About Cultural Studies

Cultural Studies provides a space for scholarly dialogues that draw on theory and methods from several disciplines: anthropology, history, literary studies, philosophy, political economy, and sociology. But whereas the traditional disciplines tend to produce stable objects of study, research in cultural studies attempts to account for cultural objects under conditions constrained by power and defined by contestation, conflict, and change. That is, cultural studies grapples with the volatility of cultural happenings. Cultural studies also emphasizes self-reflexivity: an awareness that scholars and their scholarship are themselves caught up in the social currents and in the global circulation of meanings being studied.

In taking up questions from this perspective, cultural studies both draws on and develops key strands of contemporary cultural theory: semiotics, deconstruction and poststructuralism, dialogics, subaltern and postcolonial studies . . . . The field also draws on and develops a number of innovative methodologies: autoethnography, blurred genres of writing, and other new forms of critical research.

As a response to the conditions of modern life, cultural studies is a transnational movement spanning a range of subjects. Many of its interests were prefigured in the German traditions of critical theory, particularly in the works of the Frankfurt School. The field also draws heavily on contemporary French theory, with its various confluences of semiotics, psychoanalysis, and neomarxism. In Britain, where it was first named as such, cultural studies developed as a collaboration between literary scholarship and the social sciences in an attempt to fathom the history of class in British society and to understand how class is defined and transformed under conditions of mass culture.

In the United States, cultural studies ignited in the wake of the post-60s new social movements and the fields of scholarly inquiry they sparked—gender theory, critical studies of race, gay/lesbian studies—and in response to the new historiography and emergent areas of inquiry such as American studies and critical ethnography. Vigorous schools of cultural studies have emerged in Latin American and Asian countries, where revolutionary upheavals punctuate the contradictions of democracy under conditions of the neoliberal market: subaltern studies on the Indian subcontinent, emergent schools of Latin American cultural studies, and diaspora and transnational studies among various exiled and immigrant peoples. Currents of cultural studies have also converged around a number of special problems: e.g., media studies, culture and political economy, science and technology.

Uses of Cultural Studies

Cultural studies is a scholarly field that seeks to understand, critique, and transform cultural practices. Some students with degrees in cultural studies will go on to academic work: in disciplines like English, History, Anthropology, or Sociology, and in interdisciplinary fields like Film and Media Studies or Gender Studies. Many graduates will apply their scholarly training in applied settings: some with cultural institutions of various kinds, such as museums; others in advocacy groups, service groups, or non-government organizations.