Cultural Sociology in the UK: a draft note inviting comments

I have been asked by Claudio Benzecry to write a short note on the state of cultural sociology in Britain to go into the American Cultural Sociology newsletter. I have drafted this rather rapidly and would welcome comments, especially on possible omissions, but also on the claims made about the sub-discipline, either as comments to this post, or via email.

Cultural Sociology in the UK

Mike Savage, London School of Economics



Cultural sociology in the UK has an unusual profile compared to the US. It does not exist as exist as a specialist sub-field, there are no section conferences, and no study group of the British Sociological Association is devoted to it, for instance. Yet, cultural sociology infuses the discipline as a whole and has indeed been identified as one of the strengths of British sociology tout court by the first ever international benchmarking of the discipline (carried out by the Economic and Social Research Council in 2010). The British Sociological Association has also published a special journal devoted to the field, edited by David Inglis (Aberdeen, now at Exeter) first appearing in 2007, and some of the top Departments in the UK make a point of emphasising their interests in culture. In this short note, I suggest that fluidity about the place of culture in British sociology is indicative of its highly productive role in generating new areas of inquiry and in cross-fertilising international debates.

There are some distinguished British based scholars who do conduct sociological analyses of distinctively ‘cultural’ phenomena such as art and music on the American model. Thus Tia de Nora (perhaps not incidentally, an American, who was worked at the University of Exeter since 1991) and Georgina Born (strictly speaking, an anthropologist who worked for many years in the Department of Sociology at Cambridge before moving to Oxford in 2010) are leading international authorities on music.).  Janet Wolff (who not incidentally worked for two decades in the US before returning to Manchester in 2008), Gordon Fyfe (Keele), Nick Prior (Edinburgh), and more recently Laurie Hanquinet (a Belgian Wallonian who now works at the University of York) have conducted influential studies of the historical development and contemporary significance of art galleries, art audiences and art works. Fyfe has played an important role in the influential journal Museums and Society  John Thompson (Cambridge) is a leading international authority on the book trade.

On the whole, however, cultural sociology does not exist as a discrete sub-discipline focusing on the aesthetic or on distinctively cultural phenomenon, but instead intersects with key areas of sociology where it acts as a ‘ginger’ which disrupts more conventional and mainstream perspectives. This is the reason why it appeals to large numbers of graduate students who wish to work on the ‘cutting edge’ and the appeal of culture has over the past thirty years acted as a magnet for passionate and committed followers. This can be seen especially in three domains which I will discuss in turn, firstly the significance of the cultural studies tradition, secondly in the distinctive position of cultural theory in British sociology, and finally in the development of cultural approaches to stratification and inequality, sometimes identified as ‘cultural class analysis’. I will discuss each of these currents in turn, before making some more general remarks.


Cultural Studies

A point of departure for cultural sociology in Britain lies in the relationship to cultural studies which blazed a remarkable trail in the UK, from its inception in the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmingham in the 1960s. The CCCS led a critique of narrow conceptions of culture which focused on literature and the arts and thus insisted on addressing the cultural practices and routines of everyday life, especially those found in the working or subaltern classes (see notably Willis 1975; Hall and Jefferson 1975; Hebdidge 1979). The key intellectual influences were from the cultural wings of Marxism, and especially Gramsci and the Frankfurt School. Many founding studies of youth culture, music, race, gender and lifestyle were forged from this tradition whose glory years were in the 1970s. On the one hand, this entailed that the development of cultural analysis was led from outside the discipline of sociology which left the discipline somewhat in the shade. On the other hand, there was a huge exodus of the cultural studies generation into senior positions in British sociology, where they played key leadership roles. These included Stuart Hall, who occupied a chair in sociology at the Open University from 1981 to 2002; Paul Willis (for many years a Professor at Wolverhampton University, now at Princeton), Tony Bennett (also at the OU) 2002-2010; Celia Lury (Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths 2002-2011, now at Warwick), and Paul Gilroy (Professor of Sociology at LSE 2004-2012, now at Kings College London).

