History of Ideas: Cultural Studies

Lawrence Grossberg. New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. Editor: Maryanne Cline Horowitz. Volume 2. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005.

Cultural studies is one of the more controversial intellectual formations of the 1990s and the first decade of the third millennium. It has experienced a period of rapid growth in the academy, appearing at many universities in a variety of forms and locations (although rarely as degree-granting departments). At the same time, it has been broadly attacked both from inside the university and outside academia.


There are at least five distinct uses of cultural studies, making it difficult to know exactly what people are attacking or defending. It has been used to describe, alone or in various combinations:

  1. Any progressive cultural criticism and theory (replacing “critical theory,” which served as the umbrella term of the 1980s);
  2. The study of popular culture, especially in conjunction with the political problematic of identity and difference;
  3. So-called “postmodern” theories that advocate a cultural or discursive constructionism (and, thus, supposedly embrace relativism);
  4. Research on the politics of textuality applied broadly to include social life, especially based in poststructuralist theories of ideology, discourse, and subjectivity;
  5. A particular intellectual formation that is directly or indirectly linked to the project of British cultural studies, as embodied in the work of Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall, and the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS).

Second, the New Left emerged as a small but influential discussion group, and included many immigrants from the “colonies.” It was sympathetic to (but not aligned with) the growing Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. The New Left had a specific and ambivalent relation to Marxism, engaging Marxist theory and politics even as it criticized it for its failure (and inability?) to account for and respond to the challenges posed by the importance of ideology, colonialism and imperialism, race, and the failures of existing socialism. This work was enabled by the translation and publication of the early writings of Marx and a wide range of European Marxist thinkers.

Third, the British university system was, to put it mildly, elitist and classist, in terms of its student population and in its isolation, aestheticization, and limitation of culture to the field of the arts. Many of the influential early figures in cultural studies were working-class or immigrant students attending university on scholarship, who were driven to look for other accounts of culture that both expanded its referent and took it more seriously.

Finally, many of these figures were deeply influenced by their experience as teachers in various institutions of adult education outside the university. If nothing else, this experience played a role in convincing them, first, of the importance of culture (and intellectual work on culture) to both political struggle and people’s everyday lives, and second, of the fact that the important questions do not usually respect the disciplinary boundaries of academic competence and expertise.

Culture and Context

In this context, a number of writers—especially Raymond Williams and Richard Hoggart—began to explore the political and theoretical significance of the concept of culture in relationship to the broader contexts of social life. Trained as literary critics, they argued that cultural texts provided insights into social reality unavailable through the traditional social sciences and enabled one to understand what it felt like to be alive at a particular time and place—to grasp what Williams called “the structure of feeling.” They sought to describe culture’s concrete effects on people’s lives. Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy (1957), for example, entered into the debate over Americanization, using close textual analyses to ask whether the new forms of popular culture were unsettling the established relations between working-class cultural practices and the patterns of everyday life of the working classes. Williams—in Culture and Society (1958) and The Long Revolution (1965), and in other works throughout his career—sought the theoretical and methodological tools that would allow for description of the concrete relations among cultural practices, social relations, and organizations of power.

In 1964 Richard Hoggart set up the CCCS to continue these efforts when he was hired as professor of English literature at the University of Birmingham. This was done with the permission of both his department and the university, but with only their minimal support. He funded the Centre himself from monies he received for testifying in defense of D. H. Lawrence at an obscenity trial, and he hired Stuart Hall, who had already published The Popular Arts (1964) with Paddy Whannel. Hall became director in 1969 when Hoggart left to become assistant director of UNESCO. When Hall took a position as professor of sociology at the Open University in 1980, he was replaced by Richard Johnson. In the following years, the Centre was transformed and combined in a number of administrative incarnations until 2002, when the University of Birmingham dismantled the Department of Sociology and Cultural Studies.

