Cultural Studies

views updated May 18 2018


Cultural studies is one of the more controversial intellectual formations of the 1990s and the first decade of the third millennium. It has experienced a period of rapid growth in the academy, appearing at many universities in a variety of forms and locations (although rarely as degree-granting departments). At the same time, it has been broadly attacked both from inside the university and outside academia.


There are at least five distinct uses of cultural studies, making it difficult to know exactly what people are attacking or defending. It has been used to describe, alone or in various combinations:

  1. Any progressive cultural criticism and theory (replacing "critical theory," which served as the umbrella term of the 1980s);
  2. The study of popular culture, especially in conjunction with the political problematic of identity and difference;
  3. So-called "postmodern" theories that advocate a cultural or discursive constructionism (and, thus, supposedly embrace relativism);
  4. Research on the politics of textuality applied broadly to include social life, especially based in poststructuralist theories of ideology, discourse, and subjectivity;
  5. A particular intellectual formation that is directly or indirectly linked to the project of British cultural studies, as embodied in the work of Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall, and the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS).

Second, the New Left emerged as a small but influential discussion group, and included many immigrants from the "colonies." It was sympathetic to (but not aligned with) the growing Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. The New Left had a specific and ambivalent relation to Marxism, engaging Marxist theory and politics even as it criticized it for its failure (and inability?) to account for and respond to the challenges posed by the importance of ideology, colonialism and imperialism, race, and the failures of existing socialism. This work was enabled by the translation and publication of the early writings of Marx and a wide range of European Marxist thinkers.

Third, the British university system was, to put it mildly, elitist and classist, in terms of its student population and in its isolation, aestheticization, and limitation of culture to the field of the arts. Many of the influential early figures in cultural studies were working-class or immigrant students attending university on scholarship, who were driven to look for other accounts of culture that both expanded its referent and took it more seriously.

Finally, many of these figures were deeply influenced by their experience as teachers in various institutions of adult education outside the university. If nothing else, this experience played a role in convincing them, first, of the importance of culture (and intellectual work on culture) to both political struggle and people's everyday lives, and second, of the fact that the important questions do not usually respect the disciplinary boundaries of academic competence and expertise.

Culture and Context

In this context, a number of writersespecially Raymond Williams and Richard Hoggartbegan to explore the political and theoretical significance of the concept of culture in relationship to the broader contexts of social life. Trained as literary critics, they argued that cultural texts provided insights into social reality unavailable through the traditional social sciences and enabled one to understand what it felt like to be alive at a particular time and placeto grasp what Williams called "the structure of feeling." They sought to describe culture's concrete effects on people's lives. Hoggart's The Uses of Literacy (1957), for example, entered into the debate over Americanization, using close textual analyses to ask whether the new forms of popular culture were unsettling the established relations between working-class cultural practices and the patterns of everyday life of the working classes. Williamsin Culture and Society (1958) and The Long Revolution (1965), and in other works throughout his careersought the theoretical and methodological tools that would allow for description of the concrete relations among cultural practices, social relations, and organizations of power.

In 1964 Richard Hoggart set up the CCCS to continue these efforts when he was hired as professor of English literature at the University of Birmingham. This was done with the permission of both his department and the university, but with only their minimal support. He funded the Centre himself from monies he received for testifying in defense of D. H. Lawrence at an obscenity trial, and he hired Stuart Hall, who had already published The Popular Arts (1964) with Paddy Whannel. Hall became director in 1969 when Hoggart left to become assistant director of UNESCO. When Hall took a position as professor of sociology at the Open University in 1980, he was replaced by Richard Johnson. In the following years, the Centre was transformed and combined in a number of administrative incarnations until 2002, when the University of Birmingham dismantled the Department of Sociology and Cultural Studies.

The Centre undertook, both individually and collectively, a wide range of sometimes evolving and sometimes discontinuous researches, both theoretical and empirical, into culture and society, and was characterized internally by a wide range of positions and practices. Externally, it came to represent a more limited body of work as it engaged over the years in a number of highly visible public debates with other groups interested in the politics of culture. The Centre is most widely known for having offered a number of models of cultural studies from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, including models of: ideological analysis; studies of working-class cultures and subcultures, and of media audiences (all of which, taken together, constituted a particular understanding of culture as a site of resistance); feminist cultural research; hegemonic struggles in state politics; and the place of race in social and cultural processes. The Centre was primarily associated, quite commonly, with the work of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci.

The work of the Centre was not known widely outside of England, and only marginally known in the United Statesprimarily in departments of education and communicationuntil the mid-1980s. In the summer of 1983, a series of events organized around the theme "Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture" at the University of Illinois brought Hall and other key figures from the Centre to the United States. In the mid-1980s, the Australian Journal of Cultural Studies was founded, and when it followed its editor John Fiske (a student of Raymond Williams who had emigrated to Australia) to the United States, it became the first international journal explicitly devoted to the field.

In 1992 the University of Illinois hosted a second major conference, "Cultural Studies Now and in the Future." During and after this conference, the validity of assuming British cultural studies to be the origin of cultural studies on a larger scale was increasingly challenged. It became clear that the British tradition was less an origin than a term around which a set of similar projects from all over the world could gather and work. People from Latin America, Asia and the Pacific Rim, Europe, and Africa offered their own indigenous traditions of cultural studies, many of which had developed without any knowledge of the British work, and often had no agreed-upon common label. During the 1990s cultural studies became visibleas something both claimed and contestedin many of the major disciplines of the humanities and social sciences (especially literary studies and anthropology) in the United States and in other parts of the world. In 2002 the first international Association for Cultural Studies was launched.

The founding insight of the British tradition was that what had been traditionally approached as an external relationship between two objects of studythe relation of culture and societywas somehow inscribed in the very complexity of culture itself: culture as a set of privileged activities (inevitably raising questions of value); culture as the uniquely human, mediating activities of symbolic life (for example, textuality, sense-making, signification, and representation); and culture as a whole way of life (linking culture to the totality of social life, including conduct, relations, and institutions). Cultural studies is about the relationship of anthropological, hermeneutic, and aesthetic discourses and practices of culture. It treats culture, then, as more than either a text or a commodity. It looks at culture as the site of the production of (and struggle over) power.

Formations of Cultural Studies

Cultural studies is concerned with describing (and intervening in) the ways cultural forms and practices are produced within, inserted into, and operate in and affect the everyday life of human beings and social formations, so as to reproduce, struggle against, and perhaps transform the existing structures of power. That is, if people make historybut within conditions not of their own devisingcultural studies explores the ways this process is enacted with and through cultural practices, and studies the place of such practices within specific historical formations. Cultural studies explores the historical possibilities of transforming people's lives by trying to understand the relationships of power within which individual realities are constructed. That is, it seeks to understand not only the organizations of power but also the possibilities of survival, struggle, resistance, and change. It takes contestation for granted, not as a reality in every instance, but as an assumption necessary for the existence of critical work, political opposition, and even historical change. Cultural studies is not simply about texts or ideologies, but about the relationships that are historically forged among cultural practices and the contexts in which they operate.

Any further attempt to define cultural studies poses rather unique problems. It cannot be equated with any particular political agenda or with any particular theoretical position. Thus, on the one hand, while British cultural studies is often thought to have investigated class politics, it includes many examples of both feminist cultural studies and cultural studies invested in the politics of race, ethnicity, or post-coloniality. Unlike post-1960s academic formations associated with a particular political agenda (and a pre-constituted constituency outside the academy), cultural studies has no such guaranteed agenda or constituency. On the other hand, cultural studies is not a school of thought that can be linked irrevocably with a particular theory. Again, the British school is assumed to be grounded in Marxism (and especially in the work of Gramsci), but this is only because the diversity of that tradition has been reduced to a single, small set of representatives and examples. In fact, in England as well as elsewhere, cultural studies has drawn upon, and embodied, an enormously wide range of theoretical positions, from humanism to poststructuralism, from Marx to Foucault, from pragmatism to psychoanalysis.