One of the residues bequeathed by this tradition is that way that concerns with music, the media, and audiences, which elsewhere might be taken up within cultural sociology, are more likely to be elaborated in Britain within the cultural and media studies tradition, where they interface closely with humanities disciplines. Figures who exemplify this current might include Simon Frith (on music), Tony Bennett  (on museums), Paul Gilroy (music and literature). Within the study of the media, key figures might include Roger Silverstone (who founded the LSE’s influential Media and Communications Department), Nick Couldry (who has worked variously at LSE and Goldsmiths) and Angela McRobbie (also Goldsmiths). One result is that the kinds of quantitative methods which are increasingly commonly applied to cultural sociology in the US and parts of Europe (such as the Netherlands) – and which are regularly found in the journal Poetics for instance – have not been extensively deployed in the UK, and there is an overwhelmingly ethnographic and qualitative perspective which commands the high ground. Indeed, British survey data sources continue to relatively eschew questions on cultural participation and taste, with the exception of surveys commissioned by the Arts Council and the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. There is a big contrast here with the much more elaborated survey sources found in many European nations as well as in the United States, as well as the centrality of quantitative researchers such as Paul DiMaggio and Richard Peterson within the sub-discipline.

It follows from this particular intersection with cultural studies that the study of popular culture was a central theme of cultural sociology. There is a clear lineage here originating in Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy – which largely originated the cultural studies tradition – through to Raymond Williams’s studies of ‘ordinary culture’, and to Paul Willis’s Learning to Labour and then onto more recent studies of what might be termed mundane cultures of domination and subordination exemplified in Skeggs’s (1997) Formations of Class and Gender. The central component of this body of work probes the apparent acquiescence of popular culture in the status quo and represents an imaginative re-working of the ‘dominant ideology thesis’. Rather than seeing the apparent acceptance of the social order as the imposition of hegemonic norms, it is rooted in pragmatic features of daily life and seen as embodying forms of indirect class awareness. This general orientation has proved a major plank of enduring interest in British sociology, as I discuss below.

Cultural Theory

Partly on the coat tails of cultural studies, Britain also saw the distinctive development of interests in cultural theory, which generally proved higher profile within the discipline than sociological theory more narrowly conceived, which is largely seen as dated. This interest in cultural theory can be traced to the introduction of Foucault’s work into the UK, institutionalised by the short lived but influential journal Ideology and Consciousness in the later 1970s. From the early 1980s, a key force became the journal Theory, Culture and Society, edited by Mike Featherstone (who has worked at the Universities of Teesside, Nottingham Trent, and more recently moved to Goldsmiths), which proved highly significant in making debates about post-modernism, globalisation, and cosmopolitanism central to the discipline. Unlike the US, where the ‘cultural turn’ was predominantly led from outside the social sciences, mainly in humanities departments, in the UK, the result was that cultural theory occupied a central place within sociology. This was marked especially at the leading British Departments of Lancaster, where Scott Lash and John Urry collaborated in the 1980s, and later at Goldsmiths College in London, where Scott Lash moved in the 1990s, and where Celia Lury and Beverley Skeggs also worked from the early 2000s. The fact that Michel Foucault’s thinking proved so prominent in British sociology is especially revealing, given that Foucault was interested in the political archaeology of the human sciences, and thereby placed cultural theory outside the sociological mainstream.

A further sign of the appeal of strength of cultural theory in British sociology is the fact that the leading exponent of sociological theory, Anthony Giddens (Cambridge and the LSE), increasingly oriented his thinking towards cultural theory’s concerns with lifestyle and identity in his later work, notably in The Consequences of Modernity, and was also marked in the prominence of  Zygmunt Bauman (who retired from the University of Leeds in 1989 but has remained a prolific writer) who did much to elaborate on distinctively sociological perspectives on post-modernism and consumerism.

Furthermore, this cultural turn, proved hugely influential in British sociology during the 1980s, becoming a major plank of qualitative sociology. This helped generate a distinction between Departments wedded to cultural analysis – notably Lancaster and Goldsmiths college – and those wedded to what were seen as more traditional and conventional modes of sociology, focused for instance in the study of class and stratification (such as Oxford). In this way, issues of culture fed into fundamental debates about the scope and nature of the sociological discipline itself as well as competition between the leading Departments.

