The United States vs. The World:
A Theoretical Look at Cultural Imperialism

ReseAnne Sims

"What we are seeing today is not actually a hegemony of American

culture, since there is little in that culture that can be called inherently

`American.' What's really happening is an `internationalization' of

material culture throughout a world that has truly become a global village.

Because the United States is itself a hybrid nation, made up of immigrants

from many nationalities, it is acting as a `crystal ball' for the rest of the

world." Dr. Ron Robin, American History scholar, speaking at Haifa

University's conference on "Ideology and Resistance: the construction of

American Culture and its Reception at Home and Abroad" as quoted in the Jerusalem Post, January 12, 1990.

If indeed the United States is acting as a "crystal ball" for the rest of the world, many would certainly question exactly what it is the world is seeing through the American eye. From scholars such as Herb Schiller to foreign government officials such as former French Minister of Culture Jack Lang, individuals and governments around the globe have expressed concern regarding the influence of American cultural products on both local and national cultures. Often expressed in the term "cultural imperialism," this concern has become a topic of debate in not only scholarly circles, but in economic, legal and legislative arena as well.

When argued from an empirical basis, the facts and figures of American cultural popularity around the globe make the case for "cultural imperialism" seem virtually undeniable. Cultural products now make up the second largest Unites States' export behind aircraft.(1) In 1992, the United States purchased only $288 million in cultural products from the nations of the European Community (EC) combines, while the EC nations bought $3.7 billion in U.S. cultural products, including films and television: more than 10 times the United States' import expenditures.(2) Of the Top 100 films in 1993, 88 were American with France's "Les Visiteurs" as the highest ranking foreign feature film at #27.(3) Shows such as Beverly Hills 90210, Santa Barbara, Rescue 911 and Dynasty ranked among the top television shows in the Czech Republic, Poland and Russia.(4) Teens sport baseball caps featuring American professional and college teams while listening to the latest Top 40 favorites from REM, Whitney Houston, Spin Doctors and Aerosmith on their Sony Walkmans.(5)

On the surface it would certainly appear that the United States has taken over through its cultural popularity. However, such empirical evidence only focuses on the "imperialism" aspect of the equation and offers all too simple "proof" of what is a more complex social and cultural debate. The purpose of this paper is to examine the phenomenon of globalization that has taken place rapidly in the last few decades and to question the charge of "cultural imperialism" as it relates to current media theory.

Media Heard Round the World

As futurists in all industries look ahead to not only the turn of a century, but of a new millennium, the prospects of coming technologies and interconnected communication networks are immense. In exploring the boundaries of our current information society, one must wonder if the actual developments that lie ahead will expand beyond even the most visionary of expectations considered today - much as the developments of this century have certainly surpassed the expectations of generations in the late 1800s. What have now become everyday amenities, from indoor plumbing to television, were at the turn of this century almost non-existent or even relegated to the realms of science fiction.

Communication which took several days or was virtually impossible can now be accomplished in a matter of seconds. In 10 seconds (or often less), we can have the world literally at out fingertips with the click of a mouse, the touch of a dial pad or the flick of a remote control. Places that were once unreachable can now be brought into our living rooms and even the most remote locations, such as Antarctica, are now accessible via electronic mail. Despite turmoil, technology has allowed communication to continue during events such as the 1991 Russian Coup and the Bosnia-Serbia War, where e-mail communication remained possible when other communication was not. This is the age of globalization.

The effects of globalization provide an excellent starting point for the assessment of cultural imperialism as they can be examined on several levels of analysis. First, let us consider the implications of globalization on a structural basis in regard to infrastructure, both technological and organizational, as this is one of the few areas which seems to elicit agreement.

McQuail (1994) states three trends in media that address changes both technologically and organizationally: 1) a growth in the concentration of media ownership around the globe, 2) the emergence of an "information economy" with information now seen as a product and its transfer as industry, and 3) an increase in deregulation, privatization and/or liberalization of the media. While briefly elaborated here in regard to their development, each of these trends will be more fully explored later in terms of their effects.

First, a growth in the concentration of media ownership has certainly been evidenced, perhaps most notably by the 1989 merger of Time-Warner to create the largest media corporation in the world merging assets worth more than $8.7 billion. In addition to the corporate-oriented mergers, the last decade has also seen the rise of the "media mogul" - individuals who have amassed huge media organizations, such as Ted Turner, Silvio Berlusconi, and Rupert Murdoch. While most often discussed in regard to the "big names" mentioned here, this trend has also infiltrated the emerging mediascape in Eastern Europe as Hungary is slowly but surely growing its own media mogul Tamas Gyarfas. In addition to owning 57% of NAP-TV (the only non-state controlled network in Hungary), Gyarfas also publishes a weekly sports magazine, a TV and radio guide and the Hungarian equivalent of the "yellow pages." Another trend towards vertical integration of hardware and software corporations has developed, such as the purchase of CBS Records by Sony in the late 1980s, giving these corporations control of the production process from beginning to end.

