April 13, 2007

Raymond Williams’ Conclusion to Culture and Society

The history of the idea of culture is a record of our reactions in thought and feeling, to the changed conditions of our common life. Our meaning of culture is a response to the events which our meanings of industry and democracy most evidently define. (285).

In making his conclusions, a triad of influence that has preoccupied the book is raised again in the shape of culture, democracy and industry. Culture is according to Williams’ a reaction to changes ‘in the condition of our common life’ (285). Different reactions and resulting situations have created different cultures and consequently there are many different kinds of culture:

The idea of culture describes our common inquiry but our conclusions are diverse, as our starting points were diverse. The word, culture, cannot automatically be pressed into service as any kind of social or personal directive. (285)

Of the three major issues at stake in these developments (art, industry, democracy), each has three phases which Williams proceeds to describe. I outline his findings in the table below.





1. 1790 – 1870: a phase of working out new attitudes to industrialism and democracy.

The rejection of production and the social relations of the factory system

Concern at the threat of minority values by popular supremacy of the new masses.

A period of questioning the intrinsic value of art and its importance to the common life.

2. 1870 – 1914: narrower fronts, specialism in the arts, direct politics.

Sentiment versus the machine.

Emphasis on community, society versus the individual ethic.

Defiant exile: art for art’s sake.

3. 1914 – 1945: a phase of large scale organisations and the mass media.

Acceptance of machine production.

Fears of the first phase are renewed in the context of ‘mass-democracy’ and ‘mass communications’.

The reintegration of art with the common life of society centred on the word ‘communication’.

Some of these opinions concerning art, industry and democracy did of course cross periods, but they were not the common or general view according to Williams.

Mass and Masses

Williams notices that the word ‘masses’ is often associated with a ‘mob’ and he sees this emerging from three social tendencies:

  • the concentration of population in industrial towns;

  • the concentration of workers in factories;

  • and the development of an organized and self-organizing working class prone to social and political massing.

    Yet the masses was a new word for mob, and the traditional characteristics of the mob were retained it its significance: gullibility, fickleness, herd-prejudice, lowness of taste and habit. The masses, on this evidence, formed a perpetual threat to culture. Mass-thinking, mass-suggestion, mass-prejudice would threaten to swamp considered individual thinking and feeling. Even democracy, which had both a classical and a liberal reputation, would lose its savour in becoming mass-democracy. (288)

Williams sees the new problem as the power of the media to change public opinion. Yet he also finds a certain prejudice in the term, ‘mass-democracy’. Democracy is the rule of the majority and Williams wonders whether this might also constitute mass rule, mob rule of the rule of lowness and mediocrity. Williams considers the label, ‘masses’, and identifies it with working people:

But if this is so, it is clear that what is in question is not only gullibility, fickleness, herd-prejudice or lowness of taste and habit. It is also from the open record, the declared intention of the working people to alter society in many of its aspects, in ways which those to whom the franchise was formerly restricted deeply disapprove. (288)

For Williams, Mass-democracy does not exist, there is only democracy: ‘Masses=majority cannot be glibly equated with masses=mob’ (289).

In continuing to challenge the term, ‘masses’, Williams considers the notion of the individual or ‘man in the street’. Williams asks, are we each only the man on the street or are we something more than that? In a collective image, the masses are different to us as we are unique individual yet they are similar so that the public includes us yet is not us.

I do not think of my relatives, friends, neighbours, colleagues, acquaintances, as masses ; we none of us can or do. The masses are always the others, whom we don’t know, and can’t know. Yet now, in our kind of society, we see those others regularly, in their myriad variations, stand, physically, beside them. They are here and we are here with them. And that we are with them is of course the whole point. To the other people, we also are masses. Masses are other people. (289)

This way of seeing others is sometimes exploited though for political and cultural motives.

