Cultural Studies Essay

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Cultural studies is a multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, antidisciplinary, even postdisciplinary approach to education. When viewed together, cultural studies and education, broadly, seek to reveal and analyze relationships of knowledge, power, pedagogy, and formal and informal learning production and practice in society and culture. Conveying perspectives from the humanities and social sciences to critically assess education through support, resistance, or transformation, cultural studies engages education through both critique and creativity.

Relational in nature, it is predicated upon intellectual activism as social intervention through engagement with praxis (the bridging of theory and practice) and represents a politicized engagement with society. For these reasons, this relationship is integral to considerations of the social and cultural foundations of education. This entry will provide a broad overview of cultural studies: its origins and related developments, illustrations of the kind of work cultural studies scholars/activists do, cultural studies contributions to education, and misconceptions about cultural studies.

Origins And Developments

Cultural studies practices existed before the term itself, so as with its theoretical origins, its institutional origins cannot be viewed as definitive. Cultural studies may be theorized and historicized in multiple locations, and while those mentioned here are by no means exhaustive, some particular movements and institutions are generally associated with cultural studies and education, and within these, certain individuals and propositions.

Cultural studies has broad origins within the Russian culturology movement and the Harlem Renaissance in New York in the 1920s and 1930s, in addition to folk schools in Denmark and the Appalachian region of the United States in the 1930s (Myles Horton’s founding of the Highlander Folk School, now the Highlander Research and Education Center, in 1932 in Tennessee), and the Negritude Movement in France, and francophone Africa and the Caribbean. The 1960s saw the development of subaltern studies in India and Southeast Asia, adult literacy and popular education movements throughout Latin America (perhaps most noted in relation to Brazil with Paolo Freire’s work in the 1960s), and popular theater of resistance in Kenya (the Kamiriithu Community and Cultural Centre in Limuru, Kenya, in the 1970s).

The institutional beginnings of Western cultural studies are most often associated with the Birmingham school, originating from the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS, founded 1964 at the University of Birmingham) in Birmingham, England, and the work of several associated scholars, including Raymond Williams, Richard Hoggart, and E. P. Williams in England, and Stuart Hall, Angela McRobbie, and Paul Willis, among others, at the CCCS.

The 1980s saw the development of the intersections of cultural studies and critical pedagogy, developing as a discourse in discussions of postmodern educational thought and focused on examining the power, politics, and public consumption of schooling and, within schools, exploring representational politics, constructs of student subjectivity, and the analysis of pedagogy; it is praxis oriented and intervenes in the institutional arrangements and ideologies in society that reproduce oppressions and structural inequalities. As teachers are always operating within historically, socially, and culturally situated contexts and constraints, and because education itself is so politically charged and contested, teacher roles cannot help but also be political, a link underscoring education’s relationship with cultural studies.

In terms of progressive education, cultural studies has grown as a discourse that has included its institutionalization in graduate schools of education, particularly from the 1990s through today. While a foundational context of its development has been its location in class-conscious social critique and intervention outside of the “confines” of formal education, cultural studies has expanded globally in terms of university programs, conferences, and scholarly publishing.

Characteristics Of Cultural Studies

Culture is neither static nor stationary, but constantly in process, creating multiplicity, and approaches to its examination are not limited to any one part of the social spectrum. Unlike other disciplines or subjects, cultural studies has no single object area, theory, or methodological paradigm to neatly or “cleanly” define it. Cultural studies is inherently variable, differing in locations, moments, projects, and areas of inquiry.

Reflecting its flexibility, in theory it does not endorse individuals or canons. Cultural studies has been taken up in various times and places, in locations where commitments were enacted to create social transformation and justice, address local and regional conditions and concerns, and co-construct knowledge in community engagement through popular approaches for purposeful political resistance. Cultural studies emerged from interdisciplinary activist projects within progressive adult education, where commitments to literacy and working-class issues and concerns were major emphases, and where academic and community research collaborations developed.

Cultural studies resists generic definition, as it is an array of many different theories, circumstances, and representations; it is renowned for being arduously difficult to define, and this in turn becomes one of its most defining elements. Along with popular, grassroots per formative cultural acts that formed as resistant political expression, cultural studies emerged from several traditional, established, academic disciplines (sociology, media studies, English, and philosophy, among others), while at the same time having an underlying ambivalent, at times altogether contentious, relationship with disciplinarity, which is why it is referred to at various moments as multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, antidisciplinary, and postdisciplinary. Within cultural studies’ theoretical discourses, there are convergences and divergences, and positions are never completely concrete, final, or resolved.