Raymond Williams's distinction between the common project of cultural studies, and its many different formations, recognizes that practicing cultural studies involves redefining it in response to its changing context (its geographical, historical, political and institutional conditions).

The Project of Cultural Studies

The most basicand most radicalassumption of cultural studies is that the basic unit of investigation is always relationships, and that anything can only truly be understood relationally; thus, studying culture means studying the relationships between configurations of cultural texts and practices on the one hand, and everything that is not in the first instance culturalincluding economics, social relations and differences, national issues, social institutions, and so forthon the other. It involves mapping connections, to see how those connections are being made and where they can be remade. As a result, cultural studies always involves the study of contextssets of relations located and circumscribed in time and space, and defined by questions. And cultural studies is always interdisciplinary because understanding culture requires looking at culture's relationship to everything that is not culture.

Moreover, cultural studies is committed to a radical contextualism; it is a rigorous attempt to contextualize intellectual (and political) work. This contextualism shapes the project of cultural studies profoundly, and involves a commitment to complexity, contingency, and constructionism.

Contexts are not random and chaotic collections of bits and pieces on which people attempt to impose order or meaning; they are already ordered or configured when the scholar embraces them in their complexity rather than reducing them to a simplicity defined ahead of time by a theoretical or political agenda. Cultural studies refuses to reduce the complex to the simple, the specific to the exemplary, and the singular to the typical. It refuses to see this complexity as an inconvenience to be acknowledged only after the analysis. It employs a conjunctive logicwhere one thing is true, another may also be trueand thereby refuses the illusion of a total, all-encompassing answer. It avoids confusing projects with accomplishments (as if intentions guaranteed effects); and it refuses to put off until later the resistances, the interruptions, and the fractures and contradictions of the context.

Cultural studies believes in contingency; it denies that the shape and structure of any context is inevitable. But cultural studies does not simply reject essentialism, for anti-essentialism is, in its own way, another version of a logic of necessity: in this case, the necessity that there are never any real relations. Cultural studies is committed to what we might call an anti-anti-essentialism, to the view that there are relationships in history and reality, but they are not necessary. They did not have to be that way, but given that they are that way, they have real effects. Above all, there are no guarantees in history (or in reality) that things will form in some particular way, or work out in some particular way. Reality and history are, so to speak, up for grabs, never guaranteed. Cultural studies operates in the space between, on the one hand, absolute containment, closure, complete and final understanding, total domination, and, on the other hand, absolute freedom and possibility, and openness.

Finally, cultural studies assumes that relationships are produced or constructed, and not simply always the result of chance. The relations that make up a context are real through the various activities of different agents and agencies, including (but not limited to) people and institutions. Insofar as we are talking about the human worldand even when we are describing the physical world, we are within the human world as wellcultural practices and forms matter because they constitute a key dimension of the ongoing transformation or construction of reality. However, the effects of cultural practices are always limited by the existence of a material or nondiscursive reality. Cultural studies, then, does not make everything into culture, nor does it deny the existence of material reality. It does not assume that culture, by itself, constructs reality. To say that culture is constitutivethat it produces the world, along with other kinds of practicesdoes not mean that real material practices are not being enacted, or that real material conditions do not both enable and constrain the ways in which reality functions and can be interpreted. Cultural studies is, in the first instance, concerned with cultural practices. To put it simply, the culture we live in, the cultural practices we use, and the cultural forms we place upon and insert into reality, have consequences for the way reality is organized and lived.

The commitment to a radical contextualism affects every dimension of cultural studies, including its theory and politics, its questions and answers, and its analytic vocabularywhich includes concepts of culture (text, technology, media), power, and social identity (race, gender, sex, class, ethnicity, and generation). Cultural studies derives its questions, not from a theoretical tradition or a disciplinary paradigm but from a recognition that the context is always already structured, not only by relations of force and power, but also by voices of political anger, despair, and hope. Cultural studies attempts to engage the existing articulations of hope and disappointment in everyday life and to bring the messy and painful reality of poweras it operates both outside and inside the academyinto the practice of scholarship.

Cultural Studies, Theory, and Power

While cultural studies is committed to the absolute necessity of theoretical work, it sees theory as a resource to be used to respond strategically to a particular project, to specific questions and specific contexts. The measure of a theory's truth is its ability to enable a better understanding of a particular context and to open up newor at least imaginedpossibilities for changing that context. In this sense, cultural studies desacralizes theory in order to take it up as a contingent strategic resource. Thus, cultural studies cannot be identified with any single theoretical paradigm or tradition; it continues to wrestle with various modern and postmodern philosophies, including Marxism, phenomenology, hermeneutics, pragmatism, poststructuralism, and postmodernism.

Cultural studies does not begin with a general theory of culture but rather views cultural practices as the intersection of many possible effects. It does not start by defining culture or its effects, or by assembling, in advance, a set of relevant dimensions within which to describe particular practices. Instead, cultural practices are places where different things can and do happen. Nor can one assume, in advance, how to describe the relation of specific cultural formations to particular organizations of power. Consequently, the common assumption that cultural studies is, necessarily, a theory of ideology and representation, or of identity and subjectivity, or of the circulation of communication (production-text-consumption), or of hegemony, is mistaken. Cultural studies often addresses such issues, but that is the result of analytic work on the context rather than an assumption that overwhelms the context.

Like a number of other often overlapping bodies of intellectual and academic work that have emerged since World War II (feminism, critical race theory, postcolonial theory, and queer theory, among others), cultural studies is politically driven; it is committed to understanding poweror more accurately, the relationships of culture, power, and contextand to producing knowledge that might help people understand what is going on in the world (or in particular contexts) and the possibilities that exist for changing it.

The project of cultural studies, then, is a way of politicizing theory and theorizing politics. Cultural studies is always interested in how power infiltrates, contaminates, limits, and empowers the possibilities that people possess to live their lives in dignified and secure ways. For if one wants to change the relations of powerif one wants to move people, even a little bitone must begin from where people are, from where and how they actually live their lives. Cultural studies attempts to strategically deploy theory (and empirical research) to gain the knowledge necessary to redescribe the context in ways that will enable the articulation of new or better political strategies. Cultural studies also approaches power and politics as complex, contingent, and contextual phenomena and refuses to reduce power to a single dimension or axis, or to assume in advance what the relevant sites, goals, and forms of power and struggle might be. Consequently, it advocates a flexible, somewhat pragmatic or strategic, and often modest approach to political programs and possibilities.

Two of the most important political assumptions of cultural studies are also among its most controversial. Cultural studies refuses to assume that people are dupes, constantly manipulated by the producers of culture and ignorant of their own subordination. On the other hand, it does not assume that people are always in control, always resisting, or operating with an informed understanding of the context. That does not mean that cultural studies doesn't recognize that people are often duped by contemporary culture, that they are lied to, and that at timesand for a variety of reasonseither don't know it or refuse to admit it. But it does mean that cultural studies is opposed to the vanguardism of so much of contemporary political and intellectual discourse.

Cultural studies is committed to contestation, sometimes as a fact of reality, but always as a possibility that must be sought out. Contestation can also serve as a description of cultural studies' own strategic practice, which sees the world as a field of struggle and a balance of forces. Intellectual work is required to understand the balance and find ways of challenging and changing it. Of course, cultural studies recognizes that the relations among survival, change, struggle, resistance, and opposition are not predictable in advance, and that there are many forms and sites that each can take and has taken; these range from everyday life and social relations to economic and political institutions. Cultural studies, then, is an effort to produce knowledge about the context that will help to strengthen, existing struggles and constituencies, helping to relocate and redirect them, or to organize new struggles and constituencies. It seeks knowledge that will make the contingency of the present visible and open up possibilities that will help to make the world a better, more humane, place.

