During a nightly newscast of CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) Prime Time News, the anchorman, in the last news item before the public affairs portion of the program, presented words to this effect: How would you like to have a house that would cost next to nothing to build and to maintain, no electrical, and no heating bills? Viewers were then shown four young Inuit adults building an igloo. They were born in the Arctic region, said the spokeswoman of the group, but had not learned the ancestral skills of carving (literally) a human shelter out of this harsh environment (-35 Celsius at night). It was a broad hint that the spin on this story would be "Young Aboriginals in search of their past." The real twist, however, was that their instructors, a middle aged man and woman, were Caucasian and that the man was born in Detroit. The American had studied something which sounded like environmental architecture and was teaching this particular technique to the young Inuits.

When asked if they were embarrassed by this arrangement, the spokeswoman answered, "No. If he teaches us what we need to know then that's all right." When asked if he found the situation a bit strange, the Detroit born man also answered in the negative, "I was born in Detroit but I do not know how to build a car." In fact it was one of the Inuit hunters who had taught him how to repair his snowmobile. So why shouldn't he teach young Inuits to build igloos? In the last scene the igloo builders lay out their seal rugs and light a small fire using seal oil, enabling the heat to ice the inside walls, thus insulating the dwelling from the outside cold and creating warmth within. A final shot shows the lighted igloos against the black night sky.

Many things can be read into this short narrative. First, the typical, white, Canadian anchorman, by referring to concerns of Southern Canadians (low building and maintenance costs, no taxes, clear air and quiet neighborhoods), trivializes a technology which, over thousands of years, has allowed populations to survive and create specific societies and cultures in this particular environment. Secondly, we are made aware of the benefits of international trade: an Inuit teaches a Detroit born American how to repair a motor vehicle and, in return learns how to build an igloo. Thirdly, we are led to understand that what the students expect from the teacher is basic working skills.

The temptation to build a case denouncing cultural imperialism, bemoaning the alienation of aboriginal cultures and the shredding of their social fabric, is strong here. On the basis of this one example, however, the argument would at best be flawed, at worst biased. But for students of popular culture, national identity, and cultural industries this is but one of the many thousand daily occurrences which exemplify the dynamic complexity of the concept of "americanization."

Embedded within it are at least two notions; the American presence and the presence of an American. In this news story, both notions are at work. On the one hand, the viewer is made aware of the American presence, the influence of American technology on this remote society, through the reference to the snowmobile. (Although the inventor lived and worked in Quebec, Canada, the fact that the Detroit born American puts the snowmobile on the same footing as the automobile implicitly makes it an American invention.) On the other hand, the viewer sees and hears the American instructor.

It is the first form of presence that usually defines the concept of americanization. It usually refers to the presence of American products and technology and it is against this presence that most critics argue. Surprisingly, few argue against the presence of Americans. As individuals, Americans are well liked and friendly; it is the presence of their way of life, of their culture, that makes americanization such an ugly word. Others like them but do not want to be like them; this is the basic attitude in opposition to americanization.

One is led to believe that s/he will become an American, will be americanized, not by interacting with citizens of the United States but by using American products, eating American (fast) food, and enjoying American cultural artifacts. One can go so far as to live and work in the United States while remaining staunchly Canadian or Australian or British, as many artists who have succeeded in the American music and film industries remind us. The danger of becoming americanized seems greater, however, if one stays in the comfort of home enjoying American cultural products such as magazines, novels, movies, music, comics, television shows and news, or computer software and games.

While these two embedded notions, the presence of Americans and the American presence, make for a fascinating debate, the concept of americanization conceals the parallel dual notion of "the host." Hosting the American presence seems to be more prevalent and more americanizing than hosting Americans themselves. To be a host is to make the visitor feel welcome, to make the visitor seem familiar, non-threatening, at home. In this case, to be a host is to be a consumer, to be a friendly user. To become americanized it is presumed not only that one consumes a steady diet of readily accessible made-in-the-U.S. products, but also consumes these cultural products with ease, i.e. as would any American.

American products are distributed internationally but are not made for international markets: they are made for the U.S. market, by, for, and about Americans. Thus, one can conclude, to enjoy these easily accessible products one must be or become American and the more one consumes, the more one becomes American, thereby enabling increasing pleasure and ease in this consumption. Americanization is a case in point of a basic process of acculturation. It results in sounding the alarms of cultural imperialism and cultural alienation: you become what you consume, because in order to consume you must become the targeted consumer. This is the equivalent of saying: because Science (as we believe we know it) is a product of Western European civilization, then to become a scientist one must become westernized, i.e. adopt Western mores, values, and ways of thinking.

In most host countries in the world there is an overwhelming presence of American products. The pull and pressure of those products must not be underestimated. Still, the news story of the Inuit mechanic and the Detroit igloo builder serves as a reminder that culture, or at least certain types of culture, are less bound by the economics of their technological environment and modes of production than was once assumed and theorized.

The fact that the Inuit travel on snowmobiles, live in suburban dwellings, watch a great deal of television, and have forgotten how to build igloos does not necessarily make them more americanized when compared with the Detroit born teacher, who is made no less American by his ability to build an igloo. Skills, products, and ideas take root in historically given contexts: they bear witness to their times. When they travel, they bring with them elements of their place of origin. To use these ideas and products, one must have an understanding of their historical background or context, of their original intent and of their mode of operation. If the invention and the corresponding mode of production of goods and ideas are context bound, so too are their uses and in many cases these have an impact on the very nature of products and ideas. This perspective leads to a better understanding of americanization.

