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date: 22 August 2017

Critical Perspectives Toward Cultural and Communication Research

Summary and Keywords

Critical perspectives toward culture and communication address how power and macro historical, institutional, and economic structures shape and constrain interpersonal, intergroup, and mediated communication. Scholars critique forms of domination and examine how oppressed communities resist and subvert power structures to identify possibilities for change and emancipation; some strive to become public intellectuals engaged in activism in solidarity with disadvantaged communities. Analyses uncover multiplicity and fluidity of meanings and dislodge essentialist and ideological closures in interactions and discourses. This approach has been shaped by critical theory of the Frankfurt School, European poststructural and critical theories, British cultural studies, and postcolonial theories. Critical scholarship is diverse, interdisciplinary, and multimethodological. Critical scholars are self-reflexive of their own social positioning in relation to research topics and participants.

Culture, the key concept, is conceptualized as a site of multiple meanings and differences that are loci of power struggles and contestations amidst daily practices and power structures. Culture is a site of mixing and fusions across borders as groups struggling for power attempt to restrict meanings, categories, and practices. Identity and its categories, such as race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, etc., have multiple and shifting meanings that are nevertheless contingently fixed within structures supporting domination of some groups. Concepts such as diaspora, hybridity, and intersectionality address indeterminacy of belonging. Other main concepts include difference, articulation, ideology, hegemony, interpellation, and articulation.

Keywords: culture, difference, power, struggle, ideology, hegemony, identity, activism, globalization, discourse


Critical approaches to culture and communication are an influential, diverse, and growing area that emerged primarily in the 1990s. It has been shaped by European critical and poststructural theories of language and culture, British Cultural Studies and postcolonial studies, as well as inspired by the preceding turn to questions of power, ideology, and indeterminacy of meaning in anthropology (e.g., Rosaldo [1993] and Clifford & Marcus [1986]) and linguistics (e.g., Pennycook [1990]). The 2002 issue of the Intercultural Communication Annual identified the critical turn, or “fifth moment,” in perspectives on “culture” and communication as distinct from social scientific and interpretive approaches that defined the field from its inception in the 1950s. Critical scholars in intercultural communication, rhetoric, and media studies see culture as a site of struggle over meaning and identity, as multiple, fluid, and strategic. They address the role of power as central to communication. They also challenge a predominant conflation of culture with nation, critique domination, and call attention to disempowered groups. Critical analyses connect macro-level structures and contexts with micro-level communication patterns. The critical turn focused attention on discursive questions of representation, signification, construction, narrativization, and deconstruction of culture and identity. The key works that shaped this field include a critique of whiteness as a dominant rhetoric (Nakayama & Krizek, 1995) and analyses of how groups challenge oppressive categories imposed upon them by (post)colonial governments and historically institutionalized discourses.

Critical scholars engage in research as inexorably political and praxical, guided by an ethical imperative to work toward transformation of oppressive structures and discourses to achieve a more equitable society and benefit community members who participate in their research. Phenomenological research, particularly the obfuscation of the division between I and Thou, has inspired invocations of self-reflection, self-criticality, and discussion of the implications of one’s positionality on the lives of others. While this emphasis can be seen in other paradigmatic movements, Hans Gadamer’s (1981) hermeneutics for one, it has taken on particular force (such as the examination of privilege, hegemony, passing) with the critical turn. For example, while a communicator’s positionality (race, gender, and class identity) cannot be divorced from their conceptual, methodological, and analytic frames, blanket mentions of authorial racial identity in a research article’s method section are insufficient to an honest accounting of positionality.

The critical approach criticized studies that exoticized and “otherized” minority and non-Western communities. As a reaction to such distortions, many critical scholars study their own communities, and their unique insights produce richer insider knowledge and understanding. For example, scholars have employed Afrocentricity and Asiacentricity (perspectives and methodology) to critique and dislocate Western, Eurocentric universal theorization, as well as celebrate the unique contributions of multicultural orientations, such as the interconnectedness of humanity, nature, and the supernatural (Asante, 2002; Asante & Miike, 2013; Blake, 1997; Walker & Greene, 2006). Tenets of Afrocentricity include the rejection of hierarchy, resistance of oppression, and the celebration of harmony, reconciliation, and pluralism (Asante, 1987). Similarly, Miike (2002, 2007, 2009, 2010) describes Asiacentricity in terms of harmony, reciprocity, relationality, emotional sensitivity, and humility, in contradistinction to Western rationality, empiricism, and cultural essentialism. Recent work in Asiacentricity has espoused the dialectic tensions that comprise Asian cultural communication (Eguchi, 2013, Kuo & Chew, 2009), deconstructing the overgeneralization of Asian similarities and emphasizing transversality (crossing and intersecting), rather than universality.

Finally, critical scholars interrogate their own positionality, including their role in challenging and reinscribing practices that privilege some over others. They negotiate the indeterminacy of meaning, and its implications for tolerance toward alternative perspectives, with social action. Foucault’s approach is illuminative (Ono & Sloop, 1992). Foucault, the theorist, recognized the relative and arbitrary nature of communication, but Foucault the activist believed that one particular exercise of power was often better than its alternatives.


The Frankfurt School theorists, notably Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse, began work in the 1930s and developed critical theory from within the Marxist tradition. Critical theory, in contrast to positivist theory, is self-reflexive in its aims to critique capitalist domination and analyze society in its historical specificity, as well as emancipate and effect change. Their writings on capitalism, ideology, and the media have had a far-reaching impact. However, their theoretical shortcomings were revealed by the failure of the worker and student movements to bring about change in Europe in the 1960s. In response, a diverse group of scholars associated with poststructuralist and critical thought on language and culture rejected the ideas of stable structures underlying meaning, and thus grand narratives, and worked to show how meaning was both unstable and subject to operations of power that fixed it and authorized certain regimes of knowledge. Among the most influential were Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, Jean Baudrillard, Jacques Lacan, Pierre Bourdieu, and Michel de Certeau. An Italian scholar, Antonio Gramsci, who spent many years in the Italian prison where he wrote his influential Prison Notebooks, shaped the understanding of structures of domination and hegemony. Many of these ideas impacted communication scholars primarily through their incorporation by cultural studies developed at the Centre for Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham, whose most influential scholars were Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall, and Paul Gilroy. Concomitantly, postcolonial studies, particularly works by Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, and Homi Bhabha, challenged scholars to analyze culture within the context of transnational interaction, conflict, and power relations fomented by neo/postcolonialism, which imposed economic, intellectual, and emotional oppression.

Meaning and the Discursive Turn

The critical turn in communication was shaped by theories of language and meaning, which prompted the so-called discursive turn. It posited that meaning production was central to social reproduction and that social phenomena were structured like a language. Hence, culture, identity, consciousness, a city, or even economic relations could be read like a text because they only had significance to us through meaning-making processes and thus could be deconstructed for analytical purposes.

Ferdinand de Saussure, a structural linguist, is credited with developing a basis for theories of meaning (i.e., signification). He (1959) described language not as an autonomous system but as socially constituted. He distinguished between la langue, the system of signs (i.e., their internal characteristics) and la parole, their relation to entities outside the sign. De Saussure posited that meaning was derived from differences between signs and the relationship between each sign’s two components, the signified (the meaning) and the signifier (the graphic or sound representation), which was entirely arbitrary. This initial idea that meaning is relational has been radically influential for theories of discourse and subjectivity.

