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Culture theory

Major fields: anthropology - Cultural Studies - culture - media theory - popular culture theory - sociology - subculture theory -

"Cultural theory as we have it promises to grapple with some fundamental problems, but on the whole fails to deliver. It has been shamefaced about morality and metaphysics, embarrassed about love, biology, religion and revolution, largely silent about evil, reticent about death and suffering, dogmatic about essences, universals and foundations, and superficial about truth, objectivity and disinterestedness. This, on any estimate, is rather a large slice of human existence to fall down on. It is also, as we have suggested before, rather an awkward moment in history to find oneself with little or nothing to say about such fundamental questions." After Theory by Terry Eagleton, 2003.

Related: communication - cultural criticism - culture industry - economy - hegemony - high culture - Frankfurt School - identity - lifestyle - low culture politics - religion - representation - society - technology

People: Terry Eagleton - Camille Paglia

Introduction

The perceived contradiction between high and low culture is a recurring theme on Jahsonic.com. I believe that both high culture and low culture are minority tastes and as such can be described as subcultures, both influencing mainstream culture. I also believe that both high and low culture have produced masterpieces and works of mediocrity. As George Walden puts it:

Three points appear self-evident.

  1. First, there is no conflict whatever between popular and more demanding culture, and no need to choose.
  2. Second, that the majority of popular culture is commercially produced ephemera of mostly lamentable quality which needs absolutely no help or encouragement from government, still less nauseous ingratiation.
  3. Third, that there is such a thing as high art, and that some things will always remain for the privileged few - privileged not in the tired old class-conscious meaning of the word, but in the sense that by hard work and/or natural ability they are able to appreciate, eg highly refined musical forms or classical literature that it is not given to everyone to understand, even if we are given every opportunity to do so.
-- George Walden, source unidentified (website offline), please mail me if you know the source

Definition

Culture theory is that branch of anthropology and other related social science disciplines (i.e., for example, sociology) that seeks to define the heuristic concept of culture in operational and/or scientific terms. In the 19th century culture was used by some to refer to a wide array of human activities, and by others as a synonym for "civilization". In the 20th century, anthropologists began theorizing about culture as an object of scientific analysis. Some used it to distinguish human adaptive strategies from the largely instinctive adaptive strategies of animals, including the adaptive strategies of other primates and non-human hominids, whereas others used it to refer to symbolic representations and expressions of human experience, with no direct adaptive value. Both groups understood culture as being definitive of human nature.

According to many theories that have gained wide acceptance among anthropologists, culture exhibits the way that humans interpret their biology and their environment. According to this point of view, culture becomes such an integral part of human existence that it is the human environment, and most cultural change can be attributed to human adaptation to historical events. Moreover, given that culture is seen as the primary adaptive mechanism of humans and takes place much faster than human biological evolution, most cultural change can be viewed as culture adapting to itself.

Although most anthropologists try to define culture in such a way that it separates human beings from other animals, many human traits are similar to those of other animals, particularly the traits of other primates. For example, chimpanzees have big brains, but ceteris paribus human brains are bigger. Similarly, bonobos exhibit complex sexual behavior, but human beings exhibit much more complex sexual behaviors. As such, anthropologists often debate whether human behavior is different from animal behavior in degree rather than in kind; they must also find ways to distinguish cultural behavior from sociological behavior and psychological behavior. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Culture_theory

Cultural history

Cultural history, at least in its common definition since the 1970s, often combines the approaches of anthropology and history to look at popular cultural traditions and cultural interpretations of historical experience.

Most often the focus is on phenomena shared by non-elite groups in a society, such as: carnival, festival, and public rituals; performance traditions of tale, epic, and other verbal forms; cultural evolutions in human relations (ideas, sciences, arts, techniques); and cultural expressions of social movements such as nationalism. Also examines main historical concepts as power, ideology, class, culture, identity, attitude, race, perception and new historical methods as narration of body. Many studies consider adaptations of traditional culture to mass media (tv, radio, newspapers, magazines, posters, etc.), from print to film and, now, to the Internet (culture of capitalism). Its modern approaches come from art history, annales, marxist school, microhistory and new cultural history.

Common theoretical touchstones for recent cultural history have included: JŁrgen Habermas's formulation of the public sphere in The Structural Transformation of the Bourgeois Public Sphere; Clifford Geertz's notion of 'thick description' (expounded in, for example, The Interpretation of Cultures); and the idea of memory as a cultural-historical category, as discussed in Paul Connerton's How Societies Remember. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_history [Aug 2005]

see also: culture - history - cultural studies

The roots of culture theory

Cultural Studies, also known as the Birmingham School, was conceived in a Britain emerging from the industrial revolution. The School drew on a combination of anthropology, history, literary criticism and theory, Marxism, media studies, semiotics, structuralism, as well as sociology, especially the Chicago and Frankfurt Schools (Mattelart & Neveu, 9). The Chicago School had its beginnings in the creation of the first department of sociology in the U.S. at the University of Chicago in 1892. The scholars associated with the department were primarily interested in urban social behavior, deviance, and subcultures.

