indisputably the system’s dominating center, considers cultural imperialism as a process that is often or largely unwelcome to those who are its targets, and overlooks sources of cultural hybridity that lie outside this exercise of power.
In this current of thought, the term “cultural imperialism” is frequently used in tandem with that of “media imperialism.” Some authors appear to treat the terms interchangeably, even when their primary focus—often the case—actually is media (as in the case of Schiller). Some broach the subject of cultural imperialism from a broad perspective that may or may not embrace the media but includes a wealth of other dimensions. These include language, approaches to knowledge and knowing, belief systems, ideologies, cultures of governance, education, economic activity, social structure, interpersonal relationship, technologies, and artefacts. Arjun Appadurai’s (1992) postulation of five “scapes” for the analysis of culture and globalization—ethnoscape, technoscape, finanscape, mediascape, ideoscape—is an influential example. C. A. Bayly’s (2000) examination of the relationship between colonialism, information-gathering and social communication in India is another. Oliver Boyd-Barrett (1977, 2015) is among those who explicitly favor the term “media imperialism” as a phenomenon that is narrower than and encompassed by cultural imperialism yet benefits from what he claims is the more focused discourse that results. Tomlinson (1991), whose synthesis will be discussed shortly, concluded that conflation of the terms “cultural imperialism” and “media imperialism” was inherently problematic.
Notwithstanding Schiller’s much-cited and frequently critiqued focus on media in modernity, many scholars of imperialism generally, and of cultural imperialism specifically (but broadly defined), have little or no difficulty in acknowledging that processes of imperialism in premodern and modern eras (distinguished from each other by such criteria as industrialization, capitalism, democratization, globalization, and mediatization) typically have profound implications for the cultural practices of both imperial and colonized peoples and that these practices may include all modes of human communication, among them norms governing language use and expression, writing systems, and communications technologies. For as long as historians, social anthropologists, and sociologists have acknowledged the play of imperialism, they have also recognized phenomena of cultural imperialism, even if they have not described it in the language common to cultural, media, and communication scholars from the 1960s. An often-cited pair of exemplary texts from earlier literatures are those of the Canadian economist and communications scholar Harold Innis (1950, 1951) who identified what he believed were distinctive relationships between the physical properties of communication systems (e.g., stone, papyrus, or paper) and the structure and capabilities of power in ancient civilizations. The work of Innis had a direct influence on fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan, also a scholar of literature and culture, who developed Innis’ ideas about the relationship between prevailing modes of communication and evolving stages of social organization (see, in particular, McLuhan 1962, 1964, 1967). The works of both Innis and McLuhan may also be seen as contributions to a large and ever-evolving literature on causal and other modes of relationship between writing (manuscripts), printing (newspapers, books), electronic and wireless media (telephone, radio, television), and digital and social media, on the one hand, and society in general or particular aspects of society (such as childhood) on the other (see also Toffler, 1970, 1991; Ong & Hartley, 2012). Only some of this literature is specifically related to cultural imperialism.
Extrapolating from Boyd-Barrett (2015), it is not only important to be sensitive to the historical constancy of interrelationships between imperialism, culture, and media, but also to the ever-evolving manifestations of each of these. Imperialism, he argues, is always about the exploitation of one community by another, but this can take many forms. Control over territory is dispensable. Cultures change upon contact, sometimes evolving hybrid forms whose constituents are unequal. Media evolve most visibly in technological form but also in ownership, control, geographical and demographic reach, accessibility, genre, purpose, symbolic constituents, and audience, and across all of these dimensions there are the play of power and issues of inequality of power—even if power is not the only thing that needs to be discussed or that is worth discussion.
A clear distinction needs to be made, therefore, between phenomena of cultural imperialism, which are likely commensurate with humanity itself, and studies that fall under the rubric of “cultural imperialism,” which we can date back to the 1960s. The current of thought that emerged around this time and which intensified through the 1970s can be criticized for being insufficiently historical, lacking the nuance of a social anthropology of culture, overly focused on the particular case of the United States, and media-centric. But it is also very much a product of a time of growing awareness in developing countries (or countries of the “Third World,” sometimes referred to as postcolonial societies or emergent economies) that the achievement of nominal political independence from the principal surviving imperial powers of the 19th and 20th centuries (especially Britain, France, Holland, Portugal, Russia, Spain, and the United States) in the period after World War II was illusory, that the “former” imperial nations, singly or together, continued to shape, mold, control their destinies through military threat, economic ties, intelligence subterfuge, and the continuing reverberations of a still recently implanted imperial culture. Territorial control, in other words, was no longer necessary to their domination. Korean and Vietnamese wars exhibited continuing threats of imperial invasion and occupation. Ruthless imperial resistance to indigenous insurgencies in possessions such as Algeria, Kenya, and Malaysia exposed the deep-seated unwillingness of empires to relinquish their most prized conquests. Civil wars in the wake of independence, as in the Indian subcontinent, Congo, or Nigeria, shrouded the vaunted benefits of “freedom.” Western-instigated destabilizations in countries such as Guatemala, Iran, and Chile instructed new nations of the “South” or Third World that when “independent” nations chose paths of which the supposedly “ex-” imperial countries disapproved, they would be subjected to brutal regime change and worse, whose punitive impacts typically endured for decades.
Cultural and media imperialism are sometimes referred to in scholarship as “theory”—as in cultural imperialism or media imperialism theory. This might suggest that there is just one prevailing theory at play, even if it is one that evolves over time and that is subject to easy critique. In relation specifically to the concept of media imperialism, Boyd-Barrett (2015) argues that the term is better thought of not as denoting a specific theory, but as a field of study whose broad subject is the dense cluster of relationships of every kind between phenomena that are regularly described as “imperialism” on the one hand and those that are regularly described as “media” on the other. This allows for theories that address the status of imperialism as cause of specified cultural changes, for example, and theories about practices of cultural resistance against imperialism, or about changes in the culture of the imperialist power that are the consequences of its interactions with colonized peoples, including the emergence of syncretic or hybrid cultures.
Tomlinson (1991) talked about the major “discourses” of cultural imperialism, and these were indicative of somewhat different theories about cultural imperialism. Over several decades, different authors contributed ideas about multiple meanings of cultural imperialism, whether in support of or opposed to use of the concept. So to speak of a single “critique” of cultural imperialism is misleading. Some strengths or weaknesses may be identifiable in some works, but not in all.
Mirrlees (2013, pp. 25–34) identified 10 principal claims of what he described as the cultural imperialism (CI) paradigm. His focus on entertainment and exclusion of information media (even allowing for the development of hybrid “infotainment” as a consequence of intense commercialization worldwide) is a shortcoming, because many cultural imperialist scholars work in the realms of news and information media. Information media are significant vehicles for constructions and interpretations of “events,” influenced among other things by corporate interests, professional practices, and advertising. Nonetheless, the claims identified by Mirrlees helpfully indicate important axes of debate between cultural imperialism discourses and others:
• Cultural imperialism is part and product of imperialism.
• Cultural imperialism represents the world system as comprising a strong or “dominant” media center (the United States) and much weaker or “dominated” peripheries (non-US countries).
• Audiovisual trade between rich and poor countries is not reciprocal, and the United States is the central and most influential source of entertainment media worldwide.
• The global expansion of the US media industry relies on the universalization of the capitalist media model and the dismantling of publicly owned media systems.
• The universalization of the commercial media model and the growth of media corporations are structurally functional to the spread of, and the ideological legitimization of, capitalism.
• The US government actively supports the dominance of US media corporations, the expansion of the US corporate media model, and the cross-border flow of entertainment media by means of a foreign media policy.
• The content of US corporate and/or state-produced entertainment represents American nationalist and/or consumerist-capitalist ideologies; entertainment media provide means by which the strong states and the corporations headquartered in them (including the United States and US-based media corporations) influence, change, or erode the local cultures of other, weaker states. Strong imperial states use TV shows and films as instruments of power in world affairs.
• US entertainment media have “effects” upon local audiences, and these effects are negative for local cultures.
• The CI paradigm is postcolonial, and mainly driven by anticolonial, emancipatory politics.
From Modernization to Dependency
Section 2 looks at the development of cultural imperialism theory within paradigm shifts in the study of international communication, notably from the “modernization” to the “dependency” phase. This section considers the close relationship between studies of cultural imperialism and studies of human and social development. In doing so, it references the interaction between ideas of cultural and media imperialism with (1) international debates fostered within the United Nations Education, Social and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM); (2) emerging empirical studies of international communication agencies and infrastructures; (3) transformations of communication and cultural industries brought about by digitization; and (4) the intellectual reverberations of the demise of the Soviet Union.
Several scholars of international communication (among them the authors of a recent introductory text, Miller & Kraidy, 2016) locate the concepts of media and cultural imperialism within the “dependency phase” of a broader disciplinary trajectory of what they identify as global media studies. The dependency phase emerged in critical reaction to a previous orthodoxy of “modernization theory.” From World War II to the 1960s, mainstream communication scholars generally subscribed to the view that developing or “Third World” nations would need to evolve or be pushed along a path of economic growth similar to that experienced by Western countries. Developing countries could then enjoy the supposedly superior benefits of Western-style political systems, economies, and cultures. Media were seen not simply as components of modernization, but as facilitating agents that would help instill “modern” attitudes in Third World peoples and that would be conducive to economic growth. (See the founders of modernization theory as it was applied to communication: Schramm, 1964; Lerner, 1958; Pye & Verba, 1969.)
