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Reconsidering Cultural Imperialism Theory

Introduction: Cultural imperialism--The nascent stages 
Critical theorists have coined various phrases in reference to notions of "cultural imperialism." An examination of the international communication literature will reveal several different terms such as "media imperialism" (Boyd-Barrett, 1977); "structural imperialism" (Galtung, 1979); "cultural dependency and domination" (Link, 1984; Mohammadi, 1995); "cultural synchronization" (Hamelink, 1983); "electronic colonialism" (McPhail, 1987); "communication imperialism" (Sui-Nam Lee, 1988); "ideological imperialism", and "economic imperialism"(Mattleart, 1994) - all relating to the same basic notion of cultural imperialism. Different international scholars who have written on the subject attribute its beginnings to different sources as well.

According to Salwen (1991), the issue of cultural imperialism emerged largely from communication literature involving development and political economy. These orientations ultimately constructed formulations concerning cultural heritage and behavior based on an analysis of government, corporate policy and practice. Mattelart (1994) argues that since the end of the 1960s, these terms, used by a Jacques Rigaud, alarmed about the loss of French cultural influence in the era of information technologies, and by a Zbigniew Brzezinski, who believed them outmoded, have run through studies on the role of communications in the relations among nations.

Cultural imperialism gained prominence in the 1970s. The theory, according to Roach (1997), was most prominent in Latin America producing "a host of adherents including Antonio Pasquali (1963), Luis Ramiro Beltran (1976), Fernandez Reyes Matta (1977) and Mario Kaplun (1973)" (p. 47). The theory provided one of the major conceptual thrusts behind the movement for a New World Information and Communication Order, involving international organizations such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and regarding the flow of information between nations of the world. At that time, scholars proposed grouping the various currents of critical research on international communication under the heading "media imperialism." Among them was British scholar J. Oliver Boyd-Barrett who defined media imperialism as "the process whereby the ownership, structure, distribution, or content of the media in any country are singly or together subject to substantial external pressures from the media interests of any other country or countries, without proportionate reciprocation of influence by the country so affected"(Boyd-Barrett, 1977, p. 117). However, many felt that Boyd-Barrett's definition was much too narrow to account for the multiplicity of forms taken by power relations among various cultures.

Herbert Schiller in his 1976 work "Communication and Cultural Domination" proposed the use of the term "cultural imperialism" to describe and explain the way in which large multinational corporations, including the media, of developed countries dominated developing countries. He has been lauded as one of the major proponents of cultural imperialism theory and his 1976 publication is often cited in studies relating to cultural imperialism. Roach (1997) identifies other main proponents of the theory besides Schiller, purporting that "some of the most influential theorists in the field have been Westerners: the Belgian Armand Mattleart�and the Canadian Dallas Smythe" (p. 48).

Although Schiller's work focused mainly on the area of communication, a review of the cultural imperialism literature reveals that cultural imperialism has been used as a framework by scholars of other academic backgrounds and various disciplines to explain phenomena in the areas of international relations, anthropology, education, sciences, history, literature, and sports. Indeed, cultural imperialism has a broad scope when one acknowledges the various disciplines in which it has been applied. However, in an attempt to narrow the focus of the following analysis, I have chosen to focus on cultural imperialism as it relates to the communication discipline.

The Central Proposition of Cultural Imperialism 
Although several authors have posited their own interpretations of cultural imperialism, the main proposition of the theory can be identified in the work of one of the main cultural imperialism theorists. Cultural imperialism proposes that a society is brought into the modern world system when its dominating stratum is attracted, pressured, forced, and sometimes bribed into shaping its social institutions to correspond to, or even promote, the values and structures of the dominating center of the system (Schiller, 1976).

Major constructs of cultural imperialism 
Emanating mainly from a critical perspective, cultural imperialism does not employ a precise set of terms to describe the phenomenon it attempts to explain. Most of the key terms are treated as primitive concepts (Chaffee, 1991) as it is assumed that their basic meaning is understood. Based on the proposition outlined above by Schiller (1976), some of the key constructs are:

"modern world system": a primitive concept which implies capitalism

"society": a primitive concept which implies any country or community within specific geographic boundaries, considered to be lesser developed than the dominating center

"dominating center of the system": refers to developed countries or what has been commonly referred to in the discourse on the international flow of information as center nations or Western power, contrary to the notion of center nations is that of peripheral nations-"developing countries," "dependent areas," "Third World," or "lesser developed country"