The Centre undertook, both individually and collectively, a wide range of sometimes evolving and sometimes discontinuous researches, both theoretical and empirical, into culture and society, and was characterized internally by a wide range of positions and practices. Externally, it came to represent a more limited body of work as it engaged over the years in a number of highly visible public debates with other groups interested in the politics of culture. The Centre is most widely known for having offered a number of models of cultural studies from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, including models of: ideological analysis; studies of working-class cultures and subcultures, and of media audiences (all of which, taken together, constituted a particular understanding of culture as a site of resistance); feminist cultural research; hegemonic struggles in state politics; and the place of race in social and cultural processes. The Centre was primarily associated, quite commonly, with the work of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci.

The work of the Centre was not known widely outside of England, and only marginally known in the United States—primarily in departments of education and communication—until the mid-1980s. In the summer of 1983, a series of events organized around the theme “Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture” at the University of Illinois brought Hall and other key figures from the Centre to the United States. In the mid-1980s, the Australian Journal of Cultural Studies was founded, and when it followed its editor John Fiske (a student of Raymond Williams who had emigrated to Australia) to the United States, it became the first international journal explicitly devoted to the field.

In 1992 the University of Illinois hosted a second major conference, “Cultural Studies Now and in the Future.” During and after this conference, the validity of assuming British cultural studies to be the origin of cultural studies on a larger scale was increasingly challenged. It became clear that the British tradition was less an origin than a term around which a set of similar projects from all over the world could gather and work. People from Latin America, Asia and the Pacific Rim, Europe, and Africa offered their own indigenous traditions of cultural studies, many of which had developed without any knowledge of the British work, and often had no agreed-upon common label. During the 1990s cultural studies became visible—as something both claimed and contested—in many of the major disciplines of the humanities and social sciences (especially literary studies and anthropology) in the United States and in other parts of the world. In 2002 the first international Association for Cultural Studies was launched.

The founding insight of the British tradition was that what had been traditionally approached as an external relationship between two objects of study—the relation of culture and society—was somehow inscribed in the very complexity of culture itself: culture as a set of privileged activities (inevitably raising questions of value); culture as the uniquely human, mediating activities of symbolic life (for example, textuality, sense-making, signification, and representation); and culture as a whole way of life (linking culture to the totality of social life, including conduct, relations, and institutions). Cultural studies is about the relationship of anthropological, hermeneutic, and aesthetic discourses and practices of culture. It treats culture, then, as more than either a text or a commodity. It looks at culture as the site of the production of (and struggle over) power.

Formations of Cultural Studies

Cultural studies is concerned with describing (and intervening in) the ways cultural forms and practices are produced within, inserted into, and operate in and affect the everyday life of human beings and social formations, so as to reproduce, struggle against, and perhaps transform the existing structures of power. That is, if people make history—but within conditions not of their own devising—cultural studies explores the ways this process is enacted with and through cultural practices, and studies the place of such practices within specific historical formations. Cultural studies explores the historical possibilities of transforming people’s lives by trying to understand the relationships of power within which individual realities are constructed. That is, it seeks to understand not only the organizations of power but also the possibilities of survival, struggle, resistance, and change. It takes contestation for granted, not as a reality in every instance, but as an assumption necessary for the existence of critical work, political opposition, and even historical change. Cultural studies is not simply about texts or ideologies, but about the relationships that are historically forged among cultural practices and the contexts in which they operate.

Any further attempt to define cultural studies poses rather unique problems. It cannot be equated with any particular political agenda or with any particular theoretical position. Thus, on the one hand, while British cultural studies is often thought to have investigated class politics, it includes many examples of both feminist cultural studies and cultural studies invested in the politics of race, ethnicity, or post-coloniality. Unlike post-1960s academic formations associated with a particular political agenda (and a pre-constituted constituency outside the academy), cultural studies has no such guaranteed agenda or constituency. On the other hand, cultural studies is not a school of thought that can be linked irrevocably with a particular theory. Again, the British school is assumed to be grounded in Marxism (and especially in the work of Gramsci), but this is only because the diversity of that tradition has been reduced to a single, small set of representatives and examples. In fact, in England as well as elsewhere, cultural studies has drawn upon, and embodied, an enormously wide range of theoretical positions, from humanism to poststructuralism, from Marx to Foucault, from pragmatism to psychoanalysis.

