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Examining the Popularity of Cultural Theory

09 Nov 2017Essay Samples

Examining the Popularity of Cultural Theory: An Examination of the Literature

Introduction

The study of cultural theory, or the investigation and the application of techniques designed to analyze various aspects in society, is a fairly recent addition to modern anthropology. The introduction of the cultural theory allowed anthropologists, sociologists, and other students of the human condition the luxury of a new tool to be used in examining the relationships that are exhibited in human behavior. At its most basic level, the implication of cultural theory has provided those involved in the fields of anthropology, gender studies, sociology, history, and even psychiatry to better investigate the current and past conditions of the human culture.

Recently, however, a great deal of cultural theory appears to stem from the works of the noted French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu. As a modern philosopher and sociologist, Bourdieu has placed a great deal of emphasis on the concept that the structure of society is figuratively “robbing” the lives of all participants through various methods. The presentation of these theories, especially in respect to the apparent solace that Bourdieu’s theories offer to a jaded society, have resulted in a virtual rebirth of the study of cultural theory. Several of the theories that stem directly from those presented by Bourdieu demonstrate different aspects of cultural theory in respect to modern life. This paper shall examine and clarify several of these theories in the recent literature.

The pressing theme of the recent efforts in cultural studies is best explored as a justification of traits found within the modern capitalistic lifestyle. Three major writers concerning cultural theory have produced works that emphasize the increasing relationship between human beings and materialism, and humans and the diminishing reality of various aspects of traditionalism. This paper shall examine why the study of cultural theories have become so extremely pressing in this era, where the attempt to explore and justify a rapidly changing culture have driven those who study human theory to validate myriad aspects of human society. The works that shall be investigated are The Long Revolution and Marxism and Literature by Raymond Williams, Television Culture by John Fiske, and Cultural Populism by Jim McGuigan. Other relevant works on the subject of an increasing reliance on cultural theory shall be applied as fit.

A Synopsis of Bourdieu’s Works

This section shall briefly investigate the works of Pierre Bourdieu, with an emphasis on his term, habitus. The habitus is best explored as a "…system of acquired dispositions functioning on the practical level as categories of perception and assessment or as classificatory principles as well as being the organizing principles of action." (Bourdieu: 78 – 79) It is therefore easily seen how Bourdieu’s application of a habitus is found in respect to cultural theory, as Bourdieu places an emphasis on the overall significance of how human beings perceive their environment in addition to how they react to it.

In respect to how the modern expression of cultural theory has gained current significance, the habitus is best explored as the tools used to attempt to place all aspects of a modern society into context. The implications of a habitus is that there needs to be some form of structure that enables the human mind to function, where the human uses the habitus to structure their interactions with the world around them. However, the rapid changes in modern culture have created in the human being a feeling of displacement, where there is no overall comprehension of what culture should be. This means that the habitus that humans have always used as their references for culture need to be updated or restructured to keep up with the changes.

One example of the changing culture is the concept of globalization, which Bourdieu finds lies in direct contrast with the traditional manifestations of society. The process of globalization – where all elements of a traditional society are stripped away and are replaced with a more homogenous manifestation of an “imagined” society – has quickly swept up the world through a combination of the media and the introduction of capitalism. Bourdieu suggests that globalization can be defined through the cultural capital generated by a particular society, where cultural capital are the traits that make that society “legitimate”, or give it characteristics that distinguish that one culture from other cultures. Yet as globalization sweeps the earth, the cultural capital, as well as the habitus that defines it, falls apart and all aspects of different societies therefore become similar.

The modern emphasis on cultural theory, therefore, is to provide a sense of identity for the individual communities of the world. Through addressing the habitus that existed prior to the process of globalization as well as the alteration in that habitus that has since followed, cultural theorists can recreate identities for those who wish to study them.

Williams and “The Long Revolution”

The first work that shall be examined in this paper is that of Raymond Williams’ The Long Revolution. This piece describes at length the need for humanity to recreate and function in something that he refers to as a cultural dialect. This cultural dialect, suggests Williams, existed since the time of the Enlightenment and provided human scholars with the tools for progressing in terms of intellectual thought. However, through the creation of a cultural dialect that was founded primarily on the concept of an infallible science, the various world cultures have needed to sacrifice various aspects of the spiritual needs found within human cultures. One excellent example of this type of cultural diminishment is found in the rise in the importance of sciences while religions have lost a great deal of power.

Williams argues that the loss of religions has created serious problems for human culture, where this loss has affected the solace of the human spirit. Williams suggests that spiritual needs are just as crucial to the welfare of humanity as material needs, and in placing the material needs before the spiritual needs, human beings have therefore negatively impacted their ability to meet their spiritual needs. One of the major problems inherent with this concept is that culture as was known before the Enlightenment was utterly demolished by the full acceptance of science and reason. Again, Williams suggests that particular social constructs, like that of Socialism, have collapsed because of the powerful focus directly on rationality and a denial of ethical or religious thought.

Because of this, notes Williams, the structure of the modern world is best perceived as a huge revolution concerning the manner in which human beings perceive themselves and the world around them. Bourdieu would call this a re- examination and a reconstruction of the basic habitus that drives human perceptions. Here, the new importance in cultural theory is to define and provide for a society that enables science and emotion to co- exist.

