Wednesday, June 14, 2006


What IS cultural studies in the field of communication these days? The fact that this question has been asked numerous times in the past provides some hints about the status of cultural studies within the field. To be blunt, you know you're dealing with a marginal practice when the practitioners keep on being prompted to try to understand how their sub-field fits in. Cultural studies in communication suffers from a kind of marginality that is, in some ways, productive. At the same time, this marginality also creates a kind of self-glorifying narrative for cultural studies, one in which cultural studies represents the peoples' work, and the 'dominant paradigm' in media studies can be understood as a kind of Death Star, poised to destroy Alderaan.

One question worth asking (if only because it seems ready-made for glib replies) is this: do practictioners in other parts of the field of communication ask themselves the same worrisome questions as those in cultural studies? Do interpersonal communication researchers ever feel that their approach to the field is threatened, or at risk? Do those in organizational communication lose any sleep about their 'project'? Do rhetoricians ever entertain the idea that they may be drummed out of the field of communication? I think the answer to all of these questions is a (measured, boring) 'yes'. So, let's make the first casualty of this debate the notion that cultural studies is the only part of comm that concerns itself with its own place in the field. Still, I think that cultural studies is in a dominated position in the field of communication, and its position within the field gives those in cultural studies a certain tendency to (quite rightly) wonder if they're about to be kicked to the curb.

A few months ago, I was part of an e-mail interchange with my pals Emily West, Jen Horner, and Louise Woodstock. Emily began the discussion, asking us what kind of distinctions between "American" (read: work along the Durkheim/Dewey/Geertz/Carey axis) and "British" (read: work along the Williams/Hall/Birmingham axis) still exist. It's a great question, and it's difficult to answer. Certainly, the traditions have been conflated in graduate education in communication, which tends to lump the two approaches together in coursework in cultural studies. It's not uncommon for graduate courses to involve a (perhaps productive) broadly 'cultural' approach, with no particular American or British emphasis. Published work, however, seems more likely to adhere to these traditional variations on the cultural studies approach.

Still, I think this concern for British vs. American cultural studies makes it seem a bit too much as if 'cultural studies' is something that is practiced solely within the terms of discretely-divided intellectual camps (quick: when was the last time you heard anyone say they did "American Cultural Studies" when asked their specialty?). To praise and criticize cultural studies in communication at the same time, one thing that always struck me was how meaningless the term 'cultural studies' becomes in comm. The appellation of 'cultural studies' is attached to a laughably broad amount of work, from journalism history, to ethnographic approaches to television viewing, to grand theory. This turns cultural studies into something that is interdisciplinary at best, and at worst, something more like a catch-all for ALL work in media studies that doesn't concern itself with short-term media effects.

I fully realize that I'm far from the first person to raise these issues, and I also realize I'm nowhere near settling them. However, I will conclude with something resembling a conclusion. As someone whose work has been classified as 'cultural studies,' I sicken of the term. 'Cultural studies' is a label that, at this point, is so weighted down with connotations (many of them mutually contradictory) that it does little good to describe anything as cultural studies in communication. This is too bad, I suppose. Perhaps someday I'll have a solution for this. But not today.


Anonymous Jen said...

Dave, were you at the NCA "What is critical cultural studies?" forum last november? Did you see me make an ass of myself? In short, I awkwardly introduced the problem of the (self imposed?) impasse between critical studies and the ginormous grant funded projects for health education for underserved populations, etc. etc. that are basically the bread and butter of research institutions. Got a whole lot of nothing from the panel but somebody in the audience stood up and gave a canned "administrative research / prediction and control / preserve the status quo / you suck!" speech that rated pretty well on the applause-o-meter! Ouch! I wouldn't say that these projects are necessarily the right way to go about social change but it is striking how strongly they create a sense of identity, purpose, and community among those groups of students and researchers who do them, and basically serve as a foil (Death Star) against which cultural studies people define themselves. On a different point: regarding the British/American division -- I want to post a point that was made in our original conversation about how British gets stereotyped as committedly political (but ultimately ineffectual) while Americans are blithely celebrating consumer society / popular culture.

8:50 AM  

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