Smith (1990, p. 15) summarizes the second trend in his statement that "we are now living in a society in which the information industries have become basic to the economy rather than peripheral." The rise of an "Information Society," which was conceived of in Japan (Ito, 1981 in McQuail 1994), indicates a shift in society where manufacturing is no longer the most common form of employment. The proliferation of service-oriented jobs creates a change in society wherein the term "labor" shifts from a physical to more mental meaning and the workforce must become increasingly technologically advanced. The latter can be most easily evidenced by the growing number of industries using computers and other new information and/or communication technologies.

In addition, through something of a "trickle-down" technology process, the increase of computer capabilities and the number of on-line information resources has had an effect on almost every area of society: a computer with modem and a phone line can link anyone to anywhere. With the invention and recent popularity of CD-ROM, massive amounts of information, such as a complete set of dictionaries or the contents of a research database, can now be stored on a small compact disc.

Certainly, this trend will have important ramifications for the countries of Eastern Europe as they move from an "information-controlled" society to a participant in a global scene in which the information explosion has occurred over time. For these countries, the information explosion is occurring on top of other already rapid and somewhat disorienting changes while the rest of the world has grown accustomed to the plethora of information sources now readily available. Not only will the influx of information affect how these countries retrieve information and come to understand what has been for many years the "outside" world, it will also affect what they know and how they see themselves in the global scene.

So, how much information is there? Robertson (1990) takes an interesting approach to answering this question and quantifying the extent to which information has "exploded" since the coming of the computer age through a unique historical perspective. Although, by his own admission, his estimates can be criticized as rough, he maintains that even such rough estimates would offer insight as to the quantity of information required for different levels of civilizations. To construct his estimates, Robertson uses information theory based on "bits" (6) in which the base unit of measure is a letter of the alphabet which is slightly less than 5 bits of information. What Robertson then suggests is that the computer revolution is similar to past technological advances that have revolutionized the world and makes a case through which history can provide us a view of the nature of changes occurring in the current information age. The computer, he suggests, "could be the invention that will change civilization to a degree not seen since the Renaissance" (p. 236). Perhaps more importantly in our arrival as a "level 4" (7) civilization is the possibility of technology allowing us to more easily find and utilize the plethora of information now available, which was a hindrance to the Level 3 society at which we began to produce information beyond our ability to use it (p. 245).

This emergence of an "information society" offers several questions to be considered in regard to media imperialism as it brings to play theories regarding the flow of information worldwide. As will be discussed later, these considerations constitute the basis for core-periphery and development theory which are central tot he cultural imperialism debate both pro and con.

The third trend McQuail identifies centers on the proliferation of deregulation, privatization and liberalization of the media. Perhaps, no place is this trend more pronounced than in East/Central Europe since the fall of Communism in 1989. The movement from a state-owned and operated system to what has yet to become a "free market" has opened a "Pandora's Box" of ownership, regulation,and production issues for these formerly communist countries. Complicated by not only the diversity of new technology and ongoing development of policy within already established systems, but economic uncertainty as well, the countries of East/Central Europe can look to the West for guidance only to a certain extent. Whereas the United States has developed its media policies over time as new technologies were developed, the countries of Eastern Europe have the task of forming policy for all phases of regulation not only for a new medium, but for several and within a limited time frame. The technology is there now - from cable to satellite - knocking on the door of countries in which information and the media have been tightly controlled under Soviet domination for several decades.

As these new technologies (along with foreign investors) line up, ready and waiting, for the now "Virtual Curtain"(8) to lift, the countries of East/Central Europe faces the more immediate problem of infrastructure. Instead of being allowed the luxury of development time, as the West has enjoyed, these countries face complex internal questions in addition to the external concerns of incoming technology. An additional effect of deregulation and privatization in the media of East/Central Europe is the concern of technological "leapfrogging" in which technology, such as wireless and cellular communications, are growing faster in emerging countries than in developed nations as a means of overriding the lacking infrastructure which will take time to build. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates that the usage of analog cellular systems in Eastern Europe grew 245% in 1993. (9)

This section has focused on laying the groundwork for the cultural imperialism debate through an examination of globalization and current trends along with their theoretical backgrounds by focusing on technology and the changing mediascape. To assess the effects of these changes in terms of cultural imperialism, the next step is to examine the nature of culture itself.

Toward a Definition of Culture

While technology set the stage for globalization, taking the spotlight in the debate over its effects is the question of culture. Although seemingly basic, the question of "What is culture?" holds important considerations for this debate since it is the nature of culture itself that the imperialism argument can first be questioned. The answer may not be as simple as it appears. Even Webster's Dictionary offers many choices: "civilizing tradition, folklore, instruction, law, custom, knowledge, arts, sciences, education, mores." The true definition of culture most likely lies in a combination of each of these possibilities: a mixture of the mental, physical, intellectual and creative aspects of a society. As with any mixture, this view bases itself in movement - the interaction of these collective parts to create a nebulous whole called "culture."