"values and structures": refers to the culture and actual organizations that originate from the dominating center and are foreign to the country considered to be lesser developed than the dominating center

Although not mentioned in Schiller's original expression of the main proposition, there are other concepts that have been used by various authors, as was seen in the first paragraph of this essay. Constructs such as "culture," "dependency," "domination," "media imperialism," "structural imperialism," "cultural synchronization," "electronic colonialism," "communication imperialism," "ideological imperialism," and "economic imperialism" are all present in the cultural imperialism literature. Although these are mostly treated as primitive concepts, an awareness of these is integral to an understanding of the theory of cultural imperialism.

After reviewing all the differing interpretations of cultural imperialism, it becomes apparent that the essence of cultural imperialism is domination by one nation over another. That relationship may be direct or indirect and based on a mixture of political or economic controls. The ways in which information is exchanged between nations has been explored through scholarly effort as a manifestation of cultural imperialism.

The Axioms of Cultural Imperialism 
Ontologically, cultural imperialists can be considered actional realists (Potter, 1996) who believe that there is a fixed reality that exists alongside an individual's or an organization's own created meaning of reality. Epistemologically, the proponents of cultural imperialism can be considered constructivists (Potter, 1996) who assume that ways of interpreting information about culture are created by transnational media organizations. These are the very basic assumptions guiding cultural imperialist thinking.

In addition to these, one can identify other axioms of cultural imperialism that were present when the theory was just gaining prominence. However, these have been tested and can no longer be seen as assumptions of the theory. Sui-Nam Lee (1988), for example, purported that "an active role on the part of the dominating country and a deleterious effect on the dominated one are assumed" (p. 69) in cultural imperialism. Ogan (1988) posited another axiom that "Third World consumers of [foreign] media products will be influenced by the values inherent in that content, the values of an alien and predominantly capitalist system" (p. 94). Arguably, at the time the theory was gaining currency in the 1970s, these were major assumptions behind the thinking of some theoreticians who proposed the theory.

However, taking into consideration all the scholarly work that has been conducted since that time, one can make a case that in retrospect these assumptions have been tested and disproved (see, for example, Liebes and Katz, 1990); therefore, they are no longer assumptions but now propositions that are mostly refuted by empirical research. This is not unusual as in conducting a review of the literature, one will not only find a large body of sources favoring the use of the theory but also a similar number opposing its utility and highlighting its limitations.

Another assumption of cultural imperialism is that media play a central role in creating culture. This axiom is linked to the interchangeable use of various terms to refer to cultural imperialism. Writers who talk about "cultural imperialism" as "media imperialism," treating the two terms as synonyms, bring into question the centrality of the media in claims of cultural imperialism. This practice implies that the media have such an overwhelming role in the process referred to as "cultural imperialism" that the word "cultural" can be interchanged with "media" from time to time. Of course, one must be careful in attributing this massive central significance to the media. To understand claims about media imperialism, one would need to examine the relationship of the media to other aspects of culture without assuming its centrality from the outset (Tomlinson, 1991).

Another assumption of the theory is that it presumes a centralized approach to the development and distribution of media products. The thinking here is that all media products originate from only center nations that have devious ulterior motives of deliberately wanting to dominate the media of periphery nations. This belief is based partly on the view that no periphery country will ever be able to produce media products of its own.

The major weaknesses of the theory 
There are a number of weaknesses that have been identified by various critics of the cultural imperialism thesis. These include:

- the theory lacks explanatory power and needs to be advanced beyond the level of pure description (Ogan, 1988); 
- the economic component of media imperialism may be expressed in statistics, but the cultural component is much more difficult to measure (Ogan, 1988);
- the theory lacks conceptual precision (Lee 1988); 
- the theory does not acknowledge an audience's ability to process information and interpret messages differently based on their individual background (Liebes & Katz, 1990); and 
- the theory does not hold true in all situations of the phenomenon that it attempts to explain (Sinclair, Jacka, and Cunningham, 1996).

In the following paragraphs, I address three of these weaknesses.

