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Popular Culture


POPULAR CULTURE. Few theoretical concepts are as value-laden as popular culture, and defining it can be likened to entering a minefield. And yet, it has proved a resilient and useful tool for assessing the attitudes and beliefs of the nonliterate masses in early modern society. From the onset, however, one should be aware of the limitations and theoretical problems associated with its use and misuse in the past.


The term "popular culture" was not in contemporary use during the early modern period, when political and social structure was understood in reference to three orders or estates. The closest contemporary equivalent of "the people" would have been the Third Estate or the commoners, a social conglomeration of urban burghers and rural peasants, as well as any other persons belonging neither to the nobility nor the clergy. Reference was made to the common man or the community, and the elite/intellectual perception of their customs and practices ranged from the paternal curiosity of Michel de Montaigne (15331592) to the satire of artists like Peter Bruegel the Elder (c. 15251569) and the disdain of the moralist Sebastian Brant (1458?1521), who presented a mirror of immoral behavior in a world gone mad in his Das Narrenschiff (1494; The ship of fools). One common allegory of contemporary social structure is the famous Leviathan of Thomas Hobbes (15881679), which depicted society as the torso of the king, itself composed of thousands of people, his subjects. In this allegory, the rulers and clergy made up the head, the noble warriors the arms, and the masses the visceral lower body parts. After experiencing the horrors perpetrated during the wars of religion in the sixteenth century, the Neostoic author on statecraft, Justus Lipsius (15471606), wrote to compare the undisciplined mob to a headless body and popular protest to mass insanity.

The discovery (or "invention") of the people as a group worthy of study is attributed to a group of German intellectuals at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries (Burke). One of the earliest philosophical justifications for a scholarly interest in the culture of the common people (Kultur des Volkes) was offered by Johann Gottfried Herder (17441803), who consciously juxtaposed it with learned culture (Kultur der Gelehrten). Widespread interest followed as European folklorists flocked to the countryside to save the oral tradition of the preindustrial peasantry from oblivion. In the process, Romantic scholars embellished the occasionally unsavory content of folk tales and songs. At the time, scholars also tended to conflate the early modern period with the Middle Ages, and traditional customs and rituals were dubbed "medieval."

The ambivalent nature of the term "popular," sometimes casually equated with populism, is highly controversial, and popular culture studies have regularly been hijacked for partisan political purposes. The long-standing identification of the popular will with national identity since Jean-Jacques Rousseau (17121778) has led to the exploitation of popular culture studies by nationalists, racists, populists, and communists alike. The association of folk studies (Volkskunde) with the National Socialist dictatorship marginalized cultural anthropology and ethnography in post-war Germany. The Marxist Antonio Gramsci expressed faith in the culture of the people as a means to exercise discontent and protest against a hegemonic ruling elite. However, not until "pop" culture in art and music began to symbolize grass roots protest during the 1960s did popular culture studies succeed in entering into the mainstream of scholarly debate. Detractors have subsequently labeled radical research on popular culture "PC" in pejorative association with "political correctness," originally a prejudicial policy to weed out the middle classes under Stalinism.

One crass example of the abuse of early modern popular culture studies is the case of nine million witch burnings. Briefly, in an attack on medieval barbarism, an enlightened archivist fancifully concocted a mythical figure of nine million people burned during the European witch craze. Anti-Catholic authors revived this fantastic claim during the nineteenth-century Kulturkampf in Germany. Later, credulous Nazi propagandists proclaimed that the statistic evidenced a racist persecution perpetrated on Nordic Aryan people by evil Mediterraneans through the office of the Holy Inquisition. During the 1970s, several authors and journalists uncritically cited the very same Nazi authors to denounce the slaughter of nine million innocent women at the hands of misogynist theologians. Today, scholars of popular culture have successfully revealed these claims for the groundless exaggerations they are (Behringer). In fact, we now know beyond a reasonable doubt that: (1) The vast majority of witch trials took place not in the Middle Ages but from 1560 to 1650, with legal executions continuing into the late eighteenth century; (2) Most trials were conducted by secular state officials, and persecutions were remarkably low in those few areas where an inquisition was present, like Spain and Italy, as it appears that the institution had a mitigating effect; (3) Trials were often instigated by popular pressure rather than official initiative, and most of the trials took place in central Europe; (4) Local women often accused other local women of witchcraft as the result of petty neighborhood disputes. The case of nine million witches demonstrates the continuing importance of popular culture studies not only to correct the glorification of history from the top down, but also to avoid the pitfalls of hackneyed eulogizing of "the people" and romanticized history from the bottom up.

