Culture Unbound: Americanization & Everyday Life in Sweden

Culture Unbound: Americanization & Everyday Life in Sweden

by Tom O'Dell

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Explaining the mechanisms behind the larger processes of globalization, modernization, and cultural imperialism, this book explores the realms of daily life in Sweden and how cultural impulses are actually integrated in the lives of ordinary people. The dreams, opinions, actions, and consumption desires of individuals with different social backgrounds are considered, determining the significance the processes of Americanization have had in shaping and influencing the form and content of everyday life in Sweden.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9789187121234
Publisher: Nordic Academic Press
Publication date: 01/01/1997
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
File size: 10 MB

About the Author

Tom O'Dell is an associate professor and research coordinator in the department of service management at Lund University, Sweden.

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Culture Unbound

Americanization and Everyday Life in Sweden

By Tom O'Dell, Lena Wilhelmsson

Nordic Academic Press

Copyright © 1997 Nordic Academic Press and the author
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-91-89116-02-3


Turbulence in the Flow: Considering Americanization

We can not move without being constantly reminded of the implications which American technological advances have meant for the manner in which we live our lives today.

Tage Erlander 1964:2.

Norway tastes of culture and tradition. America is teeming with speed and excitement, but also with aggression and devastation.

Steinar Bryn 1992a:66.

America is the land of the future; Europe is the land of the present, and the one thing which is distinctive of the present is uncertainty.

Ronny Amböjrnsson 1994:76.

Pick up a journal containing contemporary anthropological articles on transnational cultural processes and you are bound to find references to flows, borders, or hybrids. In topics ranging from the fate of political refugees to MTV, they are the metaphors currently in vogue, diligently invoked on the basis of the descriptive and dynamic qualities they are thought to possess. They are, if nothing else, the tropes of the nineties, and as such reflect the ways in which we visualize and frame rather abstract processes which reach around the world and affect our lives as well as those of others. At the same time, however, when it comes to flows, borders, and hybrids, there is probably no other topic in Sweden – and Europe in general – which has been discussed and debated so much in the past one hundred and fifty years as Americanization. It is a flow with a history, but still, it is a topic which sparks the imagination, and rapidly catalyzes the emotions of both the scholar and the lay-person alike.

Here it can be interesting to pause for a moment to consider why the topic has demonstrated such vitality over time. To be sure, this is not a question with a simple answer, but at least one of the more significant reasons for this continued interest undoubtedly lies in the fact that Americanization is not just about flows, borders, and hybrids, but it is a flow in and of itself. It is an ever shifting global discourse whose boundaries have constantly been realigned and redefined throughout time. But as an academic discourse, it has been a hybrid from the beginning, constructed and reconstructed in disciplines as diverse as political science, sociology, anthropology, and history, as well as comparative literature, popular culture, and youth studies.

Bearing this in mind, it is perhaps appropriate to reflect more carefully upon this discourse. Here I shall move sweepingly, refraining from any sort of a comprehensive review of the literature in the area, opting instead to use this discussion as a means of pointing to a few of the significant, almost paradigmatic, ways in which the transnational, in the guise of Americanization, has been constructed and problematized in the literature. Towards the end I shall conclude by problematizing the phenomenon called Americanization by placing it in relation to recent criticisms which have arisen in culture theory.

Through the Flow of Time

According to the Archives of the Editorial Staff of the Swedish Academy's Dictionary, the verb Americanize was first recorded in 1852, at which time it was used to describe the rapidity with which emigrated Swedes adopted the customs of the communities they moved into in the United States. The actual noun form of the word, Americanization, does not appear in the archival records until 1883, and is used as a label for these processes. Here, Americanization was an individual phenomenon which occurred in particular instances in local contexts. It was an aspect of emigration which was linked to the émigré and was in this sense not a global process or flow. People were Americanized, after they moved, but this was perceived more in terms of socio-psychological factors than cultural processes. The boundary between Swedishness and Americanness was delineated according to outward praxis, a boundary over which Swedish customs were replaced by American customs.

As one follows the word in the Academy's archives, it becomes clear that implicit understandings of the strengths and weaknesses of the nation and its ability to imprint itself on the individual were linked to this usage of the word at an early stage. This was an issue which attracted increasing concern in the surging wave of national romanticism which occurred in Sweden toward the end of the century. In an archival record from 1894 it is noted that Swedes adopted "the language, rituals and customs in the new homeland, and thus became more quickly Americanized than Germans and Irishmen, for example" (Tekn. Tidskr. 1894:71). Americanization was in this sense measurable and thereby comparable – some nationalities, Swedes for example, were identified as being more readily "Ameri-canizable" than others.

