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Where the Global Meets the Local: Media Studies and the Myth of Cultural Homogenization

If globalization can be described as having the following features: the worldwide interconnection between societies, cultures, institutions, and individuals; the compression of time and space; and the loss of national sovereignty, then it is not difficult to appreciate the centrality of the media to these processes, especially when you look at technological developments such as digitalization and satellite transmission.

Globalization is a phenomenon not possible without a particular kind of media environment. In fact so pervasive have global media become that media critic Douglas Kellner argues that we are witnessing the onset of a "new form of global culture" in which globally produced "images, sounds and spectacles help produce the fabric of everyday life ... providing the materials out of which people forge their very identities."

In Kellner we observe a claim for the spread of a global culture, usually American in origin underpinned by a notion of a media powerful enough to shape our self-identities and our views of the world. According to a number of media and cultural critics, this "global culture"--with the hallmarks of homogenization and convergence--is obliterating local cultures, creating in its wake mirrors of American consumer society. Thus media theorist Cees Hamelink believes that "the impressive variety of the world's cultural systems is waning due to a process of 'cultural synchronization' that is without historic precedent." This particularly pessimistic view of the obliteration of local cultures, a result of the impact of the globalization of (largely) American electronic media, has come to be known in media studies as the "media/cultural imperialism thesis."

In criticizing global domination, media/cultural imperialism theorists see media operating within a single world market organized by the global imperatives of the American and the West European-controlled multinational corporations. Central to the process of economic domination is the role played by the communications-cultural corporations. The media products are largely determined by the same market imperatives that govern the overall system's production of goods and services. Their role is not only informational, but also ideological in that they promote and develop popular support for the values and artefacts of the capitalist system. As Herbert Schiller, one of the strongest proponents of this view, argues, "Media-cultural imperialism is a subset of the general system of imperialism. It is not free-standing; the media-cultural component in a developed, corporate economy supports the economic objectives of the decisive industrial-financial sectors." Furthermore, he argues that "it is the imagery and cultural perspectives of the ruling sector in the center that shape and structure consciousness throughout the system at large."

There is no doubt that at an economic level we are witnessing profound changes characterized by the consolidation of media providers into the hands of an increasingly smaller number of transnational conglomerates. For these large, capitalist enterprises, economic considerations are the primary determinants in what meanings get produced and circulated on a global scale. The increasing monopolization and commodification of culture by an increasingly smaller number of primarily Western media providers does raise questions and concerns as to the nature of the images and meanings being globally circulated. However, there has been the tendency by the media/cultural imperialism theorists to simply read of the cultural effects of global media from their contents. Underlining this assumption is a model of weak receivers of the global message who are unable to withstand the cultural-ideological onslaught of the center (primarily America).

These assumptions have, however, not gone unchallenged by media theorists. It has been observed, for example, that those theories which argue for the spread of a homogenized global culture, usually focus on the production, distribution, and content of global media, largely ignoring their reception. Those researchers who have examined the local reception of global media texts, usually through ethnographic studies of media consumption, often arrive at conclusions regarding the media's power over audiences quite at odds with those claims made by media and cultural imperialists.

Furthermore, many media theorists argue that we need to examine media consumption within the context of people's ongoing attempts to make sense of their lives and the specific class, gender, and other identities they inhabit. For example, writing on the attraction of global media, John Thompson argues that their appropriation enables "the accentuation of symbolic distancing from the spatial-temporal contexts of everyday life" on the part of the local consumer. As he points out in this regard, the appropriation of these materials enables individuals "to take some distance from the conditions of their day-to-day lives-not literally but symbolically, imaginatively, vicariously." Through this process, he argues, "individuals are able to gain some conception, however partial, of ways of life and life conditions which differ significantly from their own." Thus, he notes, images of other ways of life provide a resource for individuals to think critically about their own lives and life conditions.

The British media theorist David Morley takes up this point in writing on the attraction that American popular cultural forms had for the British working class in the 1950s and 1960s (in the face of much criticism from the British cultural elite). Morley argues that "for those consumers, these products represented positive symbols of massive improvements in the material quality of their lives. For them 'America' was a very positive symbol functioning largely by opposition to what they perceived as the dead hand of traditional English culture, as defined by the cultural elite."

