Williams 1981: Culture

My advisors thought I needed to be able to describe the relationship between culture and identity better, so I turned to Raymond Williams.

Defining culture:

In more general usage, there was a strong development of the sense of ‘culture’ as the active cultivation of the mind. We can distinguish a range of meanings from (i) a developed state of mind – as in ‘a person of culture’, ‘a cultured person’ to (ii) the process of this development – as in ‘cultural interests’, ‘cultural activities’ to (iii) the means of these processes – as in cultures as ‘the arts’ and ‘humane intellectual works’. In our own time, (iii) is the most common general meaning, though all are current. It coexists, often useasily, with the anthropolitical and extended sociological use to indicate the ‘whole way of life’ of a distinct people or other social group. (p. 11.)

Two historic main approaches (p. 11-12):

  1. Idealist. “an emphasis on the ‘informing spirit‘ of a whole way of life, which is manifest over the whole range of social activities but is most evident in ‘speciically cultural’ activities – language, styles of art, kinds of intellectual work”. Broad method: “illustration and clarification of the ‘informing spirit’, as in national histories of styles of art and kinds of intellectual work which manifest, in relation with other institutions and activities, the central interests and values of a ‘people’.
  2. Materialist. “an emphasis on ‘a whole social order‘ within which a specifiable culture, in styles of art and kinds of intellectual work, is seen as the direct or indirect product of an order primarily constituted by other social activities. Broad method: “exploration from the known or discoverable character of a general social order to the specific forms taken by its cultural manifestations.”

Williams’s take on their modern (circa 1981) convergence: “In contemporary work, while each of the earlier positions is still held and practised, a new kind of convergence is becoming evident. This has many elements in common with [materialist], in its emphasis on a whole social order, but differs from it in its insistance that ‘cultural practice’ and ‘cultural production’ (its most recognizable terms) are not simply derived from an otherwise constituted social order but are themselves major elements in its constitution. It then shares some elements with [idealist], in its emphasis on cultural practises as (though now among others) constitutive. But instead of the ‘informing spirit’ which was held to constitute all other activities, it sees culture as the signifying system through which necessarily (though among other means) a social order is communicated, reproduced, experienced and explored.” (p. 12-13).

More to come here as I read more of Williams.


Williams, R. (1981). Culture. London: Fontana.

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