Cultural studies assumes that history - its shape, its seams, its outcomes - is never guaranteed. As a result, doing cultural studies takes work, including the kind of work deciding what cultural studies is, of making cultural studies over again and again. Cultural studies constructs itself as it faces new questions and takes up new positions. In that sense, doing cultural studies is always risky and never totally comfortable. It is fraught with inescapable tensions (as well as with real pleasures). (Lawrence Grossberg, We Gotta Get Out of This Place, Routledge, 1992: 18)
If we want to trace the ‘history’ of cultural studies in the UK, we have to go back to adult education classes in the 1950s and ‘60s, where students and their tutors embarked on the challenging task of questioning what constituted culture, social distinction, nationhood and other forms of identity. Cultural studies began to put a spotlight on everyday cultural practices which had hitherto been regarded as inferior or which contradicted established notions of what constituted culture itself. In so doing, cultural studies research has uncovered the richness of daily life for sections of society whose lives had not been deemed worthy of study or who had been dismissed as ‘uncultured’. Since this period, the field of cultural studies has shown how apparently self-evident concepts and beliefs have strong ideological underpinnings dependent on the wielding of social, economic and political power. In this sense, cultural studies is a political project which is not only interested in presenting alternative definitions of culture but also in investigating the power structures which shape them. Cultural studies provides us with the opportunity to interrogate notions of national identity, such as ‘Britishness’; to explore attitudes and practices which perpetuate social inequality and to understand how key markers of identity such as gender, race, class and sexuality are cultural formations with complex and continually shifting histories.
Cultural studies is now widely taught, not only in the UK but also in the US, Australia, and many other countries. Due to its immense variety and liveliness, it has been described somewhat humorously by Colin Sparks as a ‘rag-bag of ideas, methods and concerns’ (Storey, 1996: 14) it is nevertheless united by two main concerns:
- The study of culture perceived as a ‘whole way of life’;
- The examination of the political, economic and social structures which shape culture (but which are at the same time part of this culture)
One of the aspects of the political nature of cultural studies is the constant need for self-examination. As Stuart Hall, one of the most influential figures in the field, has argued, cultural studies ‘is a project that is always open to that which it doesn’t yet know, to that which it can’t yet name’ (in Grossberg et al, 1992: 278). Put simply, cultural studies can be described as a ‘project in the making’ in which meaning and identity are constantly in being renegotiated.
This module serves as an introduction to the study of culture and to the emergence of cultural studies. It starts with a general introduction to the idea of culture, and some of the problems associated with defining it. It also sketches the context within which cultural studies emerged from the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) in Birmingham in the late 1960s. We will take a close critical look at some of the key texts and theories that emerged from the Centre in the 1970s. This will be followed by some detailed analyses of a number of ideas associated with cultural studies - identity, hybridity, essentialism, resistance - and a number of cultural products and practices – soap operas, shopping, music and city life.