Cultural studies is an academic discipline popular among a diverse group of Anglo-American scholars. It combines political economy, sociology, social theory, literary theory, media theory, film/video studies, cultural anthropology, philosophy and art history/criticism to study cultural phenomena in industrial societies. Cultural studies researchers often concentrate on how a particular phenomenon relates to matters of ideology, race, social class, and/or gender. The term was coined by Stuart Hall and Dick Hebdige in 1964 when they founded the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies.

Cultural studies concerns itself with the meaning and practices of everyday life. Cultural practices comprise the ways people do particular things (such as watching television, or eating out) in a given culture. In any given practice, people use various objects (such as iPods or handguns). Hence, this field studies the meanings and uses people attribute to various objects and practices. Recently, as capitalism has spread throughout the world (a process called globalization), cultural studies has begun to critique local and global forms of resistance to Western hegemony.

In a loosely related but separate usage, the phrase cultural studies sometimes serves as a rough synonym for area studies, as a general term referring to the academic study of particular cultures in departments and programs such as Islamic studies, Asian studies, African American studies, African studies, German studies, et al.. Some researchers have traced the origins of cultural studies in universities to earlier anthropological work such as the Folk Schools of Denmark in the 1920s, the Highlander School in North America’s Appalachia in the 1930s, and the Kamiriithu project in Kenya in the 1970s. However, strictly speaking, cultural studies programs (such as the PhD program at George Mason University) are not concerned with specific areas of the world so much as specific cultural practices.

In his book Introducing Cultural Studies, Ziauddin Sardar lists the following five main characteristics of cultural studies:

  • Cultural studies aims to examine its subject matter in terms of cultural practices and their relation to power. For example, a study of a subculture (such as white working class youth in London) would consider the social practices of the youth as they relate to the dominant classes.
  • It has the objective of understanding culture in all its complex forms and of analyzing the social and political context in which culture manifests itself.
  • It is both the object of study and the location of political criticism and action. For example, not only would a cultural studies scholar study an object, but she would connect this study to a larger, progressive political project.
  • It attempts to expose and reconcile the division of knowledge, to overcome the split between tacit (cultural knowledge) and objective (universal) forms of knowledge.
  • It has a commitment to an ethical evaluation of modern society and to a radical line of political action.


Scholars in the United Kingdom and the United States developed somewhat different versions of cultural studies after the field’s inception in the late 1970s. The British version of cultural studies was developed in the 1960s mainly under the influence of Richard Hoggart and Stuart Hall at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham. This included overtly political, left-wing views, and criticisms of popular culture as ‘capitalist’ mass culture; it absorbed some of the ideas of the Frankfurt School critique of the “culture industry” (i.e. mass culture). This emerges in the writings of early British cultural-studies scholars and their influences: see the work of (for example) Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall, Paul Willis and Paul Gilroy.

In contrast, the American version of cultural studies initially concerned itself more with understanding the subjective and appropriative side of audience reactions to, and uses of, mass culture; American cultural-studies advocates wrote about the liberatory aspects of fandom. For example, see the writings of critics such as John Guillory or Constance Penley. The distinction between American and British strands, however, has faded.

Some scholars, especially in early British cultural studies, apply a Marxist model to the field. This strain of thinking comes predominantly from the Frankfurt School. The main focus of an orthodox Marxist approach concentrates on the production of meaning. This model assumes a mass production of culture and identifies power as residing with those producing cultural artifacts. In a Marxist view, those who control the means of production (the economic base) essentially control a culture.

Other approaches to cultural studies, such as feminist cultural studies and later American developments of the field, distance themselves from this view. They criticize the Marxist assumption of a single, dominant meaning, shared by all, for any cultural product. The non-Marxist approaches suggest that different ways of consuming cultural artifacts affect the meaning of the product. This view is best exemplified by the book Doing Cultural Studies: The Case of the Sony Walkman (by Paul du Gay et al), which seeks to challenge the notion that those who produce commodities control the meanings that people attribute to them.

Ultimately, this perspective criticizes the traditional view assuming a passive consumer. Other views challenge this, particularly by underlining the different ways people read, receive, and interpret cultural texts. On this view, a consumer can appropriate, actively reject, or challenge the meaning of a product. These different approaches have shifted the focus away from the production of items. Instead, they argue that consumption plays an equally important role, since the way consumers consume a product gives meaning to an item. Some closely link the act of consuming with cultural identity. Stuart Hall has become influential in these developments. Some commentators have described the shift towards meaning as the cultural turn.
In the context of cultural studies, the idea of a text not only includes written language, but also films, photographs, fashion or hairstyles: the texts of cultural studies comprise all the meaningful artifacts of culture. Similarly, the discipline widens the concept of “culture”. “Culture” for a cultural studies researcher not only includes traditional high culture and popular culture, but also everyday meanings and practices. The last two, in fact, have become the main focus of cultural studies. A further and recent approach is comparative cultural studies, based on the discipline of comparative literature and cultural studies.

Critical views
Cultural studies is not a unified theory but a diverse field of study encompassing many different approaches, methods, and academic perspectives; as in any academic discipline, cultural studies academics frequently debate among themselves. However, some academics from other fields have criticised the discipline as a whole. It has been popular to dismiss cultural studies as an academic fad. Yale literature professor Harold Bloom has been an outspoken critic of the cultural studies model of literary studies. Critics such as Bloom see cultural studies as it applies to literary scholarship as a vehicle of careerism by academics, instead promoting essentialist theories of culture, mobilising arguments that scholars should promote the public interest by studying what makes beautiful literary works beautiful.

Bloom stated his position during the 3 September 2000 episode of C-SPAN’s “Booknotes”:

“[…T]here are two enemies of reading now in the world, not just in the English-speaking world. One […is…] the lunatic destruction of literary studies […] and its replacement by what is called cultural studies in all of the universities and colleges in the English-speaking world, and everyone knows what that phenomenon is.

I mean, the […] now-weary phrase ‘political correctness’ remains a perfectly good descriptive phrase for what has gone on and is, alas, still going on almost everywhere and which dominates, I would say, rather more than three-fifths of the tenured faculties in the English-speaking world, who really do represent a treason of the intellectuals, I think, a ‘betrayal of the clerks’.” [1]

Literary critic Terry Eagleton is not wholly opposed to cultural studies theory like Bloom, but has criticised certain aspects of it, highlighting what he sees as its strengths and weaknesses in books such as After Theory (2003). For Eagleton, literary and cultural theory have the potential to say important things about the “fundamental questions” in life, but theorists have rarely realized this potential.

One of the most damning critiques of cultural studies came from physicist Alan Sokal, who submitted an article to a cultural studies journal, Social Text. This article was a parody of what Sokal perceived to be the logical reasoning of humanists working in cultural studies. After it was accepted and published, Sokal revealed the hoax. His explanation for doing this was:

“Politically, I’m angered because most (though not all) of this silliness is emanating from the self-proclaimed Left. We’re witnessing here a profound historical volte-face. For most of the past two centuries, the Left has been identified with science and against obscurantism; we have believed that rational thought and the fearless analysis of objective reality (both natural and social) are incisive tools for combating the mystifications promoted by the powerful — not to mention being desirable human ends in their own right. The recent turn of many “progressive or “leftist academic humanists and social scientists toward one or another form of epistemic relativism betrays this worthy heritage and undermines the already fragile prospects for progressive social critique. Theorizing about “the social construction of reality won’t help us find an effective treatment for AIDS or devise strategies for preventing global warming. Nor can we combat false ideas in history, sociology, economics and politics if we reject the notions of truth and falsity.”

Conversely, cultural studies scholars have criticized more traditional academic disciplines such as literary criticism, science, economics, sociology, anthropology, and art history.


Du Gay, Paul, et al. Doing Cultural Studies : The Story of the Sony Walkman. Culture, Media and Identities. London ; Thousand Oaks Calif.: Sage in association with The Open University, 1997.

  • During, Simon. The Cultural Studies Reader. 2nd ed. London ; New York: Routledge, 2003.
  • Hall, Stuart. Culture, Media, Language : Working Papers in Cultural Studies, 1972-79.
  • London Birmingham, West Midlands: Hutchinson ; Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies University of Birmingham, 1992.
  • Hall, Stuart. “Cultural Studies: Two Paradigms.” Media, Culture, and Society 2.1 (1980).
  • Hall, Stuart. “Race, Culture, and Communications: Looking Backward and Forward at Cultural Studies.” Rethinking Marxism 5.1 (1992): 10-18.
  • Grossberg, Lawrence, Cary Nelson, and Paula A. Treichler. Cultural Studies. New York: Routledge, 1992.
  • Johnson, Richard. “What Is Cultural Studies Anyway?” Social Text 16 (1986-87): 38-80.
  • Johnson, Richard. “Multiplying Methods: From Pluralism to Combination.” Practice of Cultural Studies. Ed. Richard Johnson. London; Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2004. 26-43.
  • Smith, Paul. Questioning Cultural Studies: An Interview with Paul Smith. 1994. MLG Institute for Culture and Society at Trinity College. Available: 31 Aug 2005.
  • Smith, Paul. “Looking Backwards and Forwards at Cultural Studies.” Companion to Cultural Studies. Ed. Toby Miller. Oxford; Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2001. 331-40.
  • Smith, Paul. “A Course In “Cultural Studies”.” The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association 24.1, Cultural Studies and New Historicism (1991): 39-49.
  • Williams, Raymond. Keywords : A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.
  • Williams, Raymond. Culture and Society, 1780-1950. New York,: Harper & Row, 1966.
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