Popular Culture Research Paper

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I. Introduction

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II. The Future is the Past

III. Mass Society Becomes Popular Culture

IV. Contemporary Popular Culture

V. The Heart of the Matter

VI. Conclusion

I. Introduction

Popular culture is a malleable concept. It can be thought of as folk culture produced by people as an expression of their values and modes of existence, and it can be the opposite, an ideologically laden product imposed by an elite class in a display of power and social control. Popular culture can be an ordinary part of everyday life as well as a site of intellectual and political struggle. It can be a participatory form within a community (actual or virtual) that engages the most populous mainstream in society, and it can be a mode of entertainment— an almost universal feature of most known societies. Wall painting, body decorating, singing, and gladiatorial sports from the ancient world can all be regarded as forms of popular culture, as can Rembrandt’s cottage industry products and Shakespeare’s seventeenth-century theater. Items for inclusion in the category of popular culture are now so diverse that no single definition contains them. Thus, popular culture refers to any demotic form that appeals to the populace at large, and as such, it can function as a social bond and folk culture that is expressive of the people. In its early form, from the sixteenth century, the popular also implied the lowly, vulgar, and common (Storey 2005:262). Popular culture can simultaneously refer as well to a mass media dedicated to spreading propaganda and political repression. In the modern era of industrial capitalism, it is an element in a vast commercial enterprise that both co-opts forms of rebellion and sustains an intellectual, creative class that might also be opposing it. When Andy Warhol declared that modern art is “what you can get away with,” he demonstrated the frangibility of the boundaries around art; in much the same way, the products of popular culture now exert similar category pressures, bringing emphasis to the problem of representation in the popular mainstream, of who is being addressed by the products, and who is the populace in popular.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the range of phenomena potentially covered by the term popular culture is such that its study is necessarily interdisciplinary and of interest not just to sociologists but also to a variety of area specialists in fields such as American studies (from which the Journal of Popular Culture has its origins), anthropologists, historians, and literary scholars. It has also generated new academic disciplines, including cultural studies, leisure studies, media and communication studies, and youth studies. It has been a focus of research and teaching in gender studies, where the question of how femininity and masculinity are socially and culturally constituted gives priority to issues of representation and everyday cultural practice. The coexistence of these new research and teaching disciplines with the older subfields in sociology from which some of them, at least in part, emerged (e.g., sociology of popular culture, sociology of cultural production, sociology of everyday life, sociology of education, sociology of gender, sociology of sport, and sociology of consumption) and with the more established disciplines of anthropology, history, and literature makes the field of popular culture crowded and, at times, contested.

II. The Future is the Past

The legacy of the ancient Greeks, of Plato and Aristotle, and the aesthetic products of the Renaissance have been largely eclipsed by the scientific revolutions of the seventeenth century onward. This has had the effect of separating the arts from science, creating dual cultures and knowledge systems that sometimes seem unrelated, and a consequence of the separation has been a quest for a science of human behavior and society. Yet such measures are elusive. A sense of progress is largely based on a belief that there are measurable trends in social organization and administration that build on the achievements of earlier societies. Estimates of the value of popular culture as contributing to the improvement and civilizing of society become implicated in these debates. For instance, those elements of popular culture that encourage greater liberalism in the circulation of knowledge and more democratic social practices can be used to signify increased levels of human progress. With the busy commercialism of the eighteenth century and the profound changes it brought to mechanics and technology, there was a comprehensive renovation of the individual’s everyday experiences. Ideas now circulated widely through coffeehouses in London, Paris, and Venice; clubs and philosophical societies sprang up in provincial towns; the closed and elite position of the artist and patron had begun to change; commercial theaters flourished, as did dealers in engravings, paintings, silverware, and furniture. Publishers, merchants, and shopkeepers became part of an intellectual revolution that made the social meaning and status of art objects of fresh interest to the urban dweller. City life was not just about surviving dense living quarters and compromised hygienic conditions; it also involved the emergence of a middle class and the commercialization of taste and the arts. The material and technical changes of the modern world brought new ways of thinking about and experiencing pleasure, which in turn directly influenced what we now understand as popular culture and its capacity to shape society.

