Raymond Williams

Williams was a neo-marxist cultural theorist who argued that while economic structure and class position do influence culture, the economic base did not determine culture, and that people weren’t just passively subsumed by ruling class ideology.

Raymond Williams is one of the most influential cultural theorists of the modern era. He developed theories of culture from a broadly Marxist perspective, although he was critical of many aspects of traditional Marxism.

For the purposes of A-level sociology Williams is classified as a Neo-Marxist.

Culture and Society

In Culture and Society (1961) Williams criticised the traditional Marxist conception of economic base and superstructure and the relationship between them.

Williams argued that Marx and Engels mistakenly saw economic infrastructure as determining the superstructure (or culture), whereas in reality culture is much more complex and diverse and can change significantly even if the economic base remains the same.

Williams argued that a new Marxist theory of culture needed to take account of the relative autonomy of the superstructure from the economic base, seeing the economic base as ‘the guiding string on which a culture is woven’ rather than something which determined it in a fixed and predictable way.

Cultures were not the automatic product of economic structures, people respond to their class positions consciously and create their cultures actively, thus culture is much more dynamic than Marx and Engels believed was the case.

Williams also criticised Marxist cultural theorists such John Berger for having too narrow a focus purely on the arts. He argued that contemporary marxism should focus on the interdependence of all aspects of social reality and thus examine culture more broadly, treating culture as a ‘way of life’ rather than just focussing on art and literature.

Working class culture and bourgeoise culture

The working classes did not develop much art and literature during the industrial revolution but they did develop their own distinctive institutions and lifestyles.

Williams argued that the main basis for working class culture was a commitment to collective action because the working classes realised that they could not progress in life as individuals because the life chances of individuals were too restricted throughout the 19th century.

It follows that the key working class institutions which developed historically were trades unions, co-operatives and also the labour party which focussed on collective action for change.

Williams saw bourgeoise culture as more individualistic – the key defining aspect here being that members of the bourgeoisie sort success as individuals, in contrast to the collectivist culture of the working classes.

However Williams also argued that there was not a hard and fast dividing line between working class and bourgeois culture

Challenging the Dominance Ideology

There may well be a dominant ideology in a culture, but it also likely that there will be challenges to this dominant ideology.

Challenging ideologies can be either residual or emergent and either alternative or oppositional…

  • residual ideologies – are those of a declining culture, but which is still important in a society
  • emergent ideologies – the ideas of new social groups outside of the ruling class.

Residual and emergent ideologies can either be alternative or opposition

  • oppositional ideologies oppose the dominant ideology and may challenge it overtly.
  • alternative ideologies co-exist with the dominant ideology without challenging it

Hence for Williams the dominant ideology doesn’t necessarily impose itself on people and create a false consciousness.

In fact it is likely that several people in a culture will develop cultures of their own that challenge or overlap with the dominant ideology.

Evaluations of Williams

Williams work is an improvement over traditional Marxist theories of culture because it is less deterministic and recognises the active role individual humans play in creating their own cultures.

Postmodern theorists criticise Williams arguing that there is no such thing as working class culture today, and especially not a collectivist working class culture.

SignPosting and Relevance to A-Level Sociology

This material should be relevant to students studying the Culture and Identity option within the AQA specification.


Sources/ Find out More

Adapted from Haralambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives, edition 8.

Raymond Williams: Wikipedia entry.

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