Communication Critical and Cultural Studies
Meenakshi Gigi Durham
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 February 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0041


Critical and cultural studies of communication are focused on the analysis of cultural artifacts and practices in relation to the social formations in which they exist. The interrelationships of cultural signs, their conditions of production, and their reception by audiences are at the core of such studies. Critical and cultural studies derive from Marxist approaches to society and culture but have expanded to engage a broad range of theoretical and methodological areas, including semiotics and structuralism, literary theory, rhetoric, philosophy, sociology, ethnography, film theory, gender studies, critical race theory, politics and the fine arts, among others. Critical theory is generally associated with the ideas of the University of Frankfurt’s Institute for Social Research, often referred to as the “Frankfurt School,” while cultural studies had its genesis in the UK, principally at the Birmingham Center for Critical and Cultural Studies. But critical theory and cultural studies are deeply mutually implicated, and their interrelationships are significant. Critical and cultural studies have proliferated internationally, with distinct perspectives and approaches characterizing their various national, political, and societal contexts. The project of critical and cultural studies of communication is tied to praxis. Critical and cultural studies represent a radical and subversive intervention in the academy because of their basic goal of troubling the term “culture” and linking it to social power and the construction and dissemination of knowledge.

General Overviews

Because both critical theory and cultural studies have extensive histories in the study of communication, a number of books provide good overarching guides to the developments in these fields. Some of these comprehensive overviews trace the evolution of these theoretical fields (e.g., Agger 1992, Kellner 1989) while others offer analyses of the sociopolitical contexts that contributed to different schools of thought within them (e.g., Lewis 2002). Storey 1998 and Taylor and Harris 2008 elucidate the connections between critical and cultural theory and media studies. The American development of cultural studies is often neglected, and Hardt 1992 provides a clear history of theoretical currents in the United States and their intersections with European theoretical models. Finally, two websites offer invaluable resources for beginning students: the MCS web page of the University of Wales is a goldmine of links to discussions of key concepts in critical/cultural studies, while the Black Cultural Studies site addresses a gap in much of the overview literature by focusing on the work of black scholars in this area. All of the general “field guides” listed here provide useful introductions to the major theoretical developments and the key scholars in these areas and thus serve as a starting point for reading original works in critical theory and cultural studies. The books’ bibliographies are excellent sources of primary texts, as well.

  • Agger, Ben. 1992. Cultural studies as critical theory. Philadelphia: Falmer.

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    Provides not only an explanation of the ascendance of cultural studies as an academic endeavor but also introductions to the major developments in the field, from Marxism through postmodernism and feminism. Agger’s clear and comprehensible overviews capture the core elements of the most significant theoretical and historical movements in cultural studies, though they are now somewhat dated in their allusions.

  • Black Cultural Studies.

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    Developed to compensate for the general lack of online resources on black cultural studies, this website provides links to biosketches, bibliographical information, essays, and interviews about leading black cultural studies scholars, principally from the United States and the United Kingdom.

  • Gunster, Shane. 2004. Capitalizing on culture: Critical theory for cultural studies. Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press.

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    Attempting to bridge the infamous gap between political economy and cultural studies, the author demonstrates how the work of the Frankfurt School theorists can shed light on the relationships among culture, commodity, and social subjectivity. This book offers a sound introduction to important debates in the field as well as some of its most important scholars and their work.

  • Hardt, Hanno. 1992. Critical communication studies: Communication, history, and theory in America. New York: Routledge.

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    Hardt notes that the Continental and British origins of critical theory mean these theories can’t simply be mapped onto the American social and political scene: the intellectual history of communication studies in the US context must be considered to understand the potential of cultural studies and critical theory here. Hardt’s discussion is vitally important to understanding the field at large.

  • Kellner, Douglas M. 1989. Critical theory, Marxism, and modernity. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press.

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    The author provides a detailed account of the genesis and development of critical theory in the mid- to late 20th century. This introductory guide is fortified by Kellner’s profound and extensive knowledge of the goals, history, and works of the Frankfurt School’s influential scholars.

  • Lewis, Jeff. 2002. Cultural studies: The basics. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

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    An indispensable critical introduction to the most important theoretical and analytical paradigms in the broad field of cultural studies. The author offers extraordinarily thorough, lucid, and insightful discussions of important concepts—as fundamental as “culture,” “structure,” and “capitalism”—as well as explanations of major subdisciplines and theories, with references to key texts.

  • MCS.

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    This award-winning web portal contains links to lectures and tutorials by University of Wales professors on a variety of media-related topics. Despite its UK focus, the site is relevant and useful for overseas scholars as well. It has not been updated in more than a decade, and some links are broken, but the information that is available offers invaluable guides to the field.

  • Storey, John. 1998. An introduction to cultural theory and popular culture. Athens, GA: Univ. of Georgia Press.

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    Chronological and historical in its organization, this well-written text traces key currents in cultural studies with a view to its application in the analysis of popular culture. Theoretically focused chapters in the book are bracketed by an introduction that defines the terrain of popular culture and a conclusion that interrogates the political aims of studies of popular culture.

  • Taylor, Paul, and Jan Li Harris. 2008. Critical theories of mass media: Then and now. Berkshire, UK: Open Univ. Press.

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    Divided into two sections—“Then” and “Now”—this book first summarizes some of the central ideas of prominent critical theorists and then applies these theories to contemporary media, focusing particularly on celebrity culture and its mediation. The authors are skeptical of the trends toward “active audience” theory and the possibility of empowerment through media consumption, providing a certain necessary perspective.

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