Reports from the battle for meaning

The Practice of Cultural Studie. First edition - The Sage Dictionary of Cultural Studies. First edition
May 27, 2005

With the rapid expansion of cultural studies and the attendant plethora of resources aimed at supporting students through its terrain, the notion of providing anything innovative or controversial is difficult to embody in print these days. Indeed, the field seems to have levelled out into either the safety of description or the provision of easy-to-handle reference guides offering quickly digestible bites of information.

Two such books have emerged from Sage. The Practice of Cultural Studies by Richard Johnson et al aims to delineate the “practice” to which it alludes and to recognise the diversity of the field by reference to the multiplicity of methods that make it up. While this can be seen as a worthy enough project in its own right, in a text of only 300 pages it leads inevitably to a form of reductionism that ironically negates the “inclusive” project it sets out to achieve.

Unfortunately, “practice” here demands a good deal of description of largely sociological methodologies and what is lost is a sense of the space of cultural studies as an arena of passionate and sometimes mutually negating contests for particular ends. In addition, it is far too descriptive to be thoroughly engaging about the conceptual battles towards which it nods, and in an attempt to include everything, ends up not being a particularly strong case for anything at all.
Although it might be a useful starting place for students new to cultural studies, it remains, rather disappointingly, an anodyne rendition of what could have been a lively and dynamic series of inquiries.

The Sage Dictionary of Cultural Studies , on the other hand, sets out on an entirely different path. Astute about what it calls the “problems” of “representationalism”, it eschews the question of what cultural studies is for the more sharply honed query: “How do we talk about cultural studies and for what purposes?”

Starting from language, which it is argued “does not accurately represent the world but is a tool for achieving our purposes”, this dictionary sees the field of cultural studies as a set of knowledges within which different logical moves operate to achieve different, yet specific, aims. What emerges from this is a much livelier notion of cultural studies as an important site of contest over the meanings produced and circulated across the space of culture, within which cultural studies, as a field of inquiry, comes to constitute itself. As such, rather than describing the differences that make up an all-encompassing study of culture, the dictionary itself brings cultural studies into being in a particular way.

The “practice” of cultural studies here is an analytical, pedagogical and political task with questions of culture, power and resistance to the fore. While there is nothing intrinsically new or controversial about the dictionary, it does offer a sound consolidation of key concepts that students of the variety of trends of cultural studies will find extremely useful and thought-provoking. This is an ideal resource for anyone teaching cultural studies that will surely find its place in the reference sections of libraries.

Kate McGowan is senior lecturer in English and cultural studies, Manchester Metropolitan University.

The Practice of Cultural Studie. First edition

Author - Richard Johnson, Deborah Chambers, Parvati Raghuram and Estella Tincknell
Publisher - Sage
Pages - 300
Price - £60.00 and £19.99
ISBN - 0 7619 6099 6 and 6100 3

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