Cultural Studies

Karma R Chávez. Encyclopedia of Communication Theory. Editor: Stephen W Littlejohn & Karen A Foss. Sage Publications. 2009.

Cultural studies can be loosely defined as an academic field of study that crosses disciplinary boundaries such as political economy, literary studies, cultural anthropology, philosophy, American studies, gender studies, film studies, and communication studies. Early cultural studies, which emerged from the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) in Great Britain, generally utilized Marxist and structuralist perspectives to investigate the complex relationships between political economy and culture. Particularly, cultural studies explored the mundane and the “popular” as opposed to what might be called high culture.

Contemporarily, cultural studies has fractured into numerous strands of thought that do not share theoretical or methodological unity, although the emphasis on ordinary and popular culture remains central. Communication, which was one of the first disciplines to offer cultural studies legitimacy in the United States, has most often seen a cultural studies influence in assessments of articulations of power and knowledge within popular media texts. Understanding the importance of cultural studies requires an exploration of its creation as an academic field of study, a look at the central issues for nearly all cultural studies scholars, a brief discussion of its relevance in the field of communication, and a summary of persistent criticisms.

Creation of Cultural Studies

The emergence of British cultural studies, in connection with the CCCS, can be traced to post-World War II Great Britain. A number of cultural and social changes faced Great Britain during this time period, including its decline as a world superpower, the development and proliferation of mass media, and the loss of “imperial” identity and homogeneity with an influx of new populations, many of whom were formerly colonized peoples. Moreover, with the expansion of educational opportunities in Great Britain, students who once would have had no access to higher education were now afforded scholarships so they could attend school. These “scholarship” students eventually became intellectuals who did not espouse the same perspectives or values of the middle and upper class who comprised much of the intellectual class. The traditional intellectual class contained many of those who privileged the high arts and condemned the “popular” ones. Thus, a collection of working class intellectuals, including Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams, two of those credited with the creation of cultural studies, began emphasizing the importance of popular culture. Additionally, several individuals involved in the teaching profession, including Stuart Hall, another founder of contemporary cultural studies, began noticing a disconnect between themselves and their knowledge and the cultural communities of their students. A desire to narrow this gap also led to early explorations of popular culture.

Hoggart, Williams, and others, such as E. P. Thompson, set many of the modern foundations for cultural studies. Stuart Hall’s theories and writings perhaps have left the longest lasting impression, especially on U.S. audiences. Hall took over for Hoggart as director of the CCCS in 1969. Under Hall’s leadership, the CCCS shifted its focus from “everyday” cultures to an emphasis on the mass media and the ideological functions and effects of the media. Hall also centered his approach to cultural studies on dynamics of race and empire, an influence that remains strong today. Hall left the directorship of the CCCS in 1979 to become a professor of sociology at the Open University, and it was also during this time that other centers and university departments began to more seriously aid in constructing the field of cultural studies. The Open University, with the help of Hall, became central in offering innovative tools for cultural studies. Additionally, numerous journals and working groups produced a vibrant body of cultural studies literature.

In the mid- to late 1980s, centers and departments in the United States began to produce a plethora of cultural studies research projects. Several collections of scholarly writing emerged from these collaborations, including Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg’s edited collection, Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, and Grossberg, Nelson, and Paul Treichler’s collection, Cultural Studies. Additionally, in 1987, the journal Cultural Studies launched its inaugural issue in the United States, featuring an internationally acclaimed editorial board. Today, numerous cultural studies journals, anthologies, and academic conferences as well as departments, programs, and centers have been created around the world.

Key Issues in Cultural Studies

In spite of the growth of the field of cultural studies, its increasing legitimacy within the academy, and the substantial number of scholars who identify with it, cultural studies has maintained its refusal of disciplinary and methodological purity. Nevertheless, a number of key issues serve a central function to many cultural studies scholars. Foremost in this arena is the term culture, which has numerous definitions, including Raymond Williams’s famous definition of culture as a “way of life.” Others, such as Grossberg, contend that the culture of cultural studies is always a contextual and ambiguous space. No singular definition will do; thus reading culture in relation to the following collection of concepts is an imperative of cultural studies.

Language and Signification

The relationship between language and culture is hotly contested, but for most cultural studies scholars, language and processes of signification provide the only access we have to understanding culture. Because meaning is paramount to any definition of culture, the processes of meaning creation must remain in focus. Meaning is constructed, and the site of its construction is language. Cultural studies scholars most typically follow the tradition of Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, who argued that meaning is arbitrary and that no necessary relationship exists between an object and the word that represents it. Investigating the meaning of signs, the arbitrary relationship between the signifier (word) and the signified (object), provides a way to understand culturally specific modes of meaning making.

