Cultural Studies Essays - Cultural Policy and National Identity

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Culture is the whole of the way of life of a given society and includes the ideas and habits which they learn andwhich are transmitted from one generation to another (Linton, 1945).

Human behaviour is based on guidelines that are shared by a group and in order for that group/society to function effectively the guidelines must apply to all its members. Thus culture is learned and shared and without it members of a society would be unable to communicate effectively and chaos would result.

Cultural policy relates to thecultural capital of a nation, its arts and monuments etc. Since theConservative Government came to power in the late nineteen seventies Britainhas had a continually shifting cultural policy. Some commentators argued in theearly 19990s that the elitist connotations associated with cultural policy werebecoming less evident in Britain. The advent of New Labour and theirlegislation regarding cultural policy, however, may appear to be a return toelitist cultural policy.

The concept of identity isextremely important in sociological thinking. In Britain, for example, socialclass was often seen as central to a person's idea of who they were andBordieu's work on cultural capital tends to support this view. Constructions ofidentity are also closely linked to culture and people's identities arereflected in the cultures and sub-cultures to which they belong. Thus Willis'(1967 in Haralambos and Holborn, 2000) work put forth the view that workingclass youth had developed their own sub-cultures with the education system.Modern theories of culture tend to support the view that identity and cultureare very closely linked. British people would, for example, tend to have a veryclear sense of what it might mean to be British. Post-modernist thinkers havecriticised this view because they argue that the multi-cultural nature ofcontemporary Britain indicate that the ways in which people express theirBritishness are quite diverse. Frosh (1999) maintains that although identitydraws on culture there are also a number of other factors at work in identityformation.

Recent sociological andpsychological theory has stressed that a person's identity is in fact somethingmultiple and potentially fluid, constructed through experience andlinguistically coded. In developing their identities people draw uponculturally available resources in their immediate social networks and insociety as a whole. The process of identity construction is therefore one uponwhich the contradictions and dispositions of the surrounding socio-culturalenvironment have a profound impact (Frosh, 1999:413).

This paper will investigate thechanges in cultural policy in Britain. It will begin with theories of cultureand recent cultural policy. It will then look at views on national identity anddiscuss the relationship between cultural policy and national identity.

Theories of culture

British cultural policy has itsroots in the nineteenth century when the bourgeois elite were gaining power andthere was general concern over growing unrest among the working classes. It wasat this time that a large body of work grew up to establish the nature ofculture and what was culturally acceptable and what was not. A shared cultureand a shared belief system are necessary if a society is going to run smoothly,it has power over the choices of individuals and operates to constrain theirbehaviour (Durkheim, 1961 first published 1912 cited in Haralambos and Holborn,2000). Durkheim believed that societies were possessed of a collectiveconscience which connected successive generations together and those who do notconform are punished by society. The rapid changes that take place inindustrial societies place them under threat and a shared culture needs to bereinforced in order to support society. Parsons (1955) maintained that culturewas passed on to successive generations through the socialisation process.Culture can change but most people in a given culture must share most of itsvalues or that society will collapse. Contemporary cultures are, however, verydifferent and it may not be the case that people feel the need for a sharedculture, or that society would fall apart without it.

Marx's work concentrated on classstratification and he argued that in class stratified societies culture was, infact, a reflection of the ideology of the ruling classes. Culture is shaped byclass to such an extent that ruling class ideology becomes the dominantideology (Abercrombie et al, 1983). Marx, and his colleague Engels, believedthat eventually the culture of society would change through the development ofconsciousness by the working class who would come to see the falseness of thedominant ideology. Marx's argument has been highly influential in theories ofculture but numbers of thinkers have pointed to its weaknesses.

Storey (1993 cited in Haralambos andHolborn, 2000) has argued that the changes that came with the IndustrialRevolution led to concerns that better aspects of culture were beingundermined. The emergence of other classes was a source of concern because theindustrial working class was able to develop:

an independent culture atsome remove from the direct intervention of the dominant classes.Industrialisation and urbanisation had redrawn the cultural boundaries. Nolonger was there a shared common culture, with an additional culture of thepowerful. Now for the first time in history there was a separate culture of thesubordinate classes of the urban and industrial centres (Storey,1993:20-21).

