Cultural studies conference looks to shake off Mickey Mouse image

July 20, 2007

It has been branded the ultimate "vague, wishy-washy" subject: the study of "just any old thing", which is subject to further ridicule by its "naff" name.

But hundreds of academics will rally this week to stand up for the future of cultural studies amid warnings that the discipline has been expanded and relocated to the point where it no longer has a coherent identity.

The international Cultural Studies Now conference at the University of East London is set to be the biggest cultural studies conference ever held in the UK, with 500 papers submitted and academics travelling from as far away as Iran, Mexico, Russia and Taiwan.

Mika Nava, professor of cultural studies at UEL and chair of the conference committee, said: "The conference is intended to explore the profile of cultural studies as a discipline - to see how far it has been able to survive as a radical intellectual project in today's political climate."

Cultural studies emerged in the 1970s at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University.

Professor Nava said: "What was significant and unique about cultural studies then was the way it took on board and made central not only the critique of the New Left but also questions raised by feminists and post-colonial politics. Cultural studies also foregrounded the everyday, the popular and the domestic. It now seems commonplace to have these issues on the academic agenda. It was not in the 1970s."

For Paul Bowman, senior lecturer in cultural studies at Roehampton University, the problem has been the field's name. He said: "Ironically, despite Stuart Hall's influential characterisation of cultural studies as a serious, motivated, politicised, interventional project, it has regularly been misconstrued and misrepresented as precisely the opposite of this: namely, as 'just any old thing', as 'whatever people choose to do,' as a vague, wishy washy, 'Mickey Mouse' subject.

"Doubtless, part of the reason why cultural studies has been given such a bad name is because it had already been given such a bad name. For what could possibly sound more vague and unfocused than 'cultural studies'? How naff is that for a name?"

Ashwani Sharma, principal lecturer in the School of Social Sciences, Media and Cultural Studies at UEL, believes the key strength of cultural studies has been its interdisciplinary approach with a central focus on culture.

She said: "There has never been one cultural studies. Its relationship to other disciplines has been, I would argue, symbiotic - as much as it has 'borrowed' from sociology, history, philosophy, politics and so on - it has in turn infected these fields of study.

"While some outside the field of cultural studies have tended to see this interdisciplinary promiscuity as a problem, for many this has allowed for new questions and approaches to be developed in relation to objects of study that have historically been excluded."

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