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What are Cultural Studies?

By Garry Crystal
Updated Feb 04, 2024
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Cultural studies is the science of understanding modern society, with an emphasis on politics and power. It is an umbrella term used to look at a number of different subjects, including media studies like film and journalism, sociology, industrial culture, globalization, and social theory. To pursue this field is to try to decipher the world that people live in.

The range of subjects included in this field makes it very popular for students who intend to pursue a career in the media or politics. One of the aims of the science is to understand culture in its relation to power. It analyzes the various social and political structures of different countries and how they interact with the world as a whole.

Globalization is a key issue in cultural studies. Consumerism and its use as a political tool are studied in depth, and the critical study of how the consumer shapes the world live in is also important. Marxism, feminist theories, and cultural identity all have connections to this subject.

The everyday practices and meanings of different societies are deciphered and deconstructed in this field. Symbolism and the ways in which people perceive the world in a sociological and political framework are also studied. Popular culture and the impact that it has had on the world forms an important part.

Cultural studies students often love to debate, and theories and arguments about the world are typically expected in class. Culture and politics are huge subjects, and it is possible for important findings to be lost under the weight of rambling debates.

The field has come under critical fire from some quarters. Some think that the diversity of the subject is too wide for it to be taken seriously as an academic discipline. It is thought of by some professors as a more career-oriented subject.

Instead of being used to effect real change in the world and society, cultural studies is often used as a less constructive tool. Academics have cited political correctness gone mad as a result of these studies, while others also feel that the deconstruction of literature is an enemy of reading. There may be a tendency to over-theorize some subjects, but taken as a whole, the field often provides a good understanding of human society.

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Discussion Comments

By miriam98 — On May 27, 2011

@David09 - I don’t have any beef with cultural studies myself. I think it’s interesting to take a critical eye at the world we live in, examine its belief systems, why people behave the way they do, or believe what they believe. If you’re majoring in sociology cultural studies are very important.

My only concern is what you can do with that kind of a major. I understand you can aim for a career in media or politics, but I think students should be more focused on specialized skills that are in high demand. To each his own I suppose.

By hamje32 — On May 24, 2011

@David09 - I’m a little less critical of cultural studies. Feminist cultural studies have a place, because they demonstrate the patriarchal worldview that is so dominant in much of what we call the “canon” of American literature. The intent is not to undermine what the author means to say, his theme, but rather to show how his views of the role of women are interspersed throughout the novel and open it up for discussion.

By David09 — On May 22, 2011

Cross cultural studies have poisoned the well in literary criticism, in my opinion. At least that’s what I came away with from my English Literature classes in college. Instead of looking at a piece of work and appreciating it for what it is, professors imposed political and cultural worldviews upon the work of fiction, making the author say something he never meant to say.

When we’d confront our teachers with this, they would always insist that it was never really possible to know what the author intended. As a result, the author’s work was more or less a blank canvas onto which you could write whatever you wanted. My view was to read the work in context, and let it speak for itself--nothing more, nothing less.

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