While it attempts to put knowledge in the service of politics, cultural studies also attempts to make politics listen to the authority of knowledge. It believes that its political commitment (and its desire for intervention) demands that it maintain a justifiable claim to authority in the face of the threat of a relativism often linked to contextualist and constructivist projects. Cultural studies, like many of its political allies in the academy, rejects foundationalism. It does believe that knowledge is dependent on its context, and hence, that all knowledge is limited and partial. There is no knowledge that is not always marked by the possibilities and the limits of the position and perspective from which it is constructed and offered.

Yet cultural studies also rejects relativism, for like foundationalism, relativism assumes that knowledge and culture exist on a different plane from the context they purport to represent. But if the knower is a constituent part of the very context he or she is trying to know, the description plays an active part in the construction of the very context it describes. The question of better or worse knowledge is, then, no longer a matter of comparing two things (the description and the reality) as if there were some place outside the reality that we could stand in order to compare them. The question is rather a matter of the possible effects of the knowledge on the contextwhat possibilities for change does it enable? The better the knowledge, the more (new) possibilities it will offer for transforming the present. That is what cultural studies means when it talks about knowledge without truth, and about useful knowledge. Cultural studies does demand a kind of self-reflection on its own limitations, but this is not, as in some other projects, a requirement that one define one's identity as if it were determining, but rather that one offer a rigorous analysis of institutional conditions and a reflection of one's own contextual existence.

The question of what cultural studies will (or should) look like is only answerable within the particular context that calls cultural studies into existence. Cultural studies is not alone in privileging the questions of power or in its commitment to relationality and constructionism; it is not alone in its embrace of contingency and contextuality or in recognizing the importance of culture. But the practice that is defined by the intersection of all these commitmentsthat is the project of cultural studies. Cultural studies is an intellectually grounded practice for intervening into the "becoming" of contexts and power. It attempts, temporarily and locally, to place theory in-between in order to enable people to act more strategically in ways that may change their context for the better.

Diversity in Cultural Studies

The diversity of cultural studies is as important as its unity; yet there is no obvious single best way to organize or describe that diversity. One could display the range of objects and discourses that cultural studies has exploredincluding art, popular culture, media culture, news, political discourses, economies, development practices, everyday practices, organizations, cultural institutions, and subcultures. One could display the different theoretical paradigms (including pragmatism, phenomenology, poststructuralism, Marxism, and so forth) or theoretical influences (Harold Innis, Michel de Certeau, Gramsci, and Michel Foucault, among others). One could display the different political agendasfeminist, Marxist, anti-racist, anti-homophobic, anti-postcolonial, anti-ageistor the more positive political agendas of socialism, radical democracy, and global justice, that have driven the work. One could consider the different ways the major concepts of culture, power, articulation, and context have been used. One could describe the implications of disciplinary diversityliterary studies, anthropology, sociology, communication, history, education, and geography, among othersand methodological diversityforms of textual analysis, ethnography, interviewing, archival research, statistical analysis, and so forth. Finally, one could speculate about the significance of geographical diversity, which has become increasingly visible and important. A more useful way might be to describe some exemplary instances of cultural studies.

A first model, found in the work of Raymond Williams, reads texts as ideologies in context. That is, it uses texts to try to locate and define the common structure (e.g., homology, structure of feeling) that unites the disparate elements of social formation into a unified social totality. But this common structure of unity is available only by thinking of ideology contextuallythat is, by looking at the relations among texts, and between texts and other discursive and nondiscursive practices.

A second model, found in the work of communication scholar James Carey, looks at particular cultural practices as rituals that reenact the unityshared meanings, structures, and identitiesof a community.

A third model locates cultural texts and practices within a dialectic of domination and resistance and was closely associated with the CCCS in the 1970s, especially in the early work of David Morley, Dick Hebdige, and Angela McRobbie. The politics of culture are determined by the relations among a number of relatively autonomous momentsprimarily of production and consumptionbut later work added distribution, exchange, and regulation. It provided an alternative model of media communication (encoding-decoding) with an emphasis on the audience as an active interpreter of messages and of subcultures in which subcultural styles were seen to be expressions of, and symbolic responses to, lived contradictionsdefined by class and generationof the social experiences of the members of the subculture.

A fourth model explores cultural and social identities as complex sets of relations. It involves the production of differences (or structures of otherness such as race and gender) within a population, the effort to naturalize such identities as biological, the distribution of people into those categories, and the assignment of particular meanings to each identity. These differences provide the basis, along with the inequalities of power and resources, that are defined within a particular society. But they are not natural, inevitable, or fixed; instead, identities are the site of constant work and struggle over the practices by which people come to be represented and to represent themselves. This work studies the dialectical production of identity and difference, often in a kind of Hegelian dialectic of recognition. This is a logic in which the formation (identity) of one term (the self) can only be constructed through, or on top of, the assimilation and exclusion of the other. There are various tropes for this process circulating throughout the cultural studies literature (and beyond), including difference, border-crossing, hybridity, third space, and most recently, diaspora (although the last often attempts to escape the Hegelian negativity of difference). Obviously, such work in cultural studies overlaps here with many other bodies of related work, but its influencethrough the work of people like Stuart Hall, Paul Gilroy, Angela McRobbie, Gayatri Spivak, and Judith Butlerhas been profound.

A fifth model is concerned with the relationship between culture and the state. Influenced in part by Gramsci, such work was best illustrated by the important work of Stuart Hall and John Clarke on hegemony as an alternative to notions of civil politics as ideological consensus. Hegemony, as a struggle for the gain and consolidation of state power, involves the attempt by a particular coalition of social factions to win popular consent to its leadership. Hegemony is not a battle to the death between two camps, but a constant attempt to negotiate with various factions to put together temporary agreements for the leadership of the ruling bloc at different sites. It therefore works on (and through) the popular languages and logics of the society, and reconfigures the national common sense in order to reconstitute "a balance in the field of forces."

A sixth model of "governmentality" emphasizes the variety of ways in which culture is used by state and other institutions to produce particular kinds of subjects and to regulate their conduct. This work focuses on the material effects of bureaucratic cultural apparatuses; it looks at how institutional discourses produce a particular structure of the subject itself as an historical effect of power. For example, Tony Bennett looks at cultural institutions such as museums in terms of the way they discipline people, organizing their behavior and teaching them, as it were, to behave properly in public as citizens. Similarly, Bennett has also argued that the pedagogy of cultural criticism functioned to render students always inadequate and incomplete, not only in terms of the classroom but as human beings in need of constant self-improvement. In his view, it is only the teacher who can recognize the politically problematic claims of any text, while the students are always guaranteed to fail. Another example involves the work of Nikolas Rose and his colleagues, who attempt to analyze the contemporary forms of neoliberal state power by looking at the micropractices of institutions and everyday life.

Finally, the seventh model looks at culture as formations or organizations of both cultural and noncultural practices, often related to, or even identified with, particular institutions. Such cultural apparatuses function in complicated ways to produce and organize social reality itself. That is to say, they are "technologies of power" that are connected on the one hand to the lived realities of everyday life (itself understood to be an organization of power) and, on the other hand to the larger structures of political and economic power. Cultural or discursive practices are integral pieces of the institutional formations of power that organize the very lived reality and structures of power in space and time. Examples of such work can be seen in the anthropological critiques of development offered by Akhil Gupta and Arturo Escobar, and in Meaghan Morris's studies of the place of history as a cultural formation in Australian social life.