Jacques Derrida took this a step further and argued that the relationship between signs is not stable and that the signified always changes into a signifier with multiple meanings, each of which turns into another signifier and so on; thus it is impossible to arrive at any final or certain meaning. The inability to finalize meaning persists despite our ideological and embodied interests in capturing and fixing its nature. Meaning is scattered along the extending chain of signifiers, always in becoming, always partially deferred, present and absent at the same time. This is captured by the idea of différance, a dynamic relationship that escapes all attempts at fixity and is thus dangerous to essentialist thinking. Since meaning is always deferred, we are not in control of it and thus the speaking subject is itself subject to deferral, never fully present to others or itself. Différance has directed attention to the multiple ways in which culture and identity are constructed, narrated, and enacted as always shifting and unstable, contingent upon social, historical, and intellectual interpretations. This became a basis for an anti-essentialist approach that challenges categorizations of culture through binaries such as collectivism-individualism. As Radha Hegde contended, “Categories leak, assumptions run dry, and we need to get our field a little dirty in terms of deconstructing the neat categories--the sanitized divisions between categories and areas” (Collier et al., 2002, p. 239). For example, Stuart Hall’s notion of race as a “floating signifier,” whose meaning changes depending on the context, was particularly instructive to communication studies of racial, ethnic, and cultural identities as indeterminate, hybrid, and fluid. Communication scholars historicize forces that attempt to fix identity categories such as blackness, whiteness, Chineseness, or Latinidad against a multiplicity of expressions. Since meanings can only be fixed provisionally and temporarily, identity categories do not guarantee that the person’s politics or alliances will be progressive; nor does it necessarily align with others described by the same label. Poststructuralist approaches necessitate “politics without guarantees” amidst the complexities of everyday life.

Briankle Chang, who sought to connect Derrida’s ideas with the discipline of communication, lamented that too much of extant research had conceptualized communication in terms of understanding, as the possibility of “shared” meaning is an illusion and it is precisely this illusoriness that provides the impetus for communication. Although we may not come to any kind of semblance of shared meaning, we have a “responsibility” to engage with one another. Derrida urged that we approach the Other with radical openness and hospitality, not the least because the Other is an inescapable part of Self. Thus, critical communication scholars approach intercultural communication as subject to dialectical tensions. Dialectics displace the notion of a center, focusing on ongoing centripetal-centrifugal flux (Bakhtin, 1984). For as Bhabha (1994) elucidates, “It is in the emergence of the interstices—the overlap and displacement of domains of difference—that the intersubjective and collective experiences of nationness, community interest, or cultural value are negotiated” (p. 2). A dialectical perspective stimulates the engagement of infinite overlapping, simultaneous, and often conflicting forces, with the ideal of residing in those contradictions (cultural vs. personal, differences vs. similarities, and privilege vs. disadvantage) and not to extinguish them (Martin & Nakayama, 1999). Instead, both discourses of cultural homogeneity and heterogeneity are ideologically deployed for strategic objectives. Both an overemphasis of difference and similarity are susceptible to essentialization of culture as static, neglecting historical, political, economic, and hierarchical contexts, and reifying oppressive dichotomies. Critical scholarship examines the dialectic tensions of power vs. resistance, mobility vs. constraint, and deviation vs. conformity, which include both intraethnic difference and interethnic similarity, constituting the dynamic and complex nature of hierarchical intercultural relations.1

While unfinalizable, meaning is subject to persistent attempts to stabilize it by the cultural system underpinned by ideologies and operating through binaries such as self-other, insider/outsider, black/white, clear/unclear, good/bad, among others. The goal of cultural analysis is to deconstruct such binaries, which requires a recognition that certain meanings are suppressed and one term in the binary dominates and usurps the other within its field of operations. For example, “man” is defined as the opposite of “woman” and “white” as opposite of “black.” “Woman” and “black” are defined in negative inferior terms that become deeply embedded in the cultural system. Yet, the suppressed meanings cannot be completely erased but lurk beneath the surface threatening to undo the binary (i.e., expose “man” as weak or “white” as violent). This demonstrates why differànce is dangerous to elite strongholds, who subsequently respond with efforts to reestablish control through restabilizing binaries. However, differànce not only threatens to subvert powerful entitities but all essentialist thinking and dominant discourses, which populism can subscribe to as well. The object of deconstruction is to destabilize and collapse articulated binaries, if only for an analytical moment.

These ideas have proven important in complicating understanding of subjectivity and identity as formed through relations between self and other. The “other” is part of the definition of the self and a threat to its illusion of consistency, independence, and wholeness. This notion has been important in postcolonial studies, where Edward Said demonstrated the dependence of Europe’s superior self-concept on the stereotypical Orientalization of Arab and Asian cultures as inferior. Another key work in postcolonial thought, Bhabha (1994) highlighted that colonial power maintained its hold through ambivalence, such as colonial mimicry that expresses a desire for the Other as almost the same but different. These ideas fueled studies of how cultural minorities are constructed as the Other in ways that reaffirm dominant groups. For example, Disney’s Pocahontas represents Native Americans as barbarians, with the exception of Pocahontas herself who is rescued as a desirable victim of her own people, thereby reinforcing the historical dominance of the colonizers (Buescher & Ono, 1996).

Critical scholarship further interrogates ideological efforts to fix meaning through exploration of articulation, which conceptualizes how various meanings cohere together, although always contingently and provisionally. Articulation is a temporary linking up of various meanings that do not necessarily go together and changing them in the process. Articulated formations of meaning exert powerful influence on people, legitimate power structures, and have material consequences. Such formations are centered around nodal points (signifiers that have been fixed within the larger discursive horizon in such a way that their meanings are taken for granted, such as “Freedom,” “Democracy,” and “Capitalism”) that partially stabilize their meanings. The elements of a discourse often appear to be unified, but are subject to (re)articulation and continual fluctuation, yet linked to historical conditions, resulting in the constitution of cultural difference. Highlighting the formative role of antagonism, Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe used the concept of articulation to understand how identities were constructed in discourses. They argued that identities could be articulated through equivalence, establishing relations of similarity that narrow the discursive field, or through relations of difference that expand it. Relations of difference and similarity could have hegemonic or emancipatory effects depending on whether they exacerbate or alleviate antagonisms. Stuart Hall elucidated articulation as an interlocking of connections that stabilize formations of meaning, ideologies, and material conditions at specific social and historical moments and perpetuate relations of dominance. He saw race as an articulated formation, which means that meanings of a person’s identity or his or her politics were shaped by linking up of various discourses of class, gender, age, sexual identity, etc.2 Jennifer Daryl Slack and Lawrence Grossberg introduced the concept to the communication discipline, which has sought to show how historically contingent and materially grounded meanings are articulated together to form categories of identity. Disarticulations are also affected by larger systemic changes that shift relations of meaning and alter what is sayable and thinkable. For example, the collapse of apartheid in South Africa necessitated a redefinition of whiteness, as the discursive horizon and material reality changed (Steyn, 2001). Articulations and disarticulations imply complex operations of ideology and power.

Ideology and Power

A critical perspective toward culture shifts scholarly attention to ideology, in that cultural formations and cultural representations are never apolitical, but unequal cultural relations are normalized by power and ideology as “just the way things are.” Most critical scholars trace the conceptualization of ideology to the writings of Karl Marx. During the Enlightenment era, ideology had been defined as the scientific study of ideas, which he re-conceptualized as a weapon of class warfare in the acute forms of naturalization and dehistorization of material conditions. Marx and Engels (1932) defined ideology as, “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas … The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production” (p. 1). Through the fostering of “false consciousness,” ideology is the means of naturalization, obfuscation, and reproduction of the “means of production,” “means of distribution,” natural resources, and subsequently the political and economic dominance of the ruling class. By “false consciousness,” Marx means that perceptions of social reality are actually illusions of the market. This rather stable relationship between power and knowledge, according to Marx, is maintained through taken-for-granted acceptance (rather than revolution) on the part of proletariat class. Ideology within the Marxist tradition takes such unidirectional forms as law, history, art, literature, poetry, and religion, which are presented as natural and rational and thus “true” for everyone. The role of the critical theorist is one of demystification and transformation of the material conditions that underlie the ideological superstructure.