Media theorists themselves have addressed this very question. Smith (1990, p. 171) asks, "Can we speak of culture in the singular?" His answer defines culture as "a collective mode of life, a repertoire of beliefs, styles, values and symbols." In this context, he asserts, culture can only be referred to in terms of cultures since this "collective mode of life" necessitates "different modes and repertoires in a universe of modes and repertoires." Fiske (1989, in McQuail 1994, p. 94) defines culture as "the constant process of producing meanings of and from our social experience." Much like the mixture analogy in the preceding paragraph, this view sees culture as active - a process rather than a fixed set of values that can be delineated (see also Carey 1975 in McQuail 1994). Here McQuail (p. 95) makes an excellent point in that culture itself is a "reflection of the complexity of the phenomenon" due to the multiple ways in which the word "culture" is used.

Despite acknowledgement of culture as a process by cultural imperialism proponents such as Schiller (1990, p. 2), what we find most often in the arguments, however, is a conceptualization of culture in the singular whether it is in the form of an identifiable national culture that is to be defended or in criticism of an emerging "global culture" that threatens to overtake it. Ironically, both critics and proponents of the culture imperialism debate deny the probability of a global culture albeit under different auspices.

Why not the possibility of a global culture? Smith (1990) makes several arguments for its impossibility. First, unlike imperialist movements of the past, the current idea of a global culture operates well beyond its place of origin through both time and space - it maintains no true ties to its place of origin and operates in McLuhan's concept of acoustic space. Smith writes, "It (today's global culture) is context-less, a true melange of disparate components drawn from elsewhere and nowhere, borne upon the modern chariots of global telecommunications systems" (see also Meyrowitz 1985). Secondly, a global culture maintains no tie to a common past and therefore, unlike national culture is basically memoryless. Here Smith makes the point that there are no "world memories" that would bring cohesiveness to a common culture: those memories that do exist remind humanity more of its differences than its similarities. Thirdly, Smith states that a global culture is "essentially calculated and artificial" with its creation firmly routed in technology and the transnational systems of telecommunications through which it is disbursed. Detached and neutral, it relies on technology more than humanity for its very existence.

So then, what does create or maintain a culture? Here Smith outlines three essential ingredients for the cultural mixture: 1) a sense of continuity between succeeding generations, 2) shared memories of specific events and persons that were turning points of collective history and 3) a sense of common destiny. Through these components a Construction of "identity" is created among a population that shares "common experiences and one or more cultural characteristics such as language, customs or religion." Ethnohistory, which Smith defines as myths, valuees, memories and symbols, plays a large role in the shaping of this sense of identity and generates a cohesiveness that the "global culture" cannot.

Featherstone (1990) although critical of the idea of a global culture, does speak of the globalization of culture in that what may be emerging are "third cultures" that are part of diverse cultural flows. Brand (1993 in Stephens 1993) seconds this idea in his suggeestion that we may all have begun to share a "second culture" that our "first cultures will continue to hold out in resistance" to. Again, the developments of East/Central Europe since 1989 provide current evidence of the power of culture. Since the fall of Communism, nowhere else in the world has the geo-political scene become more intriguing as countries seperate peacefully or by war - and new countries emerge. These changes bring a host of questions tothe cultural debate as well. Even among the emerging "cohesive" states reside several ethnic minorities who so not always claim the nationality of the country in which they reside: "The Cold War and its politico-economic and military blocs obscured the fact that the continent (Europe) is still a mosaic of nationalities, not all of which have their own countries (Schlesinger 1994)."

Featherstone further supports this criticism of the idea of a global culture with ideas drawn from Durkheim, who believed that as societies expanded, the degree of differentiation within the society itself grow to such a point that the members of that society retain little in common aside from their humanity. To date, such a consciousness that recognizes this common trait has yet to be realized within few, if any societies.

Where Does the World End?

Scholars, such as Schiller (1981) and Hamelink (1990), have maintained that despite the advent of our current information society, infromation itself and its technology have remained in the hands of the economically elite. This criticism is most commonly expressed in terms of core and periphery theory which maintains that gloabl imbalances exist between "core" (i.e. rich, industrialized nations of the First World) and "periphery" nations (i.e. poorer, rural countries of the Third World) in both the flow of media products and information. In this view, information and its technology are controlled by the core nations, and its flow is seen as uni-directional from the core to the periphery with little opportunity for peripheral nations to participate in the process (Hamelink 1990).

Hamilink (1990) offers a variety of empirical evindence to suuport the core and periphery view of the world. The following statistics were gathered from UNESCO in 1989 (10):

* The peripheral countries of the world own only 4% of the world's computer hardware.

* 75% of the world's telephones (700 million) can be found in the 9 richest countries, while

the poorest countries own less than 10%.

* There are more telephones in Japan than in all the countries of Africa, which as a continent

had (in 1988) four times the population of Japan and 80 times the land mass.

* In 39 peripheral countries, there were no newspapers and in 30 others there was only 1.

There are more than 1600 daily papers today (1995) in the United States alone.

