Cultural studies is a term that one can notice has increasingly become popular over the years in academia. Nowadays, universities worldwide offer both undergrad and postgrad cultural studies programs, and programs that focus on subsections of the field such as media studies or literary studies. However, it being a relatively newer field of study, there are still many who do not know what it entails. So, what exactly is cultural studies?
Cultural studies is an interdisciplinary academic discipline that is rooted in subjects from both the humanities and the social sciences and is based upon theories and practices from the same. While many of the seminal texts of cultural studies and early theorists of the discipline were based in the late nineteenth century and twentieth century, its establishment and recognition as an area of academic study happened later.
What is distinctive about CS is that it is extremely diverse and interconnected, drawing upon various methodologies and theories to perform analysis– thus, there is no one single definition of Cultural Studies. Jamaican scholar Stuart Hall, one of the biggest pioneers and arguably the most important figure in the field, wrote that “Cultural Studies as a project is open-ended” – it does not have any singular origins and has multiple discourses, histories, and trajectories (Hall, 1996). As they maintained that cultures were unstable and always shifting, similarly CS thinkers refused to draw any rigid boundaries around the field or maintain oneness.
Cultural Studies emerged as a field in post-war Britain in the 50s and 60s, from the minds of scholars such as Raymond Williams, Richard Hoggart and Stuart Hall. They wanted to study how the emergence of mass media and consumer society was changing the cultural landscape of Britain. Their own positionalities and lived experiences (being working class, being Black) played a role in the themes they wanted to study. It is important to note here that these founding figures never considered CS as only an academic discipline.
While the academic analysis of pop culture is not a new concept to us now, it was not so a few decades ago. In 1964, Richard Hoggart founded the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, the first institution solely dedicated to cultural studies. They were not given much encouragement, however as their endeavour to study the workings of mass culture was not one that was easily accepted by other academicians around them or the establishment. It was only in the coming years that cultural studies expanded and gained intellectual attention all over the world and engaged with other schools of thought.
While fields of study such as art history or literary studies have existed for a very long time, most people in academia back then did not consider studying the culture of the masses as a worthy endeavour. However, cultural studies proved to be different. CS theorists were the ones that argued that we should engage with and study not just what was traditionally considered culture as in highbrow art or literature but also mass culture and pop (popular) culture and that both were equally important and had to be studied in order to gain a deeper understanding of the world. Hall redefined culture as “experience lived, experience interpreted, an experience defined.”
Cultural theorists analyse not just texts themselves but also the ways in which cultural knowledge is produced and consumed in the real world. This means taking into account the socio-economic, political, and historical context in which texts are made, and the positionalities and marginalities of the makers and the people being represented in the texts. Texts here refer to not just books or literature but photos, art, films, television, fashion, etc – anything that is imbued with cultural meaning.
Major Themes and Concepts:
Cultural Studies as a field, especially with regard to its origins, is one that is hugely influenced by the Marxist school of thought and critical theory, and thus politically is aligned with the left. Some of the major theories that CS is influenced by include structuralism, post-structuralism, semiotics, post-colonialism, feminist theory, queer theory, literary theory, etc. It aims to look into how the vectors of gender, race, sexuality, class, etc shape the production-consumption and dissemination of culture and media.
The encoding/decoding model, also known as Reception Theory is a landmark theory under CS developed by Hall initially in 1973, with reference to television media. He argued that the earlier present model of communication, which is linear, is not accurate as messages in media are encoded with meanings which may be interpreted (decoded) by audiences in different ways based on their sociocultural standing and experiences. He stated that based on this, audiences would arrive at one of three readings – the dominant or preferred reading, wherein audiences decode the messages the way the producer intended them to; the negotiated reading, where there is a mixture of accepting some of the intended meanings but also adding some of their own; and finally, the oppositional reading wherein audiences reject the intended meanings and form their own based on their background.
There are also various other theories and concepts that have been developed and expanded upon by CS thinkers. Some such important concepts and areas of study include themes of representation, identity, subcultures, power, ideology and hegemony. Ideology here is meant to be understood as “commonly meant maps of meaning that, while they purport to be universal truths, are historically specific understandings that obscure and maintain power” (Barker, 2007). Hegemony is a concept that was first introduced by the scholar Antoni Gramsci, which can be explained as the processes through dominant groups maintaining social authority over marginalized groups – through producing and maintaining norms and ideas that legitimized their dominance.
Today, the field of cultural studies is one that is vast and has gained importance across the globe. There are numerous associations, research centres and journals centred around cultural studies present worldwide, and various international conferences. The importance of cultural studies is relevant now more than ever as the world is experiencing upheavals whether it be socio-cultural, political or environmental, with cultural practices and media playing a big role.
Barker, C. (2007). Cultural studies: Theory and practice. SAGE.
Hall, S. (1996). Cultural studies and its theoretical legacies. Stuart Hall: Critical dialogues in cultural studies, 262-275.
Hall, S. (1990). The Emergence of Cultural Studies and the Crisis of the Humanities. October, 53, 11-23. doi:10.2307/778912
Hsu, H. (2017, July 17). Stuart hall and the rise of cultural studies. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/stuart-hall-and-the-rise-of-cultural-studies
Cultural studies. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803095652927