Sociology’s engagement with popular culture was framed in the first instance by the opposition between “community” and “society,” through which the discipline organized understanding of the transition from feudalism and agriculture to capitalism and industry. Popular culture produced by ordinary people (the folk) was part of the charm of community; popular culture produced as a commodity for “the masses” was part of the attenuated lifeworld of society. These oppositions of community/society and folk/mass are imbued with nostalgia for enduring social relationships and “traditional” cultural practices that have been embedded in a hierarchically ordered rural lifeworld— the “fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions” swept away, as Marx and Engels (1930:17–36) put it, by capitalism’s “constant revolutionizing of production.”

In the nineteenth century, with the advent of technologies for mass communication, mapping the terrain of popular culture involved adding further layers and permutations to the meaning of the term, which could no longer be restricted to culture produced by “the people.” The association of popular culture with widely recognized celebrity figures, material icons, and forms of social knowledge that are widely distributed through mass societies was under way by the early twentieth century with the expansion of communication technologies (film, radio, photography) and their increasing commercialization. Through the second half of the twentieth century, revolutionary developments in electronic and information communication technology allowed for increasingly rapid distribution of this culture across the globe. In effect, this lifts popular culture out of a local context (where it was situated prior to the nineteenth century) and relocates it on a global stage. The cultural industries (e.g., the Hollywood film studios and transnational telco networks) with their vast technological reach have made popular culture a defining feature of what Marshall McLuhan (1964) termed “the global village.”

Both sociology and popular culture in its massproduced form were products of the same historical conjuncture—namely, the industrial revolution and its associated social, cultural, and political upheavals. The language of social fragmentation and moral disintegration that underpins discussion of the relocation of rural populations into industrial cities thus framed interpretation of their commodified leisure pursuits as less worthy than the folk traditions that preceded them. According to Raymond Williams (1961:17), the idea of “culture” as it emerged in Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was conceptualized as a transcendent sphere of noninstrumental value from which the increasingly rationalized, commodified, and environmentally polluted lifeworld of industrial capitalism could be judged. Whether from Herder’s (2002) understanding of “folk culture” or Matthew Arnold’s (1935) sense of high culture as a bulwark against anarchy, culture was positioned in opposition to the masses. This was a neat ideological reversal in which the historical actors who suffered most in the transition to capitalist modernity were deemed responsible for its sometimes impoverishing cultural consequences. As bearers of “mass culture,” uprooted peasants, remade as urban workers and a swelling underclass, were positioned as barbarians within the gates—a threat not only to social and political order but to “civilization” itself.

III. Mass Society Becomes Popular Culture

The sociology of popular culture separates from the sociology of the mass society at the point where the relationship between high culture and popular culture loses its simple homology with class division and assumes a more complex symbiotic relationship that generates new definitions of taste. The creation of the mass audience from the 1920s, largely through the popularity of Hollywood films, solidified yet another cultural fissure, extending the one created between 1890 and 1930 by the avant-garde of Rimbaud, Joyce, and Picasso. The separation of high, mass, and avant-garde tastes made it clear that cultural messages of any kind cannot be dissociated from the social conditions from which they arise. The popularity of contemporary forms such as the cinema, sitcom TV, and fashion magazines seems to advance the ideological appeals of materialist capitalism. The Frankfurt School, in particular, championed much of the avant-garde as the conscious minority who were resisting the standardization that came with the mass production and consumption of products from the American culture industries.

The sociology of popular culture in its contemporary form draws on the early work of Raymond Williams (1961), who redefined culture to include a new layer of meaning—namely, the structure of feeling. Williams rightly pointed out that how people thought and felt about themselves and others played a singularly important role in shaping everyday culture. It was not sufficient to study social institutions, such as the family, and the organization of production; it was also necessary to understand how members of society communicated, acquired ideas and tastes, expressed views, and felt engaged in society.

