What is the power of the globally orientated production and distribution of popular culture on national identities and local cultures ?


What is the power of the globally orientated production and distribution of popular culture on national identities and local cultures ?

A core aspect of both the global and the local is popular culture, a social field which has been shaped by two main actors: global flows and nation-states. Popular culture may be defined as a form of entertainment that is either mass produced or created for people (Street, 1997:7).

The question that arises is whether popular culture is still emanating from below, or whether it has become a form of social control from above, as it has been referred to as ‘global culture”, therefore undermining the power of the people .

This essay examins the circuit of popular culture by looking at the impact it has on both national identity and local culture. It considers firstly the global hypothesis of homogenisation by examining the notions of ‘global village’ and ‘cultural imperialism’. It then considers the alternative hypothesis that popular culture is becoming polarized. In so doing it considers the impact of the capitalist ‘diversity sells’ approach to popular culture has on the public, and of globalization upon nation-states. Finally both structural and cultural hybridisation will be examined. This essay will then conclude that popular culture triggers hybridization of both national identities and local cultures.

The cultural homogenisation hypothesis assures the autonomy of globalisation is made possible by the fact that nation-states form a global world.

Held (2004:55-56) points out the difference between positive and negative globalists. For the former category, the increase of global flows reduces the power of national culture. It creates the ‘global village’ by supressing physical barriers to enable instantaneous and global communication. However, the manipulation of the news and public opinion by governments and corporations, mainly through advertising and information management, can reduce the power of the public sphere (Rheingfold cited by Held, 2004:55).

Negative globalists are more pertinant to the present paper. They take into account the concept of ‘cultural imperialism’ by which globalisation enhances growing inequalities between cultures because of the concentration of means of production by transnational corporations (TNCs), most of them with American origins. Indeed, the United States imports only 3% of its commerical and servicing programming, while it exports 40% (Held, 2004:63). In addition, media has a substantial impact on local cultures and national identities. Ritzer (2003:73) describes this dynamic as “grobalization”, refering to the fact that the world becomes similar because of the imperialistic desires of various agents to impose themselves.

‘Cultural imperialism’ refers to the spreading of social, economic and cultural values and habits. It underlines the fact that national identities and local cultures are under threat because they are dominated and/or controlled by the modern and global capitalism. Tomlinson (1991:20-28) suggests four interpretations.

“Media imperialism” represents the power of television, film, radio, print journalism and advertising upon the public. It refers to the expansion of mass media, but also to its power upon public opinion. This is relative, because the same media contacts is interpreted differently by audiences, and therefore presents various mediating effects. Therefore, I argue that global mediatisation, thus popular culture, does not imply standardisation of national identities.

As “a discourse of nationality”, cultural imperialism is a threat to national identity, because imported popular culture is not ‘natural’ to the country receiving it. An example is the power of American popular culture to transcend geographical barriers. This approach is, in my view, power-related, resistance being an option, even if not always. For example, most of non-English speaking European countries (e.g: Romania, the Netherlands) have chosen to keep American films in their original version, but with subtitles to overcome the language barrier, whereas countries with a stronger national identity (e.g: France), are still using the dubbing in order to promote their languages. The choice exists, nations can resist, local culture can fight “Americanisation”, but people must be prepared to do so. Two other regions that have succesfully avoided Americanization are Latin-America through ‘telenovelas’and India through Bollywood (Tyrrell quoted in Skelton and Allen, 2004:260).

Critics of this notion of ‘global capitalism’ have attempted to counter the Marxist approach of reducing everything to capitalism, arguing that culture is more than a ‘mode of production’, and that it is not always monopolised by the capitalist class. Indeed, the creative power of culture from the bottom-up should not be underestimated. For example George Michael and SONY, when the company did not succeed in transforming the artist’s image (Abbott, 2001:72).

The last approach of ‘cultural imperialism’ is a critique of the dominance of modernity and of its factors, like mass-communication or urbanism. It is, in my opinion, a critique which goes against the world development. Popular culture is good, but the way it is be manipulated can have either positive or negative outcomes. For example the Internet can be positively used as a means of doing research, but negatively by hackers.

