Cultural Studies: Definition, Theory & Methodologies

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  • 0:01 Cultural Studies Defined
  • 1:10 Theories
  • 2:49 Methodology
  • 4:18 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
David White
Expert Contributor
Jennifer Levitas

Jennifer has a Ph.D. in Psychology. She's taught multiple college-level psychology courses and been published in several academic journals.

Through this lesson, you will learn about the interdisciplinary field of cultural studies, gain insight into the theories and concepts on which it is based, and explore a brief introduction to the methodologies used to collect data.

Cultural Studies Defined

For many of us, there comes a point in our education when we're introduced to a theory or concept and everything suddenly comes into focus. If not a scholar or theorist, maybe you've come across a particular author or musician that helps you see things in an entirely new way, or gives you a new framework for expressing yourself and explaining the world around you.

Cultural studies is an interdisciplinary field of studies, which means that it draws from many different subject areas, including sociology, anthropology, political science, and history. Although it is sometimes misunderstood as being the study of popular culture, cultural studies is, in fact, the study of the ways in which culture is constructed and organized and the ways in which it evolves and changes over time.

The field of cultural studies emerged from the Birmingham Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies in the UK, which, beginning in 1968, was headed by Stuart Hall. While there were many scholars who contributed important work to the field during its infancy, Hall's pioneering work put cultural studies on the map, and he is generally accepted as the discipline's most important figure.


Because it is an academic field of study, cultural studies is built on certain theories and concepts that guide scholars in their work. Among these, the most significant is the concept of cultural construction, which is the theory that many influential social and cultural characteristics are not inherent but are constructed by people. For example, from the cultural studies perspective, things like race, gender, or disability don't really exist but are instead concepts or beliefs that people have created in order to organize their cultures or societies. This is not to suggest that there aren't biological differences between men and women, or that there aren't variations in skin pigmentation; rather, it simply means that outside of social systems, these things have no meaning.

Another important theory of cultural studies is hegemony, which is a term used to describe the dominance or authority that one group or culture has over others. For example, in the United States, the hegemonic culture is one that is controlled largely by white people and caters to, or represents, the majority rather than incorporating diversity that would more accurately represent the nation's population. In cultural studies, hegemony is an important theory in the exploration of how the dominant culture influences other groups, particularly in the construction of identity or conforming to social norms.

These two theories are critically important in the field, but there are many theories and concepts that guide cultural studies. In many cases, these theories overlap or incorporate concepts from other disciplines, but they are generally aimed at exploring how people construct culture and how that culture shapes people.

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Additional Activities

Cultural Studies

Writing Prompt 1:

Cultural construction is the idea that some characteristics only have meaning because they are constructed by people and interpreted in a certain way by society. Think of three characteristics of people that could be considered cultural constructions, in that they have no meaning outside of social systems. For example, sexual orientation could be considered a cultural construction. There are differences among people with different sexual orientations, of course, but these differences have no meaning outside of a societal context. Write a two to three paragraph essay with three examples of characteristics of human beings and explain why they could be considered cultural constructions.

Writing Prompt 2:

Qualitative research consists of research methodology that focuses on describing social or cultural phenomena. For example, a narrative may be written explaining various rites of passage that are observed in different cultures. This can be contrasted with quantitative research, which focuses on collecting numerical data and submitting it to statistical analysis. Cultural studies tend to utilize the qualitative methodology. For this activity, you will be listing the pros and cons of qualitative research. For example, a pro could be that the data collected is detailed and gives us a deep and rich sense of the phenomenon under study. A con could be that subjective interpretations could influence qualitative research, skewing the observations due to the perceptions, biases, and preconceptions of the researcher. In two to three paragraphs, list three possible pros and three possible cons to qualitative research.

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