Conditions of their Own Making: An Intellectual History of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham

Norma Schulman (George Mason University)

Abstract: The focus of this essay is on the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham--its historical context, its organizational difficulties, its activist aspirations, and the tensions that those who participated in its development perceived between its intellectual and political objectives.

Résumé: Le but de cet essai est d'analyser le Centre d'études culturelles contemporaines de l'Université de Birmingham--son contexte historique, ses difficultés organisationnelles, ses aspirations activistes, et les tensions que ceux qui ont participé à sa création ont perçues entre ses objectifs intellectuels et politiques.

Origins of the Centre

In an inaugural address entitled "Schools of English and Contemporary Society" (1963), Richard Hoggart, the first director of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS), University of Birmingham,2 attacked the narrowness of the way English literature was being taught in Great Britain and outlined an approach to what he "provisionally called Literature and Contemporary Cultural Studies"--an approach which he claimed had "something in common with several existing approaches, but [was] not exactly any one of them" (Hoggart, 1970b, p. 254).

From the very beginning, cultural studies was conceived of as a interdisciplinary endeavour. Trained in literary criticism, and not particularly hesitant about extolling its virtues as a mode of analysis, Hoggart envisioned the cultural studies project as consisting of three parts: as he put it, "one is roughly historical and philosophical; another is, again roughly, sociological; the third--which will be the most important--is the literary critical" (1970b, p. 255).

It was Hoggart's statement about the need for English Studies as an academic discipline to "come into an active relation with its age" that framed the inaugural address of a project designed to study cultural practices in a broad sense--a project whose origins Stuart Hall has reported were marked by "caution and uncertainty" (Hall, 1984a, p. 22). Hoggart, and the cultural studies project in general can be regarded as implicitly addressing an antagonist: the proverbial elitist school of cultural thought in England that argues for a separation between high culture and "real" life, between the historic past and the contemporary world, or between theory and practice, depending on how one chooses to frame the antinomies.

The purpose of this essay is to more clearly define what Hoggart and his successors perceived cultural studies as being an alternative to; what they perceived as its historical antecedents; how they defined (and continue to define) its aims; what seemed to them to be theoretical or practical obstacles in the way of full realization of its goals; and what contributions Birmingham culural studies has made to the study of culture and communication in the twentieth-century.

The premises of this essay are: (l) that self-consciously innovative projects like cultural studies set themselves up to address a perceived deficiency in the existing order; (2) that their proponents, to a greater or lesser degree, feel the need to justify their new approach, explicitly or implicitly; and (3) that insiders of any group or organization are more acutely aware of (though they may not willingly reveal) rents in what may appear to others as a reasonably seamless garment of consensual purpose.

Lest allegations of the "biographical fallacy" be leveled, it should be stated further that the writer of this essay (like the theorists of the Birmingham Centre) assumes an organic connection between "lived (or personal) experience" and the more general, theoretical positions people adopt as part of their academic or professional credo. This premise is particularly relevant to cultural studies as a movement which even in its early stages adopted the examination of working-class culture in Britain as a priority, since several key figures in the cultural studies movement have written movingly about the personal deprivations and discomforts they and members of their families experienced while they were growing up in working-class surroundings.3

British cultural studies, which has grown out of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, reflects its grounding in what Hoggart delicately called "a society marked with the fine elaborate lines of class distinction" (1970a, p. 150). He characterized Britain as "a stratified society with a still fairly powerful Establishment" (1970a, p. 140) and believed like many other Birmingham theorists, past and present, that "the mass-media must, whether consciously or not, work towards a culturally classless society" (1970a, p. 33), if for no other reason than the fact that their viability depends, ultimately, on their ability to appeal to heterogenous groups of people.

Hoggart, like Raymond Williams, another English professor and literary critic who assumed a central role in founding the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, had first-hand knowledge of how it felt to move from working class to university circles in a country where a sharply differentiated system of public and private education (devoted to academic and vocational objectives, respectively) bifurcated the population, normally along class lines. At a time when most children left school in England at age 15, both of these men from disadvantaged backgrounds were able to go on to universities--Hoggart to Leeds and Williams to Cambridge University. Later on, in the 1940s, both taught adult education or "extramural" classes--Hoggart at Hull University and the Workers' Educational Association and Williams at East Sussex. According to Laing, Williams fully believed that the real origins of British cultural studies were in these non-traditional classroom teaching experiences (1991, p. 145).

At the time when Hoggart and Williams were coming through the university system (the 1930s and 1940s) the influence of F. R. Leavis and T. S. Eliot was beginning to be felt--critics who saw, as Leavis put it, "culture and democracy [as] unalterably opposed" (quoted from Hall, 1984a, p. 22). In Culture and Society (1958), Raymond Williams describes Eliot's "elitism," attests to what he sees as its widespread influence, and reveals his own sober assessment of just how closely existing conditions conform to Eliot's undemocratic strictures:

Eliot recognizes the need for elites, or rather for an elite and argues that, to ensure general continuity, we must retain social classes, and in particular a governing social class, with which the elite will overlap and constantly interact. This is Eliot's fundamentally conservative conclusion, for it is clear, when abstractions are translated, that what he recommends is substantially what now exists socially. He is, of course, led necessarily to condemn the pressure for a classless society, and for a national educational system [both of which Williams himself advocated]. He believes, indeed, that these pressures have already distorted the national life and the values which this life supports. It is in respect of these recommendations. . . that he now commands considerable attention and support. (1958, p. 241)

