What is a Cultural Studies Degree?

How do human beings understand, organize, interpret, and communicate their world? Attempting to answer that rather large question is both the mandate of cultural studies researchers and the learning objective of students of the field.

Cultural studies draws from many disciplines. It intersects the humanities, science, the social sciences, and the arts to examine identity, diversity, power, authority, social justice, and social change. It requires self-reflection, explores how humans live and engage in culture around them, and investigates the ways in which cultures produce and are produced.

Program Options

Bachelor’s Degree in Cultural Studies – Four Year Duration
Bachelor’s degree in programs in cultural studies introduce students to new ways of reading the culture around them, allowing them to gain insight into the role popular culture has on social change. Topics include media and popular cultures, global cultural studies, and critical and cultural theory. Some schools offer study-abroad opportunities at international partner institutions.

Here are some sample courses from a typical undergrad cultural studies curriculum:

  • Media and Popular Cultures in Global Context – the critical analysis of cultural texts, cultural industries, and media audiences from a global perspective
  • Cultural Studies Practices – concepts and methods across the history of cultural studies including analysis of consumer society, identity, space, and memory (cultural memory is a form of collective memory shared by a group of people; it is often stored in objects such as museums and historical monuments)
  • Studies in Composition – the principles of university-level discourse; the processes of research-based writing
  • Introduction to Contemporary Japan through Pop Culture – exploration of contemporary Japanese society through popular culture narratives such as manga (a wide variety of comic books and graphic novels originally produced and published in Japan), anime, film, and video games
  • Cultural Industries – an overview of cultural industries such as television and popular music
  • Reading Screens – introduction to film and other screen-based media as ideological narratives
  • Foundations: Reading across Borders – English literature produced outside Britain and North America; the legacies of imperialism; notions of culture and difference from the perspective of the reader
  • Reading Popular Culture – study and analysis of contemporary popular culture forms including architecture, video games, television, and popular fiction; cultural practices such as consumerism, participation in subcultures, and social networking
  • Feminist Cultural Studies – theories and representation of gender in contemporary culture in the context of feminist thought
  • Creative Activism: Art, Media, and Social Justice – survey of the convergence of social justice movements, activist media, and artistic practice
  • Human Rights, Literature, and Culture – an examination of war, conflict, struggles for social justice, and the ideal of human dignity in relation to history, literature, and representation
  • Indigenous Land Rights – the colonization of Indigenous peoples in the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand
  • History of Gender and Sexuality in Latin America – the role of gender and sexuality from colonial period to the present; the role of the family and community in reinforcing sexual and gendered roles
  • Reading Gothic Film – consideration of the gothic / horror film as a genre that provides insight into cultural narratives concerning gender, sexuality, race, and class
  • Postcolonial Studies – examination of colonialism, decolonization, and globalization as portrayed in literature and other modes of cultural expression
  • Asian Cinema – specific Asian directors, genres, and/or cross regional topics in film studies
  • Performance Studies – explores the world of performance, from theater, dance, and music to ritual, play, political campaigns, social media, and the performances of everyday life

Master’s Degree in Cultural Studies – One to Two Year Duration
At the master’s level students take some required courses but can design their program in consultation with a faculty member, to focus on their particular area of interest. The master’s program’s culminating requirement is typically a thesis based on original research. Some schools may offer a non-thesis/project option.

Areas of focus and research include:

  • Class, race, and ethnicity
  • Community engagement
  • Critical and cultural theory (interdisciplinary approaches to the study and critique of culture and society)
  • Critical disability studies / health humanities (expose the ways in which medicine has historically held the institutional and cultural power to determine what is normal, what is healthy, and what is to be done with those who fall out of these categories)
  • Decolonization and resistance
  • Environmental humanities / animal studies (a growing field focused on the study of human imagination, perception, behaviors, and the relationship of humans to their surrounding natural and social environments)
  • Embodiment (the expression of how culture, mental processes, and the body affect one another; how our behavior comes from more than our brains alone)
  • Gender and sexuality
  • Identity, subjectivity, and representation (social and cultural identity is linked to issues of power, value systems, and ideology; the media uses representations – images, words, and characters – to convey specific ideas and values related to culture and identity in society)
  • Ideology and power knowledge
  • Pedagogy / education
  • Popular culture
  • Postcolonialism, diaspora (any group migration from a country or region), and globalization
  • Social justice movements
  • Social and political thought
  • Space and place (how people feel and think about space, how they form attachments to home, neighborhood, and nation, how feelings about space and place are affected by the sense of time)
  • Technology, media, and culture
  • Visual culture (refers to the tangible or visible expressions by a people, a state, or a civilization, and collectively describes the characteristics of that body as a whole; what aspects of the visual culture of a people reveal about the people themselves)
  • Youth culture

Doctoral Degree in Cultural Studies – Four Year Duration
The master’s program involves a lot of taught courses. It emphasizes the transition from pure subject learning to independent research. On the other hand, the doctoral degree is like a very long dissertation project. Ph.D. students have a great deal of independence. They have the benefit of supervision from a faculty advisor and may complete some taught classes, but their focus is on their independent research, on contributing original – new – knowledge to the field of cultural studies.