The Swedish anthropologist Ulf Hannerz makes a similar point in his discussion of the attraction of American popular cultural forms for the residents of Sophiatown, the black South African township, in the 1950s and 1960s: "To the people of the township, a cosmopolitan esthetic thus became a form of local resistance. Accepting New York could be a way of rejecting Pretoria, to refuse the cultural entailments of any sort of 'separate development.'"

What Morley, Hannerz and others are pointing to is that the consumption of popular cultural forms (both global and local) takes place within particular social contexts and that the meaning of the particular media or cultural product, rather than residing in the form, emerges primarily at the point of consumption in that particular context. A graphic representation of this process was provided in an interview I conducted with Khulani, a male student at Rhodes University, who grew up in a strongly traditional Zulu family in Empangeni in Kwa-Zulu Natal:

I will say something about my culture. It is still very strong we're still embedded in our culture. My culture is Zulu, my ethnic group is just Zulu so we value everything, even the type of marriage that we involve ourselves in, that is based in my culture. We still don't want to involve ourselves in English or American types of weddings. We use our cultural ways of doing things. Everything is traditional.

As Khulani explained, in traditional Zulu culture the mother liaises between the children and the father. This is indicative of the formal relationship that exists between fathers and their children.

If I'm maybe short of money, I have to go to my mother. If my mother has passed away, my father will have to get another wife to supplement. If I'm short of money, I can't go to my father because that would be so rude. So I have to go to my mother. My mother is a liaison officer so there's that distant relationship between ourselves and our fathers. I think with our mothers we are so close because each and every time we share our problems. I can't go to my father with any problems. I can ask from him, but only through my mother. My mother will liaise on my behalf. We do not call our fathers by their names, or any elder person by their first names because that's being disrespectful. We also don't look at them in the eye as this is also seen as a sign of disrespect.

Even though the family was financially well-off, his father decided that because of the detrimental effects Western culture would have on traditional Zulu culture, they should not have a television set in the home. As Khulani explained, "he believes that television is so polluted with a lot of Western stuff that it can pollute our minds."

Given his father's feelings about television, Khulani's first sustained exposure to Western culture came after he had finished high school and moved to Johannesburg to seek employment. For just over six months he resided in the George Gouch men's hostel, and it was during this period that he had his first sustained exposure to television. He was particularly drawn to the American soap operas "Days of our Lives" and "The Bold and the Beautiful," which he would view with one of his friends in the hostel. He would watch every evening and then the following morning; in order to reinforce the understandings he had obtained from the initial viewing, he would watch the reruns.

I was very, very happy with that soap ["Days of our Lives"] because of the manner in which gender is being played there, there are no boundaries between them [males and females]. In our culture there are clear distinctions between a male and a female in terms of roles and the way they relate. In "Days" there was a problem between Kerry, Austin, and Sally. What I saw there was so amazing actually because in our culture a girl can't approach you and say what she feels about you. She can't even fight for you. What I saw there was so foreign because these two ladies were fighting for Austin. I liked that program because I learned that everyone has a right, if they feel strongly about something, to express it. When you're brought up you're led to believe that whatever you see on TV is bad for our minds. But there is some stuff that is very good, like that one. If you love this boy and you can't approach him, how can you let him know. I learned a lot, especially relationship-wise. If a guy can tell a woman that he loves her, she should be able to do the same. I like that thing because if we can go along those lines I think our nation will be very strong because you won't have people who will become victims of their own feelings. Women should be taught to be proactive, to be independent, to stand up for themselves, allowed room to think. Not like in a patriarchal society like where I come from a woman there is just told to be passive and soft and beautiful. Whereas in this [Western] culture you can still be beautiful but you must also be strong and proactive.

Furthermore, according to Khulani, the relationships between fathers and their children, as portrayed in these American soap operas, also made a deep impression.