Williams also claims that some new elitist ideas, presented in a pamphlet by F. R. Leavis entitled "Mass Civilizaton and Minority Culture" had become "widely influential" in British society. These ideas, Williams points out, are part of a long tradition in Britain, emanating from (among other things) "Coleridge's proposals for an endowed class whose business should be `general cultivation' " (1958, p. 63); Carlyle's proposal for an "organic Literary Class" composed of "Writing and Teaching Heroes" (1958, p. 85); and Arnold's proposal to have a select group of "aliens," drawn from the different classes, reawaken modern "Phillistines" to genuine culture, defined as the "best which has been thought and said in the world" (1958, p. 115).4 Leavis's argument is a classic statement of inegalitarian reasoning, diametricaly opposed to what would become the cultural studies project with its insistence that all men are equally entitled to be taken seriously as consumers of culture. Leavis argued, so Williams maintains, that

in any period it is upon a very small minority that the discerning appreciation of art and literature depends: it is. . .only a few who are capable of unprompted, first-hand judgement . . . the minority capable not only of appreciating Dante, Shakespeare, Donne, Baudelaire, Hardy (to take major instances) but of recognizing their latest successors constitute the consciousness of the race (or of a branch of it) at a given time. ...Upon this minority depends our power of profiting by the finest human experience of the past; they keep alive the subtlest and most perishable parts of tradition. (1958, p. 253)

Williams and Hoggart and the cultural studies tradition generally directed their initial efforts toward dethroning the Eliot/Leavis tradition and the aristocratic notions it implied as well as toward broadening the study of English as a series of great literary masterpieces to include a sociology of literature. As one former student at the Centre has put it, "cultural studies.. . defined its separation from its parent by its populism... [and] thus consigned itself to institutional marginality" (Sparks, 1977, p. 8).

Indeed, at least according to Hall,5 heated opposition to the establishment of the Centre came at first from the discipline of sociology. He recalls that Hoggart's inaugural address "triggered off a blistering attack specifically from sociology," which "reserved a proprietary claim over the territory" earmarked for the cultural studies project. Hall said that "the opening of the Centre was greeted by a letter from two social scientists who issued a sort of warning: "if Cultural Studies overstepped its proper limits and took in the study of contemporary society (not just its texts), without `proper' scientific [that is, quasi-scientific] controls, it would provoke reprisals for illegitimately crossing the territorial boundary" (1984a, p. 21).

Embedded in what Hall has characterized as "the structural-functionalist methodology of the American model," British sociology at the time the Centre was founded had a strong empiricist bias. Neither such a positivistic social science nor traditional English Studies, with its emphasis on the isolated examination of great works of art, were compatible with the Centre's intellectual objectives. These objectives involved investigating culture (broadly defined) in its historical context; examining new phenomenological (or ethnomethodological) methods of inquiry, based on Weberian notions of verstehen; and employing an interpretive, hermeneutic approach to questions of meaning (1984a, p. 23).

All accounts are unanimous in acknowledging that Hoggart's agenda for the Centre arose in part as a response to two "formative" texts published in the late 1950s and early 1960s: Hoggart's own The Uses of Literacy (1957) and Williams's Culture and Society (1958). Then, too, in the first few years after the establishment of the Centre, Williams's The Long Revolution (1961) and E. P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class (1964) were, according to all accounts, highly influential in determining the direction of cultural studies' concerns. These texts had in common a concern with the social and cultural plight of the working class, with redefining traditional elitist notions of education, and with definining a "common culture" expansive enough to include popular or mass mediated culture.

Gradually, in the nearly three decades since cultural studies was established, its focus has shifted. By the end of its first decade, it had aligned itself with Marxism, as Marxism had been redefined and reinterpreted since the early 1960s. Marx's emphasis on class relations was fully compatible with the Centre's focus on popular culture as a reflection of the working class's implicit struggle for self-expression.

Relatively early on in the Centre's history, mass media content seemed to provide a source of that "common culture" which Raymond Williams sought to identify in From Culture to Revolution (1968). Later on in the 1970s, as the Centre's focus shifted under Stuart Hall, media texts were looked upon as a source of examples of how ideology inscribed the ideas of dominant groups in society. For the past decade or so, mass media content, language, and subcultural practices have provided areas in which Gramsci's notion of hegemony could be examined concretely.

The re-reading of Gramsci in the late 1970s, in light of race and gender studies, did a lot to set in motion the Centre's reassessment of popular culture--seen until that time as merely an ideological vehicle for inflicting dominant paradigms of experience and certain culture- and class-based assumptions advantageous to the status quo. As the Centre's focus shifted in the 1980s to viewing popular culture as a site of potential resistance and conflict, it detailed a "history of hegemony" as hegemony is manifested in such cultural expressions as reggae music and magazines like Jackie, which provided "raw material for thousands of girl-readers [to] make their own re-appropriations" of its contents (Johnson, 1983, p. 23).

Cultural studies is difficult to define succinctly and, according to Stuart Hall, this difficulty is intentional--that is, cultural studies prides itself on having no doctrine per se and no "house approved" methodology. It is rather self-consciously conceived of as being highly contextual--a variable, flexible, critical mode of analysis. Perhaps this is one reason why (what Hall has termed) the "un-fully theorized nature of [Gramsci's] work" lends itself to the Centre's project, making it possible to "appropriate Gramsci more easily" (cited from Nelson & Grossberg, 1988, p. 70).

Cultural studies uses ethnographic fieldwork, interviewing, textual and discourse analysis, and traditional historical methods of research to investigate a wide variety of communication-related issues, such as what conceptions of maleness boy scouting in Great Britain are based upon (1984a, p. 41).6 Cultural studies started, of course, as an "experiential, even autobiographical" method of examining class consciousness and culture historically and descriptively, becoming more theoretically sophisticated, abstract, and methodologically diverse as the 1970s unfolded, under the leadership of Stuart Hall, who was one of the first to ensure structuralist and semiotic approaches to culture and communication, imported from France, gained currency. As a Marxist project, the Centre has preserved its concern with "lived experience" by incorporating ethnography--a form of study some members (e.g., Johnson) opposed as potentially subjective, atheoretical, and dangerously close to the empiricism of traditional British sociology which the Centre had been created to counteract (Johnson, 1980). However, researchers like Willis, Cohen, and Hobson used it to advantage in studies of subcultural practices and audience studies.

