Cambridge and Oxford - Sample Essay

The term cultural competence which will be considered here is a fundamental historical and sociological concept which has generated many debates within the field of cultural studies theory. Before we begin to analyse this term it must be recognised that different cultural texts may invoke different cultural responses and that, in turn, some responses may be less valued than others. We must also recognise that the history of social formation has changed and with rapidly developing new technologies, will no doubt continue to change in the future.

In a broad sense the concept cultural competence introduced by Bourdieu, is centred on the notion of embedded cultural knowledge, not dissimilar from Lury’s references to cultural capital. It’s definition emerges from the question of whether an individual or groups of individuals are adequately qualified to fully appreciate and indeed, critically judge aspects of culture especially those which might be considered, by the likes of cultural conservatives such as Leavis and others as ‘high culture’. By ‘high culture’ they mean specialised cultural forms such as art, literature and opera etc.

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However, it is once again important to recognise that the boundaries between ‘high culture’ and other forms of popular culture, often referred to as mass culture have become markedly blurred in our contemporary society. It could be argued that the term cultural competence is associated with the assertions of Leavis and his notion of cultural standards. Writing in the 1930s, he reasoned that with the exception of the educated few, these being the white middle classes – the masses were virtually unable to understand and appreciate culture.

In other words, in his view the majority of people were unable to discriminate or make independent value judgements. Leavis held the traditional view of culture which was that it should be enriching, elevating and educational. Furthermore, he believed that culture ought to be effective in bringing about social transformation – that it ought to have a tangible end result and he therefore found the idea of culture providing pleasure alone, rather problematic.

Leavis’s argument, though far more elitist – is inextricably linked, to French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s idea of cultural competence as Celia Lury has more recently highlighted in her book, Consumer Culture. Both focus on education to identify the pivotal importance of cultural knowledge or cultural competence. However, it is important to note that Leavis writes primarily as a literary critic while Bourdieu’s approach is that of a sociologist so they have completely different backgrounds and write with very different emphasis.

Lury refers to Bourdieu’s analytical work which focuses on social reproduction within societies and the cultural aspects of this social stratification. He considers the power relations within certain groups within society. Bourdieu also considers economic, social, symbolic and cultural capital when he examines exposure to culture (not only high culture but culture in general) in childhood and suggests there is a class distinction. He goes on to point out that cultural texts depend on our social backgrounds and upbringing.

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