Cultural imperialism is the process and practice of promoting one culture over another. Often this occurs during colonization, where one nation overpowers another country, typically one that is economically disadvantaged and/or militarily weaker. The dominant country then forces its cultural beliefs and practices onto the conquered nation. This has happened since nations have been warring, beginning with the Greek and Roman empires to the French and British empires, the American Revolution and the rise of communist governments in China and the Soviet Union to present day changes in governments around the world.
Culture can be imposed in a variety of ways, such as through creating new laws and policies concerning what specific types of education, religion, art, and language are to be used. For example, when Native North American tribes were forced onto reservations, the United States government dictated that children attend Christian based boarding schools, they were taught to read and write English, and the use of their native language was discouraged and/ or forbidden.
As a result of this, people find alternative ways of maintaining their culture; sometimes groups are forced into exile and their cultural practices are outlawed. Language or music is adapted as a means to continue the culture. For example, stories can be hidden within song lyrics and rhythms from their traditional music are merged with the new dominant forms as a means of maintaining parts of their culture. As with the Native North Americans, other populations have also been forced to change their style of dress, religion, language, and customs. This is common through the suppression of religion and has happened in various countries including China, Cuba, Germany, the Soviet Union, and Afghanistan.
Cultural imperialism differs from cultural diffusion primarily due to the mechanisms used to change culture and the roles that 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.
Cultural imperialism also occurs through programs designed to assist other nations, particularly developing nations. This can range from the ways in which small groups from western nations help out communities and villages to the impact of large international organizations’ efforts at creating positive change. It is not uncommon for organizations such as the United Nations or World Bank to place conditions on loans or grants they provide to nations. Often monies are designated for specific projects such as building roads where these groups believe it is most beneficial for the nation, as well as constructing schools or health clinics. Complications arise through this process, such as when curricula are being developed for the schools. By teaching students English, in the belief they are being better prepared for opportunities outside of their native country, this practice, along with the ways in which students are being instructed, reinforces western ideals and behaviors, often to the detriment of their existing culture.
Globalization has created a new vehicle by which cultural imperialism can occur, often with minimal resistance or acknowledgment that it is happening. Supporters of the expansion of ‘‘free markets’’ argue that cultures are fluid and therefore cultural imperialism is a ‘‘natural’’ part of the growth of trade. If western practices and ideas are the most successful, then it is believed that cultural practices associated with them are better than other cultures. Some of the main challenges to this thinking include investigating what exactly is being transferred or imposed onto other nations, what group benefits from the cultural shifts, and what cultural aspects become lost. Research focuses on examining changes in images and content of art, music, fashion and clothing, sports and recreational activities as well as changes in consumerism, due to the influences of globalization.
Critiques of the effects of globalization often concentrate on ‘‘what’’ is being imposed on other nations. For example, many argue the spread of McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Wal Mart represents positive change as they bring jobs and relatively inexpensive goods to other nations. However, the rapid expansion of these types of restaurants or stores also reflects a specific kind of American culture that is shaped and dictated by corporations. Many ask whether these kinds of businesses reflect US culture or whether they are simply an expansion of US capitalism.
Those who are actively challenging and resisting the spread of western practices and the effects of globalization often reside in places where they are experiencing this ‘‘new’’ wave of cultural imperialism. Scholars are examining the impact of cultural imperialism and larger issues connected to colonialism as a means to retain culture that is in danger of disappearing as well as to develop deeper understandings of the impact of outside forces on their nation and to expose the effects of these practices. Many citizens are openly challenging the oppressive nature of western expansion, creating coalitions and organizations aimed at maintaining cultural traditions and practices. Some nations have created protectionist policies in an effort to slow down the pace of western nations purchasing their land and other natural resources.
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