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What is Culture?


Admission requirements



Culture is everywhere, there isn’t an aspect of daily live that is not fully embedded in cultural constructions and traditions. It allows us to make sense of the world around us by creating meaning. As such, it is all-encompassing and hard to define. The aim of our course is therefore emphatically not to answer the question of definition, nor is it to provide you with a history of the development of culture. Rather, the course will start from the notion that culture creates meaning and allows us to understand ourselves, others and the world in specific, constructed ways. What may seem natural to us, might in fact just be cultural convention, imprinted on us from such an early age that we have come to understand it as natural. In this course we will look at how traditional cultural views on the world, concerning the uses of language, processes of othering, gender etc., have been studied, taken apart and criticized over the last few decades. In doing so, we will deal with several of the major theorists concerned with this process of deconstruction.

Since there is so much to say on the topic, we will necessarily be dealing with a limited selection of perspectives and objects. From the many methods of studying culture (anthropological, archaeological, biological, art historical, sociological etc.) I have selected for this course the framework of Cultural Studies, a relatively recent field of study within Humanities. Furthermore, in order to focus our discussions, we will take four case studies as our starting point in the discussion sessions: the novel Foe by J.M.Coetzee, the artwork Episode III: Enjoy Povery¬ by Renzo Martens, the documentary Paris is burning and the National Museum of Ethnology (Museum Volkenkunde) in Leiden. These will be discussed in light of different theoretical frameworks, allowing us to study the following topics, each tightly linked to major theories in studies on culture and each functioning as a context for the analysis of cultural phenomena:

  • language as construction

  • knowledge/power

  • the death of the author

  • Postcolonialism

  • processes of ‘othering’

  • gender trouble

  • poetics and politics of exhibiting

Course Objectives

Upon completion of the course, students will have acquired:

  • Knowledge of the concept of culture and its various forms and expressions.

  • A firm understanding of the most important theoretical concepts in the field of Cultural Studies.

  • Knowledge of the importance of cultural practice in the construction of identities, cultural markers and ways of understanding the world and each other.

  • Skills in analysing cultural practices and artifacts in light of the studied theories.


Timetables for courses offered at Leiden University College in 2020-2021 will be published on this page of the e-Prospectus.

Mode of instruction

The course will be taught through lectures and seminars, combining introductions on all topics and reading material by the lecturer with group discussions and student presentations on case studies and individual research. Details on the way in which these parts of the course will be converted to online equivalents will be provided at the start of the course.

Assessment Method

30% midterm exam, covering the four recorded lectures

  • written examination with essay questions

  • questions posted on Brightspace a week before deadline

  • submit answers through Brightspace

30% group analysis of assigned cultural artifact

  • instructions posted after introductory session (to allow us to discuss options)

  • final product is a 1500 word group essay, analysing the case study from the four theoretical angles

  • submission as a group through Brightspace

40% final essay

  • 2000 words (excluding bibliography and references)

  • submission through Brightspace

  • for each day of delay 1 point will be deducted from the grade (from A to A- to B+ to B to B- etc.)

NOTE: Students must submit all graded assignments to be able to pass the course.

Reading list

J.M. Coetzee, Foe, 1986 London.

Make sure to buy the English edition (preferably in paper edition, as opposed to a digital edition). Students are advised to read the book before the start of the course (make sure to read a summary of Daniel Defoe’s Robin Crusoe if you are not familiar with that book, since Coetzee’s novel relies heavily on Defoe’s famous story).

Additional texts will be made available at the start of the course.


Courses offered at Leiden University College (LUC) are usually only open to LUC students and LUC exchange students. Leiden University students who participate in one of the university’s Honours tracks or programmes may register for one LUC course, if availability permits. Registration is coordinated by the Education Coordinator,


Dr. Laura Bertens,