Cultural studies

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For the journal, see Cultural Studies (journal).

Cultural studies is an academic field of critical theory and literary criticism initially introduced by British academics in 1964 and subsequently adopted by allied academics throughout the world. Characteristically interdisciplinary, cultural studies is an academic discipline aiding cultural researchers who theorize about the forces from which the whole of humankind construct their daily lives. Cultural Studies is not a unified theory, but a diverse field of study encompassing many different approaches, methods and academic perspectives. Distinct from the breadth, objective and methodology of cultural anthropology and ethnic studies, cultural studies is focused upon the political dynamics of contemporary culture and its historical foundations, conflicts and defining traits. Researchers concentrate on how a particular medium or message relates to ideology, social class, nationality, ethnicity, sexuality and/or gender, rather than providing an encyclopedic identification, categorization or definition of a particular culture or area of the world.[1]

Cultural studies combines feminist theory, social theory, political theory, history, philosophy, literary theory, media theory, film/video studies, communication studies, political economy, translation studies, museum studies and art history/criticism to study cultural phenomena in various societies. Thus, cultural studies seeks to understand how meaning is generated, disseminated, and produced from the social, political and economic spheres within a given culture. The influential theories of cultural hegemony and agency have emerged from the cultural studies movement as well as the most recent communications theory, which attempts to explain the cultural forces behind globalization. Unique academic approaches to cultural studies have also emerged in the United States, Canada, Australia, South Africa and Italy.

During the 1980s rise of neo-liberalism in Britain and the new conservatism in America, cultural studies was beset with criticism from both outside political and inside academic forces, due to the close alliance between many cultural studies scholars and Marxist theory, left-wing politics and perceived "triumphalism" by other established scholars. Opposition to cultural studies was most dramatically demonstrated with the 2002 closing of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) at the University of Birmingham, UK. CCCS was considered the founding academic program for cultural studies in the world, and was closed due to the result of the Research Assessment Exercise of 2001, a holdover initiative of the Margaret Thatcher-led UK Government of 1986, that determined research funding for university programs.[2] While many of its opponents continue to describe the discipline as "irrelevant," the field has a world-wide presence consisting of numerous annual international conferences, academic programs, publications, students and practitioners, from Taiwan to Amsterdam and from Bangalore to Santa Cruz. [3][4]


The term was used by Richard Hoggart in 1964 when he founded the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies or CCCS.[5] It has since become strongly associated with Stuart Hall, who succeeded Hoggart as Director.

Early years[edit]

From the 1970s onward, Stuart Hall's pioneering work, along with his colleagues Paul Willis, Dick Hebdige, Tony Jefferson, Michael Green and Angela McRobbie, created an international intellectual movement. Many cultural studies scholars employed Marxist methods of analysis, exploring the relationships between cultural forms (the superstructure) and that of the political economy (the base). By the 1970s, the politically formidable British working classes were in decline. Britain's manufacturing industries were fading and union rolls were shrinking. Yet millions of working class Britons backed the rise of Margaret Thatcher. For Stuart Hall and other Marxist theorists, this shift in loyalty from the Labour Party to the Conservative Party was antithetical to the interests of the working class and had to be explained in terms of cultural politics.

Theory of hegemony[edit]

In order to understand the changing political circumstances of class, politics and culture in the United Kingdom, scholars at the CCCS turned to the work of Antonio Gramsci, an Italian thinker of the 1920s and 30s. Gramsci had been concerned with similar issues: why would Italian laborers and peasants vote for fascists? In other words, why would working people vote to give more control to corporations and see their own rights and freedoms abrogated? Gramsci modified classical Marxism in seeing culture as a key instrument of political and social control. In this view, capitalists used not only brute force (police, prisons, repression, military) to maintain control, but also penetrated the everyday culture of working people. Thus, the key rubric for Gramsci and for cultural studies is that of cultural hegemony.