After watching these programs I realized that I should be allowed to speak to my father, he should be my friend rather than just my father just to dismantle that wall of formality. I think that if we can adopt that it will be great because the manner in which we relate is not satisfactory at all. Maybe your mother passes away and then you don't have someone to liaise with your father. Also, if your father then takes some other woman who doesn't like you, how will she liaise that's a problem.

Khulani believes that his exposure to these programs will enable him to choose the manner in which he wishes to interact with his future wife and children. He is no longer bound by tradition.

I think it's sort of prepared me for my own life that I wish to live in the future when I've got my own family. I can't change an old person like my father. So it affected me positively because when I've got my own family in the future, I will make sure that I practice those values that I find to be positive. In terms of relating to my own kids I will make sure that they are my friends, they are my brothers. I will make sure that my wife is my equal. No one person is a head of a family we are all heads. So as soon as we kill those mentalities that will be better.

I put it to Khulani that there must have been other factors, for example relationships with work colleagues, besides the programs which resulted in his shifting perceptions with regard to gender and parental relationships. He denied this, pointing out that during this time he was unemployed and thus spent most of his spare time seeking work.

Even if we do not accept his claims to the primacy of television in shifting his understandings, the very least we can say is that these programs contributed to a shift in his understanding concerning of male/female relationships-he came to understand that males and females could relate in potentially different ways to those prescribed in his traditional culture.

Khulani's adoption of certain Western values, picked up in part from the American soap operas, does not entail a complete denial or obliteration of his Zulu identity. Rather he occupies a space in which traditional and Western values coexist.

I feel I'm a very, very strong Zulu man. I feel I know what is good for the Zulu nation. Our nation will be very progressive and strong should we address those imbalances like having a woman just sit and care for her kids only. I will address those imbalances by starting with my own family and will talk with other people from my own culture.

While, as noted already, the idea of Westernization (Western cultural influence generally led by the United States) lies at the heart of the cultural imperialism thesis, John Tomlinson points out that this culture does not constitute an indivisible package that is simply adopted by local cultures. Rather, some aspects of "Western" culture are adopted while others are found irrelevant and are resisted. This holds true for Khulani in that there are Western values that he rejects.

In terms of our culture, a girl is expected to enter into relationships when she is about 20. In the Western culture a girl can be exposed to a relationship as early as 15 or 16. That one we shouldn't adopt in our culture. Another thing we shouldn't adopt from the Western culture has to do with the way they treat elderly people. I wouldn't like my family to be sent into an old-age home. According to our culture we support our elders, we bury them when they're dead. In the Western culture everyone only cares for themselves.

Given their connotation in Western culture, I was fascinated when, matter-of-factly, Khulani discussed the educative value pornographic movies have played for his friends in rural Kwa-Zulu Natal.

Some of my friends back home, they like those blue movies. They like to explore new ways of making love and all that. That's something that is not there in our culture because a woman is expected to just lie back and a man must do his thing. But guys back home, they like to get the woman involved as well. A woman should be active in a love relationship. That relationship tends to be very, very successful. I think it's also very good if a woman can also watch blue movies because they should be active as much as we are. I don't think that thinking should be done by one person only. Everyone should be allowed to think, everyone should be allowed to express an opinion. There should be a difference between respect and fear. Some of our fathers say, my wife respects me, but she actually fears him. When everyone can communicate, whenever one is just free to say whatever, you'll be able to pick up whether a woman respects or fears her husband.

Furthermore, Khulani's description of the potentially "progressive" role played by "blue" movies in a strongly patriarchal culture also provides a graphic example of the need not to think of ideology as "built in" to media products themselves, but rather to look concretely at the ways in which these products are understood and used by the individuals who receive them, and how the localized use of these products are interwoven with forms of power. In fact a number of ethnographic studies have indicated that far from helping to buttress the status quo in patriarchal cultures, masculinist values can often be undermined by soap operas which portray strong women and emotionally open men as key characters. Thus recently one of my students admitted that he had been "dumped" by his lover because he was not "sensitive like the men in 'The Bold and the Beautiful'"!

