Three Day International Seminar


Cultural Studies: Global and Local Perspectives

7 - 9 February 2015


Concept Note

Cultural Studies as an academic discipline emerged with the rise of interest in popular culture in western societies in the 1960s under the banner of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in the UK. Under Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall, BCCCS operated at the intersections of literary criticism, sociology, history and anthropology with an interdisciplinary approach to study culture, subculture, popular culture, and media studies, incorporating Marxism, post-structuralism and feminism.

There are differences between  "study of culture" and institutionally located Cultural Studies. The study of culture has taken place in a variety of academic disciplines - sociology, anthropology, literature, etc. and in a range of geographical and institutional spaces. However, this is not to be understood as Cultural Studies. In Cultural Studies, the study of culture is concerned with questions of shared social meanings, that is, the various ways we make sense of the world. However, meanings are not simply floating 'out there'; rather they are generated through signs, most notably those of language. For Raymond Williams (1981, 1983) culture is located, to all intents and purposes, within flexible but identifiable boundaries. That is, culture is understood to be a facet of place. In so far as culture is a common and whole way of life, its boundaries are intertwined with those of nationality and ethnicity. However, globalization has made the idea of  'culture as a whole way of life' increasingly problematic. Cultural Studies as a discipline designates a recent and rapidly growing cross-disciplinary enterprise for analyzing the conditions that affect the production, reception and cultural significance of all types of institutions, practices and products. A chief concern is to specify the functioning of the social, economic and political forces and power structures that produce the diverse forms of cultural phenomena and to endow them with their social 'meanings', their 'truth', the modes of discourse in which they are discussed, and their relative value and status. Cultural Studies is thus also devoted to the analysis and interpretation of objects and social practices outside the realm of literature and other arts. Any cultural phenomenon is endowed with meaning as it is the product of social forces and conventions may either express or oppose the dominant structures of power in a culture. In theory, there is no limit to the kind of things and patterns of behaviour to which such an analysis of cultural  'texts' may be applied. Cultural Studies deals with a spectrum ranging from the vogue of body building through urban street fashions, from cross-dressing to the social gesture of smoking a cigarette. Typically, it pays less attention to works in the established literary canon than to popular fiction, best selling romances, journalism, and advertising, together with other arts that have mass appeal such as cartoon comics, films, television soap operas, and rock and rap music.

However, emphasis on the representational aspect of culture has sometimes come at some cost to the discipline itself. One of the pitfalls of allowing the discipline to focus exclusively at the politics of discourse could lead to a situation where it loses its political thrust. Cultural Studies was always conceived of as a discipline with immense political potential; however, it can be argued that an exclusive concern with representational politics is an attempt to "institutionalize" the discipline.

Cultural Studies developed in Asia as a regionally distinctive branch within the larger framework of a global Cultural Studies. The twenty-first century has brought about a massive change in the socio-political and cultural scenario of Asia. These changes have invited new perspectives in Cultural Studies. While retaining the essential core of the discipline in terms of its political edge, many would argue that it is time Cultural Studies came home. Doing Cultural Studies in Assam might evoke an entirely different set of expectations from that in the rest of the world or even the rest of the country. For Cultural Studies to be a meaningful academic and political exercise in North East India, it has to address local concerns and realities. The goals and directions for Cultural Studies in the North East of India require to be looked at afresh from the perspective of the place. We hope that the seminar will provide a roadmap for new directions for Cultural Studies in North East India.

The Department of Cultural Studies at Tezpur University was established in 1995 and it is at present one of the few departments in the country to be exclusively devoted to the study of Cultural Studies. The Department has tried to negotiate global concerns and theoretical approaches of the discipline with issues that are of local importance thereby promoting an understanding of the rich cultural heritage and the ingrained plural nature of the region, the folk and oral inheritances, and ethnic and cultural assertions of the people of the region. The Department engages with cultural products, practices and forms, with a special focus on the North East of India.

Instead of defining the "academic", the "abstract" in opposition to the "real world," Cultural Studies recognizes that academic work must respond to the "real world" and try to make sense of the unequal relationships of power underlying our societies. Cultural studies is a weapon for identifying and tearing down institutional formations of power that are racist, elitist, patriarchal, and homophobic in nature. Cultural studies refuses to privilege research that rests on the idea of  "pure and abstract knowledge" (whatever that means).

Keeping the above discussion in mind, the Department of Cultural Studies, Tezpur University, Assam proposes to organise a three day International Seminar on the theme 'Cultural Studies: Global and Local Perspectives' on the following sub-themes: