Human Communication
in the British Cultural Studies Tradition

by Robert M. Seiler

For about two decades, in many parts of the world, Cultural Studies (CS) has been moving into the mainstream of intellectual life, offering scholars interested in society and culture alternatives to old research paradigms (Hardt, 1989; Grossberg, 1997). BCS emerged from the work done at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS), an interdisciplinary research centre Richard Hoggart and Stuart Hall established at the University of Birmingham in 1964. Different scholars have endorsed different definitions of CS as a problematic (Hall, 1996, p. 31), but most claim that CS enables them to examine cultural objects and practices from the point of view of their interaction with and within relations of power. Hall (1984) writes that CS is both interpretive and evaluative in its methodologies, but rejects the simple equation of culture with "high" culture,[1] stressing that all forms of cultural production need to be studied in relation to other cultural practices and to social and historical structures.

In compiling this history, I take as my point of departure the account Norma Schulman (1993, p. 52) produced. Like Schulman, I will discuss the historical antecedents of this intellectual movement; explain what the founders and their successors meant by CS and how they defined its aims; consider what theoretical or practical obstacles lay in the way of realizing its goals; and indicate the contributions Birmingham CS has made to the study of culture and communication. I end with a brief sketch of the characteristics that distinguish this problematic.


It is possible to trace CS to S.T. Coleridge (1772-1834), the poet, critic, and philosopher who wore the mantle of cultural critic for his generation. Coleridge met William Wordsworth in 1795, and the poets formed a deep friendship; they visited Germany during the year 1798-99 (Coleridge developed a taste for German philosophy and criticism), and they collaborated on Lyrical Ballads (1789), a volume which signalled the start of the Romantic movement in English poetry. Coleridge wrote such inspired poems as "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and "Kubla Khan," and over the years he shared his interest in political philosophy in Biographia Literaria (1817), in which he introduces the philosophy of Kant, Fichte, and Schelling to English thinkers, Aids to Reflection (1825), a philosophical treatise on the distinctions between Understanding and Reason, and Anima Poetae (1895), a collection of observations on a variety of social and cultural topics. His Tory-democratic attitude appealed to many and his defence of orthodoxy (always philosophical) has influenced modern "neo-Christianity."

It is more fruitful to trace CS to Matthew Arnold, T.S. Eliot, and F.R. Leavis, who in the twentieth-century saw the "great tradition" as a remedy for contemporary social problems (they regarded culture and democracy as opposed). These critics offered readers examples of detailed, concrete analyses of cultural experiences.

Matthew Arnold (1822-88), poet and critic, worked as inspector of schools from 1851-57, travelling across England and Europe, investigating Nonconformist schools, and Professor of Poetry at Oxford, 1857-86. Arnold outlined the function of the cultural critic in Culture and Anarchy (1869), where he wrote that society is heading towards anarchy (he sees evidence of this threat in the contemporary philosophy of "doing as one likes"); only culture (he writes) can save it. He claims that, throughout history, two forces have governed society: (a) the impulse towards duty, self-control, and work, and (b) the impulse towards knowledge and ideas. Two races, the Hebrews and the Greeks, embody these impulses. By Hebraism, he means "firm obedience" and "strictness of conscience," and by Hellenism he means "clear intelligence" and "spontaneity of conscience." These impulses alternate throughout history, Christianity being the triumph of Hebraism and the Renaissance being the triumph of Hellenism.

Ideally these impulses can be balanced, and in fact Arnold writes that, as a critic, he will promote this very cause. In practice, however, the mission to "improve" the populace meant promoting culture with a capital "C" (his opponents regarded culture as trivial). That is, he speaks of culture as the study of perfection, the impulse to make the world a better place, the drive to realize the ideal of human perfection and happiness. He argues that great literature (especially poetry) preserved these aspects of culture. From this perspective, "pursuing culture" becomes "improving society."

During the 1930s and the 1940s, T.S. Eliot and F.R. Leavis were the major cultural influences in Great Britain: both were champions of elite culture. Interestingly, Eliot (1888-1965), the American-born British poet, critic, and dramatist, produced a great deal of provocative social criticism, promoting Arnold's elitist position on culture. For example, in Modern Education and the Classics (1934), he wrote that the Classics should be studied not for their own sake but as a buttress for the Faith, and in Notes towards the Definition of Culture (1939) he regarded culture as hierarchial and undemocratic.

