Cultural studies is a field of theoretically, politically, and empirically engaged cultural analysis that concentrates upon the political dynamics of contemporary culture, its historical foundations, defining traits, conflicts, and contingencies. Cultural studies researchers generally investigate how cultural practices relate to wider systems of power associated with or operating through social phenomena, such as ideology, class structures, national formations, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, and generation. Cultural studies views cultures not as fixed, bounded, stable, and discrete entities, but rather as constantly interacting and changing sets of practices and processes. The field of cultural studies encompasses a range of theoretical and methodological perspectives and practices. Although distinct from the discipline of cultural anthropology and the interdisciplinary field of ethnic studies, cultural studies draws upon and has contributed to each of these fields.
Cultural studies was initially developed by British academics in the late 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, and has been subsequently taken up and transformed by scholars from many different disciplines around the world. Cultural studies is avowedly and even radically interdisciplinary and can sometimes be seen as antidisciplinary. A key concern for cultural studies practitioners is the examination of the forces within and through which socially organized people conduct and participate in the construction of their everyday lives.
Cultural studies combines a variety of politically engaged critical approaches drawn including semiotics, Marxism, feminist theory, ethnography, critical race theory, Post-structuralism, Postcolonialism, 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 and historical periods. Cultural studies seeks to understand how meaning is generated, disseminated, contested, bound up with systems of power and control, and produced from the social, political and economic spheres within a particular social formation or conjuncture. Important theories of cultural hegemony and agency have both influenced and been developed by the cultural studies movement, as have many recent major communication theories and agendas, such as those that attempt to explain and analyze the cultural forces related to processes of globalization.
During the rise of neo-liberalism in Britain and the US, cultural studies both became a global movement, and attracted the attention of many conservative opponents both within and beyond universities for a variety of reasons. Some left-wing critics associated particularly with Marxist forms of political economy also attacked cultural studies for allegedly overstating the importance of cultural phenomena. While cultural studies continues to have its detractors, the field has become a kind of a worldwide movement that is to this day associated with a raft of scholarly associations and programs, annual international conferences, publications and students and practitioners from Taiwan to Amsterdam and from Bangalore to Santa Cruz. Somewhat distinct approaches to cultural studies have emerged in different national and regional contexts such as the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Latin America, Asia, Africa and Italy.
As Dennis Dworkin writes, "a critical moment" in the beginning of cultural studies as a field was when Richard Hoggart used the term in 1964 in founding the Birmingham (UK) Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS), which was to become home for the development of the intellectual orientation that has become known internationally as the "Birmingham School" of cultural studies. CCCS at the University of Birmingham thus became the world's first institutional home of cultural studies.
Hoggart appointed Stuart Hall as his assistant, and Hall was effectively directing CCCS by 1968. Hall formally assumed the directorship of CCCS in 1971, when Hoggart left Birmingham to become Assistant Director-General of UNESCO. Thereafter, the field of cultural studies became closely associated with Hall's work. In 1979, Hall left Birmingham to accept a prestigious chair in Sociology at the Open University in the UK, and Richard Johnson took over the directorship of the Centre.
In the late 1990s, "restructuring" at the University of Birmingham led to the elimination of CCCS and the creation of a new Department of Cultural Studies and Sociology (CSS) in 1999. Then, in 2002, the University of Birmingham's senior administration abruptly announced the disestablishment of CSS, provoking a substantial international outcry. The immediate reason for disestablishment of the new department was an unexpectedly low result in the UK's Research Assessment Exercise of 2001, though a dean from the university attributed the decision to "inexperienced ‘macho management.’" The RAE, a holdover initiative of the Margaret Thatcher-led UK government of 1986, determines research funding for university programs.
Beginning in 1964, after the initial appearance of the founding works of British Cultural Studies in the late 1950s, Stuart Hall's pioneering work at CCCS, along with that of his colleagues and postgraduate students including Paul Willis, Dick Hebdige, David Morley, Charlotte Brunsdon, John Clarke, Richard Dyer, Judith Williamson, Richard Johnson, Iain Chambers, Dorothy Hobson, Chris Weedon, Tony Jefferson, Michael Green and Angela McRobbie, gave shape and substance to the field of cultural studies. 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 work of Louis Althusser radically rethought the Marxist account of "base" and "superstructure" in ways that had a significant influence on the "Birmingham School." Much of the work done at CCCS studied youth subcultural expressions of antagonism toward "respectable" middle-class British culture in the post-WWII period. Also during the 70s, 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 his colleagues, this shift in loyalty from the Labour Party to the Conservative Party had to be explained in terms of cultural politics, which they had been tracking even before Thatcher's victory. Some of this work was presented in the cultural studies classic, Policing the Crisis, and in other later texts such as Hall's The Hard Road to Renewal: Thatcherism and the Crisis of the Left and New Times: The Changing Face of Politics in the 1990s.