* Europe produced an average of 12,000 new books per year, while Africa produced under

350. In addition, Europe averages 1,400 libraries per country to 18 in Africa.

LaPlante (1994) notes that by the end of 1992, Eastern Europe has installed just 15.65 telephone lines per 100 people compared to more than 45 lines per 100 in Western Europe.

Despite the numbers, what some recent scholars are suggesting is that the age of core and periphery are over (Featherstone, 1990; Appadurai, 1990). What Featherstone suggests is sthat the current gloabl cultural flows produce 1) both cultural homogeneity and cultural disorder and 2) transnational or "third cultures." Both homogeneity and disorder emerge as cultures, once somewhat isolated or limited, become linked and the interaction produces "more complex images of the other as well as generating identity-enforcing reactions."

Appadurai (1990) further addresses this new "non-isomorphic" path of global cultural flows and ultimately questions the former core and periphery models through his conceptulaization of interacting "disjunctures" or relationships within these flows. He conceives of global cultural flow in five dimensions: ethnoscapes, finanscapes, technoscapes, mediascapes, and ideoscapes. Ethnoscapes refer to the flow of peoples (immigrants, refugees, tourists, inc.) throughout the globe as we become increasingly mobile. Technoscapes include the flow of machinery, harware and software, through the production processes of TNCs, national corporations and governments. Finanscapes involve the flow of money through currency markets and stock exchanges. Mediascapes consist of the flow of images and information from the various forms of media and growing interactive technologies. Lastly, Ideoscapes are similar to mediascapes in that they are image-oriented, however they are more often political in nature and deal with the flow of ideology throughout the globe.

In Appadurai's model, there is no traditional core and periphery to be designated and as such represents the "non-isomorphic" paths in which culture now flows. This change in flow is due not only to massive interlinking information and technological systems, but also to "deterritortialization" as well. People, money, products, media, etc. move throughout the globe creating cultural pockets outside of their previously national boundaries, therefore changing the idea of a nation-state that "contains" or serves as the boundary of culture. The final point to Appadurai's model lies in the fact that "both sides of the coin of global cultural process today are the products of the infinitely varied mutual contest of sameness and difference on a stage characterized by radical disjunctures between different sorts of global flows and the uncertain landscapes created in and through these disjunctures (p. 308)."

Appadurai's mode exemplifies the changing world market that the East/Central European contries face. The previous Cold War polarity no longer exists and the "world order" grows more complex everyday. There is a "reshuffling" of the world's power in porcess, in which not only do the re-emerging countries of East/Central Europe fave the task of crerating their own identities, they must do so in relation to this ever-changing global scene.

Life and Times of the Media Mogul

In examining the impact of gloablization, Ferguson (1992) asks a pertinent question: quite simply, "who is being globalized (or de-globalized), to what extent and by whom?" While the cries have gone out regarding American dominance, the mediascape reflects a much more complex and internation playing field. Despite a concentration of media ownership in the past decade, the nationalities among this ownership group have remained somewhat mixed: Time-Warner (USA), Bertelsmann AG (Germany), Sony (Japan), Berlusconi (Italy), Murdoch (Australian-American(11)). Helena Cerna, in her response to my post on the Internet (which will be discussed later), makes a very good point regarding these TNCs: "If you look at it from the perspective of multi-national corporations, you could make the case that in thier aggressive global marketing they are imperialist, but they are only interested in selling their products, not in American cultural megalomania. In terms of Eastern Europe, the people are in a process of discovering products that were forbidden, therefore they will embrace anything American, but as it has already been expressed, it will wear off. Also, this phenomenon is much less pronounced in non-urban areas. The Ce is still very much alive and the tradition will certainly survive American capitalism, as it survived Hapsburgian reformation, German domination and Soviet mornalization."

While concern over the media content may point a finger to the United States, in terms of ownership it would possible be more appropriate to speak of Western "Europeanization," and turn the pointing finger toward Italy. In addition to Berlusconi, Italians Mariano Volani and Nicola Grauso are involved in significant joint ventures with Czech publisher FTV Premiera and Polonia 1 in Poland respectively. In Poland, 52.4% of foreign trade and investment in 1993 came from the EU, with the U.S. taking the largest part of the remaining investment with 29.4%. However, among the Top 10 companies with direct foreign investments, only 2 are from the EU, and a majority of the list are based in Italy and the United States. Although welcoming such joint ventures, most East/Central European countries are rapidly enacting laws to regulate what percentage of a media venture may be owned by foreign interests. Currently, most policies hover around the 40% mark.

One of the criticisms of this process toward concentrated ownership of media systems and industries is that in spite of a proliferated number of media avenues, this concentration effectively strangles local, regional or national production in countries that are economically disadvantaged. Straubhaar (1991) contradicts this thinking through an examination of regional transnationals that have developed in Latin America and many of his findings could easily be extrapolated to developments in East/Central Europe.