This was an interpretation which greatly worried many conservatives and National Romantics such as the poet, Verner von Heidenstam, who lamented in another of the archive's records that, "the economic interest has Americanized and distorted Swedish national sentiments". Far from implying a local affectation of the individual, as was the case with the first usage of the word listed above, Heidenstam identified Americanization on the plane of the transnational, as a macro process in a position to challenge and even undermine the national. Americanization was here a corrupting influence, and a threat to the intimate bond between the individual citizen and the collective unity of the nation. Beyond this, what Heidenstam reacted against was the willingness with which, in at least his own opinion, the average Swede gave up Swedish traditions and accept American impulses instead – the worst of which Heidenstam identified as pietism and wanton materialism (Björck 1946:172). In this sense, indications of Americanization signified a weakening of the national bond, and the waning health of the nation. And once again, Americanization was constructed as a process by which something Swedish – customs, traditions, and values in this case – was replaced by more superficial and morally deplorable elements. The flow of Americanization implied in this sense a process of substitution in which something was presumed to have been subtracted from the repertoire of the national as something else was added.


Speed creates a space of initiation, which may be lethal; its only rule is to leave no trace behind.

Jean Baudrillard 1988:6

Along these lines it should be pointed out that one of the primary strengths of the flow metaphor lies in its ability to remind us of the degree to which culture is a process, something which is ever changing and non-static. It is not a thing or entity which can be easily pointed to or picked up. But the flow metaphor is also interesting because it plays upon images of continuity. Like a stream or river, it is always there but always moving. You can enter it as many times as you like, but never in the exact same place; the water keeps moving (cf. Hannerz 1992a:4). However, if processes of Americanization are to be understood in terms of cultural flow, it seems as though they are often perceived as having particular qualities of their own.

Flows, it should be noted, do not always occur with the same speed, nor do they all bear the same force. And if one reviews the manner in which processes of Americanization are usually perceived and portrayed, it would be difficult to characterize them as the trickling flow of a meandering stream. To the contrary, some have argued that nothing better signified the presence of Americanization than the aesthetics of streamlining (Hebdige 1988:58). In Swedish popular debates, incidences of Americanization are often described as fads or trends – a fluga, or "fly" in Swedish. They are events which belong to the present; they have no deeper history to speak of, and will presumably disappear as quickly as they came, thus having no real future. In the words of C. W. E. Bigsby, "Americanisation frequently means little more than the incidence of change" (1975:6). It is transient, and in this sense one might associate it with Marshall Berman's description of the modern – a phenomenon which "pours us all into a maelstrom of perpetual disintegration and renewal" (Berman 1988:15). Indeed, Americanization and modernity are often closely linked phenomena, a point which will we will return to again further down in this chapter, and which will become one of the more dominant themes of Chapter 4. For now it is sufficient to bear in mind that, when we think of Americanization we often envision a certain force, and this is a very different type of force than we would associate with cultural processes described in terms of older anthropological metaphors such as diffusion, or evolution.

By the same token, as we juxtapose Americanization to concepts such as diffusion, or even the more contemporary term, creolization, it becomes increasingly clear that Americanization is an exceedingly directional metaphor. It is a flow which is primarily running in only one direction, outward from the United States. Diffusion and creolization are on the other hand usually conceptualized as both slower and less directional processes. Diffusion may imply a slight degree of directionality to the extent that it invokes the imagery of something radiating outward from a center of concentration. But this is a rather ubiquitous movement towards equilibrium. Additionally, processes of diffusion work to some extent from both sides of borders. Americanization only seems to cross the border once, and is in many ways the antithesis of equilibrium and balance.

Similarly, creolization implies a give and take, or "mingling" of "meanings and meaningful forms from different historical sources, originally separated from one another in space" (Hannerz 1992b:95). However, Americanization is not a very good "mingling" metaphor. It is, especially in discussions of cultural imperialism but even more generally, a much more aggressive metaphor laden with implications of expansion, power, domination, and cultural corruption, moving in a single direction from a cultural center to the peripheries. In the words of historian Reinhold Wagnleitner:

Too often, the term "Americanization" has been instrumentalized by those who are apt to forget that the United States, however indigenous its cultural developments, is a result of the Europeanization of the world (1994:xii).

The point is that, obviously, the periphery does talk back to the center, and it plays an integral role in the construction of the center, but unfortunately, an appreciation of this part of the cultural feedback loop is lost in the Americanization metaphor. But this directionality is nothing new. Indeed, as the above discussion of the word's Swedish origins indicates, it is a term which has always tended to imply some form of uni-directional movement – whether invoked to describe the personal transformation of an individual or the transformation of the national setting.

Still, the question which begs to be answered by the invocation of the flow metaphor concerns the issue of what exactly it is that "flows" with the processes of Americanization? Why haven't American architectural vernaculars such as the saltbox home, or Georgian style houses spread to Sweden? Why hasn't there been an attempt to open a branch of anything like the National Rifle Association in Stockholm? And why does the Swedish version of the television show Rescue 911 seem even flatter or less emotionally charged than its American counterpart?

The Linguistic Measure

Donald Duck's language has rubbed off on us and become commonplace ... A commercial American language, without any deeper relevance to us, has thoroughly invaded us through Donald Duck, and the generation born in the forties.

Ludvig Rasmusson 1985:132.