Marx’s work, however, has been critiqued for its overemphasis of economic class, materiality, and the monopolization of production control by a ruling class, illustrating how the concept of ideology is contested. Gramsci (1971) extended the concept of ideology in his conceptualization of hegemony, in which domination is achieved primarily through consent, not force. Gramsci’s expanded definition also added “common sense” or those taken-for-granted meanings and lived experiences that reinforce inequality. Ideology seeks to unify disparate meanings and perspectives to cement existing hegemonic relationships. Thus, power is not just solely imposed upon the proletariat, as discussed in the work of Marx, but is shared by marginalized individuals/groups who are co-participants in ideological formations. And it is reductionistic to assert that ruling classes determine societal values as contestation is intrinsic to hegemony, which operates in a continual state of tension with counter-hegemony.3

Like Gramsci, Althusser (1971) foregrounded the cultural over the material superstructure. The specific and myriad manifestations of this cultural structure, which Althusser labeled “ideological state apparatuses,” include science, media, schools, churches, and families. These ISAs, according to Althusser, not only represent material conditions as natural but also constitute subjects’ identities, lived experiences, and understandings of their worlds, and thus are real and cannot be equated with a “false consciousness.” And yet, ideology does obscure power and class relations, or our “true” relationship to material existence, which works to ensure worker submission to the established order. A key contribution of Althusser’s conceptualization of ideology is that it exists in material form and thus could not be reduced to illusions of material conditions, as theorized by Marx. Communication scholars demonstrate how groups are interpellated, called into positions as refugees or national citizens, and subject to institutions and media discourses that reproduce nationalism, racism, sexism, or other ideologies.

The conceptualizations of Gramsci and Althusser suggest that it is possible for the critical scholar, who is also constituted by ideology, to deconstruct that same ideology and represent the “truth” that is obscured by it. Their contributions, however, foreshadowed a re-definition of ideology in terms of discourse. At the forefront of this move was Foucault (1991), who saw power relations as much more complex and subtle than the oppressor-oppressed binary. The dynamic nature of power, according to Foucault, could not be captured by any one entity, including the most powerful, nor reduced to political economy and the control of means of production, which do not exist outside of discourse. Although he concurs with Marx, Gramsci, and Althusser on the premise that power seeks to conceal its operations, he contended that power exerts its influence on everyone, because both dominant and dominated are subject to discursive formations. Discourses refer to historicized representations of knowledge, inscribed by power relations, and subsequently producing both the “objects” and “subjects” of that knowledge with “real” consequences. As such, no singular truth can completely vanquish all competing truths. Thus, resistance is intrinsic to Foucault’s theorizing of discourse. Although ideology might be conceived as a means of fixing meaning and marginalizing alternative meanings for strategic objectives, power-knowledge is not just a means of oppression, but emancipation. Representations of identity and difference have been the largest arena for examination of power and resistance in communication. One of the formative studies examined how whiteness functions as rhetoric protecting the interests of white individuals. Scholars also examine space, memory, intergroup alliances, and affect as planes upon which power and resistance are enacted. Such enactments are examined within the larger context of social relations that have developed historically. While, initially, scholars tended to emphasize the discursive realm over material conditions, perhaps following Foucault (see Cloud, 2006), more recent studies have examined how material conditions shape and are shaped by discourses and constitute communicative patterns of identification.

With the postmodern turn in the forms of feminism, postcolonialism, critical race theory, and cultural studies, critical scholars have foregrounded discussions of race, gender, and other anti-representationalist paradigms that subvert ideological notions of a universal truth that maintain power relations (Shome, 2014). In particular, this scholarship has focused attention on intersectionality, the ways our identities are imbricated in complex fashion, and the ways ideology is embedded in language and disenfranchising social processes. The contested conceptualization of ideology evokes specific tensions for the critical communication scholar. Does ideology refer to any set of beliefs or only dominant ones? Is ideology strictly pejorative? Must it be publicly disseminated? Is there a definitive division between illusion and reality (i.e., “false consciousness”)? Should material conditions be foregrounded (Eagleton, 1991)? To what extent are critics able to deconstruct the very ideologies they are constituted by? And to what extent are people able to resist and subvert oppressive ideologies?

Critical and cultural communication research examines underlying assumptions, sites of ideological struggles, and the proliferation of cultural imperialism. Individuals who study culture are situated in an apposite location for exploring the multiplicity and tension within human experience, aimed toward promoting agency, voice, and spaces of resistance. It illuminates alternative knowledge as potential for critique and interrogation of the status quo, moving away from bifurcated understandings of power and toward more complex and dialectical assessments.


Theories of meaning, discourse, ideology, and power shaped the conceptualization of culture as shifting assemblages of heterogenous and fluid meanings and a site of conflicting rules and competing vested interests (Nakayama & Halualani, 2010). Culture is constituted as an intense locus of differences that spurs creativity and novelty as well as tension and conflict. The cultural studies definition of culture as an arena of struggle has been formative of communication approaches. The key cultural studies scholar, Raymond Williams, elaborated a complex understanding of culture by stressing its everyday lived character as “a whole way of life,” including shared meanings, values, norms, feelings, and material artifacts. He connected this aspect of culture to its other meaning as a process of creativity, learning, and development. Thus, the purpose of cultural analysis is to analyze representations and practices of daily life within the context of material conditions of their production.

Critical communication scholars see culture as “a larger social formation constituted by communicative meaning-making practices (or dialectical exchanges among meanings, practices, and structures” (Nakayama & Halualani, 2010, p. 7). Specific cultural practices or communication events are addressed within the larger context of other cultural beliefs, values, and practices, as well as the socioeconomic, historical, and ideological contexts. Culture is a terrain of competition over the control of meaning, and the resulting representations have to be deconstructed like a text for excluded meanings and social interests that are not explicit. Communication scholars have been particularly interested in how cultural groups represent and contest differences such as gender, race, ethnicity, and sexuality from different positions and construct, resist, and remake their identities. For example, cultural differences are often negotiated through creation and contestations over memories. How the past is represented—for example in movies, memorializing rituals, and museums—demonstrates which memories are pallatable and which groups’ interests are best served by them. How different groups interpret such representations reveals complex entanglements among interpretive communities who seek to affirm their identities and legitimate their power. Culture is also a system of regulation that integrates individuals into positions in a specific socioeconomic system. It represents the prevailing ideas as natural and common sense and is thus the means of hegemonic operations that shape relations and communication among groups. But culture is never completely coherent or unified and thus presents opportunities for change and creative resistance.

“Culture” is replaced with “cultures” (Collier et al., 2002) as plural, localized, and contextual formations. This implies that culture itself is a questionable concept that all too easily offers totalizing explanations for behavior. The agency and privilege in defining and disseminating “culture,” and the benefits gained from that definitional capacity, belie power relations. Cultural categories are not hermetic containers but something far more complicated. A critical perspective on culture is one of suspicion toward the reifying effects of ahistorical functionalist analyses and their underlying assumptions of race-less, class-absent individualism and liberal notions of agency. The concepts of borderlands, hybridity, and diaspora, in particular, challenge essentialist categories that equate cultures with nation-states and/or ethnic groups. Rejection of the conflation of culture with territorial nation-state borders was a key move formative of the critical approach to culture and communication. Ono (1998) rejected the nation-state as the unit of reference for intercultural communication, which had been dominated by postpositivist approaches. He argued that equating culture with nation “facilitates the differentiation of self from others” (Ono, 2013, p. 90), and thus frequently leads to US and Western stereotyping of outgroup members being studied. Not only are nation-states home to members with heterogenous histories and varied cultural backgrounds, but the idea of what it means to be a national member is subject to exclusions and contestations through cultural means. Thus, critical scholars make a distinction between a national culture reproduced through schools, media, and political institutions in the service of nationalism and the state, and the dynamic and varied culture/s enacted on the ground. The nation-state is a constraining and dominating structure that institutionally advantages some groups and their values over others.

