Cultural Studies is an academic discipline stemming from the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. Cultural Studies has its roots in post-World War II Britain, beginning with the Centre’s formation in 1963 (Murphy, 1992). Under a definition provided by the Center itself in early literature, Cultural Studies can be defined as “an interdisciplinary field which deals with all aspects of culture in relation to social, political and historical development and change” (Murphy, 1992, p. 35).
According to academic Karma R. Chávez (2009), the Centre was established at the University of Birmingham, England under Raymond Williams and director Richard Hoggart, eventually to be succeeded by the Stuart Hall. Hall is often considered one of the most influential names within the field, as Chávez notes, “Under Hall’s leadership, the CCCS shifted its focus from ‘everyday’ cultures to an emphasis on the mass media and the ideological functions and effects of the media” (p. 2). Because of the political dynamic, as broadened and emphasized by Hall, Cultural Studies has continued to be a distinctly interventionist and political academic field, with critics like Frederic Jameson (1993) noting, “the Right seems to have understood that the project and the slogan of Cultural Studies (whatever that may be) constitutes a crucial target in its campaign and virtually a synonym for ‘political correctness’” (p. 17).
Cultural Studies as academic tradition “develops in direct relationship to the history of Marxism” as well as being greatly informed by “structuralist and poststructuralist” (Murphy, 1992, p. 33). The primarily functional means through which Cultural Studies engages with media is through what is known was textual analysis. As Chávez (2009) puts it, “in cultural studies, a text can refer to a written text, but it is more often used to refer to any artifact that requires reading or interpretation” (p. 4). As opposed to literary analysis, a text open for textual analysis can be any piece of media, from a musical album to a video game, but with the emphasis being placed primarily on pop cultural artifacts. Through textual analysis, questions of identities like class, gender, sexuality, and race can all be engaged with through a wide array of media.
Similarly, in a manner influenced by the fields sociological history, Cultural Studies can also encompass broader analysis of media trends. An example of this kind of Cultural Studies can be seen in Dick Hebdige’s Subculture: The Meaning of Style. In Subculture, Hebdige (1979) presents ways for looking at the political power of youth subcultures in England by observing communities like Black immigrants and white working-class punks, contextualizing their relationships within Marxist and sociological frameworks.
The methodological flexibility of Cultural Studies has, however, often been a point of criticism in other academic disciplines. Critics of the field like physicist Alan Sokal and literary critic Harold Bloom have criticized Cultural Studies as lacking a defined methodological approach and instead functioning as detrimental to other fields, like literary studies (Chávez, 2009). Even within Cultural Studies, academics like Marxist critic Frederic Jameson (1993) have to some degree criticized the emphasis on the theoretical as opposed to the practical within the field. However, as Jameson also writes, if Cultural Studies is to “be seen as the expression of a projected alliance between various social groups, then its rigorous formulation as an intellectual or pedagogical enterprise may not be quite so important as some of its adherents feel,” as that the sense of shared dialectical purpose eclipses the necessity for uniformity (p.17). Cultural Studies remains an expanding interdisciplinary undertaking united by shared purpose rather than shared methodology, both to praise and detraction, externally and internally.
Chávez, K. (2009) Cultural studies. In S.W. Littlejohn and K.A. Foss (eds.), Encyclopedia of Communication Theory, 1-8. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, Inc.
Hebdige, D. (1979). Subculture: The meaning of style. London: Routledge.
Jameson, F. (1993). On “cultural studies”. Social Text, (34), 17-52. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/466353
Murphy, P. (1992). Cultural studies as praxis: a working paper. College Literature, 19(2), 31-43. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/25111965
Image Attribution: Image 1 is in the public domain; Image 2 “The Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies” by Diane Griffiths, CC BY 2.0
Written by Patrick Lindsay, 2018