Study Guide

Cultural Studies Basics

  • Beginnings

    There are two key schools of theorists that stand out as pioneers in what we now know as cultural studies. The first was known as the Frankfurt School, which wasn't actually an official school, but an umbrella term referring to a group of academics associated with the Institute for Social Research at the University of Frankfurt. When the Marxist theorist Max Horkheimer became director of the Institute for Social Research in 1930, the School became a hub of interdisciplinary (there's that word again) cultural research.

    While cultural studies has focused more and more on engaging with texts from pop culture, when we go back to the beginning we find that early cultural theorists had a whole different outlook. The Frankfurt guys were pretty irked by the rise in capitalism and mass culture that had resulted from nineteenth-century industrialization. The study of culture was therefore a political matter for them, with their research often taking a critical view of capitalist consumerism.

    Translation: new technology means more money and more stuff people can buy for fun, not just for practical reasons. People become more dependent on their stuff and political leaders take advantage of that dependence. The Frankfurters saw this and were totally critical of mass culture: basically, they said, mass-produced art was there to keep people too busy to question—or even notice—social inequality.

    Marxism played a key role in the beginning of cultural studies, but not because it offered all the answers. Au contraire! The Frankfurters were down with Marx's focus on economics, which made him argue that everything in society follows from a base structure where financial relations determine all other ones. BUT, Marx had predicted that capitalism would ultimately reach a breaking point and bring about a working-class revolution, and the Frankfurt fellows saw that instead, capitalism was reigning supreme and revolution was nowhere in sight.

    So do you need to become an expert in Marxist theory to get a handle on cultural studies? Nah. Just make a note that it was dissatisfaction with traditional Marxism that helped catalyze the Frankfurt school, and that's why these guys branched out to think about culture in wider terms and see what other theories could be useful. That was the joyous birth of the interdisciplinary approach that allowed theorists to mix it up for a change.

    As much as we love a good Frankfurter, by the mid-twentieth century there were several British academics whose plans for cultural studies added some tea and scones to the theoretical fire. Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams were two of these fish-n-chips-loving pioneers, and both were champions of working-class politics. These guys were also conscious that Marx's predicted revolution had failed to materialize. They said that capitalist consumerism was trampling on working-class values and communities, and they set about studying the reasons for this and scheming up possibilities for resisting capitalist control.

    So there we were, theories running wild on these ideas, but cultural studies still hadn't been named as a subject. But come 1964, a bunch of British academics got together and opened the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) at the University of Birmingham. They wanted their school to draw on a host of theories (Marxism, sociology, feminism, you name it) and to analyze all sorts of cultural texts. Like their predecessors, the CCCS founders were also into working-class politics, including how individuals became absorbed into dominant regimes and how they could resist those regimes.

    So that's nice: some elements of Marxism, caring about the underdog, interested in a wide assortment of theories and texts, kind of like all the cookie-cutter shapes you get during the holidays. However, there are also important differences between these first branches of cultural studies. Plus, the branch of study itself has changed a lot since the early days of Frankfurters and figgy pudding.

  • Big Players

    As you'd expect, all the dudes associated with the Frankfurt and Birmingham schools were considered the cream of the cultural studies crop. At Frankfurt, it was Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, and Jürgen Habermas who focused their attention on the study of culture (particularly in relation to mass culture).

    More specifically, it was Max who laid out cultural studies as a discipline—based on being interdisciplinary, as you recall—and also wrote about how the Enlightenment's focus on reason set the stage for fascism to develop.

    That idea was the thesis of a book called The Dialectic of Enlightenment, which Max co-wrote with his buddy Theodor Adorno. Theo-dorable was a philosopher and also a music scholar, and in addition to his collaborations with Max, he wrote about the role of aesthetic development in historical evolution, and argued that civilization is moving toward self-destruction. Pretty upbeat guy.

    Their pal Jürgen Habermas was a bit higher on the positude spectrum—he looked at modern society from within, without, below, upside-down, and backwards and wrote about the possibility of freedom within it. Take that, A-downer-o.

    So these were the popular kids of the Frankfurt school—which, don't forget, was never an official association: these guys were way too cool to buy a building and stick a sign on it. Instead, because of their shared interests and because academics love to form cliques, they set themselves apart from the other kids by labeling themselves the Frankfurt school.