The processes of globalization, comprising disparate divisions of labor, capitalism, commodification, and consumption, have only intensified hybrid mixing of cultures (Comor, 2008; Kraidy, 2002). Conceptualizations of hybridity have deconstructed reification of cultural boundaries, including the colonizer/colonized and domination/resistance binaries (Bhabha, 1994; Kraidy, 2002). Thus, conceptualizations of culture as “authentic” and “exclusive” have been forever altered, instead becoming amorphous intersubjectivities (Hebron & Stack, 2009). While cultural distinctiveness is often obscured by globalization processes, the spread of capitalism has led to the peddling of essentialist notions of ethnicity to international consumers (Linnekin, 2004). For example, worldwide exposure to the fallout of natural disasters around the globe, which evoke multiplicitous fund-raising efforts, often reinscribe oppositional global hierarchies through the politicization of cross-cultural administration of funds and problematic representations of cultural “others” in need of “our” help. A critical investigation would ask important questions about reconciling material needs with disenfranchising cultural practices, examining global structures, and critiquing the discourses that obfuscate those global structures, amidst ideological individualism that foregrounds charity at the expense of structural change.4

As a part of this globalizing shift, critical cultural and communication scholars critique representation of cultural others from Western (and mostly US-based) paradigms, theories, and methods that privilege white, English-speaking males, fostering disenfranchising civilized vs. uncivilized, traditional vs. modern, West vs. the rest, and local vs. global dichotomies that both affirm dominant strongholds and alleviate lingering postcolonial guilt over racialized structures. As Shome (2013) asks, “How can we even talk about race without recognizing that the politics of race are simultaneously imbricated in a situation of unequal transnational relations—of space, visibility, and history” (p. 153)?

In dialectic tension, the global does not just affect the local in top-down fashion, but these “locales” are mutually constitutive. The increasing flow of political, technical, and cultural “exchange” has signified that existence in the contemporary, global milieu is defined by change, fostering tension and inequality (Appadurai, 1996). Critical theorists grapple with the implications that globalization processes (which are not objective, universal, determined forces, but communicatively constructed) entail for communication research on culture.

The critical perspective on culture concomitantly necessitated a rethinking of cultural adaptation of immigrants. Cultures cannot be simply replaced through assimilation. Instead, migrants incorporate and blend different cultural elements through processes of translation of meaning. This occurs within the socioeconomic context where ideological processes position immigrants in racial, gender, and class categories. How immigrants negotiate these positions supports or challenges structures of power that privilege some groups (e.g., white Americans) as the desired ideal.

To summarize, a critical perspective defines culture in terms of struggle: a struggle over political power and economic resources, mobilized to give advantages to some and to exploit others. Critical scholarship on communication and culture has problematized static conceptualizations of culture as a predictable set of traits in favor of understanding its dynamic fluidity not confined by geographical proximity.


Critical and cultural theories problematized the question of identity5 by decentering the subject. Marx decentered the subject by positing that people were deeply affected by material and social conditions that were beyond their control. Sigmund Freud’s conception of the unconscious as shaping our actions conceives the subject as not fully aware of his or her actions. Poststructuralists pronounced that the subject was dead because it was not in control of meaning but was subjected to the infinite play of difference as well as disciplinary discursive regimes; thus the subject was not fully present or apprehensible to anyone or even itself. Ironically, the decentering of the subject drew more scholarly attention to the questions of identity from the field of critical studies. Scholars posited that identity was a product of narrativization; it was not a stable entity but rather a strategic and changing narrative we tell ourselves and others about who we are. Such narratives are creative projects that temporarily fix identities in specific contexts and situations in ways that are plausible and offer us benefits. Identities are fluid, multiple, and intersectional and always in becoming. It is thus more appropriate to talk about identification as an ongoing process. Furthermore, psychoanalysis tells us that identities are fictitious as a result of a series of misrecognitions of the self as coherent, whole, and independent. In his re-reading of Freud from a linguistic perspective, Jacques Lacan argued that the unconscious was structured like a language and that individuals are subject to the infinite play of meaning as well as psychic drives and desires.

Critical intercultural communication scholars incorporated these ideas to show that identity was a struggle over unstable meaning making (signification), conceptualized as multiplicitous, fluid, and unfinished (Mendoza, Halualani, & Drzewiecka, 2002). They investigate how marginalized groups resist dominant categorizations and struggle over collective identities as well as how dominant groups reshape their identities to maintain their power and privilege (such as white identity).

Scholars show how identities are formed through discursive regimes as well as material relations. McKinnon (2008), for example, showed that a refugee was a subject position constructed by discourses of immigration legislation, refugee policies, war politics, and institutional practices. These discourses disciplined refugees from Sudan as either “proper subjects” who complied with the prescribed rules and expectations placed on them, or “improper” or “suspicious” subjects that had to be disciplined. The individual refugees and immigrants accepted some of the dominant definitions and rules, even those that were racist, thereby reinforcing dominant ideologies while also challenging and resisting some of them. Both compliance and resistance were shaped by concrete material situations such as work, leisure, shopping, police stops, and driving. Halualani (2008) demonstrated that global and local labor structures articulate with cultural meanings to shape how groups claim “natural” and diasporic cultural identities. According to Shi (2008), such material-symbolic articulations discipline immigrants as a labor force and align them with some groups and against others, thus shaping how and where they are incorporated. Incorporation of immigrants is predicated on their value to the nation, and Morrissey (2015) shows how some immigrants claim their citizenship through narratives that reinforce racial, sexual, and class hierarchies that position some bodies as more valuable than others. Such narratives of material self-worth imbue the nation with value and protect whiteness.

The materiality of identity is also addressed by work focusing on the body. Sekimoto (2012) offers a multimodal framework for identity that combines embodiment, spatiality, and temporality to highlight not only the symbolic construction of identity but also its embodiment and situated experience and performance. The author calls attention to the corporeal materiality as constituted through ideologies, spacial relations, and intersecting temporalities. For Chávez (2009), the body is a text that is translated by dominant discourses. Such translations are underwritten by different values and invite different interpretations. While the author presents translations that position Mexican immigrants as the other, the notion of translation holds out a possibility of translating differently.6

Critical scholars also examine intersectionality—how identities are constructed at the shifting intersection of multiple categories that interpellate us in given contexts. Ansari (2008) writes, “By questioning the authentic insider, we challenge the very foundations of consent to imperialism” (p. 63). Citing Judith Butler and Gilles Deleuze, Warren (2008) describes ontology in terms of the repetition of difference, a transformative and fluid state, characterized by unique repetitive acts, which disappear after their occurrence. These acts change and adapt in memory through processes of interpretation. As such, Warren critiqued scholarship that either theorized difference as all the same or as separating out particular forms of cultural identification, such as race or gender. What is lacking from such conceptualizations is the ways in which these various forms of difference work collectively and function distinctly in the realm of communication. He also asked why difference tends to be framed as negative, rather than affirmed, such as “you’re special and so am I.” Even as critical theorists attempt to identify and label patterns, they can effectually overlook nuanced and complex micropatterned contradictions constituted by non-summative intersectionality and thus impede their efficacy in disrupting hegemonic operations of privilege and oppression. Martin and Nakayama (1999) also expressed these concerns, critiquing the tendency to overemphasize group differences in traditional intercultural communication research and thus establishing false dichotomies.

