Four Perspectives on Cultural Studies

In the last quarter of the 20th century, four approaches to cultural studies drew growing attention. To a large extent and outside the main trend in social science, these approaches were mostly oriented toward meaning, symbolism, language and discourse. They were rooted in deeper philosophical traditions, which were different and significantly outside the positivist tradition of contemporary social science. The first approach is phenomenology, then cultural anthropology, structuralism and critical theory.

Mostly European in origin, these perspectives increasingly attracted more attention to the point that the main assumptions of cultural research considerably derived from one or more of these traditions. Each of these approaches has been the subject of major theoretical work and they all include competitive concepts and influential, leading authors with substantial contributions to cultural studies in their own right. Leading figures include Peter L. Berger, Mary Douglas, Michel Foucault and Jürgen Habermas, who have made major contributions to the study of culture, by trying to structure a more appropriate framework for analysis.

Peter L. Berger and phenomenology

Applying phenomenology to social sciences was initially an endeavor of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Alfred Schütz. These two authors underscored the need to give special consideration to the role of subjective meanings in social life; they stressed “intersubjectivity” or shared understanding on which social interaction is based. They argued for descriptive research oriented toward intelligence based on the ordinary perceptions and intentions of social actors in day-to-day life.

In the mid-1960s, Peter L. Berger (1929-2017) became one the prominent researchers proposing the phenomenological approach and, in more general terms, one of the most reflective and respected theoreticians of culture. He wrote about subjects such as sociology, modernization, sociological theory and public policy. And, by using and significantly reviewing the phenomenological perspective, he created a conceptual apparatus that made it possible to handle micro-sociological (internalization of values) and macroscopic issues (the cultural construction of institutions, ideologies and changing social norms).

Según su tesis central, los mundos en que habitan las personas están (dentro de los límites del ambiente natural y de la biología del hombre) construidos socialmente, por lo tanto la realidad que la gente percibe y experimenta está socialmente (y diferencialmente) situada en la sociedad.

According to his central thesis, the worlds where people live are (within the limits of the natural environment and Humankind’s biology) socially built. As such, the reality perceived and experience by people is socially (and differentially) located in society. Image: CC0 Public Domain Imagen: CC0 Public Domain

Berger starter publishing prolifically from 1958. His most influential texts from this time include The Precarious Vision (1961) and The Noise of Solemn Assemblies (1961). Albeit they were well received, they generated great upheaval in religious circles because they questioned many of the key assumptions of the religious hierarchy at the time, especially the Protestant Church. Between 1963 and 1970, he developed his view of the nature of culture and social reality and published the works which garnered him international acclaim. In Invitation to Sociology (1963), he described the intellectual parameters of this science and the characteristics of how to exercise it. Many of the topics in this book were subsequently developed in The Social Construction of Reality (1966 with Thomas Luckmann), which intended to reformulate the substantial parameters of sociology of knowledge According to his central thesis, the worlds where people live are (within the limits of the natural environment and Humankind’s biology) socially built. As such, the reality perceived and experience by people is socially (and differentially) located in society. The conceptual paradigm in this book was also the basis for the analytical angle in Berger’s next book, The Secret Canopy (1967), a theoretical treatise on religious sociology. Until the late 1960s, Berger did not show a lot of interest in politics. However, in the summer of 1969, his relationship with Ivan Illich made him start to explore the theoretical connections between his previous work on culture, and modernization, third-world development and politics. As a result, he wrote The Homeless Mind (1973), with Brigitte Berger and Hansfried Kellner, and The Pyramids of Sacrifice (1974). And, with Sociology Reinterpreted (1981), he expanded his views on the sociological method.

Mary Douglas and cultural anthropology

In her work, Mary Douglas (1921-2007) clearly reveals her concern with social order. Starting from a wide range of materials from primitive groups, Douglas developed major ideas about ritual, symbolic deviation, social limits and compared cosmologies. Her perceptive view of how cultural norms are dramatized and affirmed constituted a valuable complement to the ideas of authors such as Berger and Habermas.

