Cultural turn

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The cultural turn was a movement among scholars in the social sciences to make culture the focus of contemporary debates within the discipline. The cultural turn has been described by one of its most prominent historiographers as a “wide array of new theoretical impulses coming from fields formerly peripheral to the social sciences,”[1] especially post-structuralism and various forms of linguistic analysis, which emphasized “the causal and socially constitutive role of cultural processes and systems of signification.”[2] It also describes a shift in emphasis toward meaning and away from a positivist epistemology. There were “foundational works underlying and facilitating the turn to cultural forms of analysis;” they were: Hayden White’s Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (1973), Clifford Geertz’s The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (1973), Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish (1977), and Pierre Bourdieu’s Outline of a Theory of Practice (1977).[3] As this list implies, the cultural turn gained mass prominence in the early 1970s.

Culture can be defined as, “the social process whereby people communicate meanings, make sense of their world, construct their identities, and define their beliefs and values” (Best). Culture is a large part of the cultural turn because American citizens began constructing identities for themselves in a new world. One of the earliest works in which the term showed up was Jeffrey Alexander's chapter "The New Theoretical Movement" in NJ Smelser's Handbook of Sociology (1988).[4] Poststructuralists overlooked cultural studies until Fredric Jameson (1998) brought the cultural turn to term:

“The very sphere of culture itself has expanded, becoming coterminous with market society in such a way that the cultural is no longer limited to its earlier, traditional or experimental forms, but it is consumed throughout daily life itself, in shopping, in professional activities, in the various often televisual forms of leisure, in production for the market and in the consumption of those market products, indeed in the most secret folds and corners of the quotidian. Social space is now completely saturated with the image of culture (p. 111).”[5]

Jameson declares that consumerism has become what is modern day culture. People find their identities in their activities, jobs and in leisure. This depiction is true in modern day America. Many Americans work 40 hours per week and their leisure time is wrapped around daily life. The culture of the modern American is found in what they do and participate in. The 1960s divided America politically and a focus on political change came into importance. After the period focused on political change, America never returned to the Victorian and literacy era that came before it. The linguistic turn of the 20th century caused part of the cultural turn because the importance of linguistics was lifted and placed on activities like those that Jameson refers to. More so, importance was placed on art and culture for education and moral growth. Social criticism and change became more important to teach than linguistics.

Advertising, amateur photography, yellow journalism and an assortment of other forms of media arose after the politically charged 1960s. Entertainment and media changed from a very organic and folk feel to the mechanical and brightened popular culture in the 1980s and 1990s. The “new media” of postmodern America brought about a new culture that all were able to take part in. This media was focused on all races, ethnicities and age groups instead of the more exclusive media before the 1960s. The “new media” and art of the 1980s and beyond helped to create the cultural turn because art and advertising became embedded in the new American culture.

The changing of the American culture brought about a change in American politics. Sociologists have begun to study power and politics and how culture relates since the cultural turn. The cultural turn brought about more emphasis on meaning and culture over politics. Culture must be seen at the root of politics because people have become focused on the modern culture that Jameson defined (Nash, 82). While the earlier twentieth century experienced a linguistic turn, mostly brought about by the thought of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Ferdinand de Saussure, the cultural turn of the late twentieth century absorbs those criticisms and adds on.

The introduction of social constructionism has helped this development a great deal. With the shift towards meaning, the importance of high arts and mass culture in cultural studies has declined. If culture was about things (a piece of art, a TV series), it is now more about processes and practices of meanings.

The cultural turn has helped cultural studies to gain more respect as an academic discipline. With the shift away from high arts the discipline has increased its perceived importance and influence on other disciplines.

In rural studies[edit]

In recent years, there has been something of a resurgence in rural studies, which has become somewhat more mainstream than previously in the academic space of social science. Increasing numbers of people have taken on important dualistic questions of society/space, nature/culture structure/agency and self/other from the perspective of rural studies. However, it is the ‘cultural turn’ in wider social science which has lent both respectability and excitement to the nexus with rurality, particularly with new foci on landscape, otherness and the spatiality of nature. With a conceptual fascination with difference, and a methodological fascination with ethnography, cultural studies have provided a significant palimpsestual overlay onto existing landscapes of knowledge.[6]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Steinmetz, G (1999). State/Culture: State-Formation after the Cultural Turn. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. pp. 1–2. 
  2. ^ Steinmetz, G (1999). State/Culture: State-Formation after the Cultural Turn. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. pp. 1–2. 
  3. ^ Bonnell, V.E. & Hunt, L (1999). Beyond the Cultural Turn. Berkley: University of California Press. 
  4. ^ Alexander, Jeffrey (1988). "The New Theoretical Movement". In Smelser, N. J. Handbook of Sociology. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications. pp. 77–101. 
  5. ^ Jameson, Frederic (1998). The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern, 1983-1998. Brooklyn: Verso. 
  6. ^ Cloke, P (October 1998). "Country backwater to virtual village? Rural studies and ‘the cultural turn'". Journal of Rural Studies 13 (4): 367–375.