Professor Stuart Hall: Sociologist and pioneer in the field of cultural studies whose work explored the concept of Britishness


The sociologist and cultural theorist Stuart Hall, who has died aged 82, was an intellectual giant and an inspirational figure in the field of sociology. He was one of the founders of what is now known as "British Cultural Studies", which Hall and his colleagues pioneered in the mid-1960s. Professor Henry Louis Gates of Harvard University called him "Black Britain's leading theorist of black Britain."

Hall saw Britain as a country which is forever battling, within itself and with other nations. "Britain is not homogenous; it was never a society without conflict," he said. "The English fought tooth and nail over everything we know of as English political virtues – rule of law, free speech, the franchise." He noted sardonically that "the very notion of Great Britain's 'greatness' is bound up with empire. Euroscepticism and Little Englander nationalism could hardly survive if people understood whose sugar flowed through English blood and rotted English teeth." To sugar can also be added tobacco and cotton, as commodities which remain as a reminder of slave-trade Britain and its cultural legacy.

Hall was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1932, one of three children of Jesse and Herman Hall, an accountant. "We were part Scottish, part African, part Portuguese-Jew," he recalled of his family background, while also speaking of his "home of hybridity", which gave him diversity by nature and curiosity by nurture.

Following studies at Jamaica College he emigrated to Britain in 1951 on a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford University, part of the Windrush generation of immigrants. The memory of sitting at Paddington Station after his arrival, watching the crowds, remained with him, accompanied by the eternal questions: "Where on earth are these people going to? And where do they think they are going to?". These questions and the quest for answers to them would characterise his life's work.

Hall commented on his time at Oxford that "in the 1950s universities were not, as they later became, centres of revolutionary activity. A minority of privileged left-wing students, debating consumer capitalism and the embourgeoisement of working-class culture amidst the 'dreaming spires', may seem, in retrospect, a pretty marginal political phenomenon." He also recalled that "I began not as somebody formed but as somebody troubled", suggesting that, "I thought I might find the real me in Oxford. Civil rights made me accept being a black intellectual. There was no such thing before, but then it was something, so I became one."

The Universities and Left Review (later the New Left Review) was founded in 1957, with Hall at the helm for the next four years. Professor Robin Blackburn, a former editor of NLR, told The Independent: "Stuart was the first editor of New Left Review. As a young student, I was deeply impressed by him but didn't know him that well at the time. He gave these marvellous talks in the basement of the Marquee Club, with other members of the New Left. I was influenced by his explanations of the origins of racism and its cultural roots. He later developed an analysis of neoliberalism [in the review Soundings], showing that free-market ideas do have an enormous attraction but also have relatively fatal consequences. He was a profound thinker, who got people considering the challenge of a multicultural society and saw that there were great problems with the concept of a 'British' nationality."

Blackburn noted that Hall did not produce one major, defining single work but that his legacy, and brightest thinking, comes through in the collections of essays which he edited, and to which he contributed, such as Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies (1996), which contains pieces by Hall and by those whom he had influenced.

Hall joined the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in 1957; in 1964 he married Catherine Barrett, who he had met on a CND march. The same year saw the first use of the term "Cultural Studies", by Richard Hoggart, and his establishment of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS). Hoggart had read Hall's first book, The Popular Arts (1964), and invited him to become a director of the Centre. Hall later moved on to join the Open University as a professor of sociology in 1979, where he remained for the next 18 years. However, he retained connections with the CCCS until it closed in 2002, a victim of "restructuring" by the university's management.

Martin Bean, Vice-Chancellor of The Open University, said, "Stuart was one of the intellectual founders of cultural studies, publishing many influential books and shaping the conversations of the time. It was a privilege to have Stuart at the heart of The Open University – touching and influencing so many lives through his courses and tutoring. He was a committed and influential public intellectual of the new left, who embodied the spirit of what the OU has always stood for: openness, accessibility, a champion for social justice and of the power of education to bring positive change in peoples' lives."

In January 1979 Marxism Today published Hall's prescient, and now celebrated, essay, "The Great Moving Right Show", in which he discusses the early success of "Thatcherism", the term he coined for the then Leader of the Opposition's nascent policies. "The Heath position was destroyed in the confrontation with organised labour. But it was also undermined by its internal contradictions. It failed to win the showdown with labour," he argued. "It could not enlist popular support for this decisive encounter; in defeat, it returned to its 'natural position' in the political spectrum..."

Hall suggested that, by contrast, "'Thatcherism' succeeds in this space by directly engaging the 'creeping socialism' and apologetic 'state collectivism' of the Heath wing. It thus centres on the very nerve of consensus politics, which dominated and stabilised the political scene for over a decade." Hall later said of Thatcher's policies: "When I saw Thatcherism, I realised that it wasn't just an economic programme, but that it had profound cultural roots. Thatcher and [Enoch] Powell were both what Hegel called 'historical individuals'."

In 1994 Hall became Chair of the Institute of International Visual Art (Iniva), now based at Rivington Place in London, which hosts solo exhibitions of British and international artists, including Kimathi Donkor, Hew Locke and Aubrey Williams. The Institute's library was named in his honour. From 1995 to 1997 he was President of the British Sociological Association (BSA).

Last year Hall was the subject of The Stuart Hall Project (2013), a film by the artist John Akomfrah, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. The film had its genesis in a three-screen gallery piece, "Unfinished Conversation", currently showing at Tate Britain. Akomfrah told The Independent, "After working on 'Unfinished Conversation' it struck us that there was a lot more material that we had not used. The idea was to see whether a single figure could sum up the post-migrant experience. Hall was last of the great titans, who fundamentally altered how we look at ourselves and how we lived. He was unfailingly kind, courageous and absolutely principled."

More than 60 years after his arrival in Britain, Hall's quest for cultural identity was still in progress. As he said in the film, "We always supposed, really, something would give us a definition of who we really were, our class position or our national position, our geographic origins or where our grandparents came from. I don't think any one thing any longer will tell us who we are." He noted with pleasure that, in asking anyone in London today the question of where they are from, "I expect an extremely long story".

Stuart McPhail Hall, sociologist: born Kingston, Jamaica 3 February 1932; married 1964 Catherine Barrett (one son, one daughter); died London 10 February 2014.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
election 2015The 10 best quotes of the campaign
A caravan being used as a polling station in Ford near Salisbury, during the 2010 election
election 2015The Independent's guide to get you through polling day
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month
voicesWhat I learnt from my years in government, by the former Home Secretary David Blunkett
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'