“The study of such a broad research domain as culture demands novel forms of interdisciplinary research”,Ansgar Nünning


Ansgar Nünning, na conferência ‘Matters of Culture’, apresentou,no dia 8 de Fevereiro de 2015, o ‘statement’ sob o título “Cultures Matter: Modest Proposals for Preventing National Traditions from being a Burden to Research and for Making Travelling Concepts Beneficial to the Transnational Study of Culture”

  1. As both the interest that various disciplines in the humanities and social sciences have paid to culture, and the co-existence of various kinds of British Cultural Studies, American Cultural Studies, German Kulturwissenschaften, and other national traditions already serve to demonstrate, the study of culture is essentially an interdisciplinary and an international field of research. With regard to both the range of disciplines that are concerned with culture and its international dimension, the study of culture is characterized by theoretical and methodological pluralism as well as multiperspectivism. The study of such a broad research domain as culture demands novel forms of interdisciplinary research, crossing the boundaries between disciplines and different academic cultures of knowledge.
  1. Although the development of Literary and Cultural Studies, just like other disciplines in the humanities, has been characterized by an ongoing trend towards internationalization and globalization, there are still marked differences between various national research cultures and traditions. The cultural and national specificity of approaches to the study of culture can hardly be overlooked when comparing, for instance, British Cultural Studies and German ‘Kulturwissenschaften’, which are both concerned with the domain of culture, but differ considerably with regard to their respective research traditions, conceptual frameworks and methodologies.
  1. Such differences between national approaches testify to the fact that cultures in general, and cultures of research and education in particular, matter, i.e. the study of culture is itself very much a cultural practice which is characterized by national specificity. Although this is seldom acknowledged, let alone subjected to self-reflexive research, different approaches to the study of culture are themselves culturally and historically conditioned and thus subject to change and cultural variation. Such differences between national cultures of research can pose serious obstacles to both the transfer of approaches and concepts from one national research culture to another, and the development of genuinely transnational approaches to the study of culture.
  1. There are arguably several reasons why approaches to the study of culture as developed and practised in different national and institutional contexts still display considerable differences, even in an age of globalisation and worldwide mobility, especially among academics. Among the most important reasons that can explain such cultural and national differences are language, intellectual styles (sensu Galtung; cf. Nünning, „Wissenschaftsstile“), the cultural contexts and historical development of disciplines and approaches, and institutional differences between research cultures and their traditions. Differences in intellectual style manifest themselves in a number of concrete and tangible ways, shaping both prevalent research agendas and practices. While German ‘Kulturwissenschaften’ display a predilection for theorizing, what constitutes the lowest common denominator of most of the features specific to British Cultural Studies is a much more pragmatic and empirical orientation, a clear preference for particulars and concrete ‘facts,’ and a concomitant distrust of generalities and abstractions.
  1. As a comparison between German ‘Kulturwissenschaften’ and British Cultural Studies can serve to show, the differences between these national traditions of studying culture are still so big that it would be unwarranted to speak of transnational approaches as though they actually existed. In spite of some similarities with regard to subject matter and methods, the German version of Kulturwissenschaft should be distinguished from the special brand of Cultural Studies developed in Britain. At the risk at oversimplification, the main differences between British (and American) Cultural Studies and German ‘Kulturwissenschaften’ can be located on at least five levels.
  • First, British Cultural Studies were developed as a response to concrete social and political challenges of the British class-system and as a politically motivated project aimed at producing changes in society and strategies of resistance; in this research tradition, culture and politics have been inextricably intertwined. By contrast, the German tradition of ‘Kulturwissenschaften’, which can be traced back to the late 19th and early 20th century, has quite a different genealogy, lineage, and non-political agenda, being largely an academic enterprise which explores cultural phenomena as objects of academic research, not with an eye to engendering political change.
  • Second, while British Cultural Studies is characterized by an ideological position and marked by a Marxist approach, German ‘Kulturwissenschaften’ display a more pluralistic, multiperspectival theoretical orientation, exploring symbolic forms and ways of worldmaking.
  • Third, as the term ‘Kulturwissenschaften’ already indicates, there is a strong emphasis and methodological insistence on the scientific quality of the discipline in the German tradition in which the study of culture has been characterized as a form of textual science. This has far-reaching implications for the scholar’s position and self-understanding, which is quite different from that of scholars working in the British tradition of cultural studies.
  • Fourth, as the very name of its most renowned and important institution, the “Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies” already indicates, British Cultural Studies has tended to expand the concept of culture from high-brow culture to popular culture, paving the way for a new approach to contemporary forms of popular culture, on which the Birmingham school largely focussed. By way of contrast, German ‘Kulturwissenschaften’ has favoured a broader anthropological and semiotic concept of culture, taking a wider range of cultural objects, and a broader diachronic perspective into consideration.
  • Being an integral part of the respective national, institutional and academic cultures from which they have emerged, British Cultural Studies and German ‘Kulturwissenschaften’ have fifthly developed different research questions, topics and methods.
