I. Genealogy of American Studies

II. Myth and Symbol

III. Interpretive Social Science Theory

IV. Marxisms

V. Poststructuralist & Postmodern Theories

VI. Gender, Race, Sexuality & Dis/ability

VII. Historical Theories & Methods

VIII. Literary Theories & Methods

IX. (British) Cultural Studies

X. Postcolonial & Transnational Theories

XI. Theorizing Interdisciplinarity (forthcoming)

Comments? Corrections? Suggestions?


III. Interpretive Social Science, Semiotics, and Material Culture

Beginning in the early seventies, there is in general a rise in the influence of anthropology and sociology in AS. Central here is a move away from a concept of "culture" as the high arts (drawn from the literary origins of AS) to a more anthropological notion of "culture" as patterns in a whole way of life. While the more positivist social sciences have had some impact on AS (primarily through their use by social historians), a more general influence has come from the hermeneutic human sciences, those stressing the unavoidably interpretive nature of all social analysis. Included among these would be phenomenology and its American cousins, enthnomethodology and symbolic interactionism, and various other social constructionist and reflexive ethnographic approaches, all of which aim at a less reductive description of social practices than is typical of some empiricist works. These approaches tend also to stress the inter-subjective and self-reflective rather than the wholly objective, structurally determined nature of social action.

Structuralism and semiotics, derived primarily from the Swiss linguistic theorist Ferdinand de Saussure and American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, also played a very important role in these developments. Most versions of these approaches build on the notion that culture is structured like a language with certain rules of combination analogous to grammar and syntax. Semiotics has been applied to the study of virtually every kind of cultural object from fashion, to architecture, to food, to television, as well as to various linguistic, visual and aural art forms. It has been applied in and across a number of fields including anthropology (Claude Levi-Strauss), folklore (Vladimir Propp), literature (Roland Barthes, Julia Kristeva), psychoanalysis (Jacques Lacan), film (Christian Metz, Teresa de Lauretis) and general cultural studies (Umberto Eco).

In the context of AS, structuralism emerges in the mid- to late-70s, partly as a desire to put the myth and symbol school on a more "scientific" ground, and partly through a more general influx of European theory; while structuralism as a term was largely overshadowed by its "post-"ing, semiotics remains one of the most pervasive and lively approaches to cultural studies. One key, related development has been a focus on "material culture," on artifacts (furniture, buildings, etc.) that can be "read" as social history via methods that frequently include the semiotic but draw also from archeology and other traditional anthropological and histoy-based tools, as well as from the fields of folklore studies and art history, among others. More recently, the influence of anthropology has returned in new form via the hermeneutic ethnography of Clifford Geertz, the textual ethnography of James Clifford, and socio-anthropology of Pierre Bourdieu-- three varied approaches all of which call into question the privileged position of the anthropological observer (typically a "Westerner" observing "non-Western" "primitive" cultures) by turning the ethnographic lens on the culture and the interpretive practices of the observers themselves.


  • Bernstein, Richard J. The Restructuring of Social and Political Theory (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1978). A lucid work of synthesis that examines the empiricist tradition, linguistic critiques of empiricism, phenomenology, and Habermas's "critical theory," concluding that social inquiry needs ultimately to be empirical (grounded in particular social facts and events), interpretive (seeing those facts and events as partly created by analytical frames), and critical (responsible for the political motives and implications of one's work).

  • Giddens, Anthony, and Jonathan Turner, eds. Social Theory Today . Palo Alto: Stanford Univ. Press, 1987. A collection of insightful essays surveying a range of recent theory with particular emphasis on sociological aspects and applications but with interdisciplinary implications. Includes essays on behaviorism, symbolic interactionism, ethnomethodology, world-systems theory, and post-structuralism, among others.

  • Rabinow, Paul and William M. Sullivan, eds. Interpretive Social Science: A Reader. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2nd Edition, 1989. Fine sampling of significant recent contributions to the theory and method of the social sciences, stressing phenomenology, structuralism and post-structuralism.

  • Blonsky, Marshall, ed. On Signs. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1985. A wide-ranging anthology of theoretical pieces and applications of semiotics, including contributions from most of the major contemporary semioticians.

