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Cultural Studies and Communication

Summary and Keywords

Communication and cultural studies share turbulent and contradictory histories, epistemologies, methods, and geographies, both on their own and as partners and rivals. This is in keeping with their status as interdisciplinary areas that emerged in the early to mid-20th century and crossed the humanities and the social sciences. Communication and cultural studies are linked and distinguished both by the topics they analyze and by their politics, countries, disciplines, theories, languages, and methods. Whereas the dominant forms of communication studies are dedicated to scholarly objectivity and disciplinary coherence, cultural studies is more akin to a tendency connected to concerns and identities on the margins of academia, and committed to methodological diversity. And whereas the critical strand of communication studies, notably political economy, examines such social forces of domination as the state and capital, cultural studies investigates the struggles undertaken by ordinary people to interpret dominant cultural forms in terms of their conditions of existence. The supposedly pessimistic orientation of political economy is frequently eschewed in favor of a faith in the resistive qualities of the oppressed and silenced. A similar perspective characterizes cultural studies’ rejection of effects studies for neglecting the politicized way that active audiences interpret media texts. In place of such concerns, the dominant strands of cultural studies tend to favor aesthetic and anthropological ways of analyzing societies to examine subjectivity and power and work with the understanding that popular culture represents and creates rituals and vice versa, through institutions and discourses that construct identities, which in turn form them.

Keywords: popular culture, communication, culture, hegemony, media, communication and critical studies


The word culture derives from the Latin colere, a verb that described tending and developing agriculture (Adorno, 2009, p. 146; Benhabib, 2002, p. 2). With the advent of capitalism’s division of labor, culture came both to embody instrumentalism and to abjure it, via the industrialization of farming, on the one hand, and the cultivation of individual taste, on the other. Eighteenth-century German, French, and Spanish dictionaries bear witness to a metaphorical shift from agricultural cultivation to spiritual elevation. As the spread of literacy and printing saw customs and laws passed on, governed, and adjudicated through the written word, cultural texts supplemented and supplanted physical force as guarantors of authority. With the Industrial Revolution, populations urbanized, food was imported, and textual forms were exchanged. An emergent consumer society produced such events as horse racing, opera, art exhibits, and balls. The impact of this shift was indexed in cultural labor: poligrafi in 15th-century Venice and hacks in 18th-century London wrote popular and influential conduct books. These works of instruction on everyday life marked both the textualization of custom and the development of new occupations. Anxieties about cultural imperialism also appeared, via Islamic debates over Western domination (Briggs & Burke, 2003; Mowlana, 2000).

Immanuel Kant theorized these developments by noting that culture ensured “conformity to laws without the law.” Aesthetics could generate “morally practical precepts,” schooling people to transcend their particular interests via the development of a “public sense, i.e. a critical faculty which in its reflective act takes account (a priori) of the mode of representation . . . to weight its judgement with the collective reason of mankind” (1987). Kant envisaged an “emergence from . . . self-incurred immaturity,” independent of religion, government, or commerce (1991, p. 54).

Culture has usually been understood in two quasi-Kantian registers, via the social sciences and the humanities. They emerged as secular alternatives to deistic knowledge (Schelling, 1914) focused on dual forms of “self-realization” (Weber, 2000)—truth versus beauty. This heuristic distinction became substantive as time passed (Williams, 1983, p. 38). Culture emerged as a marker of differences and similarities in taste and status within groups that could be explored interpretatively or methodically.

In today’s humanities, theater, film, television, radio, art, craft, writing, music, dance, sports, and electronic gaming are judged by criteria of social representativeness and aesthetic quality, as framed by cultural criticism and history. For their part, the social sciences focus on the languages, religions, customs, times, spaces, and exchanges of different groups, as explored ethnographically or statistically. So whereas the humanities articulate differences within populations through symbolic norms (for example, providing some of us with the cultural capital to appreciate high culture) the social sciences articulate such differences through social ones (for example, legitimizing inequality through doctrines of human capital) (Wallerstein, 1989; Bourdieu, 1984).

Cultural studies invokes both aesthetic and anthropological ways of analyzing societies to examine questions of subjectivity and power. In this formulation, art represents and creates rituals and vice versa, through institutions and discourses. They construct identities, which in turn form them: gender, for instance, is defined through the census, fashion, sports, religion, science, philosophy, the psy-function, and so on, but also structures those entities and norms in processes of stealth, deliberation, struggle, policy, administration, and conformity, inter alia.

Cultural studies normally takes its place within longer-established disciplines rather than as a discrete area of study with its own departments. There are national and international professional associations dedicated to the area,1 but it rarely stands alone as an undergrad major or doctoral degree named and taught as such. So with honorable exceptions, cultural studies tends to be an irritant or alternative within literature, communications, sociology, history, or anthropology.