F.R. Leavis (1895-1978), the literary critic, taught at Cambridge, where he served as the Director of Studies in English at Downing College, Cambridge, 1932-78, and edited Scrutiny, the literary magazine, from 1932 to 1953, stressing the importance of inculcating critical standards. Like Arnold, Leavis believed that culture and democracy were "unalterably" opposed; both regarded literature, i.e., great works, as a source of aesthetic and moral values which offered salvation from a perceived decline in the standards of contemporary life: the commodification of culture. In Culture and Environment (1933), Leavis produced a guide to culture for teachers and students, together with a list of exercises and essay topics. We can think of this book as a Media Studies textbook, with a focus on journalism, advertising, and popular fiction. This training is supposed to sharpen's the reader's powers of discrimination--so that he or she can "see things as they are." Later, in The Great Tradition (1948), he produced a specific version of Arnold's cure for society's ills--culture. Leavis' two-part remedy includes great literature and a nostalgic, older/better way of life: pre-industrialized society.


A cultural revolution took place in Great Britain after the Second World War (Hall, 1989, p. 337). This revolution included the rapid expansion of mass consumption and mass society; the proliferation of means of mass communication; the collapse of Britain homogeneous population, thanks to the influx of people from Commonwealth countries (the Caribbean and South Asia); and the Americanization of British culture. This experience was linked to the country's loss of its identity as a super power, and the nation wrestled with the task of discovering a new cultural and national identity.

A number of factors affected the development of BCS. First, governments at all levels in Britain extended educational opportunities after the Second World War, i.e., promoting adult education as a means of reconstruction. Second, mass produced American popular culture--pop music, Hollywood films, and television programs--displaced traditional popular culture. Third, the philosophy and social the criticism of such French thinkers as Roland Barthes, Louis Althusser, and Michel Foucault offered British intellectuals new ways to frame the question of culture in new ways. Fourth, the New Left, which developed in Britain as a response to the Russian invasion of Hungary in 1956, revived the Marxist critique of capitalism.


Deeply concerned about these developments, three working-class intellectuals, Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams, and E.P. Thompson, focused on the question of "culture" in their class-based society and wrote the texts which formed the basis of this intellectual movement.

Richard Hoggart (b. 1918), taught literature in the adult education programme at the University of Hull, 1946-59; and later (after 1957) taught English at the University of Birmingham, where he founded the CCCS, serving as director from 1964-68. In The Uses of Literacy (1957), Hoggart "reads" working class culture for the values and the meanings that were embodied in its patterns and arrangements (Hall, 1996, p. 31); he describes the conditions and the culture of his youth--he grew up in Leeds during the 1920s and the 1930s, conveying (with great poignancy) working-class attitudes toward religion, politics, poverty, sex, and so on via the speech-patterns of the area: in the second half, he engages contemporary "mass" culture of the 1950s. Like Leavis, he perpetuates a dichotomy between the "good" culture of working-class (organic) communities of the past and the "bad" mass culture of the present, i.e., an alarming amount has been imported from the United States.

Raymond Williams (1921-88) taught in adult education programs at Oxford, 1946-60, and from 1961 taught literary studies at Cambridge (he was Professor of Drama from 1974-83). In Culture and Society (1958), he conceptualizes history as a process whereby cultural forms--the press, advertising, and the novel for example--shape and are shaped by the context of the time. In large part, he examines "key words," such as "democracy," "class," and "culture," noticing how the terms were used and how the terms changed, during three historical phases: (a) the nineteenth century, including J.S. Mill, Jeremy Bentham, S.T. Coleridge, and Matthew Arnold; (b) the brief interregnum between the two centuries, including George Bernard Shaw; and (c) the modern period, including such figures as T.S. Eliot, F.R. Leavis, and George Orwell.

Williams offers us a broad definition of "culture," one that includes "high" culture as well as "mass" culture, and suggests that we have to take a holistic approach to the study of culture. From this perspective, recovering the "structure of feeling" of a period means going beyond the "major" literary texts and considering a range of forgotten texts, including letters, pamphlets, voting polls, and so on. By linking these texts with the political and the social history of the period, one can sketch the "social character" of the period. As well, he argues that we need a "common culture," one which values "diversity in community," enabling one to take pride in one's position but also to respect the different abilities of others. In The Long Revolution (1961), the follow-up book, he extends his thesis, providing more concrete proposals for a way out of the "stagnation" he sees ahead.