Cultural studies allows concerns and expressions of experience on both personal and collective levels to be taken seriously as important indicators, interpretations, and negotiations of human existence. Because it deals generally with subjective human experience, cultural studies tends to favor qualitative research methodologies and, in particular, ethnography and textual analyses as primary methods of documenting the life and practices of “ordinary” society and culture. It has a commitment to the importance of recognizing popular culture as integral to the relationship of schooling and society, and links the creative and scholarly cultural production of the academy and community.

Continually experimenting with applications of new approaches to existing social conditions, it has been related as a successor to critical pedagogy and multicultural education. It recognizes the importance and validity of nontraditional teaching experiences, and can offer resistance to formal school instruction when applied as a tool for oppressive social reproduction and cultural transmission.

Ultimately, cultural studies may best be spoken of not in a definitive way, but more in terms of characteristics. Handel Wright offers an indicative, transient list of broad characteristics which underpin much of the work designated as cultural studies: (a) informed by and creative of theory yet praxis driven (no practice without theory, no theory without practice); (b) addresses issues of power, is concerned with social justice, examines and critically reflects on social and national identity/identification; (c) takes the popular seriously (mass-mediated or popular culture, “low” culture); (d) deals with issues of social difference and diversity; (e) is interdisciplinary and flexible (subject to radical and far-reaching change); and (f) is specific and local in its projects and never creates or endorses canons. Wright notes that these characteristics need to be treated as subject to negotiation, revision, even rejection, for cultural studies is always a contested terrain.

Examples of cultural studies scholarship that address “low culture” or popular culture are studies that look at media presentations of performers such as Madonna, in terms of gender analysis, or sports stars such as Tiger Woods, in terms of racial analysis.

Cultural studies has helped to argue for the value of sports stories, such as Lance Armstrong’s story of recovery from cancer and his continued success as a professional bicycle rider, that can serve as rich examples of narrative stories that can teach students about ethics. Cultural studies makes the case that not only classic literature (“high culture”) but also sports stories can serve as examples of narrative arguments for teaching ethics.

Misconceptions About Cultural Studies

There are numerous misconceptions about cultural studies that one finds when working in a cultural studies of education program and when reading student applications to the program, as well as when potential faculty apply for job openings in the program. Sharing these misconceptions may help to further clarify just what cultural studies is, in contrast.

Not A Study Of Cultures

Some international students and scholars may think of cultural studies as a study of cultures. There is a tendency for them to assume that individuals from a country other than the United States or United Kingdom, particularly if they have studied in one of these Western countries, can consider themselves experts in cultural studies. It is clear from their applications and letters and e-mail that they are not aware there is a group of scholars known as cultural studies scholars, or that cultural studies worries about certain kinds of problems and seeks to address those problems in particular ways.

Just to be positioned as an outsider to the United States or United Kingdom does not qualify one as a cultural studies scholar, and it is possible to be a cultural studies scholar from the U.S. or UK, for example, and never have traveled or lived in other countries. Today, many people travel, and a good number live for extended periods of time in countries other than where they were born; everyone has the opportunity to meet international people. Still, all of this exposure to diverse cultures does not make a person necessarily or automatically a cultural studies scholar.

Some examples of recent research work might help to illustrate a cultural studies approach to the study of cultures. So Young Kang, a doctoral student from Korea, wrote a dissertation that compared White feminist care theory, Black feminist care theory, and Korean care theory as she proceeded to develop her own care theory as a contribution to the conversation on caring. Her philosophical analysis involved descriptions of the various theories and critiques of them from the varying perspectives, so that it became clear that an eastern perspective is missing from care theory. In this dissertation, power issues were exposed such as positions of marginality for Korean perspectives of caring that are influenced by Confucian ideals. The decontextualized, ahistorical nature of White feminist care theory was troubled and the race/ethnicity discussion of care theory was enlarged beyond the boundaries of Black feminism to include an Asian perspective.

