Advances in Journalism and Communication
2013. Vol.1, No.4, 50-53
Published Online December 2013 in SciRes (
Open Access
The Relationship, Tension and Interaction between Cultural
Imperialism and Contra-Flow in Contemporary Media Culture
Yue Lu
Institute of Communications Studies, University of Leeds, Leeds, UK
Email: cs12yl@l,
Received November 2nd, 2013; revised December 4th, 2013; accepted December 13th, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Yue Lu. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution
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work is properly cited. In accordance of the Creative Commons Attribution License all Copyrights © 2013 are
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This study discusses the interaction between cultural imperialism and contra flow in the context of con-
temporary media culture, mainly looking at the perspective of visual media such as television and movie
other than print media. It talks about the relationship between cultural imperialism and dominant flow in
global cultural industries. It also explores the relationship between dominant flow and contra-flow and
how they influence and challenge each other. Although the wide use of satellite and cable television as
well as the increasing use of online communication has enabled the flows of international culture in a
multi-national, multi-media and multi-directional movement instead of a one-way model—from the West
to the rest of the world, the market share of non-western media content products is still small compared to
that of the western media content products. And most globally popular cultural genres are still from the
West. Whilst contra-flow may somehow challenge the dominant position of the West in global cultural
industries, it is still short of the power to reverse such situation.
Keywords: Cultural Imperialism; Contra-Flow; Dominant Flow; Media
In the 1970s and early 1980s, when the term “cultural impe-
realism” was at its most popular stage, many scholars started to
study the relationship between cultural imperialism and the
flows of global culture. Debates have been very fierce since
that time, as some contend that cultural imperialism has played
a role in terms of the Western domination in international cul-
tural flows, whereas others react against the cultural imperial-
ism thesis and prefer to the term “globalization” (Hesmond-
halgh, 2007). Advocates for the term “globalization” like Gid-
dens and Robertson argue that Western society’s domination in
global cultural flows is more of a byproduct of globalization
rather than an outcome generated by cultural imperialism.
However, the proliferation of Western culture, with the USA at
its core, is more than mere accident (Galeota, 2004). There
must be a hand behind the popularization of Western products
across the world. It is likely that cultural imperialism is that
hidden hand.
As time goes on, another force called “contra-flow” comes
into play. The advent of it challenges the predominate position
of the West concerning the flows of international culture. The
flows of global culture are no longer merely from the West to
the rest, but a two way movement. As what the UNESCO
World Culture Report presented in the late 1990s, “media glob-
alization has triggered possibilities of other models based on
different cultural, institutional, and historical backgrounds…
such alternatives are likely to multiply in the era of globaliza-
tion, in spite of appearances, which may paradoxically witness
greater diversity than uniformity” (UNESCO, 1998: p. 23). My
aim in this essay is to outline a frame of global cultural flows so
as to examine the relationship, tension and interaction between
cultural imperialism and contra-flow at a phenomenal level
other than a theoretical one.
My concentration is on the dominant flow and contra-flow of
international culture by looking at the perspective of media,
mainly television and movie instead of print media such as
newspaper and magazine. The essay will discuss the term
“dominant flow” on the basis of cultural imperialism in the first
place. It then goes on to explore the term “contra-flow” and the
relationship between it and dominant flow. While contra-flow
may, in a way, challenge the dominant position of the West in
global cultural industries, it is still short of the power to reverse
such domination.
Since the end of the Second World War, the flow of global
culture has become a focus in the studies of international com-
munication. Normally, two factors have played an important
role in current international cultural industries; they are domi-
nant flow and contra-flow. Generally speaking, dominant flow
refers to the domination of the West, led by the US, in global
cultural industries, whereas contra-flow represents the role of
the non-Western society concerning the circulation of interna-
tional culture. Since these two flows are of great significance in
the development of nowadays global cultural market, many
scholars start to study the relationship between them. What I
argue in this essay is that the relationship between dominant
flow and contra-flow is complicated. The spread of dominant
flow contributes to the development of contra-flow, and contra-
flow in turns, challenges the power of dominant flow. However,
contra-flow is still lack of the ability to reverse such power. By
studying the relationship between dominant flow and contra-
flow, we can somehow understand the relationship between
cultural imperialism and contra-flow as well. Since dominant
flow is an outcome generated by the spread of cultural imperi-
alism, it would be fair to say that the relationship between cul-
tural imperialism and contra-flow is similar to the relationship
between dominant flow and contra-flow. That is to say, cultural
imperialism, in a sense, triggers the development of contra-
flow, and when contra-flow becomes stronger, it becomes
threatening the status of cultural imperialism. But this threat is
not powerful enough to have a significant influence on stopping
cultural imperialism to occur around the world.
