Think of cultural studies as the equivalent to Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory: It may not involve quite as many people drowning in chocolate or turning into giant blueberries, but it's a theoretical theme park where you open the door and you're spoiled sweet for choice.
A couple things that are delicious about cultural studies are that (a) it doesn't have just one theoretical approach, like more traditional forms of literary theory (think: structuralism, New Criticism, etc.), and (b) it doesn't confine itself to one narrow corner of literature or culture. Sure, individual projects may target particular areas, but that's the point. Cultural studies let's you choose what works—like the golden ticket of the theory world.
While cultural studies loves to define itself based on not defining itself as a discipline, it first emerged as a "proper" field of study at the University of Birmingham (the one in England, not Alabama) with the opening of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. This wasn't some big, fancy institute, though: It was set up by a small group of academics who wanted to carry out research that engaged the real world. No, not MTV's oh-so-classy, seemingly never-ending series (though that would totally be fair game). They just didn't want to read dusty old manuscripts all day—they wanted to explore modern life and the social conditions that shaped the production of texts and culture.
Cultural theorists study all sorts of texts and, unlike traditional literary studies, are as comfortable with contemporary culture and pop culture as with classics by Milton, Dickens, and all their dead, white guy friends. The same goes for theory: Cultural theorists go in for what's known in fancy terms as a bricolage approach, which basically means adopting whatever seems useful at the moment.
Cultural studies therefore doesn't have a set template. Instead, you can take your pick from whatever other theoretical school strikes your fancy.
As far as analysis goes, cultural studies isn't just about the author or the structure of the text, but how people consume texts and how texts engage with real life. Because of this, identity and representation are key targets for examination, as are gender, sexuality, race, class, and other areas of marginalization. That is, even as cultural studies can be eclectic and playful, embracing texts of all shapes and forms, it's also interested in cultural politics—how power operates within culture and how power dynamics are reflected in texts.
In a world occupied with the literary canon and long-established disciplines, cultural studies emerged as the academic equivalent of punk: It refused to respect the sacred traditions of academia or to limit itself to conventional texts.
There's been some grumbling from stodgy other disciplines as a result of cultural studies' adolescent rebellion, but in a way, it's only right that this school has continued to attract debate—after all, cultural studies has never tried to be the popular kid of the theory world.
Theory can certainly come across as inaccessible—something for beady-eyed old guys who sit around a wood-paneled room and stroke their beards to try to think of bigger words than each other. But as cultural studies shows, it's not always as detached and stuffy as you might imagine. There's even something for people who don't have any beard at all.
One of the first things you'll notice about cultural studies is that it has a much wider scope than many other academic disciplines. Sometimes it gets slammed for that reason, but it's this diversity that makes cultural studies the punky loner everyone kind of wants but is too intimidated to make friends with.
Cultural studies doesn't just focus on "the classics" but also on popular, non-traditional texts: mainstream fiction, postmodernism, comic books, mass market paperbacks. There's no VIP list where this approach is concerned. For plenty of scholars, beards or no, there's something appealing about a subject that doesn't tell you what texts you "should" be reading.
Because it's not elitist in its approach, cultural studies is a subject area that can relate to everyday life and to texts of all varieties. Far from being a dry academic subject, cultural studies is all about "keeping it real" and seeing texts as part of culture, not as products of some mythical author figure who also probably has a beard. It therefore helps us more deeply explore what we may otherwise not look at twice so that we can re-value literature within given cultural contexts, as well as in our own lives.
Cultural studies sometimes gets a bad rap because of its interdisciplinary approach and the sorts of topics it sees as suitable for analysis (pretty much anything and everything). Think about it: You don't get academics debating whether English literature, history, or psychology have a rightful place in academia. But cultural studies? That doesn't look as sexy on a business card as "Nietzchean philosopher."
Yet cultural studies thrives on its marginal status and relishes the sort of eclectic approach that's often frowned on in traditional academia. It allows theorists to take their pick from all sorts of approaches: psychoanalysis, semiotics, Marxism, postmodernism—just reach in and whatever you snatch is fair game. Likewise, you can still study Shakespeare if you want, but any sort of written (or visual) material can be classed as a text. This is big for the world of theory: You can turn anything into fodder for academic analysis.
But cultural studies isn't just about being eclectic: it also engages political and social themes, including issues relating to identity (such as gender, ethnicity, and sexuality) on an individual and a group basis. It offers a sharp critical lens to examine how power and resistance operate in everyday life, and how meaning and values are created. That's something most theorists are down to jibe with.