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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Culture and Cultural Studies

The following write up is by Vandana S.

It talks about ‘Culture’ and ‘Cultural Studies’ based on the reading of the chapter Cultural Studies and Cultural Theory from the book Contemporary Cultural Theory by Andrew Milner and Jeff Browitt.


Cultural Studies attained an important position in the academic circles during the last quarter of the twentieth century. The obvious meaning of cultural studies is that it is the academic study of culture. But the problem, however, is that there is absolutely no agreement as to what exactly we mean by ‘culture’. The word ‘culture’ is one of the most widely used abstract nouns in the lexicon. The different meanings attributed to ‘culture’ are ambiguous.

In his first major work, Culture and Society 1780-1950 Raymond Williams drew attention to four important kinds of meaning that attached to ‘culture’: an individual habit of mind; the state of intellectual development of a whole society; the arts; and the whole way of life of a group of people. In his later book Keywords, only the latter three usages remained in play. He reintroduced the first usage in his sociology textbook, Culture, grouping it together with the second and third as ‘general’, and contrasting these with the fourth. According to Williams “the complexity, that is to say, is not finally in the word but in the problems which its variations of use significantly indicate. The range and overlap of meanings, the distinctions simultaneously elided and insisted upon, are all in themselves ‘significant’.

Geoffrey Hartman, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Yale University observed culture as ‘an inflammatory word’, which in some circumstances can even kindle ‘actual wars’. Both Williams and Hartman attempted to trace the intellectual history of the concept. Williams’ version of history remained overwhelmingly English in focus leading to Eliot, F.R.Leavis and Orwell while Hartman’s version is more cosmopolitan and leads to Spengler, Benda, Nazim and Heiner Muller.

With the culture wars, cultural studies became a ‘proto-discipline’ in American higher education. Cultural studies as a discipline is deeply indebted to the pioneering work of the Birmingham Centre founded in 1946, as a graduate research unit under the directorship of Richard Hoggart. The Centre became the intellectually pre-eminent institutional location for cultural studies, both in Britain and internationally, for most of the 1970’s and 1980’s.


Milner, Andrew, and Jeff Browitt. Contemporary Cultural Theory. New Delhi: Rawat Publications, 2002.

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