Cultural studies

> Paru le : 24.12.2015

Global approach

Cultural studies is an academic field grounded in critical theory and literary criticism. Cultural studies is interdisciplinary and a wide network of intellectuals and scholars in Europe and in the USA nowadays work at trying to situate the cultural forces constructing our daily lives. The cultural researchers’ job is to understand why we think, create and produce the way we do; what makes us think the way we globally think, in a definite culture. Analyzing our cultural productions (books, music, advertising, papers, cartoons, graphic arts…) is a way to learn more about who we are and how our culture functions and evolves, in relation to its global context.

The term was coined by Richard Hoggart in 1964 when he founded the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies or CCCS. It has since become strongly associated with Stuart Hall, who succeeded Hoggart as Director. Both are key figures in Cultural Studies. From the 1970s onward, Stuart Hall’s pioneering work, along with his colleagues Paul Willis, Dick Hedgige, Tony Jefferson, Michael Green and Angela Mc Robbies, created an international intellectual movement. Many cultural studies scholars used Marxist methods of analysis, exploring the relationships between cultural forms (called the superstructure) and that of the political economy (called the base). By the 1970s, Britain’s manufacturing industries were fading and the unions were shrinking, and yet millions of working class Britons were in favour of the rise of Margaret Thatcher. For Stuart Hall and other Marxist theorists, this marked and unbelievable shift in loyalty from the Labour party to the Conservative party which went against the interests of the working class and had to be explained in terms of cultural politics: this is how the cultural studies movement started in Great-Britain. It always remained quite political, cultural researchers being globally committed researchers with a leftist vision of their own society and mainly centred on the questions of resistance to domination. During the 1980s, with the rise of neo-liberalism in Britain and of new conservatism in America, cultural studies became a way for scholars to criticize modernity from both outside political and inside academic forces, because of the close alliance between many cultural studies scholars and the Marxist theories. This political left-wing commitment of many cultural researchers created a strong opposition against cultural studies from conservative governments, as it was most dramatically demonstrated in Britain with the closing of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) at the University of Birmingham, UK, in 2002.

The analytical field of Cultural studies is focused on the political dynamics of contemporary culture, as well as its historical foundations, conflicts, and defining features. Even if it is often mistaken for cultural anthropology and/or ethnic studies, it is highly distinguishable in both objective and methodology from these other two fields. Cultural researchers mainly concentrate on how a particular medium or message relates to ideology, social class, nationality, ethnicity, sexuality, and/or gender, rather than investigating a particular culture or area of the world. In other words, cultural studies analyses cultural “phenomena” in various societies, combining to do so feminist theory, 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, but it always starts with the object of culture to know more about the global culture it is ensued from. In anthropology, for example, scholars study the society or community an individual lives in to know more about man and his social and cultural practices. The cultural researchers will do the opposite. For instance, to know more about the Indian as an individual, the anthropologist will start by analyzing the Indian cultures and traditions, whereas the cultural researchers will start by analyzing the symbols decorating the wigwams or wampum belts to learn about the individual who painted them and why he did so. Consequently, the knowledge of the tribe this Indian belongs to will get enriched, and so will the knowledge of the Nation this tribe is part of, but also of the pan Indian culture this Nation can be related to. The approach is inverted. Thus, cultural studies seeks to understand the ways in which meaning is generated, disseminated, and produced through various practices, beliefs, institutions, and political, economic, or social structures within a given culture.

Larry Grossberg, one of the most important figures in the American representation of Cultural Studies nowadays wrote that: “there is no one Cultural Studies position. It is radically contextual” (Grossberg 2010). This quotation sheds light on the fact that cultural studies does not aim at finding any universal truth: the meaning found out by a researcher will change with his or her disciplinary context. Someone with a background in English will read and analyze the same text or phenomenon quite differently than someone coming from philosophy, despite their agreement that they are doing Cultural Studies. The sharing of the different results creates the very notion of network in this specific field (the conferences in cultural studies aim to share and compare these different readings of one specific cultural phenomenon so as to know more about the culture it stems from). There is no revealed truth in cultural studies. To that extent, it is very different from structural research where the scholars analyzing a text through a scientific “grid” often assert that they know exactly what the author meant when he produced the text. Cultural researchers will study the text as a cultural phenomenon, produced by an author living in a specific context and coming from a specific background; his text will be regarded as a testimony of this particular gathering of information and the words themselves will find their meaning – not just through the eye of the scholar analyzing them – but according to this contextual background, the intrinsic meaning of words getting enriched by those exterior elements. The personal background of the researcher will also add another dimension to this cultural analysis.

