Measuring the soft power of popular culture

Aparna Sridhar
Aparna Sridhar

March 2021

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While most nations agree on the definitions, composition and role of Soft Power in diplomacy, there is little agreement on how it can be empirically, theoretically, or conceptually measured. Most studies on soft power are based on anecdotal evidence and often refer to influence by temporal, transitory events and offerings. There is no interdisciplinary, long-term study of the deep civilisational impact of India.

The soft power of popular culture should be studied separately from the soft power of civilizational values and ideas. Scholars have opined that ‘ideas’ and ‘messages’ in popular culture have caused behavioural change across nations but these claims need to be investigated empirically. For instance the influence of K-Pop on teenagers today is significant, but whether it causes changes in behaviour or life circumstances is to be questioned. Whether the popularity of KFC or McDonald is desirable or even good for health or for the environment is questionable. Hollywood may be making the biggest blockbusters, but India has the most number of regional films with far greater viewers than films made in the West. 

Some of the criteria that should be included in any survey of soft power are:

1) A timescale of influence 

2) Impact, both long term or short term 

3) Intrinsic value of the offering versus media-driven popularity 

4) Desirability of influence

Popular culture often does not undergo such scrutiny. It is impetuous, ad hoc, based on current trends and fads, and is often pushed by a voyeuristic media. The soft power of Indic Knowledge Systems is far more rigorous, has been transmitted over centuries, has benefitted recipient nations and has not been imposed on anyone forcibly. This is not to say that one has to be pedantic, but due diligence is required. 

The popular culture of India has often been a take off from her deep classical traditions. Indian film music has been popular worldwide because its roots are frequently in the raga music of either Hindustani or Carnatic music. Indian street food, eaten fresh and with curd, is based on the scientific principles of Ayurveda. Curd has natural probiotics and the spices added are natural digestives. The languages that we speak today, have their roots in Sanskrit. So while we may not know Sanskrit in its pristine form, we are acquainted with it in some form or the other.

This connection between classical traditions and popular culture is unique to India because of the unbroken line of her classical traditions and roots. It is the only unbroken civilisation whose wisdom has been preserved through a rich oral tradition despite invasions and attacks. The youth of today should invest time and energy to explore this link.

This article originally appeared in the Soft Power (March 2021) edition of The Plus magazine by IGenPlus. Read here.

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