E.P. Thompson (1924-93), the radical historian, wrote The Making of the English Working Class (1963), a monumental work (it runs to about 900 pages), demonstrates the emergence of the British working-class--a topic ignored by historians of conventional history. He outlines the political and the cultural formation of the English working-class, approaching his topic from the perspectives of (a) the traditions of English radicalism in the late 18th century, e.g., religious dissent, popular dissent, and the influence of the French Revolution; (b) the social and the cultural experience of the Industrial Revolution as it was lived by different working groups, including weavers, field workers, cotton spinners, and so on; and (c) the growth of working class consciousness as evidenced in the corresponding growth in a range of social, political, and cultural institutions.

In short, Thompson argues that class is an historical phenomenon, i.e., we cannot understand it as a structure. To understand "class" (he writes) we must see it as a social and cultural formation arising from processes which can be studied only as they work themselves out over a long period of time. Culture must be understood in terms of the experiences of the winners and the losers in the struggles to fix meanings in society.


A number of French intellectuals, including Roland Barthes, Claude Levi-Strauss, Louis Althusser, Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, and Michel de Certeau, pioneered structuralist (and post-structuralist) methodologies for investigating culture. Ferdinand de Saussure, the Belgian linguist, claimed that language produced meanings by a system of relationships--by a network of similarities and differences. The principles that govern linguistic systems organize other types of communication systems, such as film and fashion. The way we dress, the way we eat, and the way we socialize: all communicate messages about ourselves--and they can be studied as signs. Saussure's followers developed semiotics, the study of signs. Analysts think of messages as systems of signs--they point out that texts have to be appreciated in context.


Stalin's suppression (1956) of a popular uprising in Hungary became a defining moment for Western European communists (Schulman, 1993, p. 58). The intellectuals who denounced the Stalinist version of Marxism--some were born in former British colonies, such as Stuart Hall--formed this movement; these colonial intellectuals introduced an external perspective on the conventional positions of the New Left. This political movement was "new" in the sense that the "left" of the 1930s was old (it was guided by Marxist ideas and which supported Soviet policies) and that the New Left in the U.K. represented a radical socialist point of view, offering a critique of capitalism. The New Left was socialist in nature, anti-imperialist and anti-racist, supportive of the nationalization of major industries and the abolition of economic and education privilege. It also supported nuclear disarmament and promoted efforts to enrich the social and the cultural life of the working class.

Two situations affected the struggle for socialism during the 1950s: affluence and the Cold War. Keynesian capitalism eliminated mass unemployment, enabling the working class to improve its standard of living (Schulman, pp. 58-59).

The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) rejuvenated British politics, i.e., it illustrated the extent to which the vast majority of people had little control over their lives (Schulman, p. 59). E.P. Thompson served as the vice-president of this organization, which represented the culmination of the critique of capitalism, which ran through the work of William Blake (poet), John Ruskin (cultural critic), William Morris (socialist), and D.H. Lawrence (novelist).

The New Left reached its peak during the years 1957-60. Significantly, Stuart Hall, the first editor of The New Left Review, a forum for critiquing working class culture, published the work of Raymond Williams and E.P. Thompson. The New Left disintegrated in 1961, failing to formulate a coherent political posture (Schulman, p. 60).

This setback notwithstanding, Marxism has been an important influence on social scientific research, in part because it focuses on the dialectical relationship between the social being and social consciousness, which lies at the heart of any understanding of the historical process within the Marxist tradition. Williams (1961) writes: capitalism's version of society can only be the market, for its purpose is profit in particular activities rather than any conception of social use.


As we said, Richard Hoggart and Stuart Hall established the CCCS at the University of Birmingham, and what we call CS grew out of the research they and their colleagues conducted there. Hall (1989, pp. 337, 338) regarded the Centre as a place where like-minded researchers could take up "the vocation of the intellectual life,"[2] addressing the urgent questions about society and culture (such as the high/low culture distinction) which their colleagues in humanities and social science tended to ignore. That is, a kind of cultural revolution was taking place in Great Britain and no one, as far as they could see, was studying this revolution.

Similarly, in his inaugural address (1964), Hoggart (the first director) attacked the narrowness of the way English literature was being taught in Great Britain, and outlined an interdisciplinary approach to what he provisionally called "Literature and Contemporary Cultural Studies." Hoggart (1970, pp. 254-55) challenged the elitist schools of thought that separated high culture and "real life," and suggested a program of research whereby analysts would study cultural artifacts and practices in a very broad sense. He explained that the CS project would be made up of three parts: (1) one would be historical and philosophical; (2) one would be sociological; and (3) one would be literary critical.

