Cultural Studies Research Paper

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This research paper attempts to describe that complex contemporary social formation: Cultural Studies (CS). A single thesis organizes the argument. Contemporary CS exists within competing fields of discourse. This discourse, as Carey (1997b) argues, is moving in several directions at the same time (see Frow and Morris 2000, Striphas 1998). This has the effect of simultaneously creating new spaces, new possibilities, and new formations for CS, while closing down others.

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Thus, a process of containment is occurring, even as this interdisciplinary field expands globally (Public Culture 1988, Frow and Morris 2000, Alasuutari et al. 1998, Hartley 1998). There are those who would marginalize CS, equating it with Marxist thought, and chastising it for not paying adequate homage to Sociology’s founding fathers, including Weber and Durkheim (Long 1997). Others would seek a preferred, canonical, but flexible version of the project (see Grossberg 1997a, 1998). Within this framework (see Grossberg 1997a), there are attempts to establish a set of interpretive practices fitted to specific projects. For Grossberg (1997a, pp. 248-261) these practices, or interpretive principles involve a self-reflexive, inter-disciplinary project which always detours through theory. This version of CS maintains a commitment to political praxis and radical contextualization, including anti-reductionist, anti-essentialist ontologies. Still others would ironically equate CS with identity politics and critical readings of popular culture. Some would critique the formation from within, distinguishing semiotic, political economy, empiricist, and material approaches to the field’s subject matter (Fiske 1994). Still others challenge CS to take up the problems of feminism, gender, racism, colonialism, and nationality (Ferguson and Golding 1997).

1. The Origins And Definitions Of CS

Ferguson and Golding (1997) observe that ‘Few would dispute that CS’ ‘myths of origin’ were made in Britain, and that their ‘founding fathers’ were Raymond Williams, Richard Hoggart and E. P. Thompson, and subsequently Stuart Hall.’ The legacies of these figures is enduring, and includes a commitment to a Marxism without guarantees, a rejection of positivism and functional social theory, and a conception of culture that is political. But on beginnings and origins, Hall (1980) is quite firm, ‘there are no absolute beginnings and few unbroken continuities … What is important are the significant breaks.’

The culture in CS is not aesthetic, or literary, it is political, and located in the domain of the popular or the everyday (Storey 1996). The object of study is how culture, as a set of contested interpretive, representational practices, embraces and represents ‘a particular way of life, whether of a people, period or a group’ (Williams 1976). Popular, everyday cultural practices are treated as social texts. It is understood that nothing stands outside textual representation. Texts, however, involve material practices, structures, flows of power, money, and knowledge. Popular culture is conceptualized as a site of constant negotiation, consent, and resistance. Meaning is always contextual, structural, and anchored in historical processes (Hall 1996b). Cultural processes, in turn, embody class, gender, and racial divisions and relation-ships. These relationships involve the exercise of power.

1.1 The Circuits Of Culture

A complex interpretive process shapes the meanings things have for human beings. This process is anchored in the cultural world, in the ‘circuit of culture’ (du Gay et al. 1997) where meanings are defined by the mass media, including advertising, cinema, and television. This process is based on the articulation or inter-connection of several distinct and contingent processes (du Gay et al. 1997). In the circuits of cultural meaning five interconnected processes, representation, identification, production, consumption, and regulation, mutually influence one another (du Gay et al. 1997).

Objects and experiences are represented in terms of salient cultural categories. These categories are connected directly to social and personal identities. These identities are attached to representations of family, race, age, gender, nationality, and social class. These objects and identities are in turn located in an ongoing political economy. A political economy is a complex, interconnected system. It structures the production, distribution, and consumption of wealth in a society. It determines the Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How of wealth and power in everyday life; that is, who gets what income, at what time, in what places, for what labor, and why?

This economy regulates the production, distribution and consumption of cultural objects. It does so by repeatedly forging links between cultural objects (cars, clothing, food, houses), their material representations, and the personal identities of consumers as gendered human beings (see discussion below). To summarize, an understanding of these five processes leads re-searchers to examine how cultural objects are rep-resented in the media and in everyday popular culture. Scholars then move from this level of analysis to studies of those social identities that are attached to the cultural object, asking, at the same time, how is this object ‘produced and consumed, and what mechanisms regulate its distribution and use’ (du Gay et al. 1997). An instance is given in those moments when a cultural fad, a style of dress, or a hairstyle seemingly sweeps across an age or gender group. New and old identities are attached to the use of the object that is produced for consumption by a small number of manufacturers who regulate price and distribution.

