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Summary Article: cultural studies
From Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology

Cultural studies was formally introduced into the British university system in 1963, with the establishment of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) at Birmingham, under the direction of Richard Hoggart. Strongly influenced by the work of Raymond Williams, early work in cultural studies emphasized the need to move beyond the canonical definitions of textuality, in order to locate the culture of literacy in a wider social context. This initiative sought both to counter the elitism of ‘high culture’ and to widen its definition to be more inclusive. A combination of sociology and literary criticism, early cultural studies practitioners often described their work in terms of an ‘anthropological turn’, referencing the anthropological definition of culture as a way of life in contrast to its more elitist literary rendering as aesthetics or appreciation.

In addition to its anti-canonicalism, the Birmingham Centre also sought to politicize the production of academic knowledge within the university system. In contrast to the emphasis upon competitive individual achievement, the Centre promoted collaborative work, resulting in a series of well-known collections (see further reading, below). Interdisciplinary, anti-hierarchical and explicitly political in their approach to scholarship, members of CCCS were awkwardly positioned in relation to other departments, faculties and the university system as a whole. Nonetheless, the approaches developed at CCCS held obvious appeal to a wide constituency, and have continued to gain in popularity over time.

A concern with class inequality was central to the work of both Williams and Hoggart, and much early work in cultural studies drew on Marxist models in which ‘culture’ was often equivalent to ideology. In its later ethnographic expansion in the 1970s, work in cultural studies also sought to document culture as ordinary, popular, and ubiquitous, again invoking comparisons to anthropological models in contrast to literary ones. In turn, Althusserian accounts of culture as part and parcel of the state apparatus, combined with a Gramscian model of culture as integral to the realization of hegemony, became central to the cultural studies project at Birmingham and elsewhere. By the early 1980s, these influences began to be both combined with and offset by the growing impact of poststructuralist, and later psychoanalytic theory. The work of Stuart Hall, Paul Gilroy, Hazel Carby and others drew attention to the importance of racism and imperialism to the maintenance of state power, while the anthology Women Take Issue foregrounded feminist concerns. By the mid-1980s, CCCS Birmingham had become the site of a large and successful postgraduate research programme supporting a wide range of research and teaching in which concerns related to gender, race and class remained prominent.

The addition of the polytechnics, where cultural studies was a popular and well established field, to the British university system in the early 1990s, provided a wider infrastructure for the field. Meanwhile, outside Britain, the subject had also gained influence and grown in recognition, through the establishment of journals, programmes, and associations internationally. Unlike Britain, where the Birmingham initiative had provided a distinctive model, cultural studies in Canada, Australia, Europe and the United States emerged in a more piecemeal fashion. As in Britain, key components of cultural studies elsewhere included interdisciplinarity; a commitment to an explicitly political approach to scholarship; attention to the intersections of gender, race and class; and the use of critical theoretical perspectives drawn from Marxism, poststructuralism, gender theory, critical race theory and, increasingly, postmodernism. However, cultural studies is best defined internationally in terms of its positionality rather than its content: above all, it has come to denote a space in which critical, theoretical and interdisciplinary research and teaching broadly organized under the rubric of the cultural analysis within developed, industrialized societies is pursued.

In comparison to anthropology, cultural studies has remained more concerned with the analysis of mass, public, dominant, popular or mainstream culture, rather than cross-cultural comparison. Although the analytical status of culture has been extensively debated, critiqued and transformed within anthropology, especially during the latter half of the twentieth century, it remains tied to a model of representing ‘other’ cultures, different from the anthropologist’s own. In contrast, cultural studies has often sought to make visible cultural traditions that are muted, marginal, under-represented or devalued within the society of which the researcher is a part. Alternately, cultural studies has operated as a system of critical perspectives on the production of knowledge itself, indeed at the most local level of disciplinary boundaries and traditions, or the ‘way of life’ within particular subject fields. As an intervention into scholarly production, cultural studies is above all concerned with the creation of new kinds of spaces for consideration of questions which do not fit neatly within established traditions of intellectual exchange.

