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Stuart Hall, 82; British scholar of multicultural influences

Stuart Hall wrote numerous books, gave frequent speeches, and appeared often on television.

NEW YORK TIMES

Stuart Hall wrote numerous books, gave frequent speeches, and appeared often on television.

NEW YORK — Stuart Hall — a pioneering Jamaican-born British academic who argued that culture is in fact multicultural, not high or low, good or bad, or black or white, but a constantly shifting convergence reflecting the range of people who create and consume it — died Feb. 10 in London. He was 82.

His death was confirmed by his wife, Catherine, a professor of modern British history at University College London, who said he had had kidney disease for many years.

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Division and blending were lifelong themes for Mr. Hall. Born in colonial Jamaica to mixed-race parents who worried that his dark complexion would be an impediment to ascending the island pigmentocracy, he went to Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship to study literature when he was 19. His politics at the time, he later wrote, were “principally anti-imperialist.”

He quickly concluded that he was seeking something there that he could not attain.

“What I realized the moment I got to Oxford was that someone like me could not really be part of it,” he recalled in a 2000 interview. “I mean, I could make a success there. I could even be perhaps accepted into it, but I would never feel it was my place. It’s the summit of something else. It’s distilled Englishness.”

That experience, along with the societal transformations he was witnessing in postwar Britain, prompted him to help create a new academic field: cultural studies, which would explore, as he put it, “the changing ways of life of societies and groups and the networks of meanings which individuals and groups use to make sense of and communicate with one another.”

Setting aside his dissertation on Henry James, he was drawn to an eclectic variety of subjects and the relationships among them: the rising leftist movement in postwar Britain and the softening of the country’s rigid class structure, but also the weakening of the working class, television, youth, civil rights, nuclear disarmament, immigration, feminism and racial diversity. All of it, he concluded, was changing the Englishness he had found alien.

Traditional measures of identity in Britain and elsewhere — “our class position or our national position or our geographical origins or where our grandparents came from,” he said in one of many televised interviews he gave — were losing their relevance, he said, and “I don’t think any one thing any longer will tell us who we are.”

In 1960, he helped found the journal New Left Review. In 1964, he joined Richard Hoggart at the newly founded Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University, considered by many to be the birthplace of the field. By the early 1970s, Mr. Hall was its director.

He became known for developing a theory he called encoding/decoding, which analyzed how those in power spread messages through popular culture and how those who receive the messages interpret them. He moved to the Open University and remained there until he retired in the late 1990s.

Mr. Hall was a very public intellectual: He wrote numerous books, gave frequent speeches, and appeared often on television. He advocated disarmament and objected to British involvement in various military conflicts. He was particularly critical of the conservative social and economic policies of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and he is often given credit for coining a succinct and, when he used it, derogatory term: Thatcherism.

Stuart McPhail Hall was born in Kingston, Jamaica. His parents’ ancestors were English, African, and Indian. Fearing appearances, they prevented him from playing with dark-skinned children.

“I’m the blackest member of my family,” Mr. Hall once recalled. “You know, these mixed families produce children of all colors, and in Jamaica, the question of exactly what shade you were, in colonial Jamaica, that was the most important question. Because you could read off class and education and status from that. I was aware and conscious of that from the very beginning.”

He studied English at Jamaica College before moving to England at a time of rising Caribbean immigration.

In addition to his wife, the former Catherine Barrett, whom he married in 1964, he leaves a daughter; a son; two grandchildren; and a sister.

Cultural studies long ago expanded beyond Britain as a common academic discipline, one with plenty of critics. Some view it as a politically correct assault on Western culture. Others say that, taken to extremes, it regards every element of popular culture as worthy of a doctoral dissertation.

“If I have to read another cultural studies analysis of ‘The Sopranos,’ I give up,” Mr. Hall said. “There’s an awful lot of rubbish around masquerading as cultural studies.”

For him, the discipline was about power and politics and understanding the forces that shape them. Race was one.

“Race is more like a language than it is like the way in which we are biologically constituted,” he said in 1996 .

He was often sought out by black artists and intellectuals. “The Stuart Hall Project,” a documentary by John Akomfrah, was shown at the Sundance Film Festival last year. Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. recently called Mr. Hall “the Du Bois of Britain.”

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