Scott Lash writes:

In the work of Hall, Hebdige and McRobbie, popular culture came to the fore... What Gramsci gave to this was the importance of consent and culture. If the fundamental Marxists saw power in terms of class-versus-class, then Gramsci gave to us a question of class alliance. The rise of cultural studies itself was based on the decline of the prominence of fundamental class-versus-class politics.[6]

Edgar and Sedgwick write:

The theory of hegemony was of central importance to the development of British cultural studies [particularly the CCCS]. It facilitated analysis of the ways in which subordinate groups actively resist and respond to political and economic domination. The subordinate groups needed not to be seen merely as the passive dupes of the dominant class and its ideology.[7]

Theory of agency[edit]

This line of thinking opened up fruitful work exploring agency, a theoretical outlook which reinserted the active, critical capacities of all people.[citation needed] Notions of agency have supplemented much scholarly emphasis on groups of people (e.g. the working class, primitives, colonized peoples, women) whose political consciousness and scope of action was generally limited to their position within certain economic and political structures.[citation needed][original research?] In other words, many economists, sociologists, political scientists and historians have traditionally failed to acknowledge that everyday people do indeed play a role in shaping their world or outlook. Although anthropologists since the 1960s have foregrounded the power of agents to contest structure, first in the work of transactionalists like Fredrik Barth and then in works inspired by resistance theory and post-colonial theory.[citation needed][original research?]

At times, cultural studies' romance with the notion of agency nearly excludes the possibility of oppression, overlooking the fact that the subaltern have their own politics, and romanticizes agency, exaggerating its potential and pervasiveness.[citation needed][original research?] Popular in the 1990s, many cultural studies scholars discovered in consumers ways of creatively using and subverting commodities and dominant ideologies.[citation needed] This orientation has come under fire for a variety of reasons.[citation needed]

Cultural studies concerns itself with the meaning and practices of everyday life. Cultural practices comprise the ways people do particular things, such as watching television or eating out, in a given culture. In any given practice, people use various objects (such as iPods or crucifixes). Hence, this field studies the meanings and uses peoples attribute to various objects and practices. Recently, as capitalism has spread throughout the world (a process associated with globalization), cultural studies has begun to analyse local and global forms of resistance to Western hegemony.[citation needed]


The movement toward globalization in our world serves as an important reason to examine Cultural Studies. According to Richard Longworth, author of “Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism,” it is just getting started. We are now in the stage of re-invention instead of industrialization. In the past 20 years, communication technology has made this possible and has moved very rapidly.[8] Because we are increasing communication worldwide, globalization has a major effect on how we look at Cultural Studies because we are constantly being exposed to the ideologies of mass media. In addition, human culture itself is becoming more unified as a result of globalization. For example, Stuart Hall has striven to combine many topic areas of study, such as interpersonal relationships and the influence of the media. He believes we should be studying the unifying atmosphere in which they all occur and from which they emanate—human culture.[9] This human culture is starting to become more and more unified itself because of globalization and therefore can be further examined through Cultural Studies.


In his 1994 book Introducing Cultural Studies, Ziauddin Sardar lists the following five main characteristics of cultural studies:[10]

  • The aim of Cultural Studies is to examine cultural practices and their relation to power. For example, a study of a subculture (such as white working class youth in London) would consider their social practices against those of the dominant culture (in this example, the middle and upper classes in London who control the political and financial sectors that create policies affecting the well-being of white working class youth in London).
  • The objective of Cultural Studies includes understanding culture in all its complex forms and of analyzing the social and political context in which culture manifests itself.
  • Cultural Studies is both the object of study and the location of political criticism and action. (For example, not only would a cultural studies scholar study an object, but s/he would connect this study to a larger, progressive political project.)
  • Cultural Studies attempt to expose and reconcile the division of knowledge, to overcome the split between tacit forms of knowledge (cultural) and objective forms of knowledge (universal).
  • Cultural Studies has a commitment to an ethical evaluation of modern society and to a radical line of political action.


Within the UK and US[edit]

Scholars in the United Kingdom and the United States developed somewhat different versions of cultural studies after the field's inception in the late 1970s. The British version of cultural studies was developed in the 1950s and 1960s mainly under the influence of Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall and others at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham. This included overtly political left-wing views and criticisms of popular culture as 'capitalist' mass culture. It absorbed some of the ideas of the Frankfurt School critique of the "culture industry" (i.e. mass culture). This emerges in the writings of early British Cultural Studies scholars and their influences, (see the work of, for example, Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall, Paul Willis, and Paul Gilroy).