Roundly discredited in communication theory (yet discernible in many media-related development projects), this approach was rejected by a neo-Marxist school of thought whose origins lay in the radical analysis of the 1930s Frankfurt School (see Jay, 1996). The new “dependency” school, influenced by Wallerstein’s (1974) world systems approach, considered the world as structured unequally between centers, semi-peripheries, and peripheries. The poverty of periphery economies was a necessary corollary to the wealth of central economies whose capital accumulation required the transfer of wealth from the peripheries. Media functioned ideologically to distract attention from the inner working of this relationship, to “naturalize” inequality and discourage insurgency. As dependency theory took hold in international media studies, so in mainstream media studies the previous focus on the “effects” of media on individual audience members (in a one-way transmission model of communication from sender to receiver) yielded to a “political economy” approach that looked at media as institutions that were integrated with and central to the power structures of modern society and that played a major role in the maintenance of the power inequalities between First, Second, and Third Worlds and, in particular, between “former” empires, colonies, and postcolonial nations.
Endorsing this new, critical approach were discourses that evolved throughout the 1960s and 1970s through the means of international conferences and publications sponsored by UNESCO, among others, in parallel with the formation and evolution of the NAM established in a conference of 29 nations in Bandung (Indonesia), 1955. These discourses were inspired by the concept of the New International Economic Order adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1974 to promote the interests of developing nations through terms of trade, development assistance, tariff reductions, and other means. This was succeeded by calls for a New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO). A focus on economic reform was not enough, it was argued (see Boyd-Barrett, 2003; Nordenstreng, 2014), without a prior, corresponding transformation in how the world was understood, represented, and perceived. In these dimensions, the media were highly salient: they foregrounded and favored the “West” at the expense of alternative perspectives from the “Second” and “Third” worlds. Works like Boyd-Barrett (1980), Nordenstreng and Varis (1974), Schiller (1969), and Tunstall (1977) suggested, in the words of the title of Tunstall’s iconic volume The Media Are American, that the ex-imperial countries such as the United States (especially), Britain, and France had grossly disproportionate influence in the production and global flow of news, film, television and other media products. Boyd-Barrett’s (1980) study of the international news agencies, for example, demonstrated that the collection of news for global dissemination to “retail” newspapers and broadcasters was heavily dependent on four news agencies of the “ex”-imperial powers, of which two (Associated Press and United Press International) were headquartered in New York, one (Reuters) in London, and one (Agence France-Presse) in Paris. The flow of global images for television news was dominated by the television divisions of Reuters and Associated Press. Financial and commercial news was dominated by Reuters (from London) and AP Dow Jones (from New York), later to be joined by Bloomberg (New York).
The NWICO movement reached its apogee with the 1980 publication of the “McBride Report” authored by the International Commission for the Study of Communication Problems, which had been established in 1977 by then director of UNESCO Amadou-Mahtar M’Bow and chaired by Irish Nobel laureate Sean McBride. This text called for a broad range of measures to bring about a more equitably balanced communications and cultural order between the developed and developing worlds. The report was roundly attacked by the US and UK governments, for which NWICO became one pretext—they claimed, among other things, that it favored “censorship” and would protect the repressive measures of totalitarian regimes—for their withdrawal from UNESCO from 1984 to 2003. Their departure successfully exerted financial pressure on UNESCO leadership to back away from the NWICO discourse, which it quickly diluted into a program of relatively small-scale, politically inconsequential bilateral aid schemes.
The US and UK withdrawal from UNESCO and UNESCO’s compliant response were contributory factors to the decline of interest over the following three decades in cultural and media imperialism discourses. The Reagan administration was disinclined to participate in sweeping global and structural policymaking of the kind favored by UN agencies, since it clearly threatened to clip US power. Washington policy instead was informed by growing fascination with the communications revolution about to be unleashed on a largely unsuspecting public, heralding the digitization of all forms of mediated communication. Economic growth in the 1980s and 1990s was fueled in no small measure by the flowering of what its gurus like Future Shock author Alvin Toffler (1970, 1991) sometimes liked to call the “information society” (see discussion of the term by Webster, 2002)—a development that had been insufficiently predicted and barely understood by many scholars of “old” (so-called “legacy” or “heritage”) media. Many came to be convinced that this did indeed presage a truly new, richer, and more equitable global order in which unlimited communications capacity would sweep away long-standing worries about ownership, control, content, capitalist hegemony, and cultural homogenization.
The decline and eventual dismemberment of the Soviet Union in 1991, meanwhile, constituted a further, profound intellectual shock. The global “Left” had long been disenchanted with Soviet communism, but the disappearance of the main nemesis to US global hegemony, accompanied by a period of bold economic growth in the Western economies amidst an unprecedented wave of innovation in communications technology—what Joseph Schumpeter (1942) would have described as a gale of creative destruction, if ever there was one—understandably shook the confidence of many western intellectuals in their established vocabularies of dissent, born of the resurgence in neo-Marxism from the 1960s. The stunning economic growth of China and India, amidst continuing strong population growth, as principal contributor to the flowering of the so-called BRICS economies (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) in the 1990s and 2000s, lifted hundreds of millions to “middle-class” status and seemed to render previous anxieties about western culpabilities and global inequalities merely quaint and unfashionably local in the minds of many (mainly western?) intellectuals. A further important consideration for communication scholars was that the logic of developing theories of communication now seemed far more relevantly directed by newer discourses of globalization (Giddens, 2002) than older discourses of imperialism.
From Cultural Imperialism to Cultural Globalization
Section 3 traces the journey from scholarly endorsement of the term “cultural imperialism” in the 1960s and 1970s to its relative decline and replacement by the term “globalization” or “cultural globalization” in the 1990s. The trajectory follows the critique of “cultural imperialism” offered in John Tomlinson’s influential 1991 volume. Tomlinson distinguished four significant discourses of cultural imperialism: a discourse of media imperialism, a discourse of nationality, a critique of global capitalism, and a critique of modernity. For each of these he addressed three questions: what should count as cultural domination; can we infer cultural effects from media content; and what exactly is it that advocates of the term cultural imperialism say is “imposed” on other cultures? The next four sections follow Tomlinson’s logic.
At this point it is instructive to examine possibly the most influential synthesis of work on cultural imperialism, published close to the nadir of the term’s popularity or perceived usefulness. John Tomlinson’s (1991) work Cultural Imperialism: A Critical Introduction navigated a progressive intellectual path from discourses of cultural imperialism to discourses of cultural globalization. Tomlinson published other significant work (see, e.g., Globalization and Culture, 1998), but his 1991 work is particularly relevant to this article. Tomlinson’s vision anticipates the point at which the “globalization” became the preferred term, seen to encompass, surpass, or undermine older discourses of cultural imperialism. Mirrlees (2013) argues that both the cultural imperialism paradigm and what he calls the cultural globalization paradigm should be seen as rivals, side-by-side but with considerable dialog between them and with potential evolution still to come.
Tomlinson defined cultural imperialism as “a critical discourse which operates by representing the cultures whose autonomy it defends in its own (dominant) Western cultural terms” (1991, p. 2). Rather than try to determine which is the “best” or most “true” meaning of the term (or discourse), Tomlinson focuses on how it is used. Significantly, as it turns out, in tracing the early history of use Tomlinson noted a division between approaches that give primacy to the cultural and those that give primacy to the economic (a division that later surfaced in discourses of globalization). He took pains to acknowledge the traps set by the cultural parameters of cultural imperialism discourses. The academic voice, for instance, is just one voice among many, and academic voices that participate in discourses of cultural imperialism hail from a relatively small number of countries (although Mirrlees argues that Tomlinson greatly underestimated the role of “Third World” intellectuals such as Frantz Fanon  and Amilcar Cabral , or the Latin American scholars previously cited). They communicate principally in European languages and often in institutional contexts such as the UN or UNESCO. Power in such institutions is structured unequally. The most influential voices are those who have some special clout—as in the case of OPEC nations and their contribution to the NWICO debates (though the underlying economic clout of the United States and United Kingdom was ultimately the most significant). Discourses are conducted in publications produced in response largely to market demand in developed world markets. The extent to which participants in these discourses can be meaningfully said to “represent” anything other than themselves is moot. If “nations” can be said to speak in such contexts, they may not speak for cultural and other minorities within those nations.
Tomlinson identified four significant discourses of cultural imperialism: as a discourse of media imperialism, as a discourse of nationality, as a critique of global capitalism, and as a critique of modernity. He discerned three main issues spanning these discourses: what should count as cultural domination, the problem of inferring cultural effects from media, and determination of what exactly is “imposed” on other cultures—whether a set of media images or a more complex “mediation” of cultural experience.
Media Imperialism and the Active Audience
Section 4 critically examines Tomlinson’s dissection of presumptions that cultural imperialism can be meaningfully reduced to considerations about mass communication. It starts with the trajectory of media studies taken after the demise of the “dependency” paradigm and its replacement with less deterministic notions of the audience, as indicated by the term “active viewer.” This new phase challenged assertions as to the primacy of media as agencies of cultural change. Among other things this invoked a methodological debate that questioned the adequacy of “media effects” research.
