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Cultural Studies, Media, Theory

Wrestling with an Angel: The Importance of Stuart Hall’s Cultural Studies to Communication Theory

Alexander Louis Leloir, Jacob Wrestling with the Angel (1865)

Alexander Louis Leloir, Jacob Wrestling with the Angel (1865)

Describing Stuart Hall’s Cultural Studies from the perspective of theorizing communication is somewhat counter-intuitive.  Hall’s journey did not begin with a desire to theorize communication, rather, to make intellectual sense of the social world in order to intervene intelligently and help change it.  Thus, Hall’s work is interdisciplinary, and more properly considered cultural studies, rather than communication studies.  In fact, Hall came to theorize communication resulting from intellectual engagement with concrete political, social, and cultural problems of Britain in the 1960s and 1970s, owing to the central role of media in the construction of the social world.  In like manner, rather than approach Hall solely from a communication perspective, what follows in this paper is an account of Hall’s intellectual journey in the context of Hall’s life journey, the resulting contribution of Hall’s work to communication theory and its theoretical basis, Hall’s importance to the field, and finally, a perspective on the continued relevance of Hall’s work.

To begin, Stuart Hall was born in 1932 in Kingston, Jamaica, to a middle-class family that was both race and class conscious (Davis, 2004), a consciousness that assured that Hall would be educated “in the study of English literature, romantic poets, British history and so on” (Phillips, 1997, p. 1).   Equally important, as a dark-skinned black, Hall felt disconnected from the family’s love of the mother country (Davis, 2004).  An important point, Hall differed in opinion from a family that lived within the colonized culture of English ideals and values, choosing instead commit to the politics of Jamaican independence (Davis, 2004).  Indeed, Hall’s sense of disjunction from the family’s idealization of the mother country created a double consciousness that would be important to Hall’s understanding of culture and identity as a social construct (Davis, 2004; Phillips, 1997).  Upon moving to Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship in 1951, Hall studied literature and was later drawn to political activism with the left, the result of racist immigration policies and black unrest (Phillips, 1997).  Consequently, Hall became the editor of the New Left Review during a time when the left was reevaluating their thinking in the wake of authoritarian communism and the collapse of colonialism.  As such, the New Left movement, and Hall in particular, engaged Marxist critical theory “as a problem, as trouble, as danger, not as a solution…[coming] into Marxism backwards; against the Soviet tanks in Budapest” (Hall, 1996, p. 264).  In fact, Hall struggled with the dogma of Marxism, rejecting the “economic determinism that sees all economic, political, and social relationships as ultimately based on money” (Griffin, 2012, p. 346).  Alternatively, at the Birmingham School, Hall sought to develop understanding to inform action, and began “wrestling with angels” (Hall, 1996, p. 265), approaching Marxism critically through intellectual engagement with Weber, Durkheim, Hegel, Althusser, Barthes, Eco, and Gramsci, in order to address the inability of dogmatic Marxism to explain the absence of a revolutionary moment in contemporary social life.  Indeed, in Gramsci, Hall would begin to stake a claim.

Seemingly, Gramsci influenced Hall’s work in several ways.  First, Hall’s approach to theory relied heavily on the differentiation of academic work from intellectual work, Gramsci’s notion of the “organic intellectual”.  Specifically, Hall suggests the organic intellectual must “know more than traditional intellectuals do…but…cannot absolve himself or herself from the responsibility of transmitting those ideas, that knowledge, through the intellectual function, to those who do not belong, professionally, in the intellectual class” (Hall, Morley, & Chen, 1996, p. 267).  In fact, it is through the purpose of developing the organic intellectual that Hall acknowledges the need to work within a culture to affect change, requiring engagement on both the academic and politico-intellectual fronts.  Of course, politico-intellectual engagement became one of the hallmarks of cultural studies and key differentiators between cultural studies and mass communication.

