“The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas: i.e., the class which is the ruling material force of society is at the same time its ruling intellectual force”. ~ Karl Marx, The German Ideology (1845).

“Cultural imperialism rests on the power to universalize particularisms linked to a singular historical tradition by causing them to be misrecognized as such”. ~ Pierre Bourdieu & Lois Wacquant (1999, p. 41).

“What, after all, distinguishes an empire? It is a major actor in the international system based on the subordination of diverse national elites who—whether under compulsion or from shared convictions—accept the values of those who govern the dominant center or metropole. The inequality of power, resources, and influence is what distinguishes an empire from an alliance….Empires function by virtue of the prestige they radiate as well as by might, and indeed collapse if they rely on force alone. Artistic styles, the language of the rulers, and consumer preferences flow outward along with power and investment capital—sometimes diffused consciously by cultural diplomacy and student exchanges, sometimes just by popular taste for the intriguing products of the metropole, whether Coca Cola or Big Mac”. ~ Charles S. Maier, Harvard historian (2002, p. 28).

“For the United States, a central objective of an Information Age foreign policy must be to win the battle of the world’s information flows, dominating the airwaves as Great Britain once ruled the seas”. ~ David Rothkopf (1997, p. 39), US Department of Commerce, first administration of US President Bill Clinton.

“America stands supreme in the four decisive domains of global power….culturally…it enjoys an appeal that is unrivalled, especially among the world’s youth—all of which gives the United States a political clout that no other state comes close to matching. It is the combination of all four that makes America the only comprehensive global superpower”. ~ Zbigniew Brzezinski, National Security Adviser to US President Jimmy Carter, The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and its Geostrategic Imperatives (1997, p. 14).

January 15 – April 8, 2020
Fridays: 11:45am–2:30pm
Campus: SGW, H-431
(Coursepack available from the Concordia Bookstore)

Hamburgers, Coca-Cola, Hollywood, English, pop music, blue jeans, chewing gum, and the dollar. Harvard, Columbia, and Stanford. Rockefeller, Carnegie, Kellogg, and Fulbright. Bank of America, Sheraton Hotels, and AT&T. NBC, General Electric. NATO, neoliberalism. Add to these “McDomination,” “Coca-colonization,” and various ideas about the “Disneyization” of the world, or the “McDonaldization” of society, or “Wal-Martization,” and one begins to get a sense of the compass of critical theories of “cultural imperialism”. Such theories, once prevalent in the 1960s and 1970s, have received new life in the early 21st-century as it became clearer that “globalization” was not an amorphous, multidirectional free flow of culture between equals, but rather a new phase of dominance and inequality, of the production of a hierarchy of values on a global scale. But what does “imperialism” have to do with this?

As the opening quotes suggest, this course is about the combination of culture, knowledge, ideology and power, on a large international scale, as shaped by a powerful state in alliance with, or at the service of, a transnational capitalist class. We begin by focusing on a theoretical approach in the social sciences concerning what theorists call “cultural imperialism”—an approach that is arguably among social science’s most prominent and influential theories, internationally and especially in formerly colonized nations, and one that is still controversial. We shall thus consider the many limitations and criticisms of these theories, while ending the course with an examination of how cultural imperialism has been resuscitated in practice, if not vindicated in theory. While answers to the many questions raised by this course (see section 3 below for a sample) will often be fragmentary, inconclusive, and open to considerable debate, the real value of the course lies in developing the most productive questions about matters which are often removed from question about contemporary political and cultural problems and conflicts.

Theories of cultural imperialism, which arose from sociology and communication studies in the late 1960s and then especially the 1970s, often explained the phenomenon as one that involves the domination of other cultures by products of the US culture industries primarily, as these theories often focused their attention on the US as the leading producer and global distributor of movies, music, news, and commercial advertising. One of the leading theorists, Herbert I. Schiller, defined cultural imperialism more broadly as, “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 even bribed into shaping social institutions to correspond to, or even promote, the values and structures of the dominating ‘centre of the system’” (Schiller, 1976, p. 9). However, from the 1980s onward, cultural imperialism began to be used interchangeably with “media imperialism,” “ideological imperialism,” and “electronic colonialism”. Media imperialism focused on the dominance of US-originated media and media content, a dominance that grew from the end of World War II through the Cold War. The media were seen as functioning as systemic mechanisms to propagate capitalism through cultural homogenization. Studies of US-dominated media literacy, US media conventions, and US market domination in media, found the cultural imperialism thesis to still be useful, especially as Hollywood and “the seven majors” continue to dominate the audio-visual landscape of most countries. While acknowledging the significance of “media imperialism” as a phenomenon that is still important, critics within the field felt that it featured too prominently, and they began looking at other ways some cultures attempt to dominate others, i.e., through science, religion, the arts, education, language, and so forth. Indeed, some of the earliest references to “cultural imperialism” in academic journals date back to the 1930s, with reference to the role of Christian missionaries in China.