Popular Culture

During the Industrial Revolution, anxieties about a suddenly urbanized and educated population raised the prospect of a long-feared “ochlocracy” of “the worthless mob” (Pufendorf, 2000, p. 144). Theorists from both right and left argued that newly literate publics would be vulnerable to manipulation by demagogues. Bourgeois economics has long assumed that rational consumers determine what popular culture is, but concerns that people might be bamboozled by unscrupulously fluent people have recurred throughout the modern period. Marxism often viewed popular culture as a route to false consciousness that diverted the working class from recognizing its economic oppression; feminist approaches moved between condemning the popular as a similar distraction from gendered consciousness and celebrating it as a distinctive part of women’s culture; and cultural studies regarded it as a key location for the symbolic resistance of class, race, and gender oppression alike (Smith, 1987; Hall & Jefferson, 1976). An aesthetic discourse about popular culture sees it elevating people above ordinary life, transcending body, time, and place. Conversely, a folkloric discourse expects culture to settle us into society through the wellsprings of community, as part of daily existence. And a discourse about pop idealizes fun, offering secular transcendence through joy (Frith, 1991, pp. 106–107).

All these tendencies can be seen at play in communication and cultural studies, together and separately, though the mass-communication tradition has tended to focus on media effects and technological regulation more than the rhetorical side of the discipline, which has had most in common with cultural studies in looking at the connection of market-based entertainment to collective identity.

From an array of political and epistemological perspectives, there has been an emphasis in both communication and cultural studies on the number and conduct of audiences to popular culture: where they came from, how many there were, and what they did as a consequence of being present. Such concerns are coupled with a focus on content: what were audiences watching when they. . . . And so both audiences and texts are conceived as empirical entities that can be known, via research instruments, that communication and cultural studies derived from sociology, psychology, literary criticism, demography, linguistics, anthropology, accountancy, economics, and marketing. Cultural studies abjured the positivistic and business-oriented methods on this list for their pessimism, scientism, complicity, and reductionism.

Perhaps the most influential theorist of popular culture for cultural studies has been Antonio Gramsci, whose opposition to fascism in the 1920s and 1930s is an exemplar for progressive intellectuals. Gramsci maintained that each social group creates “organically, one or more strata of intellectuals which give it homogeneity and an awareness of its own function not only in the economic but also in the social and political fields”: the industrial technology, law, economy, and culture of each group. The “‘organic’ intellectuals that every new class creates alongside itself and elaborates in the course of its development” assist in the emergence of that class. Intellectuals operate in “[c]ivil society . . . the ensemble of organisms commonly called ‘private,’ that of ‘political society’ or “the State.’” They comprise the “‘hegemony’ which the dominant group exercises throughout society” as well as the “‘direct domination’ or command exercised through the State and ‘juridical’ government.” Ordinary people give “‘spontaneous’ consent” to the “general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group” (Gramsci, 1978, pp. 5–7, 12). In other words, popular culture legitimizes socioeconomic-political arrangements in the public mind and can be a site of struggle as well as domination, hence its appeal to the oppositional, liberatory leftism that propels cultural studies.

Extensive use has also been made of hegemony theory beyond the Global North. In Latin America, Gramsci’s notion of the national popular harnessing class interests is common sense for both left and right (Massardo, 1999). The same applies in South Asia and segments of the Arab and African worlds (Patnaik, 2004; Dabashi, 2013; Marks & Engels, 1994). Drawing on Gramsci’s work, the Welsh drama critic Raymond Williams (1977) used the idea of residual, dominant, and emergent hegemonies to describe the process whereby class formations compete over narratives that legitimize social control. Examples of these categories might be the remains of an empire, a modern mixed economy, and neoliberal transformation, respectively.

While hegemony theory is alert to struggle rather than simply domination, some critiques of popular culture linked to political economy suggest that its commercial manifestations “impress . . . the same stamp on everything” because their organizational form necessitates repetition rather than difference: factory-like production of films, songs, news bulletins, radio formats, and programs as if they were cars. This perspective derives from the Frankfurt School, fellow anti-fascist scholars writing around the same time as Gramsci. The principals of that School, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer (1977), saw consumers and citizens as manipulated from the social order’s economic apex: “[d]omination” masquerading as choice in a “society alienated from itself.” Culture had become just one more industrial process, ruled by dominant economic forces that reduced ideological or generic innovation in favor of standardization.