In addition, Hall finds in Gramsci, an explanation for “why the revolution Marx predicted hasn’t occurred in any industrial society” (Griffin, 2012, p. 346).  Specifically, Gramsci’s articulation of hegemony as the way the powerful maintain power through the production of consent merited inquiry.  In particular, Hall believed the media in the business of producing consent, not as part of some conspiracy, rather as a function of the structure of media production, the media’s proximity to state power, and privilege the media gave to accepted interpretations of social reality (Davis, 2004; Griffin, 2012; Hall, 1980).  Hall’s explanation of the hegemonic role of the media also leveraged the thinking of the Frankfurt School and Roland Barthes to explain how the media manufactures consent through ideology.  Indeed, “the problem as Hall sees it lies in the tendency of the mass media to align itself with the dominant consensual political culture” (Davis, 2004, p. 43).  From the Frankfurt School, Hall sees the media as “manipulative and ultimately oppressive” (McQuail, 2010, p. 67), adopting a interpretive, constructionist stance.  While from Barthes, Hall takes a semiotic turn, drawing on the concepts of denotation and connotation to understand how the media represent reality in ideological or mythic form.  It is in the exploration of media representation of ideology, that Hall’s work in cultural studies takes a turn towards the meaning-making function of discourse and postmodernism.

According to Griffin (2012), Hall seeks to understand where people obtain meaning.  Drawing on Foucault, Hall sought to understand not only what preferred meanings were being said, but what was not said, and who got to say it (Griffin, 2012).  Furthermore, Hall used Althusser’s interpretation of articulation to understand through discourse, how consent is manufactured across class, race, sexuality, gender, or ethnicity, extending Foucault’s ideas to examine not only who speaks, what is said, and what is left out, but to examine who the speaker is trying to bring together in unity, and alternative possibilities for articulation (Davis, 2004; Griffin, 2012).  In that sense, articulation is useful to analyze the framing of social reality in the form of ideology, but also the limitations or boundaries of a specific text, and the other possibilities left out of the discursive formation.  Moreover, Hall believed that discursive formations were more than mere language reflecting a consensus viewpoint, rather they have real consequences for people (Davis, 2004).  In Policing the Crisis, Hall (1978) analyzes the discourse of the ‘mugging’ crisis in Britain in the 1970s, finding that mugging discourse was inherently framed as a criminal epidemic endemic to the young, black, working class population, ignoring the social problems that gave rise to the problem.  Hall’s analysis focuses not on the phenomenon of ‘mugging’, rather the operation of the media in concert with the state to frame the discourse to mobilize fear and anxiety to construct a law and order ideology, where state intervention and coercion became the common-sense response (Hall, 1978).  Moreover, Hall focused the analysis on how the articulation of ‘mugging’ as a social phenomenon in the media left out the possibility of alternative policy conceptions that dealt with the long-run problems of class, race, and immigrant in contemporary Britain.

Of course, Hall’s work is as relevant today as it was during the ‘mugging’ crisis.  Certainly, there are remarkable parallels between the moral panic of Britain’s mugging crisis with the moral panic over illegal immigration in the United States today.  Indeed, the media discourse on illegal immigration frequently focuses on the problems of illegal immigration, most often in the context of Hispanic immigration from the south to the United States, thus taking on ethnic themes.  Indeed, the media is replete with stories of the negative impact of illegal immigration including gangs, crime, drugs, stolen jobs, and costs to taxpayers, despite evidence suggesting the trend is reversing.  Furthermore, recent analysis in the cultural studies tradition provides insight into Hall’s influence and relevance.  For example, Cisneros (2008) used discourse analysis of U.S. media coverage of illegal immigration to understand the metaphorical representation of migrants in the media.  Cisneros (2008) found that media representations not only used popular metaphors of immigration as criminality and deviance, but also immigrants as a pollutant, that constructed  immigrants “through racial and xenophobic stereotypes as objects, aberrations, and dangers” (Cisneros, 2008).  This type of negative immigrant discourse articulates the boundaries of the debate, seeking to gain support for state intervention.  Moreover, the consequences for the Hispanic population are real, including the forced separation of U.S. born children from their illegal immigrant parents (Gigler, Ross, & Hill, 2012), lack of immigrant access to healthcare (Menjivar, 2006), and violence towards immigrants (Sothern Poverty Law Center, 1994).  Clearly, Cisneros’ (2008) analysis is timely and relevant, insofar as it serves to expose the ideological assumptions behind the media representation of illegal immigration, in order to lift the ideological veil and develop more open metaphors that better explain migrants.  Indeed, the U.S. immigration discourse is not simply a discussion of economics or criminality, but seeks unity across racial, ethnic, and economic dimensions to create consent for state intervention within a prescribed set of policy alternatives like border enforcement, deportation, and new powers under the law.  The importance of Cisneros’ work lies in its ability to see the underlying assumptions of the discourse in order to win space for an alternative construction of migrants.  Thus, Hall’s tradition remains relevant as a tool for analysis of contemporary problems.