Using the city of Chicago as their laboratory, they developed theories that drew upon participant-observation and took both individuals and social groups to be products of both their natural and social environments. The school came to dominate U.S. sociological thought until WWII. The Frankfurt School "offered a refuge for the leftist intellectuals during the years prior to Hitlerís takeover of Germany. It was the home of critical theory, a complex blend of sophisticated Marxist thought, philosophy, psychoanalysis, literary speculation, and social research" (Barfield, 206). Scholars associated with the school included Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse. The Frankfurt School reacted against positivistic scientific approaches by drawing upon Marxís views of materialism and upon the critical philosophy of Kant.

The work of several scholars with common interests drawing from the particular combination of disciplines mentioned above soon crystalized into what would become Cultural Studies. The New Left Review, begun in 1960, became the forum in which their ideas were most often articulated. Then, in 1964, the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) was founded at the University of Birmingham. The Centreís areas of research included popular cultures, media studies, urban subcultures, and ethnic and sexual identity. The main goal of the Centre was to study cultural institutions and their interaction with and interrelation to society and social change (Mattelart & Neveu, 5). Thus the study of subcultures, ethnic groups and the question of race was intrinsic to Cultural Studies, especially in the 1970s (i.e. Stuart Hallís 1976 Resistance Through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Postwar Britain, to which Hebdigeís often refers in Subculture). Their research was done mostly on western capitalist industrial societies in Western Europe and North America, especially the U.S. --(Shawn Pitre, 2003)http://www.mediamusicstudies.net/tagg/students/Montreal/Tendances/PitreHebdige.html [Aug 2005]

see also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chicago_school_%28sociology%29

see also: Cultural Studies - CCCS - Birmingham - sociology

Cultural studies: approaches (USA and UK)

Scholars in the United Kingdom and the United States developed somewhat different versions of cultural studies after the field's inception in the late 1970s. The British version of cultural studies was developed in the 1960s mainly under the influence of Richard Hoggart and Stuart Hall at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham. This included overtly political, leftist views, and criticisms of popular culture as 'capitalist' mass culture; it absorbed some of the ideas of the Frankfurt School critique of the "culture industry" (i.e. mass culture). This emerges in the writings of early British cultural-studies scholars and their influences: see the work of (for example) Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy.

In contrast, the American version of cultural studies initially concerned itself more with understanding the subjective and appropriative side of audience reactions to, and uses of, mass culture; American cultural-studies advocates wrote about the liberatory aspects of fandom. See the writings of critics such as John Guillory. The distinction between American and British strands, however, has faded. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_studies#Approaches [Aug 2005]

Note: the work of Roland Barthes, Marshall McLuhan, Pierre Bourdieu; Umberto Eco and Camille Paglia

see also: cultural studies - media theory

Culture is ordinary [...]

Raymond Williams developed the approach which he named 'cultural materialism' in a series of influential books - Culture and Society (1958), the Long Revolution (1961), Marxism and Literature (1977). I came to cultural materialism by another route. I'd just read Williams' Drama in performance - a survey of the conditions under which plays have been put on over the years, and how changes in staging practice parallelled developments in society. One night, I had a dream. I dreamed I saw a series of scenes, each showing a group of people in their usual surroundings; I remember a group of cardinals, standing outside St Peter's in Rome. The relationships between the elements in each scene - the architecture, the clothing, the rituals, the social roles - were luminously clear. I woke up with a clear, unshakeable sense of the validity and power of the cultural materialist approach. --Phil Edwards, July 1999, "Culture is ordinary: Raymond Williams and cultural materialism", http://www.users.zetnet.co.uk/amroth/scritti/williams.htm [accessed Mar 2004]

Cultural Theory: The Key Concepts (2002) - Peter Sedgewick

Cultural Theory: The Key Concepts (2002) - Peter Sedgewick [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

This comprehensive volume allows students to quickly and accurately come to grips with the key terms encountered in cultural theory today. In more than 350 clear and succinct entries, Cultural Theory: The Key Concepts provides an up-to-date and authoritative introduction to the essential terms, theories and major concerns of this complex field. It covers topics such as: Deconstruction , Epistemology, Feminism, Hermeneutics, Holism, Methodology, Postmodernism, Semiotics, Sociobiology and many more.

In addition to the suggestions for further reading which accompany all major entries, this work also features a useful bibliography of essential texts in cultural theory. --from the publisher

See also: culture theory - Routledge

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