  1. One of the problems and impediments for the development of transnational approaches to the study of culture results from the prevailing tendency to ‘import’ British (or American) Cultural Studies into other (e.g. German or Portuguese) academic and institutional contexts and merely emulate or imitate the imported model(s). The main problem with such a transfer, however, is that while British Cultural Studies must be seen against the background of Britain’s class system, the American debates about race, class and gender, or the revision of the Western canon, only make sense in the context of the US’ multicultural society. The strength of the study of culture as practised in e.g. Germany, the Netherlands or Scandinavian countries, for that matter, resides precisely in the fact that they can apply the differences between their own and the foreign culture(s) in a fruitful manner. Both the canon debates (and revisions) with their focus on race, class and gender and the British and American forms of Cultural Studies can thus themselves be seen as (highly interesting!) objects of inquiry, both from the point of view of English and American Studies as practised in Germany and other countries and in a broader transnational framework for the study of culture(s).
  1. Rather than just taking a particular approach for granted or uncritically trying to adopt or emulate either British Cultural Studies or American Cultural Studies, cultural theory and the study of culture should first of all regard them as an object of inquiry in its own right, representing as they do complex manifestations of e.g. Englishness (or Britishness) and Americanness respectively. Just as there is arguably a ‘national style’ of English literary criticism, historiography, and cultural studies. German ‘Kulturwissenschaften’ likewise share a number of epistemological claims, discursive strategies and institutional practices that set them off from their American and British counterparts. The German term ‘Kulturwissenschaften’, just like ‘Literaturwissenschaften’, is lost in translation. It serves to emphasize the scientificity of the discipline that it designates, implicitly claiming that the study of culture can be as scientific as any discipline in the hard sciences. As Peter Zima has shown in a pioneering article, the term ‘Literaturwissenschaften’ in the German sense is very much “a language- and culture-bound phenomenon” that “becomes questionable as soon as it is projected into an intercultural context” (Zima 26). The same holds true for the term ‘Kulturwissenschaften’, which should not be confused with the English term ‘cultural studies’. What is at stake here is much more than just a question of terminology, in that there is a semantic rupture between the German and English sociolinguistic contexts that concerns the constitution and traditions of the respective disciplines and research cultures as a whole, including the ways in which they construct their objects, define their objectives, develop their methodologies, select their subject matter, and practise the study of culture.
  1. While there is a broad range of different national traditions of studying culture, including various kinds of British Cultural Studies and American Cultural Studies, but more recently also of ‘Latino/a Cultural Studies’, the development of genuinely transnational, or even trans-European, approaches to the study of culture is still a desideratum for future research rather than an established fact in that such a project does not yet exist as a fully-fledged theoretical or analytical framework.
  1. There are, however, several recent contributions to research that have fostered, or are fostering, the development of transnational approaches to the study of culture. These include approaches that either cut across national traditions or that have successfully travelled from one research culture to others, e.g. a number of influential “cultural turns” (Bachmann-Medick) in the humanities, or ‘cultural sciences’ (Kulturwissenschaften), and the notions of ‘travelling concepts’ (Bal, Nünning/Neumann) and ‘translation’ as promising ways of overcoming boundaries between different research cultures and national traditions. Approaches that have cut across disciplinary and national research traditions include e.g. cultural semiotics (‘Kultursemiotik’, see Posner), cultural anthropology, historical anthropology, literary anthropology, the new cultural history, cultural ecology, and area studies (for an overview, see Nünning/Nünning). Although the traditions, research foci and methodologies of these different ways of studying culture differ quite substantially, all of these approaches embrace both inter- or transdisciplinary collaboration and an international or even global orientation. These approaches and developments have been conducive to transcending the limitations of national research traditions, in fostering transnational as well as transcultural approaches to the study of culture, and to foregrounding both global and transnational cultural issues and the concept of transnationalism itself.
  1. Much more work, however, needs to be done in order to gauge the complex differences between national research cultures, to reconfigure and reconceive particular national kinds of ‘cultural studies’ as a transnational study of culture, and, even more so, to develop fully-fledged transnational approaches and concepts for the study of culture. It would also be desirable to enhance the dialogue among the approaches and disciplines involved in the study of culture, and among different cultures of research, thus fostering self-reflexive, interdisciplinary, international, and potentially even transnational approaches to the study of culture. In order to move beyond nationally based boundaries and academic styles, transnational approaches to the study of culture need to investigate in detail the (usually unacknowledged) presuppositions, discursive practices and structural features of its own research traditions, which have so far been largely unacknowledged and have tended to become naturalized. Such a project also involves a sustained dialogue about the key concepts that are used in order to define the subject-matter, research areas or domains, and the theoretical and methodological frameworks deployed. Transnational and transcultural approaches to the study of culture require the development of a new set of guiding principles, travelling concepts and other ways of academic worldmaking that expand the limited horizons of British Cultural Studies, American Cultural Studies, German ‘Kulturwissenschaften’, and other nationally specific research traditions.