Raymond Williams’s distinction between the common project of cultural studies, and its many different formations, recognizes that practicing cultural studies involves redefining it in response to its changing context (its geographical, historical, political and institutional conditions).

The Project of Cultural Studies

The most basic—and most radical—assumption of cultural studies is that the basic unit of investigation is always relationships, and that anything can only truly be understood relationally; thus, studying culture means studying the relationships between configurations of cultural texts and practices on the one hand, and everything that is not in the first instance cultural—including economics, social relations and differences, national issues, social institutions, and so forth—on the other. It involves mapping connections, to see how those connections are being made and where they can be remade. As a result, cultural studies always involves the study of contexts—sets of relations located and circumscribed in time and space, and defined by questions. And cultural studies is always interdisciplinary because understanding culture requires looking at culture’s relationship to everything that is not culture.

Moreover, cultural studies is committed to a radical contextualism; it is a rigorous attempt to contextualize intellectual (and political) work. This contextualism shapes the project of cultural studies profoundly, and involves a commitment to complexity, contingency, and constructionism.

Contexts are not random and chaotic collections of bits and pieces on which people attempt to impose order or meaning; they are already ordered or configured when the scholar embraces them in their complexity rather than reducing them to a simplicity defined ahead of time by a theoretical or political agenda. Cultural studies refuses to reduce the complex to the simple, the specific to the exemplary, and the singular to the typical. It refuses to see this complexity as an inconvenience to be acknowledged only after the analysis. It employs a conjunctive logic—where one thing is true, another may also be true—and thereby refuses the illusion of a total, all-encompassing answer. It avoids confusing projects with accomplishments (as if intentions guaranteed effects); and it refuses to put off until later the resistances, the interruptions, and the fractures and contradictions of the context.

Cultural studies believes in contingency; it denies that the shape and structure of any context is inevitable. But cultural studies does not simply reject essentialism, for anti-essentialism is, in its own way, another version of a logic of necessity: in this case, the necessity that there are never any real relations. Cultural studies is committed to what we might call an anti-anti-essentialism, to the view that there are relationships in history and reality, but they are not necessary. They did not have to be that way, but given that they are that way, they have real effects. Above all, there are no guarantees in history (or in reality) that things will form in some particular way, or work out in some particular way. Reality and history are, so to speak, up for grabs, never guaranteed. Cultural studies operates in the space between, on the one hand, absolute containment, closure, complete and final understanding, total domination, and, on the other hand, absolute freedom and possibility, and openness.

Finally, cultural studies assumes that relationships are produced or constructed, and not simply always the result of chance. The relations that make up a context are real through the various activities of different agents and agencies, including (but not limited to) people and institutions. Insofar as we are talking about the human world—and even when we are describing the physical world, we are within the human world as well—cultural practices and forms matter because they constitute a key dimension of the ongoing transformation or construction of reality. However, the effects of cultural practices are always limited by the existence of a material or nondiscursive reality. Cultural studies, then, does not make everything into culture, nor does it deny the existence of material reality. It does not assume that culture, by itself, constructs reality. To say that culture is constitutive—that it produces the world, along with other kinds of practices—does not mean that real material practices are not being enacted, or that real material conditions do not both enable and constrain the ways in which reality functions and can be interpreted. Cultural studies is, in the first instance, concerned with cultural practices. To put it simply, the culture we live in, the cultural practices we use, and the cultural forms we place upon and insert into reality, have consequences for the way reality is organized and lived.

The commitment to a radical contextualism affects every dimension of cultural studies, including its theory and politics, its questions and answers, and its analytic vocabulary—which includes concepts of culture (text, technology, media), power, and social identity (race, gender, sex, class, ethnicity, and generation). Cultural studies derives its questions, not from a theoretical tradition or a disciplinary paradigm but from a recognition that the context is always already structured, not only by relations of force and power, but also by voices of political anger, despair, and hope. Cultural studies attempts to engage the existing articulations of hope and disappointment in everyday life and to bring the messy and painful reality of power—as it operates both outside and inside the academy—into the practice of scholarship.

