Popular Culture Research Paper

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For most of us, popular culture is a source of entertainment. It encapsulates mass media (such as film, television, print media), and includes sports events, advertisements, street fairs, and tourism. We engage with popular culture because we get pleasure from it; at the same time, we are also informed by it. We usually associate information with news rather than with entertainment. But other forms of popular culture that we often associate with ‘mere entertainment’—for instance, tourist practices, popular music, films, sports, and television programs—also inform us in profound ways. For example, the US sitcom, the Cosby Show, may shape our ideas not just of what an ideal family is, but also about the relationship between race and upward mobility; a romance novel might instill in us expectations about intimacy as well as about gender and sexuality. Popular culture plays an important role in shaping our personal and collective identities. It also provides us with an analytic lens to understand sociohistorical processes such as class, gender and sexuality, nationalism, and transnationalism.

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1. What Is Popular Culture?

In the modern world, popular culture is available to what we may call ‘the public’ or to ‘masses’ of people. For this to happen, there have to be established means of production, distribution, and reception. For example, for a soap opera to exist there have to be a crew of script writers, actors, a director, a producer—in other words, a crew of people who work behind the scenes and in front of the camera. There also has to be a means to finance this production: in capitalist societies, soap operas are financed by sponsors who pay for the production and telecast of a soap in exchange for being able to advertise on it. This is how the term ‘soap opera’ originated: soap operas were sponsored originally by manufacturers of detergents. Even today, the manufacturers of detergents and other household goods like washing machines, kitchen appliances, and cleaning agents are key advertisers on soap operas. There also needs to be an infrastructure for its distribution. This is where television networks come in. Very often, television networks are part of larger media conglomerates or groups of companies. Television production is, therefore, part of a larger system of industrial production.

Popular culture presents us with a vantage point on the world: it is a domain that shapes our sense of self or our identity. Not only is it available generally to a large number of people, it also responds to and creates points of identification among large groups within a community or nation. Popular culture plays an important role in constituting and representing the public to itself. It is public in two senses: not only does it circulate widely and is often associated with public exhibition and display, it also configures ‘the public,’ ‘the nation,’ ‘society,’ ‘culture,’ ‘family,’ and other collectivities. From a sociological viewpoint, popular culture is probably the most important influence on the lives of millions. However, it is important to recognize that viewers are not just unthinking targets of popular culture. Rather, in order to understand the cultural significance of popular culture, we need to examine how its consumers respond to, reinterpret, and employ its messages.

Popular culture is a site of struggle between dominant discourses and forces of resistance. It contains ‘points of resistance’ as well as ‘moments of supersession;’ it forms a ‘battlefield where no once-for-all victories are obtained but where there are always strategic positions to be won and lost’ (Hall 1981, p. 233). Mass media may open up a ‘zone of debate’ about issues current in a given community (Gupta 1995). For instance, television shows like the US sitcom ‘Ellen’ enabled the rearticulation of debates around homosexuality. Popular culture, then, does not simply ‘reflect’ the lives and worlds of audiences; nor does it ‘impact’ these worlds or lives in a simple way. Instead, popular cultural texts are social formations in and of themselves.

Our subjectivities are constituted in the process of making sense of the world around us and in our interaction with others. In capitalist and postcapitalist societies, these processes are refracted by mass media. Film, television, popular music, and mass market fiction constitute and represent the public realm in cognitive, moral, and emotional terms. But these representations do not impact us as if we are blank screens—instead, ‘they occupy and rework the interior contradictions of feeling and perception … they do find or clear a space of recognition in those who respond to them’ (Hall 1981, p. 232). Thus, although representations are neither all-powerful nor all-inclusive, they have material effects on how people see themselves and lead their lives.

2. Scholarly Perspectives On Popular Culture

Definitions of popular culture have shifted according to the disciplinary emphases of its students. Historians of early modern Europe (e.g., Peter Burke (1978) and Robert Darnton (1984)) stress how members of different classes created and participated in popular culture and, simultaneously, were shaped and constrained by it. These historians analyze the factors influencing the popular cultures of early modern Europe, chiefly, the rise of cities and the advent of printing. They supplement thematic analyses of books with information about audiences and, thus, aim at providing the context for the meaning and uses of books.

Some of the foundational work on the relationship between capitalism and mass media is Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception (1944). Horkheimer and Adorno focused on how culture and the individual are ‘produced’ by the culture industry. They claimed that the culture industry’s power lies in its ability to disseminate ideas and beliefs on a mass scale. They were concerned about how the management and control of leisure time and the socialization of the ego by the culture industry leads to a ‘mass’ culture that undermines the private realm.

The relationship between modern forms of popular culture and the growth of capitalism is also examined by some cultural studies scholars. Some of the most influential work in this area was produced (and has been influenced by) the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham, UK. These scholars are concerned with how mass media shape dominant ideologies and discourses. Their central project is to examine the relationship between the production and consumption of popular culture and social axes of inequality, such as class, race, and gender. Although cultural studies’ earliest borrowings were from literary criticism, chiefly the work of Raymond Williams and Richard Hoggart, its primary focus has been on practices of everyday life.

The greatest debts of this genre of cultural studies are to Marxist theories of culture. Its basic premise is that cultural production often takes the form of commodities. Other important propositions are: (a) popular culture is inextricably tied up with social relations; (b) popular culture can both enable social groups to define and realize their needs and reproduce asymmetries; and (c) popular culture is a terrain where social differences and struggles are articulated. These concerns reflect the influence of Gramsci on the ideological and popular struggles involved in the construction of common sense. In addition, some cultural studies scholars influenced by Lacanian analyses of film and television reconceptualize ideology in terms of how texts construct subject positions. Others have rethought the role of ideology in popular culture in terms of Foucault’s analyses of discursive practices. Finally, breaking with Horkheimer and Adorno’s assumption of the audience as a passive and undifferentiated mass of receivers, many cultural studies scholars conceive of audiences or consumers who actively ‘decode’ and interpret popular culture texts.

In addition to studying everyday practices, some cultural studies scholars also use semiotic methods of textual analysis. They treat cultural products as ‘texts’ to be ‘read’ according to interpretive strategies, including the literary analysis of narrative, semiology, and deconstruction. These analytical strategies reveal that literary conventions and forms have greater social and cultural significance than we might first suspect. For example, feminists have pointed to the place of fictional representations of romantic love in cultural constructions of femininity. Far from being ‘mere’ literary constructions, these representations play a crucial role in the constitution of dominant practices of gender and sexuality.

Anthropologists bring important theoretical and methodological insights to the study of popular culture because of their commitment to ethnographically analyzing the relationship between popular culture and other social institutions. Initially, mass media was neglected by anthropologists (exceptions include Bateson 1943 and Powdermaker 1950) because it was deemed ‘too redolent of western modernity and cultural imperialism for a field identified with tradition, the non-western and the vitality of the local’ (Ginsburg 1999, p. 297). Since the 1980s, however, many anthropologists have analyzed popular culture by studying mass media. They have examined the cultural implications of popular culture through an ethnographic attention to the everyday practices and lives of producers and/or consumers of media, and have traced how popular culture participates in the formation of identities, collectivities, and imaginaries. Anthropological perspectives underscore that popular culture cannot be generalized across different historical and cultural contexts simply on the basis of the mass media apparatuses. Producers and consumers of mass media are, fundamentally, social and historical subjects and mass media are, primarily, cultural institutions that need to be studied in their concrete particularity. Hence, we cannot conceptualize relationships between popular culture and the social actors who engage its myriad texts in the abstract: neither can be studied outside their location in specific sociohistorical contexts.

Several anthropologists have engaged in analyses of mass media texts. These scholars, together with those who study the reception of mass media, carefully situate popular culture in the discursive and historical contexts in which it is produced and consumed. These studies undermine unilinear models of ‘communication flows,’ and foreground the importance of examining the specific conditions in which popular culture circulates.

