Rethinking Americanization Abroad: Toward a Critical Alternative to Prevailing Paradigms

By van Elteren, Mel | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), September 2006 | Go to article overview

Rethinking Americanization Abroad: Toward a Critical Alternative to Prevailing Paradigms


van Elteren, Mel, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


A number of international Americanists and other scholars studying America's impact and resonance overseas have revisited the issue of Americanization in the past few decades. Their interest tended to focus mostly on America's cultural influence abroad.1 This article reconsiders the new paradigms and discusses the merits and shortcomings of each. Although the protagonists of these approaches are certainly correct in rejecting a simple equation of cultural globalization and Americanization and in emphasizing the active involvement of recipients of American culture, they tend to tip the balance too far toward one side as I hope to demonstrate. This leads to a programmatic outline of the study of Americanization from a more balanced perspective that takes both projections of United States' powers and local reworkings of American influence into account.

The starting point is that "Americanization"-in all of its manifestations and interpretationsrefers to the real or purported influence of one or more forms of Americanism on some social entity, material object, or cultural practice. Processes of this kind have taken (and are still taking) place both inside and outside the United States. The social entity can be a group of people or social category, a region, a nation, or a transnational world or culture that goes beyond this geographic scale-a specific cultural area, civilization, or even "the globe" as a whole. The object in question can be any good, product, or artifact and its associated technology or practice. "Americanism" is provisionally, and therefore less accurately, defined here as a characteristic feature of the United States, and refers to principles and practices inherent to American society and culture (or at least believed to be so by the observers concerned). It needs to be emphasized that Americanization overseas-by which I mean invariably "US Americanization" (Robertson, "Afterword" 257)-is deliberately defined broadly here. It refers to processes in which economic, technological, political, social, cultural, and/or sociopsychological influences emanating from America or Americans impinge on values, norms, belief systems, mentalities, habits, rules, technologies, practices, institutions, and behaviors of non-Americans. These diverse influences are conveyed by the import in foreign contexts of products, models or exemplars, images, ideas, values, ideals, technologies, practices, and behavior originating from, or at least closely associated with, America or Americans. It should be noted that the division between economic, technological, political, social, cultural, and sociopsychological dimensions concerns analytical, as opposed to empirical, distinctions. In reality, the various dimensions interpenetrate each other (260), demonstrating all kinds of interrelations and interplays.

Current Paradigms of Americanization

The point of departure for recent scholarship has been to reject the thesis of cultural imperialism. Although the term "cultural imperialism" had occasionally been used before, it was only in the 1960s that this critique came to be formulated as a coherent argument. A revisionist, mostly New Left, historiography of US economic and political imperialism formed its breeding ground. International mass communication research of US media imperialism gave another strong impetus to it, as did UNESCO's increasing concern since the 1970s with the protection of national cultures and national cultural heritages (Gienow-Hecht 472-75). The 1977 edition of The Harper Dictionary of Modern Thought defines cultural imperialism 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" (qtd. in Amove 2). Applied to United States influence, the term in its then prevalent, crude version suggested that Americanization should be understood as a process in which an hegemonic America manipulated and ultimately imposed its ways on passive recipients, reducing them to "colonized" people.

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