By definition, whatever is popular has a large audience and is well received by huge numbers of people. In the twenty-first century, the popular is most often produced by professionals (such as journalists, musicians, and filmmakers) to appeal to global audiences that traverse various local cultures. In this context, questions about the nature of popular culture that relate to its production and audience (e.g., the question of whether popular culture is produced by the people for themselves as a kind of folk culture) represent viewpoints more useful prior to the eighteenth century. Thereafter, popular culture has been understood as those ideas and entertainments that win the attention of a mass audience, and as such, it is a manufactured form of entertainment and idiomatic knowledge often characterized as being inferior to other, more highbrow or elite forms. It can then be imbued with sinister intentions; for instance, it can be thought of as a tool in a political armory designed to be a form of entertainment that is made easily available to keep the masses distracted and diverted.

Embedded in these views are assumptions that culture originating from the lower social orders, or appealing en masse to a mainstream, is both less interesting than highbrow culture and more heavily freighted with ideology. It also assumes that popular culture can be understood and interpreted properly from the vantage point of those in an elite intellectual position. Yet popular culture is not a homogeneous form; it has contradictions within itself as well as a range of diverse forms. A new manner of thinking about popular culture was provided by the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, established in 1964 under the leadership of Richard Hoggart, who had lovingly documented the working class culture of his youth in The Uses of Literacy (1958). Hoggart’s approach was in direct opposition to the perspectives expressed by T. S. Eliot (1948) and F. R. Leavis (1948), who argued for a top-down approach to the civilizing influences of culture. Hoggart’s construction of the working class and its cultural practices and preferences was a major factor in defining the populist agenda of popular culture in the British context. He made explicit the link between the study of popular culture and representations of class and the distribution of privilege. He asserted the importance of art and culture as the means by which much of the individual’s quality of life was revealed. Learning to read objects and practices in a critical manner was the key to understanding society. The dominant elite classes had expressed their own views through a monopoly over culture, and these values had been taken for granted. Now with the establishment of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, the canonical elite forms of high culture were transposed into sites of cultural struggle as new modes of seeing were being developed. Across the Atlantic, other social analysts and theorists were at work reshaping views toward the popular and, in so doing, changing the sociological landscape of everyday modern life.

In the first half of the twentieth century and into the 1960s, the study of popular culture in sociology can be located in terms of three broad traditions. Within Parsonian structural functionalism, emphasis on system maintenance gave popular culture one of two functions: “value integration” or “tension management.” Popular events and practices were judged according to the effectiveness of their contribution to one or the other of these outcomes. Within Marxism, the location of popular culture in the ideological superstructure carried similar implications. For instance, if the ideas of any age are the ideas of the “ruling class,” then a shift in the popular, from forms of expression and practices embedded in the lifeworld of “the folk” to forms of amusement and entertainment produced under industrial conditions as commodities for sale to the masses, has the politically serious consequence of positioning popular culture as a means of rendering the dominant system of class relations palatable to subordinate groups. The idea of the popular being resistive had not yet formulated itself within this perspective. With symbolic interactionism and the Chicago School, the notion of “subculture” did focus attention on social actors and the construction of meaning and, thus, marked the beginning of a more complex way of understanding the individual’s real or immediate social experience. Such perspectives promised to incorporate the quirkiness of the private and the diversity of individual value positions into the sociological project (Truzzi 1968). Had this been a more successful maneuver, it might well have anticipated much of the success enjoyed by the subdiscipline of cultural studies some three decades later. However, the specter of social fragmentation and moral decline hovered over early studies such as Paul Cressey’s (1969) study of commercialized recreation and the inner city, The Taxi-Dance Hall, and this aura persisted into the mid-1960s, thus positioning popular culture more as a “social problem,” as evidenced by the inclusion of Howard Becker’s (1963) study of dance musicians in Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance and Herbert Gans’s essay on popular culture in America in the edited collection Social Problems: A Modern Approach (Becker 1966).