In contrast, Cultural Studies was grounded in a pragmatic, liberal-pluralist tradition in the United States (Lindlof & Taylor, 2002,p. 60).The American version of Cultural Studies initially concerned itself more with understanding the subjective and appropriative side of audience reactions to and uses of mass culture. For example, American Cultural Studies advocates wrote about the liberatory aspects of fandom. The distinction between American and British strands has since faded, however.

Stuart Hall asserts that mainstream mass communication in the United States holds the illusion of democratic pluralism- “the pretense that society is held together by common norms, including equal opportunity, respect for diversity, one person-one vote, individual rights and rule of law”.[9] One of his goals in looking at Cultural Studies is to raise awareness and combat social power imbalances and dominant ideology. “The ultimate issue for cultural studies is not what information is presented but whose information it is”.[9] Also, he contends that the aim of theory and research is to delegate power to marginalized people and allow them to have a say in this world. One criticism of Hall offered suggestions of ways to change the problem he cites.

Outside the UK and US[edit]

In Canada, Cultural Studies has sometimes focused on issues of technology and society, continuing the emphasis in the work of Marshall McLuhan, George Grant, and others. In Australia, there has sometimes been a special emphasis on cultural policy. In South Africa, human rights and Third World issues are among the topics treated. There were a number of exchanges between Birmingham and Italy resulting in work on Italian leftism and theories of postmodernism.[citation needed] On the other hand, there is a debate in Latin America about the relevance of Cultural Studies with some researchers calling for more action-oriented research.[citation needed] Cultural Studies is relatively undeveloped in France, where there is a stronger tradition of semiotics, as in the writings of Roland Barthes. Also in Germany it is undeveloped, probably due to the continued influence of the Frankfurt School, which has developed a body of writing on such topics as mass culture, modern art and music.

Marxism, feminism and cultural artifacts[edit]

Some researchers, especially in early British cultural studies, apply a Marxist model to the field. This strain of thinking has some influence from the Frankfurt School, but especially from the structuralist Marxism of Louis Althusser and others. The main focus of an orthodox Marxist approach concentrates on the production of meaning. This model assumes a mass production of culture and identifies power as residing with those producing cultural artifacts. In a Marxist view, those who control the means of production (the economic base) essentially control a culture.

Other approaches to Cultural Studies, such as feminist cultural studies and later American developments of the field, distance themselves from this view. They criticize the Marxist assumption of a single, dominant meaning, shared by all, for any cultural product. The non-Marxist approaches suggest that different ways of consuming cultural artifacts affect the meaning of the product. This view is best exemplified by the book Doing Cultural Studies: The Case of the Sony Walkman (by Paul du Gay et al.), which seeks to challenge the notion that those who produce commodities control the meanings that people attribute to them. Feminist cultural analyst, theorist and art historian Griselda Pollock contributed to cultural studies from viewpoints of art history and psychoanalysis. The writer Julia Kristeva was an influential voice in the turn of the century, contributing to Cultural Studies from the field of art and psychoanalytical French feminism.


Ultimately, this perspective[clarification needed] criticizes the traditional view, assuming a passive consumer, particularly by underlining the different ways people read, receive and interpret cultural texts. On this view, a consumer can appropriate, actively reject or challenge the meaning of a product. These different approaches have shifted the focus away from the production of items. Instead, they argue that consumption plays an equally important role, since the way consumers consume a product gives meaning to an item. Some closely link the act of consuming with cultural identity. Stuart Hall and John Fiske have become influential in these developments.

