Cultural Imperialism, Wealth, and Culture

Tyler Cowen has an interesting op-ed in today’s New York Times on how different cultures around the world adapt to or resist American pop culture exports.

The relative social mobility of societies in Western Europe make them especially acceptant of American movies, television shows, and music whereas people in caste-bound societies such as those in India, China, and Muslim world “use local cultural products to signal their place in hierarchies.” Because “economic growth is booming” in the latter,the spread of so-called American cultural imperialism is unlikely.

Now, as commenter Michael Burns observes in response to Cohen’s blog post introducing the piece, economics may play as large a role as culture:

Having lived in a poor country (Paraguay) for twelve of the last twenty-five years, I had naively believed that the sales and popularity of local music compared to US produced music might possibly be because legitimate CDs by US bands sell for about $10-$15, but CDs by local bands sell for about $2 (pirated CDs of US bands are available too, but are often of very poor quality). I also thought that US films might do very well in Europe because European countries subsidize filmaking, thereby creating firms that do not need to, or even try to, refer to popular tastes in their decision-making. I had also thought that the fact that people in Europe have more money than people in poor countries might have made Hollywood’s products more accesible to European audiences compared to audiences in countries with much lower average incomes. I also thought that US films might be more enjoyable to audiences that speak English, as so many Europeans do (since WWII), as compared to the experience available in countries where a much smaller number of people have acheived conversational levels of English (films in which one is completely dependant on subtitles, and films which are dubbed, being less enjoyable)

Or, as Leo puts it, “isn’t it obvious that people from impoverished countries would consume more local music than American music? i mean, it’s like saying that people from impoverished countries prefer to eat locally grown foods.”

Cowen acknowledges as much:

Critics of cultural imperialism charge that rich cultures dominate poor ones. But the data supplied by Professor Lizardo show that the poorer a country, the more likely it will buy and listen to its own domestic music. This makes sense given that music is a form of social networking and the relevant networks are primarily local.

That said, the poorest countries don’t produce many of the films they watch. Making a movie costs much more than cutting an album. So as the world becomes richer, the relative market share of Hollywood movies will probably fall more than the relative market share of American popular music. Furthermore, moviegoers are starting to look to Bollywood films, or other Asian productions, rather than Hollywood, for their markers of global identity.

Indeed, it seems to me that culture and wealth are flip sides of the same coin. Closed societies tend to be impoverished, or at least have little social mobility, resulting in the peasantry having neither the exposure to Western culture nor the wherewithal to change that fact. Further, even in autocratic regimes with strong caste systems, young elites revel in their ability to enjoy the trappings of Western decadence.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, Middle East, Popular Culture, World Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Christopher says:

    “cultural imperialism”? LOL! Another liberal term is born!

  2. James Joyner says:

    The term is older than I am, having been around since at least 1963.

  3. John Burgess says:

    Let me counter-argue that improved economic conditions lead to an increase in both foreign (i.e. Western, or American) products and indigenously produced materials.

    While Egypt and parts of N. Africa have a fairly long history of film-making, other countries, particularly in the Persian Gulf, are now seeing home-grown artists acting in and producing/directing films aimed explicitly at local consumers.

    See here, here, and here for examples.

    This leaves aside, of course, Western films being made particularly to appeal to regional audiences based on subject matter or sensitivity to cultural concerns.

  4. Enough of all this. Let’s here the presidential candidates plans for how we can keep French words from slipping into our language and ruining our culture.

  5. alex says:

    cowen…not cohen.

    Ooops! Fixed. -ed.