The theory lacks precise definitions. The lack of conceptual precision or consensus has been a major obstacle to the development of a precise theory to inform research on cultural imperialism (Fejes, 1981; Lee, 1988). This is evident in the myriad definitions that have been offered by different critical theorists. In addition to Boyd-Barrett's and Schiller's definitions stated earlier, others such as Beltran have offered their own interpretation of cultural imperialism. For Beltran (1987), cultural imperialism is "a verifiable process of social influence by which a nation imposes on other countries its set of beliefs, values, knowledge and behavioral norms as well as its overall style of life" (p. 184). Said (1993) actually separates the term cultural imperialism in his book "Culture and Imperialism" and he offers a straightforward definition of imperialism and colonialism. For Said, imperialism means "the practice, the theory and the attitudes of a dominating metropolitan center ruling a distant territory; colonialism, which is almost always a consequence of imperialism, is the implanting of settlements on distant territory" (p. 9). Sui-Nam Lee (1988) analyzed various terms relating to cultural imperialism, criticizing the theory for not being specific. But he does not help in making it any more specific as he proposes the use of yet another term - "communication imperialism" - complicating the notion of cultural imperialism. Table one gives an overview of various definitions of cultural imperialism.

The theory does not acknowledge the active media audience member. Active audience theorists, such as Tamar Liebes and Ien Ang, have conducted research illustrating how domestic audiences respond to Western media in an attempt to prove that cultural imperialism does not exist. Liebes studied the impact of the popular TV program "Dallas" in Israel. According to Schiller (1989), the "New York Times" generously devoted half a page to a discussion of Liebes work asserting that it "relates to a larger debate about the so-called American cultural imperialism - the extent to which American programs, art, culture, and other values are exported and overwhelm those of foreign countries."

Applying the active-audience frame of analysis, the study included four groups of Israeli viewers: Israeli Arabs, Moroccan Jewish immigrants, kibbutz members, and new Russian immigrants. Liebes found that the message imparted by "Dallas" depended on the viewer's values and varied according to the experiences of the particular group to which the viewer belonged. The viewer, therefore, actively produces meaning while consuming the media product or program. Another academic, Ien Ang, has also supported this finding through studying the impact of "Dallas" to confront what she termed "a stubborn fixation on the threat of American cultural imperialism" (as cited in Schiller, 1989, p. 150).

The theory is not supported in all situations of information exchange between nations. Australian scholars, Sinclair, Jacka, and Cunningham (1996), have published a book that presents scholarly writings on the television industries of periphery nations such as India, Brazil, Mexico, the Middle East, Canada and Australia to prove that the cultural imperialism theory does not hold true in all situations. For example, the Mexican based, Televisa, which produces 78% of all its programming and the Brazilian Globo Network, which produces 80%, have managed to secure and dominate their domestic markets to a degree unmatched by any English-speaking market. These new patterns in global television have been explained by scholars such as Straubhaar (2000) who posits that 'cultural proximity', a concept describing the way "audiences will tend to prefer that programming which is closest or most proximate to their own culture: national programming if it can be supported by the local economy" (p. 4), is responsible for media industries dominating a market and not necessarily "cultural imperialism."

Responses to criticisms 
Schiller responded to the criticism from active audience proponents in his 1989 work "Culture, Inc." In that book he argued, in reference to Liebes' dissertation, that

Assuredly, this was a finding most agreeable to the producers [of American media content] and one that sharply rebuffed the worriers who championed a new international information order. How heartening to the cultural message makers to learn that cultural imperialism does not exist! Each audience receives and makes its own message. Liebes concluded: "The idea of a simple 'American' message imposing itself in the same way on viewers all over the world is simply not valid."

But who would have made such a claim in the first place? The transfer of cultural values is a complex matter. It is not a one-shot hypodermic innoculation of individual plots and character representations. It involves the much more difficult to measure acceptance of deep-structured meanings that may not even be explicitly stated. Can the transfer, for example, of acquisitive or consumerist perspectives be simply quantified? (Schiller, 1989, p. 149).

In another article by Schiller (1991), he also responded further to active audience theorists, asking "How can one propose to extract one TV show, film, book, or even a group, from the now nearly seamless media-cultural environment and examine it (them) for specific effects?" (p. 24). He goes on further to question how can a researcher specify the individual source of an idea, value, perspective, or reaction. According to Schiller an individual's response, for example, to the television series "Dallas" may be the result of "half-forgotten images from a dozen peripheral encounters in the cultural supermarket" (p. 24).