Fiske and “Television Culture”

Perhaps the theories that most closely resembles Pierre Bourdieu in his works is that of John Fiske. Fiske’s theories present an examination of how the prevalence of television has created in society and culture a new “reality”, where the mass saturation of television has completely affected the culture of all who come in contact with the device. Fiske’s theories concerning the development of a “code” through television mimic those of Bourdieu and his theories of globalism and mass culture. In terms of a television code, Fiske writes: "A code is a rule-governed system of signs, whose rules and conventions are shared amongst members of a culture and which is used to generate and circulate meanings in and for that culture" (Fiske: 4) The implications of this code are resoundingly clear, where the new set of identification patters (or the habitus) generated by the popularity of television have created a new version of culture.

This may be difficult to understand, but examine the following: There is currently a great emphasis in modern society to be as physically beautiful as possible. While many would be correct in arguing that this particular behavior pattern is my no means a new concept in society, what is new is the predominant acceptance of specific standards of beauty within society. For example, standards of beauty are found in women who fit specific facial patterns and possess extremely thin bodies – physical types that might otherwise be considered unhealthy. Yet the acceptance of being “thin” has become a definition of beauty, even if the face does not correspond to the patterns. The emphasis on being thin has, Fiske would argue, no doubt been generated almost entirely by manufactured definitions of beauty as found in a television society.

The unconscious acceptance of these television codes has entered into society to such a degree that the average citizen of a developed country is not entirely certain which aspects of society are “real” and which have been fabricated by society. The individual human has had their beliefs so greatly impacted by television that it might very well be impossible to separate the independent cultures from the television cultures: Fiske indeed points out that there might not actually be any cultures in developed countries that are still removed from the television codes. Here, an emphasis on the study of cultural theory might be an attempt to pull the elements of a television society from the “real” society that existed prior to the fabrications of the television codes.

McGuigan and “Cultural Populism”

The term cultural populism is best defined by McGuigan as: “… the intellectual assumption, that the symbolic experiences and practices of ordinary people are more important analytically and politically than Culture with a capital C." (McGuigan: 4) This, suggests McGuigan, means that the entire structure of culture does not need to rely on manifestations of “culture” that are normally considered to represent a society, a tradition, or a people. Here, McGuigan finds that the events that one experiences on a mundane level better demonstrate specific cultural traits than do the fields of art, literature, or the other examples of “Culture”.

McGuigan’s theories are those that do not directly correspond to Bourdieu, as Pierre Bourdieu placed an extremely heavy emphasis on the role of “Culture” as being the among the best ways to examine the stability of a culture. McGuigan strongly disagrees with this concept: Rather than portraying selective elements of a society through works created for that sole purpose, McGuigan finds that the true method of exploring a society or a culture is through the unplanned and more intimate aspects encountered therein.

McGuigan finds that the problems in addressing the study of a culture based on what is publicly identified as “Culture” is counterproductive. For example, imagine walking through a museum and being informed that a particular painting best represents the entire culture of the Italian Renaissance. McGuigan would argue that no matter how beautifully executed or how detailed the painting, that one work would only represent the ideals and the accomplishments of a specific painter and could not possibly serve as a representation of all aspects of the Renaissance culture. To suggest otherwise would be to limit the achievements and the significance of that culture entirely.

It should be noted, however, that in no way is McGuigan suggesting that “Culture” be ignored. Rather, McGuigan finds that the best methods of supplementing what is known about a culture can come from such magnificent works, but that these works only serve to enhance what might already be known about a specific culture. Indeed, suggests McGuigan, the emphasis on “Culture” might be entirely erroneous as it only showcases the most highly intellectual works, and does not take into account the achievements or the lifestyles of those who fall into the categories of the less educated.

It can be seen from this description that McGuigan’s theories do not actively mesh with those of the three writers examined prior to his in this paper. However, McGuigan’s work does point out that the study of cultural theory has long since been actively limited to the study of “Culture”, and that this must cease if the world is to find a true niche concerning cultural identification. Here, the emphasis on culture in respect to changing cultural theory strongly suggests that a new method for examining culture be used.

Conclusion

This paper has examined the theme of why the study of cultural theory has become so pressing in the modern world. Four noted sociologists have been examined in order to best clarify this theme. The unifying theory that can be seen in the works of all four writers is that the actual study of culture is erroneous, either because the existing society is not demonstrative of a “real” culture or that the techniques themselves are inherently flawed.

In the works of Bourdieu, Fiske, and Williams, however, there is a serious emphasis on the belief that culture itself has become inherently altered to the point where it is difficult to identify it. For these three sociologists, the implications of an increased study of cultural theory is that human beings are currently without identification in their lives: In such an environment, there is little sense of tradition and even less sense of personal establishment. Bourdieu would suggest that this occurs because the habitus that sustained these things has been altered past the point of use. In order to change this feeling, the habitus must again be altered in order to provide reference, or that cultural theory coherently depicts culture in a manner so a new habitus is formed. 

Bibliography

  • Bourdieu, P. (1990). In Other Words: Essays Towards a Reflexive Sociology (M. Adamson, Trans.). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  • Douglas, M. (1989). “Culture and Collective Action”. In M. Freilich (Ed.), The Relevance of Culture. New York: Bergin & Garvey Publishers.
  • Fiske, J., (1987) Television Culture. London: Methuen.
  • Hall, S. (1997) Representation : Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. Los Angeles: Sage Publications.
  • Hall, S. (1999) Visual Culture: The Reader. Oxford: Corwin Press.
  • McGuigan, J. (1992) Cultural Populism. London: Routledge.
  • Schusky, E. L., & Culbert, T. P. (1978). Introducing Culture (3rd ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
  • Sulkunen, P. (1982). “Society Made Visible--on the Cultural Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu”. Acta Sociologica. 25(2), 103-115.
  • Williams, R. (2001) The Long Revolution. New York: Broadview Press.

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