This interest in cultural theory has spawned distinctive, more empirical areas of research in especially two areas. The first of these has been in discussions of post-colonialism, race and ethnicity, which have been unusually strongly informed by Edward Said’s work on ‘orientalism’, the arguments of the ‘subaltern studies’ collective and interests in cultural hybridity and mobility. There have been a number of feted ethnographic studies in this vein, for instance by Les Back (Goldsmiths), and Michael Keith (Oxford). Scholars such as Paul Gilroy enjoy an international reputation. Gurminder Bhambra (Warwick) have exposed the colonialist assumptions of the sociological tradition.

A second more applied area is the unusually strong British tradition of research on the sociology of consumption. Intellectually, this was rooted in the concerns with lifestyle which emerged in debates about post-modernism and cultural change. Colin Campbell (York) famously revised Weber’s protestant ethic thesis to link it to the development of consumerism. Bauman gave the argument that consumer culture had replaced the work ethic as the axial principle of contemporary society particular clarity. This inspired extensive theoretical reflections about the role of consumption, but also, notably in the work of sociologists such as Don Slater (LSE) and Alan Warde (Manchester), applied empirical studies of consumption, in Warde’s case based on food, in Slater’s on the media.  Urry’s work influential work on tourism, though less empirical, is another case in point.  The University of Manchester has been an especially important base for this work, with sociologists such as Warde and Dale Southerton playing lead roles major funded research centres CRIC (ESRC Centre for Research on Innovation and Competition) ( and on Sustainable Consumption (


Cultural Class Analysis

A final example of the way that cultural analysis infused British sociology has been in the development of Bourdieusian perspectives on stratification. In most parts of the world, the sociology of stratification is predominantly quantitative and originally based in the debate between Marx and Weber regarding theorisation of class and status. Stratification research was traditionally strong in British sociology during the 1960s and 1970s, leading to influential studies by Goldthorpe , Halsey and their associates on social mobility, and the link between education and social mobility. Much of this important tradition of work deployed case studies to explore the association between class structure, class consciousness, and politics, and works such as the Affluent Worker thesis commanded major international interest.

During the 1980s and 1990s, this focus on class was subject to serious critique, much of it from proponents of cultural theory discussed above, who saw class as a throwback to industrial capitalism increasingly left behind by de-industrialisation and globalisation. It is however, since the late 1990s that a new current has become dominant in British sociology, which sees a hybrid fusion of interests in class and stratification with Pierre Bourdieu’s sociology.

Interests in Bourdieu have a long history in Britain, but until the 1980s he was mainly seen as a specialist in the sociology of education. During the 1980s he was taken up by authors writing in Theory, Culture and Society who wanted to explore how his arguments about cultural capital could be configured to provide an explanation of cultural change, and especially the significance of post-modernism. Featherstone and Lash and Urry thus rooted the more fluid and unstable cultural hierarchies in the new middle classes whose ‘cultural capital’ was being reworked. From this initial entry into cultural sociology, Bourdieu’s thinking has come to play an enormous role in British sociology, where, since his death in 2002, he has become probably the single most popular theorist in British sociology. Here British sociology has been an intermediary between his widespread adoption within more quantitative and formal models within American (and some European) sociology, and that deriving from his original French context.

This reception of Bourdieu as a kind of cultural theorist is, of course, very different from the way he is read in France and the US, where he is normally seen as a mainstream sociologist with somewhat sociologically determinist views about the link between cultural consumption and social position. By contrast in the British case, Bourdieu has generally been seen as offering a critique of the more mainstream sociology of stratification through introducing questions of culture into the analysis of social class and gender. The interest of feminists in Bourdieu’s work was a striking and rather unusual feature of the British reception (see Adkins and Skeggs 2005).

