Cultural Appropriation and Imperialism


The subject of cultural appropriation continues to be debated in terms of what it means and whether it is a good or a bad thing. The real problem here is not about which side of the debate one chooses to support. Understanding both sides of this argument is the better choice, and it can only be achieved by investigating what cultural appropriation means within the 21st century. The required definitions here, however, are not limited to the dictionary meaning of the phrase in question (cultural appropriation). This paper focuses on the actual meaning of cultural appropriation in the context of the 21st century especially in the face of globalization, cultural imperialism and important westernization in most parts of the world. To address the conflict regarding whether cultural appropriation is a good thing or not, this paper will seek to establish whether cultural appropriation is the new form of imperialism in the 21stcentury, and what the effects of cultural appropriation are on the world’s cultures. 

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines ‘appropriation’ as taking something without the owner’s permission. Within some contexts, this would be called ‘stealing’ considering that the dictionary definition matches. It must, however, be considered, for this paper, that the contextual meaning for appropriation is not ‘stealing’. Rather, it is ‘borrowing’. The definition of culture is in itself a challenge to the possibility of stealing. Culture is defined as the way of life as embraced by the people in a given society. a collection of beliefs, symbols, values and practices unite people, as a society. This is why people cannot steal a culture but they can simply borrow it to suit their needs and causes. The challenge, however, is that borrowing a culture has its own negative effects on the culture. Cultures have been used to identify people in their societies since the beginning of time. This means that culture is a special identity, and identity can be stolen. 

Imperialism is a concept that has undergone numerous changes over the years to encompass a wide range of policies and practices that are both political and socio-cultural in context. Initially, imperialism was considered a political ideology aimed at creating global empires and advancing the national interests of a particular people. In its original context, imperialism can be defined in relation to the Nazi aggression where the Germans invaded other European countries, forcing their people into labor camps and claiming their capital in order to advance the Nazi cause throughout the continent. In a more social context, the United States has been seen spreading out a number of cultures like the fast food culture that has been witnessed growing exponentially in the Middle East and beyond. Generally, imperialism is a concept that entails wiping out one culture in favor of another dominant one. This often results in the extinction of one culture, as the people are absorbed into the practices and beliefs of the dominant culture.

The main question in the paper is whether cultural appropriation can be equated to imperialism as applicable in the 21st century. In order to answer this, there are two theories that can be used for both sides of the debate. These are the rational choice theory, arguing for cultural appropriation, and structural functionalism theory arguing against it.  The rational choice theory supports the idea of cultural appropriation not being interconnected with modern day imperialism based on the motives behind cultural appropriation while structural functionalism looks at the effects of cultural appropriation on the culture in question.    

Rational Choice Theory

According to this theory, individuals take up actions based on their rationality. They make choices that are directed primarily by their self-interest. This means that individuals generally seek to further their personal interests and can thus indulge in any activities that align with their self-interests. Actions are thus simply a calculated means of achieving the set personal objectives as related to the individual’s self-interests. One great believer of this theory is Jon Elster, who stated that within the rational choice theory, collective beliefs and desires have no impact on the individual. This indicates that the things people do, at an individual level, are not related to their societies. These actions are only indulged with the one intention, self-gratification and in some cases self-preservation. This denies the existence of collective aspects that define the society and in most cases, culture. This ideology makes it difficult to even support the very existence of cultural appropriation based on the idea that people do not act on the basis of a collective purpose. The definition of imperialism indicates that it is the spread of one culture with the aim of dominating over another. This would require having a large number of people from the dominant culture acting in a way aims to undermine and dominate the other culture. Cultural dominance, in this case, can be seen as a collective desire but based on Jon Elster’s assertions the ‘collective’ does not really exist.     

Structural Functionalism

 Herbert Spencer and Robert Merton were strong believers of the structural functionalism, both of whom agreed that the society is a complex interconnection of systems that are largely complimentary and work together to reach given results. The results, in this case, can be seen as patterns in the society’s beliefs and practices in contexts like religion, family and gender roles. From Herbert Spencer’s ideas on structural functionalism, the society works like the human body, with different distinct parts that have their specific roles to play. Without any of these parts, the body would encounter some difficulties in terms of functionality as a whole. Different individuals play different roles within the society. They have different specific or varied functions, and whatever they do reflects on or affects the other members of that society. When using this theory to explain cultural appropriation, one must note that whatever an individual does will affect other people as well. This means that regardless of why one is partaking in a given activity, they can be sure that it will have an impact on another individual in that society. The structural functionalism theory argues that cultural appropriation is a negative concept by showing how the actions of an individual like inappropriately mimicking one culture actually contributes to the loss of that culture regardless of what the intentions of the individual were to begin with. The use of an African American accent and language by Iggy Azalea has for example been seen to undermine the definition of the African American identity thus prompting African American artists like Nicki Minaj to criticize the act mainly because by using their style as a people, Iggy Azalea is corrupting the meaning of being African American and thus undermining what the accent means to the African American people. 

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Cultural Appropriation and Imperialism

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May 13, 2019 in Culture Essay Samples