An evaluation of the criticism and the theoretician's response 
The intention of presenting some of the various definitions of cultural imperialism is to demonstrate the range of thinking about the theory. Some may argue that this diversity is good as scholars with similar interests in imperialism would have a tacit but nevertheless mutual understanding of the various terms. But to scholars and students studying the theory for the first time and interested in learning more about it, these various definitions of the theory may be interpreted as inconsistency and confusion among the theoreticians.

Potter (1996) offers a typology for definitions in his analysis of qualitative research methods. Definitions, he purports, can be direct, indirect, that is, contrasting type, component-type, procedural-type, product-type. Using a similar approach to analyzing the various cultural imperialism definitions, one recognizes that cultural imperialism theorists have offered differing kinds of definitions (see table one) that have resulted in a broadening of the concept into different interpretations rather than a limiting of its definition to a precise interpretation. These different interpretations of the theory can be attributed to the fact that the critical school of theory-building is based on an ontological assumption of the nature of reality that acknowledges the existence of multiple realities, as well as a naturalistic, qualitative approach that celebrates diversity and differences in interpretation.

But one cannot merely denigrate cultural imperialism because of a lack of definitive precision. One must recognize and accept cultural imperialism for what it is - a critical theory; and as Litttlejohn (1999) argues "critical theories consist of a loose confederation [italics added] of ideas held together by a common interest in the quality of communication and human life" (p. 15). Critical theories therefore operate at a macro-level, albeit less specific, rather than at the micro-level. Cultural imperialism focuses on broader, less explicit issues of culture, transnational media and political economy while active audience theory focuses on the individual audience members.

One will note that this is one of the basic premises of the argument that cultural imperialists have used in defending the theory. Schiller, in response to active audience proponents, has contended that these researchers are basically trying to apply cultural imperialism to the micro-level or individual audience members and the theory does not attempt to explain this. Instead, the theory is designed for application to macro-level situations such as the flow of information between countries.

Schiller has also criticized the methodology of active audience researchers. Clearly, cultural imperialism cannot be studied from a purely positivistic quantitative perspective. Implicit in his critique, cited earlier, is the notion that cultural imperialism is a long-term process and therefore cannot be analyzed with "one-shot" analyses. An examination of cultural imperialism requires longitudinal analyses with media audience cohorts. But the studies that have been designed to test the theory have employed both qualitative and quantitative methods with some studies using a triangulation of methods. This leads us to an analysis of the cultural imperialism literature.

An evaluation of the set of empirical studies designed to test the theory 
Researchers, writing from a critical as well as a social scientific perspective, have done studies to test cultural imperialism. As Ware and Dupagne (1994) point out, "in the last decade [1985-1995], the number of qualitative and quantitative studies dealing with the impact of U.S. television on foreign audiences has increased dramatically" (p. 947). The impact of television on foreign audiences has been used as a test for the cultural imperialism thesis.

Size of literature. In determining the size of literature that pertains to cultural imperialism, keyword searches were conducted on an online library catalogue and an electronic index of communication serials (Comindex). "Cultural imperialism" and "media imperialism" were two main keywords used in searching titles of scholarly works. A search of the 94 communication journals of Comindex yielded 13 articles that had these words in their titles. Articles applying cultural imperialism to areas not involving media were ignored. An informal content analysis of the list of references found at the end of articles was conducted and those works that had the keywords in their titles were considered as literature relating to this theory. These have been collated in table two. These sources are by no means exhaustive but nevertheless those listed represent major sources cited most often in the literature. A sum of 27 journal articles and 14 books addressing cultural imperialism from a media perspective were found, totaling just over 40 works.

Degree and quality of empirical support. Studies found in the literature search have tended to criticize the shortcomings of cultural imperialism by doing research that refutes the theory's proposition. Researchers have "rejected the conspiratorial notion of Schiller's media imperialism by arguing that economics, audience preferences, government policies, and new technologies are important mediating or explanatory variables for the nature and direction of international program flow" (Ware and Dupagne, 1994, p. 947).

Research on cultural imperialism include: content analyses of media programming in developing countries (e.g. Sengupta and Frith, 1997); cross-cultural effects research, primarily based on surveys, stressing external validity through the use of large random samples, rather than a "thick description" of the phenomenon under study (e.g. Brown, 1995); and cross cultural reception analyses, primarily based on in-depth interviews and discourse analyses, emphasizing the importance of context, a multi-faceted condition that influences how viewers react to and derive meaning from television program messages (e.g. Liebes and Katz, 1990). Other scholars have compiled scholarly articles by various authors that analyze trends in media industries in various developing countries (e.g. Sinclair, Jacka, and Cunningham, 1996). Still yet, others have done meta-analyses of studies on foreign television's impact on local audiences using cultural imperialism as a framework for analyzing the various studies (e.g. Ware and Dupagne, 1994).

