What is Cultural Studies, what does it do, and does it matter

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Cultural Studies is a complex and wide-ranging topic. Unlike conventional subject areas, there is no one clear definition of what it essentially is. However, throughout contemporary history, many writers have tried to explore what is involved within and around the themes associated with Cultural Studies itself. It is during this essay that I will try to investigate what these various writers believe and maintain as their standpoints. I will also account for what I think Cultural Studies is, what it does and whether or not I think it matters intellectually and politically and why.

The term ‘Cultural Studies’, according to Barker, 2000, page 4, constitutes what is known as the ‘language-game of Cultural Studies’. By this, Barker is explaining that what comprises Cultural Studies is the variety of interpretations developed by diverse writers, across different times and places. However, these interpretations are based on certain topics, which, although may change over time, focus on constant features making Cultural Studies what it is or what it is perceived as being. One such topic, that Cultural Studies deals with, is power and its subsequent relationships.

This implies that by looking at how power is distributed amongst society, cultural practices can be more easily observed and evaluated. Michael Foucault sets the foundations for this, when he argues: ‘Power is everywhere; not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere. ‘ (Cited in Baldwin et al, 1999, page 94). Foucault highlights the fact that power is found all over, in every social institution and within all levels of society. He claims that knowledge and power are interrelated, as knowledge is formed within the context of power and thus affects its development (Barker, 2000, page 63).

Arguably, those who have most knowledge in the world gain the most power, and vice versa. Many writers agree with this perspective and define culture politically, being centred on who decides which meanings appear in society, why they decide them and how they are affecting the social relationships within our world (Ibid, page 65). It is this dominance in society that pushes Cultural Studies to evaluate the structures that are formed over time and within different cultures. Therefore, further issues that Cultural Studies are concerned with can be exposed, for example ideology.

According to Carey, 1996, page 65: ‘British Cultural Studies could be described just as easily and perhaps more accurately as ideological studies’ (Cited in Storey, 1997, page 3). Ideology is seen as either a collection of political, economic and social ideas or as a disguise that can cover up images of reality in order to act in the interests of the controlling. Ideology can also be seen as the way texts represent our world or the way that capitalism is reinforced upon society in order to make people fit in with their given positions within the population.

Ideology can also be seen as a ‘myth’, using connotations and the unconscious levels to sway particular cultural views in a way to seem that they are natural and universal (Ibid, pages 3-6). Furthermore, Louis Althusser sees individuals as being able to be ‘sucked into ideology so easily because it helps them make sense of the world’ (During, 1993, page 5). By this Althusser means that ideology helps people to feel powerful in a society where they might otherwise be ignored.

Therefore, it is evident that ideological considerations are significant in that they reveal the way in which cultural practices are carried out, throughout differing societies, and how messages are produced through texts, in the media, to influence how those perspectives are accepted universally (Berger, 1995, page 61). How these practices are transferred in society is certainly one of the key issues with which Cultural Studies asserts. Characteristics such as signs, images and codes, make up an important area of cultural analysis known as semiotics (or semiology according to Saussure and his supporters).

This is a key feature in the understanding of the topic as it presents how certain meanings are created and conveyed in society, by whom and why. Semiotics helps us to understand how these meanings are generated by looking at the way in which signs function. Signs, according to Saussure, represent the ‘whole’ whereas signified is the concept and signifier is the image which constitutes the sign.

Symbols on the other hand do not have such clear meanings and can have a variety of connotations. According to Jung, 1968, page 4, symbols embody ‘… wider ‘unconscious’ aspect that is never precisely defined or fully explained’ (Cited in Berger, 1995, page 77). Symbols, like images are present in a myriad of texts, they are used to represent certain ideas and it is the aim of cultural analysis to underline how they are created and fit in within the social and political framework that surrounds them (Ibid, page 82). The question of who is controlling the images made in society and how they affect the structure as well as individuals is a basic element to Cultural Studies.

Consistent with this view, codes are used to shape our behaviour and to a certain extent, the creators of texts control how they want their audience to see the images from the codes. However, this may well be an impossible task since codes can be interpreted in certain ways by different people (Ibid, page 83). Thus, it is palpable to note the assortment of issues and topics which are prevalent within and around Cultural Studies. It is these topics which have been visited (and re-visited) across many years of research by writers from varying places, each writer with their own theory and position.

