Cultural Studies

Cultural studies is an interdisciplinary field that explores the linkages between society, politics, identity (or the person), and the full range of what is called ‘‘culture,’’ from high culture and the popular arts or mass entertainment, to beliefs, discourses, and communicative practices. Cultural studies has drawn on different national traditions of inquiry into these connections – from the Frankfurt School’s studies of the mass culture industry, and of the psycho logical processes that undercut democracy in liberal and affluent societies, to French structuralist and poststructuralist critiques of ideology, constraining categorical frames, and a monadic and unified concept of the self. The branch of cultural studies that early drew the most attention from sociologists was that articulated by the Birmingham Centre for Con temporary Cultural Studies, perhaps in part because Birmingham scholars were inspired by some aspects of American sociology, especially the Chicago School tradition, which gave their work a recognizably social dimension.

Taking Birmingham as an example is instructive in pointing out some characteristics of cultural studies as a field. Conventionalized intellectual genealogies often begin with the work of Raymond Williams (1958, 1961), Richard Hoggart (1957), and E. P. Thompson (1963). All three challenged dominant traditions in the humanities in post war England. Hoggart and Williams argued first that literary or ‘‘high’’ culture is just one expression of culture, in the more anthropological sense – the broad range of meanings and interactions that make up social life. Second, they argued that cultural expressions could only be under stood in a broader social context of ‘‘institutions, power relations, and history’’ (Seidman 1997). This led Williams (1961) to analyze, for example, the rise of the novel in modern England as part of the gradual evolution of a broad based reading culture, and to discuss the shifting meanings and (sometimes ideological) images that clustered around ‘‘city’’ and ‘‘country’’ as agriculture, industry, and urbanization changed the landscape of England (Williams 1973). In The Uses of Literacy, Hoggart examined the changing culture of the working class through analysis of neighbor hoods, pubs, and family interaction as well as popular music and literature in a book that combined personal reflection with historical sociology (Hoggart 1957). E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, addressing similar problems of historical change in the early nineteenth century, showed that both Marxist conceptions of class and the discipline of history could be fruitfully broadened if culture – whether Methodism or the literary minded corresponding societies developed by skilled craftsmen – were taken into account in analyzing working class English politics (Thompson 1963).

This first generation of British cultural studies scholars were all ‘‘men of the left,’’ confronting the failures of communism, the idiosyncrasies of English working class politics, and the peculiarities of democratization under the sign of commercial culture. All were, in other words, critical analysts of what they liked to call ‘‘lived experience,’’ that very term indicating how thoroughly this version of cultural studies integrated cultural expressions with social life. They also were all seriously involved with alternative sites of mainly working class education, whether Workers’ Education Association classes or University Extension courses (Goodwin & Wolff 1997), a commitment that led to the rather unusual institutionalization of cultural studies at Birmingham. And for all three, the scholarly moves they made were from the humanities and its traditional categories of analysis and evaluation into a more fully articulated sense of cultural and social reality.

When cultural studies became institutionalized under Hoggart as one subgroup of literary studies at the University of Birmingham in 1964 as the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS), it retained some distinctive features from its prehistory. For example, staff and student groups cooperated in administering the center, and a Centre General Meeting of administrative and intellectual groups formulated policy. Most innovative, perhaps, were the self governing ‘‘subgroups’’ of researchers (often students) and teachers. Richard Johnson (1997) mentions that in 1974, for example, there were groups on Art and Politics, Cultural History, Media, Subcultures, Women’s Stu dies, Cultures of Work, and two Marxist Reading Groups. These groups produced most CCCS books and journals, and the ‘‘collective book’’ remained typical of Birmingham scholar ship into the 1990s. So, too, did a relatively interdisciplinary and activist approach to scholarly careers, which may have contributed to the precarious institutionalization of cultural studies in Britain and its common location in academic sites that were themselves interdisciplinary.