Why is consumerism considered part of culture? According to Jeremy Gilbert, “We now live in an era when, throughout the capitalist world, the overriding aim of government economic policy is to maintain consumer spending levels. This is an era when ‘consumer confidence’ is treated as the key indicator and cause of economic effectiveness.[11] Not only is it the government’s goal to keep the public buying and spending, but it’s also that of many businesses and corporations. This is a major problem when looking through an environmental lens, because this significant rate of consumption is leading our planet to a point where it can no longer be sustained, threatening the human race and all living things. However, if we are constantly being exposed to advertisements, consumerism doesn’t look like it’s heading to a halt. This is a major issue when looking at Cultural Studies, because of mass media’s influence on the ideology of consumerism.[11]

Further information: Consumerism


In the context of Cultural Studies, the idea of a text, not only includes written language, but also films, photographs, fashion or hairstyles: the texts of Cultural Studies comprise all the meaningful artifacts of culture. Similarly, the discipline widens the concept of "culture". "Culture" for a cultural studies researcher, not only includes traditional high culture (the culture of ruling social groups)[12] and popular culture, but also everyday meanings and practices. The last two have become the main focus of Cultural Studies. A further and more recent approach is Comparative cultural studies, based on the discipline of comparative literature and Cultural Studies.

Contemporary cultural studies[edit]

Sociologist Scott Lash has recently put forth the idea that Cultural Studies is entering a new phase. Arguing that the political and economic milieu has fundamentally altered from that of the 1970s. He writes, "I want to suggest that power now... is largely post-hegemonic... Hegemony was the concept that de facto crystallized Cultural Studies as a discipline. Hegemony usually refers to the “preponderant influence or domination of one nation over another."[9] It has meant domination through ideology or discourse...[13] He writes that the flow of power is becoming more internalized, that there has been "a shift in power from the hegemonic mode of 'power over' to an intensive notion of power from within (including domination from within) and power as a generative force."[14] Resistance to power, in other words, becomes complicated when power and domination are increasingly (re)produced within oneself, within subaltern groups and within exploited people.

On the same subject, American feminist theorist and author of Gender Trouble Judith Butler wrote in the scholarly journal Diacritics an essay entitled "Further Reflections on the Conversions of Our Time", in which she described the shift in these terms:

"The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure. It has marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power."

Institutionally, the discipline has undergone major shifts. The Department of Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham, which was descended from the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, closed in 2002. Although by this time the intellectual centre of gravity of the discipline had long since shifted to other universities throughout the world. Strong Cultural Studies programs can be found in the United Kingdom, North and South America, Europe, Australia, Asia and there are a host of journals and conferences where Cultural Studies research is published and presented.

Academic reception[edit]

Cultural Studies is not a unified theory, but a diverse field of study encompassing many different approaches, methods and academic perspectives. As in any academic discipline, Cultural Studies academics frequently debate among themselves. However, some academics from other fields have criticised the discipline as a whole. It has been popular to dismiss Cultural Studies as an academic fad.[citation needed]

Literary scholars[edit]

Yale literature professor Harold Bloom has been an outspoken critic of the Cultural Studies model of literary studies. Critics such as Bloom see cultural studies as it applies to literary scholarship as a vehicle of careerism by academics, instead of promoting essentialist theories of culture, mobilising arguments that scholars should promote the public interest by studying what makes beautiful literary works beautiful.

Bloom stated his position during the September of 2000 episode of C-SPAN's Booknotes:

[T]here are two enemies of reading now in the world, not just in the English-speaking world. One [is] the lunatic destruction of literary studies...and its replacement by what is called cultural studies in all of the universities and colleges in the English-speaking world, and everyone knows what that phenomenon is. I mean, phrase 'political correctness' remains a perfectly good descriptive phrase for what has gone on and is, alas, still going on almost everywhere and which dominates, I would say, rather more than three-fifths of the tenured faculties in the English-speaking world, who really do represent a treason of the intellectuals, I think, a 'betrayal of the clerks'."[15]

Literary critic Terry Eagleton is not wholly opposed to Cultural Studies theory like Bloom, but has criticised certain aspects of it, highlighting what he sees as its strengths and weaknesses in books such as After Theory (2003). For Eagleton, literary and cultural theory have the potential to say important things about the "fundamental questions" in life, but theorists have rarely realized this potential.


While sociology was founded upon various historic works purposefully distinguishing the subject from philosophy or psychology, Cultural Studies lacks any fundamental literature explicitly founding a new discipline.

