Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Hall article abstract

Abstract of Stuart Hall article, “Cultural Studies: two paradigms (1980).
By Matt Dewey


As the title of article suggests, Hall attempts to describe two types of approaches to the study of culture. Hall presents the differences between the two paradigms as based on conceptions of the process and purpose of culture, the importance or place of experience, and the positioning or hierarchy of levels of abstraction such as the existence of dialectical relationships between conditions and consciousness and the function of ideology. The two tendencies of cultural study are characterized specifically by Hall through their overarching basis of a, ‘theory of culture’; one being a culturalist approach, the other a structuralist approach.

Hall describes the culturalist guiding definition of ‘culture’ as, “the sum of the available descriptions through which societies make sense of and reflect their common experiences” (33). This he suggests has ‘democratized’ culture from an elite status, one comprised of the ‘best’ or ‘privileged’ in access, to a framework that involves the common or ordinary; that all things (art, commodity, ideas, process, etc.) create by community (everyone regardless of status) possess the ability to define and redefine (represent) meaning that permeates throughout community process. This approach opens up all cultural phenomena to criticism and dissolves the traditional modernist distinction of high/low culture.

The second paradigm Hall discusses, as if regarding it as a dialectical in itself to culturalism, is the structuralist approach. The study of culture, to the structuralist, is not in the sum of cultural phenomena but in the relationships between and the organization underlying those elements or phenomena and how those patterns are lived an experienced as a whole (34). The term ‘structural’ itself gives the idea of culture a more rigid, determinative, and subjectlessness that the culturalist approach tends to resist.

Because Hall divides the study into two particular approaches his discussion continues in treating issues and phenomena of cultural studies through the perspectives and contradictions of each approach contending that the study of culture benefits from the interactions and conceptual conflicts of the two. Hall ends his discussion with presenting ‘alternative rallying points’ for ‘inadequacies’ of the paradigms that take into account develops of in both study and culture in general. These points further the processes of culture through the repositioning of the important of a ‘subject’ (the individual) in culture, a repositioning of the critic of the political economy of culture (Marx’s base/superstructure), and the idea of control in a decentralized, heterogeneity.

Comments and Questions

“Since our way of seeing things is literally our way of living, the process of communication is in fact the process of community: the sharing of common meanings, and thence common activities and purposes…”
-Raymond Williams as quoted by Stuart Hall (35)

“How we communicate determines how we relate, just as how we relate determines how we communicate”
– Hugh Duncan, (1967)

Halls two paradigms and the conceptual struggle between them are not so new in the sense that the particular descriptions of both amount to similar types of tensions related to pedagogy and, in my particular case, the study of communication in general. Given that I read Hall’s article through the perspective of communication study, a perspective that is itself a member of a dialectical in the study, I would like to start my discussion by relating the approach in hopes that it clarifies my attempt at making sense of not only Hall, but the concept of cultural studies in general.

The history of communication studies shares a residency in the classrooms of English departments and in the study rhetoric. World events (such as WWII) are as much responsible for the separation of communication study and English departments as the tendency for new forming sciences to push for legitimization through specialization, scientification, and the search for a unified theory.

As communication studies concrete escape from English departments after WWII, this process of rupture (what Kuhn suggests in 1970 as a process of revolution in sciences) continued internally and continues today, in communication departments across the world; a) communication study as one of recreating effective speech patterns (science and instrumentalization), and the study of communication for emancipation and understanding (arts and humanities). To put it another way, the split resides in ones orientation to skills training and theories of control and power. This tension materializes in studies of, on one side, speech giving, interpersonal and small group comm., audience analysis; and on the other, studies in perspective, ideology, critical mass comm. study, and theories of power in modern and postmodern contexts. One could also generalize this difference in the larger struggle between academics that apply directly to the business of business and those that are not so applicable or in capital ‘demand’.

Halls quote by Williams above would be a mantra of what I would consider the ideal reference for communication studies, and communication studies ideal and particularly pragmatic approach to cultural studies. Cultural studies, to avoid the formalization both Johnson and Hall resist, is more commonly known as critical communication studies and has its own similar dialectics or oppositions. Some communication theorist believe if one is not studying culture from a specific leftist perspective then they are simply reinforcing status quo formulations of relationships and power. Others believe it is important to study culture from an ‘as is’ context in order to keep research relevant and useful. But in all approaches, as in Halls two paradigms, the same significant questions should be asked and the same final analyses kept in view.

So why the time spent on the comparison? Its my impression that one approach cannot accurately identify or account for the phenomenon of culture, nor a recipe of both. I believe that both the Johnson and Hall articles develop, more than a difference in approaches, but a specific set of ends and conflicts for cultural studies. Drawing from teh different appraoches to communication studies, Hall implicitly, through the use of differences, asks us to decide in our attempts to study culture whether we are to study culture in an effort to explain it, exactly how it is, so others can regal a our intuitiveness, so the processes and research methods can be galvanized and repeated again and again, or are we to study culture for where it breaks down, causes interference and conflict in order to better guide the future? (Though I have taken liberties in my interpretation, I believe Hall tries to suggest a particular path for how to study culture without calling it "correct").


The most potent and communicatively familiar topic in Halls discussion is centered around the conception of the ontological ability or level of trust in the concept of experience. Hall suggests that though both perspectives acknowledge the importance of experience, where its significance in cultural meaning differs in where one place the power of the institution; where culturalists view experience as an interplay between ‘consciousness and conditions’; to structuralists, experience is merely a reflection of those conditions (40).

On this point I’m not sure I could position myself in either approach. Though I romantically distrust the idea that my experience is ‘structured’, I as well cannot think of a concept of experience (or consciousness) that is removed enough from ‘conditions’ to form a distinct dialectic of interaction as proposed by culturalist. From the perspective of communication studies this tension between structuralists and culturalist embodies the tension between modernist and postmodernist approaches to the age old individual/ community dualism or, to safely wrap up the discussion, the contemporary condition itself through which we must study a communication of emancipation.

There is a saying in comm. studies that suggests ‘one cannot separate the known from the knower’ (I think it was Thomas Kuhn again). This essential states a distrust of objectivity as well as recovers and appreciates the subjective, the human subject in knowledge. My impression of the article is that Hall, in presenting his two paradigms as centering around dialectics of consciousness/conditions, base/superstructure, culture/ideology, is as well suggesting that our approach to the study of culture be equally, if not sharply dialectical as well.

1 comment:

Diane said...

I also have difficulties "choosing" between the culturalist and structuralist viewpoints, although I tend to lean structuralist myself. Unlike you, I have difficult in "romantically distrust[ing]" structuralism. On the contrary, my natural cynicism about the "way things are" makes me think that we all are puppets of our culture in some way. Because even if we manage to "break free" from our culture in order to craft new experience, wouldn't we still simply be reacting to the norms and conventions that are already in place?

I'm inclined to believe that there can be no such thing as a true revolutionary in the theoretical sense. Of course, that does not mean that we cannot continue to question, challenge, and demand answers about and from our social conventions. A person who desires to make change to the structure, is still only doing that because of the structure that is already in place. If the structure was altered, would they still feel and act the same way? I believe that we often do and say based on what is rewarded - it may not be rewarded by the largest segment of "culture," but it is most likely being reinforced by someone or something somewhere.