All Communication Lessons

All Communication Lessons

Critical Theory
From Critical Theory to Cultural Studies
A lesson on how Critical Theory is important in understanding and working with diverse communities and individuals.

Added By: ELC Staff

February 21, 2024

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A great deal of energy is spent attacking a thing called “Critical Race Theory.” This lesson discusses “Critical Theory” in general and tries to learn from it.

A great deal of work in this area has been influenced by the work of Karl Marx (1818-1883).

Class was the form of social difference that most interested him.

He considered class division as the most fundamental organizing factor in capitalist society.

Marxist theories analyze how people are divided into classes and how the capitalist ruling class (bourgeoisie) dominates and exploits its workers (proletariat).

While class divisions and economic systems are central to understanding Marx, it is also important to distinguish Marxism as a theory from the political and economic systems of Communism.

Politically, a Communist state relies on a single-party system.

Economically, it is based on nationalized industries and the state ownership of property.

Communism is a form of government and an economic system that is more narrowly defined than Marxism.

Marxist theory is a philosophy that provides a critical analysis of capitalism as well as a theory for social change.

In communication studies, Marxist thought has a much wider range of applications, especially because Marx himself was not only concerned with economic production but also with the production and control of ideas.

For Marx, those who control the means of production control much more than economic flows; they also control the flow of culture, ideas, and values in society.

In The German Ideology (1845), Marx writes that “the ideas of the ruling class are, in every age, the ruling ideas: i.e., the class which is the dominant material force in society, is at the same time its dominant intellectual force.

The class with the means of material production at its disposal has control at the same time over the means of mental production…” (Marx, 1845/1963, p. 93).

Simply put, those who control economic production also control cultural production.

Because ‘the one who pays the piper calls the tune,’ capitalist forms of culture, art, and media become the bearers of capitalist ideology.

Developing Marxist thought in the 20th century were scholars from The Frankfurt School for Social Research (f.


Scholars such as Theodor Adorno (1903-1969), Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), Max Horkheimer (1895-1973), and Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979) were also concerned with the production and distribution of culture and ideology.

They argue that public discourse has been eclipsed by private industry and that consumer goods have come to dominate people’s consciousness.

Making a distinction between true needs and false needs, they consider unnecessary consumer goods to be false needs.

They considered true needs to be the deep, essential needs of human beings.

Human beings need to be independent, autonomous, creative participants in the life world.

People need to have a voice in the public sphere and to be active in their own government.

However, capitalism has remained strong by inculcating desires for unnecessary cultural commodities.

You only need to walk into a local Super-Mart to see what the Frankfurt School theorists mean.

Take, for example, the dozens of different brands, varieties, and even scents of air fresheners available.

Or conduct a web search, where examples of unnecessary commodities abound online.

They argue that the proliferation of commodities is distracting and prevents people from fulfilling their true needs for autonomy and creativity.

True needs are eclipsed by false needs.

Under capitalism, freedom of choice is reduced to the freedom to choose between consumer goods, not between political or economic systems.

In this way, the right to make political choices has become less important than the right to make consumer choices.

These theorists were also concerned with the transformation of culture into industry.

The process of commodification names how a piece of culture, such as music or a work of art, can become a product whose value lies only in its price rather than in its artistic quality.

Some theorists, like Theodor Ardorno, were particularly concerned with popular music.

For him, popular music was a product to be bought and sold rather than an authentic work of art or a creative expression.

He argued that this affected the mass production techniques used after the Industrial Revolution.

If popular music were to be produced in a standardized way, it would lose its unique artistic qualities.

He also argued that by using assembly-line techniques, the production of a musical album was no different than the production of a bar of soap or an automobile.

While mass production ensured that a greater number of units could be purchased at a lower price, Adorno argued that profit motives would have negative effects on the artistry of popular music and culture in general.

He also regarded mass production as a dangerous development because it threatened to break down the traditional cultural hierarchy.

This hierarchy values High Culture, such as fine art or opera, because it is exclusive and refined.

It also values Low Culture, such as folk music or mendhi (henna tattoos), because they are produced for small, local communities and are, therefore, unique and authentic.

However, these forms of culture have lost their inherent value as they have become mass-produced.

For example, Frankfurt School theorists would argue that Vincent Van Gough’s “The Starry Night” is a work of fine art (an example of High Culture).

However, it is degraded when reproduced onto thousands of coffee mugs or refrigerator magnets.

Likewise, mendhi has been practiced in many Eastern cultures for centuries (an example of Folk or Low Culture).

