FOCUS: On Stuart Hall

FOCUS: On Stuart Hall

Gregor McLennan, University of Bristol

Seldom can such glowing tributes have been paid to a social scientist than to Professor Stuart Hall on the occasion of his death in February. So for readers of Discover Society who did not encounter him during his Birmingham CCCS (1960s-70s), Open University (1980s-90s), or highly active ‘post-retirement’ phases, the question naturally arises: what was it about Stuart Hall, as a social scientist, that was so special?

Dialectics personified

To answer this, I find myself reaching for a rather old-fashioned, almost absurdly abstract term: dialectics. Yet for me this gets us close to the essence of Hall’s appeal as a thinker, teacher, mentor and friend. In so many people, in so many texts, and in so many addresses, seemingly contrary inclinations, arguments, traditions, political positions, and personal attributes jostle around awkwardly, never quite gelling into a final synthesis. But this was exactly the ‘dialectical’ quality and achievement of Stuart Hall’s work – especially when articulated in person.

Indeed, if dialectics comes across as abstract, this is because it is usually considered only at the level of pure understanding: the synthesis of generalised positions, theories, findings, and so on. Yet Hall had the rare gift and intelligence of expressing the dialectical movement of ideas and politics in his very character and presence. This was the way he worked with people, talked to (diverse) audiences, disputed and laughed his way through issues, and wrote up his (provisional, inclusive) solutions.

Only in recent times have sociologists (re)discovered the significance of ‘embodiment’ and ‘affect’, and only even more recently have fans of these new ‘vitalist’ notions realised that they are not in fact necessarily opposed to old ‘dry’ notions like reason, knowledge and argumentation. Better to put it, again, more dialectically: ideas and politics don’t lose their generality when they are ‘fused’ in and by particular situations and people, but they do seem to matter more because of this, gaining enhanced significance and buzz. And no one exuded this kind of embodied synthesizing intellectuality quite like Hall.

Accordingly, whatever angle you take on his life, person and work, initial paradoxes need to be indicated, then overcome. For example, just to call Stuart, as I did in the first paragraph, a ‘social scientist’ cannot be entirely right. That designation doesn’t reflect his original concern with literature (Henry James in particular), his ongoing engagement with cultural criticism, jazz, and the popular arts, his absorption in later life in the establishment of a multicultural arts centre in Hoxton (incorporating the Stuart Hall Library), and his role as the subject of a celebrated film, The Stuart Hall Project, and installation, The Unfinished Conversation (both by John Akomfrah), shortly before his death.

But of course, Hall was a social scientist, his collaborative books and essays being standardly listed on social science courses of many sorts, his influence tangible in all sorts of social science contexts. Perhaps above all – something not fully saluted in the obituaries to date – Hall was at the core of a long series of quite remarkable OU social science faculty courses, the topics of which can simply be sampled to seal the point: crime and society; state and society; popular culture; beliefs and ideologies; understanding modern societies; sociological perspectives; culture, media, and identities; and two gigantic social science Foundation courses. These productions typically weighed in at hundreds of thousands of words of specially prepared student text and Readers, together with a huge array of BBC TV and radio programmes (many fronted, inimitably, by Hall), study cassettes, and exhilarating, draining summer schools that altered many people’s lives.

Social scientists in conventional universities begged, borrowed or stole the OU ‘units’ in order to re-vamp their own courses, and many served as OU ‘tutors’ on the side. Prestigious external examiners were closely involved, but they went away simply full of praise, and invariably excited about having got to know Hall himself better. It cannot be emphasised too strongly that the OU ‘course teams’ were large collectives of highly accomplished, prominent social scientists in their own right; yet Stuart’s galvanizing central place was recognized by all.