I will now try to explore some of those theories which form the base of Cultural Studies. Originally, Cultural Studies was influenced by a particular paradigm, what has become known as ‘culturalism’ (Hall, 1992a, cited in Barker, 2000, page 38). This, for Raymond Williams and Richard Hoggart, means that culture can create consciousness and is a combination of both personal experience and social construction, influenced by objective and subjective life experiences (Easthope, Bassnett, 1997, page 8).

The theory of culturalism opposes the view that culture ‘reflects pre-existing economic and social forces'(Ibid, page 8), but that instead it is ‘ordinary’ and part of everyday lived process. In particular, Edward Thompson and Williams see culturalism as a form of ‘cultural materialism’ whereby the meaning of culture changes according to its material context over time (Barker, 2000, page 15). By ‘cultural materialism’, Williams is stating that culture should be understood through terms of ‘representations and practices of daily life in the context of the material conditions of their production’ (Ibid, page 40).

By this, Williams highlights the fact that the lives of everyday individuals are shaped by the changing patterns of material life, for example within institutions such as schools or the music industry. The way that these practices are produced in society, as a consequence affects how we live our lives. Culturalism aims to include mass culture as having just as great an impact on society as any other culture, and that lived experiences, ranging throughout the population, form the foundations of how we routinely behave. Williams suggests that there are in fact no masses: ‘… here are only ways of seeing people as masses’ (Williams, 1963, cited in Kidd, 2002, page 106). Culturalism is therefore taking a significant and interesting turn with F. R. Leavis and subsequently with Williams and Hoggart et al: ‘involving the culture of whole society, intricately interlinking art and life, text and context, high culture and low culture. ‘ (Ghosh, 2003). This view is juxtaposed with that of Marxism, which is concerned with the way in which mainly economic production structures and shapes the inner logical workings of society.

Followers of Marx see culture as an expression of economic class, whereas writers such as Williams believe that: ‘Either the arts are passively dependent on social reality, a proposition which I take to be… a vulgar misinterpretation of Marx. Or the arts, as the creators of consciousness, determine social reality. ‘ (Ibid, 2003). This Marxist perspective examines how economic production is the most influential determiner in terms of how society is controlled. Marx argues that the main concern of humans is the how they make their earnings through labour because this is the only way of survival (Barker, 2000, page 12).

However, Althusser argues that the social system is determined by many different social forces and not just economic but also cultural spheres. This leads on a more structuralist approach, adopted by Althusser. He suggests that: ‘… we should look instead at the structure of the wider class system, which is made up of numerous groups of people, not just individuals’ (Kidd, 2002, page 145). By this, Althusser is stressing the fact that the analysis of culture should be based on the ‘relationships that exist among elements in a system, instead of the elements themselves’ (Berger, 1995, page 97).

Where Marx sees these aspects of human relations as influential, he notes that they are structured by economic relations (Barker, 2000, page 13). Structuralism, on the other hand, is concerned with how cultural meaning is produced, outside of economic and social influences in everyday life (Ibid, page 66). Durkheim, for example, saw social facts as existing beyond individuals, and rather that they are socially constructed, not formed by individuals alone (Ibid, page 16). Durkheim believed that social facts lead to other social facts and that society is ruled by social and collective actualities.

Structuralism, attempts to uncover the underlying relations of cultural texts and practices and their relationships with each other. Like language, it is important for structuralists to discover what rules and conventions dictate the production of meaning in today’s world (Storey, 1996, page 56). Additionally, Durkheim saw human society working as a social system, with particular institutions contributing to the smooth operation of the whole society (Bilton, 2002, page 471).

This theory is known as functionalism and is used by Durkheim to explain how the systems in society are kept in a stable state because of certain institutions performing their functions interdependently (Ibid, page 472). Hence, by looking at these theories, it is evident that Cultural Studies has a variety of paradigms which shape its existence. I will now look at how and why Cultural Studies deals with these concepts. It is of course evident that different theorists have contrasting approaches in their particular modes of study.