For a time, in the late 1970s, the Centre's incorporation of the ideas of Althusser, Lacan, de Saussure, Barthes, and, later, Foucault led to heavy stress on the micro-level operations of text and discourse, as opposed to the political and institutional analysis and historical focus more characteristic of its project in the 1980s, under Johnson. During this, the most esoteric period in the Centre's history, "the concern [was] with the way these [sign] systems, treated as texts, structure or position their (ideal and, more rarely, actual) readers or `subjects' " (Johnson, 1980, p. 8).

To point to the diversity of the CCCS is not to say that those outside it have not seen it, at least at times, as tending toward a cogent, even monolithic point of view which relies on a group of highly specialized concepts and terms that can be relatively opaque to ordinary users of the English language. It is striking that, as an intellectual project, cultural studies can be seen most clearly in terms of what it negates or breaks from.

Stuart Hall has identified four components of this initial `break' with traditional approaches to the study of communication. First of all, cultural studies was a break from "the `behavioristic' emphases of previous research approaches" which saw media influence in terms of a direct, stimulus-response mechanism. At the Centre, the emphasis shifted markedly toward viewing media as broad, all-pervasive social and political forces, whose influence was indirect, subtle, and even imperceptible (1984b, p. 117).

Secondly, British cultural studies "challenged the notions of media texts as `transparent' bearers of meaning." The Centre has consistently called attention to the structuring potential each medium--including language--possesses. Whereas McLuhan argued in a broad, formalistic vein that "the medium is the message," British cultural studies, early on in the 1970s, examined the semiotics (or sign systems) through which mass mediated meaning reaches audiences. Influenced by European structuralism, the Centre published early work by Barthes and Eco in Working Papers in Cultural Studies and has more recently incorporated some of the discourse theory of Foucault.

British cultural studies, at its inception, also "broke with the passive and undifferentiated conceptions of the `audience' " in favour of a detailed examination of the variety of ways messages are decoded by members of the audience with different social and political orientations.

Fourthly, the Centre broke with the notion of mass culture as an undifferentiated phenomenon, to initially adopt a view of the mass media as circulating and cementing "dominant ideological definitions and representations" (Hall, 1984b, p. 118). As in the case of its other three innovations, British cultural studies has, throughout the years, consistently maintained its opposition to the monolithic notion of mass culture it reacted against at its inception.

But if the oppositional thrust of British cultural studies has adhered to certain broad, discernible contours throughout its history, the scope of its initial project has changed vastly, as will be discussed more thoroughly in a later section of this essay. One of the clearest and simplest statements of its initial focus is reflected in the series of questions Hoggart asked in his inaugural address in connection with his plea for the establishment of a "sociology of literature or of culture." These questions, given the intervening years, appear remarkably uncontaminated by the allusive, specialized terminology and intellectual eclecticism that permeates the work of Centre members and British cultural studies currently. The original issues Hoggart found integral to the cultural studies project are primarily sociological concerns that would lend themselves readily to empirical examination of demographic data:

About writers and artists: Where do they come from? How do they become what they are? What are their financial rewards?
What are the audiences for different forms and what [are] the audiences for different levels of approach? What expectations do they have, and what background knowledge do they bring? . . .
What of the opinion formers and their channels of influence? . . .the guardians, the elite, the clerisy . . .? Where do they come from?
What about the organization for the production and distribution of the written and spoken word? What are their natures, financial and otherwise? Is it true, if so what does it mean practically (whatever it may mean in imaginative terms) to say that the written word (and perhaps all the arts) are progressively becoming commodities, to be used and quickly discarded? . . .
Last, how little we know about all sorts of interrelations: about interrelations between writers and their audiences, and about their shared assumptions; about interrelations between writers and organs of opinion, between writers, politics, power, class and cash; about interrelations between the sophisticated and popular arts, interrelations which are both functional and imaginative; and how few foreign comparisons we have made. (Hoggart, 1970b, pp. 256-257)

It is the last question, that of interrelations, that cultural studies has come to focus on most squarely in the context of investigating class interactions in the formation of ideology. Its other original foci, as they are enumerated by Hoggart, have shifted somewhat from the demographics of audiences and creators and descriptions of the organizations through which they interrelate. As will be later discussed, the cultural studies project has taken on a neo-Marxist cast, focusing not only on class consciousness, but race and gender as well, as central problematics outside of a purely sociological framework.

Historical Context: The New Left

One question that always arises in looking at the origins of new movements is what factors precipitate their evolution at a given historical moment? One precipitating factor in the inauguration of the cultural studies movement has already been mentioned, the publication of seminal texts by Thompson, Williams, and Hoggart in the 1950s and 1960s. However, almost always more lies behind the inauguration of a political and intellectual movement than a set of texts. Indeed, it is possible to argue that the studies that were so influential to the Centre were themselves a product of a given historical milieu--one which was strongly associated with the development of the New Left in England in the 1950s.

The New Left was a political movement that was socialist in nature, strongly anti-imperialist and anti-racist, broadly supportive of the nationalization of major industries and the abolition of economic and educational privilege. It was behind efforts toward nuclear disarmament and efforts toward enriching the social and cultural life of the working classes.

As Perry Anderson has pointed out, two things inhibited the struggle for socialism in the early 1950s: affluence and the cold war. "Keynesian capitalism," according to Anderson, had virtually "eliminated mass unemployment and allowed a steady increase in the material standard of living of the working-classes"; thereby obviating the need for radical economic changes under the impetus of socialism (Anderson, 1965, p. 4).

As Raymond Williams noted in The Long Revolution, by this point in British history (i.e., the 1950s) "individual poverty" was more or less abolished, but not "social poverty" or "cultural poverty" (1961, p. 352). In addition "the Cold War allowed capitalist regimes everywhere to establish a powerful negative identification of socialism with the political order of the Soviet Union under Stalin" (Anderson, 1965, p. 4). And, according to Williams, the Conservative victories in 1951, 1955, and 1959 were widely interpreted as proof of the assertion that "the relative post-war affluence of the working-class led to a weakening of the Labour Party" (1965, p. 19). In 1964, the same year the Centre was founded, the Labour Party, amidst fierce internal debates over nationalization of British industry, regained power.