Another graduate student, Zaha Alsuwailan from Kuwait, recently wrote a dissertation that examined the history of girls’ education in Kuwait prior to and since the introduction of Western ideals through the discovery and development of the oil industry. Her analysis includes a comparison of Kuwaiti tribal, Islamic, and Western values and their varying influences on the national educational policy for girls’ education, as well as the various people’s responses to these policies. She examines the issue of girls being educated in terms of history, sociology, and anthropology and brings a cultural studies critique to the analysis in terms of gender issues as well as colonization issues. The work focuses on power issues in terms of the marginalization of women in the culture, but not necessarily in the Koran, and the hegemonic forces that create a situation where the women in Kuwait resist enrolling their daughters in schools and resist earning an education for themselves. What is taught in the all-girls’ schools in terms of a genderized curriculum is also analyzed.

Not International Education

Other people apply to cultural studies of education programs who think that cultural studies of education means this is an international education program or a comparative education program. However, both international education and comparative education are fields of study that have a distinctive history of scholarship associated with them. That scholarship does not necessarily address power issues and take a social justice focus, as cultural studies work is committed to doing. One can find scholars with an international focus in most fields of study today, not just in education.

For example, at the University of Tennessee, Brian Barber in Child and Family Studies looks at the problem of children growing up in violent conditions, such as in war zones. Barber’s work takes him to various countries, such as Ireland, Bosnia, and Palestine, and it has an international focus, but that does not mean he is a cultural studies scholar. In the Public Health program, Arjumand Siddiqi, an epidemiologist, looks at health care access issues at an international level. Siddiqi studies national health policies and compares, for example, national spending on health care across a spectrum of differing types of governments and economic systems. This is international work and it involves comparisons of differing cultures, but that does not make it cultural studies research.

A cultural studies approach to international studies would entail a need to address the power issues involved, with a focus on social justice issues. In Siddiqi’s case, it might involve looking at classical liberal hegemony, which can be viewed as causing people to vote against national health care plans in the United States, for example, even though it would benefit them directly to have such a plan, because the United States’s ideology emphasizes the value of choices and the importance of market competition in order to keep prices down and keep quality of health care up. In Barber’s work on how war zones impact children growing up in them, a cultural studies scholar would need to address power issues: for example, looking at war in terms of the objectifying, marginalizing, othering process that goes on that allows us to think of the children as “them,” “others,” “those Iraqis,” distant and separate from the United States and its children. A cultural studies focus could provide a framework to address the experiences of children living in war zones in terms of race, class, and gender, as well as degrees of impact depending on varying social status.

Not Multicultural Education

Cultural studies may be erroneously thought of as multicultural education. Multicultural education began its development in the 1960s and 1970s in the United States with a distinct focus on power issues, in particular racism. However, many believe it has lost its critical edge as it has been mainstreamed into higher education and K–12 grade education. From the perspective of cultural studies scholars, multicultural education has evolved into a “melting pot” kind of approach to educational issues that seeks to embrace the valuing and appreciation of the experiences of all individuals, retaining its contextualizing of individual and collective identities but with less of an interventionist political focus. At one time, it had a sharper political focus that looked at issues of forced assimilation to the White majority culture and the loss of one’s unique cultural identity. A cultural studies approach would examine and critically reflect on national identity/identification and the harm the majority culture imposes on various minorities, and antiracist educational approaches have developed that seek to maintain a political focus on social justice issues. Thus one finds that an antiracist approach to education is representative of cultural studies, but a multicultural approach is not necessarily representative.

Cultural Studies And Education: Always In Process

As a social project, cultural studies emphasizes the many cultural phenomena that comprise society, including moments of contention and intervention. In education, it is central to an oppositional, socially interventionist project that attempts the disruption of domination and oppression in schools and society. Even though cultural studies began with an educational focus, through adult education programs such as the Danish folk schools and Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, and extramural programs such as the Kamiriithu Community and Cultural Centre in Limuru, Kenya, over time, education has become marginalized as a topic for cultural studies, while popular culture focuses have continued to develop.

Early Focus

Adult education spaces were initially the only spaces that allowed for a broader and deeper social and cultural critique. However, as other spaces have developed, including cultural studies entering the academy with the establishment of CCCS in the 1960s and gaining legitimacy within higher education, a focus on educational issues has lessened. The world of school buildings and classrooms does not seem to be able to compete with a consumer-driven, product-oriented market, reinforced throughout media and society.

There are, of course, exceptions. Henry Giroux and Handel Wright serve as good examples of scholars who bring cultural studies to bear on educational issues, but both of them have written about the marginalization of educational topics within cultural studies, and both have noted how cultural studies has moved away from its roots.