A further theoretical complication is that the term "culture" is also ambivalent. The original ideal of a collective group consciousness put forward by the French sociologist Émile Durkheim stresses the unifying aspects of culture, but it lacks an explanatory dynamic for historical change. A dialectic or conflict model is the most common method to overcome this inadequacy. As a representative of this dialectical tradition, Robert Redfield (18971958) emphasized the divisive nature of the "great tradition" (elite or official culture) and the "little tradition" (plebian or unofficial culture), echoing Herder's distinction between popular and learned culture. The Jesuit Michel De Certeau (19251986) juxtaposed the relevant advantages and disadvantages facing the ruling elite and the ruled in a class-struggle model, employing the blatantly militant terms "strategy" (extensive application of great resources for long-term effect) and "tactics" (intensive maximization of limited resources with limited permanency). Modernist ethnographers tend to define culture in relational terms as a communicative system for the transmission of ideas, rather than enduring institutions or structures. In this sense, popular culture is viewed as one form of expressive culture that plays a crucial role in power struggles to negotiate meaning in everyday life (Little).

There are also many contradictory claims regarding the mechanisms of popular culture. Clearly, the view of early folklorists that popular culture is unchanging, not artificial and unadulterated by exogenous influence, is romantic and no longer tenable (Greenblatt). Proponents of dialectical materialism as well as supporters of the Annales paradigm (a historical movement in twentieth-century France) generally view even supernatural aspects of popular culture as contingent upon material circumstances (Scribner). Contrarily, Michel Foucault has reflected on the marginalization of folly and its transformation into madness as a product of discourses. He depicts the development of a system of social discipline, the "Great Confinement" of undesirables, as a power struggle played out in largely arbitrary and individualized discourses to gain control over cultural meanings. The Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg seeks the origins of early modern popular culture as an egalitarian tradition in the pre-Christian heritage of Indo-European languages, while the German historian Peter Blickle points to the late medieval origins of communalism. Again, popular culture studies serve to remind us that traditions evolve and culture is always changing in relationship to historical contexts.

Ultimately, the exact nature of popular culture is so difficult to pin down because it is applied in broad terms, to include ritual, art, literature, and cosmology. Many popular beliefs, rituals, and customs of the ordinary people were also shared by members of the social elite, clouding the boundaries between the two traditions. Tentatively, we can summarize popular culture as an expressive and shared system for the production, transmission, and consumption of cohesive yet simple values readily accessible to and accepted by most members of a given society at any given time, simultaneously fulfilling both normative and practical social interests. In the end, however, popular culture continues to elude precise definition. Perhaps the very ambivalence of the term renders it so theoretically flexible and at the same time dangerously seductive.


Without doubt, historians of the early modern period have paid more attention to popular culture than have any other historians. There are sound practical and methodological reasons for this. In comparison to the overwhelming documentary evidence available to historians of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, early modernists face source limitations that require them to approach their subject in a more circumspect manner. Because of this, they have proven particularly open to the interdisciplinary methods of cultural anthropology used to study comparable forms of culture in "traditional" societies. Nevertheless, the advent of printing and nascent bureaucracy coupled with a higher rate of documentary and artistic survivals offers early modernists a more satisfactory pool of evidence than is regularly available for the study of popular culture in earlier periods. Another major impetus has been the modernity thesis. In the nineteenth century, culture was generally equated with civilization and ranked according to a teleological (and Eurocentric) scale of development. Following the rise of academic sociology and anthropology, the question of modernity also informed historical consensus on the pivotal status of the early modern period as an age of transition from feudalism to capitalism in which the power of the church waned and early modern states were formed. Hence, there has been an intense search for signs of modernity in early modern popular culture.

Since the birth of the academic disciplines of sociology and anthropology in the late nineteenth century, there have been many successful attempts to recover the mental processes whereby the European identity evolved from the later Middle Ages to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The interdisciplinary study of popular culture has provided vital access to mentality of Europeans before industrialization and secularization. Through the encouragement of the early annalists, such as Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre, historians' attention began to focus on Durkheim's concept of the collective consciousness and modify it to explain slow changes over time (la longue durée). Bloch's account of popular perceptions of the magic touch of the king in the Middle Ages and Febvre's study of disbelief in the Renaissance concurred that the mental equipment (outillage mentale) of our ancestors was radically different from our own. Historians often miss that point by commencing their research with "a poorly posed question" (une question mal posée). Developmentally, the Soviet literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin thought he had found the key to a lost golden age prior to modern social polarization in a his study of Rabelais. Bakhtin's significant impact lies in his historical interpretation of the carnivalesque. For him, the spontaneity and laughter/ridicule of popular culture can be juxtaposed with the elite puritanical culture of Lent, the forerunner of modern bourgeois sentimentality. Similarly, the Dutch sociologist Norbert Elias charted the evolution of household manners as a "civilizing process," a form of modern psychogenesis, literally a change in our patterns of thought through behavior modification. Elias focused his research on court society, which he viewed as the source of our modern social code of etiquette.