3. Popular Culture As A Lens For Studying Other Sociocultural Processes

Popular culture is a terrain where class identities are articulated, negotiated, and consolidated. The production and consumption of popular culture is mediated by class. For example, class provides individuals with ‘cultural constraints’ and a common ‘outer frame of meaning’ (Darnton 1984, pp. 6–7). A mutually influencing relationship exists between elite culture and popular culture. Popular culture also provides a site for the negotiation and articulation of class identities and hegemonies. Thus, in nineteenth-century India, Bengali elites took upon themselves the task of ‘purifying’ popular culture produced by working-class women: while their objective was ostensibly to ‘emancipate’ women of their class, their efforts resulted in the consolidation of their own middle and upper-class identities through the marginalization of working-class popular culture (Bannerjee 1989).

The role of popular culture in mediating discourses of gender and sexuality has long been acknowledged. Two pioneering works in this regard are Laura Mulvey’s Visual Pleasure and Narrati e Cinema (1975) and Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance (1984). Laura Mulvey examined how the cinematic forms and narratives of classic Hollywood film ‘suture’ viewers into ‘spectatorial positions’ that reinscribe dominant ideas about gender and sexuality. Mulvey’s work provided feminist critics of popular culture with a paradigm for examining the role of mass media in the constitution of discourses of gender and sexuality. Janice Radway’s work laid the foundation for studying the role of a specific genre of texts, romance fiction, in the constitution of discourses of gender and sexuality. Radway situated women’s reading practices in their social relationships and everyday lives, and studied their interpretations of different romances in order to analyze what the books mean to their readers.

Since the publication of these works by Mulvey and Radway, the relationship of popular culture to gender and sexuality has been analyzed by scholars too numerous to cite. Some of the most noteworthy studies in this regard, however, come from scholars, chiefly anthropologists, who have examined media in non-Western contexts. These include the analysis of the relationship between popular culture, gender and sexuality in Japan (Allison 1996), and television and notions of modern womanhood in Egypt and India (Abu-Lughod 1993, Mankekar 1999, respectively). The significance of these studies lies in their decentering of Eurocentric perspectives dominant in cultural studies, media studies, and feminist studies.

Some scholars have argued that the conceptualization of popular culture was itself engendered by the emergence of nationalism (Burke 1978). Building on Benedict Anderson’s insights about the role of print capitalism in the construction of nations as imagined communities (1983), several scholars have examined the role of popular culture in the formation of national identity. For instance, diverse forms of popular culture, including tourism, exhibitions, material culture and consumption, have enabled the constitution of the national imaginary in China (Anagnost 1997). In some parts of the developing world, television has been consciously deployed to construct a ‘national community’: in Mexico and Venezuela, indigenous soap operas called telenovelas have combined entertainment with ‘social messages’ about development. In India, state-owned television was harnessed to the explicitly nationalist goals of development and national integration (Mankekar 1999) and, furthermore, participated in the consolidation of an exclusionary and strident Hindu nationalism (Rajagopal 2000).

Yet, at the same time that popular culture enables the constitution of local and national communities, some of its forms are inherently transnational. Thus, the telenovelas described above circulated not only within but across national borders in Latin America, and were adopted as models for the television programs in India. In addition, the transnational circulation of popular culture has resulted in the creation of new forms of diasporic identities. The transnational circulation of newspapers, film, television programs relayed via satellite, advertisements, and mass market fiction have created, what anthropologist Arjun Appadurai terms, ‘mediascapes’ (1996). Mediascapes ‘refer both to the distribution of the electronic capabilities to produce and disseminate information … now available to a growing number of private and public interests throughout the world, and to the images of the world created by these media’ (1996, p. 35).

The boundaries of cultures and nations have thus proved to be permeable to globalized and transnational forms of popular culture. Yet, globalization has not resulted in a homogenization of culture. At different historical moments, globalization has resulted in a recasting of ‘tradition’ and processes of creolization (Hannerz 1996, pp. 67–77). Transnational popular culture thus forces us to revisit previously held notions of culture as bounded and systemic (Appadurai 1996, Gupta and Ferguson 1997).


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