Communication Cultural Imperialism Theories
by
Rodrigo Gómez García, Ben Birkinbine
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0209

Introduction

The theory of cultural imperialism has its roots in critical communication scholarship and was used to describe the growing influence of the United States and its commercial media system around the world, specifically in the context of the Cold War, after the Second World War, when the United States and the Soviet Union were attempting to compel and persuade other countries to adopt their respective socioeconomic systems. The theory specifically focused on the ways in which US culture was being spread to and sometimes imposed upon developing nations by US communications and media corporations, by specific media products and their imagery and messages, and by the expansion of the private model of the media system. The critical edge to the theory was its staunch criticism of the strategies and tactics used by the United States in this regard and how the US communications and media system expanded and maintained the asymmetrical economic, political, and cultural power relations between the United States and other countries in the world system. Correspondingly, the theory was also used as a basis for arguing that those people who were subjected to cultural imperialism ought to be granted the right to develop their own sovereign national media systems. The struggle to develop those systems occurred within the context of national liberation struggles against the remnants of Western territorial colonialism and the new de-territorialized imperialism of both the US and Soviet empires. However, the theory was challenged on at least a couple different fronts. The first challenge came from cultural studies researchers who questioned the total homogenizing influences of mass-produced media content on audiences. Drawing from ethnographic and reception studies of audiences, these researchers demonstrated how American media influence was rarely as totalizing and complete as the cultural imperialism theory suggested. Rather, such commercial images and messages were also subject to local adaptation, indigenization and resistance and therefore not always influencing of audiences. A second line of critique focused more on the national economic and political structure of non-US media systems and whether those systems were directly influenced by the United States. Scholars within this area focused on ownership patterns and the structures of media systems, including the impact of dominant, far-reaching systems of government influence and industrial media production that establish prevalent media models or channels. In addition, these scholars focused on whether such systems enable or constrain alternative media forms and functions, and the degree to which they set routine parameters for discourse, thereby shaping the sociocultural norms that media tend to promote and the political and economic interests they routinely serve. Over time, these criticisms of the cultural imperialism thesis have been re-integrated within it, further strengthening its analytical value. Some scholars have sought to revise the theory by incorporating some of the criticisms, while others have tried to reemphasize the value of the original theory. Indeed, the theory’s utility continues to be debated, particularly in light of historical changes and other emergent trends that have reshaped the geopolitical economy of the global communication system. In addition to these ongoing debates, the theory has also shown dynamism in the way that it has been applied across various academic fields in the social sciences and the humanities.

Core Texts

The entries in this section address the more influential texts that figure prominently within the early ideas of cultural and media imperialism during the 1970s, such as Schiller 1969, Schiller 1973, Schiller 1976, Mattelart 1976, and Mattelart 1979. The foundations of the media or cultural imperialism theory were laid during the 1970s in the context of the Cold War and the Non Aligned Movement’s struggle for a New World Information and Communication Order at UNESCO, and developed by political economy of communications scholars, North and South, East and West. In addition, the development of the idea of media and cultural imperialism had a substantial impact in policy international circles. Even though Schiller 1969 is often identified as originating the theory, the conceptual basis for the theory has a shared history both within the United States as well as Latin American authors such as Armand Mattelart, Hector Schmucler, Rafael Reyes Mata, Luis R. Beltrán, and Elizabeth Fox, among others. Also included are other influential works that have contributed to the development of the notion from a geopolitical and critical perspective since the 1970s, such as Tunstall 1977, Boyd-Barrett 1977, and Boyd-Barrett 1998. Another important book is Schiller 1989, which focuses on the growing power of transnational corporate conglomerates to shape and colonize in a wider sense the organization of culture in the United States.

  • Boyd-Barrett, Oliver. 1977. Media imperialism: Towards an international framework for the analysis of media Systems. In Mass communication and society. Edited by James Curran, Michael Gurevitch, and John Woollacott, 116–135. London: Edward Arnold.

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    Outlines the contours of media imperialism as a general thesis to explain the processes by which a given country’s media systems are shaped by or subject to pressures from another country without proportionate reciprocation. The remainder of the chapter is spent discussing “four modes of media imperialism,” which include the shape of the communication vehicle, a set of industrial arrangements, a body of values, and specific media content. In addition, he outlines the necessary preconditions for media imperialism, as well as the consequences and implications of media imperialism.

