Culture and capitalism – what’s going on?

Thursday 30 November 2017

Cultural studies experts are gathering in Wellington to share ideas at a conference about capitalism's impact on contemporary life and forms of expression.

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Last updated: Wednesday 3 August 2022

Cultural Studies experts are gathering in Wellington to share ideas at a conference about capitalism’s impact on contemporary life and forms of expression.

Addressing everything from skateboarding, surfing, reality TV and the marketing of real estate, health food and hair salons to the impact of digital technology on democracy, the Cultures of Capitalism conference sets out to explore how everyday culture informs, influences and can improve our lives.

School of English and Media Studies lecturer Dr Nick Holm says while humanities and social science academics sometimes get knocked for being out of touch, too arcane or theoretical, such allegations are hard to lay on Cultural Studies scholars.

“What’s distinctive about Cultural Studies is that it's engaged with everyday realities – and sees that as essential,” Dr Holm says. His research spans a wide range including humour, advertising, comics and the symbolism of the Kiwi lawn.

The conference focus on how capitalism has shaped contemporary culture – from housing, work, economics, environmental issues, race and gender politics to music, art and sport – reflects mainstream concerns about the causes of social ills, he says. In the context of the 21st century, capitalism, also known as neo-liberalism, is blamed for growing inequality and poverty – even centrist politician Winston Peters talked about the need for capitalism with a more human face following the elections.

The theme also reconnects with the roots of cultural studies, forged in response to concerns about capitalism in 1960s Britain by left-wing economics and political thinkers at the University of Birmingham.

Along with Massey colleagues; Dr Sy Taffel, Dr Pansy Duncan, Dr Ian Huffer and Dr Kevin Veale, and Otago lecturer Dr Holly Randell-Moon, the media studies lecturer is organising the conference on behalf of the Cultural Studies Association of Australasia, from December 6 to 8.

Diverse topics by Australian, New Zealand, European and Asian scholars bring fresh cultural perspectives to numerous, nuanced themes that intersect across disciplines, Dr Holm says.

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Dr Nick Holm

Public debate on capitalism and indigenous culture

A highlight of the three-day event is a public debate on culture and capitalism in the context of New Zealand’s colonial heritage. Panellists will explore how ideas of property and ownership are challenged by indigenous Māori cultural values and practices.

Titled Indigeneity and Capitalism: Negotiating and Challenging Dominant Economies and Ways of Living the debate will host speakers from several universities discussing some of the dominant ways culture ‘has been used to economically govern Indigenous peoples and communities. Panellists include: Professor Helen Moewaka Barnes (Massey University), Garrick Cooper (University of Canterbury), Kassie Hartendorp, and Dr Jessica Hutchings (Tiaho Ltd).

Keynote speakers at the conference include global stars in the field, such as African-American feminist and Distinguished Professor of Sociology Patricia Hill Collins (University of Maryland), Professor Jodi Dean (Hobart and William Smith Colleges, United States) and Professor Jeremy Gilbert (University of East London).

Professor Collins is a social theorist whose research and scholarship have examined issues of race, gender, social class, sexuality and/or nation. Her presentation Long Memory: Black Feminism as Emancipatory Knowledge explores how US Black feminism draws upon the long memory of African American women’s political, social, intellectual and cultural responses to an existential threat to Black lives.

“During slavery and its aftermath, anti-Black racism has been one core feature of US society, ensuring different forms of structural captivity,” she says, noting that “African American women have “confronted different existential challenges with life and death than those facing men”.

Change the world? – you bet

Dr Holm says Cultural Studies is “a way of doing many disciplines, with scholars from business, geography, history, politics, media studies, education, sociology, anthropology etcetera”.

Researchers reject the ‘Ivory Tower’ model of academics as detached from reality and contemporary society. “We really do want to change the world,” he says. “However, it’s not a discipline that is easy to define or sell,” he says. “But it has been the future of humanities for 50 years.”

While Cultural Studies is more developed in Britain, the United States, Canada and Australia, it is available through media studies departments in the New Zealand tertiary sector. Dr Holm credits Massey’s former Vice-Chancellor, former education minister and sociologist, Steve Maharey, as instrumental in fostering the discipline in New Zealand. He launched the first journal for Cultural Studies research in New Zealand, now called Sites.]

Delegates from as far away as Hong Kong, China, Russia, Finland, Germany and India will attend the conference from December 6-8 at Massey University’s Wellington campus. Massey academics from media studies, politics, geography and Spanish will present, along with a number of postgraduate students. 

The free public event on Indigeneity and Capitalism is at 6pm, Thursday, 7 December – Theatrette, Dominion Museum building. For information: