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What Is Cultural Hegemony?

By Ray Hawk
Updated May 23, 2024
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Cultural hegemony is the idea or concept that one nation or culture, either by direct intent or merely by its dominant position in the world, exerts an inordinate influence into how other cultures should conduct themselves, both in terms of values and political and economic aspirations. The idea of cultural hegemony was promoted by the writings of the Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but he did not originate the concept. A ruling class social structure has existed throughout human history in many regions. Examples can be seen in the dominance of Roman values over five centuries of rule by the Roman Empire, the dominance of Chinese culture over its smaller Asian neighbors that has continued to exist into the modern era, the dominance of European cultural values over Native American societies as North America was widely settled by European immigrants in the 1800s, and so on.

The United States is uniquely concerned with the idea of cultural hegemony, in large part because the promotion of its social structure around the world is an inevitable byproduct of the expansion of US multinational corporations into emerging markets, and due to its far reaching willingness to intervene militarily into the affairs of failed or failing states. American culture is also centered around a thriving and diverse media industry. Through movies, television, music, and print entertainment, as well as the marketing of products through extensive advertising, American culture has an inordinate influence on the values of many nations where people aspire to a more consumer-based lifestyle. This influence is often seen in a negative light, as it has the potential to suppress local cultural expression to the point where diversity in many forms is lost.

One of the main arguments against cultural hegemony in many forms throughout history, and which offers a singular defense of the spread of American culture, is that it is wrong to assume that smaller cultures are forced to take on the identity of more dominant ones. They do it by choice, and often go to extraordinary efforts to obtain access to foreign cultural ideas and products, despite an attempt to suppress this by their own governments. Another main argument against the concept of cultural hegemony is that, while dominant cultures may spread their influence to diverse regions, these regions tend to not abandon their own values and interests, but merely incorporate the new ones into a broader view of the good life.

The philosophic concept of one dominant ideology supplanting others sometimes fails to take into account what is occurring in reverse. As a dominant culture introduces its products and values into the lifestyles of others, those products are often modified to suit local tastes and interests. At the same time, local culture is incorporated into the dominant social structure, making both groups more culturally diverse.

A simple example of merging cultural interests can be seen in the introduction of a popular American devil's food cake dessert mix by a large US corporation into the Indian marketplace. Not only did Indians widely accept the product, but they altered it both in content and advertising to suit their own local values, by substituting the traditional cake mix produced by the company for one that used rice instead of standard wheat flour. The mix was also changed so that it could be used to make products other than traditional American cake, such as dosas, idlis, and vadas, which are Indian fermented crepes, savory cakes, and donuts, some of which stretch back over one thousand years to 920 AD in Indian cuisine.

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Discussion Comments
By anon992033 — On Aug 07, 2015

Hawaiians never had a choice like the article says cultures do. We were, and still are being illegally occupied by the US. They threatened our queen with the decimation of her people that were already dwindling due to malahini (foreign) disease brought to the islands. They jailed her and had navy gunships pointed their cannons at the populace and forced her to make a choice. Cede the power of the monarchy, or we kill your people.

Cultural hegemony is very real and it hits home. Literally. They want to build another telescope on Mauna A Wakea (Mauna Kea) on top of burial grounds, on our church. Mauna A Wakea is our connection to our people past, present, and future. Aole. No. The US government is doing what it always does. Forces and bullies. Their is no choice. Assimilate or die.

By clintflint — On Oct 18, 2013

The US often gets thrown about as the hegemonic example of the modern world, but it was really the English who imposed their culture everywhere and ended up homogenizing a lot of different cultures.

They weren't the first to do it, it's true, but with modern media and other technologies I think they probably have had the most wide ranging and lasting effect.

By browncoat — On Oct 17, 2013

@Iluviaporos - One of the saddest cultural hegemony examples I read about during my anthropology classes was the influence of US music on culture in certain nomadic tribes.

They once expressed all their emotion through written and spoken poetry and, since they were a stoic people, that was usually the only way they could express love and grief.

Unfortunately, since the introduction of cassettes and other forms of recorded music, the young people have taken to listening to that instead of the poetry and the poetic form among them is dying out. With it goes their ability, within their culture, to express emotion. I just find that unbearably sad, but I don't think there is a solution.

By lluviaporos — On Oct 16, 2013

It's actually astonishing how far American culture has spread into the world. I think we take it for granted, because it seems like the way things have always been. But when I was in West Africa and would run into kids wearing Disney princess costumes who had never watched a cartoon, it was pretty strange.

The youth over there were fascinated by US media and would put all kinds of interesting mixtures of music and film posters on the walls, thinking they were cool. They would mix English slang words into their own language and listen to US music on the radio.

I found it sad in some ways, because their own culture was so vibrant and beautiful, it seemed a shame that the young people were idolizing an alien culture.

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