Cultural Imperialism

Essay 2004 9 Pages

Communications - Intercultural Communication


The relationships between Phuong, Alden Pyle and Thomas Fowler in “The Quiet American” might be observed in terms of cultural imperialism (Alden Pyle seems to want to change Phuong and Vietnam). What cultural and social factors seem to influence the attitudes, behaviour and reactions of each character? Could they be read as models for the cultural traits, outlooks and expectations of Americans, British and Vietnamese people?

This essay shall answer the above questions by analysing the following points: Firstly, the definitions of cultural imperialism are examined. Secondly, the question of whether culture is a natural phenomenon or constructed by humans is discussed. Thirdly, the phenomenon of believing in cultural superiority (by particular cultures) is analysed. In further parts, strategies of suppressed cultures to avoid their annihilation are described and the question of whether specific types (as the movie’s characters) can be representative for their cultures is answered. Finally, in the conclusion of this paper the results are summarised and discussed.

Many definitions of cultural imperialism exist. The term is difficult to describe due to its reference to the two other abstract concepts of “culture” and “imperialism”. Tomlinson (1991, p. 2) sees cultural imperialism as a critical discourse which represents another (non Western) culture in dominant Western cultural terms. Tomlinson identifies four ways to discuss cultural imperialism: Cultural imperialism can be discussed as media imperialism, as a discourse of nationality, as a critique of global capitalism or, finally, as a critique of modernity itself (Tomlinson, 1991, p. 19–28).

For Kottak (1999, p. 234) cultural imperialism describes the spread of a particular culture at the expense of other cultures. In his definition, Kottak not only focuses on media effects but includes explicitly economic and political forces. Thus, Kottak’s definition includes all types of effects which advance one culture.

Sreberny-Mohammadi (1997, p.50) criticises the term “cultural imperialism” because it reduces “culture” to the products of the culture industries and – often described also as “media imperialism” – only focuses on the impact of modern media or multinational corporations. All theoretical problems related to this term shall not be discussed here but it is obvious that cultural imperialism has different meanings in different (academic and non academic) discourses.

Making a – rough but practical – working definition we describe cultural imperialism as the effort of a dominant culture to influence and change another culture; the political and economic sphere in this working definition are excluded because they are part of imperialism in a general sense.

On the other hand, it is obvious that the borders between cultural, political and economic spheres are mainly narrow. Imposing economic and political (as well as military) power of one culture will always include the cultural sphere. Therefore, in this essay we will also refer to Kottak’s definition and analyse all types of influence which promote a particular culture.

Thus, in the “Quiet American” Alden Pyle not only wants to change Vietnam’s political and economic system (in his role as a CIA agent)[1] but also its culture (i. e. its way of everyday life in all aspects). To understand the term “culture” – or to reduce its complexity for this essay – we refer to the definition of Raymond Williams (1962, cited in Lull, 1995, p. 130). Williams describes culture as “a particular way of life” which a community shares. His definition identifies culture as dynamic and constantly changing and makes no distinction between “superior” or “inferior” cultures. In this sense, the effects of Pyle’s cultural imperialism can be seen when he changes Phuong’s “way of life”, i. e. the way she dresses and behaves.

In order to understand Pyle’s attitudes and behaviour, we have to analyse why members of one culture develop their perspective that they want to change another culture. Firstly, the U.S. in Vietnam (as other European colonial powers in the past[2] ) was pursuing its economic and political goals. Building up a colony, or in the case of South-Vietnam a dependent state, is mainly motivated by the interests of influential capitalist groups. All conflicts between different cultures throughout history are actually conflicts about economics or political power.

Nevertheless, some people argue that conflicts are solely motivated by differences between specific cultures. Huntington (2000, p. 472) even states that all future conflicts in world politics will be cultural conflicts. He describes “civilizations” as the broadest level of cultural identity people possess and foresees a “clash of civilisations”, especially “between the West and non-Western civilizations and among non-Western civilizations” (Huntington, 2000, p. 472). Huntington identifies eight major civilisations: the Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin-American and African civilisation. In the case of the last, he is not even sure if African culture can be seen as a “culture” which shows that he judges cultures from a Western perspective but not like Williams as a “particular way of life”. On the contrary, he refers to a definition of culture which discriminates between “cultured” and “uncultured” persons, implying that there are “superior” and “minor” cultures (Lull, 1995, p. 131). That is why Huntington does not use the neutral “culture” but the biased term “civilization” referring to the language of colonial times.


[1] Due to his role as a CIA agent Pyle can be described as a “pure” imperialist. Representing the American intervention in Vietnam his main interests are in the political and economic spheres. To realise changes in these spheres he justifies military power (i. e. coercion). However, in this essay we focus on his attempts to change Vietnam’s culture.

[2] Fowler in this way is a representative for the former colonial power of the United Kingdom or, more generally, of Europe. His attitude of respecting Vietnam’s culture is therefore based on British experience with ruling colonial states and its final failure.


ISBN (eBook)
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454 KB
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Institution / College
Macquarie University – Centre for International Communication
High Distinction
Cultural Imperialism Cross-cultural



Title: Cultural Imperialism