Thursday, May 3, 2012

USA Today: Cultural Imperialist?

I wrote this essay for one of my classes this semester.

The United States of America’s influence on society and culture goes undoubtedly beyond its borders. For example, CNN is the most watched news network in the world, a McDonald’s restaurant is found in nearly every city, songs by Lady Gaga play on  radios on a regular basis and Apple products are sold at a very high rate.  In light of the following arguments, we understand that the cultural imperialism of the United States manifests itself in various areas, ranging from the culture spread through the English language, the influence of American social, economical and political institutions themselves to media. Cultural imperialism has been described as “the use of political and economic power to exalt and spread the values and habits of a foreign culture at the expense of a native culture” (Tomlinson 1991). Today, America’s impact on the rest of the world is still central. Therefore, the United States today is best described as a cultural imperialist.

One of the main reasons why the US can be regarded as a cultural imperialist is because it has managed to establish its national language as the lingua franca. In other terms, the English language is used as an important vehicle of spreading culture. We even speak of linguistic imperialism when it comes to promoting one’s own political, economic and cultural interests. This is done for instance through a said missionary or altruistic motivation. As Phillipson indicates, linguistic imperialism is the notion that “the dominance asserted and maintained by the establishment and continuous reconstruction of structural and cultural inequalities between English and other languages” (47). As a consequence, the importance of the English language as a national language has affected local identities overseas. During its expansion, America even imposed English as the national language after Philippines and Hawaii's annexation in 1898. In this regard, establishing English as a national language abroad is a product of cultural imperialism. The result is that other cultures and minorities suffer from this. As an official language, locals have to learn this language in order to guarantee a good economic situation or to survive. In the case of Hawaii, the encouragement of massive migration and teaching English in schools has led to the loss of the use of Hawaiian in everyday life and the number of native speakers has sunk drastically.
More generally, we can also speak of linguistic imperialism when it comes to the US’ hegemony on the rest of the world. Today, English is still considered to be the lingua franca in a broader sense. It is the international business language, it is taught as a second language in primary schools in many foreign countries such as Switzerland and finally, most masters program offer their courses solely in English. Language is indeed a crucial factor for spreading culture. It acts on the way we think and communicate. In this regard, we can see how US can be described as a cultural imperialist because it passed on its own national language to the rest of the world. 

On a second note, the US can be best seen as a cultural imperialist because it has strongly influenced other nations in founding their own social, economic and political institutions. If we take the example of the Philippines, the development of the educational system and government were patterned on the US model. Aside from having English established as a medium of instruction, schools were classified into private or public, government schools. The Filipinos were also pushed to accepting the American administration. In addition, The Philippine Commonwealth was inaugurated in 1935 under a democratic constitution modeled on the United States bicameral system. In doing so, we can assess how other countries seem to succumb to the US’ might and adopt their national values and systems. Therefore, this vast country can be considered as a cultural imperialist. As John Tomlinson said, “cultural imperialism is essentially about the exalting and spreading of values and habits – a practice in which ecocomic power plays an instumental role” (3).

Finally, another domain in which America has had an immense impact on spreading culture beyond its borders is through their media empire. Tomlinson argues that “the great majority of published discussions of cultural imperialism place the media – television, film, radio, print journalism, advertising – at the centre of things” (20). As mentioned in the introduction, the US  influences among others our preference in music, the television series we follow, the films we like to watch at the cinema and Facebook, the most visited social network was founded by an American. The US’ media portray a lot of the American way of life and traditions – and it transcends to other nations. We understand that people around the globe have a yen for American products and services. What is striking is that the cultural imperialism of the USA deeply shapes other countries without them being truly aware of it. As a result, this superpower can be deemed to be a cultural imperialist because “the United States dominates this global traffic in information and ideas. American music, American television, and American software are so dominant, and sought after, and so visible that they are now available literally everywhere on Earth. They influence the tastes, lives, an aspirations of virtually every nation” (val Elteren 173).

To conclude, in the light of these arguments, we can grasp how the US dominates the rest of the world today because its language, values and ideals, music, electronic products, political, economical and social institutions are indisputably still presiding beyond its borders. In truth, this is the reason why the United States of America is best described as a cultural imperialist today. Of course, cultural imperialism has had positive outcomes such as facilitating communication between nations through the English language. However, what is lost in return may be that the cultural imperialism of the US is at the expense of local cultures.


Tomlinson, John. Cultural Imperialism: A Critical Introduction. John Hopkins University Press, 1991.

Van Elteren, Mel. “U.S. Cultural Imperialism Today: Only a Chimera?” Sais Review. Vol XXIII no. 2, pp. 169-188. Project MUSE: 2003.

Phillipson, Robert. Linguistic Imperialism. Oxford University Press, 1992.