Because culture’s organic laws and lores and their textual manifestations represent each “epoch’s consciousness of itself” (Althusser, 1969, p. 108), audiences, creators, governments, and corporations have made extraordinary investments in it. For imperial Britain, the study of culture formed “the core of the educational system” and was “believed to have peculiar virtues in producing politicians, civil servants, Imperial administrators and legislators,” incarnating and indexing “the arcane wisdom of the Establishment” (Plumb, 1964, p. 7). Culture was expected to produce and renovate what Matthew Arnold called “that powerful but at present somewhat narrow-toned organ, the modern Englishman” (1875, p. x) and generate distinctions between those with and without “civilization” (Bourdieu, 1984). Related policies informed imperial expansion through Spain’s conquista de América, Portugal’s missão civilizadora, and France and Britain’s mission civilisatrice, creating global anxieties about foreign cultural domination that have never subsided and in fact been exacerbated by the global entertainment demesne of the United States over the last century (Mowlana, 2000).

This immensely complicated field of exchange, from Gramcsi to Adorno to Althusser to imperial and colonial administration and opposition, has inspired cultural studies’ critical attitude to the popular and its function at different times and places. In a less historically and politically attuned way, U.S. communication studies has largely taken as given—and failed to examine—this history, dedicating its efforts to intercultural communication, a de facto acceptance of difference that attempts to bridge it in the service of state and capital (Martin & Nakayama, 2010).

Conversely, critiques of cultural imperialism have found significant uptake in the Global South, via a focus on the machinery of propaganda sold to ordinary people by powerful sovereign states. These criticisms have enjoyed particular purchase in Latin America, because of the region’s proximity to the United States, and in other postcolonial states whose traditions and languages tie them to texts exported from the metropole. Latin Americans generated the theory of dependent development in the 1940s to explain why the industrial take-off experienced by Western Europe and the United States had not occurred elsewhere. These dependistas gained adherents across the Global South over the next three decades in reaction to the fact that rich societies at the world core had grown thanks to their colonial and international inheritance, importing ideas, fashions, and people from the periphery while exporting manufactured popular culture (Segoviana García, 2011; Dorfman & Mattelart, 1971; Prebisch, 1982; Cardoso, 2009).

Cultural-imperialism arguments have resonated in everyday talk, broadcast and telecommunications policy, unions, international organizations, nationalistic media and heritage, cultural diplomacy, anti-Americanism, and post-industrial service-sector planning (see Schiller, 1976, 1989, 1991; Beltrán & Fox de Cardona, 1980; Dorfman & Mattelart, 1971). They are exemplified by Armand Mattelart’s stinging denunciation of external cultural influence on the Global South:

In order to camouflage the counter-revolutionary function which it has assigned to communications technology and, in the final analysis, to all the messages of mass culture, imperialism has elevated the mass media to the status of revolutionary agents, and the modern phenomenon of communications to that of revolution itself. (1980, p. 17)

The concern is that popular culture exported from the Global North transfers its dominant value system to others, through hegemony over news agencies, advertising, market research, public opinion, screen trade, technology exchanges, propaganda, telecommunications, and security. There is a corresponding diminution in the vitality and standing of local languages, traditions, and national identities. As Herbert I. Schiller expressed it, “the media-cultural component in a developed, corporate economy supports the economic objectives of the decisive industrial-financial sectors (i.e., the creation and extension of the consumer society)” (1991, p. 14).

Here we see dissident elements of communication studies, inspired by international political economy, rejecting any emphasis on intercultural communication in favor of a more radical enterprise, and sharing much in common with cultural studies. But whereas this critical strand of communication studies has focused on social forces of domination, most notably the state and capital, cultural studies has stressed the creative struggles undertaken by ordinary people to interpret dominant cultural forms in terms of their conditions of existence, rather than the supposedly pessimistic orientation of political economy.

There is a further complex meeting of cultural and communication studies influenced by Jean Baudrillard’s account of commodity capitalism. Baudrillard maintains that commodity signs begin as reflections of reality, but displace representations of the truth with false information once their careers as capitalist objects flourish. Then these two delineable phases of truth and lies become indistinct; and once underlying reality is lost, signs grow self-referential, with no residual correspondence to the real: they adopt the form of their own simulation (Baudrillard, 1988).

People are said to buy commodities to give meaning to their world because societies no longer make them feel as though they belong. This concatenating simulation has implications for the aesthetic and social hierarchies that “regulate and structure . . . individual and collective lives” (Parekh, 2000, p. 143) in competitive ways that harness popular culture to social and commercial purposes. For this reason, cultural studies and rhetorical communication studies alike discern close ties between ideological content and industrial impact, while allowing for aberrant interpretations by audiences and consumers. The Marxist dramatist and librettist Bertolt Brecht simultaneously admired, copied, and sought to transcend the popular. He welcomed passionate crowds as potential sites of resistance to government and capital (1964), and even Adorno reflected that sports had “an anti-barbaric and anti-sadistic effect by means of fair play, a spirit of chivalry, and consideration for the weak” (2010).

