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Cultural imperialism

Cultural imperialism is the practice of promoting the culture or language of one nation in another. It is usually the case that the former is a large, economically or militarily powerful nation and the latter is a smaller, less affluent one. Cultural imperialism can take the form of an active, formal policy or a general attitude.



Empires throughout history have been established using war and physical compulsion (military imperialism). In the long term populations have tended to be absorbed into the dominant culture, or acquire its attributes indirectly.

One of the first known examples of cultural imperialism was extinction of the Etruscan culture and language caused by the influence of the Roman Empire.

The Greek culture built gyms, theatres and public baths in places that its adherents conquered (such as ancient Judea, where Greek cultural imperialism sparked a popular revolt), with the effect that the populations became immersed in that culture. The spread of the koine (common) Greek language was another large factor in this immersion.

As exploration of the Americas increased, European nations including Great Britain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal all raced to claim territory in hopes of generating increased economic wealth for themselves. In these new colonies, the European conquerors imposed their language and culture.

English Cultural Imperialism

A revealing instance of cultural imperialism is the Prayer Book rebellion of 1549, where the English state sought to suppress non-English languages with the English language Book of Common Prayer. In replacing Latin with English, and under the guise of suppressing Catholicism, English was effectively imposed as the language of the Church, with the intent of it becoming the language of the people. At the time people in many areas of Cornwall did not speak or understand English. Many speakers of the Cornish language were massacred by the King's army while protesting against the imposition of an English Prayer book. Their leaders were executed and the people suffered numerous reprisals.

Throughout the 18th and 19th century the dominant English establishment attempted (unsuccessfully) to eliminate all non-English languages within the British Island group (such as the Welsh language, Irish language and Scottish Gaelic language) by outlawing them or otherwise marginalising their speakers. Many other languages had almost or totally been wiped out by this point including Cornish and Manx. The term was probably first applied to the British Empire which had many measures, such as encouraging the game of cricket and teaching English, to further establish its grasp on countries and territories the world over.

Swedish Cultural Imperialism

During the late 18th, 19th and the early 20th centuries, the Swedish government continually repressed the Sami culture. Repression took numerous forms, such as banning the Sami language and by forceful removal of many cultural artifacts, such as the magic drums of the naajds (the Sami shamans). Most of the drums have not to date been returned. During the early 20th century even the Sweden-Finnish people of Torne Valley had still in the 1960s their native Finnish dialect banned from use in schools and public records.

20th Century Cultural Imperialism

China has, in various periods over the 20th century, pursued repressive policies towards the indigenous cultures and religions of Tibet and Xinjiang, and has encouraged Han Chinese immigration into those regions, for example, through the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps . This has been widely viewed as cultural imperialism by exile and dissident groups abroad and their supporters. The nationwide promotion of a standardized Chinese language has also sparked debate, both in Mainland China and Taiwan, about whether this constitutes a form of cultural imperialism over regional dialects.

Cultural imperialism in the twentieth century was primarily connected with the United States and with the Soviet Union, and to a lesser extent with other countries that exert strong influence on neighboring nations. Most countries outside the US feel that the high degree of cultural export through business and popular culture--popular and academic books, films, music, and television--threatens their unique ways of life or moral values where such cultural exports are popular. Some countries, including France, have policies that actively oppose Americanisation. Some American cultural producers such as Reader's Digest have responded to or altogether avoided such resistance by adapting their content (or the surface of it) to local audiences.

Representatives of al-Qaida stated that their attacks on US interests were motivated in part by a reaction to perceived US cultural imperialism.

It should be noted that 'cultural imperialism' can refer to either the forced acculturation of a subject population, or to the voluntary embracing of a foreign culture by individuals who do so of their own free will. Since these are two very different referents, the validity of the term can been called into question. The term cultural imperialism is understood differently in particular discourses. E.g. as "media imperialism" or as "discourse of nationality" (Tomlinson, 1991).

Cultural influence can be seen by the "receiving" culture as either a threat to or an enrichment of its cultural identity. It seems therefore useful to distinguish between cultural imperialism as an (active or passive) attitude of superiority, and the position of a culture or group that seeks to complement its own cultural production, considered partly defective, with imported products or values.

The writer Edward Said, one of the founders of the field of post-colonial study, wrote extensively on the subject of cultural imperialism, and his work is considered by many to form an important cornerstone in this area of study. His work highlights the inaccuracies of many assumptions about cultures and societies and is largely informed by Michel Foucault's concepts of discourse and power.

Canada is also grappling with the ever-potent influence of the U.S. Aside from the fact that American businesses are purchasing Canadian industries and resources, the Canadian population is continuously exposed to the American media. Canada's response has been to enact a law which requires radio stations to play a certain percentage of Canadian content. Canadians have typically embraced American culture, but have also successfully upheld their own distinctiveness.

See also:

Last updated: 02-07-2005 18:41:21
Last updated: 03-18-2005 11:16:12