However, divided by the nationalization issues as well as the issue of whether Germany should be allowed to rearm, the Labour Party provided an unsatisfactory organizational climate for the radical socialist point of view. All this was changed, according to Williams and Anderson, when the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) was born. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was a protest movement which rejuvenated British politics and "marked the revolt of great numbers of working-class and lower-middle-class youth against the whole society of which the hydrogen bomb had become the sanction" (Anderson, 1965, p. 10). For the young, according to Anderson, "thermonuclear weapons served not only as a "specific threat to the future" but as "symbols of the general truth of the present: their radical lack of control over the forces governing their lives" (1965, p. 10). In the wake of it, the New Left became a cogent, viable movement.

The activism generated by the CND was somewhat unusual in Great Britain where, as Williams ruefully put it, the British working classes have usually "been more interested in building their own brotherly and co-operative institutions than in taking overall political power." Williams points to a problem with implications for the Birmingham Centre's neo-Marxist project: "Again and again, it has seemed to Marxists that the British working-class movement is in this sense hopeless: that the option under pressure is always for the maintenance of their own institutions rather than for the transformation of the society as a whole" (1965, p. 12).

According to Perry Anderson, the New Left represented the culmination of a critique of capitalism "which ran from Blake and the Romantics through Ruskin and Morris to Lawrence"--one that for the first time, however, manifested itself in an actual political movement (1965, p. 15). Williams in The Long Revolution argued a point that is representative of the point of view of the New Left as well as the cultural studies project generally: "Capitalism's version of society can only be the market, for its purpose is profit in particular activities rather than any conception of social use" (1961, p. 300). This leads, one might argue, to some of its worst abuses: imperialism and racism.

Beginning strictly as a group of intellectuals, the New Left took on at least some of the hallmarks of a working-class movement as it reached its peak in the period between 1957 and 1960. The New Left Review, whose first editor was Stuart Hall (well before he became director of the Birmingham Centre), took on an important role, arguing for critical scrutiny of working-class culture and publishing the work of Raymond Wiliams and E. P. Thompson, among others.

But the New Left as a distinct, large-scale political movement disintegrated in 1961, failing to come up with a coherent political posture. As Perry Anderson put it, "the non-emergence of a powerful revolutionary movement of the working class . . . deprived the Left of any source of concepts and categories with which to analyse its own society and thereby attain the fundamental pre-condition for changing it" (quoted in Green, 1974, p. 37). However, before its major force was spent it did succeed in exerting influence on the British government policy toward mass communication through its critique of the Pilkington Report, which was devoted to reviewing the status of broadcasting in Great Britain.7 The New Left Review argued for a system of communication more expressive of the culture of the masses and less mired in traditional elitist distinctions between high and low culture. As the journal stated, "all forms of expression have their own validity and all are deserving of serious appreciation."

The New Left Review was particularly concerned with the statement (which it alleged had been made publicly by members of the television authority) that popular art was mere escapism. Against the BBC's predilection for giving the public "something a little better than it wants," the journal argued for the inclusion of programs on sports, comedy, jazz, and popular music and panel games.

Finally, another formative influence on the development of British cultural studies is the fact that prior to, and just after, the founding of the Centre in the early 1960s there was a proliferation of new kinds of Marxist theory in England, occasioned by the discovery of key Marxist texts such as Gramsci's Prison Notebooks, Althusser's For Marx and Reading Capital, and selections from Marx's Grundrisse. According to Williams, whose opposition to Marxism in Culture & Society (1958) had changed to explicit Marxism by the mid-1970s when Marxism and Literature (1977) was written, this newly available literature provided a fresh view of Marxism as a "form with alternatives, open questions" (1977, p. 4). And Stuart Hall termed this intellectual movement "a break into a `complex Marxism' " (1984a, p. 25).

"Putting Cultural Studies on the Intellectual Map"

From its outset, the Centre addressed itself to communication in the broadest sense as "systems of culturally-mediated social relations between classes" (Johnson, 1983, p. 7). A great many of its efforts to date have focused on the distinctively British experience--critiquing its history (in which culture was depicted monolithically in terms of the elite) and researching (largely through a combination of textual analysis, participant observation, and audience analysis) its contemporary forms. Early ethnographic studies of specific British examples of communication include Phil Cohen's study of the youth cultures that make up a working-class community; Roger Grimshaw's study of "The Social Meaning of Scouting," which relates notions of masculinity to a predilection for conservatism in political and social life; and Dorothy Hobson's account of the role radio and television play in the lives of British housewives. Other empirical work featured in a 1984-85 list of "stencilled occasional papers" distributed by the Centre includes a study on "Television Coverage of Sport" by Ray Peters, a study of "The Hippies: An American `Moment' " by Stuart Hall, a study entitled "Advertising in Women's Programmes 1956-1974" by Janice Winship, a study of how working-class children obtain working-class jobs by Paul Willis, and a study of reggae by Dick Hebdige.8 Such concrete, empirical work helps mitigate against the propensity toward esoteric conceptualization cultural studies is sometimes accused of having, but its relatively limited scope leads to criticism of another kind. As Richard Johnson once stated, "there were (and are) deep probelms about the ethno- and anglo-centricity of key texts and themes in our tradition" (1983, p. 5).