As a younger generation of scholars moved to the fore in British cultural studies, they brought with them concerns from the student movement (Johnson 1997), and also training in sociology. Seidman, for example, mentions Stuart Hall, David Morley, Dorothy Hobson, Paul Willis, Phil Cohen, Dick Hebdige, Ian Chambers, and Angela McRobbie in this regard (Seidman 1997; Hall 1980b). They turned from the earlier thinkers’ humanism to take up insights from sociological studies of deviance, subcultures, and popular culture, and at the same time turned towards strands of European Marxism – notably Althusser and Gramsci – as a corrective to what they characterized as the earlier generation’s a theoretical ‘‘Englishness.’’

Concerned about the new ways social domination operated in a post war world that was, at least for many in Europe, both relatively affluent and at peace, these scholars investigated the culture/society connection as a promising location for understanding this process. Post war shifts in the social organization of cultural and communications media also gave popular forms of culture immense social power. This was particularly true of cultural forms and technologies developing in and exported from the US, which was becoming a global force because of television, Coca Cola, and rock and roll – and later, MTV, the shopping mall, music videos, and theme parks – as well as more traditional forms of economic and military power. This shift also required new ways of thinking that linked culture, as it was linked in people’s lives, more closely to society and politics, especially in relation to critical questions about democracy and equality.

Birmingham scholars often used a processual view of Gramsci’s ideas about hegemony and resistance in their analyses of popular cultural forms and usages. Subcultures became a particularly interesting object of study because members of subcultures formed collective and often countercultural identities around styles they fashioned from cultural commodities (Willis 1977; McRobbie, 1984). Birmingham appropriations of both Gramsci and Althusser also emphasized the contingent nature of ideological formations and their relative autonomy – from class determinism, in particular. This foregrounded history and human activity, which Birmingham scholars often discussed as ‘‘practice,’’ as well as opening up consideration of other forms and sites of domination, such as gender, race, or region (Bennett et al. 1986; Hall 1980a, 1991).

The problematic that informed scholars at Birmingham also influenced research arising from different national traditions. So in France, for example, structuralist semioticians like Roland Barthes (1972) drew on a long French preoccupation with language and linguistic culture to investigate how language like cultural forms encoded social domination in popular cultural ‘‘mythologies.’’ Somewhat later, post structuralist thinkers like Michel Foucault (1977, 1978, 1980) moved beyond purely linguistic discourses to understand how power and knowledge shape subjectivity, and Pierre Bourdieu (1977, 1984, 1991), drawing on both anthropology and sociology, considered the way culture, and legitimate culture in particular, influenced both social stratification and personal ‘‘dispositions.’’

At roughly the same time in Germany, Jurgen Habermas drew on the Frankfurt tradition of critical social thought to examine the failure of formal politics to address new configurations of social domination. His influential response turned toward an analysis of the public sphere – conceived as a ‘‘realm’’ outside of the marketplace and the state, yet not reducible to private life. His formulation was itself profoundly cultural, first, because of its insistence that communication was an aspect of social reality irreducible to economic interests. Second, he discussed the evolution of the public sphere in Europe historically, locating different sites (e.g., the coffee house) and media (the newspaper) of communication that enabled conversation based on reasoned arguments about fundamental social and political assumptions to take place. In his view, this was a necessary precondition for democracy. Although his conviction that both state and market were eroding the public sphere made Habermas pessimistic about the prospects for genuine democracy in the present, he argued nonetheless for a basic human capacity to engage in the rational discussion it would require (Habermas 1971, 1979, 1984–7, 1989).

Habermas’s work remains at a high level of abstraction, and has filtered into American scholarship mainly as the point of departure for more concrete – and often historical – examinations of ‘‘the public sphere’’ and for critical appraisals of the concept itself (Fraser 1989; Calhoun 1992a, 1992b; Schudson 1998). This kind of interdisciplinary, international borrowing is quite typical of cultural studies, and may partially explain why cultural studies scholarship has been more easily integrated into multidisciplinary fields, subfields, or programs than into more rigidly bounded disciplines. Similarly, the fact that several strands of cultural studies work (as was the case in Birming ham) originated as critical reformulations of the humanities, and have maintained a close connection to interpretive methodologies and to culture itself (however broadly defined), may explain why US cultural studies has been largely institutionalized in humanities rather than in the social sciences, with the exception of anthropology, some culturally inflected areas of sociology, and some aspects of political theory.

