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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.


Srinivas Melkote and H. Leslie Steeves

The decades that immediately followed World War II witnessed the political independence of most of the so-called Third World from colonization and the birth of the United Nations, marking the formal beginning of development and directed social change to facilitate it. The role of communication in development (devcom) has evolved according to the overarching goals of the development programs and theories during each historical period since then. The process of modernization, in which devcom was initially nurtured, was influenced by quantitative and empirical social sciences theory, philosophy, and methodology; in particular, it had a strong economics orientation. It has been one of the most powerful paradigms in development study and practice to originate after World War II, with enormous economic, social, and cultural consequences. Concepts and theories that articulated the development of Western Europe and North America were used by sociologists, economists, political scientists, anthropologists, and others to generate development models for countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Mass media were accorded a central position in the modernization paradigm. The use of media for transmission of information and for persuasion, derived from World War II–related psychological warfare research in the United States, were transferred to areas such as extension education, instruction, agricultural, and health extension in development. By the 1970s, the concept of development and change expanded to include many more types of social change guided by different theories, disciplinary influences, geographical considerations, and methodologies. Change now included a widely participatory process of social change in a society and included social and cultural aspects besides the economic. While the participatory mode of communication for development programs and activities was a welcome addition to the devcom toolbox, the definitions of participation reflected a wide variety of approaches. In many contexts, the level of participation required by the people was low and perfunctory. Toward the end of the 1980s, the concept and practice of empowerment expanded upon the earlier objective of participation in development communication models and practice. Broadly, empowerment is a process by which individuals, organizations, and communities gain control and mastery over their social and economic conditions. The concept and practice of empowerment posed a challenge to the identity and practice of development communication. It changed the way communication was conceptualized earlier and used in development and change work. At present, social justice within the processes of development and social change has gained traction and urgency. In the last 40 years, there has been a steep increase in income inequality and individual opportunity globally. Millions of people are still exposed to life-threatening diseases, malnutrition, hunger, and other debilitating conditions, and have very limited access to basic resources, such as education and healthcare. What are the progressive alternatives to the neoliberal model of directed change? What should be the place and role of devcom in alternative approaches? These concerns are addressed by anchoring ideas within a critical theory of social change for social justice.