Early on, cultural studies scholars such as Paul Willis worried about how schools treated working class lads and offered a deep analysis of schools in terms of their class distinctions. Paolo Freire was concerned about how schools create passive students who are so used to being banked, with knowledge deposited in their brains by their lecturing teachers, that they don’t learn how to solve their own real problems or how to resist the forced passivity of the banking method. Myles Horton and the rest of the staff at Highlander Folk School strove to create adult centers where people could unlearn the passivity of school learning and begin to see themselves as social activists and leaders for change in a world that is unjust. Adults came to Highlander to learn how to organize and found themselves positioned as teachers teaching each other what they knew and helping each other solve their problems, with the staff at Highlander serving as facilitators and resources to aid in their organizing efforts.

Cultural studies brings to education a focus on social justice issues. It attends to forms of discrimination such as racism, classism, and sexism and how these impact children in schools, and the teachers who teach them. It is concerned with the marginalization of immigrant students, new to a country, and whether their cultural expressions are engaged and their learning styles and needs are addressed in relevant ways. Cultural studies strives to connect educational theory to educational practice as it looks at how power is used in ways that are generative as well as harmful.

Cultural studies pays attention to the formal curriculum in schools (what is present or not in terms of content), as well as the informal and hidden curricula (activities and structures of clubs and extracurricular activities, as well as daily ritual practices such as dismissal for lunch or recess, or the lack of recess or playgrounds in lower income school areas). Cultural studies examines educational policies and how they impact diverse student populations in diverse ways (for example, what are the effects of federally mandated educational policies such as No Child Left Behind and the push for standardized national testing on children and their teachers in poorer school districts?).

Cultural studies considers the commodification of education as a consumer product and attends to marketing issues such as the sponsoring of Coke machines in school hallways and television sets in classrooms, donated by Channel One in exchange for the requirement that children watch Channel One programs while in school. (Channel One is a twelve-minute current events television program, containing two minutes of commercials, shown in participating public schools who receive free video equipment in exchange. It is often given as a primary example of the “corporatization” of public schools.) Cultural studies takes up the creative democratization of access to knowledge and technology, such as free and open source software and the free culture movement.

A Research Example

In terms of research approaches, cultural studies of education starts with a social problem and then tries to consider what discipline areas and methodologies are available to help solve this problem. It is possible to find numerous discipline contributions and a variety of research methodologies employed to try to address research problems from a cultural studies perspective. For example, one of the authors of this entry, Barbara Thayer-Bacon, recently completed a study of five collective cultures in an effort to help her develop a relational, pluralistic democratic theory that moves beyond liberal democracy, with its assumptions of individualism, rationalism, and universalism, all of which have been critiqued by cultural studies scholars. She also sought to consider how such a theory translates into our public school settings. As a cultural studies scholar, it was vital that her theory writing be informed by practice in order to keep her theory grounded in the historical, local, contingent, everyday world. If she did not turn to the everyday world of schooling practice in various cultures, she risked writing a theory that assumes/imposes a universal, abstract perspective as if it were everyone’s reality. A theory that is separated from everyday practice will be unable to actually address anyone’s particular reality.

Consequently, when she began working on this project, prior to trying to write any philosophical political theory that moves us beyond liberal democracy, she sought to immerse herself in particular school cultures and communities, relying on a phenomenological methodology. She realized that she was raised in an American culture that embraces classical liberal values of individualism, universalism, and rationalism.

What triggered Thayer-Bacon’s concerns with the impact of classical liberal democratic theory on U.S. public schools was the realization that the students who seem to be struggling the most in U.S. schools, the ones with the highest dropout rates and the lowest proficiency exam scores, are also students whose cultural backgrounds have a more collective focus that believes the family is the heart of the community, not the individual, and that “it takes a village to raise a child.” These students with the highest dropout rates include Native American, Mexican American, and African American students. Collective, communitarian values of cooperation, sharing, and fraternity, based on a belief in the interconnectedness of self to others, including nature, are in direct contrast to the individualistic values that shaped America’s government as well as its schools.

Thayer-Bacon suspected that if she studied Native American, Mexican, and African cultures in depth, she would gain a greater appreciation of the values and beliefs that support a collective sociopolitical focus and a greater understanding of how these values and beliefs function in contrast to individualistic ones. In order to help her address her own cultural limitations and better understand tough questions and issues a relational, pluralistic political theory must face in our public schools, Thayer-Bacon designed a study that required her to spend time in U.S. schools where the majority of the students historically have been disenfranchised from the United States’s “democracy.” She spent time in communities where students from these three cultures are succeeding in American schools, as well as traveled to the origin countries of these three cultures to see how their collective focuses translate into the school curriculum and instruction there.