Initially, only three full-time faculty members, a director and two lecturers worked at the centre; they advised about 20 graduate students, including literature students and later social science students, who pursued MA and PhD degrees. Hoggart served a director for the period 1964-68; Stuart Hall for the period 1969-79; and Richard Johnson for the period 1980-87. Jorge Larrain and Michael Green have been directors.

According to Hall (1980; 1984), the members of the Centre departed from positivistic approaches to the study of communication:

1. They broke with the models of "direct influence," which employed a sort of stimulus-response model, heavily laden with "behavioristic" overtones. They viewed the media as major cultural and ideological forces, standing in a dominant position with respect to the way in which social relations and political problems were defined. The "return" in this case was a return to a concern with media and ideologies (see Hall, 1980, p. 117). That is, researchers viewed the media as broad, all-pervasive social and political forces, whose influence was indirect, even imperceptible (quoted in Schulman, 1993, p. 56);

2. They challenged the notions of media texts were "transparent" bearers of meaning. Instead, they focused on media texts as structured forms, i.e., calling attention to the structuring potential each medium possesses. Whereas Marshall McLuhan argued in a broad, formulistic vein that "the medium is the message," they examined the sign systems through which mass mediated meaning reaches audiences (Schulman, 1993, p. 57).

3. They broke with the tradition of conceptualizing the audience as passive and undifferentiated, i.e., analysts examined the ways members of the audience with different social and political orientations decode messages; and

4. They broke with the tradition of seeing mass culture as undifferentiated phenomena, adopting the view that mass media circulate dominant ideological definitions and representations.


From the beginning, the Centre has promoted collaborative research, undertaken by researchers in groups of six to ten, lasting three to four years, during which they (a) reviewed an area of inquiry; (b) examined its in depth, and (c) critiqued the scholarly work that had been done. Significantly, these people employed a variety of research methods: ideology critique, political economy, ethnography, semiotics, psychoanalysis, and narrative inquiry among others. In this section, I mention some of the projects the researchers have undertaken, by way of indicating how the program "evolved."

1. During the mid-1960s, researchers explored the themes of culturally-mediated social relations, albeit in provisional form, working in main-stream mass-communication traditions, as defined by American social science practice. As Hall (1980, pp. 117, 118) explains; these traditions were rooted in debates between "mass communications" and "mass society." Initially, researchers focused on the distinctively British experience. Rowntree Trust funded the first media project: an analysis of the popular press and social change from the 1930s to the mid-1960s. The second funded project was a study of television crime drama, designed to test some of the alternative approaches to the topic, based on American research. This project concentrated on a range of crime drama texts. Another study (a Ph.D. project) focused on representations of women in visual advertising, taking visual discourse as its point of reference.

2. During the late 1960s, at least one study focused (1968-69) on the way selected women's magazines represented women and "femininity." The project focused on large circulation magazines, such as Woman and Woman's Own, and the study of the (fictional) story, "Cure for Marriage." This was the first study to utilize Levis-Strauss' studies of myth and the work of Roland Barthes (Hall, 1980, p. 119).

At this time, researchers were also interested in questions of cultural trivialization and violence in mainstream research highlighted TV as the privileged medium and focused on the entertainment materials circulated by the media: they undertook pioneering analysis of the press' and TV's treatment of Vietnam demonstrations of 1968, thereby shifting the focus from entertainment to political communication, e.g., news and current affairs programs.

During the crisis-of-the-media period, three matters commanded attention: (1) Questions of credibility, access, bias, and distortion in the way political and social events of a problematic nature were represented in media messages (a problem forced onto the agenda by the political movements and crises of the period); (2) Questions concerning the relationship between broadcasting, politics, and the state and the social role of media institutions in the complex cultural power in advanced "electronic" societies; and (3) The difficult problems arising from attempting to understand how the media played an ideological role in society and from conceptualizing their relationship to power, their relative autonomy (the media as the voice of the ruling class).