Building on earlier discussion of core and periphery theory, Straubhaar criticizes recent assumptions that new technology would strengthen the imbalances of media/information flows around the globe. While new technology has opened doors for the influx of American cultural products, it has also increased national production as well as the development of specific genres taken from US models and re-creatd into distintly Latin American genres. For example, the Latin American telenovela, based on US soap operas, now enjoys a huge popularity throughout Latin America as well as in the United States. Evidence of this can be seen in East/Central Europe as well through popular local productions such as Poland's "Polish Zoo," "A Forty-Year-Old Man" and Hungary's "Family Inc." and "Freddie the Enterprising Ghost." Although the formats may be borrowed from American shows, the result is a distinctly local product.

Straubhaar also credits the influence of First World influences for the "decreased cost and increased flexibility in television technology." This influence has allowed for a growing number of television producers throughout LAtin America. Straubhaar takes the view that even within a "dependency" or "imbalance" situation, development can occur in the "periphery" nation. For the countries of East/Central Europe this cna perhaps be most easily evidenced in terms of foreign production. Already well-known for its beautiful locations, the dissolution of the "Iron Curtain" has made it much easier for foreign producers to utilize the resources of these countries when shooting for both film and television. In 1993, East/Central Europe host shoots such as "Schindler's List," and "M. Butterfly," as well as Euro-productions from France, Italy and Germany. Production costs in East/Central Europe cost approximately 40% less than the cost to shoot in Western Europe or the United States (12).

Assumptions of Cultural Imperialism

In the sections of this paper, several ideas related to the globalization phenomenon and charges of cultural imperialism have been explored seperately. While valuable discussions in and of themselves, it is important to draw together specific aspects and evaluate some of the basic assumptions of and areas for cirticism in the cultural imperialism argument in terms of media power, its role in society an din regard to its audience.

In regard to media power, the cultural imperilaism argument offers an almost omnipotent view of the media that cannot be throughly justified. What it offers in terms of the media's power to affect cultural change is a dominance and transmission-based model, which seems implausible in the pluralistic and ever-expanding mediascape. What makes sense in regard to certain aspects of the debate such as the conglomeration of ownership, routinized production, and possibly formatted content, doesn't apply in terms of new media technology, the audience and effects (13). In adopting such a dominance image of the media, creates an environment of codependency (to borrow from the realm of popular psychology) that casts the audiences as the victims of an all-powerful media system and its messages. This image also infers a one-way flow of communication that is most often supported through the core and periphery theory and statistics addressed earlier. While this may be evident in terms of information flows on an information theory quantitative estimate, the reality is that as media technology and economis become more intertwined, this seemingly one-way flow reverses itself into a two-way flow in which what sells abroad influences what Americans see at home. Michael Soloman, president of International Television for Warner Brothers further corroborates this reversal (14):

"Our numbers are very important to this company. If we have a TV movie based on some very American theme, some social issue or what we call `disease of the week,' we try to not produce it. Soft pictures, cute romantic comedies are very hard to sell outside the United States. But if you have a suspense drama, an action-adventure-type drama, that sells abroad. That's the type of program we want. It's got to have that universal theme.

This reversal typifies McLuhan's (McLuhan and Fiore 1994) cencept of the Tetrad, a model created to explain the human thought process in terms of interaction between left-brain (visual space) and right brain (acoustic space). What McLuhan states is that since all media technologies or images are srtifacts, the Tetrad can be used to explain the process of chiasmus, a state of "continual, potential transformation (p. 6)," as the artifact is pushed to its fullest potential. In the above example, the flow of American media to foreign markets follows this Tetradic process: 1) the export of American product enlarges the information and entertainment availabilities to foreign markets, 2) this erodes or obsolesces local and/or national media products, 3) images of local and/or national cultures are then retrieved and 4) this reverses into the influence of media products and imports based on preferences of local and/or national culture. In addition, the Appadurai model examined earlier offers a more viable basis for theory regarding the current media and technologic arena.

Cultural imperilaism also makes a definite assumption of the media's role in and its influence on society. What emerges is a view of media and technology that is highly deterministic and devalues the role and importance of the cultural aspects of this argument. Ferguson (1992, p. 72) states:

"Nevertheless, despite this more visible world of `the distant other' and a more interconnected world political and cultural economy, we cannot infer from this an homogenized global metaculture. To do so would be to ignore the historical role of stratification systems based on caste, class or party, on ethnic cultures defended by bloodshed or kinship traditions linked to religious proscriptions stronger than any claims that might be made for the reductionist power of global media."

As stated earlier in this paper, the process of culture is much more complex than the cultural imperilaism argument gives it credit for. McQuail (1994) cites three elements which need to be addressed in answering the question of whether or not media can affect social change; 1) technology and the form and content of media, 2) changes in societal structure and institutions and 3) distribution of a population's opinions, beliefs and sttitudes. Following earlier dicussion of cultural imperilaism;s view of media power, it is not unreasonable to suggest that the the theory of cultural imperialism follows that model of Mass Society Theory. Although something of a theoretical dinosaur, it is this model that most closely resembles the images of society and its ability to be influences according to cultlural imperialism: centralized media, one-way transmissions, identity is media-dependent with the media viewed as manipulative and controlling. And, as witnessed by the fall of Communism, even such a powerful, centralized media combines with military force were not enough to stop the changing of society.