Up to the present time, the Centre has been beset by financial problems. According to Stuart Hall, a modest "educational bequest" from Sir Allen Lane and Penguin Books "without strings" enabled the Centre to have some financial independence (1984a, p. 16) and to publish on a more or less regular basis Working Papers in Cultural Studies (WPCS), a series whose title (according to Hall) was designed to reflect "the tentative character of the enterprise." In his introduction to the first volume of WPCS, Hall claimed " `cultural studies' is still too diverse and ill-defined. . .[with] too many divergent traditions . . . for any one group to command the field" (1971, p. 5). Unlike the proponents of many other movements--social, political, and intellectual--Hall has always insisted on the essential disunity of the intellectual project he is involved in. In a [1980] essay, "Cultural Studies: Two Paradigms," he identified two distinctly different variants of cultural studies, which he termed "culturalist" and "structuralist." More recently, Hall (now a member of the Sociology Department at the Open University) remarked in an interview:

Codification makes my hackles rise, even about the things I have been involved in. . . . People talk about "the Birmingham school" . . .and all I can hear are the arguments that we used to have in Birmingham that we never were one school; there may have been been four or five but we were never able to unify it all, nor did we want to create that kind of orthodoxy (1986, p. 59).

Aiming "to put cultural studies on the intellectual map," Working Papers in Cultural Studies was begun in 1971, at about the same time as the Centre's stencilled occasional papers series, which featured short (unpublished), monograph-length essays on a variety of topics, issued erratically and available for purchase.

Chronically short of funds, the Centre has been sustained, at least in part, by income from its publications (which include a series of books put out by Hutchinson) and what appears to be a willingness on the part of all parties involved to share in tasks, including secretarial work. As a postgraduate research centre, it has traditionally featured an innovative, collaborative style of work, involving collective research projects which are the outcomes of small interest groups. According to Michael Green, the groups of six to ten members usually lasted three or four years, during which time they reviewed an area of inquiry, examined it in depth, and finally critiqued the previous scholarly work that been done in it (1982, p. 85). For most of its existence, the Centre has had only three full-time faculty members (a director and two lecturers), advising six or seven times that many graduate students, although it has recently acquired two additional full-time faculty members from the (now disbanded) Department of Sociology at Birmingham, along with considerably expanded undergraduate curricular responsibilities.

According to Hall, during the early years of the Centre's existence as a postgraduate institution, most students' academic backgrounds were literary. Later about half of the graduate students had degrees in the social sciences and the humantities. While the Centre's primary focus was on M.A. and Ph.D. work until recently, it has had a very sizeable number of undergraduate students working on "combined" or half degree" programs in cultural studies. Its stated aim has been, according to the sixteenth annual report, "to focus upon theoretically-informed concrete analysis of contemporary culture," with a "main emphasis upon contemporary Britain." Its pledge to "take up seriously issues raised by feminist and black politics" has been reflected by the list of interest groups and dissertation and thesis topics its Ph.D. and M.A. students have worked on.9

As Stuart Hall has pointed out, differences of scholarly emphasis were reflected in the occasional papers as well as the articles published in WPCS--the most accessible collection of which can be found in Culture, Media, Language (1984a), edited by Hall, et al. Testifying to the range of topics as well as the diversity of methodologies employed at the Centre, Culture, Media, Language divides the studies into four types: ethnography, media studies, language, and English studies.

This very set of categories reveals on a superficial level something that is true of cultural studies when examined more extensively: cultural studies addresses itself intensively to investigating meanings in human experience as they are realized in language and other signifying practices as well as to systematically examining institutional practices, the structure of British society, and contemporary political movements. Centring on hegemony and ideology, as they are manifested in political and educational practices, subcultures, and popular media texts, British cultural studies has applied Marxist concepts to everything from media treatments of mugging to Thatcherism.

As previously noted, despite the desire for cultural studies to remain fluid, "eclectic," and "relatively open," it can tend (at least from the perspective of an outsider) to take on a monolithic cast--due in part to its esoteric terminology and in part to the general propensity of academicians to institutionalize innovations. Hall has noted "that in America, cultural studies is something used as just one more paradigm" (1986, p. 59)--a feature he attributes in part to the "inevitable" impact of doing research in a collaborative fashion.

Hall's tacit admission that "codification" does creep into what he sees as a "critical and deconstructive project" is a healthy sign that, much as he deplores "finished theoretical paradigms," he can acknowledge that British cultural studies has some of the hallmarks of one--rooted in a reasonably cogent (heavily Marxist) world view that may tend to seem deterministic to North American eyes. In fact, as one might imagine, the United States version of cultural studies has evaded the issues of social structure, class, dominance, and power and, as a consequence of divesting itself of such proto-Marxist concerns, tends to appear innocuous and indistinct beside its British counterpart.

British cultural studies has shown its open-endedness by continually imbibing a great deal from contemporary movements such as psychoanalysis, structualism, feminism, Althusserian Marxism, deconstructionism and hermeneutics. Its voracious appetite for new intellectual currents both documents its "need to go on theorizing" and makes at least a rudimentary acquaintance with it mandatory for anyone who attempts to keep abreast of new theoretical developments in the latter half of the twentieth century. Nonetheless, at various times in its history, critics (inside as well as outside of the Centre) have charged that either "theoreticism" or concrete overspecificity has impeded its examination of culture and communication.

Richard Johnson has written that "above all, perhaps, we have to fight against the disconnections that occur when cultural studies is inhabited for very academic purposes or when enthusiasm for (say) popular cultural terms is divorced from the analysis of power and of social possibilities" (1983, p. 9). Reacting to the institutionalization of cultural studies in the university curriculum, Johnson noted "academic knowledge-forms (or some aspects of them) now look like part of the problem, rather than part of the solution. In fact, the problem remains much as it has always been--what can be won from the academic concerns and skills to provide elements of useful knowledge? (1983, p. 6).

Hall also shared the concern with theoreticism when he was director and once stated "we are aware of the many turning points where we have fallen into an imitative dependency, or where we have allowed theoretical debates to obscure the absolutely necessary test of concrete work and exemplification" (1984a, pp. 42-43). Ultimately, however, the "historicalization" of the Centre's theoretical leanings; its use of ethnographic methods in feminist audience studies and subcultural work; its involvement in educational policy, curriculum, and pedagogical issues; and its concrete, oppositional engagement with issues surrounding Thatcherism and the New Right have served as correctives for a tendency to reason abstractly--a tendency largely manifested during the middle years of its history (the 1970s) under Hall.