While heavily focused on the role of mass media and advertising of consumer products, cultural imperialism has commonly been associated with the cultural ways in which capitalism has been spread, and is often associated with the leading imperial power of the present times, the United States, such that this field often bleeds into an exposé and critique of cultural “Americanization”. However, even while acknowledging the key role played by the US, many newer critical theories of cultural imperialism link with studies of neoliberalism and structural adjustment policies that have paved the way for Western media, governance, education, arts, self-interpretation, etc. Thus the scope of study of cultural imperialism now factors in the role of liberalized markets, US-style politics, the influence of US elites on local oligarchies, and the formation of a global network of economic, political, and military leaders.

Critics of the theory of “cultural imperialism” argued that what the proponents of the theory were discussing was not actually imperialism; anthropologists demonstrated that there has been no homogenization of cultures; in the same vein, ethnographers showed active selection, not passive audiences that merely absorbed and internalized whatever came from abroad; while others balked at the slogan-like simplifications and accusations present in writings about cultural imperialism. Others note that the spread of Western cultural products requires that infrastructures, rules, and technical specialists be put in place, and that markets exist for such products, both of which are two very serious contradictions/limitations to cultural imperialism. In response, those defending the theory of cultural imperialism partially revised their work and responded to some of the criticisms: that we cannot isolate the production of meaning from its political economic context, and that coercion still happens; that selective diffusion/reception do happen means that the cultural imperialism thesis needs to be modified, but not necessarily rejected.

Unfortunately, often pushed into the background (if not further), are older anthropological theories of relevance, such as theories of nativism, revitalization, cargo cults, and creolization. This course also inserts anthropological work on “technological determinism,” as a long-neglected approach of relevance to cultural imperialism, understood in the deepest possible sense.

The literature used for this course examines how political and economic forces shape the content and distribution of ideas, with the end result being ideological hegemony, or the “preponderant influence” of a particular way of thinking about self and the world. In other words, a large part of cultural imperialism has to do with the exertion of power in telling us what to think (e.g. media effects), what to think about (e.g. agenda setting), and even how to think (e.g. technological determinism), in order that we may do certain things (e.g. become loyal consumers and obedient citizens). Currently, cultural imperialism encompasses issues of consumption, governance, education, language, media ownership, media messaging, and the exporting of “culture” via the Western-dominated film industry. More recently, cultural imperialism has grown to include the practice of the US military-industrial complex in producing misinformation, which has led to renewed interest in cultural imperialism in contemporary debates about soft power, Hollywood’s collaboration with the US military, cultural diplomacy, and the dominance of cyberspace.

Thematic Structure of the Seminar

To begin by summarizing, the seminar is essentially structured as follows, with the focus being on the theory (or theories) of cultural imperialism:

What was/is the theory  criticisms of the theory  apologia, resuscitation

The following is an outline of the topics covered in this seminar:

  1. Introduction—Defining Cultural Imperialism
  2. The First Debates about Cultural Imperialism
  3. Histories of Cultural Imperialism
  4. Theories of Cultural Imperialism, Part 1
  5. Theories of Cultural Imperialism, Part 2
  6. US Anthropology and “Culture Change,” Part 1
  7. Anthropology and “Culture Change,” Part 2
  8. Canadian Approaches to Culture, Technology, and Empire
  9. Canadian Anthropology and Technological Determinism
  10. US Anthropological Critiques of Theories of Cultural Imperialism
  11. Media Imperialism and the Revival of Studies of Cultural Imperialism
  12. Academic and Scientific Imperialism