Cultural Studies

Is a book ever just a book? In cultural studies, if what you actually mean by 'book' is 'a carrier of cultural meaning produced in a specific cultural, economic, and social context', then yes! – and this is exactly what makes books (or any published text, for that matter) so interesting to analyse.

Cultural Studies Cultural Studies

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Table of contents

    When you're looking at literature through a cultural studies lens, anything involving words on a page, stage, or screen is up for your literary analyst brain to grab. Here you will find an introduction to everything cultural studies including the history of the field, key cultural studies theory, and examples of how you can use it in your own literary analysis.

    Cultural studies summary

    At its core, cultural studies is a field of academic study that looks at:

    1. how culture is created, maintained, shared, and reproduced.
    2. how structures of power in society influence this process.
    3. the relationships between culture, power, and social identities (such as ethnicity, race, gender, sexuality, disability, class, etc.).

    Cultural studies is an interdisciplinary field, meaning that it has its roots in many different subjects, including anthropology, philosophy, history, psychology, literary criticism and theory, and more.

    What is culture?

    It's not surprising that cultural studies involves so many different subjects, as culture is perhaps one of the biggest topics there is. So, before we delve further into cultural studies, history, and theories, let's first define what we mean by 'culture'.

    The first things that pop into your mind when you think about culture may include food, music, religion, clothes, sports, language, and social rules. Culture is all of these things and more: culture is everything that makes up a 'way of life'1 for one person, a group of people, a nation of people, or even the whole of humanity.

    The most important thing to remember when talking about culture in cultural studies is that culture is a process, meaning that it never stays in one place – it's always on the go as it changes and develops.

    Cultural Studies, an old building contrasted against a glass skyscraper, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Culture is a process, seen here in the contrast between old and new architecture.

    History of cultural studies

    Richard Hoggart (1918–2014) founded the University of Birmingham Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) in the UK in 1964. This marked the beginning of the academic field of cultural studies.

    The CCCS was groundbreaking because it challenged the idea that only elite 'high culture' was worth analysing. Scholars at the CCCS argued that 'low' popular culture and mass media – such as advertisements and TV shows – are also rich in meaning to be researched and explored.

    What is meant by high culture vs low culture? The distinction between high and low culture has been a dominant idea in academia until recently. High culture was seen to consist of art, literature, and music thought to represent the most educated (and often upper-class) thinkers and creatives. Low culture, on the other hand, was seen to represent everyone else: the less educated 'masses' and the working class.

    Today, cultural products and information are much more widely available due to the internet. Do you think this has challenged traditional distinctions between high and low culture?

    Since it began, cultural studies has been highly focused on identifying systems of oppression and resistance in culture. Although the CCCS closed in 2002, it left a strong and widespread legacy. Cultural studies is a global field, and it has changed the way many of us look at the media we consume and its relationship to power in society.

    However, cultural studies is not without its critics. Some argue that the field is just too broad, leading to it being about everything and nothing at the same time. The literary critic Harold Bloom (1930–2019) also said that cultural studies' focus on left-wing politics limits the enjoyment of art and the discussions we can have about it.

    Cultural studies theory

    In cultural studies, 'texts' are more than just pieces of writing. Cultural texts can be anything made to convey meaning, such as speeches, advertisements, radio shows, photographs, food, and fashion choices.

    Just like books, these cultural texts can also be analysed. Let's look at some of the theories cultural studies theorists use when studying cultural texts.

    Semiotic theory

    In linguistics, semiotics is the study of language, its parts, and how it is interpreted. Semiotics has been highly influential within cultural studies, which sees culture as a kind of language and vice versa.

    Culture and language are deeply connected as they both 'represent the world'.3 Like language, culture uses 'signs' to communicate certain meanings.

    Sign: something used to represent or symbolise an abstract meaning

    • The word 'tree' is a sign that represents the idea of a tree.
    • The ' ' emoji is a sign that represents the feeling of happiness.

    In cultural studies, the creation of signs is a never-ending process that is influenced by and influences the way we perceive the world. Because of this, cultural studies theorists say that meaning is never 'fixed'; it is constructed and always subject to change. This process is influenced by many factors, explained further by the theory of cultural materialism.

    Cultural materialism

    Cultural materialism is a theoretical approach developed by Raymond Williams (1921–1988).

    The key idea of cultural materialism is that cultural texts are produced like any other consumer item, such as a television or cosmetics. These products don't just come out of nowhere; cultural texts and the meanings they convey are influenced by many factors before, during, and after their production, including the economic and social backgrounds of their producers and audiences.

    Cultural materialism is rooted strongly in Marxism, however, it is not the same.

    Marxism: a socioeconomic theory based on the ideas of Karl Marx that capitalist societies are grounded in inequality between lower-class masses and ruling upper-class elites. The ruling upper classes maintain this inequality by controlling the economy and maintaining the dominance of the capitalist agenda.

    It is from Karl Marx's theory that the term 'hegemony' emerged.

    Hegemony: the dominating values, ideas, and interests of the ruling classes.

    The idea of hegemony has been very influential within cultural studies and its argument that analysing cultural texts can reveal how hegemonic values, ideas, and interests in society are maintained or resisted.