What then must the imperilaist argument make of the media message? Sepstrup (1989, in McQuail 1994) answers this question by reminding us that the path from transmission to culturla consequnece is much more complicated in the international sphere. Even assuming the homogenization of media messages due to concentrated ownership or Western bias, cultural imperilaism denies the power of the audience to interpret the message on its own contexts or to form its own meanings from the message. Smith (1990) states:

"Images and cultural traditions do not derive from or descend upon, mute and passive populations on whose tabula rasa they inscribe themselves. Instead, they invariably express the identities which historical circumstances have formed, often over long periods."

Elaborating on this idea, Straubhaar (1991) re-asserts the concepts of active audience theory and a preference among cultures to view regional or national media products. Straubhaar draws on the past research and predictions of Pool (1977) and Read (1976) that although "dependent" bu many estimations, loval cultural producers would eventually begin to compete with American products and as these productions increase and become more readily available, audiences would prefer regional or national products to international products. Two trens in research are used by Straubhaar to support Pool's predictions: 1) uses and gratifications research, which gives power to the audience in terms of its selectivity and 2) the active perticipation of the audience in interpreting media content. In arguing the active audience perspective, Straubhaar quotes Fiske (1987) who said, "these audiences actively read television in order to produce from it meanings that connect with their social experience."

Another possible criticism for the cultural imperilaism argument lies in its equation of culture with consumerism and again denies the complexities of culturla development. Included as one of the seven "myths" of globalization, "Global Cultural Homogeneity" according to Ferguson (1992) implies that consumption of the same cultural products (from TV and fast food to cars and architecture) assumes or even creates a "metaculture" based solely on consumption. Also refuting this idea of a "metaculture" is a response from the Internet from Eugene Homan in Finland. In his response to my questions about cultural influences in his country, Holman states that the Finnish culture has rejected such American staples as fast food: " never really caught on. Burger King and KFC went bust. McDonald's is holding it's own, but more as a drive-thru snack restaurant than a general eatery." Consequently, Ferguson posits, "Global Cultural Homogeneity" as a myth must either presume a global cultural economy that completely ignores local, regional or national influences, or it must assume cultural identities that exist only within "political borders or are conferred on a transhistorical world society basis by an ethic of consumption (or exploitation)." As discussed earlier, specifically in terms of East/Central Europe, this simply is not the situation in either case.

Views from the Infobahn

In the plethora of technology, few are taking the spotlight as often as the "information superhighway." Started 25 years ago as a part of the Department of Defense, the Internet (or Infobahn as is gaining popular usage) now brings together over 20 million people on-line worldwide. Except for a lapse between Hawaii at 157 degrees West and Fiji at 178 degrees East, the Internet almost circles the globe and last year carried over 12 million megabytes of information among 128 countries (15). A physical manifestation of McLuhan's idea of acoustic space, the Internet allows its "netizens" to be both everywhere and nowhere at once. Location in cyberspace depends more on information than physical geography with its users connecting through thoughts and interests across any and all boundaries. In this new electronic frontier, the burgeoning global village continues to emerge.

In exploring the debate over cultural imperialism, it seems important to gather opinions and insights from the citizens (and nationals) of countries where the debate is a reality. Currently, one of the "hotbeds" of this debate lies in the rapidly chanigng countries of East/Central Europe. The following ocmments, quoted verbatim, were received in response to postings to several newsgroups under the soc.culture. listing on the Internet (16). My posting simply asked for respondents living in or native to Eastern Europe that would be willing to talk about the idea of "cultural imperialism" within their home country. Surprisingly, few of those responding expressed concern over the idea of cultural imperialism noting past history, "fad-ism" or just general skepticism as reasons for their lack of concern. While not a truly representative sample, their responses (both pro and con) as support to the active audeince theory and strength to the the resiliency and ability of audeinces to interpret for themselves.

The Netizens Speak

"Here's a view that might be contrary to what most people might send. When I am in Poland, I workout every day (jog and lift wieghts), to many Poles, especially those of the older generations, such behavior is a sign of Americanization... The ancient Greeks were the ones to invent the Gymnasium (at least we think so, temains of exercise halls at known to be found in ancient Mesopotamian ruins), so as far as I am concerned working out is as much a sign of 'suffereing' from American influence as it is a sign of suffering from Babylonian cultural impoerialism."

Second message:

"... a couple of new thoughts occurred to me on that topic (cultural imperilaism). 1) Cultural/societal/etc. change under the influence of other people might be good in some cases. For example, in the 14th century it was common for the military leaders to join batttle with their knights. Unfortunately, often when the leader was killed or wounded, an otherwise winnable battle was lost. This was not practiced by the Turks and Tartars... Poles accepted this innovation: the leader would situate himself behins the troops and command through messengers. The benefits are obvious. 2) The point you made about the strength of the local cultures seems to be important. Had you spoken with anyone in the Russian Imperial court in the 14th and early 15th centuries, chances are they would've been speaking Polish... in the 19th century, French would have been the language of the upper class. Would that mean the Russians were Polanized in the 14th century or Romanized in the 19th - probably not."