Durante la primera década y media de sus carrera los intereses de Douglas se centraron casi exclusivamente en África. Imagen: CC0 Public Domain

For the first 15 years of her career, Douglas focused almost exclusively on Africa. Image: CC0 Public Domain

The results of her oldest field work were published in a short monography titled Peoples of the Lake Nyasa Region (1950). However, her first important book, The Lele of the Kasai, was published in 1963. Even though it was most mostly descriptive and ethnographic, this book foreshadowed her subsequent research by containing perceptive analyses of symbolism and ritual. We need to jump to 1970 to talk about the book that drew international attention to her work and that is still her most remarkable and important contribution to the theoretical analysis of culture: Natural Symbols. This book was an analysis of culture as well as a challenge to its contemporaneous expression. Douglas continued to work on compared cultural analysis throughout the entire decade. A portion of this work was transposed to The World of Goods (written in partnership with Bardon Isherwood), published in 1979, and Risk and Culture (in collaboration with Aaron Wildavsky), published in 1982.

As it happened with Berger, Mary Douglas inspired hundreds of social scientists that have felt the need to capture the symbolic world more efficiently. Douglas’ empirical work showed great technique in understanding symbolic norms. And just like Foucault, Habermas and Berger, she proposed a perspective of culture that sheds light on contemporaneous conditions.

Foucault and structuralism

Michel Foucault (1926-1984) is clearly different to Berger and Douglas. Although his work derives from cultural circumstances that could be considered easy to take in or even familiar to the researchers of the main current of social science, its relative clarity tends to become opaque. His work brims with reflections about the nature of cultural development and presents a stimulating method of cultural analysis.

Foulcault’s background in philosophy and the history of ideas and his experience in psychiatric hospitals shaped his first book, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. Published in 1961, the book won the award from the Centre national de la recherche scientifique, and became one of France’s best-selling publications. His next book, Bith of the Clinic: An Archeology of Medical Perception, was published in 1963. As with his previous research, he focused on the role of language and terminology in shaping mental perceptions and how they affected ideas, ordering of space, tools and social relationships.

From then on, Foucault focused on the origin and evolution of the science disciplines that study conduct, society and culture. This study, The Order of Things: An Archeology of the Human Sciences (1966), addresses the key language categories that enable social science thinking. Categories relating to language and discourse, history, value, usefulness, exchanging, wealth and work, among others.

Foucault felt the need to clarify and systematize his investigation methods for himself and his growing group of intellectual disciples and, as a result, published The Archeology of Knowledge (1969). This book contains the most stimulating sketch for reorienting cultural analysis. It represented the culmination of Foucault’s work in the previous decade and was to be further developed in his later work.

This change meant placing growing emphasis on power. In I, Pierre Rivière… (1973), Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975) and The History of Sexuality (1976), Foucault underscored how knowledge is shaped by differences in power and how knowledge dramatizes and mediatizes power enforcement in social institutions. Addressed in many of his essays and interviews, these issues were published in Power/Knowledge (1980).

Jürgen Habermas and critical theory

Critical theory emerged in Germany in the decade after the First World War. Its leading names included Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Erich Fromm and Herbert Marcuse, who were greatly inspired by Marxist authors such as Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg and Bujarin.

Estos estudiosos estuvieron profundamente influidos por los acontecimientos que rodearon a la Primera Guerra Mundial: el colapso del movimiento obrero internacional, la devastación económica que condujo al fascismo... Y, si bien abrazaron la crítica marxista del capitalismo, también reexaminaron sus fundamentos filosóficos con la esperanza de hacerla más aplicable a la situación del momento. Imagen: CC0 Public Domain

These figures were deeply influenced by the events surrounding World War One: the collapse of the international workers’ movement, the economic devastation that led to fascism… Even though they embraced Marxism’s criticism of capitalism, they re-examined its philosophical foundations in hopes of making it more suitable to the times. Image: CC0 Public Domain

Jürgen Habermas (1929) was the main representative of critical theory and began its intellectual development in 1945. In the wake of the Nuremberg trials and other revelations about the war, he understood that he had been educated under a politically criminal system. He took on an openly critical attitude toward the German political and academic elite albeit his stance was also pacifist and geared toward dialog.