Elasmar and Hunter (1997) also did a similar meta-analysis of foreign television's impact on domestic audiences. However, unlike Ware and Dupagne, they do not use a single theory for analyzing their sample of 177 studies done between 1965 to 1994. Instead, as part of their analysis, they note how the theory has been used as the background to some of the research projects. They found that only 11% of all 177 studies used cultural imperialism as a theory for analyzing foreign media impact on local audiences.

Interestingly, most of the studies have narrowly focused on the effects of foreign television, in particular United States programming, on local audiences as an empirical test of cultural imperialism (Land, 1992; Ware and Dupagne, 1994; Elasmar and Hunter, 1997). Ware and Dupagne indicate that to conduct such a test, researchers have generally used "(1) critical analysis, (2) empirical analysis at the macro (i.e., country) level, or (3) empirical analysis at the micro (i.e., individual) level" (p. 947). The flow of international or foreign news between countries is another phenomenon that scholars attempt to explain using the framework of cultural imperialism (Meyer, 1988). Other forms of media such as radio and print are usually ignored. Laing (1986) recognizes this when he does an analysis of music using the cultural imperialism perspective.

From all these studies done, one could easily make the erroneous conclusion that a plethora of works on cultural imperialism obviously means there is empirical support for the theory. But a careful perusal of most of the literature will reveal that there is not much empirical support for cultural imperialism, because the majority of the research does not support the thesis. One is not surprised that this is the case. This lack of empirical support is definitely expected as many researchers do not follow a precisely defined set of propositions with specific concepts while designing their empirical test. In fact, there is no model to follow. At best, researchers base their work on their own interpretations of various purported meanings of cultural imperialism. How then can they be sure that they are all measuring or studying the same phenomenon when almost every other researcher has developed his or her own definition and interpretation of cultural imperialism?

A comparison of cultural imperialism theory and other theories of mass media 
Baran and Davis (2000) give an overview of mass communication theories indicating that they can be classified into three broad categories:

1. microscopic theories that focus on the everyday life of average people who possess the ability to process information - for example, uses and gratifications, active audience theory, and reception studies; 
2. middle range theories that support the limited effects perspective of the media by explaining narrow domains of action - for example, information flow theory, diffusion theory, and mass entertainment theory; and 
3. macroscopic theories that are more concerned with media's social role and their impact on culture and society - for example, cultural studies theory, social construction of reality, and neomarxism.

In this taxonomy of mass media theories, cultural imperialism falls within the category of macroscopic theories in that it attempts to offer a systematic explanation of media's role in the exchange of information between countries and their (i.e., the media) subsequent impact on the indigenous cultures of those countries. As each type of theory has a different focus, an effective comparison can be achieved by comparing cultural imperialism with those theories that have the same focus.

The criteria for evaluating theories--scope, precision, testability and utility--have been used in the following comparison of cultural imperialism and other macroscopic theories. These criteria have been suggested for evaluating mainly social scientific theories. However, even though cultural imperialism is considered mainly a critical theory, these criteria can still be used as cultural imperialism has been applied in social scientific research. Using these criteria, one can understand why cultural imperialism has been subjected to much criticism.

Although the theory--arguably--has broad scope as it attempts to cover a lot of the phenomenon related to relationships between nations, therein lies part of the theory's shortcoming. According to Fejes (1981), the theory is almost a "pseudo-concept, something which can be used to explain everything in general about media in developing countries and hence nothing in particular" (p. 282). This is further complicated by the fact that the theory lacks precisely defined constructs and propositions which makes it highly challenging to test the theory. With these inadequacies related to precision and testability, one can infer that the theory does not have much utility either. At best, the theory is descriptive and does not have much explanatory or predictive power.