Matthew Arnold (1822-1888)maintained that culture was the study of perfection but in nineteenth centuryEngland people were becoming too materialistic and too interested in the newmachinery and the production of goods. He was concerned about the fact thatculture was becoming confused with material wealth. People would develop theirhumanity through the acquisition of knowledge and reading literature and poetryin this way people could develop society. Arnold maintained that the key tobecoming cultured was learning to read and reading the right kind of material.The growing 'popular' culture and reading material of the urban working classwas not cultured and Arnold saw them as a dangerous group, thus he warned thatthere was a,

body of men, all over thecountrybeginning to assert and put in practice an Englishman's right to dowhat he likes; his right to march where he likes, meet where he likes, enterwhere he likes, hoot as he likes, threaten as he likes, smash as he likes(Arnold, 1960:76 first published in 1869).

The working classes needededucating in order to become cultured and to be a constructive rather than adestructive force in society. Story (1993) has argued that Arnold's concern wasless with culture and more about keeping people in their place and maintainingorder. Arnold had an elietist view of culture which has been increasinglychallenged in recent years. Thompson (1963 cited in Haralambos and Holborn,2000) has argued that during the industrial revolution working class culturewas not destructive but creative and as worthy of note as the culture of thehigher elite classes.

More recently the emphasis has beenon what has come to be known as mass culture. Theories of mass culturedeveloped in America in the work of theorists such as Macdonald (1957).Macdonald saw mass culture as a threat to high culture and capable of creatinga totalitarian society. The idea that mass culture was harmful has beenattacked by Shils (1978) he did not regard mass culture as particularly worthyof note but thought it preferable to the harsh existence that the working classhad previously experienced. Contemporary theorists of culture criticise thenotion that one form of culture is superior to another. Strinati (1995)maintains that what was once seen as mass culture may, over time, come to beseen as serious art. Mass culture, he argues, gives people a choice with regardto art, music, and books and this undermines the power of intellectuals overwhat constitutes good taste. Strinati is of the opinion that criticisms of massculture results from intellectuals attempting to defend their cultural power.Hall (1995) argues that the different forms of culture in a society have theirown ways of classifying the world. All of the ways in which a culture iscommunicated contain aspects of that world view and events can be givendifferent meanings, thus he maintains:

In order for one meaning to beregularly produced, it had to win a kind oftaken -for-grantedness for itself.That involved marginalizing, downgrading or delegitimating alternativeconstructions. Indeed there were certain kinds of explanation which, given thepower of credibility acquired by the preferred range of meanings, wereliterally unthinkable or unsayable (Hall, 1995:355).

Nation States, Nationalism andBritish Identity

Anderson (1983) says that a nationis an imagined political community, imagined as both inherently limited and atthe same time sovereign. It is imagined because although its members may feelthat they belong to the same community yet they may never meet. The nation islimited because some are seen as belonging to it while others are excluded, andit is sovereign because it seeks to celebrate self-government for a particulargroup of people. Nationalism is an espousal of the cultural heritage andpractices of a particular nation state. Smith (1986) maintains that nationstates are characterised by mass education, by economic integration and legalrights and duties for all members of that state.

Hall (1992) argues that the nationstate and nationalism are creations of capitalism. In recent times however,capitalism has generated forces which have served to undermine the sovereignityof the nation state and of nationalism. He regards attempts to promotenationalism in the modern world as dangerous because most nation states areculturally, ethnically and religiously mixed and when groups attempt to promoteparticular interests within a nation state violence and conflict can result.Hall maintains that these forces result in people having a confused sense ofnational identity the ethnically diverse nature of Britain for instance meansthat many people have a number of different identities because they seethemselves as members of different groups.

Cohen (1994) demonstrates the forceof Hall's argument when he argues that nowadays there is no clear cut idea ofwhat it means to be British. British identity is blurred in a number of ways.Cohen investigates the complex and changing nature of British identity as ithas been affected by a number of factors. Societies across the globe have beeninfluenced by colonialism and deconolisation, by migration, travel and bypolitical change. Colley (1996) maintains that 'Britishness' is an invention ofelitist states to counteract the divisive results of capitalism and industrialisationand that the idea of British patriotism was invented in the eighteenth century.However, Langlands (1999) questions Colley's view of Britishness as simply aninvention, she maintains that Britishness is more complex than Colley would haveus believe. Smith (1986a) maintains that nations are ethno-symbolic communitiesmade up of shared history and territory and shared myths of origins. Smith'swork implies that 'Britishness' thus operates on both a cultural and politicallevel. While many modern states are poly-ethnic, but based around a dominantethnic core that produced its name and cultural charter. Smith (1991) says thatit is very often on the basis of such a core that states coalesce to formnations (Smith, 1991:39). Thus, historically, modern nation states are theresult of a state elite building on these core foundations. Smith claims thatin Britain, by the fifteenth century, there was a fairly homogenous cultural,aristocratic sense of Britishness. The British nation state, therefore, isessentially English with elements taken from Wales and Scotland. On the basisof this, Langlands (1999) maintains that states with a stable dominant ethniccore are less likely to be susceptible to the effects of ethnic conflictarising from problems between the state and multiple ethnicities. Langlandsmaintains that:

As it is true of all nationalidentities, the meanings and saliency attached to Englishness are fluid andhave varied considerably; it has at some times drawn upon Celtic sources; andat other times it has been conflated with Britishness (the myth of our islandrace for instance) (Langlands, 1999:60).