What this formulation points to is that the social conditions of reception of the global media are as important a moment in our analysis as are the formal properties of the forms themselves--an insight at the center of the media ethnography tradition. Given this, textual analysis is often not very helpful in predicting what meanings viewers are taking from a text. Thus, in oft-quoted study of Dutch viewers of "Dallas," media theorist Ien Ang discovered that contrary to expectations, it was not the capitalist values of conspicuous consumption and rugged individualism--so obviously woven into these programs--that provided the points of identification and pleasure for the viewers. Rather, it was the "tragic structure of feeling" in these programs that attracted Dutch viewers--the realization that money and power does not insulate one from everyday tragedies and that even the super-rich have their problems.

As we saw with Khulani, the "progressive" meanings he derived from American soaps and the pornographic movies ("progressive" in that they challenged many of the patriarchal values he had grown up with) derived from the interplay between the context of reception and the formal properties of the text. It is for this reason that Morley argues that one of the problems with this "defensive" model of resistance to foreign cultural imperialism concerns the fact that the "foreign" should not necessarily be equated with cultural regression. It can be argued, he believes, that "foreign" materials often play a subversive (and potentially progressive) role, by undermining the certainties of established national or local cultural hierarchies. It is precisely because we cannot predict what meanings will be made at the point of television consumption, and because of the surprising ways that television texts are often made sense of (as we saw with Khulani), that Ang argues the need to drop the "utopian search for a definite, substantial guarantee of what constitutes 'progressive television.'" She elaborates: "'Progressive television' should not be situated in a fixed, formal opposition against dominant television, but has to be seen as a temporary and local politico-cultural effect, the dynamic and overdetermined result of a specific confrontation between television and viewers, often unpredictable and seemingly accidental."

Finally, the views expressed by Khulani, emerging as he is from a traditional patriarchal culture, resonate strongly with those of Soren Schou (1992) in his description of the impact of American popular culture on Danish society after World War II. He points out how American popular culture became a guide to the "mental transformation" as Denmark underwent the process of modernization during this period. He writes: "In Denmark, daily existence was changing for many as we left our agrarian past and approached a new status as an industrial nation. A new self-awareness was sought in order to come to terms with this changing world, new and more sophisticated ways of looking at life, new ways to communicate. The inspiration had to come from the most industrial nation in the world. American popular culture became a guide during this mental transformation "One could say that it was instrumental in bringing about the 'mental' modernization of Denmark."

Something else we need to consider is the extremely uneven way that global media forms penetrate local cultures. As the Latin American media theorist Armand Mattelart reminds us, "the idea of a monolithic, triumphant imperialism, wiping out all diversity and homogenizing all cultures is absurd" The idea that imperialism invades different sectors of a society in a uniform way must be abandoned. What must be substituted is the demand for an analysis that illuminates the particular milieu that favor [or hinder] this penetration." My experience with researching media consumption patterns among Rhodes University students bears out this insight.

Early last year I was informed of the existence of a television viewing room known among students as the "homeland." The "homeland" is attached to one of the male residences, and is used solely by local African male students from rural peasant or working class backgrounds. Every evening, with the regularity of the ritual it has become, 15 to 20 of these students--a mix of undergraduate and postgraduate and from a variety of study disciplines--gather to watch their favorite programs. The viewing sessions start at 18:30 when they gather to watch "Isidingo," a local black drama series. At 19:00 they break for supper in the residences, and return at 19:30 to view the African-language news. At 20:00 they watch another local black drama series, "Generations." On weekends they will often meet to watch local televised soccer matches. Not only do these students feel the need to isolate themselves from the rest of the student body in their viewing of television; equally significant is the fact that their program diet is restricted to local productions. They completely reject foreign television.

