What is Cultural Studies?

(Note: This is a re-post from the website Pretty Kitty Publishing.org. 9/3/10)

What is Cultural Studies?

This blog post explains the discipline of study I have chosen as the focus of my doctoral studies, cultural studies.

Mentioning one studies cultural studies is sure to draw a look of curiosity from anyone who is unfamiliar with the field. Yet, cultural studies is closely related to other academic fields of inquiry in the arts and humanities, and I would suggest the social sciences as well. Particularly those academic fields which privilege analysis, interpretation, and critical engagement with texts.

Cultural studies, as practiced in the United States, has an implicit humanist and/or activist component, although to what degree this is so, can be debated.

While it may seem logical to conclude that the interdisciplinary field of cultural studies may be explained as the study of other cultures, instead, the field of cultural studies challenges the concept that culture is something that can be used as simply a means to describe, analyze, or attach value to individuals or collectives. Cultural studies is not, therefore, the study of other cultures, but cultural studies is the the study of culture.

At Claremont Graduate University, MA and PhD students take introductory courses that focus respectively on two schools of thought within the field of cultural studies: The Birmingham School and the Frankfurt School. The Birmingham School is a reference to the University of Birmingham’s cultural studies program that combined the fields of sociology and media studies with cultural studies. Created in the late 1960s, it flourished until the program was disbanded in 2002, the program closed. You can read a piece in The Guardian which details more about the situation here.

The Frankfurt School predates The Birmingham School by nearly 40 decades and its main focus was the discourse of critical theory. Both of these “schools” are considered schools of thought. Their geographic center was Europe. Their political impetus was Marxism. You can read an article from the 1970s by  Göran Therboran detailing the major theories of The Frankfurt School  here.

To return to the question of cultural studies, it may be useful to reflect on Raymond Williams’ definition of the word culture. In his book Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (87), Williams describes culture as a process noun. In addition, leading Birmingham School theorist Stuart Hall has stated the field of cultural studies remains open and is not narrowly defined, (see authors Lawrence Grossberg, et. al. in the introduction to the book Cultural Studies) (3).

So what is cultural studies? If, as Williams defines it, culture is a noun of process, then the term culture cannot be simplistically defined. It must encompass, as Williams suggests, its original relationship to words such as of “honor,” “worship,” and “husbandry” (87). These words are indicative of the relationship of cultural studies to the study of power, specifically, biopower and biopolitics, to refer to Michel Foucault (see The Birth of Biopolitics Lectures de France 1978-1979).

Rather than thinking about cultural studies as the study of different people, think of cultural studies as a broad, interdisciplinary approach to studying a variety of topics based on the context and contingent relationships that help to describe and define those topics.

If we refer to the text Cultural Studies, once more, we see it provides readers with a point of entry into the various topics of discussion that are most common to the field. Looking at the list of topics which is located in the book’s introduction, we see the list is four pages long. This is evidence of the field’s broad interdisciplinary approach.

Curiously, the list is reflexive in that it begins with the history of the field itself. Subsequent topics are: gender and sexuality; nationhood and national identity; colonialism and postcolonialism; race and ethnicity; popular culture and its audiences; identity politics; pedagogy; the politics of aesthetics; culture and its institutions; ethnography and cultural studies; the politics of disciplinarity; discourse and textuality; science, culture, and the ecosystem; rereading history; and finally, global culture in a postmodern age.

This list is indicative of the broad, interdisciplinary nature of the field of cultural studies. That the field is broad seems appropriate given its emphasis on critiquing social norms. The norm in academia is to specialize in a narrow field of study. Yet, the broad categories which the text, Cultural Studies, raises the question, if the field is so broad, why is it seemingly so little-known? I do not, as of yet, have an answer.

What is not on the list is interesting.

There is no heading that contains the word black, nor do we see any other references to racial/ethnic categories in these topic titles. We do not see the terms feminism, or technology, or economy, nor do we see labor. What we begin with when we look at this list of topics, is a history of the field of cultural studies. We end with a topic that addresses a broad critique of culture, which also may be read as synonymous with the word, power and this critique is highly relevant to the time in which we now live.

Now is a time when institutions are crumbling. Identity politics has long come under attack. Witness the crumbling and rebirth of an American academic institution noted for its radical philosophy of education, Antioch College.

I argue that the field of cultural studies is taking a postmodern view of race/ethnicity, feminism, technology, economy and labor. When I argue that cultural studies is taking a postmodern view, I am also saying that cultural studies is taking a critical view of these categories.

What is cultural studies? I would suggest thinking of cultural studies as a quasi-hybrid of theoretical and practical topics of concern in a postmodern age. Cultural studies is an interdisciplinary field of study that questions social norms while at the same time challenging beliefs that are based on essentialism.

In conclusion, I suggest that cultural studies encompasses critical theory, but I suggest it differs slightly from critical theory due to the fact that cultural studies places greater emphasis on topics that would be considered highly relevant to “now.”

— Gail Taylor