STUART HALL (Jamaica, 1932 – London, 2014)

By Mikko Lehtonen (University of Tampere)

Jamaican born Stuart Hall has been said to be “black Britain’s leading theorist of black Britain” (Gates 1997). After arriving in early 1950s on a Cecil Rhodes scholarship to study in Oxford he has internationally been one of the most prominent figures in both social sciences and humanities and a strongly influential public intellectual. Hall was the first editor of the New Left Review in late 1950s and early 1960s, one of the key publications to open up a debate about immigration and politics of identity.  In 1964 he established with Richard Hoggart the renowned Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) at the University of Birmingham he then directed in 1970 – 1979, addressing questions concerning ‘race’ is such publications as The Young Englanders (Hall 1967) and Policing the Crisis (Hall & al. 1978). In 1979–1998 Hall was professor of sociology at Open University, concentrating on analyses of Thatcherism in 1980s and on questions concerning cultural identities in 1990s. After retiring from the OU, Hall has devoted a big part of his energies to Rivington Place, a cultural center located in East London, dedicated to the display, debate and reflection of global diversity issues in the contemporary visual arts (of this, see Hall and Back 2009).

In 2007 The Observer wrote that in all these activities Hall “quietly and radically sought to redraw mind-maps of Britain, looked at how the post-colonial world had to be shaped by our understanding of difference, by the need to rub along with each other” (Adams 2007). As Hall himself has said, his challenge has been to write “the margins into the centre, the outside into the inside . . . a more global version of our island story”, to re-imagine Britishness “in a more profoundly inclusive manner”(quoted in Jaggi 2000).

Claire Alexander (2009) writes in her introduction to a special issue on Hall and ‘race’ in Cultural Studies: “It is almost impossible to overestimate the significance of Stuart Hall in shaping the field of racial and ethnic studies in the past four decades. Both personally and in the body of his work, Hall has been a foundational figure for scholars in Britain, the US, the Caribbean and beyond, in opening new avenues for thinking about race, politics, culture and identity.”

There is not one text that would sum up Hall’s views on globalization, multiculturalism, identity and ‘race’. As all his work, Hall’s work in the field has taken place in the form of articles rather than extensive monographs. As David Scott comments, Hall “is less the author of books than the author of interventions’ (2005, p.3). This way of working is strongly linked with Hall’s aim to address

“the specifics of a concrete moment” (Grossberg 2007, p. 99).

As Claire Alexander (2009) states, especially after Hall’s retirement there have been numerous publications exploring his works (e.g. Davis 2004, Meeks 2007, Procter 2004), but surprisingly

“little concentrated critical engagement with Hall’s theories of race and ethnicity”. And yet questions concerning race and identity are not in any sense marginal to Hall’s intellectual project on the whole.  In an interview, published in the special issue on Hall and ‘race’ in Cultural Studies (Hall and Back 2009), Hall tells that “cultural studies began . . . with my tussle to come to terms with that experience, which is when I first discovered I was a black intellectual”.

Hall’s approach to ‘race’ is characterized by stressing specificity, heterogeneity, non-reductive approach and cultural factors in social development (see Hall 1986/1996). “No doubt there are certain general features to racism”, he writes. “But even more significant are the ways in which these general features are modified and transformed by the historical specificity of the contexts and environments in which they become active.”

Claire Alexander (2009) usefully identifies three phases in Hall’s writing on race: “the early engagement with the new immigrant ‘West Indian’ communities and the emerging ‘second generation’; the turn to theory during his time at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies; and the ‘cultural turn’ from the mid-1980s, which has two distinct, but interconnected themes _ the shift in black cultural politics in Britain and debates around ‘new ethnicities’; and the theorization of post-coloniality and diaspora, in particular in relation to the Caribbean.”

The contextualizing approach with the focus on ‘conjunctural’ and ‘contingent’ (Lewis 2000) is visible already in Young Englanders (Hall 1967) where Hall writes about “the coloured immigrant groups and their special problems” in the following way: “These young people do not in themselves constitute a problem and their problems cannot be understood in isolation. On average, immigrant young people are neither more nor less intelligent, neither better nor worse behaved, than their English counterparts. Problems arise in their interaction with other groups in the society and the solutions can only be formulated when we have understood the nature of this interchange.” Hence there is from the outset present in Hall’s work what he later described in the following way:  “I have never worked on race and ethnicity as a kind of subcategory. I have always worked on the whole social formation which is racialized’ (Hall 1995).[1] Talking with Bill Schwarz (Schwarz and Hall  2007), Hall says that the work at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies on race and mugging and crime, published as Policing the Crisis (Hall & al. 1978), “provided a sort of prism through which the whole conjuncture could be ‘read’ symptomatically”.

Hall characterizes his intellectual project as something Raymond Williams taught him: to always look at the society and culture together – “not culture isolated, because by itself culture becomes another thing, a rarified realm of the aesthetic et cetera; and not society in some sort of determinist way in which society tells culture what to do, but in the complicated interrelationships between the social and the cultural, between the social and the symbolic” (in MacCabe  2008). This is also Hall’s approach to ‘blackness’: “The fact is ‘black’ has never just been there either. It has always been an unstable identity, psychically, culturally, and politically. It, too, is a narrative, a story, a history. Something constructed, told, spoken, not simply found . . . black is an identity which had to be learned and could only be learned in a certain moment.” (Hall [1987] 1996c, p. 116)

On top of that, ‘black’ identity never exists detached from other identities, but in relation to these ‘others’: “once you’ve thought about black identity, you have to think about British identity”, “about its mystifying account of its own development and roots” (in MacCabe 2008).

