Culture. One of the 'big' words in contemporary theory and criticism. Distinguish between:

1. The use of the term in American cultural anthropology where "culture" refers to the totality of man's products.

2. Sociologists have tended to use the term in a narrower sense as referring only to the so-called symbolic sphere.

3. Its more traditional usage to refer to so-called 'great achievements of the human spirit.'


Fiske: "By "culture" we refer to the social circulation of meanings, values and pleasures, to the processes of forming social identities and social relationships, and to entering into relation with the larger social order in a particular way and from a particular position. Social relationships are personal, social relations are structural, and the former turn the latter into the lived experience of everyday life. Thus, in a patriarchal society such as ours, the social relations between the genders grant masculinity the position of power, but actual relationships between individual men and women may conform closely to the gender relations or may oppose, modify, or struggle against them: relationships are not totally determined by social relations but they can never be free of them either. Similarly, the social identities that people struggle to produce for themselves can never be free of determining social relations as expressed through categorizations such as gender, race, class, age, and so on; yet they are never totally determined by those relations, either. We can take this argument a little further by recognizing that the structuring social relations provide us with preformed frameworks of meaning or ways of making sense of our social experience, that they equip us with value systems by which to orient ourselves toward the events of our everyday lives, and that they teach us to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate pleasures. All this is the work of culture, but it is only part of its work, it is only the ideological part by which dominant norms are produced, circulated, and maintained. But, [...] people sometimes comply with these norms and sometimes challenge them. There is a space between social norms and their application in particular circumstances, a space where compliance or contestation is negotiated, and a space between determining social relations and people's attempts to control their own identities and relationships; and these spaces constitute the terrain where popular culture is most active. " see: Fiske, "Popular Culture")

Brooker 1999: Perhaps the most profitable way of studying such a mutable term is along the lines of Raymond Williams's account of its European usage over the last three centuries. Williams suggests that in its 'most widespread use' culture has referred in the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries to the world of the arts (literature, music, painting, sculpture, theatre, film). In this sense the term has nevertheless been understood and invariably valued in different ways. In a traditional perspective it is seen as embodied in a selective canon of works (comprising 'high culture') and valued above commercial or popular artistic forms ('low' or 'mass culture', to which some might wish to deny any genuine 'artistic' status). Of underlying and fundamental importance to this view, as to other less traditional perspectives, is the attitude taken towards mass or industrial or, in the twentieth century, advanced consumer society. Debates about culture in this most familiar sense have indeed accompanied and been prompted by the social and economic developments of this period. Culture has therefore been defined in relation to this historical form of society, traditionally once more in terms which see one as opposed to the other. The resulting defence of culture as equivalent or necessary to authentic moral or spiritual values sets art works—pre-eminently a selective tradition of literary texts—against the mechanical and materialist order of industrial society. So defined, as in the writings of Matthew Arnold, F.R Leavis, and T.S. Eliot, among others, culture is mobilized to serve a liberal or radical conservative ideology. However, a similar defence has also informed the opposition to mass society of Marxists such as Theodor Adorno and others associated with the Frankfurt School. In both traditions the valued culture is that of a minority or an elite, though the authors, artists, genres and individual works may be as different as the Greek classics, the realist novel, and the contemporary avant-garde. In a reverse evaluation, the 'popular' culture of punk or of commercial cinema might be preferred to any of the above. This comprises a radical, contemporary shift of definition and of the terms of valuation. Nevertheless, all these views share the assumption that culture can have an active, shaping influence upon ideas, attitudes and experience. As such, they contrast with the position which sees culture as secondary to and as a reflex of other processes in the society and economy which are thought to be more fundamental and determining than culture itself. This latter view has been associated with an economistic or 'vulgar' Marxism but in more refined versions still draws on the Marxist model of (an economic) base and (ideological/cultural) superstructure which most commentators feel it necessary to address.

However complex, therefore, the definition of culture is vital to notions of the objects of study, the methods and aims of a range of academic disciplines (including Philosophy, Linguistics, and Education as well as the more obvious Anthropology, Sociology, Literary, Media and Cultural Studies). Its use and meanings in these contexts may be inconsistent and more or less descriptive or evaluative. However, the study of culture can never be free of assumptions of value or an involvement in meaningful, value-making activity on the part of the researcher or the works or social actors being studied. Perhaps the most influential conception of culture in this academic work, especially in the Humanities and Cultural Studies, has been Raymond Williams's own founding definition of culture as 'a whole way of life of a social group or whole society'.

Work along these lines has developed straightforwardly from neither the liberal conservative nor Marxist traditions but from a critical engagement with each. Writing in 1981, Williams sees a convergence of the idea of culture as 'a whole way of life' and its association with intellectual and artistic activity. What unites these emphases, he says, is the idea of culture as a signifying system, 'through which necessarily a social order is communicated, reproduced, experienced and explored' (1981: 13). This thinking has helped inspire a conception of creative work and cultural practice as constituting rather than 'expressing' a given social order and stimulated new directions in the Sociology of Culture and Cultural Studies as elsewhere. However, it would be false to suggest there is a consensual definition of culture in the contemporary period; even that the idea of culture as a 'whole way of life' is universally accepted. In an early response to Williams, the Marxist historian E.P. Thompson proposed an alternative definition of culture not as a 'whole way of life' but as a 'whole way of struggle' (1961). In a later phase the influence of contemporary feminist, poststructuralist, postmodern and postcolonial theory have led many to reiterate the critique of earlier notions of minority culture in terms now of their white, Western and male-centred bias. In addition, many would raise doubts concerning the homogenizing conception of 'the whole' and unified, or the desire for this, in the realm of culture as in other fields. The variant meanings of culture are now more readily understood as the necessary expression of a range of signifying practices across different media and discourses. We are brought therefore to a pluralized and dialogic conception of cultures of dissonance, difference and diversity and to the debates this in turn engenders.