The term “cultural” refers to a system of human behavior, beliefs and values that is learned and passed from one generation to the next. It also refers to the social and environmental context of a person’s life. A person is a member of the culture of the place where he or she is born and raised. Each culture is distinct and has its own language, icons, traditions and customs. Culture is not innate but rather something that is acquired by being exposed to the culture of the environment in which a person is born and brought up, either through family and neighborhood or from outside influences such as television and movies.
The concept of cultural is a product of evolution; it is the outcome of the biological drive toward greater self-preservation and survival. This evolutionary process has resulted in the advance of instinctive behaviour to learnable, freely variable behaviour and to a fully developed system of man-made behavior involving symbols that communicate ideas beyond those immediately accessible through the senses.
Because of this, the study of cultural phenomenon is of great importance to humankind. Cultural studies and the related field of cultural history seek to understand how, in different times and places, people have given meaning to their lives by constructing their own systems of symbols and relating them to a wider system of shared meanings.
In a broader perspective, the development of cultural concepts is closely linked to the progression of civilizations and the growth and development of the human species. A major aspect of cultural studies is to identify what characteristics distinguish one culture from another, and the process of comparing cultures has contributed greatly to our understanding of the diversity that is present in the world’s societies.
New cultural historians have a tendency to draw upon a wide range of disciplines, from archaeology and sociology to linguistics, semiotics, religion, literature and philosophy. They have also embraced many of the insights offered by anthropologists concerning the nature of culture and the process of its development.
Among the most important developments in this broad approach to historical inquiry are the recognition of the significance of semiotics for the interpretation of culture, especially the development of language. This has led to a greater appreciation of the way in which words acquire their meaning through a series of relationships with other words in a system of signification, as formulated by the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure in the nineteenth century.
Other developments have included the recognition of patterns and configurations in the organization of cultural traits. This has allowed for an appreciation of the recurrent features of culture, such as hunting cultures with their distinctive ways of catching game; pastoral or herding cultures with their special tools for grazing sheep and cattle; and, with Clark Wissler’s emphasis on a universal culture pattern, farming and horticulture cultures. Each of these, in turn, has helped to shape the development of new cultural histories.