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Cultural imperialism is the process and practice of promoting one culture over another and often occurs through programs designed to assist other nations, particularly developing nations. Historically this occurred during colonization where one nation overpowers another weaker country for economic or political gain. Culture can be imposed in a wide variety of ways such as through restructuring education, religious, and political institutions.
Cultural imperialism is different from cultural diffusion primarily due to the mechanisms involved in changing culture and the roles power plays in the process. Cultural diffusion occurs ”naturally” when people and groups from other cultures interact with each other. It does not result in the purposeful reduction or elimination of various cultural aspects.
Contemporary practices that result in cultural imperialism often take the form of development or assistance programs for struggling nations or communities. For example, it is not uncommon for organizations such as the World Bank or United Nations to place conditions on loans or grants they provide to nations. Often monies are designated for specific projects that benefit outside corporations or countries such as building roads rather than creating schools or clinics. Aid that is designed for health care and education, often accompanies the requirement to teach English or practice western medicine which can negatively impact the existing culture.
One way people rectify the tension between needing support from outside agencies and maintaining their traditional cultural practices is through language or music. Historically, some colonial powers have outlawed traditional dress, language or religions as a means to maintain power. Often this results in the loss of culture as well as forcing groups into exile. As with the Native North Americans who were forced to change their language, customs, and dress, other nations such as China, Germany, and the Soviet Union have forced populations to abandon their traditional cultural practices.
For many, contemporary globalization, or global-ism, is the new vehicle by which cultural imperialism can occur. People supporting the expansion of ”free markets” contend that cultures are naturally fluid and therefore cultural imperialism is a ”natural” result of trade. If western practices and ideas are adopted, then it is believed that the cultural practices associated with them are better. Research focusing on the economic aspects argues that the spread of US corporations, such as the establishment of McDonald’s, Starbucks, and Wal-Mart around the world, represent positive change that brings jobs and inexpensive goods.
Challenges to this belief include a questioning of what is being transferred or imposed upon other nations, who or what benefits from cultural shifts and what cultural aspects become lost. The rapid expansion of globalization reflects a specific type of American popular culture that is manipulated and controlled by corporations. These businesses tend to push out locally owned establishments which also results in a loss and shift of culture. Other areas of resistance include fighting for access to land and water, protection of local farming practices, and other cultural traditions.
- Alexander, M. J. & Mohanty, C. (1997) Feminist Genealogies, Colonial Legacies, Democratic Futures. Routledge, New York.
- Ritzer, G. & Ryan, M. (2002) The globalization of nothing. Social Thought and Research 25 (1-2): 51.
- Rothkopf, D. (1997) In praise of cultural imperialism? Foreign Policy 107: 38.