Upon consideration, it becomes apparent that certain things flow more easily than others, or are in some way more open to processes of cultural "translation" and recontextualization. Linguistic influences, for example, seem to travel particularly lightly. Words and phrases can quickly and easily travel throughout the global ecumene via film, television, radio, audio recordings, telecommunications, print media, international travel, etc. National borders, customs, and tariffs offer little in the way of resistance. Thus in Japanese we find new words such as: dandiraion (dandelion), birudingu (building), roketto (rocket), bosuton (Boston), makudonarudo (McDonald's), and even sungurasu (sunglasses, later replaced by the brand name ray ban, which became a synonym for sunglasses) (Stanlaw 1992). And in Sweden we find that the language is not only littered with direct loan words such as "chips", and "cornflakes", but even semantic loans such as lam anka (lame duck), mjukvara (software) and hjärntvätt (brainwash) (Ljung 1992). The effects of English are obvious and often easily recognizable. As a result, linguistic changes are often used in popular debates as measures of one's receptiveness to other cultures on the plane of everyday life. They function as red flags clearly indicating the occurrence of Americanization.

Here it is tempting to closely align American linguistic influences with widespread cultural influence; however, as James Stanlaw points out in the case of English influences upon Japanese, the questions which remain to be answered concern the areas of language which have been affected, how they have been affected, and why? That is, what does the learning of words such as "chips", or sungurasu say about religious beliefs, or the organization of family relations in Sweden or Japan, and what does it say about the spread of popular culture, or the interconnectedness of youths around the world? To a certain extent this becomes a question of the breadth of influence. Language, on the one hand, is an aspect of culture, and linguistic change must obviously be recognized as a part of cultural change, but one is on more tenuous ground if one begins to presume too liberally that linguistic processes and influences can be used as an index of other general cultural processes, even if linguistic models have often been borrowed by anthropologists to explain cultural processes. It is exactly this leap from the specific to the general which has gained particular (and sensational) resonance in popular mass-medial debates in which linguistic influences are strongly equated with American cultural influence, and ipso facto the loss of something Swedish, and the threat to "deeper" cultural values.

However, if we stop to read linguistic influences as markers of change, then it becomes interesting to consider the areas of changes which are noticeable. That is, what do linguistic influences tell us about their (and our) trajectories through the transnational? Pursuing this question, David Crystal has identified seven categories which he claims reflect "cultural influence" (in terms of the appearance of English loan-words): Sports, Tourism, Politics, Culture and Entertainment, People and Behavior, Consumption, and Miscellaneous (1975:62-63). The categories are not particularly surprising and it is possible to think of a few others which might be added such as technology and business. But significant here is the fact that some cultural flows and points of interconnectedness are easy to spot and identify on the surface of everyday praxis and here transnational trajectories, marked as Americanization, are readily identifiable in the vernacular of daily speech.

This is important to the extent that it does remind us that some things may indeed travel more easily than others, and that this can perhaps even lend to the appearance that some "cultures" flow more easily than others. Indeed, if words travel easily, then English words seem to travel even more lightly throughout the global ecumene than do the words of other languages. However, this is not anything inherent to English, but is rather, at least in part, a question of the access various languages have to networks of distribution such as the mass media. Thus, when a generation of teenage boys throughout Europe and the Americas begin saying "Hasta la vista, baby!" it is not due to anything intrinsic in the words, or in the Spanish language, but more a result of the fact that Arnold Schwarzenegger works well as a high-profile cultural transmitter who is plugged into a vast and dense distribution network.

Or, contrarily, it might be argued here that nothing travels better than images. More important than Schwarzenegger's choice of punchy slogans is the way in which they are delivered or the associations they can awaken in the viewer's fantasy. Images are in part bound to the flow of words, but can also move independent of linguistic abilities, in the form of signs, symbols, and pictures. And if English is not intrinsically more liable to flow than other languages, one can ponder over the associations/images that the language invokes as a signifier, as well as the implications these images have in facilitating the spread of certain English words. As Katarina Eskola, a Finnish sociologist, noted when reflecting back upon her life as a teenager in the 1950s, "[t]he word 'Hollywood' meant a lot ... [and] the English language in general held a special fascination for us" (1996:33). She reminds us that, for at least some, embedded in the foreign sound of English words was a world of fantasies, dreams, and possibilities, which was missing from German, Swedish, or French. For Eskola, English signified the fantasy landscape of Hollywood, popularity, wealth, and fame (see also O'Dell 1993a), and while French, German, and Swedish may have conjured forth other images and associations in the minds of listeners, they never received the global accessibility nor (simultaneously) the symbolic charge which Hollywood and its stars provided English. Americanization has in this sense (at least the possibility of) a unique trajectory through Hollywood and the globally acknowledged world of the make-believe.


Excerpted from Culture Unbound by Tom O'Dell, Lena Wilhelmsson. Copyright © 1997 Nordic Academic Press and the author. Excerpted by permission of Nordic Academic Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Page,
Chapter 1 - Turbulence in the Flow: Considering Americanization,
Chapter 2 - Becomings and Goings: Looking for Vingandacoa,
Chapter 3 - The Othering America: Proximities, Tensions, and Moving Targets,
Chapter 4 - A Path of its Own: The American Car and the Pyramid of Dreams,
Chapter 5 - Peace, Love, and Imperialism: Sideswiped by the Sixties,
Chapter 6 - Culture Unbound: Defining the Doors of Perception,

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