The Centre has also experienced many of the organizational difficulties most non-traditional educational enterprises must navigate--difficulties created by "hierarchies of knowledge, differences in age, experience and intellectual formations, [and] genuine differences in theoretical orientations or emphasis" (Hall, 1984a, p. 45). More importantly, Birmingham cultural studies has attempted to confront the difficult question of what the intellectual's role and function should be in British society, and by extension in any society. Both Hall and Johnson, at different times, have noted that "one of the deep problems for the Centre [has been] finding and sustaining a proper, disciplined understanding of the place, possibilities, limits and conditions of [what Gramsci termed] the `intellectual function' in our society" (Hall, 1984a, p. 288). All too often in any such undertaking, as Hall has put it, "Either theory is everything--giving intellectuals a vanguard role which they do not deserve--or practice is everything--which results in intellectuals denying their function in an effort to pass themselves off as `something else' (urban guerrillas)" (1984a, p. 287-288). The Centre, under Hall, found Gramsci's notion of the "organic intellectual," who has a visceral rather than a professional or academic engagement with issues, a useful model to emulate.

Contributions to the Study of Communication and Culture

Birmingham cultural studies, as we have seen, was designed to address an intellectual (and political) void in a highly stratified society whose higher education system was constructed along traditional disciplinary lines. It is a measure of how much cultural studies has succeeded in modifying the climate of higher education in Great Britain that the void which motivated its inception is no longer so glaringly apparent. Indeed, since the early 1960s, cultural studies has become an international movement with journals, conferences, professional associations as well as degree programs in many colleges and universities. Other interdisciplinary centres have been established in Britain to examine mass media content: The Centre for Television Research at the University of Leeds, the Centre for Mass Communication Research at the University of Leicester, the Open University's program in popular culture, the (now defunct) Glasgow Media Group at the University of Glasgow, and the Media Studies Program at the Polytechnic of Central London, to name some of the most prominent. Cultural studies has gained momentum in many widely scattered countries--most notably in the France, United States, Canada, Australia, and South Africa--often through the efforts of scholars who once taught or studied at the Birmingham Centre. Any strictly institutional history of CCCS would have to involve tracing the intellectual migration of scores of former Centre members all over the globe as well as tracking their publications in some of the many international journals like Media, Culture and Society, Screen, New Formations, Social Text, or Cultural Studies that are increasingly providing outlets for exchanges of views on cultural studies.

Many scholars affiliated with the Centre in some capacity or another during the early years of their career (like Angela McRobbie, David Morley, Dick Hebdige, or Lawrence Grossberg) achieved greater recognition later on, after their scholarly work progressed and they went on to teaching careers elsewhere. A group of Centre books published by Hutchinson in the late 1970s and early 1980s, featuring work taken from Working Papers in Cultural Studies as well as from the Centre's list of unpublished stencilled papers, did a great deal to broaden the audience for British cultural studies. Books like Resistance Through Rituals (1976), On Ideology (1978), Women Take Issue (1978), Working Class Culture (1979), Unpopular Education (1981), The Empire Strikes Back (1982), Making Histories (1982), and Culture, Media and Language (1984), as well as Hebdige's Subculture: The Meaning of Style (1979) and Hall, et al.'s Policing the Crisis (1978), made key theoretical concerns and empirical work by Centre collectives and individual scholars more widely known at home and abroad.

Now, in the early 1990s, a case could be made that at least some attention has shifted from Birmingham to work on cultural studies being done elsewhere. The Department of Sociology at the Open University, a source of considerable publications and pedagogical activity and benefiting greatly from the intellectual prowess and personal magnetism of Stuart Hall, has become a particularly conspicuous site for the study of media and popular culture.

The CCCS was, for a time, threatened with being absorbed into the English Department at Birmingham University and has now been made a Department of Cultural Studies with substantial undergraduate teaching responsibilities. What impact this will have on its contribution to the cultural studies field through research and publication--has yet to be seen. But certainly this traditionally post-graduate research institution has derived much of its intellectual vitality in the past from close, spirited faculty/graduate student exchanges and collective publication. Some critics, like Graeme Turner, fear this organizational change is likely "to reduce its output, and possibly its influence, considerably" (1990, p. 80). On the positive side, the cultural studies program has at least been left with a somewhat larger staff than the meagre, three-person, full-time teaching contingent the Centre has normally had to make do with.

The disciplinary wheel came full circle when Jorge Larrain, a member of the (now disbanded) sociology faculty at Birmingham took over the directorship of Cultural Studies. This, in itself, can be seen to testify to the kind of intellectual rapprochement which has given rise internationally to an interdisciplinary body of theory with a common critical focus in the years since cultural studies was founded. Larrain, who has published widely on Marxist conceptions of ideology, as well as historical materialism, colonialism, and economic development, exemplifies how much closer to cultural studies Birmingham sociology has become in the years since the Centre's inauguration reputedly evoked hostility from empiricist social science faculty members.

Cultural Studies, as it has evolved at the Centre and elsewhere, has itself changed radically from Hoggart's original (non-Marxist) project--sometimes accused of merely generating "nostalgia" for the working-class culture of the 1920s and 1930s and proferring it as a sort of Golden Age. Indeed, as with most innovative projects, there was undoubtedly a danger in the beginning that cultural studies would become primarily a reactive endeavour to counter the Arnold/Eliot/Leavis tradition of exalting "the best that has been thought and said," replacing it with a new touchstone "tailored specifically to the culture of [the working] class" (Sparks, 1974, p. 10). Even Hoggart himself seems to have had some afterthoughts about "standing for the literary side" in the early days of the Centre, noting in a relatively recent interview with John Corner that if he were "redoing the Centre," he would "make a pitch for the study of institutions as examples of the way a culture continues itself and at the same time often subverts itself " (Corner, 1991, p. 147).