Mass Communication

The rise of the printing press was intensified in 1811 by the invention of the steam driven press and by rotary presses in 1815. Transport links have improved as have telecommunications. Broadcasting, television and film have emerged. From these developments, Williams notes a greater number of paper publications at a lower price, more bills and posters, the rise of RV and broadcasting programmes and the art of film. How valuable are these developments?

The development of the media has brought a means of communication that is more impersonal: using photography of actors rather than actors, radio broadcasts rather than meetings. However Williams says that we cannot always compare conventional and mass communication fairly. The result of mass communication has simply been a change in the activities on which time is spent. Some critics dislike the one-way sending of information, but Williams points to reading, which has been providing information with no immediate possibility of response for centuries.

Williams uses the term ‘multiple transmission’ to describe the expansion of audience that mass communication has provided. The audience has grown as a result of growing general education and technical improvements and by some it is labelled mass communication. With such a large audience, the media can no longer retain such a personal feel, yet Williams bel;ieves that it is useful for some kinds of address. His question though is, what information is being communicated and how? It depends of course on the intentions of the broadcaster. Williams suggests that broadcasts can be, ‘art. education, the givingf of information and opinion’ or ‘manipulation – the persuasion of a large number of people to act, feel, think, know, in certain ways’ (292).

Mass Observation

Are the masses a mob? If it were so, then this would be a negative aspect to mass communication and also to mass culture or popular culture. Williams believes though that it is a question of interpretation. There is always bad popular art, ‘written by skilled and educated people for a public that hasn’t the time, or hasn’t the education, or hasn’t, let’s face it, the intelligence to read anything more complete, anything more careful, anything nearer the known canons of exposition or argument’ (294). However there is some popular art that is ‘bright, attractive, popular’ even if it is mediocre in comparison with high art (294).

Popular culture supposedly emerged after the Education Act of 1870 when a mass literate public developed. However points to the 1730s and 40s when a middle class reading public demanded ‘that vulgar phenomenon, the novel’ (295). Williams points out that there was literacy before 1870.

Williams notes also that much of the art produced for the working classes came from institutions on high, ‘for conscious political or commercial advantage’ (295). The working classes did produce some publications such as radical pamphlets, political newspapers and publicity, but this was quite different to the literature produced for them. This new bad literature from institutions was also absorbed by the middle classes and the masses cannot so easily be equated with the mob.

Contemporary historians concentrate on this bad literature and ignore the fact that as an introduction of a greater literate society, followers of all art forms have increased. Williams thinks that the problem is that of the high art critic comparing his own tastes to popular ones. What Williams calls strip papers (probably equivalent to our tabloids) reproduce the kind of communication that go on in working class communities to produce ‘that complex of rumour and traveller’s tales which then served the majority as news of a kind’ (298). Popular culture is not necessarily low in taste although appreciation of literature should be significant in a society’s education.

The problem with the mass media is that in order to make profit it needs huge audiences, and thus it will draw audiences in as much as it can and profit from people’’s ignorance. Williams praises the local newspaper which is higher in quality than the strip newspaper and is read by working class people: ‘Produced for a known community on the basis of common interest and common knowledge, the local newspaper is not governed by ‘mass’ interpretation’ (300). The regional newspaper is not based on the reader’s lack of education but on a regional and social grouping.

Communication and Community

Williams notes that communication, ‘is not only transmission, it si also reception and response’ (301). Williams shows anxiety about mass communications use of enticing psychological and linguistic strategies, but he states that, ‘any real theory of communication is also a theory of community’ (301). Williams believes that there has been a dominative theory of communication that has called for the science of penetrating the mass mind:

It is easy to recognize a dominative theory if, for other reasons, we think it to be bad, A theory that a minority should profit by employing a majority in wars of gain is easily rejected. A theory that a minority should profit by employing a mass of wage slaves is commonly rejected. A theory that a minority should reserve the inheritance of knowledge to itself, and deny it to the majority, is occasionally rejected. (301)

