Stuart Hall’s contribution to critical theory and to the study of politics, culture, media, race, diaspora and postcolonialism has been fundamental, hence his thought is difficult to summarise. In line with the “organic intellectual” of Gramsci, for whom knowledge has to be shared beyond the realm of the intellectual, his epistemological posture was embedded within political and public commitments. This engagement led him to deconstruct the foundations of New Right discourses and what he named as “Thatcherism”. His attempt to overhaul critical and socialist thought is deeply linked to the formation of the Cultural Studies’ project developed in the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (1978; 1982).
This transdisciplinary field has explored popular culture and progressively, subcultures, counter-cultures and minority cultures as a means of examining ongoing social transformations in a multicultural society but also the broader social structure in which these identity reconfigurations occur. In this context, Hall looked at the mass media by combining a Marxist culturalist perspective, Gramsci’s theory of hegemony and Althusser’s conception of the media as an apparatus of the state, dedicated to the reproduction of dominant ideologies. Culture is defined as a space of interpretative struggle. He argued that the media not only reflects reality but also “produces” it while “reproducing” the dominant cultural order, in particular the order inherited from the Empire. He deconstructed the circulation of meanings and images through media practices and showed how identities based on age, class, race or gender may intersect with dominant representations (‘encoding’ and ‘decoding’).
The role of culture in the construction of meanings for Hall is primary because it implies sharing conceptual maps and systems of classification and representations. This analytical framework challenges the national identity and the implicit racial homogeneity of Britishness while the coming of new ethnicities (from the Empire) shed light, in mirrored reflection, on the peculiarity of the majority as an ethnic group.
The new ethnicities paradigm articulates a critical framing emphasising local and trans-local anchors of identities (hybridity, postcolonial, diaspora) while race is understood as a discursive system in which it is not only ideological or cultural but situated in social relations and structures that confine identity and social mobility.
Hall, Stuart. Encoding and Decoding in the Television Discourse. Birmingham, England: Centre for Cultural Studies, University of Birmingham, 1973. 507–17
Hall, Stuart, C. Critcher, T. Jefferson, J. Clarke & B. Roberts (1978): Policing the Crisis. London: Macmillan
The Empire Strikes Back collection (Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies 1982)
Hall, S. (1991) ‘Old and New Identities, Old and New Ethnicities’, In A. King (Ed.) Culture, Globalisation and the World System, Basingstoke, Macmillan.
Hall, S. (1992) New Ethnicities. In J. Donald & A. Rattansi (Eds.) ‘Race’, Culture and Difference. London, Sage. (Originally published in 1988.)
Hall, S. (1980) Race, Articulation and Societies Structured in Dominance. In Sociological Theories: Race and Colonialism, edited by United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation, 305. Paris: UNESCO
What is the difference between the racial identity defined by Hall as a fiction that is nevertheless necessary to make both politics and identity possible and Spivak’s notion of “strategic essentialism”?
Discuss the importance of Hall’s work to media studies.
How does Hall build on and develop key sociological concepts? (For example, meaning or culture).
What is the relationship between political engagement and knowledge for Hall?
Submitted by Sarah Demart