2. The Narrative Turn

This concern for language and meaning has been called the narrative or discursive turn in CS. This turn implies greater interest in language, discourse, dis-cursive practices, and the argument that meaning is contextual (Hall 1996a). This narrative turn moves in two directions at the same time. First, CS scholars formulate and offer various narrative versions or stories about how the social world operates. This form of narrative is usually called a theory, for example, Freud’s theory of psychosexual development. Second, scholars study narratives and systems of discourse, arguing that these structures give coherence and meaning to the world. A system of discourse is a way of representing the world. A complex set of discourses is called a discursive formation (Hall 1996a). The traditional gender belief system in American culture, with its focus on patriarchy and a woman’s place in the home, is an instance of a discursive formation. Discursive formations are implemented through dis-cursive practices, for example, patriarchy and the traditional etiquette system.

Systems of discourse both summarize and produce knowledge about the world. These discursive systems are seldom just true or false. In the world of human affairs, truth and facts can be constructed in different ways. Consider this question, ‘Are those Palestinians who are fighting to regain a home on the West Bank of Israel freedom fighters or terrorists? (Hall 1996b). The very words that are used to describe these individuals prejudge and evaluate their activity. Freedom fighter or terrorist are not neutral terms. They are embedded in competing discourses. As such they are connected to struggles over power, that is who has the power to determine which term will be used? As Hall notes, ‘It is the outcome of this struggle which will define the ‘‘truth’’ of the situation.’ Often times it is power ‘rather than facts about reality, which makes things ‘‘true’’ ’ (Hall 1996b).

Power produces knowledge (Foucault 1980). Regimes of truth can be said to operate when discursive systems regulate relations of power and knowledge (Hall 1996b). The traditional gender belief system, which regulates the power relations between men and women in this culture is such a regime. In these ways discursive systems affect lives.

2.1 Experience And Its Representations

Of course it is not possible to study experience directly, so CS researchers examine representations of experience, interviews, stories, performances, myth, ritual, and drama. These representations, as systems of discourse, are social texts, narrative, discursive constructions. The meanings and forms of experience are always given in narrative representations. These representations are texts that are performed, stories told to others. Bruner (1986) is explicit on this point, representations must ‘be performed to be experienced.’ In these ways researchers deal with performed texts, rituals, stories told, songs sung, novels read, dramas performed. Paraphrasing Bruner (1986), experience is a performance.

2.2 Assessing Interpretations

The politics of representation is basic to the study of experience. How a thing is represented often involves a struggle over power and meaning. While scholars have traditionally privileged experience itself, it is now understood that no life, no experience can be lived outside of some system of representation (Hall 1996c). Indeed, ‘there is no escaping from the politics of representation’ (Hall 1996c).

This narrative turn suggests that researchers constantly are constructing interpretations about the world, giving shape and meaning to what they de-scribe. Still, all accounts, ‘however carefully tested and supported are, in the end ‘‘authored’’ ’ (Hall 1996a). CS explanations reflect the point of view of the author. They do not carry the guarantee of truth and objectivity.

The narrative turn leads scholars to be much more tentative in terms of the arguments and positions they put forward. It is now understood that there is no final or authorized version of the truth. Still, there are criteria of assessment that should be used. Researchers are ‘committed to providing systematic, rigorous, coherent, comprehensive, conceptually clear, well- evidenced accounts, which make their underlying theoretical structure and value assumptions clear to readers…(still) we cannot deny the ultimately interpretive character of the social science enterprise’ (Hall 1996a).

3. Diversity And Constraint

The open-ended nature of the CS project creates a perpetual resistance against attempts to impose a single, umbrella-like paradigm over the entire project. There are multiple CS projects, including: the articulation model of the Birmingham school, and the work of Stuart Hall, Paul Gilroy, Lawrence Grossberg, and their associates (du Gay et al. 1997, Grossberg 1997a, 1997b); Black British CS (Baker et al. 1996); the conjunctural, resistance perspective of Fiske (1994); feminist, ethnographic projects connected to the British and Frankfurt schools; American CS versions located in communication studies (Ferguson and Golding 1997), which work through pragmatism back to the arguments of McLuhan, Innis, Ong, and Dallas Smythe (Carey 1997a, 1997b, Denzin 1995); the African-American, prophetic, postmodern, neo-pragmatic marxism of West (1992); the empiricist, neo-functional American cultural sociology project which draws on the work of Bourdieu and Parsons (see Schudson 1997); a Chicana o, Latina o model that elaborates and then departs from the Birmingham approach (Chabram-Denersesian 1999); a critical, CS pedagogy (McCarthy 1998); Canadian and Australian CS models which focus on policy and public culture and attempt to de-Anglocize the British model (Blundell et al. 1993, Frow and Morris 1993); a Black feminist cultural criticism (Hooks 1990); an American-based, ethnographic, critical CS model centered on a resistance postmodernism; and more recently a trans-national CS focused on the critical, ethnographic study of public culture and the flow of cultural forms and cultural representations from one site to another (Public Culture 1988).

