Raymond Williams and Edward P. Thompson. A Comparison of their Idea of Culture

Seminar Paper 2015 10 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature


Table of content:

1. Introduction

2. Cultural Studies
2.1. Raymond Williams’ ’Culture is Ordinary’
2.2. E. P. Thompson’s criticism

3. Conclusion

Works cited

1. Introduction

The term culture refers to a group of people who are defined by everything such as language, lifestyle or religion and it changes from society to society. If we ask people what they think about when they hear the term “culture” we will get many different answers. The term culture is nowadays over-extensively used and in many different contexts. It is for example related to agriculture (farming), the human body, in biology the growth of organisms or youth culture. Our definition for culture also changed over time and there are a lot of theorists who have dealt with that topic. Two very famous theorists were the young Marxists Raymond Williams and Edward Palmer Thompson who had studied under F. R. Leavis at Cambridge University. F. R. Leavis represented a narrow and elitist concept of “high culture”. Williams and Thompson distanced themselves from Leavis’ elitist concept and developed the study of industrialized mass culture. In this essay I will start by giving a brief overview on how cultural studies have emerged over the time and which theorists were involved. Then I will summarize Raymond Williams’ idea of culture according to his essay “Culture is ordinary” and finally I will confront it with Edward P. Thompson’s critic on Williams with his review on Williams’ essay “The long Revolution”, to show their different opinions on how to define the term “culture”.

2. Cultural Studies

The development of cultural studies was in the 1980s in the USA. Before that there was an important former development in Birmingham, England in the 1950s. Cultural Studies arose from a crisis in the humanities and it is an interdisciplinary umbrella term. Stuart Hall contributed much to the development of cultural studies with his essay “The Emergence of Cultural Studies and the Crisis of the Humanities”. He belonged to a group of young Marxist literary critics, together with Edward Thompson, Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams. They studied at Cambridge University with F.R. Leavis as their professor. F.R. Leavis introduced the concept of ‘high culture’ there he said that only the elitist part of humanity is capable for high culture. His concept is connected to prestige and money. The other young Marxists could not identify themselves with his idea so they left Cambridge University and went to Birmingham University. In Birmingham University they developed a new concept of culture, the concept of popular culture. The extension from high to popular culture started and especially the working classes, immigrants and women were very excited about it, because they did not fit in Leavis’ concept of ‘high culture’ and felt excluded (Assmann 2012: 20).

In the early 1950s the interest in British popular culture was raising and the Independent Group (IG) was investigating the visual arts, architecture and pop art and incorporating at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London. The ICA was mainly interested in everyday culture and not in elite culture and focused on the American popular culture and its influence on British life (Turner 2003: 34). Moreover, the influence of the scholarship students was very important in changing the examination of popular culture in Britain and even today the people who are working in cultural studies foreground their origins and want to be from outside the mainstream of British academic culture. Another important aspect is that this development it also connected with the early foundations of cultural studies in extramural adult education and that Williams, Hoggart and Hall also worked as tutors in the University (Turner 2003: 36).

Raymond Williams’ influence over the development of cultural studies started in 1958 with the publication of his book “Culture and Society”. His book doesn’t only focus on literary texts it focuses on literary texts and their relationship to a specific idea (Turner 2003: 42). Furthermore, Edward P. Thompson’s influence on the development of cultural studies was since the publication of his book “The Making of the English Working Class” in 1963 (Turner 2003: 55).

2.1. Raymond Williams’ ’Culture is Ordinary’

Raymond Williams wrote the essay “Culture is Ordinary” in 1958. He starts his essay with a short review of his childhood in Wales and writes about his family, their history and his working class background. Williams lived in a farming valley, his grandfather worked as a farmer labourer until his fifties, and then he became a roadman. His father left the farm at fifteen and became a signalman and later he worked in a box in the valley. Williams first went to the village school, then to the local grammar school and later to Cambridge University.

Williams’ central argument is that culture is ordinary, the reason for that could be that he had such an ordinary life growing up in an ordinary agricultural community. Every human society is different and has its own shape and purposes and expresses these for example in institutions, in arts and learning (Szeman and Kaposy 2011: 53). A society consists of people who share common meanings and directions, the growth of a society is a huge process and it changes constantly because of new experiences and discovery. According to Williams the term culture has two meanings, first that it is “a whole way of life” and second “the arts and learning”. Contrary to other writers, Williams uses both of these meanings and not just one or the other. When we think about it, we also use these meanings for the term culture. For example when someone is cultured we tend to think of “the arts and learning” (Szeman and Kaposy 2011: 54).

There are also two senses of culture; the first sense Williams discovered at Cambridge in a teashop it was a special sense of culture, the culture of cultivated people. At first he calls it “Teacup culture”, this was the concept of high culture, that only the elitist part of the population is able for culture. Secondly he mentions “culture-vultures”, they perceive culture only as high culture and see culture as something that is a product from the upper class people. Williams believes that culture is not just for a specific group of people, it is for everybody, that’s why culture is ordinary (“Close Reading: Culture Is Ordinary by Raymond Williams” 2011: n. pag.).

The Marxists gave Williams three very important ideas, but he accepts only the first. The first idea is, that “culture must be interpreted through its underlying system of production” (Schnupp 2007: n. pag.). The new systems of production influence and create new culture, thought and art. Williams agrees with the second idea that he lives in a class-dominated culture and that it is not easy to get education, especially for the poorer population. What Williams disagrees with is the idea that the masses are ignorant. The third point, which Williams also disagrees with, is “the premise that a culture is a tapestry of individual and collective meanings, of personal and social experience, and as such are living and ever-changing, impossible to dictate through a change in system of production” (Schnupp 2007: n. pag.).

Next Williams moves on to Leavis and his ideas. Leavis knew more about the relations between art and experience than any Marxist Williams have ever met. From Leavis he have learned what he thinks is wrong with English culture. His idea was that the old and mainly agricultural England with a traditional culture has been replaced by an industrialized state and that the industrial revolution ruined the English culture. Williams refuses this, because he came from a working-class background and they were glad about the changes the industrial revolution brought. According to him the good common culture can be made but we have to disprove “two false equations, one false analogy, and one false proposition” (Szeman and Kaposy 2011: 56).

The false proposition is that new technologies and industrialization brought ugliness and pollution but that it is a price we have to pay. These improvements are something that we cannot give up on. The two false equations are more difficult than the false proposition. Williams can’t accept the first equation between popular education and the new commercial culture for two reasons. First is that he doesn’t believe in the idea of the masses, for him there are no masses we can only see people as masses. Because of the industrialization people met other people they did not know and referred to them as masses. The term mass was used as a new word for a group of unknown people. Williams’s second reason is historical according to him the effect of popular education was not commercial culture, he explains it like this: “The bad new commercial culture came out of social chaos of industrialism, and out of success, in this chaos, of the ‘masses’ formula, not out of popular education” (Szeman and Kaposy 2011: 57). The next false equation is that the badness of popular culture is “a true guide to the state of mind and feeling, the essential quality of living of its consumers”. Finally he has to disprove the false analogy that bad culture will drive out good culture (Szeman and Kaposy 2011: 58). According to Williams bad culture does not drive out good culture, the increase of low culture is because of the fact that the culture we live in is constantly expanding just like all the elements in our culture themselves.



ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
612 KB
Catalog Number
Institution / College
Justus-Liebig-University Giessen
culturalstudies culture literature englishliterature raymondwilliami epthompson culturaltheory



Title: Raymond Williams and Edward P. Thompson. A Comparison of their Idea of Culture