It, too, has lost unique cultural value because thousands of identical stencils for henna tattoos can now be easily purchased nearly anywhere in the West.

Both of these examples show a concern for culture and commodification.

From Critical Theory to Cultural Studies

Marxist and Frankfurt School theories successfully analyze the relationships between culture and economy.

Clearly, this line of research remains focused on class hierarchy as the most important feature of social difference.

However, Critical Theory may not adequately address other categories of social difference such as gender, race, or sexuality.

Cultural Studies picks up here by bringing into focus other features of social difference.

Additionally, Cultural Studies does not simply critique the dominant or “ruling” ideology but instead looks at the struggle between different ideologies.

The assumption made here is that society is comprised of different social groups who vie for power through cultural resources.

The struggle does not occur on a grand battlefield, but instead, the struggle occurs in people’s everyday practices and forms of popular culture.

For instance, television viewing, cinema, web surfing, and subcultures of music and fashion are important elements of daily life in many Western cultures.

Cultural Studies does not view these as “innocent” amusements but instead brings into focus the struggles between culture, entertainment, power, and ideology.

Cultural Studies also brings cultures of resistance into focus.

For instance, in Subculture: The Meaning of Style (1979), Dick Hebdige analyzed the punk rock movements of the late 1970s and early 1980s in Britain.

Viewed in mainstream society as a social problem, Hebdige instead looked at the aggressive, even anarchist bases of punk as an important cultural expression of disenfranchised youth.

He argued that punk must be seen in the social context of economic decline and racial unrest.

Instead of condemning punk as a menace to society, he explored the complex and dynamic practices by which British youth expressed their disillusion by creating unique styles of music and fashion.

Through punk, British youth created a means not just to mark a distinctive identity but also a political position against the status quo.

Other case studies concerning musical subcultures have focused on diaspora or the spread of large group migrations as people move outside of their traditional homelands.

For instance, Bennett (2002, 2001/2005) analyzed how East Indian youth transformed bhangra, a form of Punjabi folk music.

As many Indian families settled in large Western cities, including Toronto, London, and New York, they were forced to negotiate tensions between tradition and assimilation.

Indian diasporic youth responded by mixing the traditional bhangra style with other genres of music, such as techno, pop, rap, and reggae.

These practices created “…a means for young Asians to construct new identities which both reflect their cultural roots while at the same time articulating new cultural sensibilities based on their experiences growing up in Britain” (Bennett, 2001/2005, p.

105), Canada, and the U.S.A, respectively.

By creating a new musical subculture, East Indian youth found a way of honoring their heritage while also carving out an identity distinct from the younger generation.

Ethnicity and identity are important topics in this field.

Cultural Studies research also focuses on how people use popular culture to create, or even claim, identity. Claiming generally refers to white middle-class youth who take up cultural practices that are outside of their own ethnic upbringing.

For example, many teens have adopted an ethnic identity through the music, dance, fashion, and slang popular in hip-hop and Latino cultures. Nell Bernstein (2006) calls the phenomena “goin’ gangsta” or “choosin’ cholita.” The phenomena have even been parodied on television programs such as The Simpsons and South Park, as well as in films such as Malibu’s Most Wanted.

For many teens, ethnicity is the “spice” that livens up the dish of mainstream white culture. Bell Hooks (1999) has called this process “eating the Other.” Here, white youth metaphorically consume Other cultures when claiming an ethnic identity.

This line of thought analyzes white privilege and takes a critical stance on power and racism.

These examples of Cultural Studies research focus on subculture and resistance, as well as power and ethnicity.

Yet other research in Cultural Studies has been heavily influenced by Feminist Theory.

These studies bring issues of gender and sexuality into focus.

Much work here examines negative or narrowly stereotyped representations of women in television, film, advertisements, and other forms of popular culture.

For instance, in Dreamworlds: Desire, Sex, and Power (1991, 1995, 2008), Sut Jhally analyzed the ways in which women are portrayed in music videos.

In a detailed investigation, he identified the roles of women as highly sexualized and argued that through these representations, women are symbolically annihilated.

Symbolic annihilation refers to the ways in which women are absent, trivialized, or otherwise marginalized.

His critique seeks to open a dialogue about these issues and to combat stereotypes.

As this body of work continues to grow, greater attention is also being paid to issues of masculinity.

(See Chapter 4: Gendered Communication) Ultimately, this branch of Cultural Studies works to open up definitions of masculinity, femininity, and sexuality as well as to work toward creating a more democratic space of representation.