Make your own free website on
Studying British cultures; an introduction, edited by Susan Bassnett, published by Routledge, 1997, 202 pp, ISBN 0-415-11440-3

Two quotations from the back cover blurb inform us that this book both "interrogates the fantasy that Britain is made up of a homogeneous people, and explores a wide range of critical debates on cultural identity in Britain" and is "essential reading for all students and teachers concerned with the study of contemporary Britain." I would contest the validity of the latter statement, at least for many, even most, of the teachers on this list and, by extension, their students, and assert that in large part the reason for this is, paradoxically enough, its very success in delivering on the former. Let me try to explain.

The book is divided into two very different sections. Part 1, the editor tells us in an Introduction full of both good sense and good intentions, "establishes the theoretical and methodological parameters from which we believe the study of British cultures can embark", while the chapters in Part 2 "focus on specific topics" (p xxvi).

There are five of these topics. Eminent Scottish academic Robert Crawford’s ‘Redefining Scotland’ is, in his own words, "a survey which is at times close to being a manifesto" (p 83); well-informed, lively, polemical, readable, witty, impressive in breadth, it represents a good introduction to "interesting recent developments in Scottish Studies" (p 83 again) for anyone who is interested but ignorant. But how many people on this list would describe themselves this way? Much the same could be said of Katie Gramich’s ‘Cymru or Wales? Explorations in a divided sensibility’ and Sabina Sharkey’s disquisition on ‘A view of the present state of Irish Studies’. David Dabydeen is both waspish and eloquent on the subject of ‘Teaching West Indian literature in Britain’ and John Drakakis’ piece on ‘Shakespeare in Quotations’, flitting as it does from King Lear to Star Trek VI via Foucault, Derrida and Barthes, is quite a feat of academic and verbal gymnastics.

The problem is that after wading through something like Drakakis’ piece, this reader at least was reminded very strongly of, inevitably enough, a Shakespeare quote, to wit Macbeth’s observation about life, just before his own comes to an end: ‘full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’. This paper, like the others in Part 2, is full of scintillating language and deals with topics which may well really matter in the contexts the writers inhabit, but here in Central Europe it is, they are, inevitably, somewhat less resonant than when playing on their home ground. There’s next to nothing in them that I can use, hence the doubts expressed above. Interesting? Quite possibly. Informative? Indeed. Entertaining? Sure. Essential? Er, no.

Part 1 is an altogether different kettle of fish. Likewise comprising five papers, it kicks off with a dense but informative potted history of British Cultural Studies written by the late Antony Easthope and concludes with David Punter’s ‘Fictional Maps of Britain’, in which the writer’s main point is to demonstrate the internal variety of any given culture, one he illustrates by taking us through a course in post-World War 2 British fiction. The real meat of the book for me, though, lies in the intervening three chapters, which deal with what are, for me, the key issues of why, if at all, and, if so, how contemporary Britain ought to be studied.

Alan Durant writes from an explicitly EFL point of view. After taking us through a number of types of material resource and contrasting ‘target culture’ and ‘culture-in-language’ studies, he comes down firmly in favour of the latter and argues for sources being used as starting points for "discussion, problem-solving…[and] a combined form of communicative and cultural competence - or set of relevant intuitions and skills" (pp 32-3). He also suggests (p 35) that "the centre of gravity of ‘British Cultural Studies’ should move away from its recently reinforced focus on British society" and that "priority should be on…looking, analytically, at how discourse in the English language conveys specific cultural meanings and values in and across all those cultures where the language is regularly used (author’s own italics)." While he sounds the cautionary note on p 36 that "no clear model for such studies yet exists", I for one am delighted by the way he rises above the rather narrower confines that some of the contributors in Part 2 seem not so much to fall into as wallow in.

Similarly thought-provoking, and overlapping to no small extent with Durant’s paper, is the one by Michael Byram, who makes an eloquent plea for greater mutual understanding between British Cultural Studies and foreign language teaching. While conceding that "there is no necessary connection" (p 62), he points out the relative lack of methodological focus in the former and the often weak theoretical underpinning of the latter and feels that there is, potentially, great benefit to both in collaboration. Like Durant, he advocates an approach that will "emphasize the way in which the ability to communicate with others is generalizable, rather than concentrating on any one culture - even the culture of the learners’ own environment - in all its complexity" (p 55) and argues, as he has done in a number of other publications from 1989 on, in favour of ‘the intercultural speaker’. Again, refreshingly broad in outlook and, I think, with something important to say to all of us.

Making up the trinity of papers which, for me, at least, form the kernel of this book, is Christopher Brumfit’s ‘Cultural studies and foreign language teaching’, which identifies a series of tricky paradoxes impinging on the area - "it is scarcely surprising if [there is] a tendency to rely on the content and slide past other issues with eyes averted" (p 50) - and considers how the curriculum might deal with these, chiefly by advocating the work of Byram, whose work is echoed in his pleas for co-operation between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ and for a comparative-contrastive approach.

So, who is this book for? If you have an interest in any of the very specific areas dealt with in Part 2, then they are worth a look. If you are a teacher of British literature at university level, then you will find much of interest in Punter’s paper. If you are a language teacher interested in possible roles for Cultural Studies in your work, then the chapters by Durant, Brumfit and Byram deserve reading, but to be honest you might well find your time and/or money better served by reading one, or more, or all of the following:

Byram, M & C Morgan (1994) Teaching and Learning Language and Culture Multilingual Matters ISBN: 1853592110
Byram, M (1997) Teaching and Assessing Intercultural Communicative Competence Multilingual Matters  ISBN: 185359377X
Hapgood, K & H Fennes (1997) Intercultural Learning in the Classroom Council of Europe/Continuum ISBN: 0304326852
Kramsch, C (1998) Language and Culture Oxford ISBN 0194372146
Storry, M & P Childs, eds (1997) British Cultural Identities Routledge ISBN 0415136997
Tomalin, B & S Stempleski (1993) Cultural Awareness OUP ISBN: 0194371948

The books by Byram and Kramsch are well-written and readable accounts at a more general (‘Part 1’) level, and in fact I would recommend anything by either of these fine writers. Storry and Childs’ book is a splendidly informative work explicitly aimed at ‘overseas students of English language and culture’. The works by Hapgood and Fennes and Tomalin and Stempleski provide a range of practical classroom activities. For all but a few specialists, I would say all of them have more to offer than the book under review, much of which I find too firmly rooted in the soil of its native archipelago to feel truly comfortable elsewhere in Europe.

Review first published on CETEFL-L, December 6 2001

 Back to the Index