Cultural imperialism, coined by analogy to military imperialism, refers to the practice of promoting the culture and language of one nation in another, particularly when the former is a large powerful nation and the latter a small poor one. This can take the form of active, formal policy or a general attitude.
Empires throughout history have been established using war and physical compulsion. In the long term populations have tended to be absorbed into the dominant culture, or acquire its attributes indirectly.
The Greek culture built gyms, theatres and public baths in countries that its adherents conquered (such as ancient Israel), with the effect that the populations became immersed in that culture. The spread of the koine (common) Greek language was another large factor in this immersion.
A revealing instance of cultural imperialism is the Prayer Book rebellion of 1549, where the English state sought to suppress non-English languages with the English language Book of Common Prayer. In replacing Latin with English, and under the guise of suppressing catholicism, English was effectively imposed as the language of the Church, one of the societal focal points of the time. At the time people in many areas of Cornwall did not speak or understand English. The Cornish language is no longer a matter of life and death, but in 1549 it was. Many Cornish people protesting against the imposition of an English Prayer book were massacred by the King's army. Their leaders were executed and the people suffered numerous reprisals.
Throughout the 18th and 19th century the dominant English establishment attempted (unsuccessfully) to eliminate all non-English languages within the British Island group (such as the Welsh language, Irish language and Scottish language) by outlawing them or otherwise marginalising their speakers. Many other languages had almost or totally been wiped out by this point including Cornish and Manx. The term was probably first applied to the British Empire which had many measures, such as encouraging the game of cricket and teaching English, to further establish its grasp on countries and territories the world over.
During the late 18th, 19th and the early 20th centuries, the Swedish government continually repressed the Saami culture. Repression took numerous forms, such as banning the Saami language and by forceful removal of many cultural artifacts, such as the magic drums of the nåjds (the Saami shamen). Most of the drums have not to date been returned. During the early 20th century even the Swedish-Finnish people of Tornedalen had their native Tornedal Finnish language banned from official use in schools and public records.
The Turkish government continues to ban the use of the Kurdish language in education or the media, although there are some signs this policy may be abandoned to bolster the Turkish bid for membership of the European Union.
Cultural imperialism in the twentieth century has, according to some, been connected with the United States and with the Soviet Union, and to a lesser extent with other countries that exert strong influence on neighboring nations. Some feel that the high degree of cultural export through business and popular culture--popular and academic books, films, music, and television--threaten their countries' unique ways of life or moral values where such cultural exports are popular. Some countries, including France, have policies that actively oppose Americanisation.
Representatives of al-Qaida stated that their attacks on US interests were motivated in part by a reaction to perceived US cultural imperialism.
It should be noted that 'cultural imperialism' can refer to either the forced acculturation of a subject population, or to the voluntary embracing of a foreign culture by individuals who do so of their own free will. Since these are two very different referents, the validity of the term has been called into question.
The writer Edward Said, one of the founders of the field of post-colonial study, has written extensively on the subject of cultural imperialism, and his work is considered by many to form an important cornerstone in this area of study. His work highlights the inaccuracies of many assumptions about cultures and societies and is largely informed by Michel Foucault's concepts of discourse and power.