IV. Contemporary Popular Culture

One of the defining moments in the sociology of popular culture was the relocation of scholars from the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research to temporary accommodation at Columbia University in New York in the mid-1930s. As exiles from Nazi Germany, they had seen a popular movement that was morally corrupt and rancid; thus, their critical engagement with American popular culture was framed by an acute sense of the capacity of radio and film to mobilize audiences to support wrong-headed causes such as fascism. In the United States, they argued, the technologies of mass communication served the interests of capitalism. In coining the term “culture industry” (Jay 1973:216) to describe the “non-spontaneous, reified, phony culture” churned out as entertainment by Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley, they shifted the terms of debate on the politics of the popular from “mass taste” to the conditions of its production. Popular culture was deemed an ideological misnomer for the products of a profoundly undemocratic industry characterized by centralized control, distance between audience and performers (the star system), standardization, instrumental orientation, and affirmation of existing social privileges. In contrast to conservative critics of mass culture, who argued that democracy leveled taste to the lowest common denominator (e.g., de Tocqueville 1966; Ortega y Gasset [1948] 1968), the critical theorists of the Frankfurt School framed the problem in terms of capitalist social and economic relations and technological rationality. They saw the culture industry as extending capitalist domination into all areas of life,

subordinating in the same way and to the same end all areas of intellectual creation, by occupying men’s sense from the time they leave the factory in the evening to the time they clock in again the next morning with matter that bears the impress of the labor process they themselves have to sustain throughout the day. (Horkheimer and Adorno [1947] 1979:131)

Whether the product was cars or culture, the technology of mass production was inseparable from “the rationale of domination” underpinning “the coercive nature of society alienated from itself.” “Automobiles, bombs and movies,” they argued, “keep the whole thing together” (Horkheimer and Adorno [1947] 1979:121).

While the Frankfurt School critique of the culture industry was of a piece with the arguments on “mass society” being put forward by David Reisman’s (1964) The Lonely Crowd and C. Wright Mills’s (1959) The Power Elite, it was less than palatable to a generation of sociological and cultural theorists who had grown up with television and regarded rock ‘n’ roll as “an instrument of opposition and liberation” (Gedron 1986:19). Their commitment to the resistive force of rock ‘n’ roll was particularly strong if their reading of the Frankfurt position extended no further than Adorno’s ([1941] 2002) quarrelsome essay “On Popular Music” or his offensively ethnocentric essay “On Jazz” (published under the pseudonym of Hektor Rottweiler). This interpretation of Adorno’s essays on popular music and jazz so offended them that they read no further. Yet Herbert Marcuse’s (1964) One- Dimensional Man presented a similarly bleak view of the capitalist domination gained through the broad appeal of entertainment and consumer goods, but as he was writing in the 1960s, after living 30 years in California, he was not writing from the position of social dislocation and culture shock that must have colored Adorno’s views on American culture. While Adorno was reviled as a cultural elitist, Marcuse’s concepts of “co-option” and “repressive tolerance” became part of the language of the New Left.

Marcuse (1964) lamented the infusion of the consumer ethic into the popular imagination: “People recognize themselves in their commodities; they find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment” (p. 24). His argument that “the irresistible output of the entertainment and information industry” is part of a commodity culture that serves to “bind the consumers, more or less pleasantly to the producers, and through the latter to the whole” (p. 12) is faithful to the spirit of Horkheimer and Adorno. Yet at the same time, his thesis that radical students and blacks were bearers of the revolutionary mission from which consumption had seduced the working class gave de facto recognition to a new cultural politics in which popular music, underground comics, and films were capable of expressing and mobilizing opposition to capitalism, albeit in commodity form. The Frankfurt School thesis on a culture industry uniformly affirmative of capitalism was destabilized by the advent of the New Left, whose members listened to Bob Dylan and The Doors, read Karl Marx, and reframed the Hollywood movies of the 1930s and 1940s as “classics” celebrated by directors of the French “nouvelle vague.”

A sociology of popular culture based on rejection of the mass society model emerged in the 1960s, as the first generation to grow up with television and rock ‘n’ roll arrived at university and graduate schools. This was a period of expansion in higher education and the extension of access to students from the working class, many of whom were the first in their family to attend university. While the emotional dynamics of social mobility are complex, and there is no necessary connection to be made between being from the working class and identifying with its “taste culture” (Gans 1974:68), nonetheless, a space was being made in which a new twist in the social significance of popular culture was about to take shape. This new generation of students was also eager to consume the popular culture of its own making. It did not accept the theoretical approach to popular culture, which defined one’s own tastes and practices as inferior, and the idea that popular music served to pacify the masses did not generate much enthusiasm; indeed, this was particularly unconvincing given the equation of rock music with youth rebellion.