Since the 1960s, the trend has been less toward progressive and linear interpretations in favor of examining events, material circumstances, and ideological explanations of popular culture. One of the pioneering figures has been Natalie Zemon Davis. In 1975, she published a seminal collection of essays on a variety of topics from sixteenth-century France, such as rituals of violence and the charivari. Charivaris were a virtually ubiquitous and ritualized form of autonomous popular justice. In one form of charivari, youth abbeysliterally gangs of unmarried journeymen or peasantsstaged public mockeries to punish local persons of ill repute and reinforce communal norms. Young artisans employed the charivari to regulate access to limited marriage prospects, targeting cuckolded husbands, widowed masters who married younger women, or widows of masters who refused to remarry. Peasants sometimes used the charivari to harass outsiders, protest perceived injustice at the hands of a local official, or punish an immoral village priest. Charivaris might begin during a festivity or a bout of drinking at a local tavern, when it was decided to punish a local "deviate." The masked or costumed gang adjourned to the house of the person in question, harassing them with vulgar or obscene songs. When the target of abuse appeared, he or she was apprehended and humiliatedforced to ride backward on an ass, burned in effigy, or ducked in a pond. Ultimately, charivaris functioned as a method of resolving social conflicts through rough and ready communal consensus on propriety. In this and subsequent works, Davis dispenses with standard clichés and characterizes the human experiences in terms of identity formation. She has demonstrated the self-fashioning of pardon tales and the creation of identity in The Return of Martin Guerre, the subject of a French motion picture (1983) and a Hollywood spin-off, Sommersby (1993). Her historical actors are simultaneously faced with limitless individual possibilities and fettered by social constraints. Her work continues to influence an entire generation of scholarship.

In 1978, Peter Burke published what has become the standard text on early modern popular culture. Burke takes his cue from the dialectic models of the elite/popular traditions promoted by Redfield and Bakhtin. His developmental conception of popular culture is graphically illustrated by Bruegel's famous painting of Combat of Carnival and Lent, a mock joust between a fat man astride a barrel and a thin woman seated on a chair (Burke, p. 208). The Carnival season prior to Lent set the stage for a ritual inversion of normative values. In this "world turned upside down," people cross-dressed, ate and drank excessively, engaged in blatant sexual innuendo, openly mocked the clergy, and elected a prince of fools who held court in the town square. During the period between 1500 and 1650, Europe entered into the first phase of the reform of popular culture by the culture of the godly, as the arbiters of morality set a more somber tone during the catastrophic years of the Protestant Reformation, Catholic Renewal, and wars of religion. Popular performances and carnivals were banned in many areas as the elite gradually withdrew from participation in the plebian culture of mockery and grass roots protest. From 1650 to 1800, popular culture was politicized, denigrated, and completely abandoned by the ruling elite until its rediscovery by nineteenth-century folklorists.

Since the publication of Burke's text, there has been an explosion of interest in popular culture studies, many of which have introduced us to new and innovative ways of approaching the topic. Much attention has also been paid to the role of the print revolution as an innovative force during the early modern period. Roger Chartier and Robert Scribner have examined chapbooks and broadsheets and found evidence of a vibrant print culture with meanings influenced by popular consumption and appropriation. They also note how shifting demand acts as a driving force behind historical change. Individual case studies and village reconstitutions have also explored the contributions of popular culture to political and social change in early modern Europe. Chief among these has been the work of David Warren Sabean, who conducted nearly two decades of research studying the inhabitants of the small Swabian village of Neckarhausen. Sabean subtly employed a conflict model to interpret apparently minor incidents of ritualized tensions between rulers and subjects as another engine for historical change from below. Here again, historians have begun to pay more attention to negotiations and the fundamental role of transmission through cultural interlocutors.


