Sunday, February 12, 2012

Understanding globalisation of Western media organisations through Cultural Imperialism

1. Introduction

Globalization in its current form has sparked off a series of complex phenomena around the world, both at an international level and within nations. Its capitalistic foundation and expansionary element give it the power to modify the shape of every entity that comes in its path. As Robert McChesney puts it, “in the past, to understand any nation’s media situation, one first had to understand the local and national media and then determine where the global market. Today one must first grasp the nature and logic of the global commercial system and then determine how local and national media deviate from the overall system.” (McChesney, The Media System Goes Global, 2010). Of course there are many discourses on whether culture can be viewed as a ‘tool of capitalism’, a presumption opposed by some theorists (Tomlinson, 1991, pp. 134-140) which I will discuss later in the essay. Keeping this background in mind, I introduce the essay with the effects of globalisation on the western media organisations followed by their commercialisation to the ‘domination’ debate, the concepts of cultural and media imperialism and finally, the relevance of the former in understanding the western media conglomerates.

2. Globalisation of western media organisations

By the term ‘globalisation’ here, I refer to its contemporary prevalent form. The media organisations at the time of their inception were largely domestic but as capitalism unfurled, these entities began to take the form of huge Transnational Corporations (TNCs) which have vertically integrated now to become conglomerates. Such Transnational media corporations, mostly Anglo-American, provide wholesome media package products instead of being a simple news media firm, or a television production house, film production company et al. The ‘dominant media flows’ are very strong against the ‘contra-flows (both transnational and geo-cultural)’ (Thussu, 2010). The globalisation process then manifested itself in another form- glocalisation. After vertical integration, this was one of the most successful strategies of these conglomerates- to ‘think globally and act locally’ (Keane, 2003, p. 87). These organisations (like Disney, Time Warner, Viacom, NewsCorp, Associated Press, Thomson Reuters, and others) originated and were concentrated mainly in the West because of the economic and political prosperity those countries enjoyed. An interesting quote which best elaborates my argument is- “As US-led Western media conglomerates have regionalised and localised their content to extend their reach beyond the elites in the world and to create the ‘global popular’, many Southern media organisations have benefitted from synergies emerging from this glocalisation process” (Thussu, 2010, p. 137).

2.1 Growth and Commercialisation

Growth of these media giants can be attributed to multiple sources- privatisation and deregulation in the West, the emergence of English as the global media language, concentrated ownership of capital, first mover advantage in the global media market, relatively ‘free media’ due to democratic leadership in most of the western countries, proximity to banking and financial industries, cross-employment in media firms, vertical integration of American companies, packaging information and entertainment together, and most importantly, commersialisation of media products. The widespread acceptance of ‘global corporate ideology’ (Herman & McChesney, 1997) has led to ‘commodification’ and gigantic growth in their scale of production.

2.2 Commercialisation to Domination
As I have argued above ‘the rise of a global commercial media system is closely linked to the rise of a significantly more integrated “neo-liberal” global capitalist system’ (McChesney, The Media System Goes Global, 2010). The fact that world institutions like World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), and World Trade Organisation (WTO) encourage and catalyse this supremacy (McChesney, The Media System Goes Global, 2010) explains the exponential growth. The distribution systems of these organisations are the major reason which makes these oligopolies impermeable, as McChesney puts it, ‘what distinguishes the emerging global media system is not transnational control over exported media content, however, so much as increasing TNC control over media distribution and content within nations’ (2010). The authority of these corporations in maintaining control over intra-national media content in other countries leads to another realm- the discourse of imperialism.
3. Domination or Imperialism?

The oxford dictionary has a very strong definition of imperialism as ‘a policy of extending a country’s power and influence through colonisation, use of military force or other means’. Antonio Gramsci and his ideas of hegemony provided a clear explanation of the current global media situation. He suggests that ‘power is best understood as a relation’ (Simon, 1982, p. 23). It may be put forth that ‘imperialism’ “grasps a specific form of domination, that associated with ‘empire’” (Tomlinson, 1991, p. 19). At the heart of the discussion involving cultural imperialism today, lies a relationship between globalisation, media and culture.