  • Hawkes, Terence. Structuralism and Semiotics . Berkeley: UC Press, 1977. A good general introduction to major figures and schools, from Peirce and Saussure to Barthes and Eco.

  • Agger, Ben. Critical Social Theories: An Introduction. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998. Compares postmodern, poststructuralist, neo-marist, feminist, and cultural studies approaches in light of an in relation to interpretive and empirical social science.

  • Lemert, Charles. (ed.). Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1993. Unusually comprehensive collection, from Marx, Durkheim and Weber, to Foucault, Anzaldua, and Lorde. Includes a lucid introduction on what social theory is and how it is an everyday, not just a specialist, activity.

Representative Texts:

  • Berger, Peter and Thomas Luckmann. The Social Construction of Reality . NY: Doubleday, 1966. Influenced by the phenomenology of Alfred Schutz, this text attempts to recreate sociology by placing a theory of knowledge production at its center; the book was immensely influential in AS circles in the late 60s and early 70s and remains one of the most lucid presentations of a phenomenological social constructionist approach emphasizing the interaction of subjective and objective moments in the creation of reality.

  • Kelly, Gordon. "The Social Construction of Reality: Implications for Future Directions in American Studies," Prospects, 8 (1983). Good general description of ways in which Berger and Luckmann's stance (see above) can be used in AS work.

  • ---. "Literature and the Historian," AMERICAN QUARTERLY 26 (1974): 141-59 Influential piece challenging the representativeness of elite literary works, and arguing for a more sociological and anthropological approach to a wider range of literary works, using children's literature as his example.

  • Sklar, Robert. "American Studies and the Realities of America," AMERICAN QUARTERLY, 22 (1970): 597-605. Traces the history of "high cultural" criticism in AS and calls for more attention to issues of "social structure" as understood by anthropologists and sociologists.

  • Mechling, Jay et al. "American Culture Studies: The Discipline and the Curriculum," AMERICAN QUARTERLY, 25 (1973): 363-389. An influential attack on the vagueness of the term "culture" as used up till that time by AS scholars, and a call for a more theoretically sophisticated concept drawn from cultural anthropology. Also includes useful information on the history of AS as a discipline, and various approaches to teaching AS.

  • Tate, Cecil. The Search for a Method in American Studies . Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota, 1973. Based on a careful re-reading of the classic myth and symbol works that brings forth their underlying assumptions, Tate's book argues a kind of proto-structuralist position as a refinement of the myth and symbol approach.

  • Blair, John G. "Structuralism, American Studies, and the Humanities," AMERICAN QUARTERLY, 30 (1978): 261-281.

  • Pace, David. "Structuralism in History and the Social Sciences," AMERICAN QUARTERLY, 30 (1978): 282-97. This article and the one above by Blair introduce major structuralist works to an AS audience, survey then recent structuralist work in AS, and suggest the approach's general value to the field.

  • Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. NY: Hill & Wang,[1957] 1972.

  • ---. Image/Music/Text . NY: Hill & Wang, 1977. These two collections of essays contain much of the best, most accessible work of one of the finest practitioners of semiotics. Mythologies is an eloquent, jargon-free collection of short pieces on topics ranging from "The Face of Garbo" and "The Brain of Einstein" to "The World of Wrestling" and "Romans in Film." It also includes the important lengthy essay, "Myth Today," wherein Barthes lays out his structuralist method; it makes for an interesting comparison with the myth and symbol school. In Image/Music/Text, see especially, "Rhetoric of the Image," and "The Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives." Two other pieces, "The Death of the Author," and "From Work to Text" are influential moments in the transition from structuralism to post-structuralism, as they challenge the autonomous author and the autonomous book, respectively, as sites meaning making, pointing instead to complex, negotiated inter-textual networks of language.

  • * Wright, Will. Sixguns and Society: A Structural Study of the Western. Berkeley: UC Press, 1975. Application of a Levi-Strauss-influenced version of structuralism to the Western genre of film. Includes a theoretical introduction and a methodological epilogue that explain his approach.