Undoubtedly American composers, playwrights, and various other artists have affected the popular arts of the world. With the same degree of certitude, one can proclaim that American entrepreneurs and American entrepreneurship have affected the cultural industries the world over. But perhaps the most profound impact of this particular historical culture and its modes of production, is found in the social uses American society has made of these cultural products. If one wishes to speak of americanization in the realm of popular (or mass) culture, one must focus on the social uses of industrially produced and commercially distributed sounds and images. To show American-made movies in local theaters, to watch American sitcoms on the television set, to listen to American music on the radio--or to use copycat versions of any of these materials--is not, necessarily, to become americanized. To build into the local social fabric a permanent presence of these sounds and images, is to become americanized but not necessarily American.

To have a permanent background of American images and sounds (for example, television sets turned on all day, ads overflowing in print, on buses, on T-shirts, talk radio, Walkmans, etc.) means to live and work and play in a permanent kaleidoscope world plugged into a never ending soundtrack. This, it can be argued, is to become americanized.

The Dallas imperialism syndrome, and its legitimate heir, the O.J. Simpson Trial, are good illustrations of this. The debate surrounding Dallas rekindles the debate which greeted the American penny press and Hollywood cinema. Its central question: is communication technology a threat to basic (Western) values, local cultures, and the human psyche? Dallas symbolized this ongoing debate, a debate central to Western culture. But Dallas also symbolized a social evolution which has not received the attention it deserves. The worldwide popularity of Dallas revived the paradigm of the "magic bullet" theory of direct media effects, a theory suggesting that media content and style can be "injected" into the cultural life system, infecting and contaminating the "healthy" cultural body. It also revived discussions of cultural imperialism, but in a more sophisticated fashion and on a much grander scale. And it also raised the counter paradigm of the uses and gratifications model in communication studies.

Many researchers were eager to publish their claims that Dallas did not magically turn all its viewers into Americans, but that the program signified many things to many viewers. Moreover, they pointed out that, on the whole, national cultural products (including television programs) still outsold imported American ones. And if they did not, they certainly enjoyed more popular support and provided more enjoyment.

Forgotten in this foray was the fact that Dallas symbolized the popularization and the banalization of television viewing, its normal integration within the activities of everyday life, its quiet nestling in the central foyer of the household environment. Television viewing, a remarkable new social practice in many locations, quickly and quietly became, inside and outside academia, a major source of everyday conversation, the measuring stick of many moral debates, the epitome of modern living. In so doing television viewing displaced the boundaries of centuries-old institutions such as family, work, school and religion. The Dallas syndrome symbolized the fact that in a large number of host countries, communication technology hadbecome a permanent part of the everyday social environment, that its messages had become a permanent part of the social fabric and that its spokepersons had joined the public club of opinion makers.

While one can debate the pros and cons of this social fact, one can also speculate that television is not the revolution that many of its critics as well as admirers had hoped or feared. It did not destroy a sacred treasure of Western values based on the technology of the written word. Rather it revealed a blind spot among many social thinkers: the constructed centrality of the spoken word in modern societies. Television possibly revealed to the most industrialized society of the postwar era, the United States, that it was and still is, by and large, an oral society.

Communication technology did not trigger a revolution, social, moral, or sexual; it became part of the establishment in every way, shape, and form. And just as U.S. cultural industries have become an American institution, a part of the social order and a sustainer of culture in American society, so too have cultural industries in many other societies. In this sense, other societies have become americanized. Americanization is not to be found in the consumption of American cultural products. It lies in the establishment of a particular social formation. This formation is, to be sure, defined in part by the use of the products of national cultural industries. But it is also defined by alterations in patterns of everyday life and by the emergence of "new" voices that take their place among existing relations and structures of power. The uses of television throughout the world are both cause and effect within these cultural and social shifts

Thus americanization is neither a boon nor a threat--it is a cultural and economic fact of life in most (Western) countries. The debate then, is not over whether to stop or to hasten the consumption of American cultural products. It should instead be centered on the impact of specific social uses of industrially mass-produced cultural products, whether foreign or national. For better or worse, the socialization of sounds and images, and socialization through sounds and images, have made more visible, and more mainstream, the oral traditions and the tradition of orality not only in American society but also in all (Western) americanized societies.

It matters little whether television, and other technologically based cultural industries, were invented by the Americans or not. What they invented was a particular social use of these technologies: the massification of production, distribution, and consumption and the commodification of industrially produced cultural products. In return, this particular social use revealed to American society, and to other industrialized societies which followed suit, the forgotten presence of traditional, non-national, oral cultures. Cultural industries, and television in particular, revealed that print technology (the written word) had not subverted oral technology (the spoken word); it had only partially silenced it by making it less "visible." Television made words and sound once again "visible" and "audible" to the eyes and ears of the mind. In doing so it also revealed to the heavily industrialized, print oriented, Western societies that they were blinded by their most popular visual aid, television.

-Roger de la Gaarde


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See also Audience Research