Politics and pedagogy

Neither is it quite right to think of Stuart Hall as an academic as such. Perhaps the best academics are always somehow not-quite, or not-merely, academics. Yes he was a senior professor, he studied and wrote in universities and colleges all his working life, and he would run departments and serve on committees just like any appropriately dedicated university ‘citizen’ would. But he was never completely comfortable with the trappings of academia, its particular style of career egoism and necessary bureaucracy. It’s well known that Hall didn’t exactly take to Oxford as a student; that he was primarily a public man of the Left; that he got seriously off-side with the Birmingham University hierarchy; and that much as he loved the OU for its more engaged mission, he found its increasing RAE-ification and marketization, as elsewhere, regrettable and maddening. It has been noted in commentaries that Hall never wrote a monograph, and no doubt by choice. But even that well-intentioned observation is couched in the sort of academese that would rile him. “Where on earth did this word ‘monograph’ come from?” he puzzled once when I was bewailing the downside of RAE management and rhetoric. ‘What on earth was wrong with ‘book’ – does monograph just mean a book with only one word in it?’

As for the suggestion that maybe Hall didn’t write a huge amount, at least solo; or that brilliant speaking rather than academic writing was his forte, this is immediately rebuffed by noting the astonishing volume of OU writing that he composed in his eighteen years there, driven not only by undoubted pedagogic genius and ever-present political edge, but also by constant wrestling with the best scholarship on whatever terrain his direction of travel was crossing.

From start to finish his ideal was the ‘organic intellectual’ pursuing understanding, dialogue, and social change, rather than academic ‘research’ expertise. Thus, Hall’s own publications and ‘research’ were intimately bound up with more educative projects and milieux. He never gave less than his full attention and time to students, episodic interlocuters, political activists, and the legions of questing colleagues who just liked being around him. He was never on the look-out for someone more important to talk to. At OU summer schools, for example, he would sit up long after everyone had gone to bed or hit the bar, dealing patiently and sincerely with the questions thrown at him by passionate adult learners, and making his mark on their lives as a result. As for hurrying away afterwards to write that inevitably overdue article, it would be for Marxism Today or Soundings rather than professional journals read only by a handful. (Not that he devalued that – only there were larger human and political endeavours demanding his energies.)

Cultural Studies and Sociology

What about the at times vexatious relationship between cultural studies and sociology, the two subjects he most obviously professed? Here the paradox is that while, in many ways, Stuart set this running, he never himself expressed or encouraged the feeling of sheer antagonism that sometimes flared up. Partly, this was because Hall pitched cultural studies as an inter- and post-disciplinary, and socially transformative project, to which the resources of many disciplines could usefully be harnessed. He therefore had serious qualms when cultural studies morphed into a large-scale undergraduate teaching machine, with its own named degrees, revered canon (featuring him above all), and career loyalties. Of course, nowadays, no one can be found being anything other than vocally interdisciplinary, but at Birmingham and the OU, interdisciplinarity was genuinely innovative, especially when honed as a kind of political sensibility, which is how Hall best exemplified it.

In the Birmingham phase, Hall certainly saw the need for cultural studies to mark a break with its parental influences, notably literary criticism and sociology. In line with that, almost every annual volume of the Working Papers in Cultural Studies series featured a critical appraisal of sociologists in the topic under examination, some of them contributed by Hall in expansive ‘mapping the field’ style. Thus the sociologies of literature, education, work, ideology, media, race, youth, crime…were simultaneously raided and given a bit of a bashing for not being intellectually adequate enough, partly because their motivation was not politically radical enough. Yet looking back we can see that the very form of critique deployed in those polemical studies was itself ‘sociologistic’. The key weakness of sociology usually identified, ironically, was that it was lacking full appreciation of social-structural (mainly class-related) orderings and divisions. Thus, Hall tended to think of cultural studies as ‘posing sociological questions against sociology itself’ and being sociological at least ‘in a loose sense’, seeing as cultural studies dealt centrally with ‘lived practices, belief systems and institutions’.

Cultural studies, more so than sociology, embraced postmodernist analytics through the 1980s, giving some sociologists the chance to bite back at the upstart discipline. In this mood, cultural studies was blamed for causing an outbreak of merely ‘decorative sociology’, and for abandoning serious moral purpose when it came to observing contemporary mass media consumption. Hall was respectfully exempted from these charges, but the tradition he had inaugurated was being smeared in such attacks, and other senior methodologists weighed in by expressing dismay about the steady influx of humanities-style scholars into sociology, undermining further, they thought, its fading promise of science-standard knowledge.

