Study Material-1

1 Lesson-1




T.K. Venkatasubramanian

Department of History

Delhi University



            The change that we are now witnessing through the media revolution, post-industrial technologies and global communication networks has generated apprehensions about emergence of a uniform, homogenised culture.  A number of scholars are talking about ‘clash of civilisations’ in the decades to come.  Cultural hegemony is bound to give rise to conflicts than those generated by the colonial economic order in the nineteenth century.  What can be done to preserve and enrich the large numbers of distinct cultures that exists today in the face of this rapid globalisation and standardisation of ways of life? People are looking to India to see whether this country, with its 5000 years of uninterrupted civilisation, will provide some answers which might lead to a social harmony wherein there is respect for creative diversity.  It is imperative to learn about the meaning, perspectives and approaches to the study of culture.


            The word ‘culture’ and ‘civilisation’ first came to be used in an idealistic sense in Western Europe from the second half of the eighteenth century.  It is generally admitted that culture is not a part of nature but it is something acquired.  It is not an individual acquisition but handed down from the past as part of a tradition.  In this sense culture gets defined as the tradition of values of self-realisation.  Values are the objects of valuing, a fundamental human activity.  Valuing implies seeking, choosing and approving.  At the level of human mind the seeking becomes self-conscious and critical and its objects as well as the process of seeking become symbolised.  The expression and communication of valued experiences gives a socio-historical actuality to the ideal process and the cultural world is created as historical tradition of the human endeavour for self-realisation.

            The familiar view which the historians tend to take is to think of culture as something possessed by a certain society located in a certain area or age as some definable group of people.  Culture here becomes the form and achievement of a certain society, a social tradition.  If culture is thought of in terms of achievement, achievement needs definition as much as culture.  The definition of society is also equally difficult.  If we define a society as a super-institution or as a complex of institutions, what is it that is central to an institution? Institutions are centred in ideas and habits.  An idea induces an attitude.  This is crucial to an institution.  It is the ideas in the light of which one appraises the institutions and also recognises the inner value of consciousness of a society and together they are called culture. 

            If culture is not a complex of industries, technology or social organisation can it be a form or pattern including these as well as other phenomena?  The notion of culture as an overall form comprehending variety of social experience and thought needs some explanation.  Whitehead speaks about a form of the forms of thought and Oswald Spengler suggests the concept of an all-inclusive form.  The possibility of systematising the forms of specific kinds of intellectual activity comes to be envisaged at a late stage of the development of culture and such effort in its retrospective orientation seems to look upon creative activity as typical and repetitive.  The awareness of different types of activities of an age or society tends to produce in the mind an increasing sense of order and connection.  Can this sense of unity be described as a form? Does culture form a unity of this kind? Does it have this kind of interrelatedness? What actually produces the sense of unity in a culture belongs to the subject and not object.  It is the unity of cultural awareness only.

The Western Tradition

            The basic experience with which mankind begins has its levels drawn from the physical, the vital and the rational.  Elements from these three levels of experience continue to form the key-experience for cultural tradition.  It is the sense of death that appears to be a dark window from beyond which something beckons, a shade that flits across the mind.  The experience of the vital on the other hand is a sense of life.  The contradiction between the sense of death and life was reconciled in rational terms.  In the first rational theory of the reconciliation of life and death in the west, arose the dichotomy of God and Man.  The distinction between them is a distinction in terms of power and being.  God is a being unknown but endowed with power and will.  Man, on the other hand, is also a being, with a limited power, endowed with will.  Man does not succeed always.  This basic contrast between Man and God continues throughout the history of western religion.

            The relationship between Man and God oscillate between a number of possible modes including rebelliousness.  Man’s rebellion takes the form of either denying God or of seeking a way to equal him.  How is man equal to God? By magic or by science. Nature appeared to the western man as a mystery and a challenge to be known and mastered.  Since God was conceived as the creator and master of nature, God and nature became the creator and created aspects of a single reality.  The rationalistic western tradition identifies the soul with the mind, and the mind with form.  Even matter and behaviour are patterns of motion of which the reflection in logos is form.  The Man-God dualism which is central to the tradition tends to lead to the Spirit-Matter dualism.  Whether it is Aristotelian or scholastic or modern, it is all capable of being considered as a development of the same tendencies where what is analysed, what produces the form, is the sentence, the proposition.  ‘In the beginning was the word, the word was with God, the word was God’.