Also differentiating cultural studies from anthropology is the range of culture models employed in analysis, teaching and debate. In contrast to the extent to which culture models within anthropology have been explicitly organized in relation to a project of cross-cultural comparison, no such singular aim has united models within cultural studies, save for an overriding concern with issues of power and inequality. Hence, within cultural studies may be included a wide range of cultural theory, from the sociology of culture and its concern with mass media, the culture industries, or culture as a dimension of the social, to the cultural theories derivative of language-based interventions such as semiotics, poststructuralism, deconstruction or postcolonial theory.

Although in many respects the relationship between anthropology and cultural studies is productive and mutually valued, significant differences divide these two fields. In addition to its commitment to cross-cultural comparison is an empirical tradition within anthropology of detailed ethnographic observation and prolonged submersion in ‘the field’. Very much in contrast to cultural studies, anthropology remains strongly connected to the goals of social science, including the rigorous documentation and representation of ‘other’ cultures. This aim is not shared by cultural studies, which is often explicitly critical of objectivist criteria, in both the humanities and the social sciences. At its worst, cultural studies may be seen by anthropologists as usurping the domain of ‘culture’ by means of reductionist, elitist, overly theoretical and speculative or ‘journalistic’ methods. In particular, the view that texts should be read as part of a wider cultural context can be reversed within cultural studies to argue that culture is readable as a text. For anthropologists, the separation of ‘cultural logics’ from their lived, embodied social milieu comprises an unacceptable, even capricious, methodology.

At the same time, cultural studies has itself been at the forefront of challenges to the tendency to constitute even ‘dominant’ culture as monolithic, totalizing or determining. Audience studies, such as Morley’s pioneering work on television audiences (1986), or Stacey’s thickly layered account of film consumption (1994), have provided important models for anthropological analyses of the role of media, especially in the context of global, or transnational, cultural phenomena.

As ‘culture’ continues to demand critical, scholarly and political attention, it is inevitable that anthropological and cultural studies approaches will increasingly overlap and inform one another. At the same time, ongoing discordances between the often highly theoretical and critical perspectives generated within cultural studies, and the more conventionally empirical traditions of cultural analysis within anthropology, will ensure the two fields remain distinct, if overlapping.

See also: culture, Marxism and anthropology, mass media

Further reading
  • Brantlinger, Patrick (1990) Crusoe’s Footprints: Cultural Studies in Britain and America, New York: Routledge.
  • Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, University of Birmingham (1978) Women Take Issue: Aspects of Women’s Subordination, London: Hutchinson.
  • Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (1980) Culture, Media, Language, London: Hutchinson.
  • Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (1982) The Empire Strikes Back: Race and Racism in ‘70s Britain, London: Hutchinson.
  • Franklin, Sarah, Lury, Celia and Stacey, Jackie (eds) (1991) Off-Centre: Feminism and Cultural Studies, London: HarperCollins.
  • Gillespie, M. (1995) Television, Ethnicity, and Cultural Change, London: Routledge.
  • Johnson, Richard (1987) ‘What is Cultural Studies Anyway?’, Social Text 6(1): 38-80.
  • Lave, Jean, Duguid, Paul, Fernandez, Nadine and Axel, Erik (1992) ‘Coming of Age in Birmingham: Cultural Studies and Conceptions of Subjectivity’, Annual Review of Anthropology 21: 257-82.
  • Morley, David (1986) Family Television: Cultural Power and Domestic Leisure, London: Comedia.
  • Stacey, Jackie (1994) Stargazing: Hollywood Cinema and Female Spectatorship, London: Routledge.
  • Williams, Raymond (1982) Problems in Materialism and Culture, London: Verso.
    © 1996 and 2010 Routledge

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