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The cultural turn is a movement beginning in the early 1970s among scholars in the humanities and social sciences to make culture the focus of contemporary debates; it also describes a shift in emphasis toward meaning and away from a positivist epistemology. The cultural turn is described in 2005 by Lynette Spillman and Mark D. Jacobs as "one of the most influential trends in the humanities and social sciences in the last generation." A prominent historiographer argues that the cultural turn involved a “wide array of new theoretical impulses coming from fields formerly peripheral to the social sciences,” especially post-structuralism, cultural studies, literary criticism, and various forms of linguistic analysis, which emphasized “the causal and socially constitutive role of cultural processes and systems of signification.”
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.
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