Critical scholarship broadly describes academic research that, to paraphrase Karl Marx (1845), “seeks not only to interpret the world but to change it.” Cultural studies, on the other hand, is a more specific approach to critical scholarship focused on the relationship between power and culture. “Critical / cultural studies” (CCS) is an umbrella term used in communication studies to describe cultural studies scholarship, as well as critical research on identity and identity politics, media and technology, and critical rhetoric. Though their approaches vary, CCS researchers share an interest in how oppressive power structures, like those organized around class, race, gender, sexuality, and ability, are perpetuated, defended and, just as importantly, resisted through culture. And, following Marx’s advice, CCS scholars often work to positively intervene in the cultural and political dynamics that they study.

CCS is a central part of communication studies; it is taught in communication departments across the nation, and Communication and Critical / Cultural Studies is one of the National Communication Association’s most important scholarly journals. At the same time, critical / cultural scholarship is extremely interdisciplinary. Indeed, it has to be. Raymond Williams famously calls culture a “whole way of life (1960, p. 32).” Culture involves many things that are not primarily communicative: the geographic organization of cities, for instance, or the economic structure. As such, critical / cultural scholars work in many fields outside of communication studies, including literary studies (Berlant 2011), geography (Massey 2005), anthropology (Escobar 2018), and media and technology studies (Slack and Wise 2015).

Critical / cultural scholarship in communication is influenced by, and in dialogue with, research within these other disciplines, and prospective graduate students interested in this field may want to research programs across disciplines. This article provides an introduction to critical / cultural approaches to communication intended to clarify some of the field’s diversity and complexity for prospective graduate students. After defining some key terms and reviewing the history of the field of study, the following sections discuss some central topics in critical / cultural studies, including popular culture, identity, and politics.

Defining Critical / Cultural Studies

As discussed above, critical scholarship has two main features. First, critical scholarship is invested in questions of social and political power. Second, critical scholars aim for their scholarship to make a social or political impact. Cultural studies is a specific subset of critical scholarship that emerged out of the UK in the 1950s to become one of the predominant forms of critical communication scholarship.

Jodi Dean describes cultural studies as “an engaged mode of inquiry committed to understanding the complex terrain of the cultural in connection with relations of power (2000).” Cultural studies approaches the social and political consequences of power by observing how it manifests in culture. It begins with the idea that power does not influence us through explicit and coercive authority alone, like the police enforce the law or the factory boss enforces productivity. The norms and demands of power appear everywhere within culture, especially in its most mundane forms – places like advertisements, soap operas, and romance novels. In light of this, Lawrence Grossberg (2005) argues that cultural studies examines “contexts of life”: to understand the social or political significance of any text, practice, or communicative element of culture, one must understand how it is affected by the other elements involved: people, customs, language, laws, media, knowledge, technologies, and more.

A Brief History of Critical / Cultural Studies

From the turn of the 20th century to the post-War era, scholars struggled to make sense of the emergence of mass media and so-called “mass culture.” At the time, culture was usually treated in one of two separate ways within scholarly discourse. On the one hand, anthropologists tended to view culture as describing the practices, traditions, rituals, and forms of artistic expression of a given society. On the other hand, some commentators understood culture as being synonymous with “high” culture: those traditions in art, scholarship, and social life that represent the best of a given culture.

Each of these approaches had limitations wrapped up with their Western biases. Anthropological approaches tended to be primarily focused on the study of non-Western cultures, while Western societies were defined as “high culture.” The conceptualization of culture as high culture was unapologetically elitist: not only was Western culture treated as the only source of high culture, it was typically the elites within Western societies that had access to the production and consumption of high culture.

The “mass society” debates that emerged in the inter-War period and continued after the World Wars revolved around the idea that mass culture was leading to the degradation of high culture and with it liberal, civil society as a whole. The decline of high culture and the rise of mass culture was not criticized by socially conservative critics alone. The Marxist scholars of the Frankfurt school similarly criticized the rise of the “culture industry” that replaced high art with inferior art designed for mass consumption. Cultural studies emerged as a critical reaction to these early, exclusionary approaches to understanding culture.

At the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University, founded by Richard Hoggart in 1964, a group of scholars including Hoggart, Stuart Hall, and Raymond Williams began to develop what came to be known as “culturalism” or British cultural studies. Their work helped to establish the tradition of politically oriented scholarship now commonly referred to as “Critical / Cultural Studies” (CCS) within the discipline of communication.

Critical / Cultural Studies Theories and Concepts

Critical / cultural studies applies the approaches of British cultural studies, discussed above, and related critical perspectives on culture like those found in radical feminism, critical race scholarship, and queer theory, to communication studies.

Critical / cultural scholarship is diverse in its methods and topics. Some critical / cultural scholars analyze the politics of specific cultural practices, texts, or artifacts. For example, one might ask if a particular soap opera was misogynistic or the soap opera was was misogynistic as a genre or form of media. This is often the type of work done by critics of popular culture and critical rhetoricians. On the other hand, other cultural scholars like Lawrence Grossberg are committed to describing the broader contexts – all the complex cultural variables – that go into producing certain features of culture, especially its structures of power.