Since early modern popular culture was primarily oral or performance-oriented, the paucity of documentary evidence of practices and beliefs has proven a difficult obstacle. The so-called superstitions and fleeting theatrics of everyday custom and ritual were seldom regarded as worthy of attention. Initially, much of the pioneering work in early modern popular culture involved the identification of useful sources to document a largely undocumented historical phenomenon. Gradually, however, certain types of evidence have been exploited with great success, and a standard repertoire of sources and methods has evolved. Current scholarship still benefits greatly from the work of folklorists and anthropologists. National and regional folklore collections and dictionaries of dialect from the early nineteenth century regularly provide valuable insights. Many folktales and folk practices have since been catalogued in standard guides to folkloric motifs and ethnographic encyclopedias, like Bächtold-Stäubli's Handwörterbuch des deutschen Aberglaubens (Handbook of German superstition). These works allow the historian to critically cross-reference customs and practices that were glossed over in primary source documents, as their original meaning was largely self-evident to contemporaries but has since become lost. Early thesauruses and encyclopedias, themselves primary sources, continue to prove their worth. Some of these are now easily accessible online, such as Zedler's early-eighteenth-century Universal Lexikon, a virtual treasure trove of early modern thought. Nevertheless, one of the major attractions of popular culture studies remains the necessity to work eclectically and creatively, and historians still regularly locate hitherto unsuspected finds in the archives as the field continues to expand.

Scholars now regularly access a wide and sometimes unexpected variety of sources in their search for manifestations of popular culture. The role of cultural interlocutors, responsible for the recording and transmission of customs and traditions, is central in most of these transmissions. Standard sources include civic chronicles and diaries depicting events both everyday and unusual, such as carnivals or the elaborate Corpus Christi processions popular in Catholic urban areas. Illustrated broadsheetsthe newspapers of the illiteratedepicted occurrences both mundane (the effects of drunkenness on the humors) and wondrous (monstrous births, comets, Marian apparitions, etc.). Broadsheets were the subjects of public readings by literate members of the community, both in the privacy of the home and in taverns. The hub of the local communications network, the tavern was where people from every walk of life congregated to exchange news, conduct business, and, not infrequently, foment protest and revolt. Grievances, such as songs of protest or the famous Twelve Articles of the Peasantry issued during the German Peasants' War of 1525 by an artisan named Sebastian Lotzer and a pastor named Christoph Schappeler, both of Memmingen, also inform us of popular complaints against the ruling classes as well as utopian and communal aspirations and popular rituals of justice. In one popular ritual during the revolt of the Poor Conrad in 1514, for example, community members of Schorndorf put the devalued weights and measures introduced by Duke Ulrich the Mad of Württemberg (14981550) to the water test in a nearby river, claiming that if the weights floated, then they had passed the judgment of God.

However, official recorders of popular culture did not always play a positive or even a neutral role in its transmission and were prominently involved in elite attempts to suppress unofficial practices. Legal recordsedicts, law codes, and criminal interrogatoriesare another rich genre of documentation. In their attempts to enforce elite norms, early modern rulers released a plethora of edicts reviling impious deviations from religious orthodoxy and breaches of sumptuary and moral legislationthe wearing of prohibited clothing styles, lewd dancing, and excessive consumption at weddings. They attest to the rude nature of early modern sexuality, complaining of clerical concubinage, fornication between serving men and women, and clandestine marriages. One courtship ritual in particular, the nocturnal visit, was highly suspect. Reminiscent of the balcony scenes from Romeo and Juliet or Cyrano de Bergerac and practiced throughout Europe, nocturnal visits of suitors to unmarried women took the form of a non-coerced entry, generally through the window, whereupon the couple might sit and chat until the morning hours or, not uncommonly, sleep together chastely in the same bed, at times with the full consent of parents; naturally, accidents did occur, as the edicts take pains to remind us. All-too-frequent repetitions of prescriptive legislation suggest the nature, extent, and tenacity of popular practices throughout Europe despite well-intentioned moral campaigns to eradicate them.

Inquisitorial sources provide important if somewhat less appealing information, especially in the realm of witchcraft studies. This is also the area where anthropological field research among traditional peoples, such as E. Evans-Prichard's 1937 study of witchcraft among the Azande in central Africa, has had its greatest impact. Records of interrogations are perhaps as close as we can hope to come to hearing the actual voices of ordinary individuals. They reveal a cleft between elite and popular perceptions of witchcraft. For example, the attempt to superimpose a cumulative or learned concept of demonology on the masses, replete with devil's pacts, copulations with paramours, and attendance at the Sabbath, proved alien to the popular consciousness. However, the records of criminal interrogations reveal much about the real and widespread practice of white magiclove potions, rituals to enhance fertility, talismans and charms to ward off illness in humans and animals, treasure-finding spells, counter-magic to relieve the enchanted, and so onthat persisted well into the age of the Enlightenment. Of course, it would be wrong to presume that even firsthand testimonies offered by illiterate peasants represent the unadulterated voice of the people without considering the actual circumstances of their production. Judicial confessions were exacted under duress or torture in answer to the leading questions of inquisitors and judges, only to be recorded by court scribes, who sometimes inserted their own confessions of bewilderment at certain popular beliefs and practices.