Cultural Policy and National Identity

British Cultural policy remainedbased on the elitist views of the nineteenth century until well into thetwentieth century and re-emerged after the Second World War as part of thewelfare state. In 1947 the Arts Council was established in an attempt to bringart to as many people as possible. Ballet, Opera and the theatre were givenmuch publicity as models of British cultural life. As the National Heritagesite maintains, cultural heritage is of great importance. It is also crucial tothe construction of identities and to social behaviour (Turnpenny, 2004). The policieswhich promoted what has been termed 'high' culture remained stable until thelate nineteen sixties and seventies. During the 1950s collectivist policieswere pursued which resulted in cultural stability. By the 1970s the situationwas less stable and the far left began to deride it as all cultural values wereregarded as reflecting the interests of white middle class males. It wasnecessary to do away with value judgements so that culture would suit the needsof everyone.

In the nineteen eighties 'high'culture was again undermined by the market principles of Margaret Thatcher'sGovernment. Art had to justify its continued existence on the basis of itsmarketability. In 1986 the cultural policy advisors to the Greater LondonCouncil wrote:

In an age when we know longerexpect to find a single all- encompassing truth, the best strategies forsurvival often involve creating alternative, exclusive realms, which rejectdominant modes (Mulgan and Worpole, 1986:32)

When New Labour came to power inthe 1990s it took over elements of the left and the right in an attempt topromote a more diverse and inclusive view of culture and cultural heritage. Pearce(2000) contends that:

Cultural heritage is somethingthat can be inherited, which enables the inheritors to enter into theirrightful states and be their true selves (Pearce, 2000:59).

This heritage is expressed in anumber of different ways some of which are material and some symbolic. Thus acultural heritage consists of artefacts, practices, objects and cultural spaceswhich individuals recognise as part of their cultural heritage. Among thesymbolic aspects are oral tradition, the performing arts, and social practices.Therefore cultural heritage can relate to all aspects of life (Turnpenny,2004). Current cultural policy concentrates on the material aspects of heritagesuch as buildings or monuments. This means that heritage is very tightlydefined within an academic context and denies wider cultural interpretation(Turnpenny, ibid). So although current cultural policy states an intention ofinclusivity its actions with regard to cultural heritage and this can lead topeople becoming alienated from their cultural heritage. Pearce (2000) arguesthat these physical aspects of heritage are associated with certain values andemotions, without this association the material culture would lose its value.

Cultural sites, places andartefacts can, therefore be considered to be physical representations ofperceptions of self, community, and belonging, and their associated culturalvalues(Smith and Vandermeer, 2001:51)

Social practices have been omittedfrom Government legislation on cultural heritage yet these are often related toparticular social groups and are an expression of traditional social values.These practices are a source of group identity and have historical,traditional, and cultural significance and should therefore be considered aspart of our cultural heritage (Jones, 1996). Turnpenny (2004) argues that thecurrent way in which the state legislates with regard to cultural heritage isoppressive as it does not take into account community values and thecommunities' perceptions of their cultural heritage and it thus contributes tosocial exclusion. Current cultural policy, in its neglect of the intangible,separates fact from value. In doing so it imposes a form of national identitythat does not truly reflect the identity of community groups in Britain.Turnpenny maintains that cultural policy, in its neglect of the wider culturalheritage that is espoused by communities, results in communities not being ableto relate to Government definitions of cultural heritage (which is why lesspeople visit museums now) and this leads to associated problems ofdisempowerment and exclusion.


This paper has looked at culturalpolicy and its relationship to national identity. It is arguably the case thatcurrent Government cultural policy has echoes of nineteenth century elitism inanother form. Buildings and artefacts are regarded as part of British culturalheritage and are therefore to be espoused. The wider cultural heritage ofcommunities, e.g. the practice of well dressing, bonfire night, Dwali etc areneglected because they are regarded as the culture of the masses. Nationalidentity therefore, is reserved for an elite section of society, just as it wasduring the nineteenth century, and this results in many communities feelingalienated from official definitions of cultural heritage and what it means tobe British.


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