Scope. Compared to other macroscopic theories of mass communication, one may conclude that cultural imperialism has broad scope. It has generated a lot of academic discourse. It has been used not only in the field of communication but also in other areas such as international relations, anthropology, education, sciences, history, literature, and sports. But this is not sufficient evidence to support the view that cultural imperialism may have broad scope. Like neomarxism, cultural imperialism is very specific to the time period in which it was being proposed. The Frankfurt School of neomarxism, for example, offers an explanation and critique of society and media that are particular to the time period, the early 1900s, in which it was proposed. Cultural imperialism, also, is probably very applicable to the time in which it was proposed, the 1970s; with the advent of advanced communication technologies that allow for a multi-directional as opposed to a uni-directional flow of information between countries, cultural imperialism is no longer a useful framework for explaining the same phenomena that it was applied to in the 1970s.

In this sense, it has limited scope as it cannot be used to explain media relations between nations at different points in time. Even though some may argue that it can still be applied to some situations today as the media of some periphery countries are even now dominated by Western transnational media corporations, the theory does not hold true in all situations. There are periphery countries such as Brazil, India, Mexico (Sinclair, Jacka, and Cunningham, 1996) that have media that are not dominated by foreign media organizations. Again, this proves that cultural imperialism does not have a broad scope. Other macroscopic theories such as symbolic interactionism and social construction of reality have more scope than cultural imperialism as they can be applied in different time periods across various cultural settings with different geographical backgrounds to describe and explain how a particular society create meaning and eventually their culture through the use of signs and symbols.

Precision. Cultural imperialism is not as precise as other theories in mass communication. The constructs of the theory are treated as primitive terms, that is, they are accepted as commonly understood or as given (Chaffee, 1991, p. 7). The proposition of the theory that one country's media dominate another can be interpreted as being operative in that some direction of influence is implied--the flow of information is one way from one country to the next. But this one-way flow of information is no longer predominant as advanced technologies have impacted the flow of information. The theory's proposition, therefore, needs redefinition.

Cultural imperialism has been loosely defined to serve the purpose of various scholars who have used it as a framework for their research. Like cultural imperialism, most of the other macroscopic theories of mass media, in particular the critical ones, lack precise definitions. However, one will realize that this is typical of critical theories of mass media. One of the proponents of neomarxism, Theodor Adorno, actually felt that by establishing definitions, "thinking would be in accordance with traditional thought; that organizing things according to rigid concepts is alien to dialectical thought" (Tar, 1977, p. 156). While this kind of thinking may be characteristic of critical theories, a lack of precision does not help in theory building. Not being precise and clear on what one is discussing will only lead to useless academic endeavor. Scholarly attempts to build further knowledge--the goal of science--becomes a confusing dialogue that is far from progressive. If discourse among researchers in this field is to be more fruitful, proponents of cultural imperialism must adhere to a model for applying the theory. By doing this, much effort will be saved from arguing over definitions and more attention can be given to research producing substance and evidence.

Testability. Based on the theory's lack of precision, one could argue that the theory is not very testable. However, it has been subjected to testing like other theories of mass communication. Some researchers, in particular quantitative scholars have actually operationalized cultural imperialism. In suggesting that the existence of cultural imperialism can be determined by (1) the unidirectional flow of information and (2) the small number of source countries for media products, Boyd-Barrett (1977) has in fact proposed a definition that is more conducive to empirical testing than are other ideologically based definitions of cultural imperialism. In this light, one can think of ways in which to test the theory and as has been illustrated earlier in this paper, although the theory is largely critical, quantitative tests have been employed to refute the theory's propositions. Other critical theories, such as neomarxism, have not been subjected to such social scientific, quantitative testing. Cultural imperialism therefore can be considered a more easily testable macroscopic theory despite its lack of clearly defined concepts.

Utility. Based on the fact that cultural imperialism has low scope and low precision, the theory does not have much utility. The purpose of a theory is not only to describe, but also to predict, control, and explain phenomena. The more these purposes are fulfilled by the theory, the more useful the theory would be. Even though cultural imperialism has been used in many disciplines as a framework for academic inquiry, the theory only operates at the descriptive level and does not have much explanative or predictive power.

One could, of course, argue that the reason why cultural imperialism has been used in so many areas is that the theory - in comparison to other macroscopic theories, such as neomarxism and social construction of reality - is useful in the sense that its main proposition that media from Western nations dominate media in Third World countries is easy to understand. This can be and has been used to explain why the cultures of some Third World societies, for example, reflect Western cultures. While this may be true, one has to read between the lines and interpret what the theorists are trying to say, as in most of the literature, the theorists engage in rhetoric and emotional debates. Rarely do you find any of the cultural imperialism authors outlining in a clear manner every aspect of the phenomena that the theory attempts to describe.

