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date: 04 December 2020

Raymond Williams and Communication Studies Raymond Williamslocked

  • Jim McGuiganJim McGuiganEmeritus Professor of Cultural Analysis, Loughborough University

Summary

Raymond Williams (1921–1988) is often cited as one of the founders of the interdisciplinary field of education and research known as cultural studies (CS). To be more specific, he formulated an influential methodology that he named “cultural materialism,” which has an affinity with CS but is a distinctive perspective in its own right. Williams’s most celebrated book, Culture and Society 1780–1950 (1958), traced British Romanticism’s critical response to the Industrial Revolution and successive debates on social and cultural change. At the time of publication, Williams declared “culture” to be “ordinary,” thereby challenging the cultural elitism of literary study and opening up questions concerning mass-popular culture. However, Williams distanced himself from the populist study of communications and culture that became fashionable in the 1980s. His transition from literary criticism and history to sociological commentary and speculation on future prospects was signaled further by his 1961 sequel to Culture and Society, The Long Revolution.

Williams challenged the behaviorism of American-originated communication studies and drew upon European critical theories in his own work. His academic specialism was dramatic form, which he studied historically and related to theatrical and audiovisual trends in modern drama. His perspective of cultural materialism broke entirely with idealist approaches to the arts and communications media. However, he was firmly opposed to technologically determinist explanations of the emergence of new media and the dynamics of social change, On technical innovation, he emphasized the role of intentionality, the materiality of discourse, and the social conditions of cultural production and circulation. His key concepts include selective tradition, structure of feeling, and mobile privatization. Williams later coined the term “Plan X” to refer to the rise of military recklessness and unregulated “free-market” political economy and communications during the late 20th century. His final non-fiction book (he also wrote novels), Towards 2000 (1985), has been updated to take account of developments in culture, society, and the environment over the past 30 years.

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