But for most, the incorporation of cultural studies into sociology was welcomed as a transformative boost to sociology’s own reflexive trajectory, and its normative purpose. In parallel, cultural studies people close to Hall took their distance from mass cultural studies and excessive postmodernism alike, urging a return within cultural studies to philosophical realism, political economy, and sociologically grounded research. The Nineties and the Noughties thus witnessed constructive cooperation across the two discourses, and a stealthy merging of themes and methods.

Stuart Hall remained the key figure, taking on board aspects of poststructuralist and, emphatically, postcolonial thinking, but continuing to value and practise socio-historical observation. His early depiction of paradigms in cultural studies was taken, in 1979, as the frame for a major British Sociological Association assessment of ‘practice and progress’ in sociology; he served as BSA President from 1995 to 1997; he led the sociology team at the OU throughout his time there; and he was honoured in 2011 with the award of a BSA 60th anniversary ‘distinguished contribution’ award. More generally, advocacy for a strong ‘cultural turn’ within sociology became commonplace over the years, this coming sometimes from people who once were distinctly ‘mainstream’, and such a shift is significantly due to Hall’s influence.

So we can say that Hall was all the larger a figure in the history of post-war sociology for not-quite being a sociologist and for keeping faith with his vision of cultural studies. His loyalties were not to disciplines as such – he abhorred disciplinary ‘imperialism’ – but to certain kinds of people and causes, however they chose to label themselves professionally.

Three Linked Interventions

Stuart Hall contributed many specific ideas and studies that have proved extremely fruitful to social scientists, often developed in a cumulative, slow-burn way. For example, an integrated, layered approach to media messaging arcs across his early-70s ‘encoding/decoding’ model, his expansion of ‘moral panic’ theory in the analysis of the policing and reporting of ‘mugging’ in the late 70s and early 80s, and his depiction, in the 1990s, of the ‘circuit of culture’ constituted by the five interdependent nodes of production, consumption, regulation, representation, and identity. But Hall was above all, and unapologetically, a consummate ‘generalist’, because it is in that mode, after all, that public intellectuals operate. Three ‘interventions’ seem particularly noteworthy, forming a kind of garland of interwoven thoughts and impulses.

It is often asked: was Stuart Hall really a Marxist? Much depends on the nature of the ‘real’ Marxism that is summoned up here. There is no question that he understood, ‘admired’ in many ways, and also hated the modern capitalist order in much the same way that Marx did. He was distressed and angered by the relentless commodification of everything and concomitant rampant inequality, to the very end writing coruscating critiques of the neo-liberalism that the New Labour/new managerialists inherited from Thatcherism. Accordingly, and notwithstanding his hospitability to some poststructuralist motifs, Hall was always quick to ‘remind’ us – a favourite, deceptively soft locution of his – of the ongoing necessity of political economy and the overarching material reality of capitalism.

Yet Hall’s Marxism, in an oft-used phrase, was one that came ‘without guarantees’. Actually, that phrase is too bland to capture the tensile quality of Hall’s pluralistic moves and manoeuvres. Sustained essays on class theory, on Marx’s method, and on the concept of ideology demonstrated that much of the complexity he saw as undeniable and indispensable could be found in Marx’s own thought. But Hall came to require additional complexity besides. Thus, whilst in the 1970s, he took something from Althusser, from Raymond Williams (an abiding affinity there), and a great deal from Gramsci in affirming the ‘relative autonomy’ and constructive political force of the ‘superstructures’ – culture, communication and consciousness – the whole base-superstructure formulation reached breaking point for him. Philosophically, he found persuasive the persistent scrambling of the ‘discourse-reality’ distinction by Foucault and contemporaries like Ernesto Laclau; and constant engagement with feminism led him fully to embrace the independent causal force – though never separate operation – of gender, sexuality, desire and embodiment. Taking no particular line on psychoanalytical theory, Hall acknowledged its indispensability for any truly emancipatory ambition.