Language is one site to interrogate this relationship; signifying processes, more broadly speaking, are another. Images, film, and various nonlinguistic signs can be analyzed as processes of signification that reinforce particular cultural myths, or social meanings that attach themselves to particular signs. For example, an advertisement or photograph may contain several signifiers that attach to multiple signifieds, depending on the cultural context. An image of Barack Obama after winning the U.S. presidency in 2008 offers an example. The signifiers in the image might include Obama’s smile, his suit and tie, his maleness, and his brown skin. The signifieds, however, could include a shift in the United States’ history of racism, a young and attractive president who suggests a change in policy course, or a continuation of the masculine-dominated political system. Any of these meanings are possible, and by understanding these processes of signification, cultural studies scholars can better understand cultural stagnation and change.

Text and Audience

The exploration of signs usually works by featuring the cultural artifact in question as a text. In cultural studies, a text can refer to a written text, but it is more often used to refer to any artifact that requires reading or interpretation. Textual analysis remains the primary methodological approach in cultural studies. Because of the emphasis on media, cultural studies scholars are interested in both the analysis of media as polysemic texts that can be read in multiple ways and in how audiences make use of those texts in culturally and historically specific contexts. Drawing on post-structuralism and postmodern theories, cultural studies assumes that no text has an intended or singular meaning. Texts interact with audiences in different contexts to create different meanings. For instance, a song written by a U.S. American artist has very different meanings for audiences at a club in New York City, a boutique in Paris, or a shopping mall in Tokyo. Hall’s notions of encoding and decoding, or the interaction between producer and audience to create meaning, have proved especially helpful in understanding these processes.

Ideology and Hegemony

Texts and audiences within any context are not innocent. Because cultural studies research typically produces and adds to critical theory, theorizing ideology and hegemony are key enterprises for cultural studies scholars. Generally following Marxist tradition, a key question is, how do mass media uphold and reinforce the ideology of the dominant class? Related to this question is the issue of discourse, or the web of cultural meanings that congeal on a particular topic or idea, and how some discourses get naturalized to seem as if they are the only one. Ideology is a difficult concept, and cultural studies scholars early on followed the theorization of Louis Althusser, who offered a deterministic perspective on the discursive and material functioning of ideology. Althusser’s theory of ideology promoted a perspective that essentially said ideology produces culture, and people have little agency to challenge it.

Cultural studies scholars mitigate Althusser’s deterministic conceptualization of ideology by turning toward Antonio Gramsci’s notion of hegemony. Rather than depicting ideology as all-encompassing, he argues that dominant ideologies and domination are rarely instituted by force or coercion; rather, people consent to their own domination. Consent is achieved when the dominant group acknowledges oppositional positions and viewpoints enough so those who are disempowered feel that their interests are taken into consideration. Though little actual change may happen, the accommodations the dominant group offers provide enough recompense to keep the marginalized complacent. Thus hegemony affords the possibility for people to enact social change since they take part in their own domination. Cultural studies scholars often investigate the functioning of ideology and hegemony, as well as the ruptures in dominant discourses that leave possibility for agency and revolution.

Identity and Subjectivity

Questions of agency remain crucial for cultural studies scholars. Ideology not only functions to produce particular manifestations of culture, but beliefs about the self are also ideological. An assumption that is present in both Althusser and Gramsci is that ideologies are internalized and help constitute people’s sense of who they are in a given cultural space. Because ideologies are found in the language, texts, and signifying practices, what those things mean comes to reside in people. This means that who people understand themselves to be and how others understand them in terms of factors such as race, class, gender, and sexual orientation are not “natural,” but “naturalized.” A person’s relationship to a particular text is thus a product of a range of cultural processes that are heavily infused with specific ideologies about who they are and how they should be.

Methodological Approaches

Investigating the aforementioned concerns proves to be a complicated methodological task. One of the key strengths and most often identified weaknesses of cultural studies is its refusal to adopt a unified methodological approach. On one hand, this refusal leads cultural studies scholars to conduct research that is driven by their research questions. Cultural studies scholars thus utilize an array of methods including, but not limited to, archival research, textual analyses, interviews and ethnographic methods, surveys, content analysis, psychoanalysis, semiotics, and deconstruction. Scholars who have long critiqued the methodological limitations of those disciplines that demand adherence to a unified or consistent method have championed this plurality. On the other hand, without a coherent methodological approach, critics have maintained that cultural studies will always lack validity.