What unites critical / cultural scholarship is its shared emphasis on understanding power as a force affecting the many different forms of communication that make up a culture. This article provides an introduction to CCS by focusing on three main areas of cultural studies scholarship: popular culture, identity, and politics. For a discussion of critical rhetoric, which is often included as part of CCS, see our Guide to Critical Rhetoric.

Cultural Studies and The Study of Popular Culture: Cultural scholars explore the way popular culture works as a strategic tool for power and as a space for popular resistance; both as an expression of “the people” and as an expression of the dominant culture. Cultural studies challenges the traditional separation between high and low culture. Scholars like Stuart Hall argue that this distinction is produced by the relations of power specific to that culture. What counts as popular culture, who gets to produce it, whether popular culture reinforces or resists the politics of the status quo: all of this is a result of cultural struggle (Hall 1981).

There is, therefore, a cultural politics to what popular culture is as much as what is represented in the popular. As a result, cultural studies engages with popular culture not only by asking what it represents, as discussed below, but also who gets to do the representing, who gets to be the audience, and how the audience goes about interpreting discourses popular culture. For example, there is a growing literature in cultural scholarship on media that explores the labor required by today’s popular culture – from content producers on YouTube to the workers who make our iPhones and other technological devices.

Critical Research on Identity and Representation: Critical /cultural studies is concerned with how different cultural identities are represented in media and popular culture, especially the identities of those who have been marginalized and oppressed on the basis of class, race, gender, sexuality, nationality, or ability. British cultural studies attains popularity within communication studies at the same time as other critical traditions like feminism, queer theory, ability studies, and critical studies of race and ethnicity. Each of these critical perspectives argues that the power structures related to cultural identity are just as socially and politically significant as those related to class. They also posit that communication is vital to the construction of these cultural identities.

Critical / cultural scholars hold that identity categories are primarily socially constructed through representations. They therefore consider how different cultural discourses – like legal, media, educational, or scientific discourses – represent different cultural identities and, consequently, help create and enforce sociopolitical hierarchies. Alternately, critical / cultural scholars may research elements of culture that struggle against stereotypical, misleading, or otherwise problematic cultural representations. Critical / cultural studies therefore researches the representations of cultural discourses as places where oppressive power relations are traditionally enforced, but also as spaces of potential resistance.

Cultural Studies and Politics: Critical / cultural scholars have been working for the last several decades to expand the political contributions made by academic research in communication. A number of important critical / cultural scholars are also activists. Many scholars conduct participatory research with social movements and other politically marginalized groups in hopes of advancing these parties’ social justice-oriented causes. Moreover, cultural studies treats social movements and other voices not typically considered “academic” as important co-producers of academic knowledge. These qualities make critical / cultural studies one of the most innovative and politically impactful subfields of communication studies today.

Cultural studies has also been a valuable contributor to theorizing the relationship between communication and politics. Indeed, while thus far we have talked primarily about cultural studies in relation to how power affects media and popular culture, the concerns of critical / cultural studies are often broader and more ambitious. Lawrence Grossberg calls cultural studies a “radically contextual” discipline because it is interested in describing the broader cultural contexts that give the specific texts of media and popular culture their meaning and political consequences. This approach, which Grossberg refers to as conjunctural analysis, is an extremely nuanced method of analyzing culture, communication, and politics, which is discussed in detail in our article on Cultural Studies and Politics.

Some critical / cultural critics, therefore, attempt to describe the dynamics that define a given culture across its many texts and practices. For example, critical / cultural scholars have examined the centrality of anti-Black racism in Western culture by tracing its construction through the discourses of popular media, popular culture, science, medicine, the law, and more.

Critical / Cultural Studies Today

As discussed in the previous section, critical / cultural studies is invested in politically engaged and applied research. Because of this, CCS is rapidly growing and changing, adapting to new political situations and cultural developments as they emerge. Recent critical cultural studies scholarship has grappled with the rise of digital media, right-wing extremism, the decline of liberal democracy, police brutality and anti-Black racism, to name only a few urgent matters.

Contemporary scholars of critical / cultural studies attend to pressing issues such as these by investigating how cultural contexts and power relations shape their significance. In a time defined by political upheaval and power struggles, critical / cultural scholarship like this is more important than ever because it marries political engagement with an emphasis on the complexity of culture.

Sources and Additional Resources

To keep up with CCS, check out the following scholarly journals New Formations, Communication and Critical Cultural Studies and Critical Studies in Media Communication, as well as the following references and sources.

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About the Author: Ben Clancy is a writer, musician, and academic living in Chicago with his partner and three wild animals. He is a PhD candidate at UNC Chapel Hill in the Department of Communication, where his research focuses on the politics of communicative and artistic technologies. Ben has also worked as a research assistant for the Center for Technology Information and Public Life and is an alum of the Vermont Studio Center residency in poetry writing.

Topics in Critical / Cultural Studies

Critical / Cultural Studies in Media and Popular Culture

Learn about the rich history of critical / cultural studies and how it has informed scholars’ examination of media and popular culture over the years. Also discover the ways in which media and pop culture consumption provides opportunities for resistance to existing stereotypes and power structures.