Cultural Studies, Theory, and Power

While cultural studies is committed to the absolute necessity of theoretical work, it sees theory as a resource to be used to respond strategically to a particular project, to specific questions and specific contexts. The measure of a theory’s truth is its ability to enable a better understanding of a particular context and to open up new—or at least imagined—possibilities for changing that context. In this sense, cultural studies desacralizes theory in order to take it up as a contingent strategic resource. Thus, cultural studies cannot be identified with any single theoretical paradigm or tradition; it continues to wrestle with various modern and postmodern philosophies, including Marxism, phenomenology, hermeneutics, pragmatism, poststructuralism, and postmodernism.

Cultural studies does not begin with a general theory of culture but rather views cultural practices as the intersection of many possible effects. It does not start by defining culture or its effects, or by assembling, in advance, a set of relevant dimensions within which to describe particular practices. Instead, cultural practices are places where different things can and do happen. Nor can one assume, in advance, how to describe the relation of specific cultural formations to particular organizations of power. Consequently, the common assumption that cultural studies is, necessarily, a theory of ideology and representation, or of identity and subjectivity, or of the circulation of communication (production-text-consumption), or of hegemony, is mistaken. Cultural studies often addresses such issues, but that is the result of analytic work on the context rather than an assumption that overwhelms the context.

Like a number of other often overlapping bodies of intellectual and academic work that have emerged since World War II (feminism, critical race theory, postcolonial theory, and queer theory, among others), cultural studies is politically driven; it is committed to understanding power—or more accurately, the relationships of culture, power, and context—and to producing knowledge that might help people understand what is going on in the world (or in particular contexts) and the possibilities that exist for changing it.

The project of cultural studies, then, is a way of politicizing theory and theorizing politics. Cultural studies is always interested in how power infiltrates, contaminates, limits, and empowers the possibilities that people possess to live their lives in dignified and secure ways. For if one wants to change the relations of power—if one wants to move people, even a little bit—one must begin from where people are, from where and how they actually live their lives. Cultural studies attempts to strategically deploy theory (and empirical research) to gain the knowledge necessary to redescribe the context in ways that will enable the articulation of new or better political strategies. Cultural studies also approaches power and politics as complex, contingent, and contextual phenomena and refuses to reduce power to a single dimension or axis, or to assume in advance what the relevant sites, goals, and forms of power and struggle might be. Consequently, it advocates a flexible, somewhat pragmatic or strategic, and often modest approach to political programs and possibilities.

Two of the most important political assumptions of cultural studies are also among its most controversial. Cultural studies refuses to assume that people are dupes, constantly manipulated by the producers of culture and ignorant of their own subordination. On the other hand, it does not assume that people are always in control, always resisting, or operating with an informed understanding of the context. That does not mean that cultural studies doesn’t recognize that people are often duped by contemporary culture, that they are lied to, and that at times—and for a variety of reasons—either don’t know it or refuse to admit it. But it does mean that cultural studies is opposed to the vanguardism of so much of contemporary political and intellectual discourse.

Cultural studies is committed to contestation, sometimes as a fact of reality, but always as a possibility that must be sought out. Contestation can also serve as a description of cultural studies’ own strategic practice, which sees the world as a field of struggle and a balance of forces. Intellectual work is required to understand the balance and find ways of challenging and changing it. Of course, cultural studies recognizes that the relations among survival, change, struggle, resistance, and opposition are not predictable in advance, and that there are many forms and sites that each can take and has taken; these range from everyday life and social relations to economic and political institutions. Cultural studies, then, is an effort to produce knowledge about the context that will help to strengthen, existing struggles and constituencies, helping to relocate and redirect them, or to organize new struggles and constituencies. It seeks knowledge that will make the contingency of the present visible and open up possibilities that will help to make the world a better, more humane, place.