This entry discusses only the last of these referents even though it is especially difficult to define this intellectual formation. Even the simple claim of British origin is, in the end, probably unacceptable. Still, it provides a reasonable starting point for this discussion. The English origins of cultural studies can be linked to at least four elements of the postWorld War II context. First, one of the major issues organizing political debate was framed as the challenge of Americanization, which was perceived in largely cultural terms, both in the growing presence of U.S. popular culture and in the apparent disappearance of many aspects of traditional, working-class culture.

See also Critical Theory ; Hermeneutics ; Marxism ; Phenomenology ; Structuralism and Poststructuralism ; Text/Textuality .


Bennett, Tony. The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics. London: Routledge, 1995.

. Outside Literature. London: Routledge, 1990.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Carey, James W. Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989.

Clarke, John. New Times and Old Enemies: Essays on Cultural Studies and America. London: Routledge, 1992.

Gilroy, Paul. Against Race: Imagining Political Culture beyond the Color Line. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Grossberg, Lawrence. Bringing It All Back Home: Essays on Cultural Studies. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1997.

Grossberg, Lawrence, Cary Nelson, and Paula Treichler, eds. Cultural Studies. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Hall, Stuart. The Hard Road to Renewal: Thatcherism and the Crisis of the Left. London: Verso, 1988.

Hall, Stuart, and Paddy Whannel. The Popular Arts. Boston: Beacon, 1964.

Hebdige, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. London: Methuen, 1979.

Hoggart, Richard. The Uses of Literacy: Aspects of Working-class Life. London: Chatto and Windus, 1957.

McRobbie, Angela. Feminism and Youth Culture. London: Macmillan, 1991.

Morley, David. Television, Audiences and Cultural Studies. London: Routledge, 1992.

Morley, David, and Kuan-Hsing Chen, eds. Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies. London: Routledge, 1996.

Morris, Meaghan. Too Soon Too Late: History in Popular Culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.

Nelson, Cary, and Lawrence Grossberg. Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

Rose, Nikolas. Powers of Freedom: Reframing Political Thought. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Spivak, Gayatri. In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics. New York: Methuen, 1987.

Williams, Raymond. The Country and the City. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.

. Culture and Society, 17801950. New York: Harper & Row, 1958.

. The Long Revolution. Middlesex: Penguin, 1965.

. Television: Technology and Cultural Form. London: Fontana, 1974.

Lawrence Grossberg

Cultural Studies

views updated May 17 2018

Cultural Studies





Anyone attempting a definition of cultural studies is confronted at the outset by a paradox. On the one hand, the emergence of cultural studies as a recognized discipline or field of study, particularly from the 1970s onward, can be clearly seen in the proliferation of academic departments, degree programs, academic journals, and scholars who proclaim themselves to be producing work in cultural studies. On the other hand, what precisely cultural studies takes as its object or area of study, its definitive theoretical, epistemological, or methodological approach, is less clearly identifiableindeed, some scholars have claimed it is this very breadth and eclecticism that is the definition of cultural studies (Barker 2003; During 1999, 2005). Colin Sparks has thus described cultural studies as a veritable rag-bag of ideas, methods, and concerns (1996, p. 14).

At a basic level, cultural studies is, as the term suggests, the study of culture. It takes as its focus the ways in which people live, think, and express themselves in everyday practices and contexts. Raymond Williams (19211988), one of the founding figures of cultural studies, famously described culture as a particular way of life, whether of a people, a period, or a group (1976, p. 90)a definition that has close links to the anthropological idea of culture. However, the focus for cultural studies has been primarily on Western, modern, and contemporary cultures, on understanding the seemingly ordinary practices, objects, and images that surround us and that make up our sense of who we arefrom music and media to education, inner-city subcultures, pubs, and shopping malls. Its focus stretches from the microstudy of local identities, such as gangs, to the global movement of cultural commodities, such as hip-hop or Bollywood films. To this end, cultural studies has been resolutely inter-, multi-, or even antidisciplinary in its approach, drawing from disciplines such as sociology, anthropology, history, and English literature. Similarly, cultural studies utilizes a range of research methods, from in-depth ethnographic fieldwork to textual and visual analysis.


Cultural studies is now a global phenomenon, but it is generally agreed that the discipline began locally, at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) in Birmingham, England, in the 1960s. Most scholars trace the emergence of cultural studies to the interventions of three men and three seminal texts: Richard Hoggarts The Uses of Literacy (1957), Raymond Williamss Culture and Society (1958), and E. P. Thompsons The Making of the English Working Class (1963). Hoggart, indeed, was the founder and first director of the CCCS, which was established as a postgraduate research center attached to the University of Birmingham in 1964.

What these three texts shared, albeit in very different ways, was a concern with popular culture that sought to challenge traditional elitist notions of culture as art and aestheticswhat Matthew Arnold (18221888) referred to as the best that has been thought and said in the world ([1869] 1960, p. 6)or as civilization (Jenks 2004). In its place, they celebrated culture as ubiquitous, as everyday, and as made by ordinary peoplethe study of relationships between elements in a whole way of life (Williams [1961] 1965, p. 63). There are two key arguments that characterize these texts: firstly, that culture expresses meanings (i.e., it reflects our understanding of the world around us); and secondly, that culture flows from the experiences of ordinary people (hence, Williamss assertion that culture is ordinary) (Procter 2004). Furthermore, this experience comes out of the historical and social location of individuals and groups specifically, their class location. In particular, the authors claimed a sense of legitimacy and agency for working-class and popular cultures as valid and valuable sources of cultural expression and meaning making (Hall 1996).


Stuart Hall took over the directorship of the CCCS in 1968, marking a change in the way cultural studies was both thought and done. In particular, Hall brought the centers engagement with Marxism into creative tension with structuralist theory, as exemplified in the works of French theorists Claude Lévi-Strauss, Roland Barthes (19151980), and Louis Althusser (19181990) (Hall 1992a, 1996; Procter 2004). Put simply, structuralism contests the assumed connection between culture and meaning. Rather than seeing culture as simply reflecting meaning (as Williams had done), structuralism sees this relationship as constructed and arbitrary (Hall 1997). This means that culture is not simply an embodiment of a real experience, but creates that experience and shapes its meaning for us.

Hall sought to bring these two paradigms culturalist and structuralist together through the work of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci (18911937) and his theory of hegemony. This refers to the ways in which a dominant group maintains its control over other groups not through coercion, but through winning and shaping assent so that its ascendency commands widespread consent and appears natural and inevitable (Hall 1997b, p. 259). This is achieved in the realm of culturethrough shaping how people think of and experience their world. However, because our societies are marked by forms of social division and inequality, subordinate groups enter into conflict with the dominant group to contest these meanings. Culture thus becomes the site where social divisions (class, gender, race and ethnicity, sexuality, disability, etc.) are both established and resisted.

Culture, in the traditional cultural studies paradigm, is thus highly contested and politicized. Firstly, it rejects the distinction of high and low culture, and celebrates popular and mass cultures as legitimate forms of expression. Secondly, it sees culture as always changing and dynamicas a process rather than a possession. Thirdly, it sees cultures as challenging and transforming meanings, images, and understandings (Hall 1997a; Jenks 2004). Fourthly, it has taken as its primary focus of study subordinated and marginalized cultural forms and expressionsparticularly around working-class and youth (sub)cultures.