In search of resistance to dominant forces operating within the political economy, cultural studies has produced historical and contemporary analyses of slaves, crowds, pirates, bandits, minorities, audiences, fans, women, and the working class, utilizing archival, ethnographic, and textual methods to emphasize day-to-day noncompliance with authority via practices of popular-cultural consumption that frequently turn into practices of production. For example, U.K. research has lit upon Teddy Boys, Mods, bikers, skinheads, punks, school students, teen girls, Rastas, truants, drop-outs, graffitists, and magazine readers as its magical agents of history—groups who deviated from the norms of schooling and the transition to work and stimulated moral panics. Scholar-activists examine the structural underpinnings to collective style, investigating how bricolage subverts the achievement-oriented, materialistic values and appearance of the middle class. The working assumption has often been that subordinate groups adopt and adapt signs and objects from dominant culture, reorganizing them to manufacture new meanings. The oppressed become producers of new fashions, inscribing alienation, difference, and powerlessness on their bodies (Leong, 1992).

Economic Developments

Popular culture has become ever more central to economic and social life. The inaugural President of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and music theorist Jacques Attali explains that a new “mercantile order forms wherever a creative class masters a key innovation from navigation to accounting or, in our own time, where services are most efficiently mass produced, thus generating enormous wealth” (2008, p. 31). He recognizes that a prosperous economic future lies in finance capital and ideology rather than agriculture and manufacturing—seeking revenue from innovation and intellectual property, not minerals or masses. The global trade in culture increased from $559.5 billion in 2010 to $624 billion in 2011 (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, 2013). Popular culture has internationalized, in terms of the export and import of texts, attendant fears of cultural imperialism, and a New International Division of Cultural Labor (Miller, Govil, McMurria, Maxwell, & Wang, 2005).

As a consequence, the canons of aesthetic judgement and social distinction that once separated humanities and social science approaches to the popular, distinguishing aesthetic tropes, economic needs, and social norms, are collapsing in on each other. The media are more than textual signs or everyday practices, and popular culture offers important resources to markets and nations in reaction to the crisis of belonging and economic necessity occasioned by capitalist globalization. It is crucial to advanced and developing economies alike, and can provide the legitimizing ground on which particular groups (e.g., African Americans, queer activists, the hearing impaired, or evangelical Protestants) claim resources and seek inclusion in national and international narratives (see Yúdice, 2002 on Latin America; Colla, 2012 and Pahwa & Winegar, 2012 on Egypt; Yang, 2009 on China; Boateng, 2008 on Ghana).

For some analysts, popular culture represents the apex of modernity. Rather than encouraging alienation, it stands for the expansion of civil society, the moment in history when the state becomes receptive to, and part of, the general community. The population is marked as part of the social, rather than excluded from political calculation. This occurs alongside a weakening of traditional authority, the promulgation of individual rights and respect, and newly intense, interpersonal, yet large-scale interactions. These transformations are supposedly necessitated by industrialization and aided by systems of mass communication. The spread of advertising is taken as a model for the breakdown of social barriers, and exemplified in the triumph of the popular (Shils, 1966; Hartley, 1992).

That position connects with the new model of consumer freedom that derives from subcultural politics. The two developments have little in common when it comes to commitments to social justice. But they share the working assumption that corporate popular culture is being overrun by individual creativity in a Marxist/Godardian/Schumpeterian fantasy where people fish, film, fornicate, and finance from morning to midnight.

On this account, new communications technologies obliterate geography, sovereignty, and hierarchy in an alchemy of truth and beauty. A deregulated, individuated world makes consumers into producers, frees the disabled from confinement, encourages new subjectivities, rewards intellect and competitiveness, links people across cultures, and allows billions of flowers to bloom in a post-political cornucopia (Miller, 2012).

Sometimes faith in this active audience reaches cosmic proportions, with the critic’s persona a guarantor of audience revelry and Dionysian joy (Morris, 1990). Welcome to “Readers Liberation Movement” cultural studies (Eagleton, 1982): everyone is creative and no one a spectator. Consumption is privileged, production is discounted, and labor is forgotten. As a consequence, we see concerns about cultural studies expressed by those in search of methodological rigor through falsifiability and a recognition that state and corporate power remain important (McChesney, 1996). They question utopian cultural-studies assumptions that:

  • because of new technologies and practices of consumption, concentration of media ownership and control no longer matters—information is finally free, thanks to multi-point distribution and destabilized hierarchies;

  • consumers are sovereign and transcend class and other categories;

  • young people are liberated from media control;

  • journalism is dying as everyone becomes a source of both news and reporting;

  • creative destruction is an accurate and desirable description of economic innovation;

  • when scholars observe media workers and audiences, they discover that ideology critique is inappropriate;

  • Marxist political economy denies the power of audiences and users and the irrelevance of boundaries—it is pessimistic and hidebound;

  • cultural imperialism critiques miss the creativity and resilience of national and subnational forms of life against industrial products; and

  • media-effects studies are inconsequential—audiences outwit corporate plans and psy-function norms alike (Miller & Kraidy, 2016, p. 17).