On interviewing the "homeland" students I was fascinated to find that for many of them their rejection of Western media in general, and television in particular, is a recent phenomenon coinciding with their entry into the social milieu of Rhodes University. Prior to that, for many of these students living in rural poverty, Western media were important conveyors of the attractions of modernity. As Marshall Berman writes in his discussion of the existential experience of modernity and which certainly seems to be reflected in the early media experiences of many of these students: "To be modern is to find ourselves in an environment that promises us adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world." Thus for one of my informants, who spent most of his out-of-school hours herding cattle and occasionally playing soccer, viewing television programs like "Dallas" and "Knightrider" led him to realize that his life could be other than what it was:

Having watched "Knightrider" and all that stuff. Yes, there was this "Dallas," America was really a nice place to be. It was totally different from the place I was staying. So there was a need for me to advance to live in that particular place. The houses were nice, the people there were speaking nice English although I didn't know what nice English was I could see that this was nice English. So those were some of the things that influenced me. These people are always having nice offices. These people, even though they are serious, at the same time they entertain themselves. So there is that balance as compared to us where we will have maybe one thing--go to school and then afterwards just kick that soccer ball, there was nothing else. So these people had a right way of doing things. To know those programs was just to know that people do different things there are different things that are happening which are nice.

Coming to Rhodes University has proved to be a traumatic experience for many of the "homeland" students and this, my study argues, explains the shift in their television program preferences. They feel alienated from what they regard as the dominant white and middle class culture of the university. This is a culture, they believe, that has been adopted by many of the black middle class students. They refer to these students as "coconuts"--black on the outside but white on the inside.

As two of my interviewees noted with regard to the African middle class students on campus:

Andile: You meet someone here [at Rhodes] and you greet him in your own language, and he responds to you in English. These are things which make us say that these people are fake.

Luxolo: There are people from the urban areas we don't have any problems with. This again comes to the question of which people from the urban areas if you look at them you'll find they're mainly from the middle class. They're the ones we have trouble with.

As already noted, the majority of the "homeland" students come from rural working class and peasant backgrounds, and as such have had educationally inferior schooling. For many of them Rhodes University has provided them with their first close contact with urban, middle class white, black, and Asian students, the majority of whom have had relatively superior schooling and are generally more sophisticated. Furthermore, they experience Rhodes University as an overwhelmingly white institution. Not only are the majority of students white, but in 2000, 89% of the academic staff where white, as were 68% of the senior administrative staff. Given their different educational and social experiences it is perhaps unsurprising that the majority of the "homeland" viewers felt estranged from the dominant institutional and student culture they experience at Rhodes University. As two of my informants noted:

Andile: Because of my background I experience it [Rhodes University] as a white institution. Because I've already gone to the bush [the initiation undertaken by many rural black boys which signifies their passage into adulthood], I don't involve myself with some of the activities there. If I did, I would be compromising my manhood. I can give an example of the students water-bombing each other during exams. I don't like that. So instead of changing me, it has reinforced my sense of being a black South African.

Luxolo: Drinking, acting stupid when you're drunk, doing stupid things like shouting and trying to tackle trees. Broadly speaking, this white culture, they feel you have to be flexible, just take everything. If they throw water at you, you mustn't have any problems with that--everything, you must take it. If there is a formal dinner you must be seen to drink that wine big time. [Laughs] If you don't drink that wine you're not "one of us." Even the attire--you have to wear these big shoes. You have to be seen going to that gym everyday. These are some of the things that are disadvantaging us.

My study thus argues that their insertion into this alien environment has brought into sharp focus their difference from other students--identity as difference. As a result of this, their identities as rural black South Africans have come to the fore. The television programs they now choose to watch speak to this identity in a way that foreign programs cannot. In this bipolar world of insiders and outsiders, foreign programs are now associated with the black and white middle class values they despise.

My study also points to the often politically regressive cultural politics expressed by many of the "homeland" students (evidenced, for example, in their strong patriarchal attitudes) and argues that ironically the rejection of foreign (primarily American) television on their part reflects an unwillingness to become modern subjects, open to new, more socially progressive ways of being in, and relating to, the world. This position obviously represents a counter to the rather gloomy prognosis of American cultural imperialism put forward by media imperialism theorists.

