what is cultural studies?

When I tell people my field of study, they usually smile politely and say, “That sounds interesting.” Sometimes people ask me “What culture? Is it a part of anthropology?” Others will just be outright honest and demand to know, “What is that?”

That is never easy to explain.  One of my classmates joked, “We have a degree in being confused.” This entry is a humble attempt to describe Cultural Studies to unfamiliar readers. It is in no way a complete explanation, but a partial description based on my personal experiences within this field.

By its name, one would assume it is the study of culture(s). Which is true,  but what makes Cultural Studies stand out is its interdisciplinarity, intellectual history, practice-based approach to research, and self-reflexivity.

Cultural Studies is an interdisciplinary field of study that draws from a myriad of perspectives and subjects, including but not limited to Marxism, ethnography, feminism, and post-colonial studies. Our job as cultural researchers is not to define, but to interrogate the notion of culture, looking at all its manifestations — from religion to graffiti to television to the body.

Cultural Studies has a unique intellectual history and is linked to a specific set of theorists, such as Stuart Hall, Raymond Williams, Antonio Gramsci, and Michel Foucault. It is believed that Cultural Studies as a field of study started at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) at the University of Birmingham. Drawing largely from Marxist thought, the CCCS was known for its studies on representation, identity, ideology, agency, power, hegemony, globalization, production, and many other key concepts. Even though the Centre was shut down in 2002 (due to university politics) , their research continues to have a tremendous effect on the study of culture, with many other Cultural Studies programmes and research centres building on their work.

In addition to its interdisciplinarity and intellectual history, Cultural Studies also differs from other approaches to culture in its commitment to social justice and change — to approach theory as practice. Thinking and acting outside of the ivory tower, Cultural Studies attempts to produce research that engages with the public.

Cultural Studies also involves constant self-reflexivity — a continuous assessment of what was, what is, and what might be. One of the many reasons why I find Cultural Studies so compelling is because it consistently questions its practices, ideas, and meanings. Few things — if any — are  taken for granted. This open-ended, self-reflexive approach to culture allows one to re-think and re-configure ideas to create new possibilities, and in turn, new futures.

That, in a nutshell, is why I am doing Cultural Studies.

I hope this personal description has given you a better understanding of Cultural Studies, and maybe the next time I tell someone my field of study, they won’t look at me so blankly.


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