To trace the development of British Cultural Studies, see, for example, the work of Richard Hoggart, E. P. Thompson, Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall, Paul Willis, Angela McRobbie, Paul Gilroy, David Morley, Charlotte Brunsdon, Richard Dyer, and others.
By the late 1970s, scholars associated with The Birmingham School had firmly placed questions of gender and race on the cultural studies agenda, where they have remained ever since. Also by the late 1970s, cultural studies had begun to attract a great deal of international attention. It spread globally throughout the 1980s and 90s. As it did so, it both encountered new conditions of knowledge production, and engaged with other major international intellectual currents such as poststructuralism, postmodernism and postcolonialism. The wide range of cultural studies journals now located throughout the world, as shown below, is one indication of the globalization of the field.
In the US, prior to the emergence of British Cultural Studies, several versions of cultural analysis had emerged largely from pragmatic and liberal-pluralist philosophical traditions. However, when British Cultural Studies began to spread internationally in the late 1970s, and to engage with feminism, poststructuralism, postmodernism and race in the late 70s and 1980s, critical cultural studies (i.e., Marxist, feminist, poststructuralist, etc.) expanded tremendously in US universities in fields such as communication studies, education, sociology and literature. Cultural Studies, the flagship journal of the field, has been based in the US since its founding editor, John Fiske, brought it there from Australia in 1987.
A thriving cultural studies scene has existed in Australia since the late 1970s, when several key CS practitioners emigrated there from the UK, taking British Cultural Studies with them, after Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister of the UK in 1979. A school of cultural studies known as "cultural policy studies" is one of the distinctive Australian contributions to the field, though it is not the only one. Australia also gave birth to the world's first professional cultural studies association (now known as the Cultural Studies Association of Australasia) in 1990. Cultural studies journals based in Australia include International Journal of Cultural Studies, Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies and Cultural Studies Review.
In Canada, cultural studies has sometimes focused on issues of technology and society, continuing the emphasis in the work of Marshall McLuhan, Harold Innis, and others. Cultural studies journals based in Canada include Topia: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies.
In Latin America, cultural studies has drawn on thinkers such as José Martí, Ángel Rama and other Latin American figures, in addition to the Western theoretical sources associated with cultural studies in other parts of the world. Leading Latin American cultural studies scholars include Néstor García Canclini, Jésus Martín-Barbero, and Beatriz Sarlo. Among the key issues addressed by Latin American cultural studies scholars are decoloniality, urban cultures, and postdevelopment theory. Latin American cultural studies journals include the Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies.
Even though cultural studies developed much more rapidly in the UK than in continental Europe, there is a significant cultural studies presence in countries such as France, Spain and Portugal. The field is relatively undeveloped in Germany, probably due to the continued influence of the Frankfurt School, which is now often said to be in its third generation, which includes notable figures such as Axel Honneth. Cultural studies journals based in continental Europe include the European Journal of Cultural Studies, the Journal of Spanish Cultural Studies, French Cultural Studies, and Portuguese Cultural Studies.
In Germany, the term cultural studies specifically refers to the field in the Anglo-sphere especially British Cultural Studies to differentiate it from the German Kulturwissenschaft which developed along different lines and is characterized by its distance from political science. However, Kulturwissenschaft and cultural studies are often used interchangeably, particularly by lay persons.
As noted above, Marxism has been an important influence upon cultural studies. Those associated with CCCS initially engaged deeply with the structuralism of Louis Althusser, and later in the 1970s turned decisively toward Antonio Gramsci. Cultural studies has also embraced the examination of race, gender, and other aspects of identity, as is illustrated, for example, by a number of key books published collectively under the name of CCCS in the late 1970s and early 80s, including Women Take Issue: Aspects of Women's Subordination (1978), and The Empire Strikes Back: Race and Racism in 70s Britain (1982).
