“Cultural studies” refers to a body of theory in which scholars analyze texts in regard to the political and economic context of their production. The theoretical perspectives generally draw on Marxist ideas about class structure and, more generally, institutionalized inequality. Raymond Williams was one writer whose theories shaped the overall field of cultural studies. His 1977 book, Marxism and Literature, was very influential in making these theories more widely known and becoming accepted as an overall analytical approach.
One of the concepts he developed would be particularly useful for interpreting Tennessee Williams’s play The Glass Menagerie: the idea of “structures of feeling.” The common beliefs that people share at a particular point in history, Raymond Williams argues, are shaped by their historical circumstances, including the material conditions in which they live. In this regard, “feeling” is manifested as an individual, internal sensation but is not fully separable from those conditions.
Because emotion plays a central role in the play, and the Wingfields are bound up in a class-based hierarchy, their situation lends itself to analysis with this concept. The Glass Menagerie is set during the Great Depression, a time when most Americans were struggling to make ends meet.
Amanda Wingfield represents the older generation and the upper class, especially the women. In her youth, it was inappropriate even to think that elite ladies might need employment skills, as a good marriage was the sole expectation for women. As a single mother, she is devastated by her family’s reduced circumstances as much in terms of status as finance. Her unrealistic dreams together with her sentimental memories of her popularity cannot provide a solid base for either of her children’s future.
Tom, Amanda's son, offers a definite contrast as he looks to the future and longs to strike out on his own. He must place his poetic dreams on hold, however, because of commitment to his family and because the economic hard times offer few literary opportunities.
Laura, even more so, is bound by the structures of feeling generated from the Great Depression. Constitutionally unsuited to the career path her mother imagines for her, she is dependent—emotionally even more than materially—on her family. In another era, Tennessee Williams implies, Laura’s different abilities might not have been a hardship for her or the other Wingfields. In Raymond Williams’s way of thinking, the historical and material conditions of her environment shape her possibilities for growth as a person.
You may find useful the eNotes Study Guides to Marxism and Literature and The Glass Menagerie.