A foundational work here was Beverley Skeggs’ Formations of Class and Gender (1997) which sought to explain how young working class women in the English midlands saw their place in the dramatically restructured conditions of the later 1980s and early 1990s. Her influential argument was that these young women dis-identified from class through vesting in ‘respectable’ and ‘feminine’ identities. In some respects this was a classically British work from within the cultural studies tradition, in keeping with Willis’s arguments about the way that the subordinate fail to recognise their own disadvantaged position. But it helped to generate interests in identities which came to have considerable appeal. An important application was in the study of ambivalent class identities, for instance in my own studies of class awareness (Savage 2000) which emphasised how the British middle classes are typically reflexive about their class position.

Bourdieu became a key force behind the distinctive British elaboration of what is sometimes called ‘cultural class analysis’. This body of work, associated with writers such as Bev Skeggs (Goldsmiths), Fiona Devine and Alan Warde (Manchester), Diane Reay (Cambridge), Andrew Sayer (Lancaster), as well as myself reflects on how cultural analysis poses a highly productive challenge for the understanding of class. This work has led in the last decade into major programmes of research on ‘identities’ which was funded as a major research programme by the ESRC and has led to several highly significant books  and articles

A particularly important institutional base for this body of work was the ESRC Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change (CRESC), based at the University of Manchester and the Open University which had multi-million pound core funding from the Economic and Social Research Council for ten years between 2004 and 2014 ( This brought together many of the currents discussed above, including that of cultural studies (led by Tony Bennett), cultural class analysis (myself), consumption (Alan Warde), as well as leading anthropologists, historians, and experts in management studies. A very important feature of the research programme of CRESC was the ‘Cultural Capital and Social Exclusion’ project, which involved a major attempt to replicate Bourdieu’s own study of Distinction using a nationally representative survey, focus groups and qualitative interviews.  Bennett et al’s Culture, Class, Distinction has been an internationally acclaimed study which underscores the continued centrality of social class divisions in generating cultural inequalities, and has also helped to introduce the use of multiple correspondence analysis into Anglophone sociological research for the first time. This intervention has also generated more interest in the use of formal quantitative methods for cultural sociology, where Alan Warde, Andrew Miles and Tony Bennett have shown more concerns to deploy statistical methods for the analysis of cultural phenomenon. The University of Manchester has proven an especially important base for this work, for instance through the recent use of social network analysis by Nick Crossley to examine musical taste and Andrew Miles has led extensive projects re-thinking the nature of cultural engagement and its relationship to social divisions.  A range of innovative studies have extended this Bourdieusian tradition to consider how emergent cultural forms can be associated with the reworking of cultural capital. A good example is Sam Friedman’s study of the audiences for comedy, or Laurie Hanquinet’s work on changing audiences for the visual arts. This tradition spawned the BBC’s Great British Class Survey, based on a very large web survey of 325,000 respondents, and with unusually detailed questions on cultural tastes and participation. The launch of the first paper analysing this research led to 7 million web hits on the BBC’s interactive quiz and can claim to be the most popular piece of sociological research ever conducted in the UK.

In 2013 an informal Stratification and Culture network was formed to develop this current of work, led by Sam Friedman (City, and soon to be LSE), Laurie Hanquinet (York), Andrew Miles (Manchester) and myself. This has held an active programme of seminars bringing together an international audience of experts (see



Cultural sociology in the UK has a distinctive hybrid identity. I have shown how questions of culture are not easily demarcated into distinctive sub-domains, but have instead informed key areas of sociological debate more generally. This potential continues to the present day, a recent example being the growing interests in the cultural dimensions of social research methods. Work begun in CRESC on ‘the social life of methods’ (e.g. Savage 2010), which sees as infusion of currents from science and technology studies and Bourdieusian perspectives. These concerns can also be found in the recent elaboration of ‘live methods’ (Back and Puwar 2013) and in Warwick’s Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies, led by Celia Lury New interests in digital sociology, for instance elaborated by Dave Beer (York) and Evelyn Ruppert (Goldsmiths) are associated with this framing.

We can conclude, therefore that cultural sociology in the UK has been a highly successful, if hybrid, formation which has come to play a distinctive position within global sociology as a clearing house for more demarcated traditions which predominate elsewhere.


Key references

This is not a comprehensive bibliography, and only lists a few of the sources mentioned above.