Perhaps there is both too much leftist functionalism in political economy and too much leftist hope in cultural studies. One tendency lacks conflict; the other amplifies it (Grossberg, 1995).

There certainly remains a paradox, and possibly a contradiction, in cultural studies’ engagement with the popular, because commodified fashion and convention have learned to respond almost gratefully to subcultures. For instance, even as the media and politicians announced that punks were folk devils, and set in motion various moral panics about their effect on society, the fashion and music industries were sending out spies to watch and listen to them as part of a restless search for new trends to market. Whenever the politics of spectacle is used effectively by social movements, advertising agencies watch and parrot what they see. Capitalism appropriates its appropriators.

The need for an awareness of this double-edged investment in commodities, as objects of resistance whose very appropriation can then be re-commodified, should make socioeconomic analysis via critical political economy a good ally of representational analysis via interpretation and ethnography. A certain tendency on both sides has maintained that the two approaches are mutually exclusive: one concerned with structures of the economy, the other with structures of meaning (Garnham, 1995). But this need not be the case. Historically, the best critical political economy and the best cultural studies have worked through the imbrication of power and subjectivity at all points on the cultural continuum, bringing together the insights of Gramsci and Adorno.

At a moment when the Global North uses culture as a selling point for deindustrialized societies, and the Global South does so for never-industrialized ones, the best cultural studies focuses on a nimble, hybrid approach that is governed not by the humanities or the social sciences, but by a critical agenda that inquires cui bono—who benefits and loses from such governmental and corporate maneuvers, who complains about the fact, and what can be learned from them?

This commitment to social and cultural justice as well as academic theorization and research has proved magnetic to many subordinate groups entering academia for the first time since the 1960s. Hence the appeal of studying popular culture not only at the conventional scholarly metropoles in the United States and the United Kingdom, but also in Colombia, Brazil, Turkey, India, and other important sites that are all too accustomed to being theorized and analyzed—and all too unfamiliar with being regarded as the sources of ideas, not merely places for their application (Maxwell, 2000).

At the same time, we have also seen the development of a more reformist, even reactionary formation within cultural studies, which rejects the field’s past as a form of insurrectionary semiotic reading and instead favors hitching itself to the new surge in cultural industries represented by public policies and investment patterns. This takes the field closer to the subject matter of political economy but further from its ethical orientation. The New Right of cultural studies has undertaken consultancies on behalf of the media, museums, copyright, pornography, schooling, and cultural precincts. Instrumental policy people and scholars argue for an efflorescence of creativity, cultural difference, import substitution, and national and regional pride and influence, thanks to new technologies and innovative firms—with capitalism an ally, not a foe (Hartley, 2005; Florida, 2002; Turner, 2012; Cloud, 2001).

Geographical Histories

Cultural studies began in the Global South at the same time as the North, and within Nairobi, Rio, and Santiago social movements, favelas, and revolutions as much as Birmingham centers, Newtown bars, or Illinois armchairs (Maxwell, 2000). In Latin America today, communication studies generally has four emphases: cultural studies, alongside critical theory, semiotics, and empirical research. That division derived from a longstanding bifurcation between the qualitative, critical heritage of Western European Marxism and political economy, on the one hand, and empiricist U.S. quantitative traditions, on the other. Cultural studies is recognized as a sub-discipline, with a focus on ethnographic and textual analyses of the media. Twentieth-century models from the United States are being supplemented by newer formations, as per the Consejo Latinoamericano de Ciencias Sociales (Costa, Silveira, & Sommer, 2003). Brazil’s Universidade de São Paulo has a Sociology Department conceived around cultural studies, with special focuses on social movements, difference, and cultural representation, and the Universidade Luterana do Brasil offers a noted cultural and educational studies degree in Rio de Janeiro. The city also has a media and cultural studies major at the Universidade Federal Fluminese, and a world-leading one at Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro. The interdisciplinary cultural-studies degree at the Universidad Nacional Costa Rica offers a trans-Central American perspective through the media, literature, and society. Ecuador’s Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar has a media and cultural studies degree focused on texts and production through the lens of subalternity and transterritorial as well as local identities, with an emphasis on cultural policy. The Asociación Colombiana de Facultades y Programas Universitarios en Comunicación e Información (Colombian Association of University Faculties and Programs in Communication and Information) covers:

la interacción humana, el diseño y uso de dispositivos tecnológicos de comunicación, las formas culturales, las relaciones de poder, la configuración de las subjetividades y los acontecimientos estéticos (human interaction, the design and use of communication technologies, cultural forms, relations of power, the configuration of subjectivities and aesthetics at specific sites) (see Universidad del Norte, Comunicación Social y Periodismo).