Modern techniques are part of our lives and therefore part of local culture and national identity. The nation-state must evolve in order to keep up with the rest of the world and to avoid being marginalised, while modern mass produced popular media has to be integrated in our day-to-day life. In that respect, I subscribe to Anderson’s theory; national identities are the output of our ‘imaginery’, as they are constantly being modified through an ongoing process of transculturation. Cultural imperialism is therefore seen historically, not geographically (Tomlinson, 1991:84). American imperialism is now for the world what Soviet imperialism used to be for Central and Eastern Europe. 

However, what the notion of ‘cultural imperialism’ does not consider is the power that nations have to chose from TNCs’ offerings. An example is the desire of the Japanese owners of Tokyo Disneyland to duplicate the original American park, on the basis of its exocticism to Japanese national culture. Finally, it was the Japanese, and not the Americans, who have designed and defined the park (Brannen cited by Kaplan and Pease, 1993:618).

Also, this concept fails to consider the religious aspect of the situation. If ‘cultural imperialism’ is part of Western neo-colonialism, religious imperialism could also be seen as arising from Islamic countries. Indeed, the Islamic precepts are developing and travelling around the world at a time when most countries, especially in Europe, are losing their faith. In addition, the most powerful weapon of Islamic theocracies is the dominance of religion over politics, which means that religious precepts underpin law. In this respect, Islamism is likely to represent the ‘religious imperialism’ which would emmanate from the Middle East, and not the West.

Homogenisation is made possible because of the global flows that happen everywhere (e.g: migration, media coverage etc.), but they take varying forms because the policies and contexts in each country are different. This process can be seen as transnationalism and not homogenisation (Featherstone, 1993:1). Moreover, as Talani (2004:186) argues, these flows underpin the “paradox of regionalisation within globalisation”, as capitalism moves to specialised parts of the world.

Global culture, seen as homogenising local cultures and national identities is presented in terms of ‘the global village’ and ‘cultural imperialism’. If the creation of a web of communications is a positive aspect of globalisation because everyone participates, the latter is US-centred (Held, 2004:55) and it focuses on dominant and dominated nations, triggering the notion of ‘World System’, and the presence of core and periphery countries. In this sense, homogenisation is unlikely to exist. Furthermore, nation-states could be seen in a dynamic of polarization, because of the differences they present.

 ‘Polarization’ refers to “the growing awarness of several interdependent but mutually irreducible components of modernity, and of discrepancies and tensions between them” (Arnason cited by Featherstone, 1993:220). This theory suggests that by creating easy ways for people to discover other cultures, they become aware of differences. Robertson (2000:61) suggests that what takes place is a “compression of civilisational cultures, national societies, intra and cross-national movements and organisations, sub-societies and ethnic groups, intra-societal quasi-groups, individuals (…)”.

Nevertheless, under the ‘polarization’ hypothesis, national identity is not doomed, as in the case of ‘homogenisation’. Rather, it stands at the core of the nation-state. Smith (cited by Featherstone 1993:179) suggests that national identity refers to ‘shared experiences’ which rely upon a sense of continuity, common destiny and shared memories. In that respect, ‘global culture’ is a blurry concept, because the world is made up of approximatively 195 countries (and many more regional identities within them), thus about 195 modes of life, values and beliefs. It might be misleading to talk about a ‘global culture’, but about ‘cultures’ (Smith cited by Featherstone, 1993:2) or ‘globalisation of culture’ (Featherstone, 1993:1). According to Featherstone (ibid.), postmodernism plays an important role in transforming the conceptualisation of global culture. It is not meant to represent homogenisation, but diversity, variety, thus polarization.

It is therefore inappropriate to talk about globalisation as operating at large scale. Moreover, modernity involves the construction of differentiated consumers because “diversity sells” (Robertson, 1995:29). We travel around the world to see diversity, just as we go to ethnic shops or restaurants to discover a new type of cuisine. Robertson terms this process as ‘glocalization’, by pointing out the mix between global and local and the fact that the global includes the local. As Appandurai (2008) suggests, the corporation ‘domesticates’ itself and it adjusts to local demand, but it does not forget its global values. The local becomes therefore aware of its distinctive features that underpin the global culture.