Tomlinson claimed that the term “media imperialism” is preferred to “cultural imperialism” by non-Marxists and empiricists. He considered it problematic to separate media from other areas of lived experience (culture) and found media imperialism approaches insufficiently theoretical or critical. Media imperialism discourse, he argued, may talk about the political economy of domination but is not well equipped to deal with cultural domination directly and may be tempted to presume cultural consequences of media activity that it cannot actually demonstrate. He asked whether media could be considered central to cultural imperialism (either as the dominance of one culture’s media texts over another or as the global spread of mass-mediated culture), and was wary of the a priori presumption as to the centrality of media to culture.
Writing in the late 1980s, Tomlinson deemed that media imperialism discourse is limited in its competence to speak to cultural effects of transnational media influences. Schiller (e.g., 1969, 1976), he noted, focused on institutional issues rather than on media texts. Schiller tended to assert rather than demonstrate the manipulative role that media play in attracting and nurturing audiences through advertising and inducing their support for the world system as it is. In Schiller’s work, Tomlinson complained, the “moment of culture” is forever deferred, and potentially mediating variables such as religion hardly enter the picture.
When media imperialism scholars did turn their attention to texts, as in the case of the work, previously cited, of Mattelart and Dorfman (1975) on Donald Duck, they were able to articulate ideologies that might be present in the texts, but presumed that these had specified effects that they could not empirically demonstrate. Tomlinson then cited works from the “active viewer” tradition of audience research, such as studies by Ien Ang (1985) and Katz and Liebes (1985), of consumer interpretations of the popular 1970s–1980s soap opera Dallas. These showed how readers in various cultural contexts took different meanings from the same texts, and could simultaneously enjoy the texts while maintaining an ironic stance in relation to them. Audiences could negotiate the contradictions between alien cultural values and their own seeking of pleasure, and use texts in different ways to reinforce existing cultural values.
Even 30 years later, Tomlinson’s doubts continued to resonate, although researchers were more likely by the 2000s to adopt a range of methods, including ethnographic, that allowed them to address institutional, textual, and audience processes. This is not to say that a focus just on the institutional or just on the textual is without value. On the contrary, institutional processes provide answers to questions about who gets to say what and under what conditions and can demonstrate inequalities of access for both aspirant speakers and audiences. Regardless of “effects” and interpretations, people care about these things, passionately, and they are at the heart of concerns about the relationships between media, democracy, dialogue, and identity. Studies of text provide the foundation for the discipline of rhetoric, and scholars of rhetoric search for cultural platforms of interpretation they can reasonably argue are shared between speakers and intended audiences. Such studies can also reveal, without calling upon considerations of effect or interpretation, which topics, themes, genres, plot lines, ethnicities, genders, age groups, professions, etc., are represented in or excluded from media, the mode of audience address that is adopted, and the general tone towards the represented subject. Again, these things in themselves matter a great deal to many people.
Tomlinson was sensitive to the limitations of audience research. For example, he acknowledged that it was methodologically problematic. Even the act of asking anyone about a television program they have seen may elicit a construction that is very different from the viewer’s original viewing experience. Allowance has to be made for the group dynamic of focus groups and the risks of extrapolating from such groups to the everyday experience of group interactions, such as in family contexts. There will always be a difference between rehearsed expressions of viewpoint and private thoughts. How far can researchers safely interpret the responses from people who belong to a culture that differs from the researchers’ own? Tomlinson concluded that cultural imperialism, understood at the level of audience interpretation, is probably too complicated an empirical phenomenon to ever be safely knowable. The value of such empirical studies, he decided, is that they problematize stronger versions of the cultural imperialism argument, even when they cannot actually refute it.
This position may have done insufficient justice to other kinds of value that empirical studies afford in addition to “problematizing” the cultural imperialism argument. The presumption that cultural imperialism needs problematizing rather than, say, refinement may reflect Tomlinson’s own cultural, economic, and political distance—perhaps disconnection—from the enormous disparity in the resources that are invested in mass cultural products for national and international dissemination by major corporations, on the one hand, and the resources and life opportunities that are available to the vast majority of the intended targets of such products, on the other.
Tomlinson queried whether cultural imperialism lies beyond the conceptual range of media studies. The answer must be indisputably affirmative—although Tomlinson’s answer to his own question was somewhat abstract—since media studies makes no claim to expertise on such subjects as postcolonial education, for example, or arranged marriage, or any of the infinite range of considerations that are encapsulated by the term “culture”—even if some of these things are represented in and affected by media. A related question is whether media issues should be the main substance of cultural imperialism. The answer is probably negative. As Tomlinson cautioned, media scholars should be wary of media-centeredness, even if it is not always easy to separate out “real” from “mediated” culture. The relationship between media and culture, Tomlinson proposed, can be conceived in terms of a dialectical interplay of mediations. Media may serve to represent culture, yet lived experience of culture also mediates and is experienced as something other than and more important than media experience. Lived experience may be the criterion that people use to judge media representations, which is not to deny that lived experience incorporates past experience, and that past experience includes exposures to mediated experiences. At this point of the discussion, and at other points of his book, Tomlinson seems to focus on the qualifiers “cultural” or “media” and neglect their respective common noun, “imperialism.” Yet it is precisely the focus provided by the concept of imperialism—in any of its historical phases and transformations—that helps determine the respective weight of consideration due to media.
Cultural Imperialism and the Discourse of Nationality
This section examines the second of the cultural imperialism discourses identified by Tomlinson, that of nation. The section critically outlines Tomlinson’s concerns about the encapsulation of much cultural imperialism analysis with reference to the presumed primacy of nation-states and ideas about “national” culture. Important milestones in this discussion include the concepts of “national identity,” “nationalism,” “imagined community,” “cultural autonomy,” and “cultural standardization.” As a discourse of nationality, Tomlinson proposed, cultural imperialism is typically framed as an invasion of one national culture by another (or the “penetration” of one culture by another—which, as Mirrlees pointed out [2013, p. 43]), citing Buell , reveals a sexist problem with early cultural imperialism discourse). This approach tends to assume that national cultures are the most significant cultural boundaries, that indigenous cultures are “natural” in themselves, that they have a “natural” relationship to geography, and that they acquire “authenticity” over time.
The existence of “national cultural identities” is problematic—most nations are linguistically and culturally diverse. What counts as “national” is often the product of state-directed artifice. Ideas of what constitutes “local” culture are no less questionable. And when is “invasion” a more appropriate concept than say, “influence”? Tomlinson advocates a historical rather than geographical route, acknowledging the many ambiguities that attend notions of cultural “autonomy” and the relative value of cultures. Tomlinson’s own analysis is theoretic, general, and, ironically, rather ahistorical. In that context, his caveats are sensible. Had he embedded his discussion in specific, historically egregious examples of imperial aggression (e.g., western abuse of slaves in the rubber colonies of Africa and the Amazonian basin), such caveats might seem dangerously complacent. He tended to assume that “imperialism” was mainly of the European 19th-century land-grabbing variety and that it was historically complete. His analysis does not readily extend to the neoliberal imperialism of the late 20th century, nor to the revival of the land-grabbing model over the final years of the 20th and the first two decades of the 21st century on ever flimsier pretexts of “war on drugs,” “color revolution” (or other regime-change engineering), “humanitarianism,” “right-to-protect,” and “war on terror” discourses (see Boyd-Barrett, 2015; Davidson, 2016).
Earlier discourses of cultural imperialism, it is true, often presumed dominance of one national culture over another, demonstrating insufficient interest in intra-national or cross-cultural (other than trans-national) differences, and their dialectic evolution—often toward complex hybrid forms, even while continuing to exhibit inequalities of power between different components of the hybrids. Mirrlees (2013, p. 32), in defense of Schiller’s stress on national culture, observed that at the birth of the discourse of nationalism were processes of political formation common to many anti-imperial struggles in the post–World War II period, and that many theoreticians of revolution of the period did not presume a homogenous national culture but instead insisted that national communities should be left alone by imperial powers while new nation-states undertook the constitution of their autonomous national cultures in dialectical relationship with preexisting indigenous cultures as well as with imperialistic cultural implants and their hybrids.
Some models of cultural imperialism, however, framed discussion in terms of threat to the autonomy of what too often were conceived of as relatively homogeneous cultures. Tomlinson noted that the focus on nation was enhanced by UNESCO sponsorship, since UNESCO comprises members whose legitimacy resides in their appointment by respective national governments. The agency’s overarching ideology of universal humanism requires it to treat all cultures as equal in pluralist rhetoric that celebrates the right of individual peoples to be culturally different. In this context therefore, cultural autonomy is associated with national sovereignty. UNESCO finds it difficult to negotiate tensions between cultural pluralism on the one hand and culture-as-national on the other. The concept of nation appears more solid than that of culture because people conflate it with the idea of state, so that it is tempting to talk as though cultures were national.
Such difficulties persist, Tomlinson continued, in talking about an “invaded culture” when the invaded “subject” cannot be identified as a homogeneous, unified national culture. An invading “national culture” can be experienced as homogeneous at the level of symbol—think McDonald’s or Donald Duck in the context of Allende’s Chile, or the Christian cross in Aztec or Inca civilizations. Such symbols constitute a “myth” in Barthian terms: America may not exist in the way that McDonald’s might invite people to imagine, but the imagining can exercise power in a real world, even if the symbolism and whatever it signifies may change over time.
