Cultural Studies

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I. Introduction

II. Key Concepts

III. Key Figures

IV. Research Issues and Problematics

I. Introduction

Cultural studies is a recent, innovative, and interdisciplinary project that has had a significant presence in the field of communication since the late 1970s, as well as in other humanities and social sciences. Cultural studies is concerned with describing and intervening in the ways in which texts, discourses, and other cultural practices are produced within, circulate through, and operate in the everyday life of human beings and the institutions of society.

Unlike some other interdisciplinary fields, cultural studies is not defined by a single object (e.g., an identity, as in women’s studies) or a geographical region (e.g., area studies). Moreover, there are several versions of cultural studies. Although some commentators locate its origins in Britain in the 1960–1970s (especially at the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies), it actually emerged independently, as an interdisciplinary and international project, in multiple geographical locations. While communication was perhaps its first and most sympathetic host, at least in the US, today it has a presence in many disciplines and fields. This diversity – theoretical, methodological, political, and empirical – can make it difficult to discern the project of cultural studies.

The common project involves a particular way of doing intellectual work that is responsive and responsible to its changing context, whether geographical, historical, political, or institutional. Without giving in to relativism, cultural studies seeks new and more modest forms of expertise. Its modesty is based not on any failure of scholarly rigor, but on a realization that knowledge and the tools of its production are always, unavoidably, contextually bound. If people make history, but in conditions not of their own making, as Karl Marx suggested, cultural studies explores this process as it is enacted through cultural practices.

II. Key Concepts

Two pairs of concepts ground the project of cultural studies: culture and context; power and belonging. Cultural studies starts from a recognition that culture has several meanings. While other disciplines may study one aspect, cultural studies aims to hold together the different dimensions of culture in a productive tension: (1) culture as a set of privileged activities, texts, and rituals, ranging from the highly valued (e.g., art) to the common (mass and popular culture), through which people express complex relations to the world in which they live; (2) culture as the uniquely human, symbolically mediating activities through which human beings make sense of that world; and (3) culture as the whole way of life of a group of people in the world, linking everyday life to the totality of social relations and institutions.

Cultural studies, thus, addresses the interrelations among the aesthetic-expressiveritual, the symbolic-constructionist-hermeneutic, and the socio-anthropological dimensions of culture. It is the concrete totality of these relations that constitutes the uniqueness of human life in any particular time and place, for any particular group of people. To put it simply, cultural studies scholars believe that every aspect of human life is in part (but never only) cultural. This is different from a frequent, but mistaken identification of cultural studies with the application of humanistic or literary methods of interpretation and judgment to all of culture or society, or as the study of academically and socially marginalized forms of culture (e.g., media culture, popular culture, or subaltern cultures).

The second key concept is context. Cultural studies believes that any element or aspect of human life can only be understood relationally; what something is, is less the product of its own internal essence than the sum total of its relations with other elements of the context of the lived social reality of a group of people. Cultural studies is an effort to think contextually about contexts; context defines both the object and the practice of research. Many of the core and unique features of the project of cultural studies derive from this concept. If academic work is commonly characterized as moving from the complex to the simple, from the concrete to the typical, cultural studies insists on describing and theorizing the complexity of the specific contexts. Instead of the disjunctive and reductionist logic that attempts to find the one thing that will explain something, cultural studies adopts an anti-reductionist and conjunctive rhetoric: “yes (it is that), and that . . . (and that . . . and that).” And, partly as a result, cultural studies work has to be interdisciplinary, establishing culture’s relations to everything that is not culture; for example, economics, the state, or various social institutions. The diverse versions of cultural studies normally operate within a broader theoretical framework – such as pragmatism, historical materialism, or postmodern materialism – that embraces a radical contextualism. Cultural studies, however, does not have a general theory of culture per se.

This contextualism is expressed in the key notion of articulation, which refers to a theoretical model as well as a methodological practice. Articulation is the making, unmaking, and remaking of relations according to a logic of contingency, what Stuart Hall (1983) called a theory “without guarantees.” If some theories treat the shape and structure of social contexts as inevitable, other theories tend to deny any stability or reality to the structures and relations of social life. Cultural studies operates in the space between, on the one hand, absolute fixity and determination, and, on the other hand, absolute freedom and indetermination. Cultural studies is committed to the reality of relations that have determining effects, and attempts to construct politically relevant descriptions of how contexts are continuously being made, unmade, and remade.

