Central to many definitions of the term “cultural imperialism” is the idea of the culture of one powerful civilization, country, or institution having great unreciprocated influence on that of another, less powerful, entity to a degree that one may speak of a measure of cultural “domination.” Cultural imperialism has sometimes been described as a theory, especially where scholars build a case that the cultural influence of the stronger entity has had a pervasive, pernicious impact on the weaker.
The term evolved from 1960s neo-Marxist discourses within cultural, media, and postcolonial studies that contextualized the post–World War II “independence” wave of new nations emerging from colonial servitude. It was propelled by the writings of nationalist revolutionaries, revolutionary theorists, and their sympathizers of the 1950s and 1960s, but it has sweeping relevance across human history. The foremost western theorist of cultural imperialism in the West was Herbert Schiller. The concept was adopted and endorsed in the 1970s by both UNESCO and the Non-Aligned Movement.
Following Oliver Boyd-Barrett, the concept may denote a field of study embracing all relationships between phenomena defined as “cultural” and as “imperialism.” These encompass cultural changes that are (1) enforced on a weaker entity and (2) occur within both stronger and weaker entities through contact, contest, and resistance, including (3) assimilation of social practices encountered by the stronger in the weaker entity, and (4) original hybrids manifesting cultural traces of both stronger and weaker entities.
The concepts of cultural and media imperialism were much critiqued during the 1980s and 1990s, and many scholars preferred alternative concepts such as globalization and cultural globalization to analyze issues of intercultural contact, whether asymmetrical or otherwise. John Tomlinson critiqued the concept, identified four different discourses of cultural imperialism, and argued in favor of its substitution with the term “globalization.” Mirrlees has placed Tomlinson’s work in context by describing the dialectical—parallel but mutually aware—development of both a cultural imperialism and a cultural globalization paradigm. Both are influential in the 21st century.
“Imperialism” commonly references relations of conquest, dominance, and hegemony between civilizations, nations, and communities. “Cultural imperialism” relates primarily to the cultural manifestations of such relations. Culture and empire relate in many different ways, fueling different theories that often play on dichotomous discourses, including territorial/non-territorial, totalistic/partial, benign/malign, ephemeral/perpetual, superficial/essential, voluntary/involuntary, intended/unintended, welcome/unwelcome, forceful/peaceful, noticed/unnoticed, linear/interactive, homogeneous/heterogeneous, and acceded/resisted.
The concept has affinities with hegemony, the idea that stability in conditions of social inequality is achieved not mainly by force but by securing the consent of the masses (starting with co-option of their indigenous leaders)—through persuasion and propaganda—to the elite’s view of the world. This process is commensurate with forms of democracy that provide the appearance but not the reality of choice and control. Fissures within the ranks of the elites and within the masses create spaces for resistance and change.
Culture encompasses the totality of social practices of a given community. Social practices are manifest within social institutions such as family, education, healthcare, worship, labor, recreation, language, communication, and decision-making, as well as their corresponding domains. Any of these can undergo change following a society’s encounter with exogenous influences—most dramatically so when stronger powers impose changes through top-down strategies of command and influence.
Analysis of cultural imperialism often incorporates notions of media imperialism with reference to (1) print, electronic, and digital media—their industrialization, production, distribution, content, and capital accumulation; (2) cultural meanings that media evoke among receivers and audience cultures; (3) audience and media interactions in representations of topics, people, and ideas; and (4) relationships between media corporations and other centers of power in the reproduction and shaping of social systems.
Media are logically subsumed as important components of cultural imperialism. Yet the significance of media can be understated. The concept of mediatization denotes that “knowledge” of social practices draws heavily on media representations. Social practices that are experienced as direct may themselves be formed through exposure to media representations or performed for media.
Discourses of cultural imperialism speak to major current controversies, including: cultural suppression and genocide; ideas of “globalization”; influential economic models of “capitalism” and “neoliberalism”; ideologies that are embedded in the global spread of concepts such as “modern,” “progressive,” “growth,” “development,” “consumerism,” “free market,” “freedom,” “democracy,” “social Darwinism” and “soft power”; cultural specificity of criteria and procedures for establishing “truth”; instrumentalization for the purposes of cultural conquest of academic disciplines such as psychoanalysis, economics, social anthropology, or marketing, or environmental crises, especially as linked to western ideologies that underwrite humanity’s “right” to dominate nature.