The generic focus of each version of CS involves an examination of how the history people live is produced by structures that have been handed down from the past. Within these traditions, culture is treated as a verb, a process, and a place, always in motion, where meaning and situated identities connected to race, class, and gender are created and performed (du Gay et al. 1997). A shared emphasis on international cultural and social processes unites these various programs. This shared focus moves in four directions: (a) the ‘detour through theory’ (Hall 1992, Grossberg 1997a), linked (b) to the politics of representation, the circuits of culture (Hall 1996a), and the textual analyses of the media, literary, and cultural forms, including their production, distribution, and consumption; (c) the ethnographic, qualitative study of these forms in everyday life and the analysis of the social and communication processes that they shape and define; (d) the investigation of new pedagogical practices that interactively engage critical cultural analysis in the classroom (Grossberg 1997a). Each of these versions of CS is joined by a threefold concern with cultural texts, lived experience, and the articulated relationship between texts, materiality, and everyday life. Within the cultural text tradition some scholars (Fiske 1994) examine the mass media and popular culture as sites of resistance where history, ideology, and subjective experiences come together. These scholars produce critical ethnographies of the active audience in relation to particular historical moments. Other scholars read texts as sites where hegemonic meanings are produced, distributed, and consumed. In the feminist ethnographic tradition, there is a postmodern concern for the social text and its production (see Denzin 1997).

These models see culture as a series of ongoing interactional practices, conversations, talk, ways of acting, and representing the meanings of experience. Any cultural practice is significant because it is an instance of a cultural practice that happened in a particular time and place. This practice cannot be generalized to other practices, its importance lies in the fact that it instantiates a cultural practice, a cultural performance (story telling), and a set of shifting, conflicting, cultural meanings (Fiske 1994).

The researcher strategically selects sites for interpretation that constitute the intersection of texts and interacting individuals. Interactional specimens are extracted from these sites, written off from the conversations and actions that occur within them. This model always work upward and outward from the concrete to the larger set of meanings that operate in a particular context. It offers glimpses of culture in practice, setting one set of practices and meanings off against others that may compete in the same situation (Fiske 1994). The concept of structure is critical. In interpretive CS structure is a set of generative (often hegemonic), interactional, and cultural practices that organize meanings at the local level. Critical emic inquiry guides this process, the researcher seeks to understand a subject (or class of subjects) within a given historical moment. Sartre’s (1963) progressive– regressive method is employed. A variant on the pragmatic emphasis on the consequences of acts, this method looks forward to the conclusion of a set of acts. It then works back to the conditions, interpretations, and situations that shape this decision. By moving forward and backward in time subjects and their projects are located within culture as a set of interpretive practices.

4. In Conclusion: The Calling Of CS

Frow and Morris (2000) observe that contemporary versions of CS have been shaped by encounters between diverse feminisms, ethnic and critical race studies, gay, lesbian, and queer studies, postcolonial and diasporic research, and with indigenous people’s scholarship. These interactions produce a sensitivity to culture in its multiple forms, including the aesthetic, political, anthropological, performative, historical, and the spatial. Thus, there are collections and essays in Australian-Asian CS, Asian-Pacific CS, Latin-American, Mexican, and Chicana o CS, as well as Black-British, Irish, British, Spanish, Italian, Nordic, and African CS.

At the same time, students of CS wrestle with the multiple meanings of such key terms as identity, place, globalization, the local, nationhood, and difference. These terms are debated constantly in the media, played out in arenas defined and shaped by the new information and communication technologies. CS scholars examine how meanings move between and within various media formations. This yields studies of Madonna, Elvis, the Gulf War, Anita Hill, the memory-work of museums, studies of tourism, shop-ping malls, and so on. In such work it becomes clear that culture is a contested, conflictual set of practices bound up with the meanings of identity and com-munity.

The disciplinary boundaries that define CS keep shifting, and there is no agreed standard genealogy of its emergence as a serious academic discipline. Nonetheless, there are certain prevailing tendencies including: feminist understandings of the politics of the everyday and the personal; disputes between proponents of textualism, ethnography, and autoethnography; continued debates surrounding the dreams of modern citizenship.

But of course CS is a discursive category, its meanings are established in and through rhetorical and material practices. Nonetheless, the sine qua non of CS is irrefutable. A core belief defines the project, the understanding that scholars have a commitment and a responsibility to record and analyze, and register the meanings of ‘the great events of our time for the benefit of future generations’ (Nelson and Gaonkar 1996). This is the calling of CS.


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