Usage and Definitions

            In its early uses in English, culture was associated with the “cultivation” of animals and crops and with religious worship, hence the word “cult”.  From the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries the term culture was applied to improvement of human mind and personal manners through learning.  During this period, the term came to mean improvement of society as a whole and a synonym for “civilisation” (culture as the opposite of barbarism).  With the rise of Romanticism the term designated spiritual development in contrast to material and infrastructural change.  In late nineteenth century inflections of tradition and everyday life dimensions were added.  Ideas like “folk culture” and “national culture” emerged around this time.  The German concept of ‘KULTUR’ broadly equated culture with civilisation and with individual or collective moral progress.  Another usage of culture was championed by anthropologists in the beginning of twentieth century, and that remains central to the discipline till date.  It asserts that “culture” is to be found everywhere and not just in the high arts or in western “civilisation”.  Raymond Williams in his work ‘Keywords’ beautifully sums up the historical shifts into three current usages.

(1)        To refer to the intellectual, spiritual and aesthetic development of an individual, group or society.

(2)        To capture a range of intellectual and artistic activities and their products (film, art, theatre).  In this usage culture is more or less synonymous with “the Arts”.

(3)        To designate the entire way of life, activities, beliefs and customs of a people, group or society.

In their study of the meanings of “culture” the anthropologists Kroeber and Kluckhohn collected number of academic definitions of culture and identified six main understandings.

(1)        Descriptive definitions which see culture as a comprehensive totality making up the sum of social life and listed various fields which make up culture (example, Tylor).

(2)        Historical definitions which tended to see culture as a heritage passed on over time through generations (example, Park and Burgess).

(3)        Normative definitions, where one form suggested culture as a way of life or rule (Wissler) and another form which emphasised the role of values without reference to behaviour (example, W.I. Thomas).

(4)        Psychological definitions which emphasised the role of culture as a problem solving device, allowing people to communicate, learn or fulfill material and emotional needs.

(5)        Structural definitions which pointed to the organised interrelation of different aspects of culture.

(6)        Genetic definitions defined culture in terms of how they came into being cultures as product of intergenerational transmission.

            In the second half of twentieth century understandings of culture shifted in subtle ways.  The core usage of the term could be understood in the following manner:

(1)        Culture needs to be understood as something distinctive from and more abstract to the material, technological and social structural realities.

(2)        Culture is to be understood as a patterned sphere of beliefs, values, symbols, signs and discourses.

(3)        Certain “autonomy of culture” is to be accepted and culture should not be perceived as a mere reflection of underlying economic forces, distributions of power or social structural needs.

(4)        The study of culture is not to be restricted to the Arts, but is to be understood to pervade all aspects and levels of social life.

Classical Views on Culture

            Emile Durkheim, Karl Marx and Max Weber represent ‘classical’ or ‘modernist’ interpretations of the role that culture plays in social life.

(A)       Durkheim:

(1)        Culture bonds the individual to the wider group through the socialisation process.

(2)        Culture helps potentially disruptive individuality at bay.

(3)        Individual identity must be replaced by collective group identity for society to ‘work’ in a state of consensus.

(4)        Collective identity and culture are necessary for social order to be established and maintained.

(B)       Karl Marx:

(1)        Culture, or ruling ideas and values, is produced by a ruling group in order to justify its dominance over others.

(2)        Culture acts as a constraint on the individual, leading to social order and control.

(3)        Individuals must realise their true class identity in order to break free from ruling-class oppression.

(4)        Class consciousness and identity leads to revolutionary social change, and to the creation of a new social type and a new social culture.

(C)       Max Weber:

(1)        Societal evolution is haphazard and accidental.

(2)        It is human action and interaction that cause social change and societal evolution.

(3)        The outcome of this interaction can never be predicted in advance.

(4)        Cultural ideas and values are independent of the economy and of how production is organised.

Perspectives and Approaches to the study of Culture

1.         The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu is the most important figure in cultural theory and cultural research today.  He has developed a number of concepts like field, habitus and cultural capital.  Three kinds of capital determine social power and social inequality.  Economic capital describes financial resources.  Social capital is concerned about social ties that people can mobilise for their own advantage.  Bourdieu’s cultural capital is a concept that has several dimensions.

·                     Objective knowledge of the arts and culture

·                     Cultural tastes and preferences

·                     Formal qualifications

·                     Cultural skills and know-how

·                     The ability to be discriminating and to make distinctions between the “good” and “bad”.

2.         The field generally known as British cultural studies is one of the important influences on cultural theory.  There is a primary interest in exploring culture as a site where power and resistance are played out.  Raymond Williams, Richard Hoggart and Stuart Hall are the luminaries.  Graeme Turner has summed up the strengths of British Cultural Studies as:

(1)        A vigorous argument for the autonomy of culture.