Pawel Dobrowol



"American cultural imperialism is a misnomer. As someone has already pointed out in this debate, the Americanization going on in the Czech Republic and throughout the world is self-inflicted, so one shouldn't blame it on America. It isn't America's fault that Czechs crave and flaunt eeverything American in the same rather obsessive way they still shun and damn anything Russian... I will continue cultivating my Czech and reading Czech literature. Besides, being a native speaker of a doomed language reather strikes my fancy..."

David Chroust

Czech Republic


"On the word 'imperialist:' this is one of those words that gives me the cramps. On the impact of American culture in Bulgaria: well, I happen to consider cultural interaction a good thing. Wariety is good. It can be argued that American is kind of a low level (see all the arguments of the French)... personally, I don't think so. There are areas of American culture I think are of very high quality. It is a matter of measure and dtaste. There is no way... to say whether the effects... are good or bad. Take jazz, for example. What is jazz? Imperialism? Then there are forms of imperialism I really love and appreciate and I will be eternally grateful to America for them... if anyone calls this imperialism, well, then imperialism is welcome"

Georgy Ganev


"I agree that everything American is now in vogue in Czechosilesia... On the other hand, I wouldn't put so much weight on the cultural area... many people there just don't care about good art. For instance, they prefer simple movies full of suspense and violence - and at this, Americans are the best. If they were not available, they would watch Czech movies of similar kind, which I don't see as any imporovement... (responding to a poster who reported seeing Lithuaian folk singers virtually ignored in a Czech square) Let me assure you that if those people has been American no big crowds would have been there either. Folk songs as nice as they are, are out of touch. 'Spadlas peca a ja na nu' is surely cute, but Pink Floyd's music is certainly more related to my life experience... To sum it up, I am not afriad of or surprised that the majority of consumed goods is from the former West. It is natural. The really dangerous thing woulf be if it killed the truly Czech art and so far it seems that is not the case."

Peter Habala

Czech Republic


"The MTV boom is since long gone here in Sweden and today influences from Germany and France are growing stronger. Some of us have actually abandoned the word Internet in favour of Infobahn. In a few years, I predict that you will see the same situation in Eastern Europe... I do believe it is a trend, which will pass in some time, as other cultures influence the Eastern European lives more than the American."

Dag Salag

Croatian living in Sweden


"I doubt that it is an American people's will or anything of that sort. Maybe communism just failed and some are unhappy, trying to prevent another nechanism through which to dominate the world..."

Mihai O.

No nationality given


"> I have to question whether you can call it imperialism.

I don't think so - excuse of cultural imperialism is a favorite only with left-leaning circles. Nobody from those leftist idiots was complaining when Russians were dominating Czech culture until recently..."

Ross Hedvicek

Czech Republic


"I have just returned from a month in the area of Navy Bor and a couple of days in Praha. I was dying there from the American rock music. I cannot stand it here. I thought I would here some great Czech music. Only one song in between about 10 America songs... I hope to God that they do not see the USA as the savior. God help them! God help the USA to live up to what they think we are. We are not the land of the free. We are the land of the morons who worship useless plastic objects, pour chemicals into the ground and try to get others hooked on the same."

Paul Gottlieb

United States

"I've lived in the Czech Republic for the past four years and I've seen with my own eyes the displacement of Czech culture by shit from the US. My Czech wife and I used to eat breakfast everymorning at a traditional milk bar on Brno's town square until it was replaced by a McDonald's. You should understand though that the 'natives' bring this upon themselves often times... Brno's town hall has been wooing McDonald's ever since I moved here. Czechs, in general, think the more American culutral presence here, the more it indicates that the Czech Republic has become a part of the West... My son attends a nursery school in our neighborhood. One neighbor told us that she would send her child to a different nursery because our son's school didn't have enough Barbie dolls and other western toys."

Jeff Bowyer

Czech Republic


">Is the influx of American products undermining the native culture?

Not really. The native culture survives well with respect to such essentails as basic patterns of human interaction, eating habits, clothing and choice of luxury items. Since Finns have more experience with American products, they are critical. American fst food never really caught on (Burger King and KFC went bust or never made it). McDonald's is holding its own, but more as a drive thru snack restaurant than as the general eatery it serves as in the US... My personal opinion is that America is admired as a distance and respected for its accomplishments... On the other hand, many Finns and Estonians can't help laughing at the paradox of multi-ethnic America with its variations of variations... producing people who can only speak English (and often write it porrly) and have little first-hand experience with or mastery of foreign cultures."

