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Theoretical Orientations

Theoretical discussion in the first phase of the NU Centre's life prepared students for on-the-ground observation and research within and alongside anti-apartheid social movements. Students were expected to work with and through local community, cultural and media organisations, trade unions and other bodies, where appropriate. This empirical work was paralleled by the development of interlocking theoretical perspectives on cultural formations, action and activity. The courses married theory and practice through production: the production of cultural and research strategies, methods of adaptation, media direction, problem solving and methods of communication. This production occurred in sites of struggle and negotiation in communities and popular organisations both beyond and within the university. A self-critical practice examined attendant theoretical issues which arose out of both successful and difficult intra-academic and academic-community intellectual interactions and cooperation. We do not claim to have resolved attendant questions, but the Unit did begin to problematise its own assumptions and practices in its teaching, research and publication. These debates cross-pollinated with similar questions emerging from the Media Resource Centre (MRC) (see the MRC's Working Papers series and books) and the Wits Education Policy Unit.

The early Unit's academic practice was an attempt at collective intellectual work to establish participatory research practices. These resulted in collectively written research reports, books and articles. We were not always successful in attaining this ideal, but learning from the Birmingham Centre's experience, students who preferred to work individually were encouraged to do so. In some cases research groups cohered easily, and the results both in terms of the quality of research done and the internal working relations that developed, were significant. But these successes were sometimes matched by the failure of other attempts. These failures became the subject of internal methodological evaluation. We considered the lessons learned from failure to be as important as the lessons learned from success.

The Birmingham Centre's remarkable publishing successes were in part facilitated by the setting up of internal working groups in which graduate students and academics participated. Up to 60 top quality research students per year affiliated with various working groups and committed up to three years in completing these collectively organised projects. Often, heated debates and conflicts occurred between the working groups. CCSU was much less successful in generating this kind of working group because far fewer full-time registrations at MA and Ph.D levels restricted development of a critical mass in the 1980s. Humanities students were poorly supported financially, and often left to earn a living. Further factors included the extreme disparities of South African school and even university standards, and the teething problems in just getting the Unit on the road.

Where possible, then, our research articles, arising out of our teaching programmes, were generally a complex form of multivoiced writing which addressed questions of why and how we do research. Mountaineers climb mountains `because they are there', but cultural studies is a form of academic practice that inserts itself into social processes in order to help shape questions and solutions. It is for this reason that the Unit required that students work on real problems identified by real organisations to produce solutions that had concrete benefits for the engaging organisations in the context of broader societal processes that were under way.

We agreed with Birmingham's Richard Johnson, that Centre's Director, on the need to produce "Really Useful Knowledge" not only at the academic level, but also for the communities and organisations which had contracted our collective research capacity (UmAfrika, End Conscription Campaign, Durban Media Trainers' Group, Westville Residents' Support Group, New Nation, etc.). The fact that we had little difficulty in placing our articles and discussions on research in prestigious international and local journals was an indication of the uniqueness of our intellectual work facilitated, to be sure, by a particular historical crisis fashioned by apartheid. As Terry Eagleton puts it: "theory does not emerge at just any historical moment; it comes into being when it is both possible and necessary, when the traditional rationales for a social and intellectual practice have been broken down and new forms of legitimization for it are needed".

The Unit's cooperative approach to research and publication resulted in a high research output. Another reason was because the area was so under-researched, and because of the immense pressures on us from organisations, publishers and institutions to produce material which both documented and shaped change in the contemporary context. The Unit was uniquely able to respond to these pressures in ways not always possible in more conventional departmental structures.

Through the development of the central theoretical spine of the Theories of Culture and Theories of Media courses, students were intellectually prepared to move into the modular elements which composed the mosaic of cultural investigation: film, video, press, broadcasting, literature, performance, ritual, education, science and so on. While each of these subjects was taught by a specialist or specialists drawn from appropriate disciplines within the University, or by part-time lecturers, they remained connected to the core theoretical direction provided in the Theories of Culture and Theories of Media courses, and by means of formal and informal staff-student seminars presented to the Unit as a whole. By this means we hoped to retain a theoretical integration and avoid the disciplinary fragmentation so often a feature of university courses. Collective work which stimulates and catalyses different student disciplinary backgrounds provides a totality that is not easily experienced by single-subject departments. The resulting conceptual tree looks something like this:

Central Theoretical spine of Cultural studies (CS) comprises:

  • a) Social theories
  • b) Theories of language and meaning (Semiotics, linguistics, discourse analysis, representation)
  • c) Ethnographic methodologies (Use of focus groups, interactive and participative research)
  • d) Survey and numerical methods (Empirical data used to qualify and/or modify theory in relation to practice, to test assumptions, and to operationalise social critique)

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