While it attempts to put knowledge in the service of politics, cultural studies also attempts to make politics listen to the authority of knowledge. It believes that its political commitment (and its desire for intervention) demands that it maintain a justifiable claim to authority in the face of the threat of a relativism often linked to contextualist and constructivist projects. Cultural studies, like many of its political allies in the academy, rejects foundationalism. It does believe that knowledge is dependent on its context, and hence, that all knowledge is limited and partial. There is no knowledge that is not always marked by the possibilities and the limits of the position and perspective from which it is constructed and offered.

Yet cultural studies also rejects relativism, for like foundationalism, relativism assumes that knowledge and culture exist on a different plane from the context they purport to represent. But if the knower is a constituent part of the very context he or she is trying to know, the description plays an active part in the construction of the very context it describes. The question of better or worse knowledge is, then, no longer a matter of comparing two things (the description and the reality) as if there were some place outside the reality that we could stand in order to compare them. The question is rather a matter of the possible effects of the knowledge on the context—what possibilities for change does it enable? The better the knowledge, the more (new) possibilities it will offer for transforming the present. That is what cultural studies means when it talks about knowledge without truth, and about useful knowledge. Cultural studies does demand a kind of self-reflection on its own limitations, but this is not, as in some other projects, a requirement that one define one’s identity as if it were determining, but rather that one offer a rigorous analysis of institutional conditions and a reflection of one’s own contextual existence.

The question of what cultural studies will (or should) look like is only answerable within the particular context that calls cultural studies into existence. Cultural studies is not alone in privileging the questions of power or in its commitment to relationality and constructionism; it is not alone in its embrace of contingency and contextuality or in recognizing the importance of culture. But the practice that is defined by the intersection of all these commitments—that is the project of cultural studies. Cultural studies is an intellectually grounded practice for intervening into the “becoming” of contexts and power. It attempts, temporarily and locally, to place theory in-between in order to enable people to act more strategically in ways that may change their context for the better.

Diversity in Cultural Studies

The diversity of cultural studies is as important as its unity; yet there is no obvious single best way to organize or describe that diversity. One could display the range of objects and discourses that cultural studies has explored—including art, popular culture, media culture, news, political discourses, economies, development practices, everyday practices, organizations, cultural institutions, and subcultures. One could display the different theoretical paradigms (including pragmatism, phenomenology, post-structuralism, Marxism, and so forth) or theoretical influences (Harold Innis, Michel de Certeau, Gramsci, and Michel Foucault, among others). One could display the different political agendas—feminist, Marxist, anti-racist, anti-homophobic, anti-postcolonial, anti-ageist—or the more positive political agendas of socialism, radical democracy, and global justice, that have driven the work. One could consider the different ways the major concepts of culture, power, articulation, and context have been used. One could describe the implications of disciplinary diversity—literary studies, anthropology, sociology, communication, history, education, and geography, among others—and methodological diversity—forms of textual analysis, ethnography, interviewing, archival research, statistical analysis, and so forth. Finally, one could speculate about the significance of geographical diversity, which has become increasingly visible and important. A more useful way might be to describe some exemplary instances of cultural studies.

A first model, found in the work of Raymond Williams, reads texts as ideologies in context. That is, it uses texts to try to locate and define the common structure (e.g., homology, structure of feeling) that unites the disparate elements of social formation into a unified social totality. But this common structure of unity is available only by thinking of ideology contextually—that is, by looking at the relations among texts, and between texts and other discursive and nondiscursive practices.

A second model, found in the work of communication scholar James Carey, looks at particular cultural practices as rituals that reenact the unity—shared meanings, structures, and identities—of a community.

A third model locates cultural texts and practices within a dialectic of domination and resistance and was closely associated with the CCCS in the 1970s, especially in the early work of David Morley, Dick Hebdige, and Angela McRobbie. The politics of culture are determined by the relations among a number of relatively autonomous moments—primarily of production and consumption—but later work added distribution, exchange, and regulation. It provided an alternative model of media communication (encoding-decoding) with an emphasis on the audience as an active interpreter of messages and of subcultures in which subcultural styles were seen to be expressions of, and symbolic responses to, lived contradictions—defined by class and generation—of the social experiences of the members of the subculture.