Because the dissemination of culture is largely based on the
development of media, this essay will explore the relationship
between dominant flow and contra-flow from the perspective of
media, principally visual media such as television and movie,
since they attach great significance to the circulation of interna-
tional cultural products, and since they have a much larger au-
dience base than print media such as newspaper and magazine.
Let us first start with the term “dominant flow” and its connec-
tion with cultural imperialism in a more specific way.
Dominant Flow
The US-led Western media which are global in their reach
and influence (Boyd-Barrett, 2006; Thussu, 2006) are what
people always termed as “dominant media flow”. Owing to the
economic and political power of the United States, its media
“are now available across the globe, if not in English then in
dubbed or indigenized versions” (Thussu, 2007: p. 12). The
only media genre with a global popularity that is not emanated
from the US-led West is Japanese animation. “From news and
current affairs (CNN, Discovery) through youth programming
(MTV), children’s television (Disney), feature film (Holly-
wood), sport (ESPN) to the Internet (Google), the United States
is the global behemoth” (Thussu, 2007: p. 12). Of such great
power in terms of disseminating international culture , dominant
flow has become a focus among scholars in communication
studies. People begin to wonder: how did dominant flow come
into being? This question triggers many issues such as the
power of capitalist economy, the role of political power and the
impact of symbolic form and content in deciding developments
in the cultural industries (Hesmondhalgh, 2007). I attribute the
answer for this question to the term “cultural imperialism”.
Cultural Imperialism and Its Connection with
Dominant Flow in Global Culture Industries
The term “cultural imperialism” does not have a particularly
long history (Tomlinsom, 2002: p. 2). It emerged just in the
1960s but thereafter, it has been a focus of research among
scholars, largely communication studies. Definitions of cultural
imperialism are of various versions. It may refer to the way that
“the cultures of less developed countries have been affected by
flows of cultural texts, forms and technologies associated with
the West” (Hesmondhalgh, 2007: p. 214). It may also refer to
the conquest of one country by a more powerful one without
the involvement of economic exploitation and military force. In
his book Communication and Cultural Domination, Schiller
defines cultural imperialism as “the sum of the processes by
which a society is brought into the modern world system and
how its dominating stratum is attracted, pressured, forced, and
sometimes bribed into shaping social institutions to correspond
to, or even promote, the values and structures of the dominating
center of the system” (Schiller, 1976: p. 9). Therefore, cultural
imperialism is much more complicated than a mere consump-
tion of Western commodities; it involves in “the imposition of
Western cultural products on the non-West, the potentially
homogenizing effects of Western culture as it spread across the
world and the destruction of indigenous traditions by such cul-
tural flows” (Sreberny, 1997: p. 49).
According to UNESCO’s 2005 report on International Flows
of Selected Goods and Services, the value of the cultural Indus-
tries in the world was 1.3 trillion dollars and was expanding at a
rapid rate. Merely in the duration of 1994 to 2002, global trade
in cultural products grew from 38 billion to 60 billion dollars.
(UNESCO, 2005a) Being aware of the power of culture and the
profit behind it, many nations have quickly embraced the thesis
of cultural imperialism and continued to utilize it as an instru-
ment to control the global cultural industries. Among these
nations, the USA is the most eminent one. Desire for access to
foreign markets (Galeota, 2004) and ambition to enlarge the
influence of the America across the globe have become the
motivation behind American cultural imperialism. Indeed, the
active role of the USA government is a very important factor
concerning its domination in global cultural industries and the
promotion of American culture abroad. In international forums,
for instance, such as UNESCO since the end of the Second
World War, delegates from the America spare no effort under-
lining the importance of a free flow of information and enter-
tainment across the world, which to a large degree, facilitates
the spread of American culture across the world (Schiller,
1998). In addition, the US government has been very active in
establishing its media market since the end of the Second
World War. Its mature media market has benefited the USA’s
control in global cultural industries in a long term, allowing it
to reduce costs at home and seek foreign markets as sources of
further profit (Hesmondhalgh, 2007). Meanwhile, it also spends
considerable amount of funds on the construction of communi-
cation infrastructures such as satellites. These are all evidences
that prove the “cultural imperialism” thesis; they consolidate
the notion that the dominant flow in global cultural industries is
more of a result of cultural imperialism which pushed by the
USA rather than merely a byproduct of globalization. In short,
the spread of cultural imperialism leads to the emergence of
dominant flow.