Critical approaches assume no “real” identity but only the ways that individuals negotiate these relations within larger discursive frameworks. Cultural identity does not function as an innocuous form of categorization but is deployed strategically as a means of territorialization. “Our identities are both reflective and constitutive of certain systems of oppression” (Carbado, 2002, p. 222). At times, it is advantageous to assert one’s identity, while at other times its concealment is imperative. Both ascribed and avowed cultural labels are projects in which individuals position themselves in ways that discursively elevate their statuses (Mendoza et al., 2002), translating their political centrality vis-à-vis manipulation of the discursive realm to secure symbolic and material privilege (Drzewiecka & Steyn, 2009; Flores, Moon, & Nakayama, 2006). This discursive maneuvering reflects the complex configurations of intercultural interaction: for example, individuals pivot to and away from race as they both invoke it and deny it to advance their goals (Halualani et al., 2006). Identity categories can also be tactically remade through disidentification employed by US undocumented youth who take up a queer strategy of dissidentification with US citizenship, as defined by whiteness and heterosexuality, and with the category of migrant (Morrissey, 2013). Although the radical strategies did not necessarily lead to radical results, the youth did forge new coalitions and identity categories that demonstrate possibilities of new structures of inclusion.

Coalitional politics and intersectionality of identity trajectories is at the center of an area of research focusing on queer identity and experiences (Chávez, 2013; Yep, 2013). This work aims to bring the marginalized experiences of LGBTQ individuals to intercultural communication and forge a more complex understanding of how such identities intersect with racial, national, and immigrant social positions. Scholars center the body as a site of experience and knowledge and are concerned with understanding how power works differentially through multiple positionalities to subjugate as well as what modes of resistance are possible (Chávez, 2009; Yep, 2013). For example, Abdi and Gilder (2016) describe the experiences of cultural isolation and homosexual identity delegitimization faced by queer Iranian American women who thereby experience multiple exclusions. The women in the study chose to distance themselves from the Iranian American community and seek support from individuals in other communities. The strategy of disidentification perhaps offers a more radical resistance potential as it enables individual and/or group survival and affirmation within dominant structures as well politicizes identity categories (Eguchi & Asante, 2016). As Eguchi and Asante (2016) show, disidentification is an embodied performance that strategically oscillates between resistance and assimilation. Resistance raises a question of agency.


Poststructuralism rejected the concept of an autonomous subject and thus complicated the question of agency. Agency is not simply a capacity to act in ways that either reproduce or dismantle dominant structures. Rather, agency is discursive and agents articulate discourses and meanings that precede them and are constrained by structures and conditions that reproduce dominant values. In their dialectical response to Foss, Waters, and Armada (2007), Gunn and Cloud (2010) critique the notion that agency, or “agentic orientation,” can be enacted regardless of material and structural conditions, thus overvaluing individualism and autonomy and resulting in complacency, infantilism, and arrogance. Yet, agency is performative as it involves a repetition of a certain repertoire of actions, as demonstrated by Enck-Wanzer (2011). The author studied spaces of Nuyorican diasporic agency such as gardens, painted murals, woven flags, and casitas in New York. These were sites of creative expression that marked off the neighborhood as a safe space for a marginalized community. They challenged marginalizing and stereotypical representations of Latinos and Latinas and thus enacted agency. In summary, critical and cultural communication scholars have disrupted the tendency to situate cultural difference within a container, rather than as a site of contestation that cannot be divorced from historical and power relations.


Critical intercultural scholars study race as a multiply articulated identity position as well as a rhetoric and ideology. The concept of articulation, particularly as applied to race by Stuart Hall, has been instructive. Hall argued that race was a modality articulated through linking of various discursive meanings and material conditions within structures of domination and subordination. This means that race is not a neutral stable category but is a “floating signifier” whose social meanings and effects are contingent upon contextual power struggles. Accordingly, scholars aim to unmask, decentralize, and dislodge power structures that maintain and enact the fiction of race towards material effects. The field has been shaped by race scholars calling attention to the symbolic and structural construction of race (Gandy, 1998), located within the historical forces of conquest, enslavement, colonization, and globalization that submerge differences into aggregate classifications (Rosenblum & Travis, 2007). As Winant (2001) charged, “To identify human beings by their race, to inscribe race upon their bodies, was to locate them, to subject them, in the emerging world order” (p. 30). And yet, dominant discourses of race7 privilege individual identity, thereby obfuscating how race is embedded into political, economic, cultural, educational, and media structures (Wander, Martin, & Nakayama, 1999). Furthermore, while contemporary issues of race and racism are often framed within a post-race, post-Obama narrative, race continues to persist as an ideological force, because of its taken-for-granted status. Contemporary critical scholars analyze discourses of race within this milieu. Chen, Simmons, and Kang (2015), for example, have coined the term “multicultural/multiracial Obama-ism,” to reflect the false consciousness of racial equality (and the irrelevance of race) constituted by tokenized success stories of people of color and their telltale pillars of meritocracy, individualism, and universalism. Morrissey and Sims (2015) add transcendence, scientific reason, and heteronormativity to these discourses that circulate in a US “post-racial” society. Holling, Moon, and Nevis (2014) have examined the ways individuals use racializing apologia to address situations when one is accused of making racist comments, using rhetorical strategies that conceal whiteness and perpetuate microagressions. Carrillo Rowe (2011) analogizes contemporary racism as an autoimmune disorder that can even co-opt the cells of antiracism for its proliferation, in which queer theory and feminism can also be employed in the reification of racist exclusion: “The forms of resistance we invent to remedy it-the strategies we mobilize, and the theories we produce-can also become the very stuff of its retrenchment” (p. 379).

The conceptualization of race as a social construction lends insight into how race as a structure can both (re)animate, (re)contextualize, and (re)inscribe dominant positions, while simultaneously proffer ground for subaltern subversion. Although race is fluid, its seemingly new forms recycle old stereotypes and thus maintain racism. Representations of black masculinity in popular culture, particularly film and music videos, renew Jim Crow stereotypes (Balaji, 2009). Black performers are often complicit in reproduction of stereotypes such as “thug” or “playa.” But, as Balaji argues, some rap music videos offer competing images and sites of resistance to viewers who have knowledge to decode them as such. Studies of digital gaming point to their reanimating Western imperial mythologies and reinscribing racist dichotomies (Everett, 2009; Nakamura, 2009). Characters are marked as the other, often as a way to differentiate the game for marketing advantage, in space where “white masculinity remains gaming’s predominant ego ideal or avatar of the realm” (Everett, 2009, p. 129). The plasticity of race is made particularly apparent in digital environments where race is not physically marked, and yet the players inscribe coded racist features to other players performing tasks that are low and undesirable in the gaming hierarchy (Nakamura, 2009). Such features are reproduced in player-produced content, where they are coded in ways that avoid explicit references to race and thus maintain the logic of racism denial.