More importantly, cultural studies also provides for the possibility to articulate alternate conceptions of the social construction of reality through activism.  Indeed, Gramsci’s notion of hegemony as the manufacture of consent provides a conceptual space for resistance and alternatives.  Insofar as consent must be manufactured through the media in a changing society full of contradictions, “hegemony can never be complete or final” (Croteau, Hoynes, & Milan, 2012, p. 162).  Certainly, Hall’s work on encoding and decoding describe the ability of an active audience to decode meanings in a variety of ways; finding that audiences can a) operate inside the dominant code, b) negotiate the code, or c) substitute an oppositional code (Griffin, 2012).  Indeed, media are cultural sites where human agents can contest ideas (Croteau, et al., 2012).

By returning to the earlier immigration discussion, it is possible to see how activists can use the media to encode oppositional ideas.  For instance, Hispanic activists organized the National Council of La Raza in order to advance social issues of importance to the Hispanic community.  As such, the NCLR advances media issues that challenge the common-sense assumptions held about Hispanics in the media, through analysis of Hispanic underrepresentation and negative portrayals in the media, the provision of alternative conceptions through media events like the ALMA awards, and the sponsorship of widely distributed Latino themed films, in effect contesting the dominant meaning provided by the media (National Council of La Raza, 2011).  Thus, while the media legitimize mainstream political and cultural views, equally, media can promote ideological alternatives and provide a platform for activists to challenge the dominant ideologies, providing a site of resistance to audiences.

At this point, this author has traced Hall’s intellectual journey in the context of Hall’s life journey, the resulting contribution of Hall’s work to communication theory and its theoretical basis, while arguing that cultural studies remains relevant in light of the modern immigration debate.  Next, this author turns to the importance of Hall’s cultural studies to the field of communication theory.

Certainly, it is a mistake to understate Hall’s importance to the field of communication theory.  Indeed, Hall’s revision of Marxism to understand the hegemonic function of the media, and its role in manufacturing consent is a central theme of cultural studies.  According to Griffin (2012), “Hall’s most positive contribution to mass communication study is his constant reminder that it’s futile to talk about meaning without considering power at the same time” (p. 353).  Read narrowly, one might conclude that Griffin argues that Hall’s interpretation of media representation is largely concerned with how the powerful dominate the marginal through ideology.  Similarly, this author suggests that the reverse is equally true; Hall was equally concerned with how cultural studies could raise the consciousness of people to liberate them from the social reality constructed by the media and begin to articulate new realities.  In that sense, Hall’s contribution to the notion of an active audience is as important as Hall’s perspective on media representation.  Alternatively, Davis (2004) considers Hall’s greatest achievement in the realm of politics rather than academia, arguing that Hall’s crowning achievement was to persuade the British government to take the issues of culture and representation seriously.  While this author agrees with the sentiments of Griffin and Davis, equally so, this author believes it is precisely the middle ground between Hall’s academic and political work that may provide a perspective on Hall’s most enduring contribution to the field.  Indeed, it is in the juncture between theory and the political project that provided the purpose, values, and approach to cultural studies as fundamentally different from traditional mass communication theory.  According to Grossberg (2010), “theory is always in service of the concrete, enabling one to produce the concrete in more productive ways” (p. 2).  Conceived thus, Hall’s legacy is using intellectual inquiry to deal with contemporary issues in way that leads to meaningful and productive interventions.

