Cultural studies combines sociology, social theory, literary theory, film/video studies, cultural anthropology and art history/criticism to study cultural phenomena in industrial societies. Cultural studies researchers often concentrate on how a particular phenomenon relates to matters of ideology, race, social class, and/or gender.
Cultural studies concerns itself with the meaning and practices of everyday life. Cultural practices comprise the ways people do particular things (such as watching television, or eating out) in a given culture. Particular meanings attach to the ways people in particular cultures do things.
In a loosely related but separate usage, the phrase cultural studies sometimes serves as a rough synonym for area studies, as a general term referring to the academic study of particular cultures in departments and programs such as Islamic studies, Asian studies, African American studies, African studies, et al..
In his book Introducing Cultural Studies, Ziauddin Sardar lists the following five main characteristics of cultural studies:
- Cultural studies aims to examine its subject matter in terms of cultural practices and their relation to power.
- It has the objective of understanding culture in all its complex forms and of analysing the social and political context in which culture manifests itself.
- It is both the object of study and the location of political criticism and action.
- It attempts to expose and reconcile the division of knowledge, to overcome the split between tacit (cultural knowledge) and objective (universal) forms of knowledge.
- It has a commitment to an ethical evaluation of modern society and to a radical line of political action.
Scholars in the United Kingdom and the United States developed somewhat different versions of cultural studies after the field's inception in the late 1970s. The British version of cultural studies was developed in the 1960s mainly under the influence of Richard Hoggart and Stuart Hall at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham. This included overtly political, left-wing views, and criticisms of popular culture as 'capitalist' mass culture; it absorbed some of the ideas of the Frankfurt School critique of the "culture industry" (i.e. mass culture). This emerges in the writings of early British cultural-studies scholars and their influences: see the work of (for example) Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy.
In contrast, the American version of cultural studies initially concerned itself more with understanding the subjective and appropriative side of audience reactions to, and uses of, mass culture; American cultural-studies advocates wrote about the liberatory aspects of fandom. See the writings of critics such as John Guillory. The distinction between American and British strands, however, has faded.
Some scholars, especially in early British cultural studies, apply a Marxist model to the field. The main focus of an orthodox Marxist approach concentrates on the production of meaning. This model assumes a mass production of culture and identifies power as residing with those producing cultural artifacts. In a Marxist view, those who control the means of production (the economic base) essentially control a culture.
Other approaches to cultural studies, such as feminist cultural studies and later American developments of the field, distance themselves from this view. They criticise the Marxist assumption of a single, dominant meaning, shared by all, for any cultural product. The non-Marxist approaches suggest that different ways of consuming cultural artifacts affect the meaning of the product.
Another major point of criticism involved the traditional view assuming a passive consumer. Other views challenge this, particularly by underlining the different ways people read, receive, and interpret cultural texts. On this view, a consumer can appropriate, actively reject, or challenge the meaning of a product. These different approaches have shifted the focus away from the production of items. Instead, they argue that consumption plays an equally important role, since the way consumers consume a product gives meaning to an item. Some closely link the act of consuming with identity. Stuart Hall has become influential in these developments. Some commentators have described the shift towards meaning as the cultural turn.
In the context of cultural studies, the idea of a text not only includes written language, but also films, photographs, fashion or hairstyles: the texts of cultural studies comprise all the meaningful artifacts of culture. Similarly, the discipline widens the concept of "culture". "Culture" for a cultural studies researcher not only includes traditional high culture and popular culture, but also everyday meanings and practices. The last two, in fact, have become the main focus of cultural studies.
'A Betrayal of the Clerks'
The theory is not without debate. For example, Yale professor Harold Bloom has been an outspoken critic of the cultural studies model of literary studies. Critics such as Bloom see cultural studies as it applies to literary scholarship as a vehicle of careerism by academics, as opposed to promoting the public interest by studying what makes beautiful literary works beautiful.
Bloom stated his position during the 3 September 2000 episode of C-SPAN’s “Booknotes”:
'[…T]here are two enemies of reading now in the world, not just in the English-speaking world. One […is…] the lunatic destruction of literary studies […] and its replacement by what is called cultural studies in all of the universities and colleges in the English-speaking world, and everyone knows what that phenomenon is.
I mean, the […] now-weary phrase ‘political correctness' remains a perfectly good descriptive phrase for what has gone on and is, alas, still going on almost everywhere and which dominates, I would say, rather more than three-fifths of the tenured faculties in the English-speaking world, who really do represent a treason of the intellectuals, I think, a betrayal of the clerks.'
(Full transcript available at booknotes.org/Transcript/?ProgramID=1580)
- Popular culture, popular culture studies, subculture
- Postmodernism, queer theory, gender studies, orientalism, critical theory, feminism, semiotics, social constructionalism, new musicology, Roland Barthes' Mythologies.es:Estudios culturales
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