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Anyone attempting a definition of cultural studies is confronted at the outset by a paradox. On the one hand, the emergence of cultural studies as a recognized discipline or field of study, particularly from the 1970s onward, can be clearly seen in the proliferation of academic departments, degree programs, academic journals, and scholars who proclaim themselves to be producing work in “cultural studies.” On the other hand, what precisely “cultural studies” takes as its object or area of study, its definitive theoretical, epistemological, or methodological approach, is less clearly identifiable—indeed, some scholars have claimed it is this very breadth and eclecticism that is the definition of cultural studies (Barker 2003; During 1999, 2005). Colin Sparks has thus described cultural studies as “a veritable rag-bag of ideas, methods, and concerns” (1996, p. 14).
At a basic level, cultural studies is, as the term suggests, the study of “culture.” It takes as its focus the ways in which people live, think, and express themselves in everyday practices and contexts. Raymond Williams (1921–1988), one of the founding figures of cultural studies, famously described culture as “a particular way of life, whether of a people, a period, or a group” (1976, p. 90)—a definition that has close links to the anthropological idea of culture. However, the focus for cultural studies has been primarily on Western, modern, and contemporary cultures, on understanding the seemingly ordinary practices, objects, and images that surround us and that make up our sense of who we are—from music and media to education, inner-city subcultures, pubs, and shopping malls. Its focus stretches from the microstudy of local identities, such as gangs, to the global movement of cultural commodities, such as hip-hop or Bollywood films. To this end, cultural studies has been resolutely inter-, multi-, or even antidisciplinary in its approach, drawing from disciplines such as sociology, anthropology, history, and English literature. Similarly, cultural studies utilizes a range of research methods, from in-depth ethnographic fieldwork to textual and visual analysis.
Starting Points: The British Context and the CCCS
Cultural studies is now a global phenomenon, but it is generally agreed that the discipline began locally, at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) in Birmingham, England, in the 1960s. Most scholars trace the emergence of cultural studies to the interventions of three men and three seminal texts: Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy (1957), Raymond Williams’s Culture and Society (1958), and E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963). Hoggart, indeed, was the founder and first director of the CCCS, which was established as a postgraduate research center attached to the University of Birmingham in 1964.
What these three texts shared, albeit in very different ways, was a concern with “popular culture” that sought to challenge traditional elitist notions of culture as art and aesthetics—what Matthew Arnold (1822–1888) referred to as “the best that has been thought and said in the world” ( 1960, p. 6)—or as “civilization” (Jenks 2004). In its place, they celebrated culture as ubiquitous, as everyday, and as made by ordinary people—“the study of relationships between elements in a whole way of life” (Williams  1965, p. 63). There are two key arguments that characterize these texts: firstly, that culture expresses meanings (i.e., it reflects our understanding of the world around us); and secondly, that culture flows from the experiences of ordinary people (hence, Williams’s assertion that “culture is ordinary”) (Procter 2004). Furthermore, this experience comes out of the historical and social location of individuals and groups— specifically, their class location. In particular, the authors claimed a sense of legitimacy and agency for working-class and popular cultures as valid and valuable sources of cultural expression and meaning making (Hall 1996).
The Struggle for Culture
Stuart Hall took over the directorship of the CCCS in 1968, marking a change in the way cultural studies was both thought and done. In particular, Hall brought the center’s engagement with Marxism into creative tension with structuralist theory, as exemplified in the works of French theorists Claude Lévi-Strauss, Roland Barthes (1915–1980), and Louis Althusser (1918–1990) (Hall 1992a, 1996; Procter 2004). Put simply, structuralism contests the assumed connection between culture and meaning. Rather than seeing culture as simply reflecting meaning (as Williams had done), structuralism sees this relationship as constructed and arbitrary (Hall 1997). This means that culture is not simply an embodiment of a real experience, but creates that experience and shapes its meaning for us.
Hall sought to bring these two paradigms—culturalist and structuralist—together through the work of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937) and his theory of hegemony. This refers to the ways in which a dominant group maintains its control over other groups not through coercion, but through winning and shaping assent “so that its ascendency commands widespread consent and appears natural and inevitable” (Hall 1997b, p. 259). This is achieved in the realm of “culture”—through shaping how people think of and experience their world. However, because our societies are marked by forms of social division and inequality, subordinate groups enter into conflict with the dominant group to contest these meanings. Culture thus becomes the site where social divisions (class, gender, race and ethnicity, sexuality, disability, etc.) are both established and resisted.
Culture, in the traditional cultural studies paradigm, is thus highly contested and politicized. Firstly, it rejects the distinction of high and low culture, and celebrates popular and mass cultures as legitimate forms of expression. Secondly, it sees culture as always changing and dynamic—as a process rather than a possession. Thirdly, it sees cultures as challenging and transforming meanings, images, and understandings (Hall 1997a; Jenks 2004). Fourthly, it has taken as its primary focus of study subordinated and marginalized cultural forms and expressions—particularly around working-class and youth (sub)cultures.