Many TNCs, like Disney, have had to adapt to local demand in order to be successful. This is a bottom-up approach, the power being wielded by the local people. In this sense, the global culture enriches the local culture. In the aforementioned case of Disneyland, the park in Anaheim is totally adjusted to its public, while in Tokyo it has been carefully designed to meet a different target market – the rich seeking a ‘dream world’. While the original park features Sleeping Beauty’s castle, Tokyo displays Cinderella’s castle, which has been seen as symbolising Japan’s new economic prosperity. The food in the park restaurants, which originally served only Western food, also now caters to Japanese gastronomic tastes. (Brannen cited by Kaplan and Pease, 1993:624). It can therefore be argued that ‘cultural imperialism’ is not predominant in the case of Tokyo Disneyland. Here Disneyland has been integrated for the purpose of the Japanese culture.

TNCs have to adjust in order to earn profit, suggesting that the power of the local is therefore significant. Nevertheless, a counter-example is the TNC Apple, which adjusts neither products or prices although it sells globally. Apple is the same around the world, and the profits are high. This could be explained by the fact that it is a luxury brand for which there is no direct substitute. Here, power has a top-down approach, tastes being dictated from above. Nevertheless, it can be argued that it is still the consumer who has the power to choose to purchase Apple products. 

The fact that TNCs have shaped themselves around local demands could be seen as indicating the limits of globalisation. MTV, for example, is nationally produced in different European countries, presenting TV shows likely to suit the national culture. Also, in the UK the Financial Times was 13 times more read than its American correspondent, the Wall Street Journal (Held, 2004:67). This shows that where national variations exist, they are likely to be chosen over their international counterparts.

Another way of looking at the notion of polarised global culture is through the impact it has on national states, as it can contribute to ethnic diversity by pluralising the world and accepting the importance of cultural differences (Ritzer, 2002). As Scholte argues (2005:235), power is given to minorities and indigenous people, like Catalans and Basques in Spain and Corsicans in France within countries, or across states (e.g: Roma or Tutsis), which leads to an increasing process of ‘national and ethnic fragmentation’ (Friedman, 1994:70). Moreover, such groups can promote their causes through the medium of global media (e.g: Zapatistas). It is therefore possible that such empowerment would not have been possible without the existance of global culture. In this sense global culture is a positive aspect of globalisation, as it gives more rights to minorities, but at the same time it weakens the power of the nation-state.

To summarise, the theory of durability of the local, shared by inter-nationalists, who argue that cultural forms and institutions remain national (Held, 2004:65), reinforces the concept of pluralization. Indeed, nation-states protect their national identities and local cultures through national festivals, languages, history, geography, legal systems and social security (Scholte, 2005:229). They can also manipulate national identities through popular culture, as the mythical past created by the Nazis in 1930s and 1940s in Germany. Popular culture can act as a means of protecting global diversity.

The notion of national diversity brings us to the concept of hybridisation. Unlike ‘polarization’,  which emphasises the separateness of entitities, ‘hybridity’ refers to the process of mixing two or more different products coming from different sources, and the outcome of this process. It therefore stands in opposition to the terminology of ‘cultural imperialism’. Popular culture has, here, perhaps a more obvious impact on national identity and local cultures, as it bears on a mélange between various “narratives of origin and encounter” (Werbner and Modood, 2000:259).

Rowe and Schelling (cited by Pieterse, 1995:49) refer to hybridisation as “the ways in which forms become separated from existing practices and recombine with new forms in new practices”. In doing so, people want to both share global lifestyles and defend local attachment (Keen Booth quoted in Pieterse, 1995:49). This could be seen as a weakening of the nation-state economically because of trade ties and culturally referring to the gradual diminuation of patriotism. Building on these arguments, Pieterse differentiates between ‘structural’ and ‘cultural’ hybridisation.

‘Structural’ hybridity is the idea of a mixture of different modes of organisation that triggers diverse forms of cooperation and competition. It refers to corporate relocations to other countries in search of cheaper labour. For instance, Bangladeshi workers producing clothes for Primark earn less than £20 per month, which represents half the average national wage (Finch, 2009:27).

Structural hybridity also refers to transnational activism that is often in search of a fairer balance of power. It dates back from the anti-slavery and womens rights movements, activities that have transcended boarders. It refers to fighting for a common principle. An example would be the protest against the war in Iraq on February 2003, which gathered approximately 16 million people globally. This belief in a common cause which brought together people from all over the world. This march showed that coalitions among people from different countries is possible, even if it does not always have the desired outcome (Tarrow, 2005:3).

