Cultural Studies

Cultural Studies

1. Introduction

In reconsidering why cultural studies staff today still gain more degrees in English and sociology – and in some countries still work within departments of these subjects – we can see how a continuing perceived crisis in the humanities and social sciences has affected the locations into which cultural studies has moved. What cultural studies has done as a more or less coherent project is usually seen to originate with the work at the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) from the early 1960s to the mid-1970s. But much of this work was a reaction to a conjuncture of specific ‘crossroads’ around the position of various intellectual projects of the human sciences in relation to political and policy formation. In order to pursue some of these questions, it is necessary to think back a little further and a little more generally.

The aim of this essay is to give a critical assessment of cultural studies as an interdisciplinary enterprise, located at the points of intersection between the social sciences, arts, and humanities. The first part of the essay outlines some of the central characteristics of modernity – the era in which cultural studies emerge as a distinctive form of analysis. It goes on to locate the main tendencies of cultural studies historically within this context, clarifying the changes of emphasis from structuralism to post-structuralism, and from post-structuralism to the current engagement with the problems of globalization.

2. Key Concepts in Cultural Studies

Of the three, the main emphasis is on the second as culture in the broad sense is all human activity and intellectual work is not necessarily bound by that. In cultural studies, we take culture to be the articulation of the ways of life, and this is primarily manifested through the symbolic and systems of meanings. This is a nice simple way of summing up culture – what people say, think, and do about the world. And of course, when people talk about society or a human group, it is another term for culture, so we have come full circle.

– Culture in the sense of excellence of taste in fine arts and humanities, though this is something which is exclusive to some social groups, whereas culture, in its general sense, is for everyone.

– The symbolic and systems of meanings embodied in a given set of signs. This is what culture is taken to mean in cultural studies.

– The activity of intellectual and artistic work. This concept is reflected within the cultural aspect of a society and can be re-represented throughout its history. For example, the activity of translating an ancient Greek text and making a piece of art that was produced in 1000 AD. Both are culture as they relate to an activity of intellectual work and a re-representation with the intention to give understanding to an object or a thing.

The concept of culture is among the most widely used notions in sociology. Normally, one can assume culture to be the totality of human life. The concept stands for all the traits, modes, norms, and organizations a certain society provides. For the purpose of conceptual clarity, it is divided into three sub-concepts.


3. Methodologies in Cultural Studies

The above paragraph provides a basic insight into cultural studies methodology as spanning from traditional standards and sciences of culture survey. Essentially there are two types of method in cultural studies. The first type consists of investigating cultures (plural intended) by various traditional standards of exploring other cultures often to validate assumptions of one’s own culture. The methods mentioned involve folklore collection, plain documentation or cultural relics and practices, and data and information gathering on other cultures for a variety of reasons. All of these methods keep to an empirical standard of seeing culture as an object to be known, measure, and categorize. These are often criticized by contemporary cultural studies as serving more to the interests of the culture doing the survey. Empirical cross-cultural studies can, however, be extremely useful to understanding culture if the proper cultural relativism is achieved. This kind of understanding is well expressed by the Amish saying “We are not better, only different”. In its validation of the many ways of being and seeing the world, cross-cultural studies can be a strong guard against assuming ethnocentrically that the world should be more like our own image.

Cultural studies are not a unified theory but a diverse field of study encompassing many different approaches, methods, and academic perspectives. These methodological perspectives are recent, comparatively speaking, especially given the length of time humanity has been considering its collective cultures. For many centuries, much discussion about culture was based on the sciences, specifically the field of anthropology, culminating in the comparative studies of the 19th century which formed the modern concepts of folklore and mythology, and the continuing field of ethnography or cultural anthropology. All of these took culture to mean namely the “non-material” aspects of human societies, their myths, folklore, and language. Though important, these studies made no attempt to consider culture in its totality as the complex way of life of a people, including their routines, values, symbols, and power structures. This kind of “total” cultural analysis began with the work of the Frankfurt School and later British New Left which is the root of contemporary cultural studies, informing both its culturalist methods as well as its sociology of culture and cultural materialist approaches.

4. Cultural Studies and Society

What marks this work is its focus on cultural processes as self to be explained rather than mere ammo or the economy (or state) and its attempt to develop methodological tools and theoretical resources commensurate with this task in a climate where the latter have often been monopolised by the existing social sciences. A cultural studies explains, at its most fundamental, the links to established social sciences and humanities lie in the very object of inquiry as it seeks to show how this object is itself the product or condiment of an articulated history and how it impinges upon–and may even transform–the various ways in which people understand the world and act into create it. What marks it the notion that understanding culture/social life is it a project which must be defined against reductive and/or deferential approximations this object. This point is not a merely academic one given the ad nauseam pronouncements upon the frivolity the times.

Where do cultural studies sit in relation to society? They are distinctly engaged with ways of understanding the social character of cultural processes. On the one hand, cultural studies have focused on cultures and cultural politics in ways which show an implicit or explicit contrast with conceptions of ‘the social’ which are defined in substantive or institutional terms as the sphere of state and economy. This has been especially true of work in Britain and the United States where the forging of cultural studies as a project with its own institutions and intellectual traditions has not coincided with the emergence of any new social movements, let alone any serious political challenge from the left. In this context, cultural studies has had to affirm its relationship to such social movements and its oppositional character with respect to state and dominant institutions, in association rather than identification. This has usually been a matter of affirming what popular Gramscian understandings of ‘hegemony’ as a way of life/culture have represented all along: the relative autonomy and flexibility of established power relations which is always reinforced from above but can always be configured and indeed reformed from below. But it has also been a matter of attempts to forge alternatives. If the left has been defeated in the arena of party politics it has often seemed more successful in the realms of subculture and lifestyle–even if this success has been confined to specific strata or sectors.

5. Future Directions in Cultural Studies

Future directions in cultural studies

Cultural studies continues to be a controversial and evolving site for the generation and contestation of knowledge. However, taking into account the rise of globalization, more recently some cultural studies practitioners have argued that now is the time to devote resources (intellectual and institutional) to the multiple local, regional, and national cultures that were its starting point. The futures of these sites, and the emergent forms of politics, are still relatively unknown. Research aimed to chart the new cultural forms, cultural connections, the movements of peoples and their identities, has begun to be undertaken in a range of projects within and beyond the academy. In many ways, these are speculative and certainly informed by the recent debates around globalization. Yet, at the same time, they are attempts to resist the closure of possibility that there is but one global future, to determine what is creatively new about our contemporary conjuncture, and where the real alternatives lie. In order to follow through the implications of the cultural turn in the social sciences and humanities, cultural studies will need to maintain a critical self-reflexivity about its own theoretical and methodological commitments, decisions, and potential satisfaction and/or dissatisfaction of the interests of the various publics with which it seeks to engage.

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