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Cultural Studies Series: What is Cultural Studies?

By Christopher Canchola

What is Cultural Studies?

This essay discusses one of the more socially potent disciplines that arose out of mid 20th century scholarship, cultural studies. Here will be addressed its uses, popular terminology, and overall objective. 

Cultural Studies is an interdisciplinary field of cultural analysis. It is theoretically, politically, and empirically inclined. The overarching goal of cultural studies is to understand culture and it’s intricate structures, along with the study of a given culture’s political and social contexts. One of the more notable aspects of cultural studies is its emphasis on power

This Might Seem Familiar  

Power is a word tossed around a lot in both mainstream, and alternative media. Even those not familiar with cultural studies may be familiar with terms such as power dynamics, or hierarchies of power, power structures. You might have come across this verbiage during work training depending on the work you do. The Association for Talent Development (ATSD) conducted a research project supported by the U.S Department of Labor and estimates that employers spend around $180 billion dollars on informal training. An educated guess can infer that this sort of talk is heard in industries skewed more to the left, for example, HR spaces in higher education or the entertainment industry (In contrast to say, agricultural, real estate, banking, or mining industries). 

Me Too, Black Lives Matter, and Occupy Wall Street

When the Me Too movement was in full swing power was linked to individuals in positions of authority, and their misuse of power was assigned to the plethora of sexual assault and sexual harassment allegations posed in front of them. This is not new, nor is it surprising, but it is usually rich, or otherwise, powerful men that are accused of raping, assaulting, harassing, blackmailing their less powerful, or rich, or famous female colleagues. This was exceptionally clear in the entertainment industry (which garnered some of the most controversy) where name, and notoriety are the main monopolizers of power and prestige. We can relate Me Too to other grassroot movements that attempt to subvert (or question) conventional ideas, behaviors, and modes of being. We don’t have to dig much deeper than recent history to find analogous examples of this phenomena. The Black Lives Matter movement fights for racial and economic liberation against white prejudiced hegemonic culture. The Occupied Wall Street movement that became global in late 2011 fought for economic liberation for the 99% against the minority of individuals who disproportionately benefit from large corporations and the global financial system. 

With all of this, power is illustrated as, both, a force that is seemingly observable and questioned/challenged and/or an elusive construct that needs clarifying.

What is Power?

Firstly, power is a social construct in the sense that it only exists because people agree it exists across social interactions. Therefore there have been many attempts to operationalize/concretize it’s meaning. 

In cultural studies, power can be defined as the extent to which an individual can influence the actions, beliefs, or behaviors of others. Power can be most easily understood as a factor that arises out of the interdependence between two or more agents and the environment. The subject of power is not seen as one dimensionally good or bad in the realm of cultural studies, and its observable functions, uses, and ends are debated within and outside the realm of cultural studies and related disciplines. 

Culture through the Lens of Cultural Studies

In cultural studies, power is seen as an important social phenomena in relation to ideology, class structures, policy and other social events. cultures are researched in relation to larger systems of power. 

Cultural studies views the sum of our similar, and different, collective social experiences (our cultures) as a set of fluid, and varied interactions, and practices. In cultural studies culture is not simply viewed as a static “is” rather it is a dynamic “is, and will be” in relation to itself and other cultures. 

Now for a bit of history 

Cultural Studies History: Richard Hoggart, Stuart Hall, and the CCCS

The first school built for the purpose of cultural studies was the CCCS. The Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies was founded at the University of Birmingham by Herebrt Richard Hoggart in 1964. Richard Hoggart is best known for his publication The Uses of Literacy – a work which examined the influence of mass media on British culture at the time. 

The Uses of Literacy was dubbed one of the founding texts of cultural studies by Hoggart’s assistant Stuart Hall, see here “what early cultural studies learned from and owed, methodologically, to the book, its connections with wider debates at the time and its formative role in what came to be known as ‘the cultural turn”. Stuart further credits the book for recognizing, and with great timing, the “growing centrality of culture”

The Centrality of Culture, and the Cultural Turn

While Stuart believes his mentor would disagree with the fuzzy concept cultural turn, he establishes that Hoggart would agree with the growing centrality of culture, it’s observable implications, and possible conjectures, Stuart reports the following “It simply registers an inescapable fact about what I called elsewhere the growing ‘centrality of culture’ — the astonishing global expansion and sophistication of the cultural industries; the growing significance of culture for all aspects of social and economic life; its reordering effects on a variety of critical and intellectual discourses and disciplines; its emergence as a primary and constitutive category of analysis and ‘the way in which culture creeps into every nook and crevice of contemporary social life, creating a proliferation of secondary environments, mediating everything”. The rapid monopolizing and expansion of culture and its effects is one of many conversations had within the world of cultural studies.

Stuart Hall

By 1968, Stuart Hall took over and was appointed to the directorship position of the CCCS. Stuart Hall was born in Kingston, Jamaica, and grew up in a middle class family. He attended Jamaica College, a single sex boarding school modeled after the British education system. With the help from teachers, Hall was able to include diverse works in what was otherwise a very conventional classical education. Some of these works included the ideas of James Joyce, Marx, Lenin, Freud, and so on. Hall went on to study english as a Rhodes Scholar at Merton college at Oxford University. There he received both his Undergrad and M.A. in english. 

Hall states that the pigmentocracy that existed in the west indies had an influential effect on his later works. During his directorship at the CCCS, Hall pioneered efforts to relate cultural studies more heavily to the concepts of race, and class. Under Hall’s guidance influential works such as Dick Hebdige’s Subculture, and Charlotte Brundson’s and David Morely’s Nationwide Television Studies were published – with the latter utilizing Hall’s encoding/decoding model – a reception theory model that attempts to illustrate how media messages are created, distributed, and understood. 

During Hall’s time at CCCS, many cultural studies researchers utilized Marxist methods of analysis. Through this organization of thought, cultural forms served as the superstructure and political economies served as the base (the superstructure and the base serve as the two constituent elements of society according Marxist theory, see more here). 

Stuart Hall and Experienced Lived

One of the hallmark sentiments held by hall is that culture is not simply what mass communication conglomerates want us to see, nor is it thehigh brow tastes that are “validated, and authenticated” (a phrase coined by Hall) by the wealthy or academic lot. Culture to Hall is merely “experience lived, experience interpreted, and experience defined.” with these experiences being subjected to ourselves, others, and our authorities – Hall quotes “what is culture – but an attempt to grasp at these changes, to wrap one’s head around what is newly possible?”

What is “Canon”?

The subversive/nonconformist qualities of these theories and subversive qualities of the greater scene of cultural studies is in light of the “peacemaking” tastes of the upper, patriarchal, capitalistic, imperialistic, intellectually and racially elitist classes. In total, cultural studies provide maps of meaning to disenfranchised populations, their practices, and their institutions in relation to the dominant classes. Cultural studies protests against the notion that what currently “is” in vogue, in power, is canon. 

With the rapid internationalisation of the fight against poverty, political fascism, and the degradation of our earth – scholars, activists, and the working class alike are ready to take arms along with cultural studies and offer counter-narratives, and solutions. 


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