4. Concept of Cultural Imperialism and Media Imperialism
‘Cultural imperialism’ as a term emerged in the 1960s (Tomlinson, 1991) and it begun to be studied by theorists in 1970s. It has neo-liberal foundations but cultural production is a complex process and the industries associated with it have more social impact than financial profit.
“.....cultural objects are everywhere; as information, as communications, as branded products, as financial services, as media products, as transport and leisure services, cultural entities are no longer the exception: they are the rule. Culture is so ubiquitous that it, as it were, seeps out of the super stricture and comes to infiltrate, and then take over, the infrastructure itself. It comes to dominate both the economy and experience in everyday life. Culture no longer works- in regard to resistance or domination- primarily as a superstructure. It no longer works primarily as hegemonic ideology, as symbols, as representations. In our emergent age of global culture industry, where culture starts to dominate both the economy and the everyday, culture, which was previously a question of representation, becomes thingified.”

(Lash & Lury, 2007, p. 4)

An overview of the global cultural environment reflects hegemony of a few cultural industries, explaining the overlap of culture and imperialism. This domain is what is viewed as cultural imperialism. Herbert Schiller defines it as ‘the sum of the processes by which a society is brought into the modern world system and how its dominating stratum is attracted, pressured, forced and sometimes even bribed into shaping social institutions to correspond to, or even promote, the values and structures of the dominating centre of the system’ (Schiller, Communication and Cultural Domination, 1976, p. 9) . Johan Galtung establishes that there is a ‘harmony of interests’ between Western powers and the dependent economies of the South. (Meyer, 1988)

When Galtung explains his model of cultural imperialism, he defines it as being a function of ‘Media Imperialism’. The dependence arising due to the rise of global media system results in what is known as the media imperialism- a highly debated concept. This mediation, as Tomlinson argues, between the ‘culture (Pool, 1977)as representation and culture as lived experience’ is what is most prone to imperialistic influence. Cultural imperialism also manifests itself in various other forms such as in food, education system, language and other things apart from the media. Thus, it is a much broader discourse entailing other theories with it such as dependency theory, hegemony-and-ideology and dominant-and-contra flows. Media imperialism is “a particular way of discussing cultural imperialism; it is not simply a name for the study of the media in developing countries or of the international market in communications, it involves all the complex political issues- and indeed, the political commitments- entailed in the notion of cultural domination” (Tomlinson, 1991, p. 22)
A different theory termed product-life cycle theory argued that expansion of media can be looked at as a normal course of a business cycle rather than a systematic domination. This theory was developed by Pool and Read (1977). It stated that, the media industry follows the production curve. There is a continued expansion in its production until the saturation of its market, after which its influence (contrary to imperialistic tendencies) begins to decline. The product-life cycle and dependency theory were both critiqued by Lee (1980), which would be discussed in the following debate.

