Cultural imperialism refers to the practice by which one society forwards or imposes its cultural beliefs, values, normative practices, and symbols on another society. Generally, cultural imperialism involves a power relationship, because only those groups enjoying economic, military, or spatial dominance have the ability to inflict their systems upon another.
The roots of cultural imperialism are commonly traced to the ancient regimes of Greece and Rome. The Greeks, for example, built amphitheaters, gyms, and temples in the lands they conquered, attempting to centralize these distinctly Greek cultural rituals in the lives of those they controlled. Likewise, the Romans worked to “Romanize” every land they annexed. As they invaded new regions, the Romans bombarded the conquered with the glittering standards, towering temples, and marble statues that embodied Roman ideals. Coins bearing pictures of Caesar kept the chain of command fresh in the minds of the conquered, while official rituals and festivals replaced the religious practices of non-Romans.
After 1500, when the exploration of the Americas, Africa, and Asia thrived, Western European nations worked aggressively to expand their economic bases. Cultural imperialism often served as the tool by which these nations secured resource-rich lands. Language was key in this regard. England, for example, imposed the Book of Common Prayer on all peoples it conquered. They did so in an attempt to obliterate native languages such as Cornish, Manx, and Gaelic and establish English as the official tongue of new “acquisitions.” The English believed that as the languages of the conquered slipped into obscurity, so too would many elements of the non-English cultures that sustained them. The Spanish took a similar position, going so far as to rename the populations of the regions they colonized. In the Philippines, for example, a Spanish governor replaced the surnames of native peoples with Spanish names taken from a Madrid directory. He viewed the strategy as a means of forcefully imposing Spain’s cultural standards on those whom he now administered. In the 20th century, the Japanese implemented a similar strategy in Korea. After years of occupying Korea, the Japanese mandated a policy which replaced traditional Korean names with those of Japan, and mandated Shinto worship in place of Korean religious practices. The Japanese viewed these strategies as a way of absorbing Korea, giving Japan an additional workforce and strength as it pursued the imperialist policies that contributed to World War II.
Of course, cultural imperialism is not always forced. Often, the culture of a dominant power is voluntarily embraced by those exposed to it. Corporations such as Coca-Cola or McDonald’s are often accused of homogenizing diverse cultures and inflicting an ethos of consumerism across the globe. Others, such as Estee Lauder and Christian Dior, are accused of imposing Western values of beauty. Yet, these products are often welcomed by populations as symbols of progress and modernization. For many, these products represent complements to the host culture rather than replacements of it.
- Ritzer, George. 2007. The McDonaldization of Society. 5th ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge.
- Said, Edward. 1994. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Vintage.
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