Over the past two decades, television ads have become the highlight of America’s annual Super Bowl game. While millions tune in to watch a championship competition between two elite football teams, millions more watch to see how creatively and humorously advertisers can pitch their products. Some of these advertisements have transformed both products and spokespeople into cultural icons, from Budweiser and Apple computers to Betty White and the Old Spice Man.
How did advertisers accomplish this? What makes something or someone culturally relevant? What stereotypes, if any, did advertisers draw upon to get people’s attention? What does it mean to buy an Apple computer, drink Budweiser or wear Old Spice cologne? Furthermore, what do the existence and necessity of these expensive ads reveal about American culture in general?
These are the kinds of questions asked by people engaged in cultural studies. Cultural studies is an interdisciplinary field of research that examines the cultural context, elements and impact of messages that emanate from the media. In a broader sense, it focuses on the means by which society creates meaning and attaches it to everyday objects, ideas and practices. Researchers then determine how such objects and ideas either transform or reinforce culture by relating to aspects of ideology, ethnicity, social class and gender.
Rather than analyzing one culture in particular, cultural studies scholars seek instead to understand culture in general: its forms, history, political context and origins. Founded in the 1960s by theorists Richard Hogart, Raymond Williams, E.P. Thompson and Stuart Hall, cultural studies embraces several different methodological approaches and philosophies, including postmodernism, hermeneutics, post-structuralism, pragmatism and Marxism. Its research encompasses literary criticism, communication, political science, sociology, economics and cultural anthropology. As such, it has no unified theory or tradition.
The Marxist Approach
Cultural studies was originally founded on a Marxist view of culture. In 1846, Karl Marx theorized that economic conditions influenced the creation of culture, rather than vice-versa. According to Marx, those who owned the means of production also controlled culture, or the “collective consciousness” of society–usually by repression or brute force. Since production owners usually possess vast amounts of wealth, they can influence politics and direct lawmakers, police and the military to act on their behalf. As a result, they are able to shape culture in a way that allows them to maintain their grip on economic power.
However, Stuart Hall and his colleagues noticed a slightly different phenomenon at work in Britain in the 1970s. Though the British manufacturing sector was shrinking, causing factory workers to lose their benefits, many workers began to support Margaret Thatcher, a Conservative Party candidate who sought to undermine labor unions and thus reduce their benefits further. Just a few years earlier, the same workers had voted for the Labour Party, which fought to protect employee rights. Instead of engaging in the traditional class conflict that Marx described, workers were aligning themselves with the capitalists. Yet, the change was occurring without the threat of force. Hall theorized that something must be happening within the culture to cause people to vote against their own interests.
An Italian thinker named Antonio Gramsci provided an explanation. Expanding upon Marx’s theory of culture, Gramsci posited that production owners, or capitalists, employ subtler ways of maintaining economic control. By flooding the media with messages that appeal to common workers, capitalists penetrate the workers’ culture and convince them to support the capitalists’ agenda. Workers are led to believe that assenting to the ongoing exploitation of their labor will ultimately benefit themselves, along with all of society. Gramsci called the phenomenon “cultural hegemony,” the rule of capitalists by cultural manipulation. Studying cultural hegemony is the main preoccupation of Marxist cultural studies scholars.
The Non-Marxist Approach
Non-Marxist approaches reject the idea that only the economic elite control the meanings assigned to cultural objects. Instead, they posit that the ways in which such objects are consumed also determine their meaning. Consumers aren’t passive or mindless; they interpret objects in different ways and can modify or reject the meanings producers have given to products. While the Marxist approach focuses solely on production as the cultural determinant, non-Marxist scholars suggest that consumption itself can be a form of cultural identity, especially in a consumption-based economy. Some scholars claim that many mass-produced cultural objects have affected society positively and should be celebrated, thus rejecting cultural hegemony in favor of “cultural populism.”
Goals and Applications
The primary goal of cultural studies is to raise awareness of dominant ideologies and the subtle means by which people are convinced to accept to them. Cultural studies challenges people to think critically about cultural practices and the messages that encourage their continuation. It has been used to explain the manipulation of racism and sexism for political gain, the formation of subcultures, high school dropout rates, the rise of diversity with globalization and the environmental consequences of consumerism.
Critics of cultural studies have denounced the discipline’s lack of structure and unified methodology. A few have claimed that its “anything goes” approach has allowed some scholars to make careers out of frivolous academic pursuits. Others have pointed out that theorists often fail to adhere to the scientific method in their research and have produced few to no solid conclusions on culture or how to improve it. Yet, in spite of its weaknesses, cultural studies continues to grow in popularity and utility. Its cross-discipline focus and various approaches make it a highly adaptable field, capable of evolving alongside mainstream culture.