Doing Cultural Studies: The Story of the Sony Walkman – Du GAY et al (CSS)

Du GAY, Paul; HALL, Stuart; JANES, Linda; MACKAY, Hugh Mackay; NEGUS, Keith. Doing Cultural Studies: The Story of the Sony Walkman. London: Sage Publications, 1997. 151p. EGNAL, Marc. Divergent Paths: How Culture and Institutions Have Shaped North American Growth. New York: Oxford University Press Canada, 1996. 300p. Resenha de: EASTON, Lee. Canadian Social Studies, v.35, n.2, 2001.

Now that cultural studies has settled nicely into academe, cultural analyses are appearing on a regular basis. Right on cue, here is Doing Cultural Studies: The Story of the Sony Walkman, a recent addition to Stuart Hall’s Culture, Media and Identities series. I give this book special note, however, because a text on doing cultural studies is slightly different than one that thinks about doing cultural studies. While several excellent anthologies currently talk about cultural studies, these are often heavy on theory with little in the way of sustained application. In contrast, Doing Cultural Studies shows not only how to think about cultural studies, but how to do it too. Using the Sony Walkman as a case study, du Gay and his co-authors provide a much-needed text showing cultural studies in action.

Focusing on the circuit of culture, the authors use key concepts in cultural studies such as representation, identity, production, and consumption to analyze the Walkman as a cultural artifact. Educators will appreciate that this case study is structured so that its approach can be refined, expanded theoretically and applied to new objects of cultural study (11). Overall, the text clarifies without reducing complex terms. Also, although the segment on globalization is a bit thin, the section dealing with production, along with the one connecting design to consumption and production, easily offsets that criticism. Indeed, these two sections, in my view, illustrate cultural studies at its best. Drawing on a variety of sources, du Gay, et al. show, in Section II, how the Walkman’s success emerged not just from clever marketing, but also from Sony’s particular hybrid culture, its corporate structure and its production techniques. Section III neatly links consumers and their responses to the product’s ultimate design and image.

Although the book is text heavy, it includes a significant number of photographs, sample advertisements and even statistical data for readers to consider. The text also contains an appendix of selected readings, including challenging theoretical works such as excerpts from Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, as well as more accessible articles from popular media such as Shu Ueyama’s The Selling of the ‘Walkman from Advertising Age. Given their orientation to British cultural studies the authors, perhaps not surprisingly, include two selections from Raymond Williams. Better yet, the authors have integrated the readings into the main text’s structure so that readers can move in and out of the selections in relevant ways.

Although this text could benefit by augmenting its approach with more focus on gender, Doing Cultural Studies is a great introductory text for instructors who want to teach cultural studies in a post secondary setting. I would caution though, that despite its reader-friendly approach, many secondary students might find the work overwhelming. It would, however, be a fine resource for teachers wanting a concrete example of doing cultural studies.

In a more academic vein, Divergent Paths, Marc Egnal’s erudite comparative analysis of economic growth in French Canada and the American North and South, offers another sustained example of cultural analysis. Starting with representative accounts of life in the three regions, Egnal notes all three were roughly economically equal in the 1700s. Then, moving beyond accounts that focus on physical resources, access to capital or government policy, Egnal argues that culture and institutions shaped the divergent paths followed by the North, on the one hand, and the South and French Canada, on the other (viii). According to this account, both French Canada and the American South developed hierarchical, conservative cultures that were slow to adopt change while the American North, from the outset, developed a more open approach to change, especially around industrialization. These cultural values and attitudes then shaped each region’s development during the late 19th and early 20th century.

Interestingly, Egnal contends that these values were evident in, and produced by, the early approaches to the land and the institutions which developed in each region: the seigneurial system in French Canada, slavery in the American South, and independent farmers in the American North. He follows this argument with a close comparative analysis of the three regions in terms of education and mobility, religion and labour, and entrepreneurial spirit and intellectual life. In Part II, he shows how these values shaped growth until the later 20th century when these older values were challenged and ultimately replaced. Readers will find his analysis of the Quiet Revolution, the emergence of the Rustbelt, and the Sunbelt’s growth in the 1970s fascinating reading.

I do have two reservations. Despite Egnal’s wonderful documentation and his demarcation of controversial points, my more postmodern tendencies wonder whether culture becomes too large an explanatory force, even when contained at the regional level. I also suspect that, although Egnal certainly attends to women and their roles in these cultures, a more gendered story may yet be told here. These caveats notwithstanding, Egnal’s work shows how culture is a powerful analytical tool.

Although these books employ culture differently, they provide readers with strong evidence that although doing cultural studies might take divergent paths, the product is always intriguing. Both are worth reading.

Lee Easton – Mount Royal College, Calgary.

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