Adkins, L., and Skeggs, B., (ed), Feminism after Bourdieu, Oxford, Blackwells.

Back, L., and Puwar, N., (2013), Live Methods, Oxford, Wiley-Blackwells.

Bennett, T., Savage, M., Silva, E.B., Warde, A., Gayo-Cal, M., Wright, D., (2009), Culture, Class, Distinction, London, Routledge.

Hall, S., and Jefferson, T., (1975), Resistance through rituals: youth sub-cultures in post-war Britain, Birmingham, CCCS.

Hebdige, D., (1979), Subculture, the meaning of style, London, Routledge

Savage, M., (2000), Class Analysis and Social Transformation, Milton Keynes, Open University Press.

Savage, M., (2010), Identities and Social Change in Britain since 1940: the politics of method, Oxford OUP

Skeggs, B., (1997), Formations of Class and Gender, London, Sage.

Willis, P., (1977), Learning to Labour, Farnborough, Saxon House.


7 responses to “Cultural Sociology in the UK: a draft note inviting comments”

  1. lauriehanquinet says :

    Hi Mike,

    Wonderful text. As an outsider initially I can tell that the British cultural sociology is distinctive in the European field. It takes culture seriously as it doesn’t see it as separate from the rest of social life. It doesn’t focus only on the sociology of culture or art or even cultural practices but bring them all together and see them in the light of wider social theory and social phenomena. For instance, culture is not sought to be explained by social stratification and reductive quantitative analysis (Attention I am not saying that quantitative analysis is reductive per se) but is seen as entirely contributing to it. The links between the two need to be unraveled by refined, complex and not theoretically narrow accounts. However at the same time culture is not perceived either in a very broad-ranging way, i.e as a structure or text that shapes everything.

    Thanks Mike!


  2. Paul Jones says :

    Hi Mike,

    Thanks for this piece, which is very thought-provoking.

    Your point that (UK) Cultural Sociology is by-now so embedded in Sociology as to make it difficult to disentangle/distinguish strikes me as a really important one.

    If Cultural Sociology serves primarily as a kind of ‘flag of convenience’ for analyses of ‘distinctively cultural phenomenon’, and – picking up on Laurie’s point about approaching culture as situated – why would we want to define it at all? If it is to stand-in for an approach – a stronger reading of course – what characterises that and why?

    Anyway, very much food-for-thought! Thanks for a great opening to the debate Mike,

    All the best,

    Paul (Jones)

  3. Nick Prior says :

    This is an intriguing overview, thanks Mike. How one represents such a diverse field is always tricky and necessarily partial and provisional, but this looks like a good job to me.

    I could be off beam, here, but my sense is that a dominant tendency in the cultural sociology coming out of the U.S. is that it tends towards a neo-Durkheimian flavour (Shils, Bellah, Turner, Douglas, Alexander) while in the U.K., the theoretical influences are more plural: not just Bourdieu, as you say, but Marx, Simmel, Elias, Foucault, Barthes and now Latour (and the current taste for Tarde over Durkheim).

    It’s interesting to note in this context (as Seidman does) that American cultural sociology did not make a semiotic turn, while it was a central component of much of the CCCS’ take on the symbolic importance of culture and eventually enriched the vocabularies of cognate sub-fields such as science studies, the sociology of art and media studies.

    Talking of which, I wondered if the foundational work on youth sub-cultures and media might be worth mentioning somewhere (Cohen, Young, with a later life in Thornton’s combination of Bourdieu with CCCS) and the British variant of a political economy of media culture. As well as the emphasis on class and stratification, there does seem to exist a parallel emphasis on culture industries and media organisations as mediators of certain kinds of commodities, values and ideologies (Garnham, Hesmondhalgh).

    All the best,

    Nick Prior

  4. Don Slater says :

    Hi Mike,
    this is a really useful and even handed survey, and it would certainly be useful to make our approaches more intellegible over in the US.