To understand the changing political circumstances of class, politics and culture in the United Kingdom, scholars at The Birmingham School turned to the work of Antonio Gramsci, an Italian thinker, writer and communist party leader of the 1910s, 20s and '30s. Gramsci had been concerned with similar issues: why would Italian laborers and peasants vote for fascists? What strategic approach is necessary to mobilize popular support in more progressive directions? Gramsci modified classical Marxism, and argued that culture must be understood as a key site of political and social struggle. In his view, capitalists used not only brute force (police, prisons, repression, military) to maintain control, but also penetrated the everyday culture of working people in a variety of ways in their efforts to win popular "consent." It is important to recognize that for Gramsci, historical leadership, or "hegemony," involves the formation of alliances between class factions, and struggles within the cultural realm of everyday common sense. Hegemony was always, for Gramsci, an interminable, unstable and contested process.
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.
Edgar and Sedgwick write:
The theory of hegemony was of central importance to the development of British cultural studies [particularly The Birmingham School. It facilitated analysis of the ways 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.
The development of hegemony theory in cultural studies was in some ways consonant with work in other fields exploring agency, a theoretical concept that insists on the active, critical capacities of subordinated peoples (e.g. the working classes, colonized peoples, women). As Stuart Hall famously argued in his 1981 essay, "Notes on Deconstructing 'the Popular'," "ordinary people are not cultural dopes." Insistence on accounting for the agency of subordinated peoples runs counter to the work of traditional structuralists. Some analysts have however been critical of some work in cultural studies that they feel overstates the significance of or even romanticizes some forms of popular cultural agency.
Cultural studies often concerns itself with agency at the level of the practices of everyday life, and approaches such research from a standpoint of radical contextualism. In other words, cultural studies rejects universal accounts of cultural practices, meanings, and identities.
Judith Butler, an American feminist theorist whose work is often associated with cultural studies, wrote that
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.
In recent decades, as capitalist culture has spread throughout the world via contemporary forms of globalization, cultural studies has generated important analyses of local sites and practices of negotiation with and resistance to Western hegemony.
Cultural Studies criticizes the traditional view of the passive consumer, particularly by underlining the different ways people read, receive and interpret cultural texts, or appropriate other kinds of cultural products, or otherwise participate in the production and circulation of meanings. On this view, a consumer can appropriate, actively rework or challenge the meanings circulated through cultural texts. In some of its variants, then, cultural studies has thus shifted the analytical focus from (traditional understandings of) production to consumption, which is nevertheless understood as a form of production (of meanings, of identities, etc.) in its own right. Stuart Hall, John Fiske, and others have been influential in these developments.
A special 2008 issue of the field's flagship journal, Cultural Studies, examined "Anti-Consumerism" from a variety of cultural studies angles. As Jeremy Gilbert noted in his contribution to this issue, cultural studies must grapple with the fact that “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."
Cultural studies, drawing upon and developing semiotics, uses the concept of text to designate not only written language, but also television programs, films, photographs, fashion, hairstyles, and so forth; the texts of cultural studies comprise all the meaningful artifacts of culture. This conception of textuality derives especially from the work of the pioneering and influential semiotician, Roland Barthes, but also owes debts to other sources, such as Juri Lotman and his colleagues from Tartu–Moscow School. Similarly, the field widens the concept of "culture." "Culture," for a cultural studies researcher, includes not only traditional high culture (the culture of ruling social groups), but also everyday meanings and practices, which have, as noted above, become a central focus of cultural studies. Cultural studies even approaches sites and spaces of everyday life, such as pubs, living rooms, gardens and beaches, as "texts."
Jeff Lewis summarized much of the work on textuality and textual analysis in his cultural studies textbook and a post-9/11 monograph on media and terrorism. According to Lewis, 'textual studies' use complex and difficult heuristic methods and require both powerful interpretive skills and a subtle conception of politics and contexts. The task of the cultural analyst, for Lewis, is to engage with both knowledge systems and texts, and observe and analyse the ways the two interact with one another. This engagement represents the critical dimensions of the analysis, its capacity to illuminate the hierarchies within and surrounding the given text and its discourses.