The new generation of students in the early 1960s overturned the theories about industrialized popular culture and the mass society. The depiction of society as a vast mass of alienated and atomized individuals, who were undifferentiated from one another and unable to overcome a nameless loneliness, was about to be swept away. Reisman’s (1964) depiction of modern America in The Lonely Crowd was replaced with the communities of Woodstock. Feminism, gay liberation, identity politics, and race debates shattered the sense of homogeneity that permeated the economic expansionism of the suburban 1950s and set in motion the mannerisms of thinking that would arrive at French poststructuralism and postmodernism and threaten the Anglo-American discipline of sociology with theoretical eclipse.

One obvious consequence of the social, cultural, and political movements that defined the 1960s as a transformative decade was a new relation between popular culture and the academy. While earlier generations of sociologists had approached popular culture from the outside, and by implication from “above,” the post-1960s generation were more likely to share its codes and values. Popular culture was in that sense normalized as part of everyday life rather than positioned as a “problem” to be interrogated for signs of social pathology. Changes in technologies of production were also implicated in rejection of the mass culture approach, which made less sense as Fordist conditions of mass production and consumption were rendered obsolete by new electronic and information technology that made it possible for producers of all manner of goods to cultivate “niche” and “subcultural” markets.

Work associated with the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies exemplifies this shift in focus. There was a sense in which both the critique of mass culture and the culture industry thesis can be read as denigrating popular taste and, by implication, the people who have it. It might therefore be argued that dismissal of the Frankfurt School critique as an “elitist defence of high culture” is fuelled by a sense of class “injury” (Sennett and Cobb 1972) that produces selective (mis)reading—passing over barbed remarks about art galleries and “classical music” and taking umbrage at the perceived insult to ordinary people and their pleasures.

Yet there were significant similarities between the Frankfurt and Birmingham traditions, as Douglas Kellner (1995) astutely noted, in terms of a shared interest in how culture and consumption served to integrate the working class into capitalism. But whereas the Frankfurt School’s culture industry thesis allowed no scope for resistance, the Birmingham School adopted Gramsci’s concepts of hegemony and counterhegemony to position popular culture as a site of struggle between the forces of hegemonic domination and counterhegemonic resistance. Stuart Hall’s (1980) influential essay “Encoding/Decoding” argued that people are active “readers” of media texts, decoding messages in one of three ways: (1) a dominant or “preferred” reading, which accepts the intended message; (2) a “negotiated” reading, in which some elements of a message are accepted and others opposed; and (3) an “oppositional” reading, which is opposed to the way the “encoder” of the message intended it to be read. Watching television was thus redefined as an active process involving the production of meaning rather than the consumption of capitalist ideology, and viewers could no longer be written off as couch potatoes or cultural dopes. In the same way, Birmingham School studies of subcultures (e.g., Hebdige 1979; Willis 1978) involve what Miller and McHoul (1998) aptly describe as a shift from “culture as a tool of domination” to “culture as a tool of empowerment” (p. 14) with subordinate groups appropriating commercial popular culture for their own ends, which invariably entail “resistance” to the dominant order.