The third key concept defines context as a material configuration of power. While avoiding a reduction of all social relations to matters of power, cultural studies approaches contexts as sites of a struggle over power. Here, power is understood not necessarily as domination, but as the ongoing production of structures of inequality, and as a temporary balance in the field of social forces and interests involving multiple dimensions. One dimension of power (e.g., class) does not necessarily explain another (e.g., gender), nor will changing one necessarily change the other. Similarly, there is no singular mechanism through which a given dimension of power (e.g., race) is produced, organized, and performed. Instead, power operates at different levels, including the state, civil institutions, discourses, everyday life, emotions, and the body.

In this process, culture is a crucial agent configuring, consolidating, and resisting power. Exhibiting fissures and fault lines that may become active sites of struggle and transformation, power can be seen as always contradictory and incomplete. Cultural studies examines how power infiltrates, contaminates, and limits the possibilities that people have of living their lives in humane, dignified, and secure ways; it also explores the possibilities for change through an analysis of the existing fields of power. Cultural studies, then, investigates how people are empowered and disempowered by the particular discursive practices through which their everyday lives are articulated in relation to the wider structures of social, economic, and political power.

The final key concept addresses how people experience everyday life and its contexts of social power: belonging points to the forms of affiliation, identification, and differentiation by which people locate and invest themselves in particular social groups, cultural identities, geographical and symbolic spaces. Whether understood in terms of national formations or local communities, shared identities or structured differences, belonging is closely connected to a notion of the popular: this is not some subset of culture, but the full set of maps, logics, and languages within which people understand themselves, calculate their values and commitments, and decide on the necessary stabilities and possible mobilities of their lives.

III. Key Figures

The actual shape of any version of cultural studies is determined by a number of choices and circumstances: the particular local or regional setting of the work; the specific cultural ensemble of media and discourses being examined; the theoretical tools and key concepts that lend themselves to the domain of study; and the (political) questions being addressed. The literature in cultural studies from different regions of the world and in different languages bears witness to the viability and diversity of the project within various national and regional settings. While some of these traditions emerged as a result of an encounter and conversation with English-language work in cultural studies, others, especially in Asia and Latin America, emerged out of their own traditions of cultural and political analysis in the context of developments following World War II. For example, the founding work of Nestor Garcia Canclini and Jesus Martin-Barbero, drawing upon a long history of cultural criticism, has made important contributions to the cultural studies of communication in both the Latin American and global contexts. In the English-language literature within the field of communication, the two most important and influential figures have been James Carey in the US and Stuart Hall in Great Britain.

Carey’s contribution was driven by a pragmatic concern for the role of communication in community and democracy. Influenced by the anthropological semiotics of Clifford Geertz and the materialist history of Harold Innis, Carey’s research examined the ways in which the social appropriation of various technologies (e.g., the telegraph, railroads) and of cultural forms (e.g., journalism, the novel) gave expression to, shaped, and sometimes undermined the maps of meaning, modes of belonging, and structures of experience that are shared across culture, including not least people’s experience of themselves in social space and time. Carey described culture as the symbolic realm through which human beings create representations of reality, and then live within those representations. He took the fundamental challenge facing cultural studies to be the growing influence of science as a model of research, embodied, for example, in a transmission view of communication as opposed to his own ritual view. Carey argued that a reduction of human reality to the parameters of scientific knowledge was partly to blame for the growing weakness both of a sense of community and of a commitment to democracy in the United States. A consistent underlying theme in his work, which became more evident toward the end of his career, was the historical processes by which societies themselves are made, unmade, and remade. He was particularly concerned with how the university was giving up its critical role in describing and judging larger social and cultural changes.

