Mel Gibson meets Derrida

It's one of the most popular university courses. But is cultural studies of intellectual value, or a refuge for lazy charlatans?
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The Independent Online
Cultural Studies is one of the hot new subjects on campus. Students like it because it enables them to study popular culture, for example, television soaps, magazines, football or pub life, and theorise about it - while traditionalists deride it for being a Mickey Mouse field.

Roger Scruton, visiting professor at Birkbeck College, London, says of Cultural Studies: "It's not really an academic subject at all, but an excuse for a certain kind of left-leaning politics."

Cultural Studies is taught in around 40 universities and colleges, with many of the courses to be found at the new universities. At Staffordshire University in Stoke-on-Trent it is taught as a single honours degree, as well as combined with Media Studies and Literature. The university manages to fill 90 places a year and requires students to have a minimum of two C grades at A-level.

"It's about trying to understand the importance of popular culture to people's lives, and how they make sense of television, magazines and other cultural forms, and how important these things are to them," says David Bell, who lectures in the subject. "It also looks at people's practices, like going to a football match or a rave or attending a cultural institution, whether that be watching the BBC, or [going to] working men's clubs."

The subject content varies according to where it's being taught. At Staffordshire University the emphasis is on a broad understanding of culture, according to Dr Bell. Students examine the concepts of nationalism and national identity; how, for example, a sense of being English or Scottish is based on certain icons. They have recently analysed the blockbuster movie Braveheart, with its story of a Scottish hero slaughtered by the English, as part of these studies.

At the University of East London, Cultural Studies has a strong grounding in history. Students do not watch many soap operas. In the first year they study the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries, in the second year the 19th century and in the third year the 20th century. This autumn the historian Raphael Samuel, formerly of Ruskin College, Oxford, takes up a chair in history within the Cultural Studies department at the University of East London.

According to Esther Leslie, who teaches on the course, students are often amazed to find how much theory is entailed. They are expected to understand deconstructionism, and to be acquainted with the modern French philosophers Lacan and Derrida.

This autumn a new degree in Cultural Criticism is being established at the University of Wales, Cardiff, and the course hopes to attract 100 students. In the first semester they will study two core modules which will see them schooled in Marxist and Freudian thought. Later, students will have the opportunity to study topics as diverse as the human body and the Robin Hood tradition.

Under the heading of "the human body", they will be invited to "consider how recent theory can throw light on cultural practices ranging from executions to anorexia, from cross-dressing to body marking, from hermaphrodites to Cyborgs".

The Robin Hood course traces the origins, development and persistence of the Robin Hood story using texts from the 15th century to the 20th century, as well as Robin Hood movies and television programmes.

Cultural Studies originated with Richard Hoggart, who in the Sixties was professor of English at Birmingham University, where he set up the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. He saw how difficult it was for important changes in society, such as the development of the mass media, to be studied as part of an English degree. Ditto as part of sociology. Hence the centre - which has now been renamed the Department of Cultural Studies and is the grande dame in the field. As many as 900 students apply for 36 places each year on its Media, Culture and Society course.

The Birmingham model spread around the world. Over time, Cultural Studies has assimilated a wide range of thought - Marxism, the Frankfurt School, structuralism, psychoanalysis and semiotics - though its origins were in the traditional disciplines of English, Sociology, History and Philosophy, against whose narrow confines academics were rebelling.

One reason it has attracted so much criticism, according to Ann Gray, who lectures in the subject, is because it challenges the certainties within established disciplines. It examines how lecturers are teaching what constitutes knowledge and what is political. "To say it's not an academic subject is to say the contemporary world - issues of contemporary relevance - can't be considered worthy of study."

Echoing this point, Professor Sally Alexander, a historian at Goldsmith's College, London, emphasises that Cultural Studies is an interdisciplinary approach to study. "It's an approach to knowledge which crosses the disciplines, which is why it's very exciting and intellectually extremely demanding," she says.