Other types of transnational marches gather people from different places in one place. The most common protests of this type are around summits of the G8, World Bank, IMF or the European Union, which attract trade unions, NGOs and individuals from various parts of the world. The varied backgrounds of the people involved means they all have to overcome their differences and adjust in order to fight for the same cause. For example, the ecologists and the trade unionists who got together at the ‘Battle of Seattle’ against the World Trade Organisation Ministerial in 1999 had to overcome their personal differences in order to cooperate (Tarrow, 2005:165).

Hybridity therefore requires coalition, thus cooperation, which can enrich national identity. I argue that at the core of hybridisation is the power to adapt. Art, for example, becomes better known if it adjusts to the demands of the public. An example of hybrid art is to be found in the Iranian exhibition ‘Unveiled’ from the Saatchi Gallery in London. Here hybridity reposes on the fact that sentimentalism which is often found in Middle Eastern painting is absent. It is replaced by mocked sexuality of Iranian clerics (The Economist, 2009:15-16). In  order to sell, art has adapted and has become a product of cultural hybrydity.

The second type of hybridty Pieterse (1995:56) identifies is ‘cultural hybridity’ which refers to interculturalism rather than multiculturalism and it is seen as a migration mélange. Hybrid cultural identity means belonging to several cultural groups simultaneously. It also refers to conflicts where one has to find the balance between ancestral culture and the dominant culture. For a hybrid it can be difficult to decide whether to follow the cultural heritage or to assimilate to mainstream culture. Bruce (2003:200-204)  argues that Pakistani teenagers in the UK are exposed to two opposing cultures which makes them act in different ways. For example, at school they are encouraged to be competititve and individualistic, while at home they have to manifest their family loyalty. The hybrid can therefore face xenophobia or racism and feel that they do not fit in either of cultural groups, even if in reality they are part of both. Hybridity becomes “(…) a reflexive moral battleground between cultural purists and cultural innovators”, being therefore politicised (Werbner and Modood, 2000:12).

In France, this situation is expressed in terms of debates on national identity, which focus mainly on second generation Muslim immigrants from the former French colonies in Africa. In December 2009, Murano, a French minister said, refering to the abaove-mentioned, “I want them to love France when they live here, to find work and not to speak in slang. They should not put their caps on back to front” (Reuters, 2009). This has been said despite the fact that people of all ethic backgrounds employ sland and wear back-to-front caps, but what this discourse emphasises is the non-acceptance of hybrids within a ‘pure’ French society.

Hybridity can therefore be a highly contested concept. Speaking several languages or having a creole appearance can pose problems, as this third cultural form can be ostracised by others. In this framework of ‘deterritorialization’ (Tomlinson, 1999:141), both local culture and national identity could be seen as being in danger of losing their purity. Nevertheless, my view is that hybridity can bring enrichment to both hybrids and the bodies or people they interact with, because is the result of tolerance and openness. An example is the Chicken Tikka Masala, which is a fusion of English and Indian culinary traditions.

This essay has aimed to discuss the notion of popular culture and its impact on national identity and local culture. Firstly, we have seen that when popular culture analysed with reference to the hypothesis of homogenisation, it addresses the concepts of ‘global village’ and ‘cultural imperialism’ which emphasise the power of American popular culture. Secondly, polarization is evident through the various commerical and mediating effects popular culture has on its public, and the way in which globalisation empowers entities within countries. This approach maintains that nation-states prevail over popular culture because oh the cultural and commercial mosaïque they present. The final concept dealt with is hybridisation, which is the position endorsed by this paper. My view is that popular culture can be refered to as ‘global culture’ because of its large scale effect, and because globalisation acts as a framework for all the actors engaged in various powerful flows. Nevertheless, I maintain that it is a bottom-up approach. Even if it can be argued that these three cultural perspectives of globalization overlap, as in the case of Tokyo Disneyland, popular culture engenders hybridisation on national identities and local cultures because of the ongoing cultural mélange to which the receiving actors are subject, and because of the need to create connections with other actors. Or, in other words, national identities and local cultures are seen as ‘united in diversity’ due to ‘the problem of enculturation in a period of rapid cultural change’ (Appandurai, 2008).


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