A relevant criticism comes from Pierre Bourdieu, who working in the sociological tradition, wrote on similar topics such as photography, art museums and modern literature. Bourdieu's main critique is that Cultural Studies lacks scientific method.[16] His own work makes innovative use of statistics and in-depth interviews. Cultural Studies is relatively unstructured as an academic field. It is difficult to hold researchers accountable for their claims, because there is no agreement on the methods and validity.

Sociologists Chris Rojek and Bryan S. Turner argue, in the article "Decorative sociology: towards a critique of the cultural turn", that Cultural Studies, particularly the flavor championed by Stuart Hall, lacks a stable research agenda, and privileges the contemporary reading of texts, thus producing an ahistorical theoretical focus. Furthermore, "there is both a rejection of cross-cultural and historical relevance and a sense of moral superiority about the correctness of the political views articulated."[17]


Main article: Sokal affair

One of the most prominent critiques of Cultural Studies came from physicist Alan Sokal, who submitted an article to a Cultural Studies journal, Social Text. This article was what Sokal thought would be a parody of what he perceived to be the "fashionable nonsense" of postmodernists working in Cultural Studies. As the paper was coming out, Sokal published an article in a self-described "academic gossip" magazine Lingua Franca, revealing the hoax. His explanation for doing this was:

"Politically, I'm angered because most (though not all) of this silliness is emanating from the self-proclaimed Left. We're witnessing here a profound historical volte-face. For most of the past two centuries, the Left has been identified with science and against obscurantism; we have believed that rational thought and the fearless analysis of objective reality (both natural and social) are incisive tools for combating the mystifications promoted by the powerful -- not to mention being desirable human ends in their own right. The recent turn of many "progressive" or "leftist" academic humanists and social scientists toward one or another form of epistemic relativism betrays this worthy heritage and undermines the already fragile prospects for progressive social critique. Theorizing about "the social construction of reality" won't help us find an effective treatment for AIDS or devise strategies for preventing global warming. Nor can we combat false ideas in history, sociology, economics and politics if we reject the notions of truth and falsity."[18]

Founding works[edit]

Hall identifies some originating texts, or the original 'curriculum', of the field of cultural studies:

See also[edit]

Related disciplines and theories[edit]

Related academic programs[edit]

Related authors[edit]