3. During the early 1970s, researchers refined their program, supported by semiotic methods and textual analysis. They utilized Roland Barthes' texts, Mythologies (1972) and Elements of Semiology (1977). Researchers combined these concerns, forming a new problematic for media research: news and news photographs, i.e., the "manufacture" of news. We think of The Manufacture of News, edited (1980) by Stanley Cohen and Jock Young. They focused on such issues as balance, objectivity, and neutrality (Hall, 1980, p. 120). These projects represented early initiatives in the analysis of the news construction of events; members of the Glasgow Media Group (GMG) and members of the British Film Institute (BFI) studied current affairs programs. New approaches and new understandings of the complex relations between the media, politics, and society. For example, David Morley focused on reconceptualizing the audience; Stuart Hall focused on encoding/decoding strategies; and Dorothy Hobson focused on the Soap Opera.

From 1972, the Centre started publishing the journal called Working Papers in Cultural Studies (WPCS), with a view to putting CS on the intellectual map. The journal published the early work of Roland Barthes and Umberto Eco.

During this period, members of the Centre absorbed Alhusserian analysis into their work. Louis Althusser (1918-90), philosopher and theorist, flourished in Paris after the student uprisings of 1968. He imported structuralism into Marxism to make it a "science." He wrote two important books, For Marx, trans. B. Brewster (1970), and Lenin and Philosophy, trans. B. Brewster (1971).

Althusser conceptualized society as a structured whole made up of relatively autonomous levels or domains--legal, political, religious, cultural--whose mode of articulation or "effectivity" is determined "in the last instance" by the economy. What matters is the differences between the levels, and not the apparent "mirror" role that each elements plays in expressing the identity of the whole. Structuralism has two crucial aspects. First, the differential relations are key to understanding cultural and society. Second, consequently, structure is not prior to the realization of those relations. So, scientific Marxists speak of modes of production which evolve over time and are permanently inherent in the relatively autonomous levels of the structured whole.

According to Althusser (1970), ideology is part and parcel of society itself; that is, ideology arises from the actual practices undertaken by institutions in society. As such, ideology forms the individual's consciousness and creates the person's subjective understanding of experience. We live in a set of shaping conditions (he added), but we normally do not understand our relationship to actual conditions except via ideology. The real conditions of existence can only be discovered by means of science, which Althusser poses in opposition to ideology.

Althusser coined the term "over-determined" to signal that the reality of the economy (mode of production) is not expressed in ideology or in consciousness simply but exists in a displaced form throughout the social formation. Many determinants compete with and contradict others to create a "society," e.g., economic, political, and cultural. From this perspective, then, we can understand ideology as a conceptual framework for making sense of our lived, material conditions. Ideology thus produces our culture as well as our consciousness of who we are.

4. During the late 1970s, researchers wrestled with the Feminist Critique, renewing a concern for the dimension of gender in much media analysis. Angela McRobbie was one of the first researchers to point out that the CCCS ignored women's cultural practices, and with Charlotte Brundson, Janice Winship, and Dorothy Hobson formed the Women's Studies Group (1974), with a view to examining so-called women's genres (notably soap operas and fashion magazines); to study qualitatively how female audiences responded to mass media content, determining what social and personal needs were satisfied; to rescue literature by unknown women writers from oblivion; to theorize the role of (unpaid) domestic labor; and to examine women's role in the family as they related to media consumption (Schulman, 1993, pp. 68-69).

The bulk of the original Women's Studies Group work, intended for the tenth issue of WPCS, was published in Women Take Issue (1978), a work that has had a great effect on feminist studies. The papers deal with female subjects from the working-class, and feature material gathered from participant observation in which housewives soke of their isolation and adolescent girls revealed their grim expectations for the future. The collection also included Winship's examination of the "ideology of femininity.

As Schulman points out, the implications of the feminist critique were profound, making research at the Centre less esoteric during a period when much of it tended to theoreticism; its basic thrust was completely consistent with the emphasis Hoggart and Williams placed on the use of personal experience to exemplify general phenomena. The studies of how the family and the educational system helped perpetuate patriarchy have served to illustrate Althusser's general point that "ideological apparatuses" have an important impact on the way people think. As well, the feminist critique helped focus concern on how identity, subjectivity, and gender are constructed (Franklin et al., 1991, p. 176).

5. During the 1980s researchers shifted their focus from the demographics of audiences and the organizations that create messages; from a neo-Marxist perspective, the Centre focused not only on class consciousness but also on race and gender, as central problematics (Schulman, 1993, p. 58).

Members of the centre absorbed the work of Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), the Italian political theorist and activist who founded the Italian Communist Party. He believing that the Lenin Bolshevik revolution (1917) could be transplanted to Italy. He played a key role in the general strike of 1920. However, Benito Mussolini (1833-1945) became dictator in 1922, and in 1926 the Fascists arrested him (he was a member of parliament) and put him in jail, where he spent the rest of his life. In prison, he had the misfortune of "enforced leisure" to reflect on the socialist defeat and the crucial role of culture in society, writing Prison Notebooks, trans. H. Hoare and G. Nowell Smith (New York, 1971).

Gramsci saw society as the ground on which competing ideologies struggle. Hegemony is a process of domination, whereby one set of ideas subverts or co-opts another. It is a process by which one group in society exerts leadership over all others. Hegemony is what binds society together without the use of force. This is achieved when the upper classes supplement their economic power by creating "intellectual and moral leadership." The upper classes make compromises to achieve this leadership. In other words, culture is one of the sites where the struggle for hegemony takes place.

The process of hegemony occurs in many ways and in many settings. In essence, the process takes place when events or texts are interpreted in a way that promotes the interests of one group over those of another. The process can be as subtle as co-opting the interests of a subordinate group into supporting those of a dominant one. For example, advertisers often exploit the "women's lib" theme, making it look as though the corporation supports women's rights. What is happening here is that women's rights are being reinterpreted to promote the interests of the capital economy. Ideology plays a central role in this process because it structures the way in which people understand their experience, and it is therefore powerful vehicle for shaping how they interpret events.

During this period, a number of CCCS researchers absorbed the provocative work of French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-84); some thought him as a structuralist and others thought of him as a poststructuralist. Under the influence of such thinkers as Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche, Foucault undertook historical studies of such topics as madness (Foucault, 1965); medical knowledge (Foucault, 1972); imprisonment (Foucault, 1977); and sexuality (Foucault, 1980; 1985; 1990). What piqued Foucault's interest was the ways in which people are governed and how they govern themselves, that is, by the production and the circulation of regimes of truth--regimes which organize the relations between knowledge and action in specific ways in different fields of social regulation (Bennett, 1996, p. 318). However, he challenged the prevailing notion that knowledge leads to liberation; rather (he argued) knowledge frequently leads to new means of control. We think of Mica Nava's (1987) discourse-analytical study called "Consumerism and its Contradictions."

6. During the Thatchers years, from 1979 to 1990, researchers undertook a variety of "modest" projects, including Larrain's studies of Marx's conception of ideology, historical materialism, economic development, and colonialism, thanks to the reduced funding to universities and to drastic restructuring they experienced. For a time it was thought that the CCCS would become part of the English Department at the University of Birmingham, but eventually this post-graduate research institute became the Department of Cultural Studies with substantial undergraduate teaching responsibilities. These changes will surely have a negative impact on researchers' output and possibly damage the Centre's influence (Schulman, p. 66).

By this time, CS had become an international movement. A number of institutions offered CS programmes, including the Centre for Television Research at the University of Leeds, the Centre for Mass Communication Research at the University of Leicester, the Glasgow Media Group at the University of Glasgow, the Media Studies Program at the Polytechnic of Central London, and the Open University, where Hall teaches courses on ideology and popular culture.

Interestingly, many scholars affiliated with the CCCS in one capacity or another achieved recognition years later, such as Lawrence Grossberg, for promoting CS in North America; David Morley (1980; 1992), for his research into TV audiences; Angela McRobbie (1980), for her work on girls and subcultures; Dick Hebdige (1979), for his research on subcultures (and style); and Paul Willis (1977) for his work on working-class culture.


During the Thatcher era, British CS fragmented and left Great Britain, migrating to the U.S.A., Canada, Australia, France, and India. In some locations, it became less political and more aesthetic in orientation.

CS crossed the Atlantic during the mid-1980s, when the humanities in the United States were experiencing turmoil/undergoing a sociological transformation. In media studies, analysts focused on the ethnographies of audiences; they studied media texts and the role they played creating popular cultural formations. American scholars "institutionalized" CS fairly rapidly, developing a technical language, drawn from semiotics and literary theory. Key figures included James Carey, Janice Radway, bell hooks, and Larry Grossberg. On the whole, many regarded the link between CS and political action as undesirable.

