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British cultural studies argues that culture is where we live our relations to the material world; it is the shared meanings we make and encounter in our everyday lives. In this way, then, cultures are made from the production, circulation, and consumption of meanings. For example, if I pass a business card to someone in China, the polite way to do it is with two hands. If I pass it with one hand I may cause offense. This is clearly a matter of culture. However, the ”culture” is not so much in the gesture, it is in the ”meaning” of the gesture. In other words, there is nothing essentially polite about using two hands; using two hands has been made to signify politeness. Nevertheless, signification has become embodied in a material practice, which can, in turn, produce material effects.
This is not to reduce everything ”upwards” to culture as a signifying system, but it is to insist that culture defined in this way should be understood ”as essentially involved in all forms of social activity” (Williams 1981: 13). While there is more to life than signifying systems, it is nevertheless the case that ”it would . . . be wrong to suppose that we can ever usefully discuss a social system without including, as a central part of its practice, its signifying systems, on which, as a system, it fundamentally depends” (p. 207).
According to British cultural studies, then, to share a culture is to interpret the world – make it meaningful and experience it – in recognizably similar ways. So-called ”culture shock” happens when we encounter a radically different network of meanings; when our ”natural” or ”common sense” is confronted by someone else’s ”natural” or ”common sense.” However, cultures are never simply shifting networks of shared meanings. On the contrary, cultures are always both shared and contested networks of meanings. That is, culture is where we share and contest meanings of ourselves, of each other, and of the social worlds in which we live.
British cultural studies draws two conclusions from this way of thinking about culture. First, although the world exists in all its enabling and constraining materiality outside culture, it is only in culture that the world can be made to mean. In other words, culture constructs the realities it appears only to describe. Second, because different meanings can be ascribed to the same thing, meaning-making is always a potential site of struggle and negotiation. For example, masculinity has real material conditions of existence, but there are different ways of representing masculinity in culture and different ways of being ”masculine.” Therefore, although masculinity seems to be fixed by its biological conditions of existence, what it means, and the struggle over what it means, always takes place in culture. This is not simply an issue of semantic difference, a simple question of interpreting the world differently; it is about relations of culture and power; about who can claim the power and authority to define social reality; to make the world (and the things in it) mean in particular ways.
Meanings have a ”material” existence in that they help organize practice; they help establish norms of behavior. My examples of different masculinities and the passing of business cards in China are both instances of where signification organizes practice. Those with power often seek to regulate the impact of meanings on practice. In other words, dominant ways of making the world meaningful, produced by those with the power to make their meanings circulate in the world, can generate ”hegemonic truths,” which may come to assume an authority over the ways in which we see, think, communicate, and act in the world: that is, become the ”common sense” which organizes our actions (Gramsci 1971). Culture and power, therefore, are the primary object of study in British cultural studies.
- Gramsci, A. (1971) Selections from Prison Notebooks. Lawrence and Wishart, London.
- Williams, R. (1981) Culture. Fontana, London.
- Storey, J. (2009) Cultural Theory and Popular Culture. Pearson, London.
- Turner, G. (2002) British Cultural Studies. Routledge, London.
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