Stuart Hall and Cultural Studies at UEL

Stuart Hall, the globally-respected and much-loved public intellectual and giant of cultural studies, who has just died, had a huge influence on the development of Sociology and Cultural Studies at the University of East London.

UEL (then still North East London Polytechnic) was the first university in the UK to establish an undergraduate degree in, and later a department of, Cultural Studies. The BA, launched in 1980, was developed by a group of UEL staff several of whom had had strong links with the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) at the University of Birmingham, the unit directed by Stuart Hall.

Michael Rustin (then head of Sociology, later head of the Faculty of Social Sciences and until now a professor at UEL), a close friend of Stuart’s from the 1950s, and also his brother-in-law, provided intellectual and institutional support. Two of the key designers of the course, Alan O’Shea (for many years head of the new Department of Cultural Studies) and Bill Schwarz (now professor at Queen Mary University) had been students of Stuart’s during the most productive and inspirational years of the Birmingham Centre. Angela McRobbie, also from CCCS (now at Goldsmiths) taught for a year in the early 1980s. Feminist historian Catherine Hall (who happened to be Stuart’s wife – now professor at University College London) joined the department in 1982. Mica Nava (who had also participated in CCCS seminars in Birmingham in the late 1970s and co-edited a book with Angela McRobbie) was appointed to the team in 1983 and she has worked at UEL ever since.

Other significant contributors to the BA were Couze Venn, (now visiting professor at Goldsmiths and editor of Theory Culture & Society) and Bob Chase. Phil Cohen, formerly also an associate of CCCS and author of a seminal piece on youth cultures, joined the department as a researcher in the early 1990s and founded the Centre for New Ethnicities Research (CNER). Over the following decades younger colleagues with close connections to Stuart and his work joined the team, among them Roshini Kempadoo, Ashwani Sharma and Jeremy Gilbert.

The 1980s and 1990s were probably the heyday of the department in terms of collaboration, innovation and productivity both in teaching and research. Throughout those years Stuart’s thinking, writing and spirit permeated the politics and style of what we did in our small dynamic unit of about 15-20 staff, which from the beginning included a higher-than-usual proportion of women and people of colour and a commitment to issues of race and difference (see our collective volumes: Schwarz, ed. 1996, and Nava and O’Shea, eds. 1996). Stuart happened to be on the Governing Board of UEL for a good many years during the 1980s and ‘90s, which helped us gain the somewhat-grudging respect of the senior management of the day. It was during these years that we started to make a mark nationally and internationally with our research, for which we earned high scores in the RAE – punching above our weight – with a ‘5’ in 1996 and 2001 and one of the top aggregates in our subject area in 2008. Through all this time, Stuart’s influence and encouragement continued to be felt.

In 2007 a group of us from a by-then much expanded School (the terms used to describe the university units were constantly changing) organised a huge four-day conference attended by over 450 people from 43 different countries. Stuart, although not in good health at the time, gave the key keynote speech, which was inspiring as always, and for which we were very grateful. Following the conference, the organising group, invigorated by the success of the conference, founded the now-flourishing UEL Centre for Cultural Studies Research (CCSR). Stuart has been a member of the Advisory Board since its inception. During the last decade CCSR has firmed up its connections with Iniva, the Institute of International Visual Arts, whose Board of Trustees was chaired by Stuart during the formative years.

Many of the tributes bestowed on Stuart over the last few days have referred to him as the ‘pioneer of multiculturalism’ but this is a misrepresentation and an underestimation. He was critical of the static nature of the term multiculturalism (Hall 2000) and insisted always on contextual historicised analyses, transformation and process. Likewise he had reservations about the term ‘identity’, also often attributed to him, preferring rather ‘identification’, which stressed change, contradiction and becoming (Hall 1996). These high-profile issues associated with race and difference were, importantly, not the only issues that concerned Stuart. At one point he said that he considered the most enduring intellectual and social legacy of the political transformations of 1968 and the decade that followed to be feminism. And of course his major contribution was to the theorisation of culture and its relation to the broader social context more generally – so the situating and interaction of all aspects of social structure and experience were crucial to any analysis. His intellectual influence was gigantic and was transmitted across generations and across disciplinary boundaries. His ideas transformed all aspects of the humanities and social sciences (though not always to his taste) even though his written output was not huge. Perhaps he managed this in part because of his brilliance and charisma as a public speaker and his insistence always on the exploring the political implications of research – of engaging with meaning. But perhaps, more than anything else, his reputation can be explained by the fact that, as well as everything else, he was a remarkably kind and generous person. We will miss him.

The website Progressive Geographies has gathered together many of the tributes and obituaries written in UK and throughout the world as has the journal Soundings of which he was a founding editor.