But the subsequent turn toward Marxism, roughly coinciding with Hoggart's departure to UNESCO and Hall's assumption of the CCCS directorship in the late 1960s, went a long way toward offsetting any such tendencies toward sentimentalizing working-class culture. It is largely because of its incorporation of classical Marxist theory, progressively modified throughout the past two decades by the appropriation and application of key concepts (like ideology and hegemony) from neo-Marxists thinkers like Althusser and Gramsci, that the Centre's contribution to cultural analysis may have turned out to be more enduring and more far-reaching than even its most optimistic founders believed it would be. Without its Marxist component, the legacy of Birmingham cultural studies might well have been merely a residue of interest in analyzing (British) popular culture and a greater understanding of the politics of representation. Though Hoggart himself has said (with the hindsight of nearly three decades) that his real contribution to cultural studies was as a "proselytizer"; more objective appraisals have found it to lie in brilliantly innovative methodology: in applying "the analytical protocols of literary studies to a wider range of cultural products" (Turner, 1990, p. 48).

Among other things, Birmingham cultural studies' Marxist underpinnings make it at least potentially generalizable to other cultures--though whether British Cultural Studies is really "exportable" to other countries has been the subject of considerable scholarly debate, particularly in the United States, where attempts have been made by Carey and others to neutralize its sometimes virulent anti-capitalism while retaining its broad critical vocabulary.10

Although it is much too soon to assess the direction Birmingham cultural studies will take under Larrain, especially considering all the organizational changes he and his staff have had to navigate, his own published work on international development (especially on South America) would augur well for a continued, if not expanded, international focus for Birmingham cultural studies. Moreover, Larrain, at least in the past, has gone on record as passionately believing that Marxism plays a viable political role in the unfolding of contemporary history--in the independence movements in Angola, Mozambique, South Vietnam, and the "short-lived democratic experiment of popular unity in Chile"--against those academics who claim Marxism survives as a theory in a virtually "total divorce from practice" (Larrain, 1984, p. 159). With this vision and his solid grounding in the intricacies of Marxism, Larrain is perhaps ideally suited to confront what O'Connor has termed the dichotomy between cultural studies' predilection for lived experience and its propensity to theorize (1981, p. 185).

Larrain's own brand of Marxist theory seems to incline him toward the traditional "top down" political economy (as opposed to the cultural studies) approach, according to which "ideology's function is instrumental--to misrepresent `the real,' and to mask any political struggle" (Turner, 1990, p. 197). More characteristic of Centre work since the 1980s has been the notion that "ideology is the very site of struggle" as well as the "bottom up" view that attributes power to subjects and subcultural groups to invene in signifying and political systems and produce change" (Turner, 1990, p. 215). Larrain's classical Marxist view of ideology as "false consciousness" (though he deplores the term) (1991) may be seen by some cultural studies theorists (particularly those with postmodernist leanings) as a conservative step backward from what Hall termed the movement away from a "monistic Marxism."

But whatever intellectual inclinations the four directors of the Centre have exhibited, the CCCS has always been a collective and democratic critical enterprise. While Johnson was director, he wrote, "I do not see myself as `the Director' bringing orders from Rome to an unruly part of the empire" (1983, p. 1) and undoubtedly Hoggart, Hall, and Larrain would all agree. To a remarkable degree, the Centre's history has proven to be what Dienst calls "a cautionary tale: against professionalization, against rank pluralism, against isolation" (1990, p. 330).

The insights CCCS work has yielded into how race and gender are culturally defined, to disadvantage (or "marginalize") women and minority groups, are among its greatest contributions. Angela McRobbie was one of the first Centre members to point out the absence of women's cultural practices and female subjects in CCCS research work on subcultures (McRobbie, 1980; McRobbie & Garber, 1978). She called attention to the large number of patriarchal assumptions inherent in Birmingham research protocols of the 1970s and noted that only four articles out of the 10 issues of Working Papers in Cultural Studies addressed women's concerns. Such male-centred ethnographies and histories, argued McRobbie and other Centre members, "unconsciously [reproduced] their subculture's repressive attitude toward women" (Turner, 1990, p. 179).

McRobbie, Charlotte Brundson, Dorothy Hobson, Janice Winship, and other members formed a Women's Studies Group at the Centre in 1974 to examine so-called women's genres (notably soap operas and fashion magazines); to study, qualitatively, how female audiences responded to mass media content and what social and personal needs it fulfilled; to rescue literature by unknown women writers from oblivion; to theorize the role of (unpaid) domestic labor; and to examine women's roles in the family as they related to media consumption. Their critique of the Centre's work up to that point was a major one with results that have been far-reaching. According to them, its patriarchal assumptions skewed the results of any attempt at cultural analysis or inquiry, helping to relegate the female half of the human race to relative obscurity.

The bulk of the original Women's Studies Group work, intended for the tenth issue of WPCS, was published in Women Take Issue (1978), a work that has had a great effect on feminist studies. Dealing largely with female subjects from the working class, essays by Hobson and McRobbie included excerpts from material gathered through participant observation in which female housewives spoke movingly of their isolation and adolescent girls revealed their (often) grim expectations for the future. On a more theoretical level, the collection included examinations of the "ideology of femininity" (by Winship) as well as an inquiry into how traditional women's roles could be included in Marxist formulations of the processes of production and reproduction.

The implications of the feminist critique at the Centre were profound. It helped to make Centre research less arcane and esoteric during a period when much of it tended toward theoreticism. Its basic thrust was completely consistent with Williams and Hoggart's early emphasis on the use of personal experience to exemplify general phenomenon. Moreover, its studies of how the family (and to a lesser degree) the educational system helped perpetuate patriarcy have served to illustrate more concretely Althusser's very general point that "ideological state apparatuses" have an important impact on the way people think. Along with the influence of (Lacanian as well as Freudian) psychoanalysis and poststructuralism, the feminist critique helped to focus concern on how identity, subjectivity, and gender are constructed (Franklin, et al., 1991, p. 176).