Mass communication has been though to be a minority exploiting a majority, yet Williams states that we are all democrats now. Some may wish to educate the majority through mass communication, but Williams questions their methods, because what is really called for is, ‘telling as an aspect of living; learning as an element of experience’ (302). Where education fails, it indicates a failure of communication which produces a reaction. Williams is adamant that people will not be told what to believe but must learn by experience. A dominative attitude indicates distrust concerning the masses with their strikes and riots, but Williams explains that there are not marks of untrustworthiness, but ‘symptoms of a basic failure in communication’ (303). Strike are then, ‘a confused, vague reaction against the dominative habit’ (303). Some governments rely on apathy and inertia to control the masses (this strikes a chord), but this is disastrous for democracy and the common interest. Transmission must be ‘an offering’ that recognises equality of being (304).

Culture and Which Way of Life?

Williams points out that while in the past culture was the pastime of ‘the old leisured classes’ it is now ‘the inheritance of the new rising class’ (306). For Williams, ‘working class culture’ is key. Working class culture is not the dissident element of proletarian writing such as post-Industrial ballads. Neither is it a simple alternative to Marxist-defined, ‘bourgeois culture’, a term that evokes Williams’ scepticism. Williams writes that, ‘even in a society in which a particular class is dominant, it is evidently possible both for members of other classes to contribute to the common stock, and for such contributions to be unaffected by or in opposition to the ideas and values of the dominant class’ (307). Williams is not then setting up Working Class Culture as an opponent to tradition, but suggests something more complex.

In the development of culture, Williams believes that the common language of English plays an important role. Williams criticises the upholding of standard English and he wonders whether the English language could be put to more interesting uses (308-309).

Williams wonders whether there is ‘any meaning left in “bourgeois” ’ and he notes that education has enabled a more even access to culture. Yet a culture is in turn dictated by a subject’s way of life:

We may now see what is properly meant by ‘working-class culture’. It is not proletarian art, or council houses, or a particular use of language; it is rather the basic collective idea, and the institutions, manners, habits of thought, and intention which proceed from this. Bourgeois culture, similarly, is the basic individualist idea and the institutions, manners, habits of thought, and intention which proceed from that. […] The culture which it [the working class] has produced […] is the collective democratic institution, whether in the trade unions, the co-operative movement or a political party. Working-class culture, in the stage through which it has been passing, is primarily social (in that it has created institutions) rather than individual (in particular intellectual or imaginative work). When it is considered in context, it can be seen as a very remarkable creative achievement. (313)

The Idea of Community

Williams believes that there are two notions of community: one of service (middle class) and the other of solidarity (working class). Williams describes his experience of growing up in a community of solidarity and his difficulty in understanding the servant system in England. He turns to a political pamphlet entitled How we are Governed which demands conformity in a kind of national service system, but Williams states: ‘The idea of service, ultimately, is no substitute for the idea of active mutual responsibility’ (316). The notion of service offers someone a role in which they simply perform a function and without the solidarity of Williams’ community must climb the ladder of promotion and success alone.

The Development of a Common Culture

Solidaity in contrast with service is, ‘potentially the real basis of a society’, yet Williams realises that the negative, defensive aspects of solidarity must be changed (318). Williams recommends that ‘diversity has to be substantiated within an effective community which disposes of majority power’ and that the aim must be that of ‘achieving diversity without creating separation’ (318, 319). Solidarity does not mean exclusion: ‘A good community, a living culture, will […] not only make room for but actively encourage all and any who can contribute to the advance in consciousness which is the common need’ (320). Neither does solidarity mean being closed to possibilities, since ‘while the closed fist is a necessary symbol, the clenching ought never to be such that the hand cannot open, and the fingers extend, to discover and give shape to the newly forming reality’ (320).


Williams, Raymond. Culture and Society 1780 - 1950. 1958.  London: Penguin, 1985.

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