Much critical communication research on race focuses on whiteness. It highlights the role of invisibility in the (re)production of whiteness as a strategic rhetoric (Nakayama & Krizek, 1995) and contends that it is precisely through its unmarked, invisible status that its harmful manifestations are (re)produced. Studies show how whiteness is re-centered and normalized in popular culture including reality TV shows (Dubrofsky, 2006; Hasinoff, 2008), baseball (Butterworth, 2007), basketball (de B’béri & Hogarth, 2009), news coverage of domestic violence by black athletes (Enck-Wanzer, 2009), and virtual worlds (Nakamura, 2009). However, recent work has problematized the notion that whiteness is invisible. Hess (2005) and Watts (2005) show that whiteness, embodied in representations by white hip-hop performers, strategically moves between visibility and invisibility to claim specific injury and darkness to regenerate itself, all the while reinforcing essentialism and discrediting and disempowering blackness. Yet, whiteness cannot be conflated with “white bodies” but is subject to contested negotiation between and among “groups” (Carrillo Rowe & Malhotra, 2006). Morrissey (2015), for example, discusses some of the ways in which migrants invest and protect whiteness, devaluing people of color in the process, informed by and in service of neoliberalism and postracial citizenship. Whiteness is an ideology that desires to be seen as an object but insists on remaining invisible as a subject (Chidester, 2008), which requires systematic, targeted, and imaginative work (de B’béri & Hogarth’s, 2009). Strategic whiteness is utilized to secure white supremacy through perpetuation of postracial ideology, normalization of whiteness, and redemption of white racists at the expense of people of color (Griffin, 2015). While whiteness’ invisibiliy requires sustained efforts by white people, making whiteness visible neither decenters nor disempowers it (Endres & Gould, 2009). The centrality of invisibility has been has been a result of US-centric research that has neglected how whiteness exercises its domination from the position of visibility in other contexts, such as South Africa (Steyn, 2002, 2005).

However, the social constructionist approach is insufficient as it cannot effectively challenge the logic of racelessness, which claims that race has been deconstructed (Flores, Moon, & Nakayama, 2006; Halualani et al., 2006; Chow-White, 2009). As Martin and Nakayama (2006) argue, “Race is a social construction, but has a very real material impact on our everyday lives. It is a fiction, but it is real” (p. 76). Increasingly scholars have shown that whiteness, and race more generally, is entrenched within “a set of relational processes that secure privileges of power through property, spatial relations, political means, and economic practices” and are reinforced through white pedagogies (Willink, 2008, p. 65). Socioeconomic structures shape who can speak about race and how they speak about it (Collier, 2005). Material structures also shape how immigrants are incorporated into whiteness. In South Africa, Polish immigrants who had a high economic and professional standing were afforded the privileges of whiteness unlike in the United States, where they occupy a position of inferior whiteness (Drzewiecka & Steyn, 2012). Space has been particularly historically important to the construction of race and race relations. Hoops (2014) showed that while white farmers in a small rural town denied explicit racist segregation, they constructed their town in ways that belied persistent racial exclusion. The farmers’ interpretations of spatial segregation and marginalization of Mexican migrant farm workers reinforced colorblindness, naturalized labor subordination, and reaffirmed white identity.

Therefore, a critical component of this research’s axiology is how to challenge white privilege. One approach seeks to illuminate and bring to consciousness the functioning of whiteness, so that its destructive implications may be challenged toward the aim of emancipation. Another approach presents whiteness as an inherently evil and oppressive force. Illumination is not sufficient from this perspective, but whiteness must be completely vanquished. The problem with this approach, as Flores and Moon (2002) contend, is that it re-inscribes and re-centers whiteness as fixed and stable, rather than comprising varied, fluid, dynamic, and contradictory discursive elements. Thus, while whiteness can never be abolished, it can be transformed into accountable social justice, resisting the immobilizing effects of guilt and the disenfranchising effects of co-optation.


Ethnicity is a more problematic and ambivalent concept than race because it offers a possibility of ignoring, eliding, or even denying questions of racism. “Race” directly evokes the analytical category of racism and thus focuses attention on questions of domination and subordination. Ethnicity allows side-stepping of questions of inequality and discrimination by offering a celebratory “we are all ethnics” diversity and multiculturalism while simultaneously positing exclusionary biological links between roots and nationhood. Hall (1996) exhorted scholars to deconstruct equivalences between ethnicity, nationalism, imperialism, racism and the state that serve as “points of attachment” for constructions of exclusionary identities in dominant discourses (p. 5). But he also recognized that ethnicity is an important element of identity that describes each person’s particular location, history, experience, and culture. Critical intercultural scholars focus on understanding multiple articulations of processes and modes of construction of ethnicity and relations between ethnicity and race. Ethnicity is understood as an interstitial and contingent formation subject to changing relations and material structures.

While most critical work on ethnicity focuses on media, Halualani pioneered critical approaches to ethnicity as a mode of agency and structural constraint. Her (2008) work on Hawaiian and Tongan identities offered a conceptualization of ethnicity as formed by structures and cultural enactments. Structures include governmental categories, legal definitions, and official histories shaping ethnicity at a macro level. Cultural enactments are how people talk about and define their identities, their daily practices, and interactions with others, which might align with, resist, or negotiate those structural forces. She shows that native Hawaiians employed the trope of blood to define their identity as “true” Hawaiians and thereby appeared to enact government categories that make social services, benefits, and access to land contingent upon blood quantum. She turns to archives and historical discourses, media representations, legislative documents, and legal cases to analyze the field of forces acting on Hawaiian ethnicity at the macro level. In this larger historical context, the blood talk is a strategic resignification of and resistance to the governmental categories. Thus, while ethnicity is constrained structurally, it is also enacted by agents who rearticulate meanings within a particular discursive horizon. This work demonstrates a cultural studies approach that requires deep deconstructive reading not only of interview data but other materials to build a complex understanding of multiple power lines shaping identity claims.

Critical media scholars demonstrate how ethnic representations slightly rearticulate long-standing tropes of difference to package ethnicity for viewing pleasure, thereby reaffirming whiteness. For example, Latinidad has been constructed as a pan-ethnic identity through tropicalization by stereotypical tropes and motifs that appeal to white viewers. Lindenfeld (2007) shows how ethnic foodie movies, such as Tortilla Soup, function as neocolonial discourses that position white viewers as cultural tourists gazing at ethnic others and absolve them from considering social inequalities or coming into actual contact with ethnic others. Tortilla Soup presents Mexican Americans as middle-class, educated, and successful and thus counters negative representations of Mexicans as illegal (im)migrants. But it whitens them to approximate middle-class values, thus assimilating ethnic difference. The emerging representation homogenizes Latinidad as assimilated and thus innocuous—but just exotic enough to be desirable. Such safe exoticizing was also accomplished by the film Frida and was reproduced by Spanish-language media that celebrated the film as a success and affirmation of Latinas and Latinos (Molina Guzmán, 2006). Exoticizing in media works through dialectical categories of visibility that inspire simultaneous desire of and repulsion from ethnically marked bodies (Sastre, 2014). These categories work through the articulation of the discursive and the aesthetic that shape the performance of ethnicity and how it is received.

Thinking of ethnicity through the concept of performativity enables us to address how it is not only a constructed identity but maintained through repeated and socially sanctioned acts that cite and reenact long-standing tropes. For example, Sastre (2014) showed tropes of minstrelsy and racial fetishism in the performances of participants on the reality TV show Jersey Shore as “authentic“ Italian Americans. Affect, a state of being that can be potentialized as different emotions that affect us to take up communicative stances, plays a key role shaping authenticity of ethnic identity performances. The interlacing of aesthetic, discursive, and affective elements brings us to the inescapable implications of biologizing, or the “reverberances of raciality,” in Latinidad (Calafell & Moreman, 2010, p. 400) and Italian Americanness (Sastre, 2014). These authors show that ethnicity and race are closely interconnected, and different shades of brownness are biologically essentialized to position bodies performatively, discursively, and affectively in racial hierarchies, yet the discourse of ethnicity offers plausible deniability of racism.

