Cultural studies is a field that seeks to understand the meaning in the context of practices and customs within a society. It also explores how messages are conveyed through artistic expression and media. Cultural studies is a convergence of numerous subjects in the realm of the humanities and social sciences. By analyzing meaning and the modes of human expression in the context of culture, cultural studies strives to explain social phenomena, particularly with regard to socioeconomic and political climate.
There is a variety of perspectives on how culture is defined. In a broad sense, culture consists of a set of social behaviors and viewpoints that express shared meaning that is communicated through symbolism, language and art. Culture and cultural practices evolve in response to any number of phenomena. Changes in culture reflect how a group adapts to such phenomena, whether they are of a political, economic or environmental nature.
Cultural practices range in complexity from forming a queue to boarding a bus or brushing one's teeth to setting a dinner table or drafting a business letter. By engaging in such practices, individuals identify with other members of a group or society. To fully explore the ramifications of culture and cultural phenomena, cultural studies must draw on the viewpoint of related disciplines.
It has been said that culture does not exist in a vacuum. This is to say that culture is not impervious to the influence of events and phenomena that surround it. Similarly, the field of cultural studies does not exist as an original idea. Rather, it integrates several areas of study that include, but are not limited to, sociology, politics, history, literary criticism, media studies and gender studies.
Being located at an intellectual crossroads, cultural studies has been the subject of criticism and interpretation in the academic community. Some attribute this to the ways in which the institutions that promulgate research and otherwise engage in the study of culture are, themselves, affected by the social and political environment in which they exist. One expert explains this as a distinction between a discipline and a study. The former embodies the subject and the latter embodies exploration of the subject within institutions that are subject to social and political sway.
Cultural studies examines how established modes of communication affect the verbal and non-verbal messages in the political arena. One expert points out that the advent of the World Wide Web and the proliferation of mobile phones has revolutionized the way people communicate and access all manner of information. The shift to portable computers, WiFi-enabled media players and cellular phones from televisions, radios and newspapers illustrates how culture evolves. By recognizing these changes, those in the political arena take greater care with their messages and the meanings they wish to convey.
The feminist movement of the 1970s introduced a new dimension to cultural studies by examining the role of women and of gender as expressed in artistic and literary representations. From a feminist point of view, cultural studies explores practices and social behaviors from the point of view of gender expectations -- in other words, how traditional customs and practices express a culture's attitude toward women. If women are affected unfavorably, cultural studies would ask what manner of cultural change would effect greater equality and opportunity for women.
Cultural studies identifies the messages and meaning behind the treatment and roles of women similar to the way it examines the cultural impact of class and race. The development of capitalism from 18th century mercantilism gradually transformed the world order. Economic classes based on nobility of birth realigned into classes based on a free market system and the competitive provision of goods and services. This resulted in greater opportunity and more room for innovation and invention.
This shift was also marked by the onset of the industrial revolution and the development of communist philosophy. The widening gap between the rich and poor and the accompanying inequities are clear in literature from the period. As is true of any period in history, the abundance of the "haves" and the material constraints on the "have nots" affected behavior and attitudes that contributed to cultural developments both within classes and in societies as a whole. The outcomes of this period and their effect on culture exemplify the subject matter and trends that cultural studies aims to understand and explain.
People and cultures around the world are becoming increasingly interconnected through faster means of transportation, near-universal Internet access and international initiatives to reduce barriers to free trade. Cultural studies will play an important role in explaining the nuances, direction and development of an unprecedented global culture.