Study Guide

Cultural Studies Buzzwords

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"Single Ladies" is a pop song. It's a song about how women are still fettered by the institution of marriage, a feminist theorist would say. A song about the consumerist need to connect marriage to jewelry purchases, a Marxist theorist would argue. A song that shows the development of contemporary choreography, would be a dance scholar's take.

This song, or any song—or piece of art, for that matter—can be studied from a wide array of theoretical perspectives. Cross-disciplinary, trans-disciplinary, post-disciplinary, extra-disciplinary, psycho-disciplinary…whatever you want to call it, cultural studies can't be pinned down. Individual disciplines may have subsections and internal debates, but cultural studies puts a ring around all those different approaches.

Critical theory

Critical theory = theory that critiques, specifically society and human behavior. Like cultural studies itself, critical theory doesn't refer to a single, narrow model of study: it's about analyzing how meaning is transmitted and interpreted, and delving into the psychological and social characteristics of all types of cultural texts.

If you want to get into the nitty gritty of the critty, it refers to the idea that politics and ideology determine how people think, and that limits human freedom in terms of thoughts and actions. That idea was promoted by a group of Marxists who called themselves The Frankfurt School.


This refers to the depiction of individuals and groups within cultural texts. It's not just how a character (or an object or an idea) acts in a book or a song or a movie: it's the representation of that character, and that has implications for the representation of various groups in society in general.

Representation can be a hub of debate in that questions often come up about whether certain segments of culture are underrepresented or misrepresented by the mass media. So, if there's one minority character in a movie with mostly white characters, is that embracing racial diversity, or is the way that character acts still based on narrow stereotypes? The answer has to do with representation.

Representation is about the media and identity politics, but it also factors into texts of all varieties. So we can analyze a novel in terms of how it represents particular individuals and groups, as well as the cultural backdrop of a particular place and time.


Cultural studies is the study of culture. Culture is made up of people. People usually possess some form, shape, or multitude of identity. Or identities!

Identity can refer to an individual or to a group, though tensions can come about between the two. Group identity can be a source of solidarity and political force, especially during movements against discrimination—for Civil Rights, feminism, gay rights, and beyond. But there can also be internal divisions within groups, plus people don't always want to be crammed into boxy little definitions. Still, one way or another, identity is at the core of cultural studies.


This theme was developed by theorists such as Antonio Gramsci and Louis Althusser, and refers to dominant forms of social power and the (sometimes sneaky) ways in which they function. So, people in power paint a picture of reality that common people end up accepting as common sense, not realizing that it keeps the higher-ups higher up.

Cultural studies tries to unearth the sneakiness underneath those structures most folks take for granted. It raises the question of how people are positioned in relation to hegemony and to what extent they are aware of it and able to act against it.


It's not semi-idiotic, it's the study of how meaning is conveyed via signs. We're not talking about posted notices like "Stop" or " No smoking" here, but about the transmission of meaning through words, images, and objects. Ferdinand de Saussure focused on signs in a linguistic context, and Roland Barthes extended this approach to show that it can apply to all kinds of texts, both visual and written. Cultural studies likes taking traditional understandings of what signs are supposed to mean and interpreting how they fit into cultural settings more broadly.

Reception Theory

Texts don't exist in a vacuum: once unleashed into the public sphere, they're read or watched or heard or explored by individuals who have the potential to respond in various ways. As theorists such as Stuart Hall and Roland Barthes have emphasized, some texts may be more open to interpretation than others.

So, one reader might think the wolf in "Little Red Riding Hood" represents pure evil, and another might think he shows the value of cleverness or a good meal.

In any case, reception theory shifts focus from the author's intent and the text itself to highlight the role of the reader or viewer.


Not inhaling large quantities of food. Not tuberculosis. Here, "consumption" has to do with how people make use of objects produced within consumer culture—meaning, the economy is based on selling stuff you don't really need, but will make you feel really cool if you buy it.

Cultural studies asks: are mass-produced goods just objects? Or can individuals (consumers) transform them into something more meaningful? Or have people become so materialistic that consumer items have more power than people themselves?


On your sheet of binder paper, the margin is the part where you do your doodles instead of taking detailed, helpful notes on the main liney bits.

When it's about people, marginalization happens when a person or a group get smooshed over to the less-important sides instead of getting the full rights and respect all citizens are supposed to enjoy. Cultural studies is always on the lookout for when people are relegated to the doodle sections of society.


Forget originality, traditional style, and beauty in art being a thing—postmodernism takes the attitude that nothing truly new or pretty can be produced any more. Artists like Andy Warhol made art meant to show how superficial art had become, and theorists like Fredric Jameson wrote about the era of postmodernism as one based on consumerism and a fragmented sense of reality.

Basically, postmodernism happily mashes together bits and pieces from different texts, time periods, styles, and opinions. It doesn't give a flying Fellini about boundaries between "high" and "low" culture, and it revels in irony and pastiche. In other words, it sticks bitty pieces of culture into a giant blender of critical thought and whirls it all around until it's all but unrecognizable. That's the way our smoothie of a world is anyway, right?

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