This term has been applied to diverse attempts to conceptualize and understand the dynamics of culture. Historically these have involved arguments about the relationship between culture and nature, culture and society (including material social processes), the split between high and low culture, and the interplay between cultural tradition and cultural difference and diversity. Cultural theory has also been marked by an engagement with concepts which have often been taken to cover some of the same ground signified by the notion of culture itself. Prominent here have been the concepts of ideology and consciousness (particularly its collective forms).
The works of Raymond Williams (The Long Revolution, 1961) and E. P. Thompson (The Making of the English Working Class, 1963) have been particularly influential in the development of post-war British cultural theory. Williams's emphasis on culture as a ‘whole way of life’ and Thompson's emphasis on culture as the way in which groups ‘handle’ the raw material of social and material existence opened up new ways of thinking about culture—in particular uncoupling the concept from a narrow literary and aesthetic reference. Both Williams and Thompson studied the lived dimension of culture and the active and collective process of fashioning meaningful ways of life.
The so-called culturalist reading of the term developed by both Thompson and Williams was subsequently challenged by other more obviously structuralist interpretations. These emphasized the external symbolic structures of culture, as embodied in cultural languages and codes, rather than its lived forms. In this formulation culture could be read as a signifying system through which the social world was mapped. The structuralist version of cultural theory was also strongly informed by Louis Althusser's version of Marxism. Althusser offered a reworking of Marxist theories of ideology which gave greater scope to the efficacy of the ideological realm. In particular he emphasized the relative autonomy of the ideological or cultural domain whilst holding on to the principle of the ultimately determining character of economic relations and processes.
The concern to recognize the efficacy of cultural practices in Althusser's writings was further developed within cultural theory by the appropriation of the ideas of Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci's work opened up new ways of conceptualizing the role of culture and cultural practices in class formations and class alliances and, in particular, gave great weight to the role of culture in securing forms of political and moral leadership and authority (hegemony). The influence of Gramsci's ideas was particularly important in helping cultural theory move beyond the impasse created by the tensions between competing culturalist and structuralist perspectives in the 1970s (see, for example, Stuart Hall et al., Policing the Crisis, 1978).
As Gramsci's importance has waned within cultural theory, so that of Michel Foucault has increased. A central thrust of Foucault's influence has been to shape a more discursive understanding of cultural languages and of the interconnection between power and representation (see Sean Nixon, Hard Looks, 1996). Foucault's influence has also been obvious in arguments about the historically specific character of culture and its development as both an object and instrument of government (see L. Grossberg et al. (eds.), Cultural Studies, 1992).