Raymond Williams insists on the fundamental intuition of Cultural Studies: “a quite central theoretical point which to me is at the heart of Cultural Studies but which has not always been remembered […] is […] that you cannot understand an intellectual or artistic project without also understanding its formation; that the relation between a project and a formation is always decisive […] this is really what Cultural Studies has been about, of taking the best we can in intellectual work and going with it in this very open way to confront people for whom it is not a way of life, for whom it is not in any probability a job, but for whom it is a matter of their own intellectual interest, their own understanding of the pressures on them, pressures of every kind, from the most personal to the most broadly political” (Williams 1963, quoted by Ricardo Brown 2012). To return to the statement by Grossberg, we can see that Cultural Studies is admittedly difficult to classify, a fact that has weakened its institutional respectability while the popularity of Cultural Policy Studies has kept growing in the last 30 years (see Mattelart & Neveu 2008, 66-77). While the meaning of culture is so varied (see Williams 1985) that no fixed object is to be found, it can certainly not be equated to anthropology. If anything, it is a reaction against the type of anthropological science that during the period of colonialism and imperialism organized our understanding of human life. The work in Cultural Studies has self-consciously focused on Western societies in the 20th century, its popular culture, and on the ruins left in the wake of the Enlightenment. It has focused on these systems of knowledge, entertainment, and authority because, and this is no paradox, these all produce forms of resistance and reaction – though often short-lived and unsuccessful – to the social order, and offer possible alternatives.

Main features and concepts

Some important new concepts were born from Cultural Studies, such as the influential theories of cultural hegemony and of agency as well as the most recent communication theory, which attempt to explain the cultural forces behind globalization. Unique academic approaches to cultural studies have also emerged in the United States, Canada, Australia, South Africa and Italy. One can find five main methodological features, common to all cultural researchers:

  • The main aim of Cultural Studies: it is to examine cultural practices and their relation to domination (the dominant canons and norms, what we can also call the mainstream). For example, a study of a subculture (such as the white working class youth in London, or the female African-Americans in the USA) would consider their social practices against those of the dominant culture (in this example, the middle and upper classes in London, or the dominant white American society).
  • The second aim is the understanding of culture in all its complex forms: it implies analyzing the social and political context in which culture manifests itself.
  • The third aim: Cultural Studies attempts to expose and reconcile the division of and to overcome the split between tacit forms of knowledge (born from cultural experiences) and objective forms of knowledge (universal). For instance the definition of “identity” brought about by a former slave does not necessarily fit that of the dictionary or of a philosophy class. Why? What do they nevertheless have in common? What really is identity?
  • Cultural Studies is both the object of study and the place of political criticism and action (for instance, not only would a cultural studies scholar study an object, but s/he would connect this study to a larger, progressive political project. If one studies Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, the aim is also to know more about the Black American Culture born from slavery).
  • Cultural Studies has a commitment to an ethical evaluation of modern society and political action: it is a committed theoretical practice.

The cultural scholars from the Birmingham school invented two major conceptual theories about culture: the theory of hegemony and the theory of agency, which became the main theories from which modern cultural researchers developed their own vision of culture in the euro-modern world.

Theory of Hegemony

In order to understand the changing political circumstances of class, politics and culture in the United Kingdom, scholars at the CCCS turned to the work of Antonio Gramsci, an Italian thinker of the 1920s and 1930s. Gramsci had been concerned with similar issues: why would Italian labourers and peasants vote for fascists? In other words, why would working people vote to give more control to corporations and see their own rights and freedoms abrogated? Gramsci changed traditional Marxism in seeing culture as a key instrument of political and social control. In this view, capitalists used not only brute force (police, prisons, repression, military) to maintain control, but also penetrated the everyday culture of working people. Thus, the key element to understanding for Gramsci and for cultural studies is that of cultural hegemony. In order to obtain obedient citizens, the political power usually develops a mass culture which annihilates all spirit of resistance. The theory of hegemony was of central importance to the development of British cultural studies, and particularly of the CCCS. It facilitated the analysis of the ways in which 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. From this basic discovery modern researchers nowadays analyze how the dominant political powers lost their mastery of the people by culture with the arrival of the internet and the broad explosion of any “cultural hegemony”.

Theory of Agency

Agency is a theoretical outlook which re-establishes the active, critical capacities of all people in a specific culture, to react to hegemony. Notions of agency have developed the emphasis on groups of people (e.g. the working class, primitives, colonized peoples, women) whose political consciousness and scope of action was generally limited to their position within certain economic and political structures. In other words, many economists, sociologists, political scientists and historians had traditionally failed to acknowledge that everyday people do indeed play a role in shaping their world. Although anthropologists since the 1960s had already established the power of “agents” – meaning to them active individuals – to contest power, and thereby first inspired post-colonial theories, cultural studies took some time before tackling the notion of agency. Cultural studies scholars discovered in consumers’ ways of creatively using and subverting commodities and dominant ideologies the role of popular agency in the 1990s, and this became their main focus of interest while anthropologists started to neglect this aspect. Cultural studies concerns itself with the meaning and practices of everyday life. Cultural practices include the ways people do particular things, or use various objects in a given culture such as watching television or eating out, reading e-books or using their cell-phones. Agency then refers to the ability to change society and culture through these practices.


In the past 20 years, communication technology has moved very rapidly. Because we are increasing communication worldwide and, as a consequence, constantly exposed to the ideologies of mass media, globalization has a major effect on how we look at Cultural Studies. In addition, human culture itself is becoming more unified as a result of globalization. Stuart Hall, who died in 2014, defined the concept of “global culture” and hoped for a reaction of the “local” to the “global”, insisting on the fact that this old dialectic was actually the same as the one opposing the dominant to the dominated. New cultural identities emerge but the process of agency remains the same (see Hall 1997).