Nonetheless, broad questions about how contemporary culture relates to an emerging geopolitical order featuring new constellations of technology and capital and new configurations of collective organization – from regional religious fundamentalisms to transnational corporations and political unions – have continued to bring many scholars into the interdisciplinary arena of cultural studies. Since the academy is itself experiencing the same kind of dislocations, dispersals, and reconcentrations of power that scholars are attempting to understand in the environing social world, the enterprise of cultural studies has generated a broad array of such theoretical and empirical lines of inquiry. For example, urbanists have noted (like Hoggart in the 1950s) that the communities that provided roots for ethnic or class solidarity have been dispersed by urban renewal, deindustrialization, and other developments effacing an older sense of place in contemporary cities. But more recently, gentrification, global hip hop culture, planned communities, and theme parks have begun to provide other material for thinking through the connections between ‘‘community’’ and identity. So critical geographers have turned to work by Jameson (1991), Lyotard (1984), and other postmodernists to understand how these new urban forms might structure people’s experiences and possibilities for collective action (Harvey 1989; Zukin 1991, 1992; Gregory 1994). At the same time, changes in the social organization of sexuality and medical science have led other scholars to take up thinking by Foucault (1978) that examines how discursive formations linking textual knowledge, technical capabilities, and institutional developments have worked to structure contemporary sexual subjectivities and their emergence as socially recognized ‘‘identities’’ (see Butler 1993; Weston 1998; Sedgewick 2003; Seidman 2003; Eribon 2004).

Some of this reinvention involves the disappearance of traditional grounds for disciplinary activity. For example, high cultural texts no longer have the privileged place they enjoyed in early twentieth century public education. This has led critical literary scholars to become self-conscious about the historical roots of national literary studies and the sociopolitical dimension of canonization. In turn, this has engendered an examination of the institutions (literary criticism, the discipline of English, the Book of the Month Club) that work to define what we call literature and to assign criteria of literary value (Radway 1997), as well as a broad ranging analysis of popular cultural ‘‘texts’’ and their uses in the social world. Similarly, small scale low technology societies are either vanishing or negotiating their induction into global networks of technology, labor, and consumption. These geopolitical developments have led anthropologists to rethink the relationship between ethnographer and subject, to search at home as well as among traditional Others for ethnographic opportunities, and to recognize affinities between their signature methodology and that of tourists, state department officials, and world music entrepreneurs (Marcus 1999).

Yet, similar opportunities for cultural studies scholarship appear as new disciplinary formations emerge in response to social change. Social studies of science, for instance, have grown up in tandem with the enormous growth of ‘‘big science’’ in the recent past, and their critical take on science comes as much from public questions about an endeavor that has brought us nuclear weapons and environmental devastation alongside space flight and the Salk vaccine, as from purely academic developments. Other new areas of investigation that are attracting cultural studies scholars include visual studies, cybercultures and communities (this has also spawned Internet based research methodologies), new technologies of embodiment and possibilities for identity construction, and globalization, which has affected the whole range of what are sometimes called the human sciences.

While this scholarship has spurred some significant departmental or program level institutionalization in American universities, it is most obviously present as a major paradigm in existing interdisciplinary programs, such as American studies, ethnic and women’s studies, urban studies, and science and technology studies, and is an important intellectual force in publishers’ offerings and conferences both in the Anglophone world and beyond. It is also what one scholar calls an ‘‘accent’’ in more entrenched academic fields, perhaps more wel come in traditionally interpretive disciplines or traditions of inquiry than in those underwritten by positivist epistemology. For this reason, much of sociology has seen cultural studies as a threat rather than an opportunity, yet one can clearly see openings toward cultural studies in cultural sociology, sociology of religion, gender/sexuality, and race/ethnicity, urban sociology, qualitative sociology, and some branches of social theory.


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