Audience research demonstrates that media consumption is a site of negotiation of multiple, fluid, and hybrid ethnic identities. Viewers claiming the same ethnic label invoke exclusionary claims to both biological distinctiveness and open and fluid ethnic configurations (Molina Guzmán, 2006). Such range of ethnic identifications was enacted by geographically dispersed viewers of Frida. Although some viewers accepted reading positions offered by the film, others rejected or negotiated them in complex ways. Similarly, Durham (2004) showed that Indian diasporic girls rejected reading positions offered by US American and Indian texts and instead forged new hybrid identity positions. Such identities are grounded in recognition of both heritage and hybridization in present cultural contexts. They also emerge from complex negotiations of gender and sexuality.


Diaspora addresses increasingly frequent conditions of displacement and connections to multiple places that result in complex identifications. Initially, the concept referred to conditions of forced exile, engagement in political action on behalf of the homeland, maintenance of separate identity and desires to return home. More recently, scholars redefined diaspora as denoting a degree of consciousness and memory of earlier home(s) from a position of embeddedness in their current homes. Furthermore, diasporic formations vary depending on the variety of conditions that prompt people to move and maintain links with their former homes, such as violence, slavery, political repression, internal displacement of indigenous groups, and scarcity of labor; this creates different types of diaspora (Cohen, 1997). A key contention among scholars is whether diaspora necessarily implies fluid and multiple identities that challenge the centrality of the nation-state and significance of borders or whether diasporas are (also) constituted through and legitimate primordial ethnic appeals that reinforce essentialist national belonging and support the nation-state. Although communication scholars demonstrate that both fluid and fixed identities are enacted in diasporic contexts, they predominantly focus on ethnically and nationally defined diasporic groups. A majority of studies focus on media, particularly new media, that enable long-distance connections and engagement across borders.

Diasporas are dialectical formations shaped by converging structural and cultural forces (Drzewiecka & Halualani, 2002; Kinefuchi, 2010) as well as universalistic and particularistic dimensions (Georgiou, 2005). The structural forces include the nation-state, the global economy, postcolonial/neo-colonial relations, and media production and distribution networks that shape links with the homeland. Individuals have to contend with these structures in their daily practices, including media consumption, political activism, long-distance family relations, and identifications. Diasporic groups also appeal to universalistic values of democracy, human rights, and communication as they enact claims and rights to their cultural particularity in their current homes (Georgiou, 2005). These dialectics highlight the operations of power in and through diasporas.

The politics of recently departed or historic homes are a force shaping the actions of many diasporas, although the relations are often ambivalent and the actions divergent. Some diasporas attempt to influence the internal processes of their old homes, while others attempt to change the relations of their current home toward the old homes. Zimbabwean diasporas in Europe have engaged in variety of actions contesting the government of president Robert Mugabe, including street protests and humorous political cartoons (Kuhlmann, 2012). Diaspora activists used their new media skills during the Arab Spring and the Syrian conflict (Andén-Papadopoulos & Pantii, 2013). The Syrian diaspora was a key element of the “professionalisation” of the Syrian revolution as it provided access to their home country when Western journalists could not enter. The diaspora activists spread information through blogs and citizen-produced news content that was broadcast by Western media. Their actions reshaped the information structure as the bridges between social and mainstream media enabled new avenues for verification and distribution. During the Arab Spring, the most active blogs were written in English by Iraqi expatriates, with those from the US making the second highest number of posts (Al-Rawi, 2014).

Diasporas are also defined through struggles for rights across borders. Nigerians abroad created and connected on Ninjanet where they launched opposition to the Nigerian government (Everett, 2009). They also battled against the colonialist legacy, fragmenting different ethnic groups by envisioning a new Africanity. Such struggles often reveal internal fractures by differences in identity, order, reasons for departure, political views, and relations to the homeland. Anyanwu (2005) argues that it is important to distinguish between the first order and second order African diaspora. The first order is linked to the Western invasion and slavery. The more recent second order was mobilized by postcolonial political and economic hardships that reached different destination countries. The focus on the first order leaves out the African diaspora in places such as Australia and limits understanding of global dynamics. While arguing that the interstitial relations between the diaspora and home can be productive to groups’ struggles toward decolonization and indigenization, Mendoza (2002) argues that each occupies a different discursive location and thus their resistance of legacies of colonialism must necessarily be relationally translated through the different contextual demands. The Chinese diaspora provides an example of political fragmentation as some of its communities in the US supported China’s growing power, while dissidents campaigned against the government’s repression and violations of human rights (Li, 2012). The Zimbabwean diaspora is divided by race, ethnicity, gender, class, and sexuality, which shapes its opposition to the Mugabe government (Kuhlmann, 2012).

Scholars have shown that diasporic groups advance fluid and open, as well as primordial, fixed, and exclusionary claims to belonging. Groups may switch between such claims depending on the context or issues involved. A study of a Chinese diaspora forum showed that Chinese migrants presented multiple identities, challenging the singularity of the Han identity linked to dominant and state-sanctioned notions of national purity (Chan, 2005). Yet, they switched and enacted such closed and exclusionary conceptions when discussing confrontations between the Chinese government and international actors. On the defensive, they acted out fantasies of empire and presented a unified and exclusionary front. Paying attention to the multiple diasporic sites demonstrates that there are both similarities and differences in identity articulations forged in struggles between structural forces and agency (Kinefuchi, 2010). As Kinefuchi (2010) further shows, the Nikkei diaspora was similarly represented by receiving societies revealing a global repression of Japanese diasporic identity. Although some in the diasporas reproduce a frozen temporality and spatiality of home, others challenge social roles and boundaries. Indian female rapper Hard Kaur claims blackness, Indianness, and a Sikh identity while asserting herself as a Desi woman and thus dismantles divisions of gender, class, ethnicity, and race (Dattatreyan, 2015). Hard Kaur’s texts and visual aesthetics produce a diasporic borderless India that is more Western than the West.

Media, traditional and new, play a significant role in encouraging and maintaining connectivities and solidarities across borders, contesting geographically bound notions of culture (Budarick, 2014). Diasporic media chronicle the life of the community and are “productive of and sensitive to the ambiguity, ambivalence, and anxiety that often mark the diasporic consciousness” (Sun, 2006, p. 12). Diasporic media serve the economic activities of the diaspora, earning advertising dollars from niche businesses. For example, Chinese diaspora has been based in trade, and the expansion of Chinese media networks preceded global conglomerates, as part of the expansion and accumulation of Chinese capitalism. Diasporic media are close to the community and encourage global solidarities as exemplified by reactions to the assaults against the Chinese community in Indonesia in 1998 (Sun, 2006).

Entertainment media engage viewers through films, music, and online games that deliver cultural group representations that may not be available in local media. This helps groups cope with dislocation and exclusion in their new homes whether they have had a direct experience of living in the homeland or not. Media reception also encourages collective remembering of cultural heritage. However, media reception is often a site of struggle over shared meanings, experiences, and heritage. The film Slumdog Millionaire evoked widely divergent reactions of diaspora Indians (Bardhan, 2011). Some viewers embraced the film as a challenge to nationalist ideologies of success propagated by Bollywood and questioned perceptions of class struggles in India. Others contested that not all Indians were poor and accused the film of distorting perceptions of Indian life. The prolific Bollywood productions are popular among the Indian diaspora, but their reception is complex (Ram, 2014). Ram (2014) showed that women drew meanings from films that resisted identity categories imposed on them in their current homes. They also complied with and resisted national myths or patriarchal gender norms presented in these films. Nevertheless, consumption of Bollywood products plays an important role in maintaining connections and remembering, if also remaking, the cultural heritage. Such is also the case with Nollywood productions that have received less attention even though the Nigerian movie industry is third after Bollywood and Hollywood in the number of produced films. Nollywood products are available in rudimentary forms such as CDs burned to order in African grocery stores (Krings & Okome, 2013).