  • * Cawelti, John. Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture . Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1976. Something of a proto-structuralist text, this makes interesting reading alongside Wright (above), since Cawelti too includes a section on the Western genre. His introduction adds the concept of "formula" to the earlier terms myth and symbol. He argues that popular literature with its enduring but changing narrative formulas may provide a more valid indicator of wide-spread cultural values than the study of a few, elite works. He further suggests that because many narrative formulas are cross-cultural, one can through close scrutiny identify specifically American variants that suggest the unique characteristics of this culture.

  • Place, Linna Funk. et al. "The Object as Subject: The Role of Museums and Material Culture in American Studies," AMERICAN QUARTERLY 26 (1974): 281-91.

  • Glassie, Henry. "Meaningful Things and Appropriate Myths: The Artifact's Place in American Studies," Prospects 3 (1977): 1-49. This piece and the Place piece above represent early reflections on what has become an important interdisciplinary site in AS -- material culture.

  • Schlerath, T.J. Material Culture Studies in America. Nashville: American Association of State and Local History, 1982. Lucid survey of varieties of material culture study of American things and things American.

  • Martinez, Katharine and Kenneth L. Ames, eds. The Material Culture of Gender, The Gender of Material Culture Winterthur, Del.: Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum ; Hanover : Distributed by University Press of New England, 1997. Includes a useful introduction on gender in material culture and in material culture studies, and a wide of array of essays on topics from Wilder's "Little House" books, to male friendship to quilts as the colonization of American women.

  • Kingery, David, ed. Learning From Things: Method and Theory of Material Culture Studies. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1999. Surveys recent developments in theory and method for material culture studies

  • Journal of Material Culture

  • Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Culture . NY: Basic Books, 1973. An infuential thinker practicing "semiotic," "hermenutic" or "phenomenological" ethnography, this collection includes most of Geertz's major essays. See especially his classic pieces, "Thick Description: Towards and Interpretive Theory of Culture" and "Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight." Geertz views "culture" as an expressive or performative system of meaning making not reducible to other systems (i.e., the social, political or economic), and tries to defend the specificities of various cultural moments from superficial comparison or reduction to structural sameness he associates with both functionalism and version marxism.

  • * Isaac, Rhys. The Transformation of Colonial Virginia: 1740-1790 . Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1982. Brilliantly combines Geertzian ethnography with social and cultural history.

  • Clifford, James. The Predicament of Culture . Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1988. A richly imaginative, lucid collection of inter-linked essays on the topic of textuality and politics in ethnography and cultural criticism generally. Chapter 1 contains a sustained analysis of the politics of various ways of writing about "other" cultures, the middle chapters detail the interactions between aesthetic and ethnogrpahic modes of apprehending objects, Chapters 9 & 10 provide important insights into the display of material culture in museums, and the stylistically innovative final chapter on the Mashpee Indians of Maine raises important questions about the invention and reinvention of identities with resonance beyond tribal cultures to all cultural identities.

  • ---., and George Marcus (eds). Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography . Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1986. Clifford's introduction provides a good description of the "textualist" turn in recent anthropoligical writing, and the collected essays offer brilliant analyses of the language of ethnography as it shapes the possibilities and limits of representing a culture.

  • Behar, Ruth, and Deborah A. Gordon (eds.) Women Writing Culture Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1995. A wide-ranging collection of feminist anthropological work that acts as a good antidote to the limited concern given to gender in the Clifford and Marcus collection.

  • Radway, Jan. "Identifying Ideological Seams," Communication, 9 (1986): 93-123. In this very important article, Radway offers an unusually lucid explanation of interpretive ethnography and how it can be applied to American culture. She also argues cogently for fieldwork on contemporary American culture as a way of bridging academia and the wider society.

  • Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction . Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1984. Bourdieu, a French sociologist and anthropologist, argues brilliantly and comprehensively the case that distinctions of cultural "taste" are key factors in the structuring of society, especially with regard to class.

  • de Certau, Michel. Heterodoxies . Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986. DeCertau draws on anthropoligical, sociological, and literary techniques to elaborate theories and methods for understanding the subtle resistances of oppressed groups (including native Americans) embodied in the rhetorical practices of everyday life.

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