    It was a different story at the CCCS (remember? The Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies). Though still kind of the oddball of the academia world, the CCCS was an official institution from the get-go, with a multi-word fancy name and everything, and was set up with particular goals in mind.

    One difference between the two, despite their similar stick-it-to-the-man attitudes, is that the Frankfurt school (especially Theodor Adorno) contrasted mass-produced culture with avant-garde "high" culture texts (which some people think makes the Frankfurt school look like the snooty guys of the punk world). The Birmingham school, meanwhile, wasn't concerned with avant-garde material; instead, its members examined media texts in-depth and looked to subcultures, particularly among the youth, as possible means of resisting capitalist control.

    These goals were promoted by the leaders of the CCCS, Richard Hoggart and Stuart Hall, who were interested in the ways in which dominant forms of culture (such as capitalism) managed to achieve such prominence and acceptance. Richie focused on the working class and the role of mass media for individuals, who usually accept whatever ideas are fed to them, and Stu first made a splash by focusing on the dangerous disease of "Thatcherism" (based on the conservative influence of British prime minister Margaret Thatcher), and later moved on to focus on nice things like multiculturalism and civil rights.

    These individuals are the bigwigs in the development of cultural studies, but the groups they stand for are extra important for the field in general because of their emphasis on political motives and concerns about class inequality. Talk focused more and more on the role of consumers and possibilities for subversion and resistance within mass culture. The move toward analyzing pop culture texts signaled a major change in the sort of work being carried out in this area.

    By the 1980s, concerns with Marxism and capitalism were starting to seem limiting and dated. Academics started gravitating toward a postmodern approach that was less critical of popular texts and consumer culture. Some more recent theorists include: 

    Whether we're talking about the early Frankfurters and CCCS-ers or the more recent theorists, cultural studies hotshots love to be the punk rockers of the theory world. BUT, cultural studies isn't just about having fun or being rebellious for the sake of it. These folks wear their political views on their safety-pinned, leather-jacket sleeve and set out to examine the production of meaning and the operation of power in everyday life. The best accessory to a blue mohawk is talking about the ways texts shape, and are shaped by, culture. Rock on!

  • Key Debates

    Theorists from across the spectrum of cultural studies have had different opinions as to what constitutes "culture" and what role and function cultural texts serve. And let's be real: when you're dealing with such a broad concept as "culture," is it any wonder?

    Even though cultural studies has taken plenty of different forms, you don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to see that it's changed a lot since the Frankfurter days. One area of debate has been the relative roles of author, reader, and text: though cultural theorists have a shared interest in the production and reception of texts and the circulation of meaning, they have sometimes been at odds when it comes to the question of where power lies.

    As the Big Players section elaborates, the Frankfurt school often seemed to regard people as passive receivers, emphasizing the power that texts (and mass-media texts in particular) wielded over the unwitting public. The CCCS, always down for compromise, started to take a more balanced view and focused on how individuals interacted with the texts that they encountered in their daily lives.

    So are people totally brainwashed by whatever the media throws at them? Or can readers and viewers be seen as producers of meaning themselves?

    While cultural theorists have moved more and more toward reception theory (that second option there), there have been concerns over the past few decades that cultural studies has strayed too far from it roots. The big issue here is de-politicization: cultural studies started out as a political project, but this has faded over the years, and wasn't ever big in the US version of cultural studies. Sure, identity politics can factor into cultural studies projects, but any Marxist or neo-Marxist angle is often seen as outdated, and cultural studies as a whole isn't as critical (you could say cynical) as it used to be.

    One of the most obvious topics of debate is the role and value of pop culture. In the bygone days, cultural theorists saw pop culture as just another way to keep the masses in check. After all, if folks were busy zoning out to episode after episode of Real Housewives, they weren't exactly going to get up off the couch and fuel a revolution. But as the years went by and cultural studies crossed the Atlantic, that all changed.

    These days, cultural studies is known for its enthusiastic study of pop culture in all its mass-produced, mass-consumed glory. Not all theorists have been thrilled by this, though: Stuart Hall, for instance, memorably remarked that he couldn't be bothered reading yet another study of Madonna or The Sopranos. So, just as there have been conflicting attitudes toward cultural studies among the tweed-wearing professor set, there have been conflicting attitudes within cultural studies, too.

  • State of the Theory

    So are cultural studies theorists still theorizing about how to study culture today? The Birmingham Centre, once a thriving paradise for cutting-edge study, was shut down in 2002 and absorbed into the sociology department—was that the end?!

    Nah. It meant that by that point cultural studies had expanded beyond Birmingham, beyond the UK, and beyond the confines of any one department.

    As it stands, there are numerous cultural studies associations across the globe, and the subject has become a popular area of academic study. So much for its punky non-conformism! What has changed, though, is that the early political sentiment has fallen by the wayside, and cultural studies now tends to be less hostile toward mass culture. Modern scholars also generally think of the public as being a bit more savvy than previously imagined.

    This doesn't always mean embracing mass-produced texts in themselves: it's more about exploring ways in which people engage with texts and the extent to which it's possible to read against the grain.

    The 1992 collection Cultural Studies (edited by Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, and Paula A. Treichler) gives a good flavor of the sort of work being undertaken in cultural studies: the essays explore popular music, colonial texts, crime fiction, Hustler magazine, and action movies such as Rambo. This cornucopia of topics demonstrates the breadth of cultural studies these days: what binds these diverse subjects is an interest in the cultural significance of texts and art in all forms. This means that, as well as analyzing the texts themselves, cultural studies focuses on the contexts in which texts are produced and received.

    As far as politics goes, cultural studies nowadays pays closest attention to identity politics and how factors such as gender, sexuality, and ethnicity are treated in cultural texts. The Cultural Studies collection, for example, includes essays on Chicana feminism, ethnic absolutism (the idea of ethnicity being a fixed identity), and cultural dialogues surrounding AIDS. Quite the range!

    Cultural theorists also explore ways that certain texts or genres have been embraced by cultural subgroups. The producers of the material may not even intend that sort of reaction, and other readers or viewers may not perceive things the way the subgroup does (like, a Chicana feminist will see the stereotype of Mexican women as housekeepers as slightly more offensive than, for example, the housekeeper's employers). Again, it's about what readers or groups of readers take away from texts based on their own cultural position.

    For better or worse, then, it looks like the political project of early cultural studies is a thing of the past. Rather than criticizing pop culture, cultural studies now emphasizes the pleasures of consumption and the creation of personal meaning from cultural texts, even if they're mass-produced.

    Still, it would be wrong to think that cultural studies has been transformed beyond recognition: it still concerns itself with texts and theories of all varieties rather than keeping to a narrow pathway, and, even though it has a greater institutional presence, it's hardly part of the beard-strokers of the academic elite—some of the snobbier beards even refer to it as a "Mickey Mouse degree."

    What's clear, though, even with the controversy around a theory wearing mouse ears, is that cultural studies has stood the test of time in one form or another. This in itself is a relevant point—cultural studies could easily have ended up a flash in the pan, yet it's still going strong today.

  • Talking the Talk

    What is literature?

    What is literature? What isn't literature is more like it. As far as cultural studies goes, literature doesn't just mean classic texts or works from particular time period—any form of written material can be classed as "literature," and even non-written materials (photos, music videos, tweets) are analyzable as "texts." Cultural studies is nothing if not inclusive, so the world is your supra-literary oyster.

    What is an Author?

    In true cultural studies fashion, an "author" is loosely defined anyone who generates texts. The notion of the author as an artistic genius or some sort of mythical figure has no place in cultural studies, and being an author isn't a question of having penned a literary masterpiece or achieved fame and fortune. In short, anyone can potentially be classed an author.

    What is a Reader?

    The reader is anyone who consumes any form of textual material. In cultural studies, it's important to consider the extent to which readers are able to create their own meanings. Some cultural theorists have focused on the influence of texts over the individual and the public, while others have observed readers' capacity to resist dominant meanings.

    Of course, the type of text has a bearing on this: some invite readers to form their own meanings while others try to impose an interpretation or change the reader's mind. In general, though, cultural studies recognizes—and encourages—what readers bring to the reading process.