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Cultural studies

Related: cultural anthropology - Block journal - The Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies - critical theory - culture - culture theory - cultural criticism - cultural history - cultural Marxism - everyday - left - Frankfurt school - gender - meaning - popular culture - popular culture theory - Post-structuralism - social history - sociology of art - subculture - youth culture

Theorists: Paul Gilroy - Antonio Gramsci (precursor) - Dick Hebdige - Stuart Hall - Richard Hoggart - Raymond Williams

Secondary literature: Douglas Kellner - Simon During - Lawrence Grossberg - John Storey

Criticism: Alan Sokal

Subculture: The Meaning of Style (1979) - Dick Hebdige
[FR] [DE] [UK] [...]

Cut 'N' Mix: Culture, Identity, and Caribbean Music (1987) - Dick Hebdige [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK] [...]

A Short History of Cultural Studies (2002) - John Hartley [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

A Short History of Cultural Studies (2002) is a guide to the ideas, purposes and controversies that have shaped Cultural Studies. The author sheds light on pioneers and a route map through the terrain. He provides narratives on an array of key figures including, Matthew Arnold, John Barrell, Tony Bennett, John Carey, John Fiske, Michel Foucault, Lawrence Grossberg, Stuart Hall, Terence Hawkes, bell hooks, Richard Hoggart, Charles Leadbeater, El Lissitzky, Kazimir Malevich, Karl Marx, Marshall McLuhan, Angela McRobbie, Daniel Miller, Toby Miller, William Morris, Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch, Andrew Ross, George Bernard Shaw, John Urry, Raymond Williams, Elizabeth Wilson, Tom Wolfe and Virginia Woolf. Hartley also examines themes in the subject including literary and political writing, publishing, Marxism, sociology, feminism, anthropology and the pedagogy of cultural studies.


The academic discipline Cultural Studies took its name from the British Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, which was founded at the University of Birmingham in 1963. The centre and the ensuing discipline's principal merit has been that it widened the concept of "culture".

Unlike the Frankfurt School of Marxist thought which tended to celebrate the emancipatory potential of Modernism and dismiss the products of the "culture industries" as debased and inauthentic, the British students of culture paid a great deal of attention to the products of 'popular culture'.

"Culture" for a Cultural Studies researcher not only includes traditional high culture but also popular culture and everyday meanings and practices. The last two, in fact, have become the main focus of cultural studies.

By its very nature, and much like critical theory in the United States, Cultural Studies has an interdisciplinary approach.

On this site, when Cultural Studies is capitalized, I specifically mean the discipline whose origins are to be found in Birmingham. For a more general approach to the theory of culture, I use the non-capitalized cultural studies or the even more general (and much preferred) term culture theory.


Cultural Studies combines sociology, literary theory, film/video studies, and cultural anthropology to study cultural phenomena in industrial societies. Cultural studies researchers often concentrate on how a particular phenomenon relates to matters of ideology, race, social class, and/or gender.

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. -- http://www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_studies [Oct 2005]

United Kingdom vs United States

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 often promulgated overtly politically leftist views and criticisms of 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 and Paul Gilroy. -- http://www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_studies [Jul 2004]

In contrast, 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; American cultural-studies advocates wrote about the liberatory aspects of fandom. See the writings of critics such as John Guillory. The distinction between American and British strands, however, has faded. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_studies#Approaches [Oct 2005]

English and cultural studies

Of all its contributing disciplines, it was English which first spawned cultural studies as a project. Cultural studies began its development by attempting to move beyond the nostalgic organicism and cultural pessimism of Leavisism, while at the same time retaining Scrutiny's combination of close textual reading and social criticism. This early `Left-Leavisism' created a route into other areas of concern, such as the `popular', and made for points of convergence with other disciplinary initiatives, most importantly those coming from sociology and social history, in ways which seemed to have superseded the formalist procedures of conventional literary studies, and the embattled anti-mass culture dissent of the liberal intelligentsia. Subsequently, while literary and cultural studies have shared certain aspects of theoretical development and preoccupation, cultural studies has enriched itself by strategically drawing upon other forms of knowledge in a critical search for ways of approaching contemporary cultural processes, products and institutions with a deeper theoretical understanding and with more appropriate means of analysis. These two forms of study have continued to develop in at best a state of uneasy alliance, but in many respects one could say that while cultural studies continues to draw from developments in literary, semiotic and discourse analysis, English as a discipline has to a great extent treated cultural studies, if not with open hostility, then at least with an excessively cautious and insular distrust, and has not partaken of the considerable benefits which could be derived from a close and active engagement with it as a general field of work. --Michael Pickering via http://www.massey.ac.nz/~nzsrda/nzssreps/journals/sites/sites24/picker24.htm [May 2006]