There are other reasons for rejecting many of the pessimistic claims of the media/cultural imperialism theorists. For example, arguments which see indigenous cultures in the non-West as terribly vulnerable don't acknowledge that for centuries--before the project of globalization swung into high gear--cultures have been encountering each other. A number of commentators point out that the current panic over American cultural imperialism tends to overlook the fact that the globalization of communication is only the most recent of a series of cultural encounters, in many cases stretching back centuries, through which the values, beliefs, and symbolic forms of different groups have been superimposed on one another. Thus, most forms of culture in the world today are, to varying extents, hybrid cultures.

The concept of "creolization" is one that is currently used to refer to this process of cultural inter-penetration. Anthropologist Ulf Hannerz says: "Globalization need not be a matter only of far-reaching or complete homogenization; the increasing interconnectedness of the world also results in some cultural gain." The people on the receiving end of globalization and its media do have a choice of what to accept--and very often they choose bits and pieces which they mix with their own forms and expressions.

Hannerz points out that there would not have been a Nigerian Nobel Prize winner in literature in 1986 if Wole Soyinka had not creatively drawn on both a cosmopolitan literary expertise and an imagination rooted in Nigerian mythology, and turned it into something unique. Another example is world music--influence and counter-influence make an eclectic new form of expression which is not Western and not indigenous.

In the field of South African jazz the work of Abdullah Ibrahim (Dollar Brand) provides a richly hybridized oeuvre that illustrates Hannerz's (1989) claim. As Carr et al note, with regard to Ibrahim's musical influences, besides his own African heritage, American popular music was strongly evident: "He grew up with the hymns, gospel songs and spirituals of the American-influenced African Methodist Episcopal Church; also heard Louis Jordan and the Tympany Five popular hits blaring from the township ice-cream vans; and Duke Ellington's music was so familiar that he was 'not regarded as a foreign musician, but rather as something like a wise old man of our community in abstentia." Rhodes University Professor of Music Christine Lucia points to yet further influences in the creation of the hybrid sound that characterizes Ibrahim's music: "Ibrahim used the piano, an instrument central to Western classical music for 200 years and central to jazz for 100 years, as a vehicle for expressing a kind of South African music that contained American and South African jazz styles, Islamic chant, Cape Malay drumming, African traditional music, European parlour songs, hymns and gospel music."

The result of this mix has in turn had an impact on modern music around the world. As Swenson points out, "His knowledge of and sympathy for Africa makes him a first-hand practitioner of styles and feelings many other musicians have adopted from afar, while his wide-ranging control of rhythmic dynamics and melodic improvisations mark him as a musical modernist."

To return to the mass media: do the arguments I have put forward mean that we should uncritically welcome into our local spaces global media images, sounds, and stories? To give a categorical answer is not possible. Despite the fact that receivers of global media often decode messages in ways not intended by the makers, there are still messages sent out and received which espouse the values of consumerism, competition, individualism and so on.

Thus arguing for the power audiences have to use media messages as they will should not blind us to the fact that meanings generated and circulated by particular media can, and do, in specific contexts, help sustain relationships of domination and subordination. In Britain the homophobia of some of the tabloids has played a part in periodic bouts of gay bashing. In South Africa we need to ask to what extent the misogynous sentiments evident in much of gangsta rap and our own home-grown Kwaito help naturalize those social values underpinning our high incidence of domestic violence and rape.

Furthermore, it is one thing to "remake" the meanings on offer, while quite another to be offered radically different ways of understanding and making sense of the world. Where pressure to attract audiences to advertisers is increasingly the imperative for the commercial media, there is usually little desire to work outside of the ambit of whatever everyone already feels comfortable with and to present us with radically different ways of understanding and making sense of our world. As George Gerbner, the well-known American media theorist, argues, "Competition for the largest possible audience at the least cost means striving for the broadest and most conventional appeals, blurring sharp conflicts...and presenting divergent or deviant images as mostly to be shunned, feared, or suppressed."

The globalization of media messages is a complex issue requiring much more debate and study. Meanwhile, we should resist making simplistic assumptions about either how good or bad their effects are. 

About Larry Strelitz

Larry Strelitz is a senior lecturer in research methodology and teaches Media and Cultural Studies at Rhodes University's Department of Journalism and Media Studies. His current research is in the field of media consumption.

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