The cultural turn in the late 20th century is interpreted as referring to either a substantive shift in society or an analytical shift in academia. The former argues that culture plays a more significant role in advanced societies, which fits with the notion of post-modernity as an historical era in which people "emphasizes the importance of art and culture for education, moral growth, and social criticism and change". The latter is movement within academia to place the concept of culture, and the related notions of meaning, cognition, affect, and symbols at the center of methodological and theoretical focus. Some argue that the analytical shift is endogenous to the substantive shift.
Culture can be defined as "the social process whereby people communicate meanings, make sense of their world, construct their identities, and define their beliefs and values". Or, for Georg Simmel, culture refers to "the cultivation of individuals through the agency of external forms which have been objectified in the course of history". Thus culture can be interpreted on a spectrum from purely individualistic solipsism to objective forms of social organization and interaction.
One of the earliest works in which the term "cultural turn" showed up was Jeffrey C. Alexander's chapter "The New Theoretical Movement" in Neil Smelser's Handbook of Sociology (1988). Alexander, rightly pointed out that the origins of the cultural turn should be traced in the debate of idealism and materialism i.e. Marx and Hegel. Prior to the labeling of the movement, in the 1970s, "foundational works underlying and facilitating the turn to cultural forms of analysis" emerged: Hayden White's Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (1973), Clifford Geertz's The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (1973), Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish (1977), and Pierre Bourdieu's Outline of a Theory of Practice (1977).
While the earlier twentieth century experienced a linguistic turn, mostly brought about by the thought of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Ferdinand de Saussure, the cultural turn of the late twentieth century absorbs those criticisms and adds on.
The cultural turn has helped cultural studies to gain more respect as an academic discipline. With the shift away from high arts the discipline has increased its perceived importance and influence on other disciplines.