Informal or illegal distribution networks play a role equal to homeland production in making media products available and shaping consumption. An analysis of media consumption patterns by the Moroccan and Indian diasporas in Antwerp, Belgium, revealed multilevel power structures of producers, distributors, exhibitors, social workers, and programming managers that shaped distinct diasporic film cultures (Smets et al., 2013). The Moroccan diaspora relied on informal distribution networks and showed weaker penetration by homeland productions. The Indian diaspora had access to Bollywood production through large companies. The authors argue that patterns of film circulation redefine the relationship between the homeland and the diaspora.

While media scholars contend that diasporic identities are defined through connectivities and cross-border solidarities (Budarick, 2014), most focus their studies on ethnically defined populations dispersed from a nation-state. However, some do address intersections of multiple identities. For example, online spaces provide sites for expression and negotiation of ethnic and sexual identities. This empowered queer Indian people to not only connect with others but also to resist racism (Mitra & Gajjala, 2008). Intersectionality of race, culture, and gender has generated a productive line of inquiry. Everett (2009), for example, denoted struggles around gender discrimination in the Nigerian diaspora who also fought against racism in their new home (United States) and colonialism in their historic home. The migration of young, affluent, and educated women from South Korea, Japan, and China also created a new knowledge diaspora and produced new modes of identity (Kim, 2011).

The burgeoning social media platforms in recent years have provided new tools for enabling synchronous sharing of experience and bonding across boundaries, community building, and enacting solidarities. They offer spaces for narrations of identity and struggles about who belongs and who does not. As Everett (2009) demonstrates, African immigrants were among the earlier adopters of new communication technologies, creating a black public sphere where they forged African diasporic consciousness through activism against discrimination. Online activism facilitated offline action. The widely successful grassroots One Million Woman March in Philadelphia in 1997 was organized through the Internet (Everett, 2009). Nevertheless, the march received scant media coverage, underscoring the invisibility of the black diaspora—particularly the female black diaspora—in the mainstream media. As these studies show, old and new media play a central role in the formation of diasporic identities and communities. They also provide important avenues for enactment of power. This will continue to be a growing area of research.


A critical perspective on culture and communication is not a unitary endeavor, diverse in its theoretical and methodological approach, albeit sharing a general understanding of culture as illusory, ideological, problematic, and contested. Characterizations of culture from a critical perspective have been shaped by the contributions of poststructuralism, cultural studies, postcolonialism, globalization studies, and critical discourse theory. Specific focal points for critical and cultural communication researchers of the past 25 years, and presumably the next 25 years, will be ideology, identity, race, ethnicity, hybridity, agency, intersectionality, diaspora, technology, ethics, and the symbolic-material dialectic. This area is constantly developing and new strands of research have emerged, such as social media (Cisneros & Nakayama, 2015), memory (Drzewiecka, Ehrenhaus, & Owen, 2016), ecology (Mendoza & Kinefuchi, 2016), and many others that could not be included here due to space limitations. For scholars operating from the critical perspective, there will most likely be a continued expectation of self-reflexivity and activism, challenging essentialist and unproblematized articulations of culture, for the purposes of “re-imagin(ing) intercultural communication as a site of democratic participation, intervention and transformation in the context of globalization” (Sorrells, 2013, p. 184).

Further Reading

Asante, M. K. (1987). The Afrocentric idea. Philadelphia: Temple Univ. Press.Find this resource:

Cisneros, J. D., & Nakayama, T. K. (2015). New media, old racisms: Twitter, Miss America, and cultural logics of race. Journal of International and Intercultural Communication, 8, 108–127.Find this resource:

Collier, M. J., Hegde, R., Lee, W., Nakayama, T. K., & Yep, G. (2002). Dialogue on the edges: Ferment in communication and culture. In M. J. Collier (Ed.), International and intercultural communication annual, volume XXIV, Transforming communication about culture: Critical new directions (pp. 219–281). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.Find this resource:

Drzewiecka, J. A., Ehrenhaus, P. & Owen, A. S. (2016). Memory, culture and difference: Critical reflections. Journal of International and Intercultural Communication, 9, 199–203.Find this resource:

Hall, S. (1980). Encoding, decoding. In S. Hall, D. Hobson, & A. Lowe (Eds.), Culture, media, language (pp. 128–139). London: Hutchinson.Find this resource:

Halualani, R. T., Drzewiecka, J. A., & S. L. Mendoza. (2009). Critical junctures in intercultural communication studies: A review. Review of Communication Journal, 9(1), 17–35.Find this resource:

Mendoza, S. L., & Kinefuchi, E. (2016). Two stories, one vision: A plea for an ecological turn in intercultural communication. Journal of International and Intercultural Communication, 9, 257–294.Find this resource:

Nakayama, T. K., & Halualani, R. T. (2010). The handbook of critical intercultural communication. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.Find this resource:

Sun, W. (2015). Media and communication in the Chinese diaspora: Rethinking transnationalism. New York: Routledge.Find this resource:


Abdi, S. & Van Gilder, B. (2016) Cultural (in)visibility and identity dissonance: Queer Iranian-American women and their negotiation of existence. Journal of International and Intercultural Communication, 9, 69–86.Find this resource:

Al-Rawi, A. (2014). The Arab Spring and online protests in Iraq. International Journal of Communication, 8, 916–942.Find this resource:

Althusser, L. (1971). Ideology and ideological state apparatuses. In L. Althusser (Ed.), Lenin and Philosophy and other essays (pp. 121–176). New York: Monthly Review Press.Find this resource:

Andénan-Papadopoulos, K. & Pantii, M. (2013). The media work of Syrian diaspora: brokering between the protest and mainstream media. International Journal of Communication, 7, 2185–2206.Find this resource:

Ansari, U. (2008). “Should I go and pull her Burqa off?”: Feminist compulsions, insider consent, and a Return to Kandahar. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 25(1), 48–67.Find this resource:

Anyanwu, C. (2005). Virtual mobilisation and virtual African diaspora. Australian Journal of Communication, 32(3), 93–108.Find this resource:

Appadurai, A. (1996). Modernity at large: Cultural dimensions of globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.Find this resource:

Asante, M. K. (1987). The Afrocentric idea. Philadelphia: Temple University.Find this resource:

Asante, M. K. (2002). Intellectual dislocation: Applying analytic Afrocentricity to narratives of identity. Howard Journal of Communications, 13, 97–110.Find this resource:

Asante, M. K., & Miike, Y. (2013). Paradigmatic issues in intercultural communication studies: An Afrocentric-Asiacentric dialogue. China Media Research, 9(3), 1–19.Find this resource:

Bakhtin, M. M. (1984). Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (C. Emerson, Trans. Vol. 8). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.Find this resource:

Balaji, M. (2009). Owning Black masculinity: the intersection of cultural commodification and self-construction in rap music videos. Communication, Culture and Critique, 2, 21–38.Find this resource:

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(1.) For additional discussion, please see the section on “Poststructuralism” in ORE.

(2.) For additional discussion, please see the sections on “Communication and Cultural Studies” and “Hall, Stuart” in ORE.

(3.) For additional discussion, please see the sections on “Antonio Gramsci and Communication” and “Hegemony” in ORE.

(4.) For additional discussion, please see the section on “Globalizing and Changing Culture” in ORE.

(5.) For additional discussion, please see the section on “Cultural Identities” in ORE.

(6.) For additional discussion, please see the sections “Race, Gender, Class, and Sexuality” and “Critical Cultural Approaches to Gender and Sex” in ORE.

(7.) For additional discussion, please see the section on “Discursive Approaches to Race and Racism” in ORE.