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social sciences

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Cultural Studies  
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Cultural studies is an interdisciplinary field concerned with the forms, practices and experiences of contemporary cultural life. Blending ideas and methods from both the humanities and the social sciences, cultural studies examines the diverse relations through which cultural meanings and values are produced and received.

Within this context, the field attends centrally to the intersections between subjectivity and power: how identities are formed and transformed through the operations of social discourse, especially those pertaining to class, race, gender, and sexuality. The significance of cultural studies for glbtq people stems from, among other things, its concern with social and sexual politics; its focus on subcultural production and consumption; and its commitment to progressive social change.

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The Politics of Everyday Life

Cultural studies developed out of the work of various post-World War II scholars who sought to challenge traditional modes of studying and thinking about culture. Rather than limit focus to canonical works of art, official history, or quantitative social data, these critics argued the need to attend to the full range of forms that constitute the varied landscapes of contemporary culture.

In particular, they stressed the importance of taking seriously what Raymond Williams, a pioneering figure in the development of cultural studies, termed "ordinary culture." In this reading, culture is not simply a rarefied set of practices valued by certain social or intellectual elites (that is, "High Culture"), but "the ordinary processes of human societies and human minds" that make up the lived experience of culture as "a whole way of life."

Thus, cultural studies emerged as an academic field devoted to the serious analysis of such diverse and previously denigrated forms of everyday culture as popular media, sports, fashion, and shopping.

Cultural Materialism

As part of its reconceptualization of culture as ordinary and extensive, cultural studies stresses the need to situate and analyze cultural forms within the real world contexts of their production and use. Often dubbed "cultural materialism," this approach contends that culture can never truly be understood independently of society and its governing conditions.

Any given text or practice will always be produced and consumed in material (that is, real) social and historical contexts and will bear the trace of those contexts. The aim of analysis, therefore, should be to identify how a text circulates in material conditions and how it serves to reproduce shared cultural meanings and beliefs.

This approach sees culture as broadly political, as something that is both articulated through and reproductive of social ideologies. Indeed, many of the key figures in the early development of cultural studies were committed Marxists and one of their central objectives was to show how the culture of everyday life functions as a site of hegemony, the reproduction and naturalization of social power structures.

Given its Marxist roots, much of the focus of early work in cultural studies was on exposing the investments of everyday culture in power structures of class. The approach has subsequently broadened, however, to attend to competing systems of social power organized around such varied axes as race, ethnicity, nationality, age, gender, and sexuality.

Hegemonies of Gender and Sexuality

The attention in cultural studies to hegemonies of gender and sexuality is of particular relevance to glbtq people. Considerable work has been done in cultural studies by examining how everyday culture relays patriarchal and ideologies and thereby maintains social .

To use a classic example, the constant reiteration in contemporary media cultures of endless images of idealized heterosexual romance and families works both to promote heterosexuality as a universal ideal and to secure its ongoing status as social norm. By contrast, mainstream media regularly represents gay, lesbian, bisexual, , and people as "other" to this heterosexual norm, thus reinscribing conservative views of queer sexualities and subjects as socially marginal and devalued.

As Larry Gross and James D. Woods argue, glbtq people "are usually ignored altogether [by mainstream media], but when they do appear, it is in roles that support the natural order and are thus narrowly and negatively stereotyped." By exposing these political maneuvers in the culture at large, cultural studies seeks to denaturalize their operations and loosen the hold of heteronormativity and other strategies of exclusionary power.

Popular Resistance

Importantly, cultural studies asserts that such tactics of political resistance are not simply the preserve of scholars and analysts, but are in fact widely practiced by ordinary people in everyday life. Unlike traditional approaches where the audiences of mass culture are regularly assumed to be abstract collectives that passively imbibe the meanings of cultural commodities, cultural studies insists on both the diversity and agency of cultural consumers.

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