Hall’s inclination to view ‘race’ and ethnicity in their social and cultural contexts perhaps also explains his reluctance to use the term ‘multiculturalism’. For Hall (2000), ‘multicultural’ describes adjectivally “the social characteristics and problems of governance posed by any society in which different cultural communities live together and attempt to build a common life while retaining something of their ‘original’ identity”. By contrast, ‘multiculturalism’ is for Hall substantive. It references the strategies and policies adopted to govern and manage the problems of diversity and multiplicity which multi-cultural societies throw up. Even though the two terms are for Hall so interdependent that it is virtually impossible to disentangle them, ‘multiculturalism’ present to him “specific difficulties”. The “-ism” tends to convert ‘multiculturalism’ into a political doctrine and reduce it to a formal singularity. Instead of ‘multiculturalism’ Hall is interested in the multicultural question, i.e. “how are people from different cultures, different backgrounds, with different languages, different religious beliefs, produced by different and highly uneven histories, but who find themselves either directly connected because they’ve got to make a life together in the same place, or digitally connected because they occupy the same symbolic worlds – how  are they to make some sort of common life together without retreating into warring tribes, eating one another, or insisting that other people must look exactly like you, behave exactly like you, think exactly like you – that is to say cultural assimilation?” (Schwarz and Hall 2007) This leads Hall (2000) to ask: “How then can the particular and the universal, the claims of both difference and equality, be recognized?” This multi-cultural question requires, according to Hall, to think beyond the traditional boundaries of the existing political discourses and their ever-ready ‘solutions’, to “combine difference and identity”.

This would mean learning “painfully, how to begin to live with difference”. That, however, would require one to recognize the way in which the societies have constructed the other as the opposite of themselves, meaning one would have to “understand how the culture is working”.

Some guidelines for such alternative solutions to the multi-cultural question can be found in the report of the commission on the future of multi-ethnic Britain, chaired by Bhikhu Parekh and Stuart Hall as one of its members (Runnymede Trust 2000). According to the report, building and sustaining a community of citizens and communities will involve rethinking the national story and national identity, understanding that all identities are in process of transition, developing a balance between cohesion, equality and difference, addressing and eliminating all forms of racism, reducing material inequalities and building a pluralistic human rights culture. Hall’s critical thinking of culture, ‘race’ and ethnicities is one of the most useful tools for those working to realize such goals.

For the list of publications and papers by Stuart Hall, see:

http://www.mona.uwi.edu/library/stuart_hall.html


[1] Once the writer of this entry heard Stuart Hall speaking publicly (in the Cultural Studies Now conference at the University of East London in July 2007), Hall stressed that practitioners of Cultural Studies must always ask of their objects of study: “What has this got to do with everything else?”

Adams, Tim (2007) Cultural hallmark. The Observer, 23 September.

Alexander, Claire (2009) Stuart Hall and ‘race’. Cultural Studies Vol. 23, No. 4 July 2009, pp. 457– 482 .

Davis, Helen (2004) Understanding Stuart Hall, London, Sage.

Gates, Henry Louis (1997) Black London. New Yorker, April 28.

Grossberg, Lawrence (2007) ‘Stuart Hall on race and racism: cultural studies and the practice of contextualism’, in Brian Meeks (ed.) Culture, Politics, Race and Diaspora: The Thought of Stuart Hall. London, Lawrence & Wishart.

Hall, Stuart (1967) The Young Englanders. London,  Community Relations Commission.

Hall, Stuart, Chas Critcher, Tony Jefferson, John N. Clarke, Brian Roberts (1978) Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order. Basingstoke, Macmillan.

Hall, Stuart (1986/1996) Gramsci’s relevance for the study of race and ethnicity. In David Morley and Kuan-Hsing Chen (eds.) Stuart Hall. Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies. London, Routledge.

Hall, Stuart (1995) Not a Postmodern Nomad. Interview by Les Terry. Arena Journal Nr. 5.

Hall, Stuart (1986/1996) Gramsci’s relevance for the study of race and ethnicity. In David Morley and Kuan-Hsing Chen (eds.) Stuart Hall. Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies. London, Routledge.

Hall, Stuart (2000) Conclusion: The Multi-cultural Question. In Barnor Hesse (ed.) Un/settled multiculturalisms: diasporas, entanglements, “transruptions”. London, Zed Books.

Hall, Stuart and Les Back (2009) In conversation. At Home and Not at Home. Cultural Studies Vol. 23, No. 4 July 2009, pp. 658–687.

Jaggi, Maya (2000) Prophet at the margins. The Guardian, 8 July.

Lewis, Gail (2000) Stuart Hall and Social Policy: An Encounter of Strangers? In Paul Gilroy, Lawrence Grossberg and Angela McRobbie (ed.) Without Guarantees. In Honour of Stuart Hall. London, Verso.

MacCabe, Colin (2008) An interview with Stuart Hall, December 2007. Critical Quarterly, vol. 50, nos. 1–2.

Meeks, Brian (2007) ‘Introduction: return of a native son’. In Brian Meeks (ed.) Culture, Politics, Race and Diaspora: The Thought of Stuart Hall. London, Lawrence & Wishart.

Procter, James (2004) Stuart Hall. London, Routledge.

Runnymede Trust (2000) The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain. Report of the Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain. London, Profile Books.

Scott, David (2000) ‘The permanence of pluralism’. In Paul Gilroy, Lawrence Grossberg & Angela McRobbie (ed.)  Without Guarantees: In Honour of  Stuart Hall. London, Verso.

Schwarz, Bill and Stuart Hall (2007) Living in difference. Stuart Hall in conversation with Bill Schwartz. Soundings 37.