5. Relevance of Cultural Imperialism- A debate
Globalisation of the western media organisations has intensified the debate of cultural imperialism. The main threat which is perceived from cultural imperialism is that a few cultures will dominate other cultures and the traditional cultures would diminish. There are two conflicting views to analyse the relevance of cultural imperialism in studying rising media convergence.
5.1. Yes, it is relevant.
Marxian understanding of cultural imperialism clearly confirms its relevance in studying western media organisations. Its main concern and focus is the relationships between the strong and weak nations and how the former exert power over the latter. They think of ‘cultural imperialism’ as a result of “transposing the intra-societal class conflict to the international communication system” (Lee, 1980, p. 35). The neo-Marxists conclude quite explicitly that “the international streams of communication are a manifestation of the ruling interests of the societies from which they originate and not a unanimous output of the nations involved” (Lee, 1980, p. 36). According to neo-Marxists, since there are only a few media conglomerates, the dominant ideologies and cultures of the nationals owning it would impose their country’s cultures over their audience, which is multi-cultural. Herbert Schiller in his 1976 work critiqued the theorists who by neo-liberal explanations, justified the expansion of media conglomerates and refuted the claim that it has any significant cultural impact. He argued that “though the economic imperative initiates the cultural envelopment, the impact extends far beyond the profit-seeking objectives of some huge media monopolies and cultural conglomerates....the cultural penetration that has occurred in recent decades embraces all the socialising institutions” (Schiller, Communication and Cultural Domination, 1976, p. 8). Although his work dates back to the 1970s, it still holds relevance and to sum this argument up, here is an excerpt from his interview in 1996:
“The monopolies are stronger than ever and the concentration continues. It now embraces a wide area, it is not just 'media', all forms of communication are brought together in these unified corporate conglomerates. You have Time-Warner, which has assets of about 20 billion dollar and is operating radio stations, recording studios, film studios, television programming and increasingly also retail stores, where they sell the apparels that they produce in their movies. Disney is of course an enormous conglomerate. Then there is Viacom, which owns MTV and does a great job in selling pop culture and making these kids less and less capable of doing any thinking. But it also includes computer companies, telephone companies. The television networks are all owned by super conglomerates. CBS is owned by Westinghouse, NBC by General Electric. ABC was just bought by Disney and Fox is owned by Murdoch. To think that these are crumbling, is like being in a fantasy land. We have to be careful in using the word 'globalization' in this context. It may to seem that everybody is participating in it and you will have to, and if you don't you will fall behind and lose, we have to be competitive, that thing. Globalization is a direction of super corporations. They are using the globe to market their products and penetrate every part of the world”
(Schiller, Information Inequality, 1996)
Hollywood is at the top of film industry when it comes to worldwide hegemony. According to Boyd-Barrett (1977: 131), it was the ‘economic of scale’ factor which gave advantage to Hollywood to establish hegemony all over the world which can only be handled by the super media giants with huge accumulation of capital and technology. He emphasises on the ‘consumerist lifestyle’ promoted through its films.
Non-Marxists have a ‘pluralist’ view of cultural imperialism and they separate cultural imperialism from ‘media-imperialism’, dealing specifically with the media effects in culture. Oliver Boyd-Barrett, prefers to deal with media imperialism specifically while understanding the western media organisations and their globalised form as it allows a more “rigorous examination”. He (Boyd-Barrett, 1977, p. 117) defines ‘media imperialism’ as: ‘The process whereby the ownership, structure, distribution or content of the media in any one country are singly or together subject to substantial external pressures from the media interests of any other country or countries without proportionate reciprocation of influence by the country so affected’. For the sake of simplification in this essay, I shall only restrict myself to the term ‘cultural imperialism’.
Both these views broadly explain the theoretically cited reasons which advocate the relevance of ‘cultural imperialism’ in understanding globalisation of Western media firms.
5.2. No, it is not relevant.
The first view negating the relevance of cultural imperialism is given by Straubhaar (2010) who uses arguments such as- active audiences and class (this part emphasized on “active role of the audience in selecting media inputs” (Blumler & Katz, 1974, p. 87), audience’s choice, interpretations and resistance towards mass-fed media products such as advertising), commercialisation and transnationalisation (which contradicted the view that expansion of the media multinationals was done with imperialist ambitions and instead asserted that it was a capitalistic requirement), asymmetrical interdependence (this approach underlines the importance of national media against the influence of global media and the argument of contra-flow and undermines the dependency theory) and product-life cycle theory (this contradicted the cultural imperialism by predicting that the influence of the western media organisations would fade as they lose their market share after market saturation). Thus, there is a shift ‘from total dependency to asymmetrical interdependence’ (Straubhaar, 2010).
Annabelle Sreberny-Mohammadi provides a very simple connection between imperialism and culture as she compares imperialism to a ‘double-edged sword’, impacting, “albeit unequally, both on the colonised and the coloniser and it must be seen as the major global diffuser of modernity, its ‘cross-cultural carrier’” (Golding & Harris, 1997, p. 66)- a comparison which in itself suggests that it is not only the dominating country at the influencing end.
Globalisation theorists have a fairly different view, used for contradicting cultural imperialism in the case of western media organisations. They believe that the notion of the ‘nation’ is fading away rapidly and is paving way for a ‘global’ territory. Globalisation in essence means that “we cannot conceive the whole in terms of one of its parts, say the First or Third worlds (as in imperialism), or as a composite system of logically prior nation states” (Beyer cited in (Ritzer, 1998, p. 82)). Ritzer (1998) quotes Appadurai (1990) while recognising “deterritorialisation as one of the central forces in the modern world”. He also states that “the global culture is not normatively binding, but simply a general mode of discourse about the world as a whole and its variety”. Many cultural theorists like John Fiske focused on active audience and their role in ‘resisting’ the ‘undesired effects’ of culture.
There is thesis and anti-thesis of the relevance of cultural imperialism in this essay but the fact which hold true is that the capitalism has managed to establish itself globally only through media giants and evidence above suggests that it has profound cultural effects too. I conclude that globalisation of western media organisations cannot be studied in isolation without viewing it through the filter of ‘cultural imperialism’. As for the counter arguments negating its significance, I would quote Herbert Irving Schiller, “I am not saying that everybody is a cultural dope. But I do have to recognize where the cultural power is” (Schiller, Information Inequality, 1996).

(words- 2545)


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