Stuart Hall (1980) “Cultural Studies: Two Paradigms”

Link to Summary  | Another summary

Main Argument:  Since the 1950s, cultural studies has formed around two overlapping but distinct paradigms: culturalist and structuralist.

Questions: Is this article dated? Have approaches emerged and shifted since Hall was writing in 1980? For example, where do feminist, queer, and postcolonial discourses fit in? Also, is structuralism much different from the cultural marxism that preceded it?

Summary: The 1950 witnessed the birth of cultural studies which “broke” from earlier Marxist traditions. Cultural studies asks: how is culture defined? what is culture? The key difference between the two emergent paradigms is how they conceptualize lived experience:

“despite their apparent overlaps, culturalism and structuralism were starkly counterposed. We can identify this counterposition at one of its sharpest points, precisely around the concept of ‘experience,’ and the role the term played in each perspective. Whereas, in ‘culturalism,’ experience was the ground – the terrain of ‘the lived’ — where consciousness and conditions intersected, structuralism insisted that ‘experience’ could not, by definition, be the ground of anything, since one could only ‘live’ and experience one’s conditions in and through the categories, classifications and frameworks of the culture. These categories, however, did not arise from or in experience: rather, experience was their ‘effect.'(41)

Culturalism (mid-1950s)

Focus on experience


Focus on ideology

“Breaks” from traditional cultural marxism:

1. Culture is shaped by mutually and unevenly determining forces (not just base determining superstructure)

2.  Rethinks determinism using Gramsci’s concept of hegemony

“Breaks” from traditional cultural marxism:

Triggered by Levi-Strauss’ early studies of semiotics

Now superseded by Marxist structuralism (Althusser)

Focus on form and structure instead content

Key Tensions

1. Experience: Experience is the basis of culture. Culture is formed by experiences
2. What is culture?

– Culture is related to ideas

– Culture is how societies make sense of their common experiences.

– Culture is ordinary (Raymond Williams) – not the great ideas and achievements of societies

– Culture is shared meaning and values of a society and how they are brought to life

3.   Ideology is not a key concept

4.  Role of humans – active agents who make their own history





Key Tensions

1. Experience: Experiences are shaped by the underlying patterns and organization of a society. Experience can’t be the basis of anything because experiences take place within an already existing culture

2. What is culture?

– Culture is related to practices

– These practices are organized and patterned in certain ways that underlay all social practices.

– Asks “what is the nature of (or relationship between) the organization at the heart of these practices?”

–  The base determines the superstructure. Thus, the underlying foundations determine culture. Endeavors to trace the “forms of organization” that underlie all practices.

3.  Focus on ideology, less importance on culture

4. Role of humans – bearers of the structures that call them into being


Where do they agree?

Culture is connected to social relations (family, race, sex, class, community and other forms of cultural identity) and is composed of individual practices. Culturalism focuses on individuality and how individual practices can affect culture and history.

Culture produces asymmetries in power

Culture is a site of difference and struggle (marked by individual agency)


Where do they agree?

Culture is connected to social relations (family, race, sex, class, community and other forms of cultural identity) and is composed of individual practices. Structuralism focuses on how these varying individual practices coalesce into united structures. Pg. 68

Culture produces asymmetries in power

Culture is a site of difference and struggle (determined by ideology)


– Focus on humanism – humans are agentic. Individuality is important. Emphasis on “lived experience”

-All of the different practices interact and mutually and unevenly determine each other (not just base determining superstructure)

-Studies the experiences of everyone and there is no distinction between “high” and “low” culture


– Recognizes that human experience always takes place within culture. Therefore more focus on ideology

-Importance of abstract thinking and analysis because “thought does not reflect reality” the same way experience doesn’t reflect culture pgs 67-68

-Conception of “the whole” and the structure as unified practices pg 68


Basically the same as Structuralists strengths!

-Doesn’t attribute as much importance to the role of ideology in shaping the individual and their culture. This allows people to have agency and to break through barriers, but doesn’t acknowledge that ideological barriers may be too powerful for individuals to truly break free from oppression.



– Deterministic. Ideas are merely reflections of the base – without any effectiveness on their own.

-Base/superstructure is an inadequate model. There is a dialectic but it isn’t the right metaphor

-Reductionist. Reduces all political and cultural events to class affiliations and economic exploitation

-Generalizations assume homogeneity of culture

What thinkers/schools fall into this category?

Birmingham School

Stuart Hall

Raymond Williams

Judith williamson

Angela McRobbie

EP Thomspon

Richard Hogart

What thinkers/schools fall into this category?

Frankfurt School

Levi-Strauss (early semiotics)







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