The term Americanization refers to the perceived spread and absorption of presumed American values, practices, methods, beliefs, and symbols. This definition is important because some things taken to be American are not in fact of American origin. Further, critics of Americanization sometimes wrongly overestimate the spread of Americanization, the rate of absorption, and the American desire to promote presumed American things.
In 1835, sociologist Alexis de Tocqueville laid out the essence of American identity, comprising a combination of populism, egalitarianism, liberty, individualism, and laissez-faire. Equally important was a distrust of big government and a belief that local power was more responsive to people’s needs. These values have more recently been dubbed the “American Creed,” based on a form of “dissenting Protestantism. ”The creed comprises five elements, which Samuel Huntington (2004) lists as individual rights, the people as the legitimate source of political power, government limited by law and the people, a belief in limited or small government, and private property.
Americanization includes domestic and international variants. Domestically, the term refers to the socialization of immigrants to the United States. Philip Bell defines it as “a process by which an alien acquires our language, citizenship, customs, and ideals” (1998, 1). Acculturation, however, does not necessarily lead to assimilation, as studies of Jewish and other immigrants have shown. Americanization domestically is not as assimilatory as its founders originally suggested, and some states such as Florida, California, and Texas have informal policies of Spanish-English bilingualism. In 2000, some forty-seven million people, or 18 percent of the population, spoke a language other than English at home. Images of the melting pot have been replaced by the salad bowl or mixed salad, suggesting tolerance for cultural diversity and multiculturalism. Ideals of religious and cultural freedom can be seen as new forms of Americanization, where respect for difference is celebrated.
Americanization must be seen as a two-way street. It involves the assimilation of foreign cultures and peoples, the transformation of cultural products, and their export outside America’s borders. The United States is a massive consumer of culture as well as a producer of it. Americans have been highly receptive to foreign influences and immigrants, which has affected the creation of new forms of culture, movies, food, fashions, architecture, science, and so on. As Richard Pells (2005) argues,
It is precisely these foreign influences that have made America’s culture so popular for so long in so many places. American culture spread throughout the world because it has habitually drawn on foreign styles and ideas. Americans have then reassembled and repackaged the cultural products they received from abroad, and retransmitted them to the rest of the planet. (190)
Americanization also has international dimensions. American variants of democracy, trade liberalization, and culture are often seen as attractive outside America’s borders, and perceived American practices are often spontaneously adopted and reinterpreted in different cultural contexts. Thus, America not only projects hard military power, as Joseph Nye (2008) has shown, but the soft power of cultural attraction and diplomacy as well. Historically, Americanization involved the spread of democratic institutions and the promotion of free trade. This began in the 1850s with America’s opening of Japan for international trade, later culminating in its “open door” policies for the Asia-Pacific in the 1890s. It also coincided with the spread of Wilsonian liberal democracy after 1919. After World War II (1939–1945), the U.S. government promoted a mixture of democracy, free trade, international institutions to regulate trade, new international markets, opening of closed economic systems, currency convertibility, access to world markets and materials, and a reduction in domestic barriers to trade. Institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the United Nations, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade all promoted an economic agenda favored by America and its allies.
In parts of Latin America and Central Europe, a form of economic Americanization was expressed in the 1990s through the Washington Consensus, a World Bank project that sought to reduce social spending and increase the level of privatization. Americanization is sometimes used as shorthand for large-scale industrialization or assembly-line manufacturing, like Fordism. As such, Americanization can figure as a stand-in for Westernization or globalization, even if in today’s economic climate the majority of manufactured goods are produced outside of the United States. America’s massive domestic market has enabled American industries to create products at home before trialing them abroad. This has further been facilitated by the fact that more than one billion people speak English, making the “American” language of business and culture a global language.
People outside the United States may pick and choose what elements of American culture they consume. For the most part, people are conditioned by their families, local cultures, and circumstances, which allows them to filter and select what they want and don’t want. The success of Americanization often lies in the ability of corporate mass culture to adapt and change to suit local needs rather than forcing the same product on everyone. There is considerable variation in how American values, practices, methods, beliefs, and symbols are adopted. Some authors now reject the idea of American cultural imperialism, pointing instead to a more nuanced and complex model of reappropriation, negotiation, and creolization. One might therefore see Americanization as a “tool box,” a series of resources that can be selected or rejected by cultural and national groups as they see fit, depending on what elements of Americanization suit their cultures. As such, it makes more sense to speak of Americanization as being polyvalent, comprising military, economic, cultural, and other characteristics, some of which may seem more attractive than others. Americanization as a process must also be seen as dynamic and in constant evolution. What America and Americanization mean is subject to continual discussion with each new generation of Americans.
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- Bruno, Rosalind, and Hyon Shin. Language Use and English-Speaking Ability: 2000.
- Washington, D.C.: U.S. Census Bureau, October 2003. Fluck,Winfried. “California Blue: Americanization as Self-Americanization.” In Americanization and Anti-Americanism:The German Encounter with American Culture after 1945, edited by Alexander Stephan, 221–237. New York: Berghahn, 2005.
- Huntington, Samuel. Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004.
- Ignatieff, Michael, ed. American Exceptionalism and Human Rights. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2006.
- Katzenstein, Peter, and Robert Keohane, eds. Anti-Americanisms in World Politics. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2006.
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- Nye, Joseph. The Powers to Lead. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
- Pells, Richard. “Double Crossings: The Reciprocal Relationship between American and European Culture in the Twentieth Century.” In Americanization and Anti-Americanism: The German Encounter with American Culture after 1945, edited by Alexander Stephan, 189–201. New York: Berghahn, 2005.
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