Authors: Thomas Tufte and Anders Høg Hansen, February 24 2014:       A grand old man of British cultural studies, Stuart Hall, died 10 February 2014, 82 years old, a man who - among many other things - contributed to developing a critical line of thinking which has been highly influential within communication for development.

Cultural Studies emerged in the wake of rapid changes in Post-War Britain in the 1950s and a dis-satisfaction with how the traditional human and social sciences disciplines engaged with contemporary and popular culture. Cultural Studies intended to push the old disciplines and ask "urgent and disturbing questions" as he once formulated it (Hall, 1989) by engaging in academically rigorous culture and media analysis of the contemporary with not only retrospective historical sensitivity but also very much with a push for political and social change and the empowerment of new social groups and new '‘ways of life'.

Hall was a key figure at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham, first as a researcher there (1964-1968) and for 11 years as the director of the centre (1968-1979). Through numerous co-edited works and collaborations Hall produced ground breaking works on youth culture, on interpretation of media texts, on questions of ethnicity, race and identity in contemporary Britain – throughout the 1960s and 1970s before he moved on to Open University (1979-1998). His work often extended the distanced and non-personal academic ‘ivory tower’: he was on TV ‘showing’ and lecturing, making complex theoretical issues understandable for and with the public. His insights and interpretations were informed and inspired by his own journey from Jamaica to Britain, born in Kingston 1932 to a Jamaican father a mother of British roots. Also, his insights and work often emerged in collaboration with others - fellow students, colleagues, and artists. He never published a monograph, but the Birmingham stencil papers later put into anthologies (e.g. 1975, 1980) were crucial in putting cultural studies on the map. Not just a purely academic map at the time, but an endeavour “that tested the fine line between intellectual rigour and social relevance” as he expressed it later (Hall, 1989).

The concern with trying to merge a rigorous analysis of contemporary cultural and media phenomena with a study of its social and political relevance, values and change potentials, were crucial in cultural studies, especially in its early decades. It is this concern Hall’s cultural studies approach has shared with Communication for Development. The notion of change processes in Communication for Development have increasingly moved from being considered vertical processes of expert-driven change to becoming not only culture sensitive but culturally-centred approaches where the social and cultural practices of everyday life increasingly have become fundamental, both in the understanding of change as well as in the perception of possibilities and limitations of media and communication in social change processes. Hall’s rehabilitation of popular culture in the 1960ies and 1970ies – and the epistemological project this was - can be seen as a strong parallel to similar projects of Latin American scholars such as Jesus Martin-Barbero and Nestor Garcia Canclini. The precondition to understand and strategize around social change processes lay in understanding the political and social change perspectives inherent in contemporary media and popular culture.

One may say that much Anthropology, Sociology, History, Media Studies and Comparative Literature has revised their more traditional approaches and made parts of cultural studies redundant or included the approaches it took: the study of every day life, an ethnography at the bus stop, on clothing, pop music or on bikers groups. For Communication for Development - as approached for example at Roskilde and Malmö University - the inspiration from cultural studies in analytical approaches is strongly felt. Just as urgent for Communication for Development (and in family with early cultural studies) is its dedication to research how communication and media practices are means of exploring change - as well as tools or facilitators for particular change processes.

Hall was a great public intellectual in the best sense of the word. Dedicated to rigorous analysis in academia and as well an outspoken (also literally!) orator who engaged with his publics. For him they were citizens, identities in on-going development, and actively negotiating and reading media texts in diverse ways. 

A seminal text read for decades by many students across the social sciences was Stuart Hall’s ‘Encoding/Decoding’ (1973/1980). This text opened our eyes to the polysemy (or multiplicity) of sense-making processes, it gave us insight into how difficult it is to control a strategic communication process, and, one might say, it provided a strong argument for why communication never can be considered a magic bullet.  For the field of Communication for Development, ‘Encoding/Decoding’ made it evident how extremely important in-depth formative and summative research is if we are to really grasp the role of communication in people’s lives. It made cultural studies socially relevant.

These days, there is a tendency to focus on ‘employability’ and ‘relevance for business’ when people in power debate the relevance of Humanities and Social Science. In different but highly overlapping ways Stuart Hall’s Cultural Studies was, and Communication for Development is, concerned with contemporary cultural questions and with the social relevance of analysis, with living interventions, tests and trials that study and engage the spaces and means people ‘claim’ or take in their hands as ways of existing, resisting and developing their own lives.

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Thomas Tufte is professor in communication for development at Roskilde University, Denmark.

Anders Høg Hansen is a senior lecturer in media and communication studies at Malmö University, Sweden.

Both Thomas and Anders belong to, ‘Ørecomm’, a binational research centre on communication and glocal change hosted by Roskilde University in Denmark and Malmø University in Sweden.

Image credit: The Birmingham Post

Sources mentioned:
University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Honorary Degree, Convocation Address, 1989 (YouTube)
Stuart Hall et al (eds) (1980) Culture, Media and Language. CCCS/Routledge: London
Stuart Hall and Tony Jefferson (eds) (1975/1978) Resistance through rituals. Youth subcultures in post-war Britain. CCCS working papers 7/8 1975 and later London: Routledge, 1978.
Stuart Hall (1980). Encoding/Decoding, in Hall, Stuart, Dorothy Hobson, Andrew Lowe and Paul Willis (eds): Culture, Media and Language, London: Hutchinson (originally published in 1973).