In his handbook Cultural Criticism (1995), Arthur Asa Berger points out that cultural criticism is best understood as an activity rather than a system. In its broadest terms, cultural criticism is the study of culture in all of its forms—literary, political, sociological, economic, moral, and religious. The history of cultural criticism from the nineteenth century to the twenty-first century reveals that the role of the cultural critic has changed radically, in part because the term “culture” has had and continues to have many meanings; it is not possible, therefore, to state with certainty that any two cultural critics who write about poetry will agree on the terms for their analysis or arrive at similar conclusions about a given poem.
For example, cultural critics of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries often employed the term “culture” to mean a sense of refinement and an elevated awareness of the moral or aesthetic dimensions of life. Later exponents of cultural criticism often viewed culture in a more anthropological sense—that is, as the collective behavior of a group—and, hence, displayed interest in revealing the relationship of art, including poetry, to the society that produced it. Many late twentieth century critics saw their primary role as critics of the high culture celebrated by their predecessors. Generally speaking, however, cultural critics employ one or more psychological, political, economic, philosophical, or historical approaches to analyze a poem either as a literary work whose form and content might make it universally accessible and meaningful, or as an artifact of a particular time and place that carries the values of the society in which it was produced.