Other approaches of Cultural Studies

The US

In contrast with the clear British political left-wing views and criticisms of popular culture as being a “capitalist” system implemented by the power to dominate the people, American Cultural Studies was first grounded in a pragmatic, liberal-pluralist tradition. 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. But this distinction between American and British strands has since faded. However, Stuart Hall asserts that mainstream mass communication in the United States holds the illusion of democratic pluralism. He develops the idea that the aim of theory and research is to delegate power to marginalized people and allow them to have a say in this world. In the 1970s his ideas finally reached the USA universities, now familiarized with the concerns of minority groups in the wake of the civil rights movement, and cultural studies widely developed throughout the United States. The two-thirds of the faculty teaching western literature and social theory in American universities now claim to be cultural researchers.

Outside the UK and US

In Canada, Cultural Studies has sometimes focused on issues of technology and society. In Australia, there has sometimes been a special emphasis on the policies of culture. In South Africa, the topics of human rights and third-world issues are the main topics dealt with. There were a number of exchanges between Birmingham and Italy resulting in work on Italian leftism and theories of postmodernism. On the other hand, there is a debate in Latin America about the relevance of Cultural Studies with some researchers focused on more action-oriented research. Cultural Studies is relatively undeveloped in France, where there is a stronger tradition of social sciences with Bourdieu, and of semiotics, as in the writings of Roland Barthes. It is also undeveloped in Germany, probably due to the continued influence of the Frankfurt School, which has developed a body of writing on such topics as mass culture, modern art and music; but it is treated with respect there, which is not always the case in France.

Cultural Studies and the reception of the text

In the context of Cultural Studies, the idea of a text not only includes written language, but also movies, photographs, paintings, tags: the texts in Cultural Studies implies all the meaningful artefacts of culture. Similarly, the discipline widens the concept of « culture ». « Culture », for a cultural studies researcher, not only includes traditional high culture and more popular culture, but also everyday meanings and practices. Literary scholars globally reject this approach. Yale literature professor Harold Bloom has been a fierce critic of the Cultural Studies model of literary studies. Critics such as Bloom see cultural studies applied to literary scholarship as useless. His arguments are that scholars should promote the public interest in literature by studying what makes literary works beautiful and not culturally meaningful. This dichotomy between utility and aestheticism – which is certainly not enhanced by cultural researchers, also interested in beauty – rekindles the 19th century argument between the art for art’s sake promoters and the promoters of artistic utilitarianism, both groups forgetting that these approaches are far from exclusive or incompatible. Literary critic Terry Eagleton, on the other hand, is not radically opposed to Cultural Studies like Bloom, but he has criticized certain aspects of it, highlighting what he sees as its strengths and weaknesses in books such as After Theory (2003). For Eagleton, literary and cultural theories have the potential to say important things about the « fundamental questions » in life, but theorists have rarely realized this potential.

Contemporary cultural studies

Cultural Studies is entering a new phase, as the political and economic environment has fundamentally altered from that of the 1970s. Hegemony was the concept that made Cultural Studies a discipline, but modernity made hegemony “post-hegemonic”. Studying the resistance to power becomes complicated in a context where power is becoming more internalized, and power and domination are increasingly (re)produced within oneself, within dominated groups and within exploited people. Cultural Studies is not a unified theory, but a diverse field of study encompassing many different approaches, methods and academic perspectives. As in any academic discipline, Cultural Studies academics frequently debate among themselves and even generate debates among other scholars. Fredric Jameson, an American Marxist political theorist and famous literary critic born in 1934, declared himself disappointed by Cultural Studies as he expected a revolution from it. Known for his analysis of contemporary cultural trends, he thought Cultural Studies would become the radical movement that could upset disciplines and redefine knowledge, going far beyond universities and academia. He expressed his vision of cultural studies as “a desire” never really fulfilled in his famous essay “On ‘Cultural Studies’” (1993). His vision of the role of capitalism as the exterior force which led to cultural postmodernism is his main intellectual achievement, and is not without some CCCS undertones.

Cultural Studies may seem to lack a fundamental literature explicitly founding a new discipline, or a common scientific method, as Bourdieu pointed out. Even though these criticisms are acceptable, one must admit that, as in the fight between the art for art’s sake movement and utilitarianism, what really matters is the object of culture itself: the book, the text, what it means, what it implies, what it testifies to. What matters less is the method used to analyze it, to prove its relevance to culture, its impact and force, and the interconnections with its context. The academic quarrels are unproductive and above all illustrate the lack of creativity of many scholars whose job it is to respect and analyze the creations of others: of artists, the makers of culture. The importance of this job lies precisely in the fact that it allows for a better knowledge of human social and cultural structures. Cultural studies resorts to a variety of approaches in order to uncover the messages delivered by the “text”, without ever pretending to speak for the creators themselves.