Cultural studies has evolved through the confluence of various disciplines—anthropology, media and communication studies, literary studies, education, geography, philosophy, sociology, politics and others. While some have accused certain areas of cultural studies of meandering into political relativism and a kind of empty version of "postmodern" analysis, most hold that at its core, cultural studies provides a significant conceptual and methodological framework for cultural, social and economic critique. This critique is designed to "deconstruct" the meanings and assumptions that are inscribed in the institutions, texts and practices that work with and through, and produce and re-present, culture. Thus, while some scholars and disciplines like to dismiss cultural studies for its methodological openness and rejection of disciplinarity, its core strategies of critique and analysis have had a profound influence throughout the more progressive and critical areas of the social sciences and humanities. Cultural studies work on forms of social differentiation, control and inequality, identity, community-building, media, and knowledge production, for example, has had a substantial impact. Moreover, the influence of cultural studies has become increasingly evident in areas as diverse as translation studies, health studies, international relations, development studies, computer studies, economics, archaeology, and neurobiology, as well as across the range of disciplines that initially shaped the emergence of cultural studies, including literature, sociology, communication studies, and anthropology.
Cultural studies has also diversified its own interests and methodologies, incorporating a range of studies on media policy, democracy, design, leisure, tourism, warfare and development. While certain key concepts such as ideology or discourse, class, hegemony, identity and gender remain significant, cultural studies has long engaged with and integrated new concepts and approaches such as deconstruction and postmodernism. The field thus continues to pursue political critique through its engagements with the forces of culture and politics.
The Blackwell Companion to Cultural Studies, edited by leading cultural studies scholar Toby Miller, contains essays that analyze the development of cultural studies approaches within each of a wide range of disciplines across the contemporary social sciences and humanities.
Many cultural studies practitioners work in departments of English or Comparative Literature. Nevertheless, some traditional literary scholars such as Yale professor Harold Bloom have been outspoken critics of cultural studies. On the level of methodology, these scholars dispute the theoretical underpinning of the movement's critical framework.
[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, the...now-weary 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'."
Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton is not wholly opposed to cultural studies, but has criticised aspects of it and highlighted 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.
Cultural studies has also had a substantial impact on sociology. For example, when Stuart Hall left CCCS at Birmingham, it was to accept a prestigious professorship in Sociology at the Open University in Britain. The subfield of cultural sociology, in particular, is disciplinary home to many cultural studies practitioners. Nevertheless, there are some differences between sociology as a discipline and the field of cultural studies as a whole. While sociology was founded upon various historic works purposefully distinguishing the subject from philosophy or psychology, cultural studies has explicitly interrogated and criticized traditional understandings and practices of disciplinarity. Most CS practitioners think it is best that cultural studies neither emulate disciplines nor aspire to disciplinarity for cultural studies. Rather, they promote a kind of radical interdisciplinarity as the basis for cultural studies.
One sociologist whose work has had a major influence upon cultural studies is Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu's work makes innovative use of statistics and in-depth interviews. However, although Bourdieu's work has been highly influential within cultural studies, and although Bourdieu regarded his work as a form of science, cultural studies has never embraced the idea that it should aspire toward "scientificity," and has marshalled a wide range of theoretical and methodological arguments against the fetishization of "scientificity" as a basis for cultural studies.
Two sociologists who have been critical of cultural studies, Chris Rojek and Bryan S. Turner, argue in their 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. Many, however, would argue, following Hall, that cultural studies has always sought to avoid the establishment of a fixed research agenda; this follows from its critique of disciplinarity. Moreover, Hall and many others have long argued against the misunderstanding that textual analysis is the sole methodology of cultural studies, and have practiced numerous other approaches, as noted above. Rojek and Turner also level the accusation that there is "a sense of moral superiority about the correctness of the political views articulated" in cultural studies
In 1996, physicist Alan Sokal expressed his opposition to cultural studies by submitting a hoax article to a cultural studies journal, Social Text. The article, which was crafted as a parody of what Sokal referred to as the "fashionable nonsense" of postmodernism, was accepted by the editors of the journal, which did not at the time practice peer review. When the paper appeared in print, Sokal published a second article in a self-described "academic gossip" magazine, Lingua Franca, revealing his hoax on Social Text. Sokal stated that his motivation stemmed from his rejection of contemporary critiques of scientific rationalism:
"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."
Hall and others have identified some core originating texts, or the original "curriculum", of the field of cultural studies: