Cultural studies is an exciting and “hot” field of study. It has become the rage amongst progressives of all sorts-not least because culture as a theme or topic of study has replaced society as the general subject of inquiry among progressives. Cultural studies has made its presence felt in academic work within the arts, the humanities, the social sciences and even science and technology. It appears to be everywhere and everyone seems to be talking about it. But what exactly is “cultural studies”? The term “studies” suggests a broad field of inquiry -like business studies or management studies. So is cultural studies simply the study of culture ? Well, that’s altogether a different thing.
What is the Subject in Cultural Studies ?
Not surprisingly, cultural studies does not habe a clear defined subject area. Its starting point is a very broad and all inclusive notion of culture that is used to describe and study a whole range of practices. This makes cultural studies radically different from such conventional disciplines as physics or sociology or philosophy, each of which has its own clearly demarcated subject area or object of study. Apart from the ambiguous nature of its subject area, cultural studies also lacks its own principles, theories and methods. But it does have its own very distinct and distinctive history. If cultural studies does not have its own theories or methodology, how does it actually function ?
Cultural studies functions by borrowing freely from social science disciplines and all branches of humanities and the arts. It appropriates theories and methodologies from anthropology, psychology, lingustics, literary criticism, musicology, philosophy, political science and art theory. Almost any mathod from textual analysis, ethnography and psychoanalysis to survey research can be used to do cultural studies. Cultural studies takes whatever it needs from any discipline and adopts it tosuit its own purposes.
All this makes it very difficult, if not impossible, to agree on any basic definition of the nature of the beast that is cultural studies. Cultural studies is not one thing, it is many things. It straddles the intellectual and academic landscape from old established disciplines to new political movements, intelectual practices and modes of inquiry such as Marxism, post-colonialism, feminism and post structuralism. It moves from discipline to discipline, methodology to methodology, according to its own concerns and motivations.
This is why cultural studies is often described as an “anti-discipline” – a mode of inquiry that does not subscribe to the straitjacket of institutionalized disciplines.
Characteristics of Cultural Studies
Just because cultural studies is practically impossible to define, it does not mean that anything can be cultural studies or cultural studies can be anything. The history of cultural studies has provided it with certain distinguishable characteristics that can often be identified in terms of what cultural studies aims to do.
1. Cultural studies aims to examine its subject matter in terms of cultural practices and their relation to power. Its constant goal is to expose power relationships and examine how these relationships influence and shape cultural practices.
2. Cultural studies is not simply the study of culture as though it was a discrete entitiy divorced from its social or political context. Its objective is to understand culture in all its complex forms and to analyse the social and political context within which it manifests itself.
3. Culture in cultural studies always performs two functions: it is both the object of study and the location of political criticism and action. Cultural studies aims to be both an intellectual and a pragmatic enterprise
4. cultural studies attempts to expose and reconcile the division of knowledge, to overcome the split between tacit (that is, intuitive knowledge based on local cultures) and objective (so-called universal) forms of knowledge. It assumes a common identity and common interest between the knower and the known, between the observer and what is being observed.
5. Cultural studies is commited to a moral evaluation of modern society and to a radical line of political action. The tradition of cultural studies is not one of value-free scholarship but one commited to social reconstruction by critical political involvement. Thus cultural studies aims to understand and change the structures of dominance everywhere, but in industrial capitalist societies in particular.
It is clear that cultural studies involves studying culture, what may not be nearly so obvious is just what culture is. The ambiguity of the concept of culture is notorious. Some anthropologists consider culture to be social behaviour. For others, it is not behaviour at all, but an abstraction from behaviour. To some, stone axes and pottery, dance and music, fashion and style constitute culture; while no material object can be culture to others. Yet still for others, culture exists only in the mind.
One definition given by the British antropologist, Sir E.B.Tylor (1832-1917) in the opening lines of his book, Primitive Cultures (1871):
” Culture is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, customs, and other capabilities and habit acquired by man as a member of society” (Introducing Cultural Studies, p4)
What is culture from others’ definitions ?
American anthropologist Margaret Mead (1901-1978) says that :
” Culture is the learned behaviour of a society or a subgroup”
Raymond Williams (1921-1988), one of the founders of cultural studies says that
” Culture includes the organization of production, the structure of the family, the structure of the institutions which express or govern social relationships, the characteristic forms through which members of the society communicate”
Clifford Geertz (b. 1962), Professor of Social Science at Princeton University says that
“Culture is simply the ensamble of stories we tell ourselves about ourselves”
We conclude that :
Culture is the ensemble of social processes by which meanings are produced, circulated and exchanged.
On the basis of these definitions, culture seems to be (almost) everything and cultural studies the study of (almost) everything !
Culture is that aspect of the social which is concerned with meanings. There are many other aspects of the social, with many concerns but in some cases culture would seem to be very basic. Culture is the site of the production of meanings, not the expression of meanings, which exist elsewhere. Meaning comes about in and through social relations, those among people, groups, classes, institutions, structures, and things. And because they are produced, circulated and are exchanged within the social world, these meanings are never entirely fixed.
Some meanings may be quite stable, of course, but others may be highly and rapidly variable. This means that although meanings always come about in a social context, we must also say that they are never wholly determined by the original context.
Meanings migrate from one context to another, sometimes ending up very far from where it was started.they are always gettting displaced, diverted, reworked, and exchanged. This is not something which goes wrong in the transmission of meanings. Rather, it is itself the very process of meaning. Thus, meaning is ever free from context. All it means is that a knowledge of the author or the sitters provides a different sort of context.
Last, we should add that culture is not a single unified process, but an ensemble of processes. They may work together tightly , but in other cases they may be in considerable conflict with one another. We shall have to keep the disparate nature of cultural processes clearly in mind as we proceed.
Welcome to Cultural Studies world !