    Just a couple of points:
    Firstly, there could be a more explicit reference to material culture studies, and also to practice theory. Both have been increasingly influential as ways of doing cultural research in a social science context, particularly post-cultural studies. Both claim a strong lineage from Bourdieu, both have a methodological emphasis on ethnography, and both are concerned with culture without treating it as a separate subfield.
    Secondly, following on from that, I would argue that the refusal to treat culture as a subfield and as a discrete object in the UK as opposed to US is a stronger and more principled position, a real distinguisher. It is scarcely credible in the UK to study culture as a thing, alongside other things like education and health, whereas this is US common sense.
    Finally, it would be good to mention one of the few areas where a focus on culture as a discrete entity really does make emic sense – the study of culture industries, aesthetic economy, cultural economy, cultural policy – clearly a real world development that has prompted a range of new topics and approaches in response.


    Don Slater

  5. Les Back says :

    Thanks for this very interesting and even handed review. It’s always intrigued me that in places like Denmark and Sweden academics describe themselves confidently as Cultural Sociologists. It felt to me a little bit strange to describe what we do in this way but your piece helped me feel less awkward about the label.

    I guess one of the things that this points to is the possibility of developing what Ben Carrington called, in relation to Stuart Hall, a kind of anti-Sociology sociological imagination. I think Stuart said in one of his late interviews that “if you want to play in the area where deep feelings are involved, which people hardly understand, you have to look at culture”. That project seems more and more important in the time of UKIP and the complete public disavowal of there being any relationship between anti-immigrant sentiment and racism.

    I think in a way cultural sociology might open up the possibility of connecting with the writing of intellectuals who write not only without guarantees but without disciplines. I am mindful of how regrettable that people like Paul Gilroy have left sociology and feel that their kind of work is no longer admissible. To my mind that this kind of work is ‘cultural sociology plus’ in the tradition of Du Bois. I think it is also worrying in relation to the potential whitening of the discipline sociology particularly in Britain.

    So, I would want also to say something important is at stake in cultural sociology in relation to the legacy of empire, racism and the experience of people of colour. If you take this point of view then a different kind of story can be told about cultural sociology. I think also the work of someone like John Solomos (who was part of the CCCS race and Politics Group) is also interesting. The book we did together The Changing Face of Football was a serious attempt at… well a kind of cultural sociology. Also, the Race, Politics and Social Change study of political mobilisations in Birmingham was more cultural sociology than political science.

    I guess the value of cultural sociology is not in reifying culture, as something discrete, but the places in everyday life where big institutional, structural and historical ruptures and divisions as well as bridge are being formed.

    Les Back

    • Eric Woods says :

      Dear Mike (If I may),

      as someone just getting started in my career in British sociology, and whose influences have heretofore tended to come from the American macro cultural sociological tradition, I found this review of the British scene quite helpful.

      Rightly or wrongly, students of American cultural sociology tend to present themselves as the underdogs of the discipline, who must be vigilant against the threat of an ostensible mainstream that is dismissive of the possibility of the independence of culture. There are also vigorous debates among those favouring a micro approach vs a macro approach, and divergences between those making strides towards neuroscience and biology vs others connecting with humanities. Across the field, as you rightly point out, inspiration tends to come from the new interpretations or rediscoveries of the ‘founding figures’ of social science.

      I don’t have the impression that UK ‘cultural sociologists’ see themselves as the underdogs. Indeed, they seem to be most prominent figures of the profession, occupying highly visible posts at top ranked universities. I may be wrong, but there also seems to be a deeply embedded CCCS second and third generation social network across UK universities, which continues to exert influence and act as gate-keepers. Perhaps as a result, the blending between cultural studies and sociology is much more prominent than in the US.

      if I were to make a suggestion, it would be perhaps to add that the UK has much more of a normative tendency towards uncovering hegemony than in the US, which is more concerned with presenting itself as a proper ‘science’. You have some of that in the cultural studies section, but could perhaps be foregrounded more. But maybe that observation is already obvious and well-known, maybe reflecting more general differences in American sociology vs UK sociology.

      oh, and like others who have commented, I was a bit surprised not see reference to Ken Thompson or Stan Cohen.

      Thanks so much for taking the time to write the review, and for sharing. It is wonderful to get a chance to see how the dots connect, and to read about my potential community.


      Eric Woods
      University of East London .

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