Cultural imperialism can be said to occur inside nations, Tomlinson proposed, as in the case of Franco’s coerced imposition of “Spanish” culture (or, rather, the culture of Castilla y Aragón) and its language (castellano) over the regional cultures and languages of Catalonia, Valencia, Galicia, and the Basque country (Boyd-Barrett, 1995) from the time of the Spanish Civil War to the end of the dictatorship. From such considerations emerge later revisionist theories and vocabularies (e.g., “contra-flow”) that examine resistance to imperialism at local, regional, and national levels (Boyd-Barrett & Thussu, 1992). The nation is not the only possible reference against which cultural imperialism can be set as cultural “other,” therefore. This thought is radically extended by Boyd-Barrett (2015) to the idea that media imperialism is at least as often exercised within the confines of the nation as between nations. Further, national identity should be thought of as merely one form of cultural “belonging,” one that typically coexists with others (see Straubhaar, 2007 for extensive elaboration). It often carries special significance because of the high political and economic stakes involved in maintenance of the nation-state, requiring more intense ideological investment in its construction. If cultural imperialism is a threat to a nation, it has to be a threat to the experience of belonging to a nation, and that threat has to matter over and above other, possibly competing, levels at which people experience such attachment.
Tomlinson advanced these considerations by incorporating the concept of imagined community as defined by Benedict Anderson (1988)—signifying a level of deep, horizontal comradeship that is imagined rather than actually experienced. Nations, in common with most “communities” of belonging, are imagined as both limited and sovereign. Certain events make “nation-ness” imaginable. The nations of Europe, for example, became imaginable in part due to the rise of “print capitalism” and the Protestant Reformation, both of which helped account for the emergence of printed vernacular languages as “national” languages. Printing in the vernacular helped to extend markets for publishers and liberated peoples from the Latin languages of Catholic Europe making possible a new apprehension of the “national” communities that had been constructed by warring kings and princes, initially within the folds of legitimacy afforded by the papacy and, by the 15th century, increasingly in rejection of it. The “style” of imagining here, Tomlinson points out, is primarily a mass-mediated style.
Ultimately, therefore, the nation as an imagined community is a particular style of imagining-the-community, made possible and in some ways required by processes of social modernity (defined as the sum total of secular rationalism, a calendrical perception of time, capitalist-driven technological development, mass literacy and mass communication, political democratization, and the modern nation-state) taking place through the apprehension of time as a medium in which different things happen simultaneously in different places across a world of different nation-states—things that become knowable through mass media.
Tomlinson found it remarkable that national identities in such a view are the cultural outcomes of the very same processes that constitute cultural imperialism itself, hinting that these have positive valence. Thus, taking comfort from a peculiarly European experience, without even a cursory examination of the oceans of blood expended throughout Europe and the early Middle East in the elevation of Europe’s royal elites—many of whose lines provided authority for even worse excesses of savagery throughout the “New World” and the South over the ensuing five hundred years—is indeed suspect.
Time and again, Tomlinson appears ensconced in his own imagined world of relatively low-level threat and low-investment cultural exchange, redolent of central English and middle-class complacency. It seems light-years away from the extremes of human suffering with which real historical imperialism is most closely associated. Nevertheless, Tomlinson enthusiastically advocated attention to the temporal dimension. The contents of culture, he noted, shift over time in selective “totalization” of cultural memory up to the present, a process in which particular institutions such as the state and the media have a privileged role, and in which foreign traces or borrowings are naturalized—sometimes in the form of what Hobsbawm (1983) called invented traditions. These provide a sense of invariance whose authenticity is often questionable. Under modernity, simply recognizing a practice as “traditional” marks it off as special, as legitimating.
From Anderson, Tomlinson turned to Anthony Giddens (1979), who also regarded national identity as a consequence of social modernity. For Giddens, the sense of belonging to a nation represented an attenuated form of the primordial sentiments of belonging to structures of kinship, religion, and “tradition.” National belonging provided an alternative way of achieving ontological security, a sense of stability in relation to the natural and human worlds. More fragile than its primordial predecessors, national identity is achieved through everyday practices in private and public realms (e.g., football contests, watching “national” news). Even though, or perhaps because, it is essentially meaningless (and the ontological security that it provides fragile), threats to national identity can elicit passionate nationalist, even fascist responses (e.g., to “invasion” from cultural imports). But nationalism (with its sense of collective mobilization) is not the same thing as national identity. For Giddens, nationalism is exceptional, removed from banal existence. It is mobilized under assault from cultural imperialism, which threatens the locally collective imaginings of a culturally definitive past of national identity (that never was), imaginings that offer ontological security yet are essentially meaningless, hence fragile and easily prone to destabilization.
In short, Tomlinson challenged cultural imperialism theory to be more precise in articulating how one culture can “dominate” another, and how domination relates to ideas of homogenization. Issues of cultural autonomy are not necessarily issues of homogenization: a culture can autonomously decide to absorb an external cultural influence, and homogeneity is not necessarily a bad thing—imagine the spread of universal health care, or of a universal minimum wage. Furthermore, the import of a foreign cultural practice or product is not necessarily experienced as imposition by consumers or users. Could it be argued, instead, that domination exists at the cultural level only when a culture’s ability to determine its own trajectory is subjected to external forces?
This view invoked ideas of cultural “autonomy,” but Tomlinson protested that because cultures cannot be seen meaningfully as “agents” it is difficult to speak of cultural “autonomy.” Here, Tomlinson appeared to bracket out the political as relevant to culture, disparaging the possibility that any one group or interest can “speak on behalf” of a culture. And yet, many do, achieving greater or lesser degrees of accuracy in the articulation of common concerns, and acquiring greater or lesser degrees of consent by those on whose behalf they speak.
The Culture of Capitalism
This section addresses the third of Tomlinson’s discourses, that of global capitalism. The section critically outlines Tomlinson’s dissection of the relationship between ideas of cultural imperialism and ideas of capitalism. The discourse presumes that the two ride in tandem. Tomlinson disagreed that the relationship is a necessary one and finds the discourse shallow in its understanding either of culture or of capitalism and of at least one of the concepts frequently used to tie these together, namely consumerism—and of the processes of standardization and loss of cultural “autonomy” often said to be consequences of consumerism. Tomlinson queried the negative valence of the treatment of consumerism and rejected some of the charges of “false consciousness” that the discourse assigned to those whom consumerism was said to seduce.
Having alighted on the connection between cultural imperialism and “modernity,” Tomlinson considered himself obliged to investigate the relationship between cultural imperialism and capitalist modernity. Is cultural imperialism related only to modernity? Not unless we start from the premise that phenomena of cultural imperialism are limited to episodes of domination of one national culture over another. But Tomlinson had already correctly discerned that inter-cultural conflicts do not and need not align themselves with national cultures—indeed, they do not have to be framed within national contexts at all, and they were not so framed during earlier periods of human history that lacked well-defined nation-states of the kind that emerged in Europe following the Westphalian agreement of 1648. If we follow Tomlinson’s own logic, therefore, there is no necessary relationship between cultural imperialism and either modernity or capitalism. To argue that there is, ironically, creates problems for those who approach the issue from a conservative, pro-capitalist standpoint, since they need to lament the spread of Russian anti-capitalist political culture across the diverse nations of the Soviet Union from 1916 to 1991, or the spread of communist Chinese influence in Asia under Mao.
Reviewing the discourse of cultural imperialism as a critique of capitalist modernity, Tomlinson associated it with a neo-Marxist preference for talking about the world as a global economic system rather than a collection of nation-states. Culture is regarded only as something caused by political economy and at the service of class domination. This approach speaks of cultural imperialism as the global dominance of capitalist culture by way of (1) homogenization or cultural convergence arguments (while allowing for degrees of resistance) and (2) culture as the commodification of all experience (as in “consumer culture”). Tomlinson critiqued the assumptions, embedded in the work of Schiller among others, that capitalism or commodification are imposed, that they are necessarily malign, and that ideas of capitalist culture should be extracted from ideas of modernity.
Tomlinson was on solid ground in identifying the economistic bias of some of the best-known cultural imperialism approaches. On that basis, he usefully revealed the shortcomings of some of their basic presumptions. Yet Tomlinson too could be faulted for assuming that culture can be meaningfully and easily detached from the economic and the political, in deference to the divisions imposed by western scholarly traditions of social science. He himself spent little to no time (in this book) talking about the interrelationships of these things, or even about some of his basic terms. His general unease, therefore, with the treatment of capitalism and modernity by cultural imperialism theories is based on a chimeric proposition that culture is something unto itself that can be meaningfully understood within the confines of the cultural studies tradition.
Once again, too much of the conversation was disconnected from real-life imperialistic struggles for markets, resources, and territories of the kind executed through barbarism and at the expense of millions of lives, even up to the more recent events of the “war on terror” but also at play, more softly, through the strategies of excessive capital accumulation and structural inequality represented by processes of “globalization” and “free trade” agreements. It would be unfair to blame Tomlinson for failing to accurately predict the near future, and for underestimating the many diverse faces of imperialism. That guilt should be shared across the vast majority of western intellectuals.
