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What is Culture?


Admission requirements

Required course(s):



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 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 several case studies as our starting point in the discussion sessions, among which the artwork Episode III: Enjoy Poverty by Renzo Martens, the documentary Paris is burning and the ethnology museum in Leiden (which I hope to visit with you). 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

  • discourse and knowledge/power

  • the death of the author

  • Postcolonialism

  • processes of ‘othering’

  • gender

  • the politics and poetics of museum exhibitions

The topics will be introduced in lectures and will subsequently be discussed using reading material (made available on Blackboard). In doing so, we will gain insight into the importance and pervasiveness of cultural practice.

Course Objectives

Upon completion of the course, students will have:

  • 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 2022-2023 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.

Assessment Method

  • Presentation on assigned literature and self-chosen case study (in pairs) – 20%

  • Exam (short essay questions) – 40%

  • Group analysis on assigned cultural artifact using theoretical frameworks from the course (essay) – 40%

Reading list

Readings will be made available.


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,