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Stuart Hall: endearing theoretician of note

The towering intellect and powerful political imagination of this generous teacher, cultural theorist and campaigner produced some of the most incisive analysis of the workings of post-imperial Britain and the impact of globalisation on culture and politics.

Avtar Brah
18 February 2014

I first met Stuart Hall when I was a doctoral student. Three of us students went to see him at the Centre for Cultural Studies at Birmingham University where he was then the Director. Rather intimidated at the prospect of meeting such a renowned figure, we were amazed at the way in which he put us at ease. He asked us questions, listened to us carefully, as if we were some well-established scholars. That was one of his most endearing qualities – he treated every person as uniquely important.

Over the years, I got to know him well and had the privilege to call him a friend. He was always supportive. I immensely valued his wise counsel.  I admired all aspects of his work, but especially the way in which he placed questions of race, ethnicity and identity at the heart of any analysis of British society. He did so at a time when ‘race’ was considered as ‘something to do with people of colour’ rather than simultaneously being at the basis of formations of whiteness.

He carefully studied the way in which social and cultural crisis in Britain was refracted through the prism of race and racism. Race was not for him an epiphenomenon of class – the two were inextricably linked. His work on ‘diaspora’ and what he called the ‘New Ethnicities’ was path-breaking, critiquing essentialisms without dismissing out of court all forms of what its detractors often call ‘identity politics’. He was, to my mind usefully, eclectic in the use of theoretical concepts  - drawing them from Marxist thought, especially the work of Gramsci, as much as from poststructuralism - depending upon the nature of the problematic he was addressing.

Stuart Hall’s towering intellect and his powerful political imagination produced some of the most incisive analysis of the workings of post-imperial Britain and the impact of globalisation on culture and politics. A theoretician of note, he eschewed a variety of  ‘high theory’ which evacuated politics. Although always critical of economic determinism, he emphasised the importance of understanding the centrality of economy to global capitalist social relations which shape our lives today. 

One of the founding figures of the academic field of cultural studies, he gave it very inventive and creative underpinnings. His influence has been extremely wide-ranging both within and outside the academy. He was always keen to make his work accessible to as wide a range of people as was possible without compromising on complexity.

His analysis of media together with his judicious use of media technologies, especially television and film, attracted audiences from a variety of walks of life. He was a brilliant teacher, galvanizing his students with astute analysis mixed with a good dose of wit and humour. He was that rare intellectual whose Open University texts were as avidly read by lecturers as by the students.

He was generous to a fault, his life dedicated to equality and social justice.  His legacy will impact upon generations to come.

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