Tomlinson considered Schiller’s functionalist thinking about consumer culture, namely that western goods are used as a lure to the rich of developing countries to subscribe to capitalism. Tomlinson argued that the idea of cultural imperialism as a mere tool of capitalism was too crude, and misrepresented both capitalism and the nature of cultural practices. Tomlinson conceded that it would be difficult to deny that capitalism has some cultural effects, but that it is not enough to describe those effects as effects of “domination” or to assert how, exactly, they are experienced. Yes, the effects are often negative and involve misery and poverty, but these are manifest both in the sectors governed by the multinational corporations (those most impacted by consumer culture) and in the more traditional, marginalized sectors. Critics like Schiller were at fault, Tomlinson believed, in not acknowledging the ambivalence of capitalism, its progressive and its shallower aspects. More to the point, such critics were mainly interested in economic imperialism, and when it came to culture they retreated to arguments about cultural standardization whose significance they left unclear.
Lamentations about reduction of cultural diversity may simply reflect the perspective of the western “cultural tourist.” Standardization is often something experienced as beneficial for those to whom it applies (as in the spread of some broadly welcomed new technology), and to condemn it unconditionally is to invoke arguments of “false consciousness.” This, for Tomlinson, amounted to unforgivable arrogance, a view rooted in part in his positive appreciation of the emergence of the “active viewer” in audience research. Later research would question Tomlinson’s investment of optimism in concept of the “active viewer,” in the face of practices of sophisticated, totalistic propaganda or perception management that profoundly implicate both information and entertainment media (see Jowett & O’Donnell, 2016). Tomlinson also worried that invocations of “false consciousness” are claims to “total knowledge,” the knowledge that would enable us to conclude what someone’s “true interests” actually are. In any case, such “knowledge” would have to include leeway for a great deal of subjective, experiential, judgmental processing. In response, it can be argued that some contexts and issues are simply too serious to justify moral abdication. It is in the nature of being human that one takes action on the basis of the best knowledge that is available, knowledge which may only be accessible for those who have the capacity to act.
Worries about standardization also invite knee-jerk defenses of “cultural autonomy”—a concept, as we have seen, that Tomlinson found dubious. He critiqued the thesis of Cees Hamelink (1983) that cultural autonomy is about the ability of a culture to adapt to its circumstances and survive. What does it mean for a culture to “survive?” Cultural synchronization does not directly threaten survival overall. Even writing in the late 1980s, Tomlinson allowed that the spread of capitalist culture might bring about the end of the species (hardly an irrelevant consideration but one that Tomlinson casually seems to deem tasteless in the context of this debate). Short of that, synchronization might be considered successful cultural adaptation to capitalism. Additionally, the logic of capitalist globalization suggests the necessity for cultural adaptation of goods through strategies of localization, which might seem to promote diversity. However, in opposition to Tomlinson’s optimistic musings, later research has shown such adaptations are highly selective simplifications that misrepresent and/or demean the cultures they are alleged to represent. They serve the interests, first and foremost, of the large corporations, multinational and/or local. An additional concept of potential relevance—one that sits outside the mainstream discourse of cultural imperialism—is that of “cultural engulfing,” which allows for a much broader range of causal variables (see Diamond, 2011).
Tomlinson fairly inquired: what is wrong with consumerism? Is it self-evidently bad, and is it for this reason that it should not spread? Or is the problem that its spread is uneven? Certainly, he conceded, there is evidence that some commodities are inappropriate or inadvisable for some cultures. Many commodities are deceptively advertised and grossly overpriced, and their market presence may suppress non-brand alternatives. Third World societies typically have insufficient legal restraints on such practices, so that their peoples, lacking experience of capitalist consumerism, are rendered more vulnerable to it.
In defending Third World cultures from a western consumerism that does not serve their needs and corrupts their premodern sensibility, Hamelink (1983) romantically saddled the Third World with responsibility to save itself (and somehow, eventually, the developed world) from modernity. But Tomlinson objected that western critics could hardly deny the attractions that consumerism holds for other cultures—not at least until they had established a coherent critique of their own consumer culture.
Critiques of western consumer culture focus on the idea that consumption is its central preoccupation. Yes, this arguably represents a moral lapse and may make people more selfish. But selfishness cannot be solely ascribed to consumerism, as there are cultures which experience extreme deprivation and are also very selfish. Is the issue that obsession with the material distracts us from pursuit of the spiritual? How can we be satisfied with mere bodily comforts? Such thinking is problematic for Marxist critics of cultural imperialism who claim to be materialist—unless they want to argue, as some do, that capitalism does not satisfy “real needs.”
This brings Tomlinson to the heart of the Frankfurt School’s dislike of capitalist culture: it seduces the working class with the superficial pleasures of mass media products, and distracts them from their subordinated class position (“euphoria in unhappiness,” citing Herbert Marcuse, 1972) (Adorno & Horkheimer 1979). The Frankfurt School opposes all variants of domination that are achieved through the delusions of ideology and false consciousness. Marcuse distinguished between real and false needs. False needs arise from the totalitarian oppressiveness of capitalist culture, as in the “need” to escape from daily toil and anxiety about making ends meet. Such needs, regardless of the satisfaction achieved in responding to them, are products of a society whose dominant interest is suppression.
Critics of the Frankfurt School distrust a false-consciousness argument that seems to dismiss or to speak on behalf of the raw experience or life goals of others. Surely, they argue, interests stem from respective end-goals of different versions of the “good life.” Marcuse’s response to this objection was that under capitalism people do not have the autonomy to truly arrive at their own judgment. But he conceded that some basic needs do have an unqualified claim to satisfaction—people really do need things like nourishment and shelter. Douglas Kellner (1983) suggested that Marcuse should allow for variations in the degree to which products yield truly pleasurable, autonomous benefits, so that there should be more fluidity in determining the degree of falsity of needs.
This is all very well, replied Tomlinson, in effect, but the basic problem in all of this is that in determining whether criteria of benefit, life-enhancement, usefulness, quality of construction, and price have been fulfilled there is still a great deal left to value judgment. It is possible that reasonable people might desire just as much consumption within a socialist as a capitalist system. Tomlinson cited Offe’s (1984) approach to resolving the false/true need dichotomy namely, that highly differentiated societies impose “needs” on individuals: for example, the “need” for an automobile because it is required for people to get to work. This logic points towards the attendant discontents of a consumer culture. These may or may not be “worth the price” (of modernity) but are not things that can be weighed up, accepted, or rejected by individual consumers.
Tomlinson concluded that capitalism had to be understood as a cultural-economic system, based economically in the institution of property and the production of commodities and culturally centered in the fact of exchange relations (a nod to Bell, 1979). Cultural imperialism theorists regard culture as a tool of capitalism. But because this understandable prioritization of the economic role of culture is functionalist, it fails to engage with lived experience and the spread of capitalism. It assumes that capitalist spread is based on ideological manipulation, so discounts the “life world” of capitalism. Yes, capitalism involves an element of homogenization, but it is not clear that this is, in itself, a negative thing. A successful critique has to show there is something wrong with capitalist modernity other than that people seem “too much the same” from the perspective of a cultural tourist. Attempts to find what else is wrong are often paternalist. Those that focus on consumption are too dependent on arguments of “false consciousness.” Offe, he proposed, pointed a way forward by seeing consumerism as part of a wider structural context of capitalist modernity and the “routine” discontents that this entails. The principal focus of cultural imperialism should be modernity, not capitalism as such.
From Capitalist Modernity to Globalization
This section considers Tomlinson’s treatment of cultural imperialism as a discourse about modernity. Tomlinson acknowledged ambivalence almost everywhere towards modernity but considered that the cultural imperialism discourse did not achieve a satisfactory critique. It was insufficiently critical of modern rationality and its relation to the “lifeworld,” and failed to address modernity’s inability to generate social imaginaries that were as capable of appeasing sources of existential angst as those of premodern societies. But its central failure was to focus on imposition rather than on loss. The discourse of globalization, which automatically invokes notions of its opposite—localization and the complex relations between the two—offered a more promising route.
Narratives of imperialism intertwine in complex ways with narratives of both modernity and development. Tomlinson quotes Octavio Paz (cited by Berman, 1983)—all nations are “condemned to modernity,” and Jean-Paul Sartre (1956)—human beings are “condemned to freedom.” Because cultures are linked structurally, they are subject to the “fate” of socioeconomic modernity, entailing a one-way journey from “tradition” to “modernity” in a dialectic between socioeconomic structures and self-development. Tomlinson proposed that this approach, acknowledging human choice, moves away from a compulsion—and this is perhaps a bit too important to Tomlinson—to regard cultural agents as cultural dopes.
While capitalism may not be the single principle behind modernity, it inflects modernity in a particular way—a way in which “structures of domination” are identifiable. Modernity is essentially ambiguous. It is very different from everything that has gone before. It has attractions, but it has woes. It offers emancipation from superstition and authoritarian rule. But this comes with costs, including forms of social pathology such as anomie.
Modernization theory sought to explain economic underdevelopment as an endogenous process determined by features internal to the society itself. Developed countries could then “help” Third World counties out from under this morass. Condemnation of modernization theory, however, tars all theories of cultural modernity with its brush, so that scholars are reluctant to combine discourses of modernity and development. The force of Tomlinson’s argument is blunted here because he does not investigate at any length either how modernization theory continued to infest international aid programs, or what (eventually) happened to development studies after emerging from modernization theory, namely moving toward a variety of grass-roots approaches that among other things assert a community’s right to define for itself what development should mean, and that do not presuppose that western experts are entitled to tell other people what they should do. In the absence of awareness of these tendencies Tomlinson concludes that “What is needed is a critical approach that recognizes the embeddedness of modernity’s discontents in a political-economic system which simultaneously offers attractions over ‘traditional’ societies” (144), an approach which seems unreasonably to retain the idea of western development as inevitable and in principle good.