Notice that this research project is focused on social justice issues (concern for the high dropout rate of students from collective cultures) and how these students are disadvantaged within American schools (the norms of the schools being based on Western European individualistic values). Thayer-Bacon is worried about social difference and cultural diversity. Her study is praxis driven, for it seeks to connect democratic theory to the daily practice of what goes on in public schools. The study is also interdisciplinary, as it involves philosophical theory and educational research, and its research methods use qualitative research techniques through observations, interviews, collection of materials handed out to parents, and field notes, as well as a narrative style of philosophical argumentation, through its phenomenological approach of direct experience and its use of the field notes gathered at the schools as narrative stories to illustrate the philosophical ideas. The researcher went into the field not knowing what she would find and was forced to be flexible and adaptive. Going to specific schools and staying in the homes of local members of the community, made her observations local and specific to particular people in their local settings. All of these qualities are what make this study a good example of cultural studies applied to education.

Other Research Approaches

As with the issues presented in Thayer-Bacon’s study, the research and social justice work of cultural studies scholars/activists reflects this range in subject matter and application. Qualitative research applications of cultural studies and education offer a wide range of research possibilities. For example, an ethnographic educational research project conducted by Rosemarie Mincey examined the perceptions of educational experience of twenty adults in Guatemala who were participating in a formal social development program that employed an application of popular education pedagogy most associated with educator Paulo Freire.

In this qualitative study, principal data collection methods were in-depth interviews and participant observations, with twenty interviews with ten male and ten female program participants providing the principal data that were analyzed for the study (participants ranged in age from sixteen to sixty-two, all with little or no prior formal schooling). Observations of classes and the interactions of the participants, both inside and outside of the classroom, were documented.

Findings indicated that, with the exception of several participants who were attending formal schools, all of the participants had their formal educational pursuits interrupted or ended due to several prohibitive factors: large families, the need to help contribute to their families’ subsistence, and economic difficulties. Almost all participants indicated a desire to have acquired more formal education, in addition to feeling that better educational opportunities would be key in helping their children and future generations have a better life. Grassroots organization, community activism, and sharing what was learned in the popular education classes with their communities were identified by the participants as being particularly significant.

This study is grounded in Mincey’s praxis of working for educational equity as a means of social justice, born from her experiences with formal schooling inequities she experienced as a student from a working poor family in the Appalachian region of the United States. This study draws from a number disciplines; namely, it is sociological in its view of social structures, institutions, and class, and anthropological in its use of data collection methods (ethnography). Theoretically, the study was informed by Marxist influences in the discernment of the roles class and economics may play in the translation of social power and structural schooling inequalities. The analytic perspectives of multiculturalism and feminist critical pedagogy were applied to examine the contextualizing experiences of the intersections of gender, race, class, and schooling, and explored formal education and literacy as components of participatory democracy. The design and issues of this study deeply locate it within cultural studies and education.

The relationship between cultural studies and education has strengthened the reconceptualization of education’s social and cultural forms of knowledge, analysis, production, theory, and practice, supporting a foundational engagement with transformative implications for humanity. In higher education, cultural studies’ relationship with education has brought the arts and humanities together with education, not just social foundational discipline areas such as sociology, anthropology, history, and philosophy, but also media studies, popular culture, literature, and film, for example, in a way that breaks down discipline boundaries and facilitates an understanding of issues in their shifting, changing complexity.

This multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, ant disciplinary, post disciplinary approach to research analysis insists on never losing sight of the political implications of educational practices and the impact education research has on the daily lives of local, particular, contingent human beings, students in classrooms, in daycare facilities, on playgrounds, in shopping malls, on the streets. Cultural studies asserts that classrooms are not neutral places, textbooks are not neutral descriptions of the world, tests and grades are not neutral forms of assessing what students know, and policies such as mandatory attendance and zero tolerance have differing impacts on the lives of children and their families, for they are not neutral either.

Where there are power issues, there are social justice issues, and cultural studies helps education address these issues through its contributions of critical assessment and creative possibilities, its offer of social engagement in resistance and transformation, with the hope of helping to change unjust conditions and improve the quality of people’s lives as a result.


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