Contra-Flow and Its Relationship with
Dominant Flow
“In parallel with the globalization of the Western culture,
new transnational networks have emerged. These new net-
works, emanating from such Southern urban creative hubs as
Cairo, Hong Kong and Mumbai, represent what could be called
contra-flow” (Thussu, 2007: p. 23). In Thussu’s book Media on
the Move: Global Flow and Contra-flow (2007), Kavoori de-
fines “contra-flow” as: “the semantic and imaginative referents
for the institutional, cultural and political matrix of a world
framed by processes of global cultural power and local negotia-
tion: a world experienced through the identity politics of na-
Open Access 51
tions, individuals and cultures and negotiated through contesta-
tions of locality, nationality and global citizenship” (49). Thus,
“contra-flow” is about the movement of cultures from one place
to another, like a two way traffic-lane, where individuals are
said to live “between cultures” (Thussu, 2007). Differs from
“dominant flow”, “contra-flow” derives from the less powerful
regions of the world, or to say, the peripheries of global media
industries. “Contra-flow” has emerged in that global mass me-
dia programming is reversing the dominant (Western) direction;
flows of global culture are no longer from the West to the rest
but a two-way movement. (Kavoori, 2007) The development of
Indian movie industry (popularly referred to as Bollywood), the
spread of Latin American telenovel (always referred to as soap
opera), the rise of East Asian “Wave” (often represented by
South Korean) and the expansion of CCTV-9 of China are all
examples of contra-flow. The following paragraphs will use
some of these contra-flows as examples to illustrate the rela-
tionship between contra-flow and dominant flow in specific.
There is often a misunderstanding in terms of the relationship
between dominant flow and contra-flow as some maintain that
the existence of dominant flow largely smother the possibility
for contra-flow to grow. Nevertheless, this notion is too simple
to depict the whole picture behind dominant flow and contra-
flow. The relationship between these two flows involves in a
much more complex way. The globalization of Western or
westernized media flows across the world, in a way, inspires
the development of contra-flow, and as contra-flow becomes
stronger, it begins to challenge the dominant position of the
West in global industries but so far it cannot reverse such domi-
nation as imbalance between the dominant and contra media
flow in the world is still manifest.
Whilst the globalization of Western media has increased
Western culture’s influence, it also contributes to the develop-
ment of contra-flow. The flow of western media products
across the globe, exemplified by the proliferation of the Amer-
ican movie and television exports, has inspired the development
of non-Western media organizations, opening up new opportu-
nity for the flow of media content across the world. As many
US-led Western media conglomerates have successfully local-
ized their content to make their media products globally popu-
lar, media organizations from the non-Western society have
benefited from this process. Some of these media organizations
have smartly learned from the successful experience of those
Western media conglomerates, and then skillfully applied to
their own media products so as to make them go globally.
Moreover, ‘the globalization of Western or Western inspired
media has also contributed to the creation of professional ca-
reers in media and cultural industries by stimulating the forma-
tion of important global hubs for creative industries (Thussu,
2007: p. 13). In a sense, dominant flow spurs the emergence of
As contra-flow becomes stronger, it somehow challenges the
power of dominant flow. It is no doubt that the traffic of global
media nowadays is not just one way—from the West to the
rest—but a two way movement. Over the last decade, the world
has witnessed an increasing growth of non-Western media con-
tent originating from creative hubs like Hong Kong, Cairo and
Mumbai (Banerjee, 2002). The access of digital technology,
satellite and broadcasting networks and the physical movement
of people around the world have contributed to the growing
flow of media content from the non-Western society to the
Western society (Thussu, 2007). Non-Western nations such as
India, Japan, South Korean and Brazil have become more and
more crucial in terms of the circulation of international culture.
From Latin America telenovela and Indian movie industry to
regional broadcasting like the mandarin language Phoenix
channel and the 24/7 news network Al-Jazeera, contra-flow has
become an indispensable factor in distributing global culture.
One key instance of contra-flow is the Latin America teleno-
vela. Since the late 1970s, Latin American telenovelas have
been exported to the America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and the
Middle East. “Their worldwide success suggests that they are
no longer a uniquely Latin American phenomenon but a major
global commercial force with extraordinary social and cultural
importance” (Rego & Pastina, 2007: p. 100). Leading by Brazil
and Mexico, this transnational telenovelas has been produced
by many Latin American nations such as Venezuelan and Co-
lombian, and has been widely exported to the rest of the world.
By 2005, as Thussu quoted Martinez (2005) in his book Media
on the Move, “the telenovela had developed into a 2 billion
dollars industry, of which 341 million dollars was earned out-
side the region, being broadcasted in 50 languages and reaching
over 100 countries from Latin America to Europe, Asia, Africa
and the Arab world” (2007: p. 25). Merely Brazilian teleno-
velas have been exported to more than 130 countries across the
world. In 2005 alone, over 30 Brazilian telenovelas were aired
in more than 20 nations around the world, programming more
than 10,000 hours. The same year, the number of subscribers of
the Brazilian TV Globo reached almost 2 million internation-
ally. The presence of Latin American telenovela, challenges the
conventional West-to-non-West cultural and media flow. It also
challenges the hegemony of Hollywood’s cultural exports since
Latin American telenovela has a strong local cultural root
(Rego & Pastina, 2007).