See also: cultural pessimism - cultural elitism

Cultural turn

The cultural turn describes developments in cultural studies and the sociology of culture. It describes a shift in emphasis towards meaning and on culture rather than politics or economics. This shift of emphasis occurred over a prolonged time, but particularly since the 1960s.

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. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_turn [May 2006]

See also: meaning - sociology - culture theory - cultural studies - Peter Berger - 1960s

Cultural studies wars

John observes rather wryly, in response to an article claiming that pop culture is “subversive”:

I see this point being made all the time in cult-stud writing. No doubt it explains why the recent collapse of capitalism, in the face of withering postmodernist critiques, began in the United States, the home of mass culture.

Cultural studies originated in a sort of Gramscian sociology of culture - rejecting the idea that “high art” was progressive and damning it for elitism. Rather, it was argued, popular culture expressed the resistance of the masses to capitalism. Though this seems inherently unlikely, there were some reasonable arguments made. Authors like the literary critic Raymond Williams picked up on the work of historians such as E.P. Thompson to look at the distinctiveness of working class culture and British sociologist Stuart Hall and his colleagues of the “Birmingham School” studied working class subcultures such as the Mods of the 60s and punks of the 70s.

Much of the effort of early Cultural Studies was directed against the cultural pessimism of the Frankfurt School - whose leading lights such as Adorno and Marcuse claimed that pop culture was the modern equivalent of panem et circenses for the masses, and had a passifying and politically disabling effect. Cultural studies theorists in the 80s who argued that people weren’t passive receivers of information and entertainment but interactively watched and reacted to television and films had a point. But the political argument that this implied, or might imply, “resistance” to capitalism was surely wrong.

Fast forward 20 years and we get people like Professor John Hartley arguing that Big Brother has the same value as Shakespeare.

The original political radicalism of Cultural Studies seems largely to have been lost sight of. It was interesting to read last year Cultural Studies academic Terry Flew write in Online Opinion that “Popular culture will never actually be left wing”, and:

Rather than automatically assuming that cultural studies is a left wing intellectual field, it may be time, now, to ask what an approach to cultural studies that is not self-evidently left wing, may look like, today, tomorrow and for the next influx.

To some degree this might be a defensive re-positioning in the Nelson era, but it is hard to see (with some exceptions) what political force the increasingly institutionalised and disciplined Cultural Studies now has. The irony, of course, is that Cultural Studies continues to be attacked by the intellectual Right as an exemplar of all that’s wrong with Universities. --Mark, http://larvatusprodeo.redrag.net/2005/04/16/cultural-studies-wars/ [Apr 2005 / Jun 2005]

see also: culture theory

Frankfurt - Paris - Birmingham

Perhaps the most influential British approach, dominated by the work of the CCCS, is more properly referred to as cultural studies, since the tendency is to see the mass media, as well as audiences as part of broader social and cultural practices. Unlike the Frankfurt School, whose 'critical theorists' tended to celebrate the emancipatory potential of high modernist art and dismiss the products of the culture industries as debased and inauthentic, the British students of culture paid a great deal of attention to the products of 'popular culture', though it should be said that they too were, certainly in the early years, also suspicious of the mass produced products of popular culture, though they were prepared to engage with them, rather than simply dismiss them. Since the British owed much to the French research in semiotics, psychoanalytic theory and social theory, it became common to speak of the Birmingham - Paris axis in cultural studies. --http://www.cultsock.ndirect.co.uk/MUHome/cshtml/media/marxuk.html [Jul 2004]

Text [...]

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. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_studies [Jul 2004]

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