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Dietrich, René, Smilovski, Daniel and Ansgar Nünning, eds. Lost or Found in Translation? Interkulturelle/Internationale Perspektiven der Geistes- und Kulturwissenschaften. GCSC 6. Trier: WVT 2011.

Galtung, Johan. “Structure, culture, and intellectual style: An essay comparing saxonic, teutonic, gallic and nipponic approaches.” Social Science Information 20.6 (1981): 817–56.

Grabes, Herbert, Ansgar Nünning & Sibylle Baumbach, eds. Metaphors Shaping Culture and Theory. REAL – Yearbook of Research in English and American Literature 25. Tübingen: Narr 2009.

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Nünning, Ansgar. „Wissenschaftsstile und kollektive Identitäten von Literatur-wissenschaftlern: Teutonische Thesen zur Englishness der englischen Literatur-geschichtsschreibung.“ Lost or Found in Translation? Interkulturelle/Internationale Perspektiven der Geistes- und Kulturwissenschaften, eds. René Dietrich, Daniel Smilovski & Ansgar Nünning. Trier: WVT 2011. 133-157.Nünning, Ansgar. “Towards Transnational Approaches to the Study of Culture: From Cultural Studies and Kulturwissenschaften to a Transnational Study of Culture.” The Trans/National Study of Culture: A Translational Perspective, ed. Doris Bachmann-Medick. Concepts for the Study of Culture, 4. Berlin, Boston: de Gruyter 2014. 23-49.

Nünning, Ansgar and Vera Nünning, eds. Einführung in die Kulturwissenschaften: Theoretische Grundlagen – Ansätze – Perspektiven. Stuttgart/Weimar: Metzler 2008.

Nünning, Ansgar and Birgit Neumann, eds. Travelling Concepts for the Study of Culture. New York: de Gruyter 2012.

Nünning, Ansgar and Jürgen Schlaeger. “Quo vadis, Anglistik? Recent Trends in and Challenges for English Studies.” In: Ansgar Nünning and Jürgen Schlaeger, eds. English Studies Today: Recent Developments and New Directions. Trier: WVT 2007. 7-22.

Nünning, Vera, Ansgar Nünning and Birgit Neumann, eds. Cultural Ways of Worldmaking: Media and Narratives. New York: de Gruyter 2010.

Sommer, Roy. “From Cultural Studies to the Study of Culture: Key Concepts and Methods.” In: Ansgar Nünning and Jürgen Schlaeger, eds. English Studies Today: Recent Developments and New Directions. Trier: WVT 2007. 165-191.

Szeman, Imre. “Cultural Studies and the Transnational.” In: Gary Hall and Clare Birchall, eds. New Cultural Studies. Adventures in Theory. Athens: The University of Georgia Press 2007. 200-218.

Szeman, Imre. “Global Cultural Studies?” The Minnesota Review 76 (2011): 147-161.




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