At the center of the matrix of advantages and costs of modernity, Tomlinson found, are problems with reason itself. Reason in this context is what Marx called “instrumental” reason, at the heart of major social institutions—the economy, bureaucratic agencies of social control, science and technology. Habermas (1984, cited by Tomlinson, 1991, p. 146) claimed that the discontents of modernity arise not from problems inherent to modernity but to “the failure to develop and institutionalize in a balanced way all the different dimensions of reason opened up by the modern world.” Tomlinson invoked both positive and negative theorists of modernity to investigate this theme. Marshall Berman (1983) argued that humans respond to modernization in ways that make them the subjects as well as the objects of modernization, giving them power to change the world that is changing them. He celebrated this “modernism” as a liberation of the human spirit that keeps alive critical thought and free imagination. Perry Anderson (1984) regarded this as both heroic and fatalist: humans have to adapt to a world in which nothing can be taken for granted. Perry Berger argued that the dynamic of self-development unleashed by modernism is unlimited (seemingly unconstrained, therefore, by social institutions and cultural practices). Together, these voices sound like early evangelistic neoliberals.
For Cornelius Castoriadis (1987), on the other hand, development is a process not about infinite possibility but the realization of a potential that is subject, in the final analysis, to the limits and intrinsic norms of a finite human nature determined by God. While for some, modernity brings with it the idea of infinite development, for others it is a social imaginary that originates from before the real and the rational. Imaginary social significations (like God) provide an orientation for society. The role of imaginary signification is to provide answers to the basic questions of existence that neither reality nor rationality can provide. Such significations are major organizers of cultural practices.
It is a feature of western modernity, Tomlinson proposed (in an argument that begins dangerously to reify modernity, to overgeneralize, and to postulate effects on the basis of lamentably insufficient empirical evidence), that it ignores or denies the imaginary core of its own culture. It pretends to a total rationality that allows it to despise the traditional. The modernist concept of an economy is an example, tied as it is to a social imaginary that converts quantitative growth into the orientation of the society—absurd, yet passing for reasonable on the basis of very short-term thinking. Reason cannot answer the basic existential questions. The social imaginary of modern society is empty of any existential purpose or comfort and can no longer play its cultural role.
This is the central cultural discontent of modernity: a social imaginary that cannot provide qualitative goals and visions, cannot offer a sense of the realization of potential, or satisfactorily indicate direction. This vacuum sets in train the pseudo-rationality of the actual practices of the social imaginary of development, and a crisis of values which results from the vacuity of the concept of development. The myth of technological omnipotence is abetted by the idea of “asymptotic progression”— a line that continually approaches a curve without ever meeting it within a finite distance. Modernist individuals act as if the only significant interval of time is the very near future. A mark of the pseudo-rationality and the hubris of modernity is its impoverished grasp of relevant time.
Tomlinson’s concluding pages sounded rather “preachy,” falling into the trap of telling people what they need to do—which is what Tomlinson complained about when critiquing modernization theory. Citizens, he reflected, need to recognize that the discontents of modernity are bound up, not with an inescapable rationality, but with a social imaginary which is at the center of the self-understanding of a culture. They should learn to accept that reason and rationality are historical creations of humanity. In place of Berman’s fatalistic vision, they need to recognize the scope for human agency and cultural imagination, and engage in the creation of new forms of meaningful social life, through collective will. Western modernity may entail the decay of tradition, but tradition does not have to be replaced by an impoverished cultural narrative. Third World societies have been subordinated to western-style institutions that contextualize and constrain the human imagination—they have not been allowed “autonomy” at the level of the social-imaginary. Colonization of the social imaginary restricts individual autonomy by imposing a set of ultimately vacuous imaginary significations that are already in crisis in the West.
The cultural impact of capitalist modernity can be seen in terms of loss rather than of imposition, representing a failure of the processes of collective will-formation. This results from the autonomization of social institutions that possess their own inertia and logic, continuance and effects, and that outstrip function, ends, and reasons for existing. Autonomization has become the rule at precisely the same time that individual agents have been released from the un-freedoms of traditional worldviews. Habermas had a similar formulation here to that of Castoriadis. He considered a positive of modernity to be its “rationalization of the lifeworld.” But in practice the space for communicative action or collective will-formation made available by the rationalization of the lifeworld becomes colonized by system imperatives belonging to intrusive and disproportionately powerful major institutions of capitalist modernity (e.g., money, administration, and power), which are “autonomized” or decoupled from the lifeworld. The “meaning” of everyday life is shaped by a compelling but unexamined logic of earning and spending. False consciousness based in rigid and narrow traditional beliefs gives way, in modernity, to a fragmented consciousness, one which is not able to construct satisfying rational narratives of social meaning. Capitalism’s dominant positioning of economic practices within the social order is to blame.
If there is a common theme to the different discourses of cultural imperialism, it is that people need something that modernity has not properly provided, to be able to decide how they will live collectively in the widest possible sense—what they will value, what they will believe in, what sense they will make of their everyday lives.
Cultural imperialism, once a process of coercion, continued to be experienced as imposed, but in a context that was no longer actually coercive. What is at stake has more to do with cultural loss than cultural imposition. Capitalist modernity is technologically and economically powerful but culturally weak because of a failure of cultural will and the absence of qualitative social goals. This amounts to a crisis of moral legitimacy in the West.
Tomlinson concluded that it is preferable to speak of globalization rather than imperialism. Globalization is a far less coherent or culturally directed process. The effects of globalization are to weaken the cultural coherence of all individual nation-states and to render the world more vulnerable to the threats of environmental decay, since multinational corporations and the international market system cannot be voted out. People’s experiences are shaped by processes which operate on a global level, and this level is beyond their present powers of imagination. “The cultural space of the global is one to which we are constantly referred, but one in which it is extremely difficult to locate our own personal experience” (Tomlinson, 2003, p.119). This in part explained the vogue for localization and smaller units, expressing the need for viable communities of cultural judgment.
Tomlinson argued that to in order to provide a more sustainable opposition to the spread of a capitalist, consumer culture, the advocates of cultural imperialism theory had first to rigorously critique capitalist modernity in developed economies. In proposing this, however, Tomlinson’s argument took a curious turn. He had previously insisted that imperialism belonged to the 19th century and that culture needs to be spliced away from the economic (at an abstract level he retained elements of the political—“collective will-formation”). Talk of cultural imperialism as a holistic process that humanizes the actual historical (ethnographic, economic, political, cultural, social) processes of imperialism in both premodernity and modernity, in both territorial and neoliberalist modes, is outlawed. (Tomlinson did not wrestle with the postmodern.) What is left is a culture of capitalist “modernity,” in which the main protagonist is not capitalism but modernity, and which is irresistible not because it is imposed undemocratically or deceptively, not because of gross inequalities of military, political, and cultural power, but because it meets material needs and is yet spiritually empty and unsatisfying. Tomlinson did not provide the empirical evidence for these assertions. He did not consider the possibility that capitalist modernity actually fails to meet not just the general material needs but the basic needs of large populations in either developing or developed countries and that its perpetuation is achieved on the basis of a logic of permanent war and the destabilization of countries that have not subscribed to it. And because the phenomena that he believes he has identified as a lot fuzzier (indeed, they are) than those implicated in ideas of imperialism, he proposes to substitute the term “imperialism” with “globalization.”
A New Wave of Media and Cultural Imperialism Theory
This section proposes that the loss of popularity of the term “cultural imperialism” during the 1990s was temporary and that there has been renewed interest in the 2000s in reconstituting the discourse. This was inspired by an emerging clarity of understanding of the operations of both neoliberalism and neoconservatism and their implications for the environment, social inequality, and war. Rather than regarding the concept of globalization as succeeding that of imperialism, new approaches inquired into their interdependence, and afforded scope for integrating discourses of cultural imperialism and cultural globalization. A hybridized discourse has generated productive new concepts, including those of soft power, and platform imperialism, and invites analysis of what was once the domain of “black box” speculation using the evidence and insights afforded by a digital world of resistance signified by such institutions as Wikileaks. With Tomlinson’s encouragement, the terms “media” and “cultural imperialism” grew less popular or were referred to as concepts of merely historical interest that had been overtaken—in progressive accounts of media or sociological theory—by terms such as “globalization” or “cultural globalization.” Tomlinson’s account, examined in the previous sections, goes some way to explaining this decline in popularity with reference to the alleged dependence of the cultural imperialism perspective on theories of “false consciousness,” its media-centricity and ahistoricity, its predilection for thinking of communication in terms of transmissional, one-way flows of influence, its simplistic understanding of culture and discounting of phenomena of active resistance, and so on. Many of these faults were indeed present in early contributions to the study of cultural and media imperialism. Less commonly acknowledged is that many contributors did actually address such issues and kept pace with developing literatures. Further, some of the criticisms were found to be equally applicable to works that presented themselves as moving beyond these concepts.
The idea of imperialism and its relationship to media certainly did not disappear in the 1990s. Titles continued to appear much of whose contents were broadly sympathetic to this line of thinking: for example, McPhail (1987), Boyd-Barrett and Thussu (1992), Nordenstreng and Schiller (1993), Schiller (1991, 1995), and Thussu (1998). Even US political actors and philosophers began to celebrate US cultural imperialism: both Joseph Nye (2005), with his concept of “soft power” (see below), and D. Rothkopf (1997), who explicitly saw cultural imperialism as a US strength.