A fourth model explores cultural and social identities as complex sets of relations. It involves the production of differences (or structures of otherness such as race and gender) within a population, the effort to naturalize such identities as biological, the distribution of people into those categories, and the assignment of particular meanings to each identity. These differences provide the basis, along with the inequalities of power and resources, that are defined within a particular society. But they are not natural, inevitable, or fixed; instead, identities are the site of constant work and struggle over the practices by which people come to be represented and to represent themselves. This work studies the dialectical production of identity and difference, often in a kind of Hegelian dialectic of recognition. This is a logic in which the formation (identity) of one term (the self) can only be constructed through, or on top of, the assimilation and exclusion of the other. There are various tropes for this process circulating throughout the cultural studies literature (and beyond), including difference, border-crossing, hybridity, third space, and most recently, diaspora (although the last often attempts to escape the Hegelian negativity of difference). Obviously, such work in cultural studies overlaps here with many other bodies of related work, but its influence—through the work of people like Stuart Hall, Paul Gilroy, Angela McRobbie, Gayatri Spivak, and Judith Butler—has been profound.

A fifth model is concerned with the relationship between culture and the state. Influenced in part by Gramsci, such work was best illustrated by the important work of Stuart Hall and John Clarke on hegemony as an alternative to notions of civil politics as ideological consensus. Hegemony, as a struggle for the gain and consolidation of state power, involves the attempt by a particular coalition of social factions to win popular consent to its leadership. Hegemony is not a battle to the death between two camps, but a constant attempt to negotiate with various factions to put together temporary agreements for the leadership of the ruling bloc at different sites. It therefore works on (and through) the popular languages and logics of the society, and reconfigures the national common sense in order to reconstitute “a balance in the field of forces.”

A sixth model of “governmentality” emphasizes the variety of ways in which culture is used by state and other institutions to produce particular kinds of subjects and to regulate their conduct. This work focuses on the material effects of bureaucratic cultural apparatuses; it looks at how institutional discourses produce a particular structure of the subject itself as an historical effect of power. For example, Tony Bennett looks at cultural institutions such as museums in terms of the way they discipline people, organizing their behavior and teaching them, as it were, to behave properly in public as citizens. Similarly, Bennett has also argued that the pedagogy of cultural criticism functioned to render students always inadequate and incomplete, not only in terms of the classroom but as human beings in need of constant self-improvement. In his view, it is only the teacher who can recognize the politically problematic claims of any text, while the students are always guaranteed to fail. Another example involves the work of Nikolas Rose and his colleagues, who attempt to analyze the contemporary forms of neoliberal state power by looking at the micropractices of institutions and everyday life.

Finally, the seventh model looks at culture as formations or organizations of both cultural and noncultural practices, often related to, or even identified with, particular institutions. Such cultural apparatuses function in complicated ways to produce and organize social reality itself. That is to say, they are “technologies of power” that are connected on the one hand to the lived realities of everyday life (itself understood to be an organization of power) and, on the other hand to the larger structures of political and economic power. Cultural or discursive practices are integral pieces of the institutional formations of power that organize the very lived reality and structures of power in space and time. Examples of such work can be seen in the anthropological critiques of development offered by Akhil Gupta and Arturo Escobar, and in Meaghan Morris’s studies of the place of history as a cultural formation in Australian social life.

This entry discusses only the last of these referents even though it is especially difficult to define this intellectual formation. Even the simple claim of British origin is, in the end, probably unacceptable. Still, it provides a reasonable starting point for this discussion. The English origins of cultural studies can be linked to at least four elements of the post–World War II context. First, one of the major issues organizing political debate was framed as the challenge of Americanization, which was perceived in largely cultural terms, both in the growing presence of U.S. popular culture and in the apparent disappearance of many aspects of traditional, working-class culture.