The varying experiences of different countries and methods is sometimes expressed in the terms used to describe communications specialists. English lacks a single word to describe the profession. In Hispanic Latin America, it veers between “comunicador,” which is favored by qualtoids, and “comunicólogo,” which is associated more with quantoids (though in some places, the terms distinguish people working in communications from those studying it, and the division is not so striking in Spain). Comunicadores are likeliest to encounter cultural studies, often following the established work of Jesús Martín-Barbero (Martín-Barbero & Rey, 1999) as well as emergent names like André Dorcé Ramos, Aimée Vega Montiel (2012), and Enrique Uribe-Jongbloed (Jones & Uribe-Jongbloed, 2013). Elsewhere, there are outposts within Latin American sociology, urban anthropology, and literary and gender studies, which house some of the world’s leading cultural-studies experts, such as Néstor García Canclini (2004), Daniel Mato (2005), Nelly Richard (2004), Eduardo Nivón Bolán (2012), and Rosalía Winocur (2002).

Hong Kong has an ambivalent yet productive relationship between communications and cultural studies. On the one hand, it largely teaches in English and has tight historical ties to Britain’s critical cultural tradition, as represented today by Anthony Fung (2008) and Lisa Leung (Nguyet Erni & Leung, 2014). On the other, it sends many graduate students to learn empiricist U.S. traditions, though some have returned favoring both political economy and cultural studies, such as Jack Linchaun Qiu (2016) and John Nguyet Erni (2011). The School of Journalism and Communication at the Chinese University of Hong Kong incarnates this tension in its mission to produce:

communicators with a global perspective who excel in communicative, analytical, and innovative competence. As the confluence of Eastern and Western scholarship, our School also aims to turn out communication scholars with a comparative perspective who commit themselves to the generation of knowledge with theoretical sophistication and methodological innovation. Last but not the least, we seek to promote among our students a strong commitment to professional ethics and social responsibility.

In Australia and Britain, there is a further aspect to such a history, namely the class status of the institutions that birthed and supported communication and cultural studies. In each case, second- and third-tier entities, such as polytechnics, institutes of technology, and colleges of advanced education, developed these areas across the 1980s (King & Muecke, 1984), though in Britain a unit within the University of Birmingham was crucial (Hall, 2010). They looked critically at issues of national culture through the lens of class, race, and gender and drew on Marxist theory and ethnographic and textual method (Turner, 2002; McRobbie, 2005).

The United Kingdom’s representative body, the Media, Communication and Cultural Studies Association, describes cultural studies as:

an interdisciplinary field that researches our everyday cultural experiences, and not just the “high” culture of, for example, art, theatre, literature or classical music. It investigates the symbolic meanings reproduced in everyday activities such as shopping, internet chat, living in modern cosmopolitan cities, and how our bodies, minds and emotions are engaged by these cultural practices. The media are a central element in these everyday cultural experiences and are also closely tied into the political economy through their ownership and the laws that govern their operations. We investigate how these personal experiences tie us into political and economic systems such as the nation state or multinational capitalism and what role culture can play in resisting and changing these established structures of power. Cultural studies has developed a range of theories to try to understand these complex relations which draw on, amongst others, sociology, economics, psychology, political theory and aesthetics.

The Cultural Studies Association of Australasia, by contrast, adopts a nominalist approach, with objectives allied to conventional disciplinary norms. When the Australian and British governments decreed at the end of the 20th century that all tertiary education bodies were to be called “universities,” and more traditional locales spied the success of these areas in attracting enrollment, the more powerful schools quickly took over leadership of communication and cultural studies—or incorporated them into less threatening domains, such as film. This was allied to a successful new direction toward grant-driven research and fewer attempts to articulate with extra-academic social movements.

In the United States, cultural studies derives from three principal domains: communication, literary, and area studies. Communication studies exerted three major influences: textual methods, derived from speech communication and mass communication; a ritualistic, economic-historical, and discourse-analytic approach, associated with James W Carey (2005) and his followers Lawrence W. Grossberg (2005) and James W. Hay (2000) at the University of Illinois; and a political-economic one linked to Justin Lewis (2001) and Richard Maxwell (1995).

Speech communication/rhetoric was a crucial site. It emerged in the early-20th-century United States to help white non-English-speaking migrants assimilate into the work force and became the first home of media education, because the engineering professors who founded radio stations in colleges during the 1920s needed program content, and drew volunteers from that area after being rebuffed by literature mavens. These stations doubled as laboratories, with research undertaken into technology, content, and reception. At the same time, schools of journalism were forming to produce newspaper workers (Kittross, 1999).