CS migrated to Canada about the same time, focusing on Canadian issues, especially the "Canadian experience." Understandably, researchers asked questions like: How can people of such a diverse background living across vast and underpopulated territory be transformed into a coherent nation. How can the Canadian culture(s) resist the onslaught of American popular culture? Key figures, including Martin Allor and Will Straw, have studied issues of self-definition in Canada.

CS settled in Australia about the same time. Australian intellects--who have always looked to Great British for inspiration--absorbed most of the historic elements of BCS. Scholars have remarked that CS in Australia produce "ironic echoes" of the original map of British Imperialism's conquest with an inordinate number of leftist academics wandering around Australia, but talking about Birmingham. CS has found a home in departments of film and media studies, as well as in the multi-disciplinary field of Australian studies. All of these disciplines were concerned with identifying distinctive features of Australian life.

France underwent a radical transformation during the 1960s, brought about by de-colonization. After years of fighting, France relinquished its control over Vietnam in 1949 and its control over Algeria in 1959 (the Algerians gained self-determination in 1962). Moreover, the student unrest of 1968 further radicalized French politics. Decolonization raised a number of questions, including: What is France? And social changes raised another important question: Who is French? French CS wrestled with these fundamental concerns.

A major question for French CS researchers has been whether or not cultural knowledge (e.g., command of the language) is essential for "being French." Initially, France pursued a policy of assimilation--the aim of which was to raise the cultural level of the immigrants to that of the French. This policy failed and France pursued the theory of association. The idea that French culture is superior has remained.

Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2003), sociologist, emerged as one of the most prominent exponents of French CS. He focused on the intrinsic relationship between the struggle for social power and the consumption of cultural products by different social groups. In Distinctions (1980), for example, he asks the question: Who consumes what kinds of culture? What effect does this consumption have? He shows that aesthetic judgments do not follow any kind of objective logic; instead, they substitute distinctions of taste for class distinctions and therefore fortify the divisions between classes and assert the right to sanction their authority over other classes. Bourdieu exploits an economic metaphor to make this point. "Cultural capital" refers to the ability to read/understand cultural codes, but this ability is not distributed equally amongst the social classes. Put another way, the working-classes have little "cultural capital" and systematically lose out in the battle for cultural power.

CS began as a dissenting intellectual movement outside academia, dedicated to exposing power in all its cultural forms. It has become a discipline, part of the academic establishment. Having been domesticated in the knowledge industry, in many places CS has become rather abstract and technical, divorced from the lives and the realities of the people who are supposed to be empowered by it. Elsewhere, as Stuart Hall puts it, CS is constantly writing and rewriting its own history in order to make sense of itself, constructing and reconstructing itself in response to new challenges. In this way, CS is always "contextual."


Defining CS can be difficult, but this should not mean that anything can be CS or that CS can be anything. It is helpful to think of this distinctive "problematic" (Hall, 1996) in the following terms:

1. CS analysts examine cultural practices and their relationship to power. The objective in every case is to expose power relationships and to examine how these relationships influence and "shape" cultural practices;

2. CS analysts study culture not as discrete entities divorced from social or political contexts; rather, they set out to study culture in its complex forms and to analyze the social and the political contexts within which its manifests itself;

3. Culture is both the object of study and the location of criticism and action: this means that CS analysts engage in an intellectual as well as a pragmatic project;

4. CS analysts set out to expose and to reconcile the division of knowledge, to overcome the split between tacit (intuitive knowledge based on local cultures) and objective (so-called universal) forms of knowledge. They assume that the knower and the known, the observed and what is being observed, are equally interesting;

5. CS analysts are committed to a moral evaluation of society and to a radical line of political action. The tradition of CS scholarship is not one of value-free scholarship; CS analysts seek to understand and to change the structures of dominance everywhere, especially in industrial capitalist societies.


1. Researchers at the CCCS offer no single, unproblematic definition of "culture". The concept remains complex, a site of convergent interests, rather than a logically clarified idea. As Hall (1996, p. 33) puts it: this "richness is an area of continuing tension and difficulty.

2. From the outset, Hall (1996, p. 33) placed the "politics of intellectual work" squarely at the centre of Cultural Studies, a concern from which it can never be free. In a deep sense (he continues), the "settling of accounts" in the books written by Hoggart, Williams, and Thompson defined the space from which a new field of study and practice opened up.

Works Cited

Bennett, Tony. "Putting Policy into Cultural Studies." In John Storey (ed.), What is Cultural Studies? A Reader. London: Arnold, 1996, pp. 307-35.

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