This classic cultural studies approach was challenged in the 1980s and 1990s through the emergence of postmodern and post-structural theories. Although part of a much broader intellectual movement, postmodernism rejects the idea of coherent or stable cultural identities and meanings, and insists instead on the fragmentary and transitory nature of culture. Stuart Hall thus writes of the breakdown of all strong cultural identitiesproducing that fragmentation of cultural codes, that multiplicity of styles, emphasis on the ephemeral, the fleeting, the impermanent, and on difference and cultural pluralism (1992b, p. 302). This view of culture is linked closely to the increased globalization and commodification of culture. Individuals become bricoleurs, creating their own styles and inhabiting a multiplicity of identities, and opening up a range of cultural options, meanings, and political possibilities (Barker 2003; During 2005).


Through the 1990s, cultural studies has grown both in terms of scope and of content, traversing disciplines and diversifying its subject matter and theoretical and methodological approaches. In particular, as researchers have engaged with the increasingly globalized nature of cultural forms and connections, cultural studies can also be said to have gone globalat once exploring the ways in which culture travels and how it is shaped within particular local or national contexts (During 2005). Cultural studies as an academic discipline is now well established in the Anglophone world, particularly in Australia, Canada, and the United States, and is increasingly linked to the arts and media practitioners. Interest in the field is also growing in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, though in all these places it takes on different forms and emphases. In the United States, for example, where cultural studies as both a discipline and set of institutions has exploded, cultural studies traces its historical development from postwar American studies and from African American writers, scholars, and activists (During 2005) and is closely linked contemporarily with the study of minorities, postcoloniality, multiculturalism, and race. This is in sharp contrast to the United Kingdom (and Australia), which has traditionally marginalized issues of race and ethnicityas well as genderin cultural studies (Hall 1992a).


Cultural studies is not without its critics, both from outside and within the field. Indeed, as cultural studies has expanded and transformed, it has been argued that it has lost its original engagement with politics and power, with the lived experiences of the everyday, and has instead become overly fascinated with cultural commodification, consumption, and production. Focusing on music, film, literature, and the media, cultural studies has, it is argued, privileged texts and discourse over people, and cultural practices and pleasures over the structures of power and material contexts within which these practices and pleasures take shape (Hall 1992a; McRobbie 1992). Still others have argued that the neo-Marxist underpinnings of the cultural studies project have been thrown into crisis by its encounter with postmodernism and post-structuralism, which have fractured ideas of power and meaning, and the relationship between them, and have privileged an individualistic and overcelebratory version of cultural expression (Storey 1996; During 2005). The lack of engagement of some strands and traditions of cultural studies with race and gender has already been commented upon. The growth and institutionalization of cultural studies have led some to fear for a loss of focusthat cultural studies could mean anythingand others to fear for a regulation of its critical and political edge in favor of a marketable pedagogy (Hall 1992a).

Clearly, what cultural studies is, or may become, is open to debate, contestation, and transformation. However, as Hall has stated, the study of culture is a deadly serious matter a practice which always thinks about its intervention in a world in which it would make some difference (1992a, p. 286).

SEE ALSO Althusser, Louis; Anthropology, U.S.; Hall, Stuart; Marxism; Structuralism


Arnold, Matthew. [1869] 1960. Culture and Anarchy. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Barker, Chris. 2003. Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice. 2nd ed. London and Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

During, Simon, ed. 1999. The Cultural Studies Reader. 2nd ed. London and New York: Routledge.

During, Simon. 2005. Cultural Studies: A Critical Introduction. London and New York: Routledge.

Hall, Stuart. 1992a. Cultural Studies and Its Theoretical Legacies. In Cultural Studies, eds. Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, and Paula Treichler, 277294. London and New York: Routledge.

Hall, Stuart. 1992b. The Question of Cultural Identity. In Modernity and Its Futures, eds. Stuart Hall, David Held, and Tony McGrew, 273326. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity.

Hall, Stuart. 1996. Cultural Studies: Two Paradigms. In What Is Cultural Studies? A Reader, ed. John Storey, 3148. London and New York: Arnold Press.

Hall, Stuart. 1997a. The Work of Representation. In Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, ed. Stuart Hall, 1374. London: Sage.

Hall, Stuart. 1997b. The Spectacle of the Other. In Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, ed. Stuart Hall, 223290. London: Sage.

Hoggart, Richard. 1957. The Uses of Literacy: Aspects of Working-Class Life with Special References to Publications and Entertainments. London: Chatto and Windus.

Jenks, Chris. 2004. Culture. 2nd ed. London and New York: Routledge.

McRobbie, Angela. 1992. Post-Marxism and Cultural Studies: A Post-Script. In Cultural Studies, ed. Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, and Paula Treichler, 719730. London and New York: Routledge.

Procter, James. 2004. Stuart Hall. London and New York: Routledge.

Sparks, Colin. 1996. The Evolution of Cultural Studies.... In What Is Cultural Studies? A Reader, ed. John Storey, 1430. London and New York: Arnold Press.

Storey, John, ed. 1996. What Is Cultural Studies? A Reader. London and New York: Arnold Press.

Storey, John. 1996. Cultural Studies: An Introduction. In What Is Cultural Studies?: A Reader, ed. John Storey, 113. London and New York: Arnold Press.

Thompson, E. P. 1963. The Making of the English Working Class. London: V. Gollancz.

Williams, Raymond. 1958. Culture and Society, 17801950. London: Chatto and Windus.

Williams, Raymond. [1961] 1965. The Long Revolution. London: Penguin.

Williams, Raymond. 1976. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. London: Fontana.

Claire Alexander

Cultural Studies

views updated Jun 11 2018


Cultural studies has become an increasingly difficult field of communication scholarship and political activism to define, mostly owing to the attempts of its adherents to transcend the confines of academic boundaries. As a result of this disciplinary and institutional resistance, cultural studies often is described in terms of the intellectual biographies of some of its leading scholarly figures (e.g., Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall in the United Kingdom, James Carey, Hanno Hardt, and Lawrence Grossberg in the United States, and Australians John Fiske, who now teaches in the United States, and John Hartley), as well as in terms of the geographical locations of cultural studies (e.g., the Birmingham School and the Glasgow School, both of British cultural studies; U.S. cultural studies at the University of Illinois and the University of Iowa; and cultural studies in Canada, including the work of Donald Theall and John Fekete). Dozens of spin-offs, reamalgamations, and reconfigurations of many disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, from postcolonial theory to queer theory, have become part of the landscape of cultural studies.

One mass communication theory text brackets cultural studies within a cultural turn as part of the last of five broad theoretical bases discussed, thus pointing out by its relation to other media theories the marginality of cultural studies (Baran and Davis, 1999). In a chapter on "critical cultural studies," British cultural studies is identified as one of the "contemporary schools of neo-Marxist theory." Cultural studies becomes a subtheory of "critical cultural studies," along with Marxist theory, textual analysis and literary criticism, the Frankfurt School, political economy theory, the media theories of Canadians Marshall McLuhan and Harold Innis, popular culture research, media as culture industries, and advertising as a cultural commodity, among others.

In resisting categories, cultural studies attempts to remain an open field, defying method and tradition. For example, Cary Nelson, Paula Treichler, and Lawrence Grossberg (1992) discuss cultural studies as defying research domains, methodologies, and an intellectual legacy of a tradition and language. They suggest that cultural studies averts being a traditional discipline and is even antidisciplinary. Cultural studies crosses domains, or disciplines, from Marxism and feminism to psychoanalysis and postmodernism. Cultural studies also has no identifiable methodology, best described as a "bricolage" of textual analysis, semiotics, deconstruction, ethnography, content analysis, survey research, and other methods. But while approaches may be methodologically diverse, it must be recognized that every method is applied self-reflexively and in context.