These points of orientation were concretely brought together when, in hotly-debated essays and talks on the ‘great moving right show’ of the 70s and 80s, Hall urged the Left that the ‘road to renewal’ would be hard indeed, notwithstanding the blatant class politics prosecuted by Thatcher and her ilk. In fact, the ‘new times’ that had now profoundly encased us required a novel grasp of the nature of socio-psychic subjectivity itself. Identity for Hall was a matter of both multiple and minimal selves, such that we respond to the appeals or ‘interpellations’ of political discourses, especially hegemonic ones, sometimes in an unthinking ‘gut’ fashion, sometimes in a torn, reflexive and ‘multi-accentual’ way. Thus, at one and the same time, Thatcherism was a crass, bullying project favouring the rich and appealing to rather primitive conservative notions of whiteness, nationhood, and domestic-familial authority. Yet the drive decisively to roll back the civic legitimacy of the state (its ‘nanny’ welfare side, not the coercive wing), was aimed at unleashing a new bout and new style of market-driven, financialized modernity. So there were elements of a radical new social settlement in Thatcherism as well as a summoning-up of worlds the English had lost. New societal constituencies were being produced as well as older enmities. So for Hall Thatcherism was a potent, encompassing cultural ‘imaginary’, not just a sequence of reactionary political measures.

Correspondingly, no adequate Left counter-imaginary, for Hall, could be based on simple reversals of these new discursive elements, unproblematically reproducing all the old nostalgic verities, whether in terms of good old Labour paternalism or proletarian revolution. Rather, a dynamic new ‘articulation’ of old and new identities was needed, a politics of partial and conditional allegiances, a sense of social creativity as well as strident nay-saying. Some socialist critics felt this was getting all too complicated, giving too much credit to the popularity and populism of Thatcherite gambits, and in effect undermining the potential for collectivist unity. But overall, Hall’s instinct came to be widely accepted: that a new epochal configuration of societal trends had been entered, and a new spectrum of emerging views and feelings about social belonging and transformation. The obituaries credited Hall for coining the very word ‘Thatcherism’, but it was his delineation of the latter as ‘authoritarian populism’ and ‘regressive modernization’ that generated the important debates.

Overlapping with these whole-Left points of negotiation was Hall’s particular handling of questions of race and ethnicity. That his own distinctive pathway and persona were due in part to his Jamaican, Black, post-colonial formation seemed obvious enough. But there were many ways in which its effects and measure were not obvious at all. Indeed, sometimes the compound vectors of politics, background and subjectivity, in his case as in others, simply defy explicit or linear analysis, something poignantly brought out in Akomfrah’s Stuart Hall Project. Hall developed this line of reflection across another long-running batch of reflections on ‘new ethnicities’ and the meaning of the post-colonial, ending with an encapsulation of ‘the multicultural’ (not multiculturalism) as something that is positively unsettling for any institutional or informal politics of whiteness and Britishness, but that carries little extra-discursive or ‘ethnically’ underwritten valency of its own.

Hall’s initial claim at the time was certainly controversial: that a transformational anti-racist politics, whether in Britain or in the globalizing, diasporic world as a whole, could not come from (though it could include) self-identification in terms of a simple reversal of the register of white, colonial oppression. Thus it could involve rhetorical contestations such as Black is beautiful, black power, and the argument that all peoples of colour are politically Black. But ultimately, times and understandings move on, people are always more mobile than the categories used to fix them, and so in anti-racist matters as with the Left generally, Hall thought it vital to be wary and critical of ‘essentialism’: the assumption that, essentially, being a black person, or a black political activist, or a black artist, must match a scripted repertoire of ideological responses and life-practices. ‘Sameness’ is a construction, he argued, not a given; it holds only temporarily, under contestation, and under constant pressure from the protean experience of difference.

The final dialectical paradox, however, is that even as Stuart Hall pronounced on these issues, he always cast them in a way that was open to all, and in ways that were typically received as generous and solidaristic. In his radiant company at least, it was always a matter of sameness-in-difference.


