Cultural Resistance

Cultural resistance is the practice of using meanings and symbols, that is, culture, to con test and combat a dominant power, often constructing a different vision of the world in the process. The practice is as old as history. The Hebrew Scriptures, for example, were a cultural means with which to create Jewish identity and then hold on to that identity in the face of Roman oppression. The stories of Jesus and Mohammed served similar functions. The modern theory of cultural resistance, however, was first articulated in the mid nineteenth century by Matthew Arnold.

Arnold wrote his famous essay Culture and Anarchy at a time when his England was undergoing massive change: industrialization, urbanization, and an extension of the franchise to the working classes. Whereas some considered this progress, Arnold saw only chaos. But culture, as ‘‘the best which has been thought and said’’ (1990 [1869]: 4), offered a solution. It was a way to resist and rise above the politics and commerce and machinery of the day, providing a universal standard upon which to base ‘‘a principle of authority, to counteract the tendency to anarchy which seems to be threatening us’’ (p. 82). Culture was a Platonic platform where ‘‘total perfection’’ could be cultivated, eventually returning to the messy material world – if at all – in the form of an ideal state to guide society.

Arnold may have been the first modern voice to articulate a strategy of cultural resistance, but it is an intellectual and activist on the opposite side of the political spectrum, the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci, who framed its con temporary use. Gramsci, writing from prison in the late 1920s and 1930s, reflected on why the revolutions he fought for in the West had so far failed. Part of the reason, he concluded, was a serious underestimation of culture and civil society. Power resides not only in institutions, but also in the ways people make sense of their world; hegemony is a political and cultural process. Armed with culture instead of guns, one fights a different type of battle. Whereas traditional battles were ‘‘wars of maneuver,’’ frontal assaults which seized the state, cultural battles were ‘‘wars of position,’’ flanking maneuvers, commando raids and infiltrations, staking out positions from which to attack and then reassemble civil society (1971: 229–39). Thus, part of the revolutionary project was to create counterhegemonic culture behind enemy lines. But if this culture was to have real power, and communist integrity, it could not, as Arnold believed, be imposed from above; it must come out of the experiences and consciousness of people. Thus, the revolutionary must discover the progressive potentialities that reside within popular consciousness and from this fashion a culture of resistance. Gramsci’s theories of cultural resistance can be glimpsed in the practice of Mahatma Gandhi’s invocation of satyagraha and Indian tradition to resist British colonial ism, and, more recently, in the culture heavy tactics of the rebel Zapatista army in Mexico and the magical realist communiques of their Subcommandante Marcos.

In the academy, Gramsci’s ideas shaped the mission of the Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) at the University of Birmingham in the 1970s. The CCCS is best known for its subcultural studies, and it was within these mainly working class subcultures that researchers found an inchoate politics of resistance. Dick Hebdige, for example, writes about how punk rockers performed the decline of post war Britain with ripped up clothes, songs mocking the queen, and lyrics that warned: ‘‘We’re your future, no future.’’ Through culture young people contested and rearranged the ideological constructions – the systems of meaning – handed down to them by the powers that be. Cultural resistance, however, was recognized as a double edged sword by CCCS director Stuart Hall and his colleagues. Subcultures opened up spaces where dominant ideology was challenged and counter hegemonic culture created, but these contestations and symbolic victories often remained imprisoned in culture, never stepping outside to confront material power. These were ‘‘magical resolutions,’’ as Stanley Cohen explains, to real world problems.

Cultural studies continues to be concerned with cultural resistance. Readers ‘‘re read’’ romance novels against the grain, and music fans claim ownership of the bands they love through zine writing. Even shopping is championed by John Fiske as an act of resistance: ‘‘a sense of freedom, however irrational, from the work involved in working and loving under patriarchy’’ (1989: 42). But Gramsci’s question of how this cultural resistance translates into a revolutionary strategy, or even the less ambitious question of how these cultural practices translate into material changes, is less often posed. Given the left of center politics of many in the cultural studies camp, it is ironic that culture is often celebrated as an escape – cultural resistance as the conservative Matthew Arnold understood and appreciated it.

Critics have also questioned the efficacy of cultural resistance within a consumer capitalist economy that needs constant innovation to survive. Within this context, the drive to create an oppositional culture merely serves to create a new market for new products. As Frankfurt School critic Theodor Adorno snidely remarked about the jazz music fan as far back as 1938: ‘‘He pictures himself as the individualist who whistles at the world. But what he whistles is its melody’’ (2002 [1938]: 298). (Adorno did, however, maintain that the patently unpopular atonal music of Schoenberg held out resistant possibilities.)

Today, there is a renewed understanding – by activists, if not yet all academics – that cultural resistance is a necessary, but not sufficient, means of resistance. Using culture as a political tool is absolutely critical in a media saturated society linked by a global communications network. But in a world where the image of Che Guevara sells Swatch watches, cultural resistance, by itself, is not enough.


  1. Adorno, T. (2002 [1938]) On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening. In: Duncombe, S. (Ed.), Cultural Resistance Reader. Verso, New York, pp. 276-303.
  2. Arnold, M. 1990 [1869]) Culture and Anarchy. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  3. Cohen, S. (1973) Folk Devils and Moral Panics. Paladin, London.
  4. Duncombe, S. (1997) Notes from Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture. Verso, New York.
  5. Duncombe, S. (Ed.) (2002) Cultural Resistance Reader. Verso, New York.
  6. Fiske, J. (1989) Reading the Popular. Unwin Hyman, Boston.
  7. Frank, T. (1997) The Conquest of Cool. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  8. Gramsci, A. (1971) Prison Notebooks. Ed. Q. Hoare & G. Nowell Smith. International, New York.
  9. Hall, S. & Jefferson, T. (Eds.) (1976) Resistance through Rituals. Unwin Hyman, London.
  10. Hebdige, D. (1979) Subculture. Methuen, London.
  11. Radway, J. (1984) Reading the Romance. University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Back to Top

Back to Sociology of Culture.