  1. ^ In a separate usage, the phrase cultural studies sometimes serves as a synonym for area studies, as a general term referring to the academic study of particular cultures in departments and programs such as Islamic studies, Asian studies, African American studies, et al.. However, strictly speaking, cultural studies programs are not concerned with specific areas of the world so much as specific cultural practices.
  2. ^ Curtis, Polly. (2002). The Guardian. "Birmingham's cultural studies department given the chop"
  3. ^ Bérubé, Michael. (2009). The Chronicle of Higher Education "What's the Matter with Cultural Studies?",
  4. ^ "Cultural Studies Associations, Networks and Programs", extensive, but incomplete, list of associations, networks and programs as found on the website for the Association of Cultural Studies, Tampere, Finland
  5. ^ Corner, John. (1991). "Postscript: Studying Culture—Reflections and Assessment: An Interview with Richard Hoggart." Media, Culture and Society. Vol. 13, No. 2, April.
  6. ^ Lash, pp 68-9
  7. ^ Edgar & Sedgewick, 165.
  8. ^ R. Longworth, personal communication, 26 March 2012.
  9. ^ a b c d Griffin, E. (2012). A First Look at Communication Theory (8th ed.). New York, NY: The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
  10. ^ Sardar, Ziauddin and Van Loon, Borin. (1994). Introducing Cultural Studies. New York: Totem Books
  11. ^ a b Gilbert, J. (2008). "Against the Commodification of Everything." Cultural Studies. 22(5), 551-566. Gilbert, Jeremy (2008), Against the Commodification of Everything, Cultural Studies 22 (5): 551, doi:10.1080/09502380802245811 
  12. ^ Bakhtin, Mikhail 1981. The Dialogic Imagination. Austin, TX: UT Press, p.4
  13. ^ Lash, p. 55
  14. ^ Lash, p. 56
  15. ^
  16. ^ An Introduction to the Work of Pierre Bourdieu: The Theory of Practice. (Eds) Richard Harker, Cheleen Mahar, Chris Wilkes. Houndmills: Macmillan, 1990. pg68-71
  17. ^ Rojek, Chris, and Bryan Turner. "Decorative sociology: towards a critique of the cultural turn." The Sociological Review 48.4 (2000): 629-648.
  18. ^, "A Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies," Alan Sokal, English translation of article from Lingua Franca. 1996.
  19. ^ Google Books, Culture, media, language: working papers in cultural studies, 1972-79. Stuart Hall, Dorothy Hobson, Andrew Lowe and Paul Willis, London: Hutchinson. 1980
  • Du Gay, Paul, et al. Doing Cultural Studies: The Story of the Sony Walkman. Culture, Media and Identities. London ; Thousand Oaks Calif.: Sage in association with The Open University, 1997.
  • During, Simon. The Cultural Studies Reader. 2nd ed. London ; New York: Routledge, 2003.
  • Edgar, Andrew and Peter Sedgwick. 2005. Cultural Theory: The Key Concepts. 2nd edition. NY: Routledge.
  • Engel, Manfred: "Cultural and Literary Studies". Canadian Review of Comparative Literature 31 (2008): 460-467.
  • Grossberg, Lawrence, Cary Nelson, and Paula A. Treichler. Cultural Studies. New York: Routledge, 1992.
  • Theory, Culture and Society, 21(1), 2004.
  • Hall, Stuart. Culture, Media, Language: Working Papers in Cultural Studies, 1972-79. London Birmingham, West Midlands: Hutchinson Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies University of Birmingham, 1992.
  • Hall, Stuart. "Cultural Studies: Two Paradigms." Media, Culture, and Society 2 (1980).
  • Hall, Stuart. "Race, Culture, and Communications: Looking Backward and Forward at Cultural Studies." Rethinking Marxism 5.1 (1992): 10-18.
  • Hoggart, Richard. The Uses of Literacy: Aspects of Working Class Life (Chatto and Windus, 1957) ISBN 0-7011-0763-4
  • Johnson, Richard. "What Is Cultural Studies Anyway?" Social Text 16 (1986–87): 38-80.
  • Johnson, Richard. "Multiplying Methods: From Pluralism to Combination." Practice of Cultural Studies. London; Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2004. 26-43.
  • Johnson, Richard. "Post-Hegemony? I Don't Think So" Theory, Culture and Society. 24(3): 95-110.
  • Lash, Scott. 2007. "Power after Hegemony: Cultural Studies in Mutation?" Theory, Culture, and Society. 24(3): 55-78.
  • Lewis, Jeff, Cultural Studies, Second Edition, Sage, London, 2008.
  • Longhurst,Brian, Smith,Greg, Bagnall, Gaynor, Crawford, Garry and Michael Ogborn, Introducing Cultural Studies, Second Edition, Pearson, London, 2008, ISBN 978-1-4058-5843-4
  • Lindlof, T. R., & Taylor, B. C. (2002). Qualitative Communication Research Methods, 2nd Edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • Pollock, Griselda (ed.), Generations and Geographies: Critical Theories and Critical Practices in Feminism and the Visual Arts. Routledge, 1996.
  • Pollock, Griselda. Psychoanalysis and the Image. Boston and Oxford: Blackwell, 2006.
  • Smith, Paul. Questioning Cultural Studies: An Interview with Paul Smith. 1994. MLG Institute for Culture and Society at Trinity College., 31 August 2005.
  • Smith, Paul. "Looking Backwards and Forwards at Cultural Studies." Companion to Cultural Studies. Ed. Toby Miller. Oxford; Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2001. 331-40.
  • Smith, Paul. "A Course In "Cultural Studies"." The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association 24.1, Cultural Studies and New Historicism (1991): 39-49.
  • Williams, Raymond. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.
  • Williams, Raymond. Culture and Society, 1780-1950. New York,: Harper & Row, 1966.

External links[edit]