literature · synopses
Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2001.
viii, 268 pages
Website The book offers invaluable help, in that it makes one aware of the studies that have been made in this field, of the important ideas and concepts that are being debated in contemporary studies and of the possibilities that a postmodern and poststructural critique of culture open up to the marginalized and so far excluded groups and peoples.
Because of the complexity of the idea of culture Raymond Williams says that culture is one of the two or three most complex words in the English language. To make the concept understandable Philip Smith has done an immense service through his book, Cultural Theory: An Introduction. At the very beginning the book deals with the founding fathers of cultural theory, namely Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber and George Simmel. The contributions of these thinkers are invaluable. It is on their insights that contemporary cultural theory has built a splendid edifice. Parsons' contribution lay in the efforts he made to systematically theorize the relationship between culture, personality, and social structure by developing abstract and universally applicable models.
The Marxism that became prevalent after Marx was characterised by materialistic determinism which neglected the important role of culture in society. Western Marxists like Georg Lukacs, Antonio Gramsci, and the members of the Frankfurt school, Walter Benjamin, Theodore Adorno, Max Horkheinmer, Jürgen Habermas and others, have contributed much to the critical understanding of contemporary culture. The concepts of commodification, hegemony, mass society, culture industry, communicative action, etc., have become the tools of contemporary critical understanding of culture and cultural theory. The influence of Durkheim in the field of cultural studies and especially in the study of topics such as solidarity, ritual, religion, and symbolism as seen in the works of Marcel Mauss, Maurice Halbwachs, Robert Hertz and later in the works of Victor Turner, Mary Douglas, Robert Bella and Edward Shils are explored.
It is said that structuralist approach radically changed the way we used to look at culture in 1950s. The works of Ferdinand de Sausssure, Claude Levi-Strauss, Roland Barthes and Marshall Sahlins have transformed the way we understand culture. Today the poststructuralist approach to culture as seen in the works of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida has influenced the field of cultural studies. Inquiry into the relationship between systems, meaning and human action has long been an important aspect of cultural theory. Pierre Bourdieu was arguably the most important figure in cultural theory and cultural research today. His ideas about ›cultural capital‹ and ›habitus‹ provide exciting insights into the form and structure of culture.
Contemporary cultural studies have vigorously argued for the autonomy of culture and have sought a clearer understanding of the links between power and social structure. They also provide a theoretically rich, interdisciplinary approach for decoding texts and ideologies. The study of ›media effects‹ and the different models used to disseminate and control ideas and culture through ›agenda setting‹ and ›spiral of silence‹ (e.g. media coverage of September 11, 2001 attack on WTC and the bombing of Afganisthan) throw light on the complex and intriguing reality of the attempts to manipulate public opinion.
For contemporary cultural theorists, hermeneutics and psychoanalytic theory have offered the most elaborate and attractive discourse on the ›self‹. In the area of cultural theory, few concepts have generated as much anxiety and controversy as Postmodernism, postmodernity, postmodernization, and globalization. Francois Lyotard, Jean Beaudrillard, Daniel Bell, and Fredric Jameson have contributed much to the postmodern debate in social theory. Postmodern and poststructural critical theories take up the critique of the cultural foundations of science and Western modernity. Postmodern cultural theory is part of a moral and political enterprise and a recognition of the perspectives, voices and cultures of subordinate groups. The analysis of identity and difference, differences in value, value of difference and hybridity have added a new dimension to the understanding of culture. It has given central role in theoretical inquiry to questions of morality, value and politics, and has made genuine efforts to incorporate minority views and perspectives.
The scope of the book is really vast. Introducing and critically evaluating so many theoretical traditions, thinkers and their important concepts is no easy task. Not everyone might accept the assessment of Philip Smith. However, for people who are trying to understand and study culture and cultural theory, the book offers invaluable help, in that it makes one aware of the studies that have been made in this field, of the important ideas and concepts that are being debated in contemporary studies and of the possibilities that a postmodern and poststructural critique of culture open up to the marginalized and so far excluded groups and peoples.
The layout of the book with major concepts in bold letters, bullets used to indicate summaries and important points, notes on biographical and intellectual aspects of important thinkers, and suggested further readings at the end of each section are of great help to the readers.