Eugene Holman



"Ciao, we borrowed that from the Italians :-) It's comfy and doesn't bother anyone as long as it correspnds to 'bye' put at a socially proper place. It's become as Bulgarian as 'Mercy!'... figure that out."

Vess Velikov


Cultural Influence vs. Cultural Imperialism

What are we too make of all of this? While the possibility certainly exists for a modern-day "Tower of Babble", such a view takes an inherently negative approach and expectation of what the future holds. Charges of culturla imperialism unfortunately, also contribute to a negative world view that seems in and of itself potentially damaging. Through the criticisms of cultural imperilaism in terms of its views of media power, role in society and view of the audience, a point that need to be made in conclusion is the inherently paternalistic attitude these charges take toward native cultures.

At best, the culturla imperialism view offers a mixed message by defending the non-dominate cultures and further undermining their innate power and cohesion. To say "we are proctecting the native cutlures" implies that the culture is not strong or resilient enough to withstand influence and change on its own, which throughout history has not been the case. One only has to look to East and Central Europe for historical evidence. Despite many years of Soviet domination (on all levels of society, not just culturally), native cultures and old identities have survived as the geopolitical changes now taking place certainly prove. While some exhibit a pore positive manifestation of this process, such as Czechoslovakia's 1989 "Velvet Divorce," others have manifested in a more violent manner that sadly graces our front pages everyday as we hear more of the tragedy of war in Bosnia and Chechnya.

Instead, such examination of global theories can also offer a way of better understanidng the complex and diverse world in which we are all now operating. In Durkheim's opinion the "idea of a human person" was possibily the one "culturlaa ideal" that could provide a means of unification within an increasingly interdependent world. While it may seem to some idealistic, it si such as commitment to humanity that will ultimately provide the most understanding between the inhabitants of an increasingly more intimate Planet Earth.

"The central political task of the final years of this century, then, is the

creation of a new model of coexistence among the various cultures,

peoples, races, and religious spheres within a single interconnected


Vaclav Havel, President of the Czzech Republic, in his acceptance speech

for the Philadelphia Liberty Medal at Independence Hall on July 4, 1994.


1. Rockwell, John, "The New Colossus: American Culture as Power Export," The New York Times, January 30, 1994: section 2.

2. Schlesinger, Philip, "Europe's Contradictory Communicative Space," Daedalus, March 22, 1994.

3. Rockwell, John, "The New Colossus: American Culture as Power Export," The New York Times, January 30, 1994: section 2.

4. Rockwell, John, "The New Colossus: American Culture as Power Export," The New York Times, January 30, 1994: section 2.

5. Rockwell, John, "The New Colossus: American Culture as Power Export," The New York Times, January 30, 1994: section 2.

6. A bit is approximately the quantity of information needed to decide between two alternatives. A letter of the alphabet contains approximately 5 bits of information and this is the basis for Robertson's estimates. The idea of bits is taken from Shannon, however, Robertson does not reference the exact work in this article.

7. Robertson breaks down civilizations into levels reflecting the technology and amount of available information present. The levels he designated are as follows: Level O = Pre-language/107 bits available, Level 1 = Language/109 bits, Level 2 = Writing/1011 bits, Level 3 = Printing/1017 bits, and Level 4 = Computers/1025 bits. To put these amounts into some perspective, Robertson gives the example that a person speed reading at a rate of 1,000 words per minute could read 6 hours a day for 70 years and still only have read 2 x 1011 bits of information - the same amount a fast computer can read in a matter of minutes.

8. Taken from: LaPlante, Alice, "Eastern Europe's Virtual Curtain," Computerworld, September 12, 1994.

9. LaPlante, Alice, "Eastern Europe's Virtual Curtain," Computerworld, September 12, 1994.

10. Admittedly, these figures need to be updated. However, they still serve to illustrate the foundation on which core and periphery theorists base the bulk of their arguments in terms of quantitative measures. East/Central Europe, while not specifically mentioned, remains, by core-periphery standards, to be a periphery region.

11. Although it seems incredibly "politically correct," I use the term Australian-American to reflect the fact that Murdoch changed his citizenship because he felt it was important for him as a "media mogul" to be a part of the American cultural industry. However, a more plausible explanation would be laws restricting foreign ownership of American media to 25%.

12. "Big Buck Bonanza in Local Shoots," Variety, August 16, 1993.

13. Categories of analysis were taken from McQuail 1994, p.70, in his discussion of the dominance vs. pluralist models of media power.

14. Excerpted from The New York Times, June 2, 1991.

15. Holderness, Mike, "Welcome to the Global Village," Geographical Magazine (May 1994): 16-19.

16. Messages were posted to the following Internet newsgroups under the soc. culture. listings: .bulgaria, .balkans, .czecho-slovak, .croatia, .poland, .soviet, .hungary, and .baltics. The responses came from a wide range of people and places: the "closest" response came from a Bulgarian national in Waco, TX and the futhermost came from a Croatian national now living in Sweden.


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LaPlante, Alice, "Eastern Europe's Virtual Curtain," Computerworld, September 12, 1994.

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