A theory that is deemed to be good must possess certain fundamental parts including a clearly stated concept; a dictionary of definitions for the various constructs; at least one proposition that specifies relationships among the constructs; a calculus that operationalizes the constructs; and a model or a graphic representation to illustrate the main ideas of the proposition. Of all these various parts, cultural imperialism only contains concepts that are vaguely defined and a proposition that only becomes apparent after analyzing the writings of the theorists.

A theory has been defined as a set of interrelated concepts, definitions, and statements that present a systematic view of a phenomenon by specifying relationships among the concepts with the purpose of explaining the phenomenon (Kerlinger, 1973). The theory of cultural imperialism was developed in the 1970s to explain the media situation as it existed at that time. The nature of media (i.e., print, radio and television), at that time, promoted a one-way, top-down transmission system from dominant country to dominated country that theoretically gave rise to a passive audience and a powerful media (Sengupta and Frith, 1997). Advanced media, that are becoming widely available in the form of telecommunications, computers, and satellite technology, provide for greater interaction between sender and receiver than has ever before been possible. Therefore, the cultural imperialism argument that has been framed in terms of center nations with power over disempowered periphery nations must be reevaluated as the advanced media slowly penetrate into developing nations.


Table 1 Various definitions of cultural imperialism

1. Schiller (1979): "The concept of cultural imperialism today [1979] best describes 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. The public media are the foremost example of operating enterprises that are used in the penetrative process. For penetration on a significant scale the media themselves must be captured by the dominating/penetrating power. This occurs largely through the commercialization of broadcasting. (The press invariably is commercial at the outset.)" (pp. 9-10)

2. McPhail (1987): "Electronic colonialism is the dependency relationship established by the importation of communication hardware, foreign-produced software, along with engineers, technicians, and related information protocols, that vicariously establish a set of foreign norms, values, and expectations which, in varying degrees, may alter the domestic cultures and socialization processes." (p.18)

3. Sui-Nam Lee (1988): "Communication imperialism can be defined as the process in which the ownership and control over the hardware and software of mass media as well as other major forms of communication in one country are singly or together subjugated to the domination of another country with deleterious effects on the indigenous values, norms and culture." (p. 74)

4. Ogan (1988): "Media imperialism is often described as a process whereby the United States and Western Europe produce most of the media products, make the first profits from domestic sales, and then market the products in Third World countries at costs considerably lower than those the countries would have to bear to produce similar products at home." (p. 94)

5. Downing, Mohammadi, and Sreberny-Mohammadi (1995): "Imperialism is the conquest and control of one country by a more powerful one. Cultural imperialism signifies the dimensions of the process that go beyond economic exploitation or military force. In the history of colonialism, (i.e., the form of imperialism in which the government of the colony is run directly by foreigners), the educational and media systems of many Third World countries have been set up as replicas of those in Britain, France, or the United States and carry their values. Western advertising has made further inroads, as have architectural and fashion styles. Subtly but powerfully, the message has often been insinuated that Western cultures are superior to the cultures of the Third World." (p. 482)


Table 2: A list of authors who have written on cultural imperialism
Year Author(s)
1976 Schiller
1977 Boyd-Barrett
1978 Beltran; Burton and Franco
1979 Galtung
1980 Lee
1981 Fejes; Sarti
1982 Desousa
1983 Hamelink
1984 Link
1986 Laing; Becker, Hedebro and Paldan
1987 Meyer; McPhail
1988 Ogan; Sui-Nam Lee; Meyer
1989 Schiller
1990 Liebes and Katz
1991 Straubhaar; Salwen; Schiller; Tomlinson
1992 Land
1993 Boyd-Barrett and Thussu; Oliveira; Said
1994 Ware & Dupagne; Mattleart
1995 Sui-Nam Lee; Mohammadi; Downing, Mohammadi and Sreberny-Mohammadi; Brown; Sabga
1996 Sinclair, Jacka and Cunningham
1997 Sengupta and Frith; Roach
1998 Meers
2000 Straubhaar


Ang, I. (1985). Watching "Dallas": Soap opera and the melodramatic imagination. London: Methuen (as cited in Schiller, 1989).

Baran, S., and Davis, D. (2000). Mass communication theory: foundations, ferment and future. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

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