The feminist concern with diversity also tied in with, and helped further, work on racism at the Centre--an area in which, however, a good deal more theoretical work is still left to be done. In Policing The Crisis (1978) Hall, et al. illustrated how the British media conflated notions of crime and other social problems with racial and ethnic minorities; as well as how notions of national identity were racially circumscribed. Later more theoretical work in The Empire Strikes Back (1982) reaffirmed the need to examine racism concretely in its particular historical context, rather than to view it as a transcultural constant in human experience. In Centre work on racism as well as sexism the "personal was the political" and Stuart Hall (1985) has written especially movingly in his essays about his own experiences as a West Indian immigrant in English society.

Much of the Centre's research on both racism and sexism led to the conclusion that these inequities were indigenous to the structure of capitalism itself, functioning to help maintain cheap, "reserve" sources of unemployed labour, particularly in Great Britain where immigration from Commonwealth countries was associated in the popular mind with racial minorities (Hall, et al., 1978, pp. 380-381). The question remains how to incorporate race and gender into the class bias of Marxism and what relative weight should be given to these three different, though not mutually exclusive, factors. There is no consensus at the present time--not even between white feminists and women of colour who are inclined to disagree about how race and gender intersect in forms of oppression. Indeed the legacy of studies of race and gender is to complicate the ("reductionist") Marxist equation in a very fertile way--to introduce, in Paul Gilroy's words, a "view of class formation as an effect of heterogenous struggles perhaps premised on different communalities--linguistic, sexual, regional, ecological and `racial' " (1982, p. 281).

These questions have come to be intertwined (in the "turn toward Gramsci" that the Centre has taken since the 1980s) with questions of how subordinate groups both submit to, and resist, views of the dominant class. Hall and Johnson among others have seized upon the emphasis Gramsci places on hegemony as a "site of struggle." Hegemony has come to provide a warrant for moving away from the Althusserian-inspired view that ideology is an implacable force, moving in a "top down" direction to crystallize assymetries of social positioning by asserting meanings disadvantageous to subordinate groups. The concept of hegemony has helped Centre scholars out of the impasse the structuralist Marxism of Althusser created: making notions of agency appear futile in the face of what was theorized to be the inevitable ideological positioning of the individual by the apparatus of the State and its agencies like the school or family. According to Gramsci's notion, cultural practices and communication texts can be viewed as a battleground in a struggle between different groups to define, maintain, and contain meaning. This has three highly important consequences for the Birmingham project and British cultural studies generally: the outcomes of power struggles between groups are viewed as fluid, ongoing, never predetermined; they comprise small "revolutions" over something as specific as the changing ways racial epithets are used (Hall, 1985); and the effects of ideology can be examined concretely as they have been manifested in, for example, the "living texts" of Thatcherism and the "new right."

And it is these texts that will undoubtedly keep occupying the attention of Birmingham scholars in the 1990s--a decade that is part of a long, gloomy, reactionary period for Britain, as British cultural studies sees it, ushered in by the Conservative victory in 1979. Whatever difficulties the Centre faces, an argument can be made that there is less danger that its adversarial thrust will be spent in this era of the "new Right" than there would be in a more egalitarian, populist, anti-elitist, and liberal age. Johnson's remarks nearly a decade ago about the Centre's mission, given what he called the "Conservative Counter-Reformation in Britain," might just as well be made today: "Cultural studies has won real spaces here [in Britain] and they have to be maintained and struggle effectively in these contexts, to make claims for resources, to clarify our minds in the rush and muddle of everyday work, and to decide priorities for teaching and research" (1983, p. 7).


As Stuart Hall has noted, "there is as yet no detailed or accredited history of the Centre's inauguration and development" (1984a, p. 277). I have chosen to anchor this modest account of the origins and development of the Centre in the perceptions (right or wrong) of people who were a part of the movement as it has evolved in the last 28 or 29 years. Both because of the scarcity of published material of a historical nature and because I believe that leaders have a way of giving even the most egalitarian project its direction and tone, I have relied heavily on the remarks of long-time Centre directors Richard Hoggart, Stuart Hall, and Richard Johnson. I would like to acknowledge the extremely helpful suggestions of the CJC reviewers that led to an expanded version of this essay.
Hoggart was followed by Stuart Hall, who was the director from 1968 to 1979, when Richard Johnson became the head of the Centre. Jorge Larrain, a long-time lecturer in sociology at Birmingham University, now heads the cultural studies program.
See especially Hoggart's The Uses of Literacy (1967) in this context.
For a fuller discussion of the elitist tradition in Great Britain, see Miles & Smith (1987, pp. 81-101).
Hoggart's recollections appear to conflict with Hall's on this point. In a recent interview, Hoggart said, "the sociologists in fact were very charitable. They said, right through, `this is interesting stuff and we can learn from it' " (Corner, 1991, p. 146).
Other examples of its research include an examination of Bronte's novel Shirley in terms of the "ideology of romance" by Rachel Harrison; a study of decentralization in planning by Michael Green; a history of the policies of the Manpower Services Commission in Britain by the Education Group; a study of communes by Colin Webster; a study of drug use by urban Hippies by Paul Willis; and a study of news photographs by Stuart Hall.
See Television supplement (1961, p. 30).
See Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (1985, pp. 27-29).
For example, there have been interest groups on Race and Politics and on Women and Culture as well as a Black Caucus and Women's Forum at the Centre. Thesis or dissertation work has been done on Asian Women in Britain, Histories of Racism in European Culture, Women's Writing in the 1930s and 1940s, Race and Race Relations, Feminism, Childcare and Popular Movements 1880s-1930s, and Race/Class/Women among other topics.
See Carey (1983).


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