    Active audience theory

    For cultural studies theorists, hegemony doesn't mean that non-ruling classes have no influence over culture. This is partly explained by the active audience theory, popularised by cultural studies theorist Stuart Hall (1932–2014).

    Stuart Hall argued that audiences of cultural texts are active. Instead of being passive couch potatoes, audiences engage with cultural texts by interpreting (or 'decoding') meaning based on their own personal experiences, even unconsciously.3

    Scholars at the CCCS were also interested in how hegemony was actively resisted and looked at contemporary youth subcultures (such as punks) as examples of resistance.

    Cultural Studies, two people in punk fashion walking down a street, StudySmarterFig. 2 - CCCS scholars saw youth subcultures, such as punks, as examples of resistance against hegemonic values.

    Cultural studies in literature

    When you study literature from a cultural studies perspective, you analyse meaning by looking at the text in combination with the economic, social, and cultural context in which the text was produced.

    Because of cultural studies' interest in the resistance of hegemonic power structures in society, it has incorporated political theories such as Marxism, disability theory, and postcolonial literary theory. When looking at literature from a cultural studies perspective, these are all lenses through which literature can be analysed.

    Disability theory: an academic theory that looks at what disability means in society and how this meaning is influenced by culture and societyPostcolonial literary theory: a literary theory that uses literature to explore the consequences of imperialism and colonialism (when countries exert their influence over other countries to gain wealth and power).

    Furthermore, as cultural studies is concerned with questioning hegemonic ideas, literary and cultural studies scholars also work with texts outside of the literary canon, such as pop culture and literature, representing more diverse voices.

    Literary canon: a collection of literature traditionally regarded as being 'high culture' and the most significant works from a time and place.

    Geoffery Chaucer (c. 1340s–1400) and William Shakespeare (1564–1616) are two famous figures from the Western literary canon.

    Cultural studies examples

    When you're analysing literature from a cultural studies perspective, you'll want to keep these three keywords at the front of your mind: power, identity and representation. Guided by these three keywords, ask yourself the following questions about your chosen text or texts that you want to analyse:

    PowerIdentityRepresentation

    What is the text's specific social, economic, and cultural context?

    What structures of power (fictional or non-fictional) can you identify in the text?

    Who is the text's target audience?

    What are the character's specific social, economic, and cultural identities?

    How does the text represent structures of power and social, economic, and cultural identities?

    Do these representations adhere to or resist hegemonic ideas and values?

    Let's say we wanted to analyse the representation of youth subcultures in Netflix's Stranger Things (2016–present) series. Here are some key points we could cover:

    • Power: Stranger Things was produced by Netflix, a popular, multinational American streaming service. The series explores a group of children and young adults who must overcome controlling adult figures (their parents, the police, the military, and government officials) as well as a deadly supernatural force in order to save their hometown.
    • Identity: Stranger Things is mainly marketed to young adults between 18 and 30 years old, a demographic that also has the lowest amount of voters in politics, leading to older voters having more political power. Most of the lead characters in Stranger Things are young adults.
    • Representation: Stranger Things represents youth subcultures as a place of belonging and resistance against hegemonic ideas and values. The main characters use the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons (1974) to explain the supernatural happenings in their town rather than listening to adults, who mostly turn out to be wrong or villains in the series.

    Cultural Studies - Key takeaways

    • Cultural studies is an interdisciplinary field of academic study that looks at how culture is created, maintained, shared and reproduced and how this process influences and is influenced by structures of power in society.
    • Cultural studies views culture as a way of life that is always in process.
    • The field of cultural studies began when the University of Birmingham Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) was established in 1964.
    • Cultural studies challenges the distinction between 'high' and 'low' culture and is focused on identifying and resisting systems of oppression.
    • You can study literature from a cultural studies perspective by focusing on a text's social, economic, and cultural context and how power, identity, and representation are connected in a text.

    1 Raymond Williams. 'Culture is Ordinary'. 1958.

    2 Stuart Hall. 'Encoding, Decoding'. 1973.

    3 Stuart Hall. 'The Work of Representation'. 1997.

    4 'Press Release Number CB21-TPS.49'. United States Census Bureau. April 29, 2021.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Cultural Studies

    What is an example of cultural studies? 

    An example of cultural studies is studying a cultural text such as a book in combination with the economic, social, and cultural context in which it was produced. 

    What are the key concepts in cultural studies?

    At its core, cultural studies is a field of academic study that looks at how culture is created, maintained, shared, and reproduced, how structures of power in society influence this process, and the relationships between culture, power, and social identities.

    What does cultural anthropology study?

    Cultural anthropologists study different human cultures.

    Why is cultural studies important?

    Cultural studies is important because it helps us to understand the processes behind the creation of culture and meaning in the cultural texts we are analysing.

    What is cultural studies?

    Cultural studies is a field of academic studies that was developed in the 1980s by the University of Birmingham Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    At which university did cultural studies become an academic field?

    In which year was the Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies established?

    The active audience theory was popularised by which cultural studies theorist in the essay 'Encoding, Decoding' (1973)?

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