Matthew Bost and Matthew S. May
Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri are among the most powerful theorists of communication and social change under present-day global capitalism. In their Empire trilogy and other individual and collaborative works, Hardt and Negri argue for the fundamentally communicative nature of contemporary power. Their analyses demonstrate the ways that media technology, global flows of finance capital, and the contemporary shift to economies based on information and affective or emotional labor create new, more complex networks of oppression and new possibilities for more democratic social change. Hardt and Negri’s work, therefore, shifts the focus of critical communication and cultural theory from attaining or challenging political power within the nation-state and invites scholars to rethink sovereignty as empire: an interconnected global phenomenon appertaining to capitalism in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. They furthermore reimagine dissent as a constitutive process of resistance and mutual aid through which the multitude simultaneously withdraws from empire and composes itself through the social communication of struggles across time and space. Hardt and Negri’s work has been taken up in communication studies to theorize the materiality of communication; the labor performed in cognitive, communication, and service industries; contemporary media audiences and reception; and historical and contemporary social movements, from the Industrial Workers of the World to the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street.
Christina R. Foust and Raisa Alvarado
What moves the social? And what is rhetoric’s relationship to social movement? Since 1950, scholars studying the art of public persuasion have offered different answers to these questions. Early approaches to social movements defined them as out-groups that made use of persuasion to achieve goals and meet persistent challenges. However, protest tactics that flaunted the body and spectacle (e.g., 1960s-era dissent) challenged early emphasis on social movements as nouns or “things” that used rhetoric. Influenced by intersectional feminist theories and movements that featured identity transformations (along with ending oppression) as political, rhetoric scholars began to view “a social movement” as an outcome or effect of rhetoric. Scholars treated movements as “fictions,” identifying the ways in which these collective subjects did not empirically exist—but were nonetheless significant, as people came to invest their identities and desires for a new order into social movements. Scholars argued that people manifested “a social movement’s” presence by identifying themselves as representatives of it. More recently, though, rhetoric scholars emphasize what is moving in the social, by following the circulation of rhetoric across nodes and pathways in networks, as well as bodies in protest. Inspired by social media activism, as well as theories of performance and the body, scholars concentrate on how symbolic action (or the affects it helps create) interrupts business as usual in everyday life. To study rhetoric and social movement is to study how dissent from poor and working-class people, women, people of color, LGBTQ activists, the disabled, immigrants, and other non-normative, incongruous voices and bodies coalesce in myriad ways, helping move humanity along the long arc of the moral universe that bends toward justice.
Catherine Chaput and Joshua S. Hanan
Depending on how you approach it, economic justice is either an extremely old intellectual tradition or a relatively new one. From the first perspective, economic justice is part and parcel of classical political philosophy—Plato’s The Republic and Aristotle’s The Politics, for instance, both discuss property distribution in an ideal society, emphasizing the philosophy of justice over economic precepts. From the second perspective, the one we embrace, economic justice is a uniquely modern inquiry that emerged with the writings of Karl Marx and his revolutionary critique of the capitalist political economy. For Marx, economic justice can be understood as a critical enterprise that attempts to locate contradictions between universal and particular conceptions of human freedom and intervene politically into these contradictions with the aim of creating a more just, equitable, and egalitarian society. So conceived, economic justice liberates the collective potential of humanity from its exploitation and degradation by capitalism as well as the various legal institutions it develops to control human behavior for the purpose of extracting of surplus-value. It is this Marxist perspective and the various historical reformulations that it has authorized that influence the way rhetoricians and scholars of cultural studies conceptualize economic justice in the discipline of communication. While not all of these scholars endorse an explicitly Marxist line of thought, they all attempt to conceptualize economic justice as a normative political category that influences various models of rhetorical agency and social change.