Firstly methods change according to the writer and their circumstances. These circumstances diverge according to what each theorist is looking to establish. Ken Plummer, for example declares that research has ‘different goals and different kinds of data require different modes of evaluation’ (Plummer, (2001, page 153, Cited in Gray, (2003) page 74). Nonetheless, Cultural Studies centres around three types of approaches (Barker, 2000, page 27). Firstly ethnography is based on primary experience and seeks to gain deeper understandings of people.

Qualitative research is the main example of ethnographic study and is used in order to gain access more than simple explanatory facts that exist in society. However, this approach is criticised by many in the Cultural Studies field as it is very much subjective and merely reveals a writers own view and opinion as a result of its preferred conversational style research method. As Barker argues, ‘… ethnography has personal, poetic and political, rather than epistemological, justifications (Ibid, page 29). It is not based on any universal truth, but rather on personal feelings.

An example of this ethnographic method is that of Henry Jenkins’s ‘Textual Poachers’ (1992, cited in Storey, 1996, page 125), where he not only studies the concept of fandom from an academic stance, using theories and literature, but also gains his own interpretations from his knowledge about being a fan himself. He is thus ‘in active dialogue with the fan community’. Jenkins met with groups of fans in open discussions and listened to their responses, valuing their ideas. Ethnography is therefore about dialogue and ‘the attempt to reach pragmatic agreements about meaning between participants in a research process’ (Barker, 2000, page 30).

Secondly, textual approaches are used as forms of analysis in Cultural Studies. This method is used by structuralists and within semiotics in order to avoid vagueness in research but instead to come up with reliable, fact-finding data in order to expose repeated narrative structures within a text (Gray, 2003, page 128). Texts are seen as significant in themselves, as well as revealing how they produce meaning in relation to their social, historical and political context. The mode of production and reception of the text can also be established using this method (Ibid, page 129).

For example, how fashion is interpreted by society is reflected upon how producers generate their influence through texts, such as magazines and television. These texts are often seen as genuine and a reflection of the real world but are quite the reverse, for example television may appear to represent reality but in fact is controlled and edited. By analysing these texts and examining their social and power relationships, cultural analysis can gain a further understanding of the historical forces that shape the text (Sardar and Loon, 1997, page 12).

Furthermore, deconstruction is a method used in Cultural Studies in order to disclose the assumptions of a text. It is used to enable abstract oppositions to be taken apart and to see how they operate (Barker, 2000, page 32). This method is in contrast to that of structuralism as it sees: ‘structures as having no meaning apart from that given to them by humans through the use of language, and that it is the use of words by some people to create meaning that leads to the lack of power of others’ (Kidd, 2002, page 150).

This is the approach taken by Jacques Derrida (1973), who explains that we should study how discourse, mainly in speech, limits people by those who control it. Derrida explains that what we consider to be ‘reality’ is created for us by language and is based on the construction of ‘diffi?? rance’. Hence he insists that meaning cannot be pinned down, but is always unravelling according to what we see as its opposing meanings. For instance, how the word ‘female’ implies a meaning of that which is the opposite of ‘male’, rather than being a term in itself.

At the same time, Cultural Studies does not ignore the theoretical methods which help to explain much of the phenomenon concerned in the subject. It offers ‘… new tools by which to think about our world’ (Barker, 2000, page 33) and is vital for the understanding of empirical research and interpretations. However, theory is not related to the actual lives of particular people and ignores structures found in society too (Bennet, (1992, 1998), cited in Ibid, page 34).

As a result of these contrasting elements in relation to methods used, it seems that Cultural Studies aims to highlight the differences between certain powers in society within a variety of texts based on numerous theories written over a period of time. Yet, since Cultural Studies is so difficult to define, it is hard to pinpoint exactly how it is does this. If Cultural Studies aims to organise subordinate groups in society, it must take a practical stance in order to achieve its goals. I believe that Cultural Studies needs to take more responsibility in actually doing rather than simply describing.

Work produced has the potential to influence policies made within governments and local powers in the civilised world. Overall, it is plain to see that the work within Cultural Studies is vast and ever-evolving. In my view it contains important work both politically and intellectually that cannot be ignored by society. However, it must be more organised and structured in order for policies to be made. If this is to be done the social order as we know it can be enhanced and benefit from the fundamental work of Cultural Studies.

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