Cultural studies, a global presentation
Cultural studies is an academic field grounded in critical theory and literary criticism. Analysing 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. 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). 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. 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 specific gathering of information and the words themselves will find their meaning but according to this contextual background, the intrinsic meaning of words getting enriched by those exterior elements.
Cultural Studies is admittedly difficult to classify, that has weakened its institutional respectability, while the popularity of Cultural Policy Studies has kept growing in the last 30 years. 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:
Theory of Hegemony: Gramsci changed traditional Marxism in seeing culture as a key instrument of political and social control. 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 [particularly the CCCS]. From this basic discovery modern researchers nowadays analyse 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. 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 and how they change society and culture by doing so.
Globalization: in the past 20 years, communication technology has moved very rapidly. Because we are increasing communication worldwide, globalization has a major effect on how we look at Cultural Studies because we are constantly being exposed to the ideologies of mass media.
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”. Power is becoming more internalized, and thus the resistance to power, in other words, becomes complicated when power and domination are increasingly (re)produced within oneself, within dominated groups and within exploited people. Cultural studies enables a variety of approaches to learn about the messages delivered by the text or by any other production and does not pretend to think instead of the creators themselves.
Grossberg, Larry, Cultural Studies in the Future Tense, Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.
Jameson, Fredric, “On ‘Cultural Studies’”, Social Text 34, 1993, 17-52.
Mattelart, Armand & Erik Neveu, Introduction aux Cultural Studies, Paris: La Découverte, 2008.