Is Americanization worth scientific analysis?

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Americanization is a notion known to nearly everybody. It is usually met with reluctance because it does not carry any positive connotations. The term is a buzzword for journalists who criticize the phenomenon even though they do not fully understand it. It is also quite ambiguous and causes many controversies concerning both the definition and scope of the phenomena covered by it. Thus, is it worthwhile to analyze Americanization from a scientific point of view? Will it help us learn anything new?

Americanization, understood as a process encompassing many areas of life and consisting of the increasing occurrence of American influences in these fields, is a clash of two cultures: American culture and the one with which it interacts. "Thus, when analyzing the Americanization processes, we actually do not learn much about the American culture as such, but rather get new perspectives on our own. We can discover a lot about ourselves: whether we are creative and open to play with cultural meanings or whether we consume American patterns in a passive, uncritical way," Jolanta Szymkowska-Bartyzel, PhD, from the Jagiellonian University, says about studies on Americanization.

Passive or (and) active?

Americanization is most commonly understood as an unreflective adaptation of American products (including cultural products), patterns, or solutions. People are seen as a passive, intellectually void mass that can be manipulated freely. In these terms, Americanization is often confused with globalization, which is a process resulting from the increasing role of transnational politics and the integration of the global economy. As a result, this is supposed to lead to a global mingling of cultures, which will make the world look the same everywhere. Diversity and differences are uneconomical, and proven, rationalized products and solutions will make the world an unbearably predictable place. Yet identifying Americanization with globalization is a mistake, although — as globalization opponents claim — globalization has a mainly American face. In fact, globalization involves many other processes, including Japanization and Italianization. It also involves specific types of processes originating from the USA such as Macdonaldization or Disneyization, which have not been purely American for quite a long time.

At the same time, contemporary globalization theories assume that the world is extremely diverse and that individuals are creative entities who are resourceful and have the ability to interpret cultural texts creatively. Thus, the fear of homogenizing, as well as the regressive effects of Americanization as one of the elements of the globalization process, is definitely exaggerated.

Recipients do not consume American culture in a thoughtless, passive manner. On the contrary, they create new forms and qualities from the elements of this culture that are available to them. This specific bricolage contributes rather to the creation of the recipients' own versions of American culture than to their homogenization and uniformization. In this light, American culture is only a source of inspiration for further processing, an impulse for the creation of a unique, individual understanding, and the use of its objects or texts.

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How are we being Americanized?

At the beginning of the 1990s, when Poles did not yet fully understand the rules of the new reality and had only started learning about capitalism and the free market, they were easily seduced by American patterns. "Do you remember the enormous popularity of the American TV series ‘Dynasty,' which so clearly shaped Polish tastes, lifestyle, and consumption patterns? ‘Alexis-' or ‘Krystle-style' clothes and haircuts, houses of the nouveaux riches imitating the mansion of Blake Carrington, white limousines cruising the bumpy streets of Warsaw—and it was only one TV show that influenced Polish society to such extent," Szymkowska-Bartyzel explains.

However, one should remember that both the internet and cable television were unavailable in those days, and that Polish people's knowledge about the world was based mostly on a quite limited set of mass media texts, which had an undeniably greater social impact then.

What is it like today? After Poland's accession to the European Union in 2004, criticism towards America and American culture increased significantly. President George W. Bush and his political decisions did not evoke warm feelings. It was then when anti-Americanism, the phenomenon which is currently referred to by scientists as the twin brother of Americanization, grew stronger. Even the Poles, who were traditionally quite pro-American, started to perceive everything American with a high dose of skepticism and to search for role models in culturally diverse Europe. The development of the internet, social media, satellite TV, etc., resulted in the availability of such a wide variety of texts originating from different cultures that the uniformizing impact of American culture was not dangerous any more. Paraphrasing the words of the famous German film director Wim Wenders, today it is much harder for the Yankees to colonize our subconsciousness.

Is it possible that we are Americanizing ourselves?

The area of research for cultural scientists dealing with the Americanization process is the whole culture, from which they can analyze the presence of texts from American culture in the media, e.g., television, the press, and Polish cinema, or examine their influences on our culture, e.g., business or cuisine. Research may be limited to the determination of the existence of such influences through a simple content analysis, although one can also look for specific values promoted by American culture, such as youth, rebellion, modernity, etc. However, the most fascinating aspect is not what American culture does to us, but what we do to American culture. Discussions with young viewers who are passionate about watching contemporary American television series such as Dexter or Desperate Housewives show us how a popular culture text can be interpreted in many ways, especially when we enter postmodern territory.

"In my research I often focus on exceptional uses of American culture, when it becomes only a pretext, a form, or cover for expressing oneself, when — as Winfried Fluck, German expert in American literature and culture, wrote — we are not Americanized but we Americanize ourselves," Szymkowska-Bartyzel points out.

A great example of such "cover" is the work of Silesian amateur film maker, Józef Kłyk, who uses the seemingly outdated and quite obvious form of the American western to tell the story of Silesia and its inhabitants in order to foster Silesian traditions and protect their identity.

Nearly the whole community of his home village, Bojszowy, participates in the production of Kłyk's films (Człowiek znikąd [The Man from Nowhere], 1983; Full śmierci [Dead Man's Hand], 1986; Dwaj z Teksasu [Two Men from Texas], 2000). Working on the set has become a sort of ritual for the village residents. The scenes are usually shot after Sunday Mass because people only have time on Sundays. As in Passion or Nativity plays, amateur actors play the same characters from the western world: one is always the sheriff and the other, the bandit. Kłyk's films feature characters speaking the Silesian dialect, observing Silesian traditions, and wearing Silesian clothes. They tell the history of Silesia. Could American popular culture be used in a more interesting, creative, and useful way?

New media, particularly the internet, provide plenty of examples of the critical and inspiring use of American popular culture. American culture itself occurs on the internet in countless forms and contents, as it is a diversified culture created by the inhabitants of the USA from various origins. American culture is much more than texts produced by Hollywood studios and media corporations. New media finally allow us to see it in all its richness.

Research is conducted by: Jolanta Szymkowska-Bartyzel, PhD.