Despite the difficulties, Nelson, Treichler, and Grossberg attempt a general definition of cultural studies to include these elements of domain and methodology. Cultural studies is inter-, trans-, and counter-disciplinary, maintaining a tension between broad, anthropological concepts and narrow, humanistic concepts of culture. It studies primarily modern industrial societies, insists on treating high and popular culture as equals of cultural production, and compares these cultural products to other social and historical forms. It is "committed to the study of the entire range of a society's beliefs, institutions, and communicative practices." Culture itself is both conceptualized as a way of life and a set of cultural practices, the former including "ideas, attitudes, languages, practices, institutions and structures of power," and the latter including "artistic forms, texts, canons, architecture, mass-produced commodities" and so forth. In terms of its traditions, cultural studies has political aims, studying cultural change with the intent of intervening in it, although these aims differ in the British and U.S. versions. A frequent frame of analysis for cultural studies is race, gender, and class as culture and power are studied in tandem.

Searching for a definition of cultural studies, Hartley (1992) identifies the institutional and the genealogical levels of its identity. First, he finds cultural studies to be an "intellectual enterprise of the left" of the 1960s that was transformed, for the worse, into an "academic subject increasingly of the center" in the 1980s and 1990s. Second, cultural studies becomes a list of names of "prodigal parents" who begat a field that detests orthodoxy, avoids authority, and is committed to interdisciplinary work, but "it has no unified theory, textual canon, disciplinary truths, agreed methodology, common syllabus, examinable content or professional body."

Scholars Steven Best and Douglas Kellner (1991) situate cultural studies within their call for a multiperspective and multidimensional critical theory of the media and society, one that relates all dimensions of society, from the cultural to the social, political, and economic, to each other and to the dominant mode of social organization. Advertising, for example, not only would be studied under capitalism and its economic effects, but also as it adapts cultural forms and affects cultural life and as it has changed politics. Stressing multiple perspectives, Best and Kellner advocate using many approaches, theories, and disciplines, such as Marxism and feminism, critical theory and postmodernism, or economics, sociology, and philosophy. By multiple dimensions, Best and Kellner mean that each dimension of society is treated as relatively autonomous, thus inviting analysis from many disciplines or perspectives.

Given this whirlpool of contemporary versions of cultural studies and their instability, cultural studies might best be approached historically as part of a much wider cultural and critical turn in communication research after World War II. Reflecting on the divergent history of administrative and critical research in North America, the University of Iowa's Hanno Hardt (1992) groups U.S. cultural studies and critical theory together. Approaching communication as environments is one of the ideas of communication systems that is included in the cultural studies approach, where culture is the social context for creating meaning. In the longer history of U.S. mass communication research, critical theory and cultural studies are considered a radical branch.

Administrative Versus Critical Theory

The historical ground of the debate between mainstream administrative theory, or American empiricism, and critical theory, which is European theory, began as the two strains attempted a cross-fertilization in 1938. Paul Lazarsfeld brought Frankfurt School critical theorist Theodor Adorno to Princeton University's radio project (Slack and Allor, 1983). Lazarsfeld defined administrative research as carried out in the service of an administrative agency. He posed critical research as the study of the general role of media in the social system. His early attempts at convergence of these two approaches failed because he did not adequately appreciate the political and epistemological differences between the two. Adorno felt that administrative research was inherently narrow in scope and precluded the analysis of the system itself, and its cultural, social, and economic premises. He argued that the rift was more than a difference of theory and methods. Adorno wanted to study the process of communication critically. Administrative research was unable to confront the political and epistemological bases of the social order and its role in that order.

Slack and Allor contend that more recent attempts to accommodate the critical and administrative approaches have duplicated the same pitfalls that befell Lazarsfeld. They argue against casting administrative versus critical research in either (for the former) simple empirical, quantitative, functional, positivist, and effects-oriented dichotomies or (for the latter) qualitative, Marxist, structuralist, and owner/control-oriented dichotomies. They also argue against mainstream research adopting some critical theory aspects, such as communication context, ethical aspects, and multimethod approach. This convergence, critics say, amounts to co-optation of critical theory. Searching for the deeper boundaries separating administrative and critical approaches, Slack and Allor find that many models of communication developed in the administrative camp since the 1950s adhere to the basic linear causality reflected in the earliest sender-message-receiver model. Administrative research still treats communication as a process without context in which each element can be isolated. Adding bits of social context only adds a layer of sophistication to the simple linear terms.

The two authors view critical theory as encompassing a range of developing alternative approaches in such areas as international communication, new technologies, political economy, radical sociology, and cultural studies. The common thread is a critical perspective on the role of communication in the exercise of social power, a premise that leaves critical theory in opposition to liberal social theory. Critical approaches share a rejection of the linear causal model, adopting positions ranging from Marxist sociology to dependency theory and the Frankfurt School.

Slack and Allor argue that all critical approaches view media institutions and mass communication as intertwined with other social institutions, such as the family, the state, and the economy. Individuals are viewed as members of social groups defined by class, gender, race, and subculture. For example, Marxist studies looks at the complex and often contradictory interrelationships between politics, economics, and culture. This approach looks at the struggle over social meaning between dominant and oppressed groups. Using a structural approach, political economy studies look at the institutions involved in the production and distribution of communication. Cultural studies measures power in terms of hegemony, which is the idea of rule by consent. Hegemony describes the process by which oppressed classes come to experience the world in terms created by the ruling class. The authors see all these approaches to critical theory as offering an opportunity for communication research by redefining old research questions and opening new areas of inquiry. The challenge to the field is confronting the role of power and epistemology in communication institutions and research itself.

Canadian critical scholar Dallas Smythe and Tran Van Dinh (1983) assert that the ideological orientation of the researcher is inescapably linked to the choice of problems and methods. They argue that all researchers have a predisposition to either try to change the existing political-economic order or to preserve the status quo; value-free scientific inquiry is a myth. The two camps uneasily coexist in sharp, irreconcilable contrast as they define each approach in terms of problems, methods, and ideological perspective.

Administrative research focuses on how to make organizations more efficient—example, how to innovate word processors within a corporation, they argue. Administrative methods comprise neopositivist, behavioral theory applied to individuals. Administrative ideology means linking these problems and tools with results that either support or do not disturb the status quo. Conversely, critical theory researches problems of how to reshape or create institutions to meet the needs and achieve the values of the community. The critical method is historical, materialist analysis of the contradictory, dialectical processes of the real world. And critical ideology links these problems and methods with results that involve radical changes in the established order.

Smythe and Van Dinh stress the transdiscipli-nary scope of critical theory, including humanities, the arts, and social sciences. It must include criticism of the contradictory aspects of phenomena in systemic context, whether it is Marxist or not. The authors note that Marxist work was repressed in the United States until the 1960s, when research, teaching, and publishing spread rapidly.

On their agenda as objectives of critical research are the demystification of science and technology; the decentralization and democratization of media institutions; the formulation of praxis, where theory and practice intersect; and mass mobilization for action. Sketching needs for future critical research, Smythe and Van Dinh suggest researchers should study the communication theories and practices of independence, liberation, and revolutionary movements, the actions of multinational corporations, and Third World alternatives for horizontal media. Community research could involve projects to help people resist imposed communications systems. Researchers would work with labor, feminist, religious, and environmental groups as well as political parties.

Culture and media historian and sociologist Gaye Tuchman (1983) takes more of a middle ground in the critical versus administrative theory debate. Tuchman argues that theoretically and empirically sound studies of the "production of culture" can be done without adhering to a linear causality model. In other words, Tuchman's approach tries to accommodate the empirical demands of administrative research with the dialectics of critical research. Tuchman writes that the social movements of the 1960s made American media researchers expose themselves to ideas familiar to Europeans who looked at media as the study of the formation of consciousness. Tuchman's concern with consciousness forces consideration of dominant ideologies, the maintenance of power, the control and integration of social change, and the praxis for resistance to media hegemony. The circular model implicit in this perspective is that production influences content, which influences social behavior and structure, which influence production processes.