By the early decades of the 21st century, however, the concepts of cultural and media imperialism returned in full force, not on the basis of a general consensus of the kind that characterized the orthodoxy of modernization theory, for example, but in a polarizing way that accentuated the division within the field between those who regarded the evolution of media technologies and their general implications for culture and society as fundamentally benign and those who considered that technological evolution merely reinforced established patterns of social inequality and exploitation. The first pole of this dichotomy was rather more media-centric, since the second pole—principally but not solely based in a political-economy camp—defined its analytic practices as holistic, dialectic, and historical.
Mirrlees (2013) charted the development—alongside and in dialectical dialog with its cultural imperialism predecessor—of the discourse of cultural globalization. He described, first of all, the different processes of globalization that together were integrating (or polarizing?) the world: economic, political, cultural, and technological. The result was a greater interdependency and interconnectedness between all countries marked, among other things, by deterritorialized and mediated sociality, even though locality continued to be the basis of most people’s sense of belonging. This view could be difficult to reconcile with the state of the world only a few years later with the accentuation of political tensions between the United States, European Union, Russian Federation, and China; potential climate catastrophe anticipated as early as 2100; utter devastation of many countries in the Middle East in the name of the “war on terror”; and the fragile US-Saudi-Israeli-UAE-(sometimes, Turkish)-Qatari alliance against (mainly but not only) Sufi Islamists, dangerously crippling Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen.
The crucial question posed by Mirrlees was whether globalization negated or extended imperialism. His answer, inspired by Sparks (2007), was that it depends on whether one subscribes to a strong or weak paradigm of globalization. The strong version of the cultural globalization paradigm argues that the world is fundamentally different in the early 21st century than it had been. This largely optimistic, neoliberal, technologically determinist view tends to reify the idea of globalization as an agency unto itself. It took for granted the purposeful power goals of corporations and nation-states, and of the operations of power generally in conditions of extreme inequalities of wealth. The weak version, less inspired by social theory and more embedded in empirical research into actual institutions, states, markets, etc., sees many continuities with the past—among them the continuing superpower status of the United States, albeit within a more multi-centric world of “media capitals” (Curtin, 2003), and different forms of what Straubhaar (2007) calls “asymmetrical interdependence”—admitting a range of power relations from dependence to relative interdependence in media relations, and greater multi-directionality of media flows (Thussu, 2007). Advocates of the weak version, which is more compatible with cultural imperialism theories, suspect that the “strong” version emerged at least in part to suit US imperial exigencies and with a view to organizing the consent of rival states to the Washington consensus. The weak version allowed for multi-directionality of flows within the context of the centrality of the United States as a media “node.”
Many of the further points of difference identified by Mirrlees between cultural imperialism and cultural globalization theorists overlap considerably with tussles over evidence and interpretations that go back over a half century of debate and have already been reviewed. Strong cultural globalization theorists chide cultural imperialism theorists for their continuing commitment to ideas of public service media as a source of protection against the excesses of commercialism and privatization—even though such hopes are often smashed in practice when politicians exploit public media for narrow sectarian purposes. But cultural globalization theorists give insufficient attention to the inability of intensely commercialized media (driven to attract advertising goals and boost ratings) to address issues of public interest in a sustained, intelligent, and disinterested fashion.
Cultural imperialism theorists stress the commodified nature of all media production and may tend to underestimate the space available even in commercialized contexts for critique and innovation. Cultural imperialism theorists insist on the continuing importance of nation-states, both in general and as cultural “gatekeepers,” by virtue of their regulatory bureaucracies, surveillance of the media operations of external states, and regulations on transnational media corporations and on information and entertainment media generally. Cultural globalization theorists, by contrast, regard the state as weak, undermined by globalization, an outcome they consider as positive.
Cultural imperialism theorists tend to see media as vehicles first and foremost for the spread of imperial capitalism and consumerism, while cultural globalization theorists argue that there is scope for variety and that many “Americas” are represented in commercial media products, not all of them conceding ideological support to hegemonic views of the nation. Cultural globalization theorists in general are interested in what people all over the world do with the media products they consume, while cultural imperialist theorists argue that viewer selectivity and audience activity do not challenge political-economic structures or rectify imbalances of media flows.
Finally, cultural globalization theorists resist cultural imperialism’s conflation of entertainment with culture, insisting that culture is formed and reproduced through the actual or lived experiences of people. They also seek to correct cultural imperialism’s tendency to regard national culture as the primary source of cultural identity. They challenge the view of cultural imperialism theorists that national cultures are essential, pure or authentic, and that they are being lost, corrupted, or changed as a result of contact with global entertainment media. Not least, they find that “Americanization” and “westernization” are problematic categories that connote many different things. The concept of “hybridity” is seen as one route towards more nuanced and sophisticated treatment of the relationship between cultures and mediations. As a result of global cultural economy, opportunity for cultural mixing has increased.
The cause of those who continue to talk in terms of cultural and media imperialism has been promoted by:
(1) Disenchantment since the late 1990s with the supposed benefits of “globalization,” and with the free trade agreements that underwrote it. These made many parts of the developing world worse rather than better off, relative to the strongest economies, and intensified the extreme gap between rich and poor. Many commentators attributed the surprise electoral outcome of the UK “Brexit” vote and election win of US President Donald Trump in 2016 to the deleterious impact of globalization for working-class people, to the point that a major Guardian article in July 2017 was entitled: Globalisation: The rise and fall of an idea that swept the world (Saval, 2017). The continuing impact of the global economic crisis of 2007–2008, incessant waves of refugees seeking sanctuary in Europe and fleeing western-instigated wars of the Middle East, and the tortuous struggle of global leadership even to own up to, let alone energetically confront, the overwhelming challenges of climate change have dramatically altered the mood of debate since the time that Tomlinson was writing in what now seem the halcyon years of the late 1980s.
(2) Disenchantment and exasperation at the United States’ exploitation of its position as the world’s undisputed military leader following the demise of the Soviet Union as shown in ever more incessant sequences of attacks, invasions, occupations, “color revolutions,” and general meddling, often through proxies, in the internal affairs of what were once innocently regarded as “sovereign nations.” Some of this is a continuation of strategies first played out under the rubric of the “Cold War,” which, although it entailed a long-standing conflict between the forces of democratic capitalism, socialism, and communism, can also be thought of as a war by the United States and its allies against the Third World.
(3) The politics of the “war on terror,” sometimes in the guise of a war by the West on Islam (a self-fulfilling outcome of the idea of a “clash of civilizations,” a concept proposed by Washington insider and intellectual Samuel Huntington in his 1996 response to Fukuyama (1992). This has exposed layers of complicity between mainstream as well as many non-mainstream media with centers of political and economic power. Indeed, there sometimes is no real division of interest between media and other centers of power, because of close media connections either to the political or to the corporate establishments (inasmuch as these are still identifiably separate entities).
The idea of “media imperialism” and the relationships between media and empire had become once again very real, very relevant by the end of the second decade of the 21st century. Much work in this vein continues to focus—not without good reason—on the United States and its global media influence, and discussion still tends towards media-centricity. However, this generation of imperialism studies has the benefit of connections with a broader—one might say vast—background of work in media and culture, within and across communities and nations, a body of work that is a great deal more sophisticated theoretically, conceptually, and methodologically than its parent literatures. Much of it recognizes that understanding of media and culture needs increasingly to take account of local, transnational, and global configurations of power. The concept and relevance of hybrid cultural and media practices is much more frequently addressed (see Straubhaar, 2007; Kraidy, 2005, 2010). There is a strong interest in middle-ranging centers of media production such as the Korean Wave (Kim, 2013), Bollywood (Mankekar, 1999; Ganti, 2012), and Nollywood (Krings & Okome, 2013), on media exports from South American countries such as Argentina, Brazil, and Venezuela (Sinclair & Straubhaar, 2013), on national, local, and alternative media, including ethnographies of national cinemas within global networks (see Decherney & Atwood, 2014 on Iranian cinema; Martin, 2016 on the Hollywood and Hong Kong film industries). There is an emerging wealth of work on national and regional news agencies (see Boyd-Barrett, 2010 and Aguiar, 2017 on international and national news agencies; Rantanen, 1990 and Boyd-Barrett, 2014 for news agencies of the Soviet Union and Russia; and Xin, 2012 on news agencies of China); and a large literature dedicated to the study of Al Jazeera (e.g., Seib, 2012).
In a broad-sweeping global survey (Tunstall, 2007), Tunstall reprised his 1977 work with a new title, The Media Were American. In most parts of the world, Tunstall argued, and especially in the more powerful economies, national media systems showed strong evidence of vigorous, nationally indigenous media activity and relatively little dependence on media imports. However, Tunstall’s focus was principally on the “old” media. He dwelt more on issues of relative decline in export activity than on overall capital accumulation. He did not weigh the importance of the US-fostered neoliberal model responsible for privatization and liberalization of many media markets, nor did he dwell long on the importance of media for the advertising of products from the US-led multinational corporate sector and for the promotion of US propaganda on behalf of its stated goal of global hegemony. (For an extended critique of Tunstall’s work, see Boyd-Barrett, 2008). Covering both “old” and “new” media or either one of these, several authors (e.g., Boyd-Barrett, 2006, 2015; Mirrlees, 2013, 2016; Miller & Kraidy, 2016) demonstrated US market supremacy continuing across most sectors of the information, electronic, entertainment, and telephony industries—in terms of overall revenues and profits generated, global presence, and, perhaps most important, capital accumulation. Boyd-Barrett (2015) considered news, movies, television, music recording, video and computer games, computer hardware and software, IT goods and services, wireless telephony, advertising, copyrights and patents, and ICT industries. Miller and Kraidy (2016) considered cinema, television, games, producers, blockbusters, coproductions, and public subventions.