One of the most well-known examples of a cultural studies approach to the study of cultural artifacts is Doing Cultural Studies: The Story of the Sony Walkman. This book, which provides a step-by-step analysis of the culture of the Walkman, identifies the necessity of unpacking the articulation of five related cultural processes: representation, consumption, identity, production, and regulation. These processes create a circuit of culture that one must investigate in order to offer a comprehensive look at the function, use, and meanings connected to cultural artifacts. Though many cultural studies projects do not take this particular approach, this case study serves as an exemplar for how to critique the numerous culture industries and their products.

Cultural Studies and Communication

Importantly, the discipline of communication studies was among the first to embrace cultural studies in the United States. Specifically, those who study media and cultural processes have been most interested in the cultural studies project. Lawrence Grossberg has been one of the leaders in bringing cultural studies to communication, having written extensively about cultural studies. His work on topics such as youth culture, conservatism, and popular music has laid the groundwork for an entire body of scholarship connecting communication and cultural studies. Similarly, a number of feminist and queer scholars have done important work that conjoins the two areas of study, including Raka Shome, Radhika Parameswaran, Katherine Sender, and others. In her work on Princess Diana, for instance, Shome analyzes British media representations of Diana after her death. Shome demonstrates the connections between White femininity and national identity during the crisis. Sender has also created a body of work analyzing the relationships between gender and sexuality in the media within a broader context of neoliberalism. Sender’s research highlights representation in relation to matters of consumption, production, regulation, and identity, connecting it strongly with the cultural studies tradition practiced at the Open University. Others such as Toby Miller have intervened in cultural studies practice by insisting on an internationalization of research and a connection with other dimensions of cultural reality such as law, policy, and money. For media analyses to have relevance to public audiences, scholars must push for more complex analyses that lead to radical critique and social transformation.


No field of study that has changed the academic landscape like cultural studies could be without its critics. Cultural studies has taken hits from an array of scholars for both its political agenda and its methodological fluidity. By now it should be clear that cultural studies has no use for conventional scholarly expectations of objectivity or neutrality. To the contrary, cultural studies scholars are overt in their political commitments, and they often maintain that their critical reflexivity about politics makes their work more honest than that which denies any political investment at all. Not all critics find this premise persuasive. Moreover, some critics hardly consider cultural studies scholarly. Physicist Alan Sokal wrote a parody, which appeared as a hoax, in the cultural studies journal Social Text, of what he described as the “nonsense” of cultural studies scholars writing from a postmodern tradition. In explaining his hoax, Sokal argued that the political turn away from analyses of objective realities toward the social construction of reality undermines possibilities for scholarship to affect genuine social change. Sokal’s work created a significant controversy within and outside the field both because he fooled the editors and reviewers of a leading cultural studies journal and because of the scathing nature of his critique.

The Sokal hoax also points to the methodological critiques leveled at cultural studies, from those both within and outside the approach. For example, cultural studies scholars have long squabbled over the relationship between culture and political economy, with some critics arguing that cultural studies has reduced everything to culture, denying the impact of political economy. Additionally, cultural studies scholars have critiqued each other for using whatever method suits their fancy, relying on a critique of the conditions of knowledge production as a justification for less-than-rigorous methodology. At the same time, because textual analysis remains a primary method, some have suggested that cultural studies research has not advanced beyond the literary criticism generally applied to “high arts.”

Outside cultural studies, the methodological critiques have been no less severe. Some practitioners of journalism maintain that the influence of cultural studies corrupts journalistic practice as it emerges from radical theory rather than empirical investigation. Harold Bloom, a Yale literature professor, argues that cultural studies is destructive to literary studies and an enterprise designed to advance people’s careers rather than engage in serious analysis of literary texts.

Probably one of the biggest critiques of cultural studies remains its profound Eurocentrism. Though the complex phenomenon of globalization has been studied extensively, and postcolonial theory has long impacted the thinking of a number of people in cultural studies, the ethnocentrism of much of the work has stayed firmly intact. Scholars from traditions in Asia and Latin America in particular have suggested that cultural studies remains a very limited enterprise as long as its perspective emerges from only a small collection of powerful regions (Europe, Australia, and the United States). Latin American cultural studies scholars, for example, demonstrate a long-standing and rich tradition of critical writing and research in Central and South America that predates many of these same conversations in Eurocentric cultural studies. Still, very little of that Latin American tradition is regarded in the Eurocentric one. Despite its obvious shortcomings, cultural studies remains a vibrant and constantly changing project that will no doubt continue to influence generations of communication scholars.