(2)        Clear understanding of the links of meaning to power and social structure.

(3)        A theoretically rich, interdisciplinary approach for decoding texts and ideologies.

(4)        An ability to incorporate agency through an understanding of political strategy derived from Gramsci and ideas about reading from communications and literary theory.

3.         It is often remarked that the structuralist movement arrived like a tidal wave in the 1950s, radically transforming the way we think about culture.  
Ferdinand de Saussure, a French linguist laid the foundations of structuralist approach to language as well as culture.  According to him, language consisted of an acoustic image (words, sounds) linked to concepts (thoughts or ideas).  His method involved mapping out a language system at a given moment in time, instead of accounting for it as a historical product.  He also insisted on the need to differentiate langue (language) from parole (speech). Parole referred to actual empirical instances of language use while langue was a structure or sign system that underpinned parole.  In his Course in General Linguistics, Saussure suggested that it is possible to conceive of a science which studies the role of signs as a part of social life and called it Semiology.  His perspective became a major approach to the analysis of culture.  Developments in anthropology, psychoanalysis and cultural studies have established Semiotics as an innovative and powerful tradition that covers diverse disciplinary fields.

            Claude Levi-Strauss is regarded as the leading structuralist theorist of culture.  The major strength of his approach was his ability to map the autonomy of culture.  He showed that cultural systems had their own rules and logic of operation.  Ideas about bricolage and systems of transformation are also widely applied to cultural creativity and change in both western and non-western contexts.  However, his critics point out that the ideas of power are curiously absent from his work.  There is no understanding of the ways that mythologies might become institutionalised because they support certain interests.  Another criticism is that Levi-Strauss sees culture as an abstraction that is able to exist without active human intervention.  Agency seems to be denied with culture operating in a deterministic way.  There is little space for strategy, agency or individual reflexivity in the Levi-Straussian universe.

            The French intellectual and philosopher Roland Barthes was another pioneer of structuralist approaches to culture in 1950s.  He argued for a close convergence between linguistics and cultural inquiry and heralded a movement toward post-structuralism.  Barthes applied Semiotics to food system, rituals etc.  He extended the signifier/signified to other fields through Syntagam and System.  His Mythologies decode French everyday life and culture.  According to Barthes, signs within culture are never innocent, but rather they are caught up in complex webs of ideological reproduction.  A key aspect of Mythologies was the use of the distinction between denotationand connotation.  Denotation referred to the liberal meaning and connotation to the extra meanings (mythological) that are layered on top.  Barthes combined semiotics with critical theory.  This legitimated the study of popular culture in academic circles.  Barthes showed that even junk-culture activities like wrestling or mundane objects like the automobile were fair game for the analyst’s pen.  By 1970s his ideas influenced British Cultural Studies on advertising, news programming and the print media.

4.         Michel Foucault in large part was responsible for constructing and institutionalising the post-structural model.  Discourse is perhaps the central motif in Foucault’s thinking.  A discourse can be thought of as a way of describing, defining, classifying and thinking about people, things and even knowledge and abstract systems of thought.  Discourses were never free of power relations.  They arise out of the power/knowledge relationships between groups of people.  Power was a fundamental and inescapable dimension of social life.  Foucault introduced number of key ideas like micro-physics of power, capillary nature of power, fragmentary and incomplete nature of power, constructive nature of power and the concept of governmentality.  Foucault sought to develop a history of the hidden and the silent in historical studies to understand those who are on the ‘forgotten’, ‘silent’ and ‘powerless’ side of these differences.  His method is useful in creating cultural identities.

5.         According to W.T. Anderson, the editor of the Fontana Post-Modernism Reader, postmodernity has occurred in four key areas of social life namely the concept of self has become mouldable, morality has dissolved, there are no rules or set ways to behave in art and culture (no distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture) and the process of globalisation has had a dramatic effect on the world.  The world appears a much smaller place due to global communications, world travel and tourism and the spread of ideas across the globe.  There is an “epistemic suspicion” which is at the core of postmodernism.  We should relentlessly interrogate our conceptual categories for evidence of power/knowledge.  We should attempt to uncover hidden biases behind the concepts we use and the ways that they work to reproduce relationships of domination.  We need to rethink our understanding of knowledge as something that is outside power.  The attack on science and modernity has in turn led to an interest in the texts and representations through which knowledge claims are constructed.  Knowledge is seen as the product of textual strategies and ways of writing.  For many postmodernists this era is characterised by a shift away from production towards an economy, culture, identities and lifestyles based on consumption.  Knowledge has become a commodity and a form of power rather than an absolute truth.  Just as truth fragments into a plurality of truths, traditions have been replaced with pluralities of traditions.  Search for dominant cultural meaning has been replaced by an individual search for meaning and lifestyle has become a matter of choice.

