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Cultural studies is an interdisciplinary field that explores the linkages between society, politics, identity (or the person), and the full range of what is called ”culture,” from high culture and the popular arts or mass entertainment, to beliefs, discourses, and communicative practices. Cultural studies has drawn on different national traditions of inquiry into these connections – from the Frankfurt School’s studies of the mass culture industry, and of the psychological processes that undercut democracy in liberal and affluent societies, to French structuralist and poststructuralist critiques of ideology, constraining categorical frames, and a monadic and unified concept of the self. The branch of cultural studies that early drew the most attention from sociologists was that articulated by the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, perhaps in part because Birmingham scholars were inspired by some aspects of American sociology, especially the Chicago School tradition, which gave their work a recognizably social dimension.
Taking Birmingham as an example is instructive in pointing out some characteristics of cultural studies as a field. Conventionalized intellectual genealogies often begin with the work of Raymond Williams, Richard Hoggart, and E. P. Thompson. All three challenged dominant traditions in the humanities in post war England. Hoggart and Williams argued first that literary or ”high” culture is just one expression of culture, in the more anthropological sense – the broad range of meanings and interactions that make up social life. Second, they argued that cultural expressions could only be understood in a broader social context of ”institutions, power relations, and history” (Seidman 1997).
Concerned about the new ways social domination operated in a post war world that was, at least for many in Europe, both relatively affluent and at peace, a new generation of scholars investigated the culture/society connection as a promising location for understanding this process. Post war shifts in the social organization of cultural and communications media also gave popular forms of culture immense social power. This was particularly true of cultural forms and technologies developing in and exported from the USA, which was becoming a global force because of television, Coca-Cola, and rock and roll – and later, MTV, the shopping mall, music videos, and theme parks – as well as more traditional forms of economic and military power. This shift also required new ways of thinking that linked culture, as it was linked in people’s lives, more closely to society and politics, especially in relation to critical questions about democracy and equality.
But more recently, gentrification, global hip-hop culture, planned communities, and theme parks have begun to provide other material for thinking through the connections between ”community” and identity.
Yet, similar opportunities for cultural studies scholarship appear as new disciplinary formations emerge in response to social change. Social studies of science, for instance, have grown up in tandem with the enormous growth of ”big science” in the recent past, and their critical take on science comes as much from public questions about an endeavor that has brought us nuclear weapons and environmental devastation alongside space flight and the Salk vaccine, as from purely academic developments. Other new areas of investigation that are attracting cultural studies scholars include visual studies, cybercultures, and communities (this has also spawned Internet-based research methodologies), new technologies of embodiment and possibilities for identity construction, and globalization, which has affected the whole range of what are sometimes called the human sciences.
While this scholarship has spurred some significant departmental or program-level institutionalization in American universities, it is most obviously present as a major paradigm in existing interdisciplinary programs, such as American studies, ethnic and women’s studies, urban studies, and science and technology studies, and is an important intellectual force in publishers’ offerings and conferences both in the Anglophone world and beyond. It is also what one scholar calls an ”accent” in more entrenched academic fields, perhaps more welcome in traditionally interpretive disciplines or traditions of inquiry than in those underwritten by positivist epistemology. For this reason, much of sociology has seen cultural studies as a threat rather than an opportunity, yet one can clearly see openings toward cultural studies in cultural sociology, sociology of religion, gender/sexuality, and race/ ethnicity, urban sociology, qualitative sociology, and some branches of social theory.
- Hall, S. (1980) Cultural studies: two paradigms. Media, Culture and Society 2: 57-72.
- Seidman, S. (1997) Relativizing sociology: the challenge of cultural studies. In: Long, E. (ed.), From Sociology to Cultural Studies: New Perspectives. Blackwell, Oxford, pp. 37-61.
- Williams, R. (1958) Culture and Society 1780-1950. Penguin, London.