Michael Berube on the trouble with cultural studies

There’s plenty, as seemingly everyone in the field seems to agree. Now we have Michael Berube at the Chronicle of Higher Education, arguing that:

Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order (1978), the Birmingham collection that predicted the British Labour Party’s epochal demise, is now more than 30 years old. In that time, has cultural studies transformed the disciplines of the human sciences? Has cultural studies changed the means of transmission of knowledge? Has cultural studies made the American university a more egalitarian or progressive institution? Those seem to me to be useful questions to ask, and one useful way of answering them is to say, sadly, no. Cultural studies hasn’t had much of an impact at all.

I’m saying this baldly and polemically for a reason. I know there are worthy programs in cultural studies at some North American universities, like Kansas State and George Mason, where there were once no programs at all. I know that there is more interdisciplinary work than there was 25 years ago; there is even an entire Cultural Studies Association, dating all the way back to 2003. But I want to accentuate the negative in order to point out that over the past 25 years, there has been a great deal of cultural-studies triumphalism that now seems unwarranted and embarrassing.

Berube conludes by arguing that despite the fertile interdisciplinary links the movement has established, it appears to have exerted little influence on sociology in the US (followers of Paul Di Maggio might beg to differ); worse, “the situation is even bleaker if you ask about cultural studies’ impact on psychology, economics, political science, or international relations, because you might as well be asking about the carbon footprint of unicorns.”

I think there is actually much more cause for optimism than Berube admits. Even so,  this is a enjoyable and provoking little piece.


2 thoughts on “Michael Berube on the trouble with cultural studies

  1. Obviously cultural studies has been a force to reckon with in the ever-morphing discipline know as “English.” However, the question he ought to be asking, and it seems like he gets around to it a bit, is whether it has been a force for good. Despite making scholarship more enjoyable, and helping to include the low cultural realm in academia, it has paved new narrow roads for essentialists to claim that certain realms of inquiry are, “mine, not yours.” I think that has been the tragedy, and the reason why it has shown a bit of the old “sparkle and fade.” I say that in spite of the fact that it hasn’t quite faded just yet.

    • Hi Jeff,

      thanks for your comment. I don’t think cultural studies is over either – in fact, I think its just getting started as a discipline. Indeed, many of the insights gleaned from the field are in some ways merely be rediscovered by behavioural economics in recent times.

      Best, Ben

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