Hall’s work began from an ambivalent relation to Marxism, and was also influenced by poststructuralism and postmodern materialism, especially as represented by Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. Hall’s research has moved from analyses of the ideological messages of media content to broader accounts of the active cultural agency of media audiences and their symbolic resistance, as stated in his encoding–decoding model of communication. While continuing to explore more complex, circulatory models of the production and consumption of culture, his major writings since the 1980s have focused on the reorganization of national politics and the rise of a new conservatism in Britain. Theorizing such political developments as cultural struggles for hegemony over the definition of “the popular,” Hall’s attention was turned to identities and subjectivities (particularly aspects of race and ethnicity), again not as analytical categories regarding individuals, but as dimensions of culture and society as such.

IV. Research Issues and Problematics

Despite their diversity, different versions of cultural studies define themselves as answering particular questions that derive not from academic protocols, but from the world of lived realities. At least four such problematics can be identified: knowledge, agency, subjectivity, and modernity. While different research formations may address these questions – whether alone or in combination – one has to remember that the form of the questions themselves will be differently articulated in relation to the specific context.

The concept of knowledge raises questions not just of how to assess the claims of, but of distinguishing between competing forms of, knowledge. Cultural studies generally places itself in opposition to the universalizing claims of “scientific” or reductionist approaches. It interprets the variety of cultural messages in a given society as maps of the structures of meaning and belonging. Such interpretations may approach culture critically, as ideological representations in the service of dominant interests, or more sympathetically, as rituals of belonging that reaffirm the shared meanings and values of a social group.

The question of agency is directly connected to the concept of power as described here. Cultural studies seeks to understand not only the organizations and institutions of power, but also the possibilities for resistance, struggle, and change throughout society. It takes contestation for granted, not as a reality in every instance, but as a potential and a precondition for the existence of critical work, political opposition, even historical change. People are not considered simply passive objects being manipulated by dominant messages, or cultural dopes. Cultural studies examines how people attempt to assert themselves in the face of power, the determinations that constrain and empower them, and the possibilities available to them.

The problematic of subjectivity arises primarily from two developments within cultural studies: first, the influence of poststructuralist theory, which argues that discourses produce the positions (subjectivities) from which individuals both experience the world and become speakers of the discourse; second, the organization of political struggles around a series of identities relating to gender, race, ethnicity, etc. This consideration of subjectivity challenges the common assumption that there is an authentic way of experiencing the world, which may have been distorted by ideological representations. The problematic is radical because it suggests that the very possibilities of human experience and agency are determined by the structures of discourse. One further implication is that any identity – understood now as a place within language from which people speak and live the world – is always and only constructed negatively, as differences. The everyday understanding of identity as positively defined is, accordingly, the result of a constant differentiation within and among the members of a social group. This helps to explain why cultural studies scholars have often championed notions of a hybridity and complexity of identities.

The final problematic – modernity – is the broadest, involving social formations in their entirety; it addresses, for example, not the question of race, but that of national formations that can be described as raced. In such cases, cultural studies analyzes the interrelations of state, economy, and culture. The aim is to understand the place of culture in the ongoing transformation of contemporary societies, whether in a national or a colonial perspective, and the particular processes, such as globalization, that are redefining the contours of modernity in both cultural and social terms.

The future of cultural studies is uncertain, in part because much of what makes cultural studies unique contradicts the demands of traditional universities. Neither the academy nor the “real” world of politics is a very sympathetic home for the kind of work that cultural studies proposes. Its commitment to studying relations and, hence, to an interdisciplinary project means that cultural studies cannot sit comfortably in any discipline. Even more important, while cultural studies is committed to the necessity of what Marx (1973) called a “detour through theory,” its commitment is to theory as a resource to be used strategically to respond to specific questions of relevance. Cultural studies measures the truth of a theory by its ability, first, to enable a better understanding of the context in question and, next, to open up new possibilities for changing that context. Theory, then, should not become a way of avoiding the risks of research, or of reducing the possibility of surprise and discovery. Therefore, cultural studies does not identify itself with any single theoretical paradigm or tradition.

Similarly, cultural studies seeks not to give priority to particular political stakes and constituencies, nor to take the appropriate goals and forms of struggle for granted; such assumptions might substitute political commitment for intellectual work. Therefore, cultural studies has no single politics. While it puts knowledge in the service of politics, it also attempts to make politics listen to the authority of knowledge. Cultural studies is a modest proposal for a flexible and contextual, intellectual and political practice that tries to make the connection between politics and culture.


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