The emergence of another contiguous field, the sociology of consumption, has added further dimensions to the study of popular culture. In this vein, John Fiske (1989) draws on Michel de Certeau’s (1988:127) understanding of consumption as a form of secondary production to extend the argument on appropriation so that popular culture can be seen as being produced by its consumers. In his view, “popular culture in industrial societies is contradictory to its core” because it is produced and distributed as a commodity by “a profit-motivated industry,” but at the same time, it is “of the people,” whose choices determine whether or not the products of the culture industry are “popular.” In support of his position, Fiske (1989) points to “the number of films, records and other products that the people make into expensive failures” (p. 23) and maintains that as a living, active process of generating and circulating meanings and pleasures within a social system, popular culture cannot be imposed from without or above but indeed is “made by the people.” From this point of view, what the culture industries produce is “a repertoire of texts or cultural resources for the various formations of the people to use or reject in the ongoing process of producing their popular culture” (p. 24). It might be argued that in the absence of power to define the repertoire of cultural resources from which “popular culture” is produced, consumer choice is a poor substitute for cultural democratization. As Kellner (1995) observed, “The texts, society, and system of production and reception disappear in the solipsistic ecstasy of the textual producer, in which there is no text outside of reading” (p. 168). Moreover, uncritical valorization of “oppositional reading,” “resistance,” and “audience pleasure” leaves out important questions of power and value in relation to forms of cultural expression in which one group’s resistance involves another’s oppression.

V. The Heart of the Matter

The maturation of popular culture as a proper field of sociological enquiry has seen a massive growth in its range of topics, from an analysis of the greeting card (Papson 1986) to football crowds and museum attendance (Bennett 1995), from gender advertising (Goffman 1972) to radio broadcasting and teen magazines (Johnson 1979; McRobbie 1991). As well as providing fascinating case studies of popular practices, this type of scholarship also alerts us to an underlying political agenda, and from sociological readings of such popular practices, we can identify systematic instances of social injustice, exclusion, and prejudice. Popular forms such as top 40 dance music, street fashions, skateboarding, Internet chat rooms, and “blogging” reveal complex social relationships and group identifications. Chris Jenks’s (2005) sociology of culture brings the rigors of theory to illuminate how the contemporary urban experience can be understood as a shifting ground where the institutions of power and social order have been substantially destabilized by various innovations and, in particular, the impact of new technologies in communications.

Subsequently, it becomes more apparent that studies in popular culture can be portals to understanding the postmodern experience in a wider sense. It is not the case that popular culture is automatically about the simplest and most banal or only about the fashionable and fresh. For instance, the serialized production of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) (1995) attracted at least 10 million viewers and subsequently has been broadcast in over 40 countries. The publisher of the novel sold 430,000 copies in the year following the television screening of the serial. Such an example of a popularized book, traditionally categorized as part of highbrow or elite culture, identifies new directions for studying the popular. In this instance, it points to the possibility that canonical products (Austen, Shakespeare) that are assumed to be part of an elite cultural field can be read differently and thus become expressions of rebellion and resistance to dominant conventions and manners of thinking. Reading against the grain and subverting the form can be modes through which we establish what we like and hence use the cultural form to reveal ourselves. Accordingly, the popularity of Pride and Prejudice might well indicate a form of refusal of the social disruption being associated with increased globalization during the 1990s. It could be argued that its depiction of local village life was a repudiation of the blurred boundaries and oceanic liberations that were washing over us with the advent of the Internet and instantaneous global communications. Austen’s sympathetic view of provincial life, in contrast to the sophistication of London society, may well have appealed to the modern masses, who were experiencing an unnerving sense of destabilization brought about by the vertigo induced by mass communications and the accompanying collapse of temporal and spatial divisions.

From the BBC version of Austen’s novel in the mid- 1990s to the parodic film Bride and Prejudice in the Bollywood genre in the twenty-first century, there are numerous examples of how items of traditional elite culture can be reformulated into popular versions and thereby come to support a continuous and often querulous reading of the world. The works of Austen, Shakespeare, and Mozart have been so repositioned, with the consequence that it is worth asking, Have these forms been co-opted into a nostalgic diversion that promotes the pleasures of domestic life? And can this be regarded as a disguised form of social control? Does such repositioning reveal the processes of bowdlerization that are so often apparent in popularization? Or, conversely, is the expanding category of popular culture a sign of maturation in the cultural capital of modern societies as products of our elite heritage are introduced and absorbed into mainstream life?

The impossibility of providing definitive answers that would allow us to take a firm stand either for or against popularizing appropriations of canonical texts lends support to Eva Illouz’s (2003) argument that what she calls “pure critique”—the tradition of cultural criticism that holds popular culture to account in relation to a clearly articulated political or moral standpoint—is no longer an option. At the same time, she sees the “systematic ambivalence” of postmodernism as contrary to sociology’s critical vocation—its necessary engagement with “the question of which social arrangements and meanings can enhance or cripple human creativity or freedom” (p. 207). Given the collapse of metanarratives through which cultural critics presumed to know in advance what texts “ought” to say and how, Illouz advocates the development of “impure critique,” which engages with cultural practice from the inside instead of “counting the ways” in which popular culture promotes (or fails to promote) a given political agenda. She argues that as in psychoanalysis, critical understanding in the sociology of popular culture “ought to emerge from a subtle dialogue that challenges reality by understanding it from within its own set of meanings” (p. 213).

One such approach to the meaning of popular culture is provided by Mikhail Bakhtin’s (1984) study of carnival, which represents popular culture as a vision of the world seen from below. Carnival is a festive form of political critique of existing social hierarchies and modes of high culture. It can transform the world into a site of pleasure where the significance of economic alliances, political forces, and social conventions can become inverted and thus made into sources of parodic humor and entertainment. Bakhtin locates carnival most often in an urban setting, where there are opportunities for contestation and where it finds application to a variety of contemporary festivities such as street parades, county fairs, sports events, bicycle races, and walkathons. Such popular activities flourish in the more complex society of the town, where commerce and the marketplace bring together individuals with different experiences and cultural consciences. From this mix of strangers, there is opportunity for outbreaks of the unpredictable, inadvertent, and humorous, which in turn produce varied forms of popular entertainment. Ordinary individuals are given access to a global media and subsequently perform themselves. Heroes of the day emerge and become instant celebrities.

Contemporary popular culture in the West has been dominated by a celebrity culture that elevates individuals into icons of practice: Greta Garbo, Marilyn Monroe, Mick Jagger, Andy Warhol, Bart Simpson, Jerry Seinfeld, Michael Jordan, and so on become archetypes of modern values. They are instruments in the production of popular culture, and at the same time, they function as hinges or switching points where mainstream values can be derailed and rerouted. Through their (often unintentional) personal influence, we can see the networks through which the arts, music, cinema, bookselling, publishing, television, and magazines are interleaved. The spate of reality television programs has most recently introduced an intensified selfreflexivity into popular culture that echoes certain practices from the Renaissance, when carnivale drew attention to the fragility of status and the social order and showed how easily it could be inverted. The globally popular reality TV program Big Brother, for example, can be seen as “carnivalesque,” in that it generates a widespread interest in the banal and ordinary, which in turn is revealed to be much more diverse and contested than expected. Thus, in the heterogeneous spaces of the metropolis, individuals with different cultural experiences and values are brought together in clashes of language, speech patterns, behavioral habits, and conventions. When this occurs, the spectator or viewer is made a witness to difference and, in turn, is consequently made more self-aware. These displays of contrasted styles of conducting business, thinking about the world, and living in it build a foundation for forms of entertainment and culture that are engaging, entertaining, and socially creative and have a wide popular appeal.

In a parallel manner, when Georg Simmel (1900) analyzed metropolitan life in the early decades of the twentieth century, he identified stock characters such as the dude who slavishly followed fashion, the rich property owner who had delusions of grandeur, and the downtrodden poor and social castoffs who were bestialized, and he used these stereotypes to characterize the carnivalesque qualities of contemporary social life. Such stock characters mirror many of those presented in popular television and mainstream cinema—for example, the unpredictable, lunatic politician; the incompetent judge; the hen-pecked husband; the quack medical doctor; the sexually wayward priest; the simple-minded corporate executive; and the incompetent boss. These types become figures of fun for an audience that laughs at the incompetence of those who generally hold greater economic power and social prestige. Such entertainments, like competitive sports, supposedly function as safety valves in a society where values are thought to be held in common and where instances of dysfunctionality and schadenfreuden (common in television sitcoms) work to restore the social balance and reaffirm social cohesion.