Gregor McLennan is Professor of Sociology and Head of the School of Sociology, Politics and International studies at the University of Bristol. A former postgraduate student at the Birmingham Centre of Contemporary Cultural Studies and Lecturer and Senior Lecturer in Social Sciences at the Open University, he is the author of five books: Marxism and the Methodologies of History (1981), Marxism, Pluralism and Beyond (1989), Pluralism (1995), Sociological Cultural Studies: Reflexivity and Positivity in the Human Sciences (2006), and a recent introductory synopsis, Story of Sociology (2011).

8 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    March 05, 2014

    A thoughtful and much appreciated piece, Gregor. It is great to be reminded that it is Stuart Hall’s ideas that matter so much still. I think his ideas have not been focused on enough in the tributes that have followed his death, or for that matter the people whose thinking he also facilitated. I think that is also one of the great disappointments of John Akomfrah’s film about Stuart Hall’s life – it doesn’t really give an account of his ideas. My daughter said when I took her to see the film – “It was like watching a lecturer who had assumed that the students already knew the content of what s\he was trying to teach!”

    Was also reminded by Ben Carrington that Stuart once said “although sociology thinks it’s a predictive science, it doesn’t predict anything very much, very well.” Maybe invites us to think again about what it is that sociology does do well.

    Les Back


  2. Avatar
    March 05, 2014

    what an excellent piece, gregor. so inspirational.


  3. Avatar
    March 05, 2014

    This article touched my deepest fibers. It brought memories from when I met Stuart, Gregor, Michel, Pierre, Jacques, Gilles, Niklas, Tony, Miliband back in the protests of the 60s.


  4. Avatar
    March 05, 2014

    A moving and beautifully explained sense of what Stuart meant to us personally and to our thoughts and understanding. Greg you have made a significant contribution to sharing Stuart’s innate genius to know and define, so that we were all touched and enriched by knowing him and learning with him.


    • Avatar
      March 06, 2014

      true words, my students were delighted to read this piece.


  5. Avatar
    March 06, 2014

    Thanks Greg – really useful to set out Stuart’s thinking and work in such detail. I for one plundered that four volume series on Modernity he co-edited for the OU! And I like your use of ‘dialectics’. Les, your very brainy daughter might like to scroll through the list of tributes I’ve assembled here (on a Leeds website inspired by Stuart’s and others’ journal Soundings) – a kind of crash course in Stuartology. Of course, I then found Lawrence and Wishart had done something similar.


  6. Avatar
    March 06, 2014

    “He was distressed and angered by the relentless commodification of everything and concomitant rampant inequality, to the very end writing coruscating critiques of the neo-liberalism that the New Labour/new managerialists inherited from Thatcherism”. I agree with this sentiment, but how difficult is it to reconcile this observation with the necessary and far from facile task of heading a school at a prestigious university which, albeit inevitably, succumbs and perpetuates these very values? The question I am getting at is HOW to put to use Hall’s ‘legacy’ to extricate ourselves from the miserable status quo of Higher Education in this country rather than merely congratulating ourselves for honouring this brilliant intellectual?


  7. Avatar
    March 07, 2014

    Its great to read this because, apart from what others have observed above, it brings out the “OU” Stuart Hall which has been much mentioned but with very little detail. Altough I joined the OU after he had alreday retired I took over as the course team chair of the last course he did for the OU, Culture, media and identities, or D318 in OU jargon. One testament to the power of that course is that it ran for more than its alloted 10 year cycle; more importantly, the ideas in it continuted to resonate even if the cases or examples had dated a lot. Remarkably, the story of the Sony walkman was still re-published in a new edition by Sage only 2 or so years ago, when it feels like the Walkman itself belongs to another era [or maybe epoch]. The circuit of culture as a teaching device is something that many courses have tried to find an analogue for ever since. The teaching and intellectual contribution extends far beyond this but its good to see it explained…. and hopefully other people with OU connections will add to it.


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