This was a period of massively complex urbanization and the spread of adult literacy, democratic rights, labor organization, and socialist ideas. They gave rise to the social sciences’ equivalent to the study of speech: mass communication. First cinema, then radio and TV, were simultaneously prized and damned for their demagogic qualities, which it was hoped and feared could turn people into consumers or communists alike. By the early 20th century, academic experts had decreed media audiences to be passive consumers, thanks to the missions of literary criticism (distinguishing the aesthetically cultivated from others) and the psy-function (distinguishing the socially competent from others). Decades of social science have emphasized audience reactions to audiovisual entertainment: where they came from, how many there were, and what they did as a consequence of being present.

For its part, mass communication emerged rather schizophrenically to criticize the media as forms of leftist propaganda and admire them as forms of advertising and national identity. So it sought on the one hand to advise and struggle against political extremism among citizens and on the other to help businesses sell things to customers.

No surprise, then, that the National Communication Association defines its subject matter thus:

A communicator encodes (e.g., puts thoughts into words and gestures), then transmits the message via a channel (e.g., speaking, email, text message) to the other communicator(s) who then decodes the message (e.g., take the words and apply meaning to them). The message may encounter noise (e.g., any physical, psychological, or physiological distraction or interference), which could prevent the message from being received or fully understood as the sender intended.

Opposition to Cultural Studies

These practical and political origins have made communication and cultural studies poor cousins of hitherto-central humanities fields like literature and history, especially at little liberal-arts colleges and private Research-One universities in the United States or traditional schools in the United Kingdom and Australia. So Robert W. McChesney laments that the study of the media is “regarded by the pooh-bahs in history, political science, and sociology as having roughly the same intellectual merit as, say, driver education” (2007, p. 16).

Specifically, many people deride cultural studies as “a looming, lightning-filled, thunderhead” of people who “have never been swept off their feet by a line of verse” and wrongly believe they can change the social order through revised canons of content and interpretation (Rorty, 1994, pp. 579–580). The National Association of Scholars’ report The Vanishing West surveyed undergraduate syllabuses at top-ranked U.S. universities and found a fifty-year decline in classes on “Western Civilization” in favor of “an all-things-to-all-people cornucopia” (Ricketts, Wood, Balch, & Thorne, 2011; Kiley, 2011). The Village Voice dubs cultural studies “the ultimate capitulation to the MTV mind . . . couchpotatodom writ large . . . just as Milton doesn’t belong in the rave scene, sitcoms don’t belong in the canon or the classroom” (Vincent, 2000). Steve Forbes rages against “the political correctness that stifles the genuine free flow of discussion and debate in so many higher-ed institutions.” He predicts a future with “fewer ridiculous basket-weaving-like courses” (2011). The Times Literary Supplement argues that cultural studies forms the “politico-intellectual junkyard of the Western world” (Minogue, 1994, p. 27). Conservative philosopher Roger Scruton denounces cultural studies as “sub-Marxist gobbledook [sic.]” (quoted in Beckett, 2004). Fresh from winning the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, Howard Jacobson thundered that “universities have forgotten their function,” which is “to minister to civilisation” (2010). And for Frank Kermode, the institutionalization of cultural studies “has resulted in new, self-perpetuating university departments and has packed existing departments with sympathizers” rather than focusing on “fine things” and “sane people” (1997). Such critics hold cultural studies “responsible for everything from undergraduates arriving at university unable to write proper sentences to the precipitous decline in the numbers taking Latin and Greek. No subject is the focus of so much sneering” (Morrison, 2008).

On the left, Dissent hopes cultural studies is dying out:

the lack of seriousness that had been synonymous with the nineties—the intellectual fads, the pop culture studies, the French theories . . . collapsed under the weight of an economic meltdown. What once appeared to be a liberating application of high theory to essential aspects of political and cultural experience now seems silly. Tenured radicals have awakened out of their comfortable nineties slumber to reckon with full-scale catastrophe.

(Mattson, 2011)

The International Socialists bemoan that cultural studies devalues aesthetics, thereby denying the proletariat access to avant garde and bourgeois art (Molyneux, 2010).

This is an inaccurate view of cultural studies as a purely semiotic, nihilistic expression of refusal. The principal professional association in the United States describes its progressive heritage in robust terms by comparison with conventional academic bodies, but does so with an appreciation of the prevailing conjuncture and indeed an appeal to traditional values of scholarly autonomy:

cultural studies is not just a specific approach within the wider field of the study of culture, but also, and more importantly, a political and intellectual project and practice, where the desire to intervene in concrete social conjunctures and to radically democratize them has always been a guiding commitment . . . we plan to take the lead on matters of broad import to higher education at large, from the threat to academic freedom, to the practice of “ideological exclusion” that denies tenure and employment to deserving scholars and visas to certain equally deserving foreign scholars, from the increasing corporatization and bureaucratization of public and non-for-profit private colleges and universities, to the overzealous dependence on and exploitation of adjunct and other non-tenure-track faculty labor. (see Cultural Studies Association)

And it is worth recalling that new subject areas always cause controversy when they enter universities. Decades ago, prophets of gloom lamented the appearance of “new departments and courses, with conflicting aims and points of view” (Wooster, 1932, p. 373). This was the British experience with the introduction of the natural sciences in the 19th century and politics, philosophy, English, and sociology in the 20th—practical responses to the major socioeconomic transformations of industrialization, state schooling, class mobility, and public welfare (Fox, 2003; Whittam Smith, 2008).

And critics of cultural studies must accept that it has influenced policy in progressive directions, from helping to organize and protect marginalized social groups to pushing for more inclusive cultural programs. For example, a foundational concern with justice and equality has been recognized by the British Academy in its support for interdisciplinary work on culture that enables “disadvantaged and marginalized people and communities to find new means of expression.” This tendency is also evident in cultural studies’ role as a site for blending humanities and social-science approaches to such issues as migration and gender (2004, pp. 6, 11, 45). Cultural studies often associates with applied activism, just as much as do engaged intellectuals in civil engineering, economic advice, social welfare, pharmaceutical development, contract law, or public policy, with commitments to social and cultural stakeholders as well as disciplinary gatekeepers and rent-seekers (Costa et al., 2003).

Theory Today

Cultural studies’ complex mélange offers five principal forms of inquiry. It:

  • borrows ethnography from sociology and anthropology to investigate the experiences of audiences;

  • adopts textual analysis from literary theory and linguistics to identify the ideological tenor of content;

  • applies textual and audience interpretation from psychoanalysis to speculate on psychic processes;

  • deploys political economy to examine ownership, control, regulation, and international exchange; and

  • utilizes archival, curatorial, and historiographic methods to give people a record of their past.

Given this diversity, it is no surprise that communication and cultural studies are simultaneously formed, connected, and divided by their various objects of study, politics, nations, disciplines, theories, languages, and methods. Whereas the dominant forms of communication studies are expressly dedicated to scholarly objectivity and disciplinary coherence, and implicitly dedicated to liberal capitalism, cultural studies sees itself more as a tendency that articulates to concerns and identities on the margins of academia, and to methodological promiscuity. Those differences will continue to characterize the times and places where the two fields meet.

Further Reading

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    Aguilar, M. Á., Nivón, E., Portal, M. A., & Winocur, R. (Eds.). (2009). Pensar lo contemporáneo: De la cultura situada a la convergencia tecnológica. Barcelona, Spain, and Mexico City, Mexico: Anthropos/Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana.Find this resource:

      Aksikas, J., & Andrews, S. J. (Eds.). (2016). Cultural studies and the “juridical turn”: Culture, law and legitimacy in the era of neoliberal capitalism. New York, NY: Routledge.Find this resource:

        Artz, L., Cloud, D. L., & Macek, S. (Eds.). (2006). The point is to change it: Marxism and communication studies. New York, NY: Peter Lang.Find this resource:

          Cao, J., Mosco, V., & Shade, L. R. (Eds.). (2014). Critical studies in communication and society. Shanghai, China: Shanghai Translation Publishing House.Find this resource:

            Donsbach, W. (Ed.). (2015). The concise encyclopedia of communication. Malden, MA: Blackwell.Find this resource:

              Grossberg, L. W. (2010). Cultural studies in the future tense. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.Find this resource:

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                    Maxwell, R. (Ed.). (2015). The Routledge companion to labor and media. New York, NY: Routledge.Find this resource:

                      Miller, T. (Ed.). (2001). A companion to cultural studies. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.Find this resource:

                        Miller, T. (Ed.). (2015). The Routledge companion to global popular culture. New York, NY: Routledge.Find this resource:

                          Oakley, K., & O’Connor, J. (Eds.). (2015). The Routledge companion to the cultural industries. London, UK: Routledge.Find this resource:

                            Silk, M. L., Andrews, D. L., & Thorpe, H. (Eds.). (2017). Routledge handbook of physical cultural studies. London, UK: Routledge.Find this resource:

                              Smith, P. (Ed.). (2011). The renewal of cultural studies. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.Find this resource:

                                Valdivia, A. (Ed.). (2012–2013). The international encyclopedia of media studies (7 vols.). Malden, MA: Blackwell.Find this resource:


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                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          (1.) Consider the Inter-Asia Cultural Studies Society, the Canadian Association of Cultural Studies, the Association for Cultural Studies, and the Cultural Studies Association of Australasia.