Hegemony and Ideology

False consciousness is the desired end product of the process of hegemony, which U.S. cultural historian Todd Gitlin (1980) and Williams (1977) both applied in relation to the mass media, as does the tradition of British cultural studies extended by Stuart Hall. According to Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, hegemony is the ruling class's domination through ideology and the shaping of popular consent. Hegemony unites persuasion from above with consent from below. The concept helps Gitlin's work and other cultural studies scholars explain the strength and endurance of advanced capitalism. In his study of the news media, Gitlin suggests that hegemony is secured when those who control the dominant institutions impress their definitions upon the ruled. The dominant class controls ideological space and limits what is thinkable in society. Dominated classes participate in their domination, as hegemony enters into everything people do and think of as natural, or the product of common sense—including what is news, as well as playing, working, believing, and knowing, Gitlin argues. Hegemonic ideology permeates the common sense that people use to understand the world and tries to become that common sense.

In capitalist society, the media and other institutions formulate the dominant ideology, Gitlin believes. The media also incorporate popular opposing messages into the dominant ideology, redistributing them through journalistic practices. Gitlin focuses on the struggle between the media, which uphold the dominant ideology, and groups out of power, which contest the ideology. The hegemonic ideology is reproduced in the media through media practices that stem from the ways journalists are socialized from childhood and then trained, edited, and promoted by media. Although journalists do not consciously consider ideology when they make news decisions, they tend to serve the political and economic elite's ideology by doing their jobs. Gitlin suggests the media remain free as long as they do not violate the essential hegemonic values or become too sympathetic to radical critiques. Opposition groups can exploit the contradictions in hegemonic ideology when elites conflict, but opposition groups and autonomous media will be muffled if the challenge to the hegemonic ideology is critical.

Gitlin contends that the media are controlled by corporate and political elites who bring media professionals into their social spheres. The ruling elites depend on the culture industry to advance their unity and limit competing ideologies. The media frame the ideological field within which the dominated classes live and understand their domination in order to perpetuate the hegemony of the elites. The elite economic class, however, does not produce and distribute ideology directly. Media workers do this within the culture industry, but only the media owners are directly linked to corporate and political leaders.

Gitlin suggests indirect control of the hegemonic ideology is difficult because liberal capitalism contains contradictions. The economic system generates ideologies that challenge and alter its own rationale. The hegemonic framework narrows the range of worldviews, preferring its version. To do this, the internal structures of the framework have to be continually re-created and defended, as well as challenged and adjusted superficially. The dominant ideology seems natural to media workers, who reproduce and defend it unconsciously. Gitlin says the media owners and managers reflect the ruling class's interest in private property, capital, the national security state, and individual success within the bureaucratic system.

The media also reproduce the discontinuity and detachment that characterize capitalism, Gitlin adds. Natural life rhythms are replaced by the artificial time of the workplace. Reading the newspaper or watching television reproduces the rhythms of capitalist production. The media reflect the production system's interchangeable time segments, such as the thirty-minute television show and the three-minute rock record. The fleeting images and abrupt changes of television socialize viewers into the discontinuity of the system. "Revolution" is co-opted in the changing of commodities, fashions, and lifestyles in a cycle that reflects the economic system. Individually, perpetual adaptation becomes the goal of comfort and status. The fast pace of consumer goods and advertising fuels the growth of new technologies and capital. This process culminates in a "tradition of the new."

The cultural-commodity process allows minor changes in the hegemonic ideology and may even require it, Gitlin argues. Contradictions within the ideology make it flexible enough to bend with the times and make opposition profitable. Opposition movements may be directed into other channels, from politics into culture and lifestyles, for example. The media balance, absorb, marginalize, and exclude to manage opposition or turn it into a commodity. The media may intensify change, but as long as the political economy provides goods that most people define as essential, the hegemonic system will prevail.

In Gitlin's analysis, ruling elites control media to spread a blanket of false consciousness over dominated classes, who are left with no room systemically for change. By contrast, Williams builds a hegemonic model that leaves more room for the emergence of a counterhegemony. Gitlin draws his concept of hegemony from Williams, who allows for the seeds of liberation and oppositional hegemony to grow. He identifies hegemony as a process rather than a system or structure. This approach to hegemony lets the process shape individual perceptions as a lived system of meanings and values that permeates all aspects of life. Hegemony defines reality for most people in the culture and sets the limit of reality beyond which it is difficult to think or move. However, as a complex process, hegemony does not passively exist as a form of dominance. It continually has to be renewed, defended, and adjusted. Because it is not absolute, hegemony is always resisted, challenged, and changed by counterhegemonies and alternative hegemonies that are produced by emergent social classes. A new class is always a source of emergent cultural practice, but as a subordinate class its practice is sporadic and partial. If the new class opposes the dominant social order, the new practice must survive attempts to co-opt it into the hegemonic ideology. As an example, Williams gives the emergence and successful incorporation, or co-optation, of the radical popular press in nineteenth-century England.

For Williams, the chink in the armor of the dominant ideology is that no hegemonic order includes or exhausts all human practice. Hegemonic ideology is selected from the full range of human practice, leaving the rest as the personal or private, natural or metaphysical. The danger of advanced capitalism is the media's seizure of these reserved areas of human practice. The dominant culture now reaches much further with mass media. Williams calls for resistance to the seizure of these private, personal human practices. He provides no program for resistance other than the study of the ownership and control of the capitalist media tied with wider analyses of capitalist structures. Williams helped create the strong commitment of cultural studies to a Marxist position as the only position that offers the potential of creating a new society. He also advocated the cultural studies assumption that culture is ideological.

Media Texts and Active Audiences

Cultural studies author John Fiske (1987) rejects "false consciousness" in the Marxist sense because the term implies a true consciousness. Fiske considers twentieth-century history as evidence that a society without ideology is impossible. He also argues that truth is a product of language and other cultural meaning systems, so truth is always a product of culture, society, and history. Fiske borrows neo-Marxist scholar Louis Althusser's concept of ideology as a process that is always reproduced in the way that people think, act, and understand themselves and society. Althusser contends that the relatively autonomous superstructure of the family, schools, media, political system, and other institutions shape norms of thought and action. The norms, however, are developed in the interests of the dominant groups who try to naturalize them as common sense. Social norms are ideological and accepted as natural even by classes whose interests are opposed by the norms. The institutions producing the dominant ideology share some characteristics, Fiske notes. They are patriarchal and concerned with wealth and possessions. They assert individualism and competition, yet they present themselves as neutral regarding class and interested in equality and fairness, despite their serving the white, male, middle class.

Fiske says cultural studies distinguishes between the individual, as a product of nature, and the subject, as a product of culture. Studying the subject-in-ideology is the best way of "explaining who (we think) we are." Social norms construct the subject's sense of self, society, and the world. According to this theory, a biological female can have a masculine subjectivity by adopting a patriarchal ideology; a black can have a white subjectivity; and a lower-class subject can have a middle-class subjectivity. Two more of Althusser's concepts, "hailing" and "interpellation," are used by cultural studies to describe the media's work. The media get a subject's attention by "hailing." This includes a social position for the subject to occupy. Interpellation is the larger process of providing social positions for all communicating parties. Fiske offers the television show The A-Team as interpellating the viewer as masculine, desiring power, and a team member.