This classic cultural studies approach was challenged in the 1980s and 1990s through the emergence of postmodern and post-structural theories. Although part of a much broader intellectual movement, postmodernism rejects the idea of coherent or stable cultural identities and meanings, and insists instead on the fragmentary and transitory nature of culture. Stuart Hall thus writes of “the breakdown of all strong cultural identities . . . producing that fragmentation of cultural codes, that multiplicity of styles, emphasis on the ephemeral, the fleeting, the impermanent, and on difference and cultural pluralism” (1992b, p. 302). This view of culture is linked closely to the increased globalization and commodification of culture. Individuals become bricoleurs, creating their own styles and inhabiting a multiplicity of identities, and opening up a range of cultural options, meanings, and political possibilities (Barker 2003; During 2005).
Cultural Studies Goes Global
Through the 1990s, cultural studies has grown both in terms of scope and of content, traversing disciplines and diversifying its subject matter and theoretical and methodological approaches. In particular, as researchers have engaged with the increasingly globalized nature of cultural forms and connections, cultural studies can also be said to have gone global—at once exploring the ways in which culture travels and how it is shaped within particular local or national contexts (During 2005). “Cultural studies” as an academic discipline is now well established in the Anglophone world, particularly in Australia, Canada, and the United States, and is increasingly linked to the arts and media practitioners. Interest in the field is also growing in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, though in all these places it takes on different forms and emphases. In the United States, for example, where “cultural studies” as both a discipline and set of institutions has exploded, cultural studies traces its historical development from postwar American studies and from African American writers, scholars, and activists (During 2005) and is closely linked contemporarily with the study of minorities, postcoloniality, multiculturalism, and race. This is in sharp contrast to the United Kingdom (and Australia), which has traditionally marginalized issues of race and ethnicity—as well as gender—in cultural studies (Hall 1992a).
Cultural Studies in Crisis?
Cultural studies is not without its critics, both from outside and within the field. Indeed, as cultural studies has expanded and transformed, it has been argued that it has lost its original engagement with politics and power, with the lived experiences of “the everyday,” and has instead become overly fascinated with cultural commodification, consumption, and production. Focusing on music, film, literature, and the media, cultural studies has, it is argued, privileged texts and discourse over people, and cultural practices and pleasures over the structures of power and material contexts within which these practices and pleasures take shape (Hall 1992a; McRobbie 1992). Still others have argued that the neo-Marxist underpinnings of the cultural studies project have been thrown “into crisis” by its encounter with postmodernism and post-structuralism, which have fractured ideas of power and meaning, and the relationship between them, and have privileged an individualistic and overcelebratory version of cultural expression (Storey 1996; During 2005). The lack of engagement of some strands and traditions of cultural studies with race and gender has already been commented upon. The growth and institutionalization of cultural studies have led some to fear for a loss of focus—that cultural studies could mean anything—and others to fear for a regulation of its critical and political edge in favor of a marketable pedagogy (Hall 1992a).
Clearly, what cultural studies is, or may become, is open to debate, contestation, and transformation. However, as Hall has stated, the study of culture is “a deadly serious matter . . . a practice which always thinks about its intervention in a world in which it would make some difference” (1992a, p. 286).
- Arnold, Matthew.  1960. Culture and Anarchy. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- Barker, Chris. 2003. Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice. 2nd ed. London and Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- During, Simon, ed. 1999. The Cultural Studies Reader. 2nd ed. London and New York: Routledge.
- During, Simon. 2005. Cultural Studies: A Critical Introduction. London and New York: Routledge.
- Hall, Stuart. 1992a. Cultural Studies and Its Theoretical In Cultural Studies, eds. Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, and Paula Treichler, 277–294. London and New York: Routledge.
- Hall, Stuart. 1992b. The Question of Cultural Identity. In Modernity and Its Futures, eds. Stuart Hall, David Held, and Tony McGrew, 273–326. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity.
- Hall, Stuart. 1996. Cultural Studies: Two Paradigms. In What Is Cultural Studies? A Reader, ed. John Storey, 31–48. London and New York: Arnold Press.
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- Procter, James. 2004. Stuart Hall. London and New York: Routledge.
- Sparks, Colin. 1996. The Evolution of Cultural Studies.… In What Is Cultural Studies? A Reader, ed. John Storey, 14–30. London and New York: Arnold Press.
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- Storey, John. 1996. Cultural Studies: An Introduction. In What Is Cultural Studies?: A Reader, ed. John Storey, 1–13. London and New York: Arnold Press.
- Thompson, E. P. 1963. The Making of the English Working Class. London: V. Gollancz.
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