6.         Twentieth century has witnessed lot of research on the production and reception of culture, most notably in mass communications, film, television studies and sociology.  It is an approach which reflects contemporary inquiry.  Despite pluralism in theoretical paradigms some common principles can also be identified in this perspective.

(i)         While accepting broader definitions of culture tangible products such as art, a book, a film or a broadcast could also be studied (“Recorded culture”, “Cassette culture”, “Cultural products”, “Cultural object”, etc.).

(ii)        A model derived from mass communications research sees culture as something similar to a message that is produced, transmitted and received.  The primary aim of analysis is to assess the impact of cultural, technological and social factors.

(iii)       The central focus is on the concrete agency of actors and institutions rather than on abstract social forces.

(iv)       Cultural forms are not to be studied as abstractions but in their specific contexts.

            The field of consumption or reception culture is a component of mass communication research.  The American communications research tradition originated with Lazarsfeld.  This tends to be positivistic in orientation and organised around concepts like transmission of information and opinion, particularly how voting behaviour is changed by viewing a political broadcast.  This field is strongly influenced by the British Cultural Studies tradition and recognises the ability of the audiences to be critical of dominant ideologies and the match/mismatch between their readings and the ones that are intended.  Television programmes, for example, are “texts” that have to be “decoded” by viewers who use a particular “horizon of expectations” in making sense of them.  In reception culture there is greater emphasis on the autonomy of the individual to generate their own private meanings.  A major concern is with pleasure, play and fantasy as responses to texts.  David Morley, David Buckingham, Janice Radway and John Fiske are some of the prominent writers in this field.

            Philip Smith has evaluated the production and reception cultures and summarises the positives as follows:

(1)        Causal links and processes can be clearly traced to specific institutions and actors.

(2)        Rigorous methodologies are often used, especially in comparative audience research.

(3)        Culture is treated something concrete rather than something reified and outside human agency.

(4)        Research objects tend to have clear research findings rather than open-ended theoretical speculations and assertions.

            There are two common criticisms of the aforesaid area of cultural research.  The content of cultural production tends to be accounted for with reference to the demands of the audiences, the censorship of gatekeepers, technological advances and so on.  Such a position threatens the ability to theorise the autonomy of culture.  Another concern is that the field tends to work with a limited definition of “culture’.  The idea of culture refers to so much more than just “the arts” or creative products as they are conventionally defined.  It can also include everyday life, ideologies, rituals, discourses and so on.  Daniel Dayan and Elihu Katz, Robin Wagner Pacifici, Barry Schwartz and Robert Wathnow are some of the notable writers in the field of production and reception culture.


            Globalisation can be defined as ‘those processes, operating on a global scale, which cut across national boundaries, integrating and connecting communities and organisations in new space – time combinations making the world in reality and in experience more interconnected.  The idea of cultural identities emerge on personal and group identities based on religion, gender, class, ethnicity and nationality.  In modern times the cultural identity which has had the most important influence on the formation of subjects is the notion of national identity.  The decline of the nation-state and the acceleration of globalisation process have certainly affected national allegiances and identities.  Postmodernists claim that the process of globalisation can be seen as either liberating or constraining.  The plurality of cultural meanings on offer due to globalisation means that individuals can ‘pick and mix’ from them and modify their identity in line with ever changing and expanding world.  However, the rapid expansion of cultural influences might create uncertainty – it might lead to confusion, chaos and cultural disorder as well.  Media critic McLuhan wrote as early as 1960s about the creation of a ‘global village’ and a ‘global culture’ based on new technology.  Globalisation has raised questions about how individuals experience time and space, and how they experience and create culture and identity.  Some see it as a source of liberation and creativity, others view it as presenting us with further risks and damage.

Long Questions:


1.         Examine the usage and definitions of the term culture by anthropologists.

2.         What is culture according to classical sociology?

3.         Discuss the various perspectives on the study of culture in the second half of the 20th century.

Suggested Readings:


1.         Warren Kidd, Culture and Identity, Palgrave, 2002.

2.         Philip Smith, Cultural Theory, An Introduction, Blackwell, 2001.

3.         Graeme Turner, British Cultural Studies, Routledge, 1996.

4.         Diana Crane, The Production of Culture, Sage, 1992.