A Movement in the Mirror:
American Studies in the 1970s

by Lisa Guernsey


3. The Culturological Shift

How much of this postmodern shift was realized or acknowledged in the 1970s is uncertain, and fortunately for American scholarship, postmodernism's paralyzing tendencies did not halt American Studies scholars and their work, but it did, undeniably, rearrange their approaches. As the myth-symbol school declined, the introduction of a more culturological perspective began to take place. To definitively explain culturological approaches to American Studies may be impossible considering the multiple, varying and sometimes contradictory ways different American Studies programs discuss "culture," but in simple terms examining culture means examining the historical and social patterns that shape the lifestyle of a group. In a subtle but important way these new ideas of culture presented a new approach to study--not just in American Studies, but in departments across the disciplines. Looking at groups and the interplay between them widened intellectual inquiry to include more than a historical or literary approach. Anthropology, sociology, psychology and quantitative study entered the field as relevant culturological tools.

One particular approach to this type of study was launched by the American Studies program at the University of California at Davis, which coined the term "culture concept." In a 1973 American Quarterly article entitled, "American Culture Studies:  The Discipline and the Curriculum," authors Jay Mechling, Robert Merideth and David Wilson chided the American Studies movement for seeming to "lack a sense of itself, the academic environment and its subject."17 Instead of performing "tinkers' work" (as they labeled the American Studies' contribution so far), Mechling, Merideth and Wilson suggested placing greatest emphasis on teaching students to analyze and understand different cultures within the United States. The Davis authors were wary of teaching "stuff" like "conclusions, data" or even events, artifacts, places and people.18 Rejecting the idea that students should be expected to "absorb a standardized body of information," the UC-Davis program hoped to build students' analytical skills first. Stressing (postmodernly) that there is no right answer to "What is American Culture?", Mechling et al hoped to create something similar to the University of Pennsylvania program which "confronted and translated into a curriculum the theoretical and methodological problems inherent in American Culture studies" and found coherence in theory, method and technique instead of names and numbers.19

As American Studies scholar Gene Wise was to remark six years later, "The Davis essay did disturb the existing order,"20 and while the question of UC-Davis's actual success can still provoke debate, the fact that it was started at all indicates the scope of the changes shaking the American Studies movement in the 1970s. By getting away from an emphasis on now-questionable icons of American experience, the "culture concept" program was able to take a more postmodern approach, accepting the notion of multiple narratives of history and experience and rejecting the idea that an "American" culture might be derived from readings of classic literary and historical texts.  

While it would be wrong to generalize that the change from myth-symbol study to cultural study was happening within all American Studies scholarship, or to suggest that "culturological" studies were not occurring before the 1970s, noting these examples opens a window onto the paradigmatic shifts that were being discussed, tried and in some cases dismissed in this decade. Intellectually, one might argue, the movement was in a state of flux--dynamic enough to want to discard older versions of its methodology but not quite sure of what would be an adequate replacement. If conversations taking place on the internet today are any indication, the state of flux continues; the movement, even in the 1990s, is not entirely content with the direction it has taken since the fall of the myth-symbol school.21 The late 1960s and early '70s stirred up ideas at the bottom of the American Studies movement which to this day have yet to settle.

Continue to Chapter Two

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