Of course, it would be hubris to suggest that Hall’s contributions are limited to the perspective put forth in this paper.  Indeed, this author necessarily reduced Hall’s legacy to the points the author consider most salient to the purpose of the paper, thus ignoring Hall’s seminal work on Thatcherism, Hall’s contribution to understanding the construction of identity, and many of Hall’s political, social, and cultural contributions that shaped the public sphere of Britain over the last fifty years.  Thus, any errors of omission or misrepresentation are the responsibility of this author, in the difficult process of wrestling with an angel.

In summary, this author has traced Hall’s journey from early struggles with Marxism and critical theory, to the adoption of a post-Marxist perspective influenced by Gramsci and others, towards a decidedly postmodern approach leveraging the work of Foucault.  In addition, this author discussed Hall’s contributions to the field of communication theory, elucidating how the media exert hegemonic influence, how media representation offers preferred, common-sense meaning, the relevance of encoding and decoding, and the importance of articulation to activism.  Finally, this author illustrated the continued relevance and importance of Hall’s cultural studies to communication theory.  Indeed, it has been quite a journey.  Moreover, this author believes that more research is required to fully appreciate Stuart Hall.


Cisneros, J. D. (2008). Contaminated communities: The metaphor of “immigrant as pollutant” in media representations of immigration. Rhetoric & Public Affairs, 11(4), 569-602.

Croteau, D., Hoynes, W., & Milan, S. (2012). Media/society : Industries, images, and audiences (4th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Davis, H. (2004). Understanding Stuart Hall. London ; Thousand Oaks, CA.: SAGE Publications.

Gigler, L., Ross, B., & Hill, A. M. (2012, February 1, 2012). Adoption Battle Over 5-Year Old Boy Pits Missouri Couple Vs. Illegal Immigrant.  Retrieved from http://abcnews.go.com/Blotter/adoption-battle-year-boy-pits-missouri-couple-illegal/story?id=15484447 – .UB1uVI6_FLo

Griffin, E. A. (2012). A first look at communication theory (8th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Grossberg, L. (2010). Cultural studies in the future tense. Durham: Duke University Press.

Hall, S. (1978). Policing the crisis : mugging, the state, and law and order. New York: Holmes & Meier.

Hall, S. (1980). Culture, media, language : working papers in cultural studies, 1972-79. London, Birmingham, West Midlands: Hutchinson ; Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, University of Birmingham.

Hall, S. (1996). Cultural studies and its theoretical legacies. In S. Hall, D. Morley & K.-H. Chen (Eds.), Stuart Hall : critical dialogues in cultural studies (pp. x, 522 p.). London ; New York: Routledge.

Hall, S., Morley, D., & Chen, K.-H. (1996). Stuart Hall : critical dialogues in cultural studies. London ; New York: Routledge.

McQuail, D. (2010). Mcquail’s mass communication theory (6th ed.). London ; Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Menjivar, C. (2006). Liminal legality: Salvadoran and Guatemalan immigrants’ lives in the United States. American Journal of Sociology, 111(4), 999-1037.

National Council of La Raza. (2011). National Council of La Raza | About Us. NCLR  Retrieved from http://www.nclr.org/index.php/about_us/

Phillips, C. (1997). Stuart Hall. BOMB, Retrieved from http://bombsite.com/issues/58/articles/2030

Sothern Poverty Law Center. (1994). Anti-immigration violence rages nationwide. In R. Fiske-Rusciano (Ed.), Experiencing race, class, and gender in the United States (5th ed.). Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill Higher Education.


About rjrock

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3 thoughts on “Wrestling with an Angel: The Importance of Stuart Hall’s Cultural Studies to Communication Theory

  1. Thank you for posting this. It has benefited greatly on my research. 🙂

    Posted by Jasmine Styles | December 15, 2013, 12:12 am

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