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Barker, Chris. The SAGE Dictionary of Cultural Studies.

Barker, Chris. The SAGE Dictionary of Cultural Studies. London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi: Sage, 2004. Pp. xxi, 211. ISBN 0-7619-7341-9 (pb.) $37.95.

On opening this book, one is likely to ask, "Why didn't someone think of this before?" Cultural Studies has burgeoned in communication and media studies, offering important methodologies for the investigation of communication topics and a comprehensive language for their discussion. But, as with any language, it has its own vocabulary and many a student may want to ask (or be too embarrassed to ask), "Just what does the 'ideal speech situation' refer to?" or "Who is Julia Kristeva and why does my professor go on so about her?" This dictionary of cultural studies provides a handy and wonderfully comprehensive guide--it doesn't purport to tell the whole story, but it does offer to introduce readers and point out further paths.

Chris Barker, from the Department of Communication and Cultural Studies at the University of Wollongong, Australia, has long lived in the cultural studies world, beginning as an undergraduate in the sociology department at the University of Birmingham in the late 1970s--precisely the time that the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies flourished under the leadership of Stuart Hall (p. xv). Though not formally a student in the Centre, he later gravitated towards its topics and methodologies, looking at the questions and approaches of neo-Marxism to account for contemporary culture. Combining these questions with empirical, ethnographic, and textual analysis, he came to greater interest and participation in the larger cultural studies milieu (p. xvi). Knowing such personal background helps to situate Barker's approach. Rejecting as misguided the attempt to say what cultural studies is, he suggests, "Rather, the topic is more auspiciously pursued with the query 'how do we talk about cultural studies and for what purposes?' than by asking the question 'what is cultural studies?'" (p. xiii). Not a category or an academic camp, cultural studies, in Barker's view
 has been constituted by multiple voices or languages
 that nevertheless have sufficient "family
 resemblances" to form a recognizable "clan"
 connected by "kinship" ties to other families.
 Thus, cultural studies can be understood as a language-game
 that revolves around the theoretical
 terms developed and deployed by persons calling
 their work cultural studies. In a similar argument,
 Stuart Hall has described cultural studies
 as a discursive formation, that is, "a cluster (or
 formation) of ideas, images, and practices,
 which provide ways of talking about--forms of
 knowledge and conduct associated with--a particular
 topic, social activity, or institutional site
 in society" (Hall, 1997, p. 6). (p. xiv)

One way into cultural studies, then, comes through its vocabulary, as Raymond Williams reminded us long ago in Keywords (1976)--the history happens in the words.

Barker draws his vocabulary from the main lines of what he terms the "tributaries" of cultural studies: ethnography, feminism, Marxism, philosophy of language, political economy, postcolonial theory, post-Marxism, poststructuralism, pragmatism, psychoanalysis, structuralism, and textual analysis (p. xvii). The list gives a fairly good sense of how English-speaking (with some Continental influence) academic conversations progressed in the last 30 years.

With all this in mind, Barker can draw to a more detailed description of the subject of the dictionary:
 Cultural studies is concerned with an exploration
 of culture, as constituted by the meanings and
 representations generated by human signifying
 practices, and the context in which they occur.
 Cultural studies has a particular interest in the
 relations of power and the political consequences
 that are inherent in such cultural practices.
 (p. xix)

The dictionary comprises 254 entries: concepts as well as people. Barker's list of 50 people attempts to give only a flavor of those whose ideas and writings either influenced cultural studies or popularized it. Readily admitting that such a dictionary can offer only a beginning, Barker implicitly invites the kind of debate that has made cultural studies both an exciting and frustrating approach to communication studies. People are sure to challenge this set of concepts, but that will keep cultural studies alive.

Ironically, for a book that begins with a warning against the temptation of metaphysical universal truth or essentialism in definition, a surprising number of entries start out, "X is ..." The task of a dictionary compiler struggles against the academic expectations: one may wish to avoid essentialism but the chosen medium brings it back.

This short dictionary is a wonderful addition to the world of cultural studies. Students will find it a godsend; teachers, a springboard to an exciting intellectual milieu within communication studies; and libraries, a hard-to-keep-on-the-shelves volume.

As would be expected, the dictionary is arranged alphabetically, with a table of contents; individual entries have highlighted "related terms," and a number of them (especially those dealing with people), lists for further reading.


Hall, S. (Ed.). (1997). Representations. London and Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Williams, R. (1976). Keywords: A vocabulary of culture and society. New York: Oxford University Press.

Paul A. Soukup, S.J.

Santa Clara University
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Author:Soukup, Paul A.
Publication:Communication Research Trends
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2006
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