Another key example of contra-flow is the Indian movie in-
dustry as always referred to Bollywood. “Given its size and
diverse social and cultural antecedents, India is among the few
non-Western countries to have made their presence felt in the
global cultural market” (Thussu, 2007: p. 26). The increasing
international visibility of India is largely dependent on its
movie industry—the Bollywood. Benefited from the develop-
ment of digital technology and expansion of television, the
movie industry of India has witnessed a leap since the early
2000s, with numerous Indian movies are now shown regular
across the world. Each year, more than one billion more people
buy tickets for Indian movies than for Hollywood movies, and
the quantity of movie produced by India every year has also
transcended the Hollywood’s. Currently, Indian movies are
shown in more than 70 nations across the world. In spite of
their popularity in the Arab world and central Southeast Asia,
Indian movies have also reached to the Western society, for
example, Dil Se (1998) was among the top ten box offices in
Britain in 1998 and Taal (1999) was among the top twenty in
the United States (Govil, 2007). From 1989 to 1999, Indian
movie exports saw a five-fold growth: the exports of Indian
movies increased from 20 million dollars in the early 1990s to
100 million dollars by the end of the 1990s. “In 2000, Bolly-
wood held a celebration of its own at International Indian Film
Awards ceremony at London’s Millennium Dome with the
show broadcasted lively to over 120 countries” (Govil, 2007: p.
85). The same year, Missin Karshmir (2000), became the first
Indian movie to release in New York’s Times Square after
Sony obtained the overseas rights of it. In 2002, Lagaan (2001)
was nominated among the Best Non-English movies in 2002
Open Access
Open Access 53
Academy Awards in the America. In 2003, the word “Bolly-
wood” was officially listed in the Oxford English Dictionary.
All of these are proofs that Bollywood has risen as an interna-
tional cultural force.
Nevertheless, neither Latin American telenovela nor Bolly-
wood is a clear example of a non-Western cultural product
becoming a global commodity, and the growing trend of con-
tra-flow in recent years may give “a false impression that the
world communication has become more diverse and democ-
ratic” (Thussu, 2007: p. 27). The revenues of non-Western me-
dia corporations are still small compared to those from the West.
According to the US government’s Bureau of Economic Ana-
lysis, US revenues of film and television have kept a stable
growth from 2.5 billion to 10.4 billion dollars from 1992 to
2004. In film industry, US domination is the most manifest.
Hollywood movies are shown in over 150 nations across the
world and are predominant in terms of market share. Take the
2004 European market as an example. In Europe, “nearly 72
percent of movies shown in 2004 were from Hollywood, over
25 percent were European, and just over 2 percent of market
share belonged to the rest of the world” (Thussu, 2007: p. 19).
None of the Latin American telenovelas and the Bollywood
movies can reach the same impact of US television series and
movies. In addition, dominant flow itself is becoming stronger
as well. The top entertainment companies are still from the
United States, for instance, Walt Disney, Time Warner and
News Corporation. The world’s most influential television net-
work is still America based such as CNN and Discovery Chan-
nel. Therefore, contra-flows from non-Western nations are still
unlikely to have a significant influence on the US-led West
hegemony of global cultural industries, or to say, cultural impe-
Flows have been increasingly significant in current global
society as Manuel Castells has argued in his book The Rise of
the Network Society that our contemporary life is dominated
and constructed by flows. “They are not just one element of the
social organization but the expression of processes dominating
our economic, political and symbolic life” (Castells, 2000: p.
442). Two flows play a significant role in nowadays global
cultural industries. One is the dominant flow, emanating mainly
from the West; the other is the contra-flow, originating from the
Third World. Decades ago, with the rise of cultural imperial-
ism, dominant flow almost controlled the whole global cultural
industries. The only non-Western cultural product with a global
popularity was the Japanese animation. As times go on, con-
tra-flow has gradually become a force that changes the land-
scape in terms of the circulation of contemporary global culture.
The advent of contra-flow, with the help of the popularization
of satellite and cable television and the increasing use of online
communication, has enabled the flows of international culture
in a multi-national, multi-media and multi-directional move-
ment instead of a one-way model—from the West to the rest of
the world. Non-western media content like the Latin American
telenovela and Bollywood movie is now spreading across dif-
ferent continents, bestowing audiences with opportunities to
taste different cultures and challenging the dominant position of
the West in global cultural industries. However, the growing
trend of contra-flow in recent years is not an indication that the
world communication has become more diversified. Compared
with the West-oriented media organizations, market share of
non-Western media ones is still small and most globally popu-
lar cultural genres are still from the West. Dominant flow is still
prevailing in its relationship with contra-flow and this trend is
very likely to be going on in the fut u re .
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