Habermas’ first article was a review of Introduction to Metaphysics by Heidegger, arguing that Heidegger had not been able to repudiate the ideas proposed under Hitler’s regime. At around this same time, Habermas also developed an interest in Marxist theory. He read History and Class Consciousness by Lukács but he concluded that it was impossible to apply Marx’s or Lukács’ theories directly to the post-war era. As a result of this ambivalence, he was attracted by Dialectic of Enlightenment by Horkheimer and Adorno, which he read in 1955. This was his first contact with the critical school.

Fotografía tomada en Heidelberg, abril de 1964, [1] por Jeremy J. Shapiro en el Max Weber-Soziologentag. Horkheimer está de frente a la izquierda, Adorno de frente a la derecha, y Habermas está en el fondo, a la derecha, pasándose la mano por el pelo. Siegfried Landshut está en el fondo a la izquierda. Imagen: Wikimedia

Photo taken in Heidelberg, April 1964, [1] by Jeremy J. Shapiro at the Max Weber-Soziologentag. Horkheimer is at the front, to the left; Adorno is at the front, to the right. Habermas is at the back, to the right, swiping his hair across his hair. Siegfried Landshut is at the back, on the left. Image: Wikimedia

After teaching in Heidelberg, he took over the chair in philosophy and sociology at the University of Frankfurt in 1964 and stayed until 1971, when he accepted a position at Stanberg’s Max Planck Institute. During this time, he attracted international attention as a theoretician of the student protest movement. This movement made him hope that critical theory could eventually influence politics and helped shape his views of his predecessors at the Frankfurt school.

Habermas wrote a lot since the early 1960s. In Theory and Practice, his oldest work, he examines what he believes to be a degeneration of political theory by moving from studying virtue and decency to studying effective means to manipulate the individuals (as typified in modern social science). He then published Knowledge and Human Interests in 1968, which reflected a systematic effort to develop an alternative perspective for social sciences.

With Legitimation Crisis (1979), Habermas refocused his attention from the more theoretical and philosophical issues in his previous work to researching into the social and cultural problems faced by advanced capitalist societies. His later work was increasingly more focused on cultural issues. Communication and the Evolution of Society (1976) questions how best to analyze the issues of legitimacy and cultural evolution and self-identity. His effort, which tended to reconstruct Marx’s historical materialism, also reflected his growing interest in culture. This book shows major influences from theories of communication, especially the work of John R. Searle, and theories of moral development and cultural evolution. This interest is evident in The Theory of Communicative Action (1983).

Moving toward comparison

Peter Berger, Mary Douglas, Michel Foucault and Jürgen Habermas represent different alternatives to cultural studies.

  • Berger stresses personal interpretations that help individuals adapt to their daily reality. He firmly states that things may not be what they seem; instead, they may be only sustained constructions that are held by mutual consent.
  • Douglas underscores the role of ritual and material creations in defining conceptual limits and goes on to say that ritual  is a necessary component for building reality.
  • Foucault focused on the issue of power (strengthening it through knowledge categories). He also adds a historical dimension by tracking the progression of madness, health, punishment, sexuality…
  • As for Habermas, his priority is the epistemological bases of communicative action, thus creating a background of assumptions for an independent science of culture.

Each perspective is a reflection of different philosophical, national and intellectual contexts. However, they all place particular emphasis on language and communication, on classification systems, on what is symbolic and expressive and on culture, and address the issues of subjectivity and human perception. To some extent, we may say that each of these perspectives stresses different aspects of the cultural reality in such a way that, while one perspective’s strength may be another perspective’s weakness, together they greatly help to understand the complex and multi-dimensional nature of culture.

 Ana González Menéndez