Study questions for Janice Williamson:


Raymond Williams, Base & Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory

1. Williams takes great pains to define the notion of "determination":

Now there is clearly a difference between a process of setting limits and exerting pressures, whether by some external force or by the internal laws of particular development, and that other process in which a subsequent content is essentially prefigured, predicted and controlled by a prexisting external force." (408).

Why is "determinism" an issue when we are analysing popular culture?


2. Base (primary economic activities) & Superstructure (a unitary "area" within which all cultural and ideological activities could be placed) are key terms in Marxist theory. See p 408. What do these terms mean? Why might they be relevant to a study of popular culture?


2a Define "ideology"! Look it up in your dictionary. Go to the reference library and look it up in a reference book that focusses on critical theory or cultural studies term. Compare the differences in interpretation.


3. Willliams insists that the relation between economic forces (base) and cultural activities is a complex one. He suggests that understandings which focus on how culture "reproduces" or "reflects" the economic base are not adequate to the complexities of how culture works. He suggests that the idea of "mediation" is more useful. Look up "mediation" in your dictionary. What does it mean? Can we generalize from its basic meaning to see why this might be a more sophisticated explanation of how culture works. What are the limitations of seeing culture as a simple mirroring or reflection of the economic? (see p 408-9)

  4. Williams insists that the metaphor of "the base" as static and fixed is not adequate to the "more active, more complicated and more contradictory" understanding of social forces as "a process and not a state." Why is it important to think about the relation between economic forces and culture as a process?


5. The concept of "hegemony" provides Williams with a way to think about why society is difficult to change. He notes that the Italian writer Gramsci offers hegemony as a term which "supposes the existence of something lived at such a depth, which saturates the society to such an extent, and which, as Gramsci put it, even constitutes the substance and limit of common sense for most people under its sway" (p412). Common sense ideas which you could define as "hegemonic" include the idea of women as "naturally" maternal and the notion of men as "naturally" violent. Can you think of other social concepts which we accept as "common sense" while leaving unexamined how they came to be considered as the rule?


6. Hegemony "is the central, effective and dominant system of meanings and values, which are not merely abstract but which are organized and lived. That is why hegemony is not to be understood at the level of mere opinion or mere manipulation. It is a whole body of practices and expectations; our assignments of energy, our ordinary understanding of the nature of [wo]man a