  • Boyd-Barrett, Oliver. 1998. Media imperialism reformulated. In Electronic empires: Global media and local resistance. Edited by Daya Thussu, 157–176. London: Arnold.

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    In this chapter, Boyd-Barrett responds to ongoing debates at the time about the usefulness of the “media imperialism” concept in light of developments within theories of globalization. His argument is that media imperialism is still a relevant, as it directly examines the relationship between national economies and the global capitalist economy and focuses attention on the ways that culture and media sustain that relationship.

  • Mattelart, Armand. 1976. Cultural imperialism in the multinationals’ age. Instant Research on Peace and Violence 6.4: 160–174.

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    This early article by Mattelart aims to address the specific forms of US cultural imperialism in Latin America, particularly in the age of multinationals and the supremacy of local bourgeois and authoritarian regimes. He understands that the US multinational firms have a double function as agents for economic penetration and ideological propaganda, on one hand, while also serving as agents of order, on the other.

  • Mattelart, Armand. 1979. Multinational corporations and the control of culture: The ideological apparatuses of imperialism. Brighton, UK: Harvester.

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    In this book, Mattelart gives an important overview of the interlocks between multinational corporations and the different forms they use for the control of culture, particularly in the Third World. This book is an example of the transnational issues related to communication, culture, and information from a critical perspective.

  • Schiller, Herbert I. 1969. Mass communication and American empire. Boston: Beacon Press.

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    This book is the primary source text for the cultural imperialism theory. Schiller argued that the United States emerged following the Second World War as a new kind of empire without formal territorial colonies. Rather, its systems of mass communication were used to impose its influence around the globe. In addition, US media are commercial products and tools of Americanization that dominate the airwaves, cinemas, and cultures of other countries without reciprocation of influence by them.

  • Schiller, Herbert. 1973. The mind managers. Boston: Beacon Press.

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    In this book, Schiller turns his attention to the ways in which consciousness is being manipulated by those he calls “mind managers (MM),” which are those who control the means of communication and mass culture. The dynamics of MM are shaped by a complex interplay of forces from government, media, military, corporations, public opinion polling, popular culture, and information technology. Schiller explores the concrete ways in which the mechanisms and messages of the MM have become seemingly normal and inevitable components of social life.

  • Schiller, Herbert. 1976. Communication and cultural domination. White Plains, NY: ME Sharpe.

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    While Mass Communication and American Empire is the first Schiller book associated with his cultural imperialism theory, in this book he offers a more accurate definition. In fact, in this book we can find the most cited quotation related with cultural imperialism (p. 9). Schiller conceptualized US cultural imperialism as part of the broader US project of empire.

  • Schiller, Herbert. 1989. Culture, Inc. New York: Oxford University Press.

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    Focuses on the growing power of transnational corporate conglomerates to shape and colonize in a wider sense the organization of culture in the United States. Specifically, Schiller expands and updates the “culture industry” thesis of the Frankfurt School by demonstrating how those spheres that were previously imagined as separated from corporate ownership and commercialization, such as the fine arts and education, have been integrated into capitalist productions.

  • Schiller, Herbert I. 1992. Mass communication and American empire. 2d ed. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

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    In this updated edition, published twenty-three years after the original, Schiller responds to and elaborates upon some ideas that were criticized or discredited from the original idea of cultural domination. Perhaps most importantly, he added an entire chapter, “A Quarter-Century Retrospective,” to address those critiques. The chapter answers the question of what differentiates the 1990s from the mid-1960s with respect to media-cultural influence by specifically arguing that a distinctly “American” cultural imperialism had become “trans-nationalized.”

  • Tunstall, Jeremy. 1977. The media are American: Anglo-American media in the world. London: Constable.

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    In this classic book, Tunstall focuses on the export of media from the United States to countries around the world. As such, he argues that the world’s media systems are largely dominated by US products. Rather than focusing purely on the content of media, however, Tunstall also focuses his attention on the ways in which styles and patterns of media production and consumption have also been exported around the world. His central thesis is that media are about more than merely their content; they are about politics, commerce, and ideas.

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