Fiske argues that cultural studies should combine these concepts with Gramsci's theory of hegemony. The constant process of the dominant social groups constructing people as subjects-in-ideology is studied in the larger context of a constant process of struggle of the dominators to extend their power and the dominated to resist. Fiske reports that earlier cultural studies showed how the dominant ideology reproduced itself in popular television, but Stuart Hall's work introduced the idea that media texts are open to various interpretations. Hall also introduces the idea of the active audience that can interpret or read media texts in various ways. Hall's theory of "preferred reading" was developed to account for the correlation of various social meanings with social positions. Fiske summarizes Hall's three reading strategies: the dominant reading, the negotiated reading, and the oppositional reading. In the dominant reading, the viewer receives the intended ideological message in the social position of the dominant ideology. In the negotiated reading, the viewer may alter the media message to fit his or her social position. The third reading, the oppositional reading, is taken by those out of power and at odds with the dominant ideology.

Fiske offers two methodologies for use in cultural studies. He studies reading strategies about television and popular culture figures, such as the singer Madonna, through ethnography of fans' or viewers' responses, and semiotic and structuralist text analysis to analyze the signifiers in the text and the signifieds in the ideology of culture. Cultural studies has evolved to accommodate criticism of Hall's categories of reading as simplistic. French postmodernist Michel Foucault's discourse theory may be applied as a source for a media analysis model, treating discourse as a socially located way of making sense of a topic, according to Fiske. The media texts are discourses, and the consciousness of the audience is a discourse. The moment of reading takes place when these discourses meet, giving the audience's discourse equal weight in making meaning. The process involves the constant dynamic of agreement with the dominant ideology and resistance against it.

Fiske argues that the media audience is made up of diverse groups who actively read media to produce meanings that agree with their social experience. The television, and other media, text is capable of a variety of meanings, and is, in Fiske's word, "polysemic." The relationships between the television medium and content that comprise these polysemic messages are formed by three codes. First are the social codes of reality, including appearance, speech, and expression. Second, the technical codes of representation, including camera, lighting, editing, music and sound, transmit the conventional representational codes of, for example, narrative, conflict, character, action, and dialogue. Third, according to Fiske, ideological codes include individualism, patriarchy, race, class, materialism, and capitalism.

Culture, Society, and Postmodernism

U.S. cultural studies leading scholar James Carey (1989), who spent much of his academic career at the University of Illinois and has shaped the distinctively American and non-Marxist brand of cultural studies through his teaching and writing, suggests that mass communication research in America has erroneously overlooked the question at the heart of the mass culture debate of the 1950s: What is the relationship between popular art and other social forms, including the scientific, aesthetic, and religious, that popular art influences? American scholars generally have not, Carey suggests, examined the relationship between cultural, expressive forms, particularly art, and the social order. European scholars focus on this relationship. Culture is, in British sociology, the meaning people find in their experience through art, religion, and other expressive forms. Carey writes that culture must be regarded as "a set of practices, a mode of human activity, a process whereby reality is created, maintained, and transformed, however much it may subsequently become reified into a force independent of human action." One of his central contributions to the shift from the mainstream "effects" school of mass communication research in the United States to the cultural school is his development of a ritual model of communication, as opposed to a transportation model. In ritual communication, an entire sphere of cultural activity centers on the task of building community.

Cultural studies also may be seen as a linking bridge to postmodernist thinking, but its relationships to postmodernism are probably as varied as its approaches to cultural studies itself. However, a number of themes that are central to postmodern theory can be identified in reviewing the writing of cultural studies theorists about postmodernism. British sociologist Nick Stevenson (1995) contrasts the postmodern theories of French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, whose "rejection of ideology, truth, representation, seriousness, and the emancipation of the subject" embrace many issues of postmodernism, to the postmodern theories of U.S. cultural theorist Fredric Jameson (1991), whom Stevenson finds to be the "most sophisticated" postmodernist. In general, Jameson calls postmodernism the "cultural expression" or "logic" of "late capitalism." Fine and popular arts have been merged as the economic sector takes over the cultural sphere. Modernist culture has lost its subversiveness and contemporary cultural forms, like punk rock, are co-opted by the capitalist economic system.

For Jameson, the main themes of postmodernism include the absence of context and the uncertainty of interpretation; a growing concern with discourses; the end of the notion of individual style or the "death of the subject"; and a fragmentation of social meanings yielding "discursive heterogeneity" that best represents modern culture by parody or "pastiche," which Jameson calls a "blank parody" because the fragmenting of cultural styles has eroded social norms. The themes of postmodernism identified by Jameson and some other themes that rise among a group of cultural studies scholars include: the death of individualism, as well as the end of Enlightenment thinking; fragmentation leading to parody and beyond to pastiche, with the loss of text and context and, more positively, the gaining of intertextuality; the focus on discourse and codes; the retrieval in postmodern thought of premodernism; the pointlessness of political action; and the concept of the "other."

Cultural studies absorption with issues of its own identities has helped lead not only to reevaluations of communication theory in the Journal of Communication, but also to a special 1997 issue of the University of Iowa's Journal of Communication Inquiry. Scholars debated the past, present, and future of cultural studies from a variety of perspectives, including calls for reclaiming its political activism and Marxist roots by Hardt. British scholar John Storey urges pursuing cultural studies as an academic discipline rather than as a political party. And still others contend that cultural critiques from the Third and Fourth Worlds centering on postcolonialism, multiculturalism, and globalization should be the focus of a reinvigorated cultural studies of the future that transcends the debate of its co-optation by academic institutions.

See also:Culture Industries, Media as; Innis, Harold Adams; Journalism, Professionalization of; Lazarsfeld, Paul F.; McLuhan, Herbert Marshall; Models of Communication; News Production Theories; Political Economy; Schramm, Wilbur; Semiotics; Social Change and the Media; Williams, Raymond.


Ang, Ien. (1996). Living Room Wars: Rethinking Media Audiences for a Postmodern World. London: Rout-ledge.

Baran, Stanley J., and Davis, Dennis K. (1999). Mass Communication Theory: Foundations, Ferment and Future, 2nd edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Baudrillard, Jean. (1983). Simulations. New York: Semiotext(e).

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Paul Grosswiler

cultural studies

views updated May 14 2018

cultural studies A developing area of academic interest, sometimes taught as a distinctive university or college qualification, which lies at the interface between the social sciences (notably sociology) and humanities (most obviously literature). It is principally concerned with the nature of mass culture and the workings of culture industries. Among other things, therefore, it embraces the study of popular culture, communication, consumer society, the mass media, leisure, post-modernism, and aspects of literary and sociological theory which address the construction of identity and ideology. Typical of those whose writings are considered central to the field (although they themselves might deny the applicability of this label to their work) would be Jürgen Habermas, Stuart Hall, Pierre Bourdieu, Jean Baudrillard, and Jean-François Lyotard.

As a field of interest, cultural studies seems to lack a distinctive or coherent disciplinary core, and over the years it has borrowed both its substantive topics and theoretical orientations increasingly freely from other areas of scholarship. Recently, some critics have claimed that it now exerts a pernicious influence on teaching and research in sociology, political science, and social history, by encouraging practitioners of these subjects both to abandon systematic empirical work in favour of what, at least in extreme cases, is largely ‘data-free’ social science (that is, unsubstantiated speculation intermittently illustrated by only casual empirical observation), and to underestimate the importance of social structure in everyday life. However, proponents argue that cultural studies has revitalized sociology: first, by exposing its obsession with moribund concepts related to the world of production, and deriving from its nineteenth-century origins; and, second, by alerting researchers to the real concerns of ordinary people in the advanced societies of the late twentieth century.

It is clear that British (and to a lesser extent American) sociology took a pronounced ‘cultural turn’ in the early 1990s. However, it remains to be seen whether this reflects a lasting move towards greater individualism in advanced societies, or is merely part of a larger (but temporary) end-of-century mood of introspection in Western civilizations. A good overview of some of the key issues and debates in this arena will be found in The Polity Reader in Cultural Theory (1993). See also CONSUMPTION, SOCIOLOGY OF; KNOWLEDGE, SOCIOLOGY OF.

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