Proficiency in at least one foreign language is commonly required of students before they are permitted to defend their dissertation. Many doctoral graduates go on to academic careers. Others use their training in applied settings such as cultural institutions, advocacy groups, or non-governmental organizations.

In addition to research areas like those listed in the master’s section above, doctoral candidates often focus on more targeted topics such as:

  • 16th and 17th Century English literature
  • Women’s literature
  • Protestant culture
  • Feminist theory
  • Queer theory
  • Gothic literature and the horror film

Degrees Similar to Cultural Studies

Students of anthropology study the evolutionary history of people, how they interact, how they adapt to various environments, how they communicate and socialize with one another, and how their bodies and cultures have changed over time. The field attempts to answer big questions on many of the fundamentals of human culture, from gender to political systems to violence, religion, race, and economics.

The focus of archaeology degree programs is the study of how people lived in the past. Students of this social science learn about the culture and evolution of extinct civilizations. They attend lectures and work in labs and on research projects. They get a sense of archaeology degree jobs by conducting excavations to recover artifacts like tools, clothing, decorations, and ancient ruins.

Area Studies
Students of this discipline usually focus on a specific area or region of the world and study its histories, politics, economics, languages, and cultures.

Art History
Students of art history study the history and development of drawing, painting, sculpture, printmaking, photography, filmmaking, and architecture.

Classical Studies
The study of the languages, literatures, philosophy, history, archaeology, and civilization of ancient Greece and Rome is the focus of a degree in the classics.

In English degree programs, students read, study, and write about the literature and culture of the English-speaking world. Coursework also includes the history, linguistic structure, and use of the English language.

Ethnic Studies
This is the historical, social, and cultural study of minorities in the United States. Through coursework in history, political science, economics, sociology, literature, and art history, students examine race, racism, and forms of institutionalized violence.

Gender Studies
Degree programs in gender studies explore gender through the lenses of feminism, racism and antiracism, social justice, privilege and oppression, and popular culture.

History is the study of change over time. Degree programs in the field examine political history, diplomatic/international relations history, cultural/ideological history, social/living standards history, economic history, intellectual/philosophical history, and military/armed conflict history.

International Studies
By its very nature, international studies is an expansive subject. Therefore, programs in the field commonly offer concentration options in both geographic areas and specific topics such as international economics, global culture and gender studies, international public health, and intelligence analysis.

Degree programs in sociology are focused on studying groups, from two people and beyond. Sociology students examine human behavior patterns and relationships at both the micro-level and the macro-level. They study interactions between individuals as well as in families, peer groups, cultural groups, gender groups, racial groups, religious groups, and social classes.

Women’s Studies
This degree field studies feminism and the history, culture, and politics of women. It examines the categories of identity – gender, sexuality, race, class, age, ability, geopolitical affiliation, etc. – and structures of inequality in relationship to one another.

Skills You’ll Learn

In addition to providing students with an understanding of different cultures and regions of the world, the coursework in cultural studies degree programs develops several transferable skills:

  • A multidisciplinary approach – the study of cultures of the world demands the capacity to combine various disciplines and approaches to understand situations, conditions, and issues
  • Analytical and critical thinking and problem-solving
  • Awareness of global opportunities
  • Capacity to debate and lead discussions
  • Collaboration / group work dynamics
  • Cultural awareness and sensitivity and avoidance of cultural stereotyping
  • Oral and written communication and presentation – ability to convey information to different kinds of audiences
  • Planning
  • Preparation for a more globalized world
  • Research, data collection, and interpretation
  • Statistical and computing skills
  • Understanding of diversity, equity, and justice
  • Understanding of social and political processes and structures

What Can You Do with a Cultural Studies Degree?

Cultural studies graduates go on to diverse careers, quite simply because cultural competency – a wide analytic grasp of contemporary culture – is valued in many different fields, including:

  • Media industries – journalism, publishing, writing, website design, advertising, public relations
  • Museology or curatorship
  • Teaching and education
  • Advocacy or social sciences
  • Travel and tourism / hospitality
  • Policy and governance
  • Arts, event, or project management


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