Key Theories of Raymond Williams

Raymond Williams (1921-1988), Welsh cultural critic, who was a major forerunner of contemporary Cultural Studies. Books such as Culture and Society 1780-1950 (1958) and The Long Revolution (1961) served to map out much that is now taken as the basic subject area of cultural studies, as well as doing much to shape the understanding of culture that informs those studies. While Williams’s work is therefore important to understanding the history of cultural studies, his work is in other respects somewhat marginal to the mainstream of the discipline. This is because his methods and techniques of analysis tended only gradually and partially to incorporate the insights of structuralism and semiotics that were fundamental to cultural studies in the 1970s and 1980s.

Culture and Society is an exercise in literary history, but explores literature by relating books and authors to the broader historical and social development of ideas, and to culture as a ‘whole way of life’, ‘a mode of interpreting all our common experiences’ (p. 18). Culture is therefore not the culture of an elite, but a culture that is embedded in everyday experience and activity. The culture that Williams is interested in is the culture that emerges as a complex criticism of industrial capitalism. Like his contemporary Richard Hoggart, Williams may however still be seen to be working in tension with the dominant Leavisite approach to literature and culture, and thus the tension between an understanding of everyday culture as it is, and an attempt to evaluate parts of that culture more highly (or as more civilised) than others. The Long Revolution takes further the analysis of culture as a way of life. The revolution is that brought about by ‘the progress and interaction of democracy and industry, and by the extension of communications’ (p. 12), and the analysis concerns the way in which this affects all aspects of everyday life. A key (if not precisely defined) term introduced by Williams is that of’structures of feeling’: the lived experience of a particular moment in society and in history.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, Williams demonstrated a greater interest in the mass media. While in his early books he tends to present the mass media as a threat to the revolution of democracy and to the rise of a ‘common culture’, Williams gradually moves away from this position in Communications (1962) and in Television: Technology and Cultural Form (1974). While Williams therefore comes to examine a topic that is fundamental to cultural studies, his early approach is heavily marked by the influence of American media research, as to the more theoretical approaches that would come to the fore, for example, in the work of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. Williams’s description of his first encounter with American television (and thus the entwining of a film, advertisements and, crucially, trailers for films to be shown in the future), and thus the breakdown of a series of discrete programmes into a ‘flow’, has been widely cited (1974, p. 92).

Marxism and Literature (1977) marked a major development in Williams’s work, as it represented his first thorough-going engagement with Marxism, and thus with a number of important theoretical resources for cultural studies, including Althusser‘s conception of ideology and Gramsci’s concept of hegemony. Williams is unhappy with the uniformity suggested by orthodox Marxist accounts of historical epochs. He argues rather that any moment in history must be analysed in terms of the presence and interplay of dominant, residual and emergent cultures. This is to suggest, not merely that there are historically backward and forward looking elements within culture, but that culture is therefore a site of political contest, as groups express their incorporation within the dominant order and their resistance to it.

While Williams never offers a single formal presentation of his theoretical position (and indeed, that position develops and changes over Williams’s career), his work may be characterised as a cultural materialism. His approach to culture is to recognise that it is entwined with (but not simply determined by) the economic and politic structures and experiences of life. At the heart of this is an exploration of the history, uses and political complexity of language, manifest elegantly in Keywords (1976, 1983).

Source: Cultural Theory The Key Thinkers by Andrew Edgar and Peter Sedgwick, Routledge

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