Cultural Theory

Culture theory is a concept created and published by Marxist theorist Raymond Williams. Williams published this theory in 1961 in his piece “The Long Revolution.” Williams’ culture theory was inspired by his curiosity in how the structure of feelings and culture/lifestyles changed from generation to generation in Britain.

Williams determined that it would be impossible to track culture change between generations by analyzing and comparing society as a whole at different times. Instead he chose to compare art and media and how they interacted in different periods. He determined that since media was a key site of cultural interaction in each generation it could be helpful in gauging the structure of feeling in each era. Williams theorized that to get a full picture of the cultural significance of media would need to be analyzed through three different, yet equally important cultural lenses: ideal, documentary, and societal culture of each piece.

The ideal culture of a piece of media is its representation of the process of human perfection, as well as the display of its realtion to absolute and universal values. Ideal culture manifests itself in media as the perceived values and behaviors a perfect individual would display in an equally perfect society. Due to the wealth and power relations related to perfection, especially in media, ideal culture is nearly exclusively apparent in media deemed to be ‘high culture.’ High culture media is typically defined as media that is exclusively available to the wealthy, expensive and difficult to interact with, and/or of a refined taste. Often art will originally lack high culture until an expert in the pieces field comes forward and declares that the piece is high culture. Due to this, a piece can originally lack ideal culture then over time obtain it.

Documentary culture refers to the way media is recorded, preserved, and displayed. Moreover, documentary culture refers to the criticism and reaction that media receives. Williams states that the documentary culture of a given piece of media is the longest lasting form of culture, because after the original carriers of the cultural opinions of a piece die, thee documentation remains. Documentary culture is normally reliant on what the experts in a field think the significance of a piece is, and how to best exemplify this significance. Because a piece can gain significance over time, as well as expert opinion can change, the documentary culture of a piece is subject to change.

Social culture is the third and final lens at which one will analyze a piece when using Williams’ culture theory. Social culture is the perception of a piece by the masses, and how society reacts to a piece of art or media. Social culture, like the previous two cultural lenses at which to view media, are subject to change over time.

It is essential when utilizing Raymond Williams’ culture theory to analyze all three types of a piece’s cultural significance to get a complete picture. No single piece of a piece’s cultural build up is more important than another, and all three lenses must be used and analyzed when applying culture theory. For example, a theorist cannot just analyze the documentary culture of a piece, or just the documentary and ideal culture of a piece. All three types of culture must be analyzed when utilizing Williams’ culture theory.

The final element of Williams’ culture is to analyze how each type of culture changes over time. Keep in mind that Williams’ inspiration for this theory was to analyze how the structure of feeling changes every generation. To utilize media to determine this, it is necessary to analyze how a piece’s ideal, documentary, and social culture changes over time. By analyzing enough pieces of media, one can notice and document trends amongst the cultural change in different media from one generation to the next. It is by analyzing these trends that theorists can determine a natural progression of structure of feeling from one generation to the next. Williams’ himself applied this theory to Britain and concluded that while one generations culture is derived and inspired by the structure of feeling of the prior generation, the structure of feeling of a generation is always significantly different and comes primarily from society at the time.

A promotional image for an 1884 showing of Macbeth

Raymond William’s culture theory can be easily applied to the play Macbeth by William Shakespeare, as well as to the Eiffel Tower. Macbeth originally lacked an association with ideal culture. During it’s first showings, the play was considered anything but high culture, being viewed primarily by the lower classes. However, as the play has aged, it has been recognized by experts in the field of theater as a timeless work of art. The distinction by experts as one of the best plays of all time gave it prestige, propelling the play into the ranks of high culture. With it’s rise into high culture, it became sought out by the wealthy and upper class. This combination garnered the piece high culture status.

Through the lens of documentary culture, Macbeth was originally only documented through the actual performance of the play and on the pages in which they were written. These pages held little significance at the time. Now however, basically any document produced by Shakespeare, including Macbeth, is cherished, and displayed in the Folger Shakespeare Library. Lastly, attending Macbeth was a originally a cherished experience for the lower class. Today however, attending a play no longer bears as much significance to either the

The Folger Shakespeare Library

upper or lower class, despite the level of prestige the play garners. Time has altered the structure of feeling for Macbeth.

At the time of its debut, the Eiffel Tower entirely lacked ideal culture; it was originally deemed architecturally uninspired and ugly. Now however, the Eiffel Tower is perceived as a beautiful structure on the Paris night sky, appreciated by architectural and art experts alike.

The documentation of the Eiffel Tower at first was completely negative. Almost all the documentation of the landmark was negative, calling for it to be torn down for scrap metal . Now however, the Eiffel Tower is adorning the front of postcards, magazines, and more. Experts agree that the Eiffel Tower was ahead of its time and is a beautiful, classic piece of art.

Finally, the social culture surrounding the Eiffel Tower was entirely negative (like the ideal and documentary culture). The people of Paris agreed that the landmark was Jacob3horrendous and a blemish to the beautiful skyline of their city. The Eiffel Tower has evolved to become a symbol of France, being widely accepted as beautiful and timeless by not only all of Paris, but by the whole world.

After analyzing more media by using Williams’ culture theory as done above, one will notice patterns and trends in the change in structure of feeling of these pieces of media. By connecting these trends and patterns, a theorist can script a conclusion about the change in structure of feeling of society itself across time.


Williams, R. (1961). The Long Revolution. Orchard Park: Broadview Press, pp. 57-70.

Image Attribution: Image 1 by Adrian Farewell under CC3; Image 2 by W.J. Morgan & Co. Lith under CC0; Image 3 Image under CC0 requiring no attribution

Written by Jacob Gonzalez, 2018



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