Definitions and Discussions of Culture

Raymond Williams, Moving from High Culture to Ordinary Culture
Originally published in N. McKenzie (ed.), Convictions, 1958


Raymond Williams was an early pioneer in the field of "cultural studies"—in fact, he was doing cultural studies before the term was even coined. This excerpt is from an essay Williams wrote in 1958, entitled "Culture is Ordinary." According to one of his editors, Williams here "forced the first important shift into a new way of thinking about the symbolic dimensions of our lives. Thus, 'culture' is wrested from that privileged space of artistic production and specialist knowledge [eg. "high culture"] , into the lived experience of the everyday" (Gray and McGuigan 1).


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Culture is ordinary: that is the first fact. Every human society has its own shape, its own purposes, its own meanings. Every human society expresses these, in institutions, and in arts and learning. The making of a society is the finding of common meanings and directions, and its growth is an active debate and amendment under the pressures of experience, contact, and discovery, writing themselves into the land. The growing society is there, yet it is also made and remade in every individual mind. The making of a mind is, first, the slow learning of shapes, purposes, and meanings, so that work, observation and communication are possible. Then, second, but equal in importance, is the testing of these in experience, the making of new observations, comparisons, and meanings. A culture has two aspects: the known meanings and directions, which its members are trained to; the new observations and meanings, which are offered and tested. These are the ordinary processes of human societies and human minds, and we see through them the nature of a culture: that it is always both traditional and creative; that it is both the most ordinary common meanings and the finest individual meanings. We use the word culture in these two senses: to mean a whole way of life—the common meanings; to mean the arts and learning—the special processes of discovery and creative effort. Some writers reserve the word for one or other of these senses; I insist on both, and on the significance of their conjunction. The questions I ask about our culture are questions about deep personal meanings. Culture is ordinary, in every society and in every mind. (6)

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