Three major conceptual advances have been achieved by the new wave of media and cultural imperialism studies:
(1) Platform Imperialism. This concept has been coined by Jin (2013) as part of a broader disciplinary project of integration of the treatment of “old,” “legacy,” or “heritage” media with “new” or “converged” media (person-to-person, one-to-many, many-to-many electronic, digital media, extending to both hardware and software, encompassing consumption and “pro-sumption,” professional and social media). Its earlier development was chronicled in part by Dan Schiller (1999) and Boyd-Barrett (2006). In his 2015 book, Jin argues that social network sites (e.g., Facebook), search engines (e.g., Google), and smartphones (e.g., iPhone) function as major digital media intermediaries—they are the channels through which, increasingly, other voices and other media must pass in order for them to reach audiences and attract advertising. Yet access to these audiences is increasingly threatened by neoliberal attacks on the concept of network neutrality. Emerging companies in non-Western countries (above all, China) have created unique platforms, sometimes managing to control their own national markets and competing with Western-based platform empires in the global markets. But only a handful of Western countries, primarily the United States, have dominated the global platform markets, resulting in capital accumulation in the hands of a few mega platform owners. Miriyam Aouragh and Paula Chakravartty (2016) consider the rise of platform imperialism within the context of the formation of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) and of intra-imperial competition that complicates earlier Eurocentric narratives of media and empire.
(2) Soft Power. There has been considerable interest in the development in recent years of “soft power” strategizing—the application of a term coined by Joseph Nye (2005) to systematic attempts by states to develop sources of positive affect internationally, which can then be exploited for propaganda purposes—much as it is widely thought Hollywood helped to project a positive image of the United States overseas through the first and second world wars. In this way, Hollywood became an exemplar of bold, democratic, and independent nationhood and helped point the way forward for the colonized peoples of the British, Dutch, French, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish empires. Hollywood also provided a window display for the American Dream of material prosperity and acted as a covert advertisement for American products and as an advocate for US foreign policy goals and US “values.” The BBC performed similarly on behalf of British imperial interest over many decades, and continues to do so, presenting a favorable view of Britain as a benign power and the BBC itself as a manifestation of “British values” of free speech, rationality, and progressivism. State backing for soft power strategies is one important arena of political-cultural integration that has encouraged Sparks (2012) to reformulate the concept of cultural imperialism as one of continuing importance and relevance. Boyd-Barrett (2015) discusses China’s application of the principle of soft power to the thinking behind initiatives such as the global network of Confucius Institutes; Thussu (2013) discusses the case of India.
(3) Inside the Black Box. Previous generations of political economists were largely reduced to speculation about what went on inside the “black box” in their attempts to unpack the nexus of conversation between the political, administrative, and corporate realms on the one hand and the cultural apparatus on the other, in a way that would help explain the steady constancy with which mainstream information and entertainment media, while allowing some variation of viewpoint within a narrow range, continued to support the “national interest” of ruling elites in whichever countries they are headquartered, while also respecting the interests of these elites’ international allies. In the case of movies, Miller et al. (2001, 2008) showed how Hollywood has long benefited from state subventions that have helped it maintain its international hegemony. Mathew Alford (2010), Jin (2011), Mathew Alford and Tom Secker (2017), Tricia Jenkins (2013), Mirrlees (2016), and Moody (2017) have each provided original documentation of how the US military, intelligence agencies, and diplomatic services routinely favor and influence movies that they believe will boost recruitment and project a positive image both of American power and of the role of their respective agencies in securing that power. Similar developments are emerging in other media realms (e.g., Boyd-Barrett, 2004a in the case of the press; Mirrlees, 2016 in the case of games).
Review of Literature
A thorough reading in the study of cultural imperialism would encompass the different phases of its development over time, across different aspects of culture and media activity, and across some of the principal contributing disciplines (but with particular reference to cultural studies, political economy of media, sociology, and social psychology of media).
In the first phase, scholars who are interested in media and communication begin to enquire as to the interconnections between media and communication on the one hand and phenomena of imperialism on the other. A frequent starting point are the works of Harold Innis (1950, 1951) and the works of scholars who consciously connected back to Innis; these included Marshall McLuhan (1962, 1964, 1967), Dallas Smythe (1981), and Jeremy Tunstall (1977). In addition, there are a cluster of influential writers from the 1960s and 1970s many of whom were politically engaged in or otherwise sympathetic to anti-imperialist nationalist movements and for whom the relationships between culture, media, and imperialism constituted a part of these struggles. Significant names included Franz Fanon (1963), Amilcar Cabral (1973), Luis Beltrán (1980), Herbert Schiller (1969, 1976), Armand Mattelart and Ariel Dorfman (1975), and Sean McBride (chair of the 1980 UNESCO McBride Report).
Approaches to cultural and media imperialism were then developed by both these and a much wider range of different scholars in studies that still connected positively with the line of cultural and media imperialism but sought to develop and in some cases go beyond it, both at the theoretical level (see, e.g., Boyd-Barrett, 1977, 1998; Smith, 1980; Lee, 1980; Fejes, 1981; Hamelink, 1983; Garnham, 1990; Straubhaar, 1991; Said, 1993; Herman & McChesney, 1997; Roach, 1997; Golding & Harris, 1997) and at the empirical levels (see, e.g., Guback, 1969 on international movies, Nordenstreng & Varis, 1974 on television flows, Mattelart, 1979 on multinational media corporations, Boyd-Barrett, 1980 on news agencies, McPhail, 1987 and Larsen, 1990 on film and television flows, and Segrave, 1997, 1998 on Hollywood domination of film and television flows).
Some of these studies contain full or partial critiques of cultural and media imperialism theories. Other works clearly strive for a new paradigm, usually related to ideas of globalization, neoliberalism, or cultural globalization. Some of the major works in this vein include Giddens (1991), Anderson (1988), Tomlinson (1991, 1998), Appadurai (1992), Kraidy (2005), Winseck and Pike (2007), and Tunstall (2007).
More recent studies that indicate a revival, even in reformulated terms, of cultural and media imperialism theories include Curtin (2003), Chalaby (2005), Boyd-Barrett (2006, 2015), Sparks (2007, 2012), Alford (2010), Demont-Heinrich (2011), Mirrlees (2013, 2016), Jin (2015), and Aouragh and Chakravartty (2016).
Further Readings on Cultural and Media Imperialism
There are at least two principal directions to take in further reading on the study of cultural and media imperialism. The first is to take up the challenge posed by Boyd-Barrett (2015), which is to investigate more closely the imperial interests at play in the way in which media headquartered in the imperial powers and their proxies cover events related to the conflicts which those powers instigate or are otherwise involved. There is strong evidence of witting or unwitting complicity. Boyd-Barrett examines media coverage of the pretexts given by imperial powers for their involvement in such conflicts, from World War I onwards, but paying particular attention to US invasions and occupations of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria, and also to several decades of western media hostility toward Iran and their participation in disinformation concerning the “threat” of Iran’s (nonexistent) nuclear weapons. Further evidence since publication of his book in 2015, such as that conveyed in Davidson (2016), confirms the broad direction of his argument. In addition, Boyd-Barrett has conducted a book-length analysis of western mainstream media coverage of the Ukraine-Crimea crisis. Such studies add to a voluminous literature on media coverage of and contribution to war. A good starting point for an introductory entry into this literature is Stuart Allen and Barbie Zelizer’s 2004 volume, together with any of many outstanding critical analyses of western media coverage of international crises (the three volumes from the “Media Lens” team led by Cromwell, 2012; Cromwell & Edwards, 2006, 2009, are a case in point).
The second direction is towards contextualizing cultural imperialism discourses within a broader trajectory of the development of cultural and media studies. At least five subdisciplinary areas are of particular relevance: modernization theory (to obtain an understanding of the orthodoxy against which cultural imperialism theorists positioned themselves), for example, Lerner (1958), Lucian Pye and Sidney Verba (1969), and Schramm (1964); postmodernization studies of communication and development (see Servaes, 2008, Melkote & Steeves, 2015, and Tufte, 2017 for broad overviews); the “effects” tradition and its evolution through the “uses and gratifications” school, to ideas of the “active viewer” and “interpretive communities” (see Dickinson et al., 1998 and Gauntlet, 2007 for broad overviews); the political economy of communication (see Mosco, 2009; Jin & Winseck, 2012 for introductory overviews); and postcolonial studies (see Ashcroft, Griffiths, & Tiffin, 2013 for an introductory overview). There is also a wide variety of cultural studies texts that bear on many of the central themes discussed in this entry but come to them from a cultural studies rather than political economy perspective; these typically exhibit greater nuance in their understanding of culture (e.g., Baudrillard, 2002; Boorstin, 1995; Hall et al., 2016; Mumford, 2010; Ong & Hartley, 2012; Williams, 2006).
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