Mission and History

The Cultural Studies keyword at Pitt is “critique”—across traditional disciplinary lines—and that critique extends to the ways that culture has been studied within the university departmental structure. CLST’s interdisciplinarity self-consciously critiques disciplinary formations. The type of cultural studies practiced in CLST, as in many other similar programs worldwide, is not "value neutral," but inclines toward left-inflected social change.

Cultural Studies’ aim is to pose intriguing if often disturbing questions about how power constructs knowledge and to assess subaltern strategies of cultural resistance to hegemonic domination. CLST critically examines not only cultural politics writ large and small (i.e., as experienced in everyday life), but the politics of culture and the cultures of politics.

What makes CLST distinctive among similar program in the US and elsewhere, is that its extensive university footprint uniquely enables it to:

  1. Sustain a bold and robust internationalism, supported by the participation of well-established area-studies centers devoted to Asia, Europe, and Latin America, whereas many competing programs remain tied to a narrower Anglo-American cultural studies tradition;
  2. Transcend the contemporaneity of most American cultural studies programs to recognize the role of long-term historical foundations and contingencies in cultural formations affecting lives as lived around the world today;
  3. Innovate approaches to cultural inquiry and critique that draw on Pitt’s traditional strengths in philosophy, theory, and criticism that have made it stand out among its university peers; and
  4. Develop interdisciplinary student and faculty research agendas that fundamentally revise current common understandings of cultural phenomena.

History of Cultural Studies

Starting from the early 1960s, centers, programs, and journals have attempted to address new questions prompted by changing power relations and intergroup communications within and among nations since World War II. Among the first generation’s achievements, institutionally centered in Western Europe, were a rethinking of popular culture as an object of serious study, the finer articulation of the relation of base and superstructure, and an emphasis upon the role of culture in the formation and maintenance of hegemony by dominant groups.  Later developments included gender and postcolonial critiques, and an insistence upon human agency in cultural reception. In the 1980s, programs and institutions in cultural studies began to be established formally in the US, often with greater emphasis upon pluralism, multiculturalism, and the politics of identity and social difference.

The Graduate Program for Cultural Studies at the University of Pittsburgh was created in the mid-1980s.  CLST’s first Director was Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, who before she left Pittsburgh in 1991 for Columbia University, published her famous essay that asked “Can the Subaltern Speak?” For its bold intellectualism, penetrating analysis of subalternity, and fierce postcolonial critique of Western academic complacent complicity in silencing the oppressed, the essay served in many ways as blueprint for CLST’s future over the quarter of century since then.  

Spivak wrote later: “At Pittsburgh, Cultural Studies is a totally interdisciplinary effort between the Humanities and the Social Sciences… we have not only philosophy, the various European literatures, Asian Studies, Women’s Studies, Black Studies, Religious Studies, Film Studies, but also anthropology, history, sociology, philosophy of science… in that sense I think what makes a course a Cultural Studies is an assumption (and this just a bottom line) that a culture should be seen as a system of representation and self-representation rather than a unified body of information to be retrieved and reported on and investigated” (Cultural Studies: Crossing Boundaries, ed. Roberta L. Salper [Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1991], 66).  

In 2003, during the long tenure of Nancy Condee, Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures, as Director, CLST became the institutional platform from which the Cultural Studies Association was launched, and it remained that organization’s administrative home until 2013, when it incorporated as a free-standing entity. Other previous Directors have included Colin MacCabe, Distinguished Professor of English and Literature, and Giuseppina Mecchia, Associate Professor of French and Italian Languages and Literatures. Since January 2013, Ronald J. Zboray, Professor of Communication, has been the Program's Director.

Today, CLST continues to incorporate faculty members from departments in the humanities and the social sciences, and from some professional schools in the University. The program attracts students at the University of Pittsburgh who wish to work beyond the confines of the existing departmental structures.