In contrast, such interpretations of popular culture as sources of self-management and self-critique can be refigured to show that some forms of the popular function in oppositional ways, such as being expressions of resentment and hostility to others. For instance, displays of mayhem and rebellion in popular entertainments can act as challenges to authority and thus articulate hostility and repugnance toward the stranger and lower orders, such as women, Jews, gypsies, dogs, and cats (Darnton 1986). Certain forms of popular culture appear to demonize those who are different or who have less social status. In this way, popular culture is essentially conservative, acting to maintain the imbalance between a privileged elite and the masses. This darker, sometimes sinister side of popular culture characterizes the differences and expressions of resistive contra-subcultures, such as those found in religious cults, music groups, bikies, drug users, and nomadic feral surfers, as collectively repugnant.

VI. Conclusion

The field of popular culture is much traversed by classifications and categorizations. It has become a site where politics and aesthetics mingle freely. The old distinctions of high and popular, elite and mass cultures are destabilized by the recognition that the arts are a form of political mobilization. From this perspective, distinctions in tastes are no longer just preferences intimately linked to biographical circumstances but also practices that reflect social and political viewpoints. Shakespeare and opera can thus be presented as high culture or adapted to popular and street forms, which raises the question, What circumstances and interests are at work in shifting specific art forms into new expressive locations? How do these reevaluations occur and what viewpoints are being presented through them? When, for instance, did opera and the live theater move from the popular into the elite category? Is the categorization of music, poetry, painting, sculpture, and dance as the fine arts, as distinguished from craft and the mechanical arts, still convincing, particularly when we think of dance as hip hop and sculpture as welded plates of steel and fused concrete?

Montesquieu, in Diderot’s ([1774] 1984) Encyclopedie, argued that the fine arts were distinguishable because they produced sensations of pleasure. With this definition, he asserted a marriage between aesthetics and the emotions. Immanuel Kant (1800) elaborated this point in Kritik der Urteilskraft by suggesting that beauty and the arts corresponded to definitions of truth and goodness. Subsequent debates on the nature of the sublime resonate through studies of culture, but importantly, these are relatively recent issues linked with other developments in the sciences, commerce, and technology. After all, it was not until the eighteenth century that high culture became an acceptable category, separate and distinguishable from more banal popular forms.

It was a concern of the eighteenth century, and it remains a concern now, that distinguishing between commercial culture and popular culture is difficult. For those concerned with the loss of regional and provincial cultural forms, such as folk dancing and singing, or styles of food preparation, we could now read the risks to some indigenous cultures. The modern cultural form produced from artifice and overrefinement threatens to overshadow the indigenous art form, making it seem a quaint and narrowly focused object. The pursuit of wealth through commerce produces an environment in which age-old skills and ways of seeing are easily surpassed. A nostalgic primitivism that upholds the “noble savage” is as much a part of popular culture as are the overproduced techniques for self-improvement, do-it-yourself kits, and commercialized signs of status and snobbery. In short, to understand popular culture, it is necessary to unravel—at the individual level—the connections between economic acquisition, pleasure, and social distinction and the desires associated with the fashionable life, along with the growth of audiences who seem variously willing to purchase entertainment, pleasure, and status. At the structural level, popular culture has become such an economic powerhouse that it has political consequences. In the mid-twentieth century, the House UnAmerican Activities Committee provided a vivid instance of the political power attributed to the culture industries, and again a similar debate erupted in the last decades of the twentieth century, when the National Endowment for the Arts came under scrutiny by the American government and radical artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe and Karen Findlay were accused of corrupting the morals and minds of their audiences.

Popular culture as a series of practices has had a tempestuous past ever since its economic and political dimensions have been uncovered. So it was in the sixteenth century, when the Parisian printing apprentices murdered the totems of the aristocracy in the great cat massacre (Darnton 1986), and so it continues with current debates about the causal relationship between video games and the subsequent violent behavior of their audiences. Scholars of popular culture from the various disciplines of anthropology, sociology, history, literary studies, media, and so on function as analysts of art forms and the history of aesthetics as much as of political movements and social insurgency. The position of popular culture in the modern world is now inextricably linked with international politics and the global economy, and this makes it an irresistible focus for sustained sociological attention.


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