Cultural studies combines sociology, literary theory, film/video studies, and cultural anthropology to study cultural phenomena in industrial societies. Cultural studies researchers often concentrate on how a particular phenomenon relates to matters of ideology, race, social class, and/or gender.
Cultural studies concerns itself with the meaning and practices of everyday life. Cultural practices comprise the ways people do particular things (such as watching television, or eating out) in a given culture. Particular meanings attach to the ways people in particular cultures do things.
In his book Introducing Cultural Studies, Ziauddin Sardhar lists the following five main characteristics of cultural studies:
- Cultural studies aims to examine its subject matter in terms of cultural practices and their relation to power.
- It has the objective of understanding culture in all its complex forms and of analysing the social and political context in which culture manifests itself.
- It is both the object of study and the location of political criticism and action.
- It attempts to expose and reconcile the division of knowledge, to overcome the split between tacit (cultural knowledge) and objective (universal) forms of knowledge.
- It has a commitment to a moral evaluation of modern society and to a radical line of political action.
In contrast, the American version of cultural studies initially concerned itself more with understanding the subjective and appropriative side of audience reactions to, and uses of, mass culture; American cultural-studies advocates wrote about the liberatory aspects of fandom. See the writings of critics such as John Guillory. The distinction between American and British strands, however, has faded.
Some scholars, especially in early British cultural studies, apply a Marxist model to the field. The main focus of an orthodox Marxist approach concentrates on the production of meaning. This model assumes a mass production of culture and identifies power as residing with those producing cultural artifacts. In a Marxist view, those who control the means of production (the economic base) essentially control a culture.
Other approaches to cultural studies, such as feminist cultural studies and later American developments of the field, distance themselves from this rigidly deterministic view. They criticise the Marxist assumption of a single, dominant meaning, shared by all, for any cultural product. The non-Marxist approaches suggest that different ways of consuming cultural artifacts affect the meaning of the product.
Another major point of criticism involved the traditional view assuming a passive consumer. Other views challenge this, particularly by underlining the different ways people read, receive, and interpret cultural texts. On this view, a consumer can appropriate, actively reject, or challenge the meaning of a product. These different approaches have shifted the focus away from the production of items. Instead, they argue that consumption plays an equally important role, since the way consumers consume a product gives meaning to an item. Some closely link the act of consuming with identity. Stuart Hall has become influential in these developments. Some commentators have described the shift towards meaning as the cultural turn.
In the context of cultural studies, the idea of a text not only includes written language, but also films, photographss, fashion or hairstyles: the texts of cultural studies comprise all the meaningful artifacts of culture. Similarly, the discipline widens the concept of "culture". "Culture" for a cultural studies researcher not only includes the traditional high arts and popular arts, but also everyday meanings and practices. The last two, in fact, have become the main focus of cultural studies.
In a loosely related but separate usage, the phrase cultural studies sometimes serves as a rough synonym for area studies, as a general term referring to the academic study of particular cultures in departments and programs such as Islamic studies, Asian studies, African American studies, African studies, et al..