Public trials and executions were themselves a form of popular entertainment, as thousands of onlookers, hawkers, pickpockets, and prostitutes gathered in a festive mood to witness the spectacular brutality of contemporary justice. Audience participation, though not officially encouraged, regularly manifested itself as onlookers threw rotting vegetable matter at the delinquent as he or she was carted from the jail to mount the terrible stage of retribution. Of course, the presence of an audience at the official execution meant that events could take unexpected turns from the official script. Audience pressure and the threat of or actual recourse to violence effected a release if the verdict was vehemently in question or if the criminal was a local folk hero. If the executioner gave a sloppy performance and failed to carry out sentencing in one blow, crowds were known to mob the scaffold, threatening to pummel or rend the headsman, who was forced to flee for his life. Naturally, for those unable to attend the execution of infamous villains in person, details were recorded and distributed in illustrated woodcuts and broadsheets. Nor was the death sentence necessarily the end of the criminal in the popular understanding of ritual justice. After the rotting corpse was put on display and ultimately removed for dishonorable burial, executioners, who operated thriving medical practices on the side, sold decomposed body parts (so-called mummy) for use as popular remedies.

In another type of method similar to the anthropological "thick-description" used by Clifford Geertz to document Balinese customs, practitioners of microhistory have descended to the level of ordinary individuals to rescue nonprominent persons from the dustbin of history, giving a voice back to them. By far the most successful example of microhistory is Carlo Ginzburg's study of the heresiarch (the creator of his own heresy) and Friulian miller Mennochio. Ginzburg began his career as a professor in Bologna, were he was closely associated with the author Umberto Eco and the historian Piero Camporesi. Ginzburg documents Mennochio's trial and execution for, among other things, maintaining that the Virgin Mary was a whore and that the universe arose as a waste product of a cheese-eating worm. Ginzburg concludes that Mennochio's fantastic cosmological theories were in fact the product of an unconscious filter of pre-Christian notions, part of a subculture shared by peasants from Italy to Lithuania. His continued detective work in search of clues of this common antihierarchical heritage has spawned a large following, and microhistory has since found a home in the Italian journal Quaderni Storici. There are those who argue that Ginzburg's net is cast far too broadly and that his claims about the common pagan origins of European popular culture are overgeneralized. Critics have focused on particular regional or local contexts, as in Wolfgang Behringer's microhistory of the Alpine herdsman Chonrad Stoeckhlin (15491587) or Richard Kagan's analysis of the political content of the dreams of Lucretia de Leon of Madrid, which at once empowered and endangered her. Whether one agrees with Ginzburg's conclusions or not, the fact remains that his method of accessing contemporary cosmology through the experiences of one ordinary person has reached a large audience, reawakening interest in popular culture and generating lively and productive debate.


The story of popular culture in early modern Europe is one of mounting social stratification and a concerted effort at repression by the political and religious elite. An interesting example of this is found in a series of questionnaires on communal religious practices distributed by Spanish officials under Philip II (ruled 15521598) in the sixteenth century. Communities had long associated themselves with local patron saints, who served as symbols of both internal unity and external competition. Communities entered into sacred contractual agreements with their saints, promising to honor them with lavish shrines, feast days, and votive offerings in return for agrarian fertility, economic prosperity, and protection from internal factionalism or natural catastrophes. Many of the saints operated as specialists, and localities often received outside pilgrims seeking types of assistance particular to their patron saint; some saints cured specific illnesses, others ensured good harvests, and so on. Spanish authorities in turn considered the plethora of local feast days and specialized saints as an obstacle to their campaign of centralization. Gradually, particularistic interests were countered through crown sponsorship of multipurpose cults associated with the ruling dynasty, especially the cult of the Virgin and the Bleeding Heart. Furthermore, the crown fought against popular disrespect for saints who failed to fulfill their local obligations. One such ritual included the ducking of a saint's image in a river or lake as an expression of communal displeasure. Analogous struggles occurred in other areas of Europe, as in seventeenth-century Bavaria under Duke Maximilian I, where ducking of saints' images was legally prohibited and local revolts over access to communal cemeteries were put down under threat of force. With the help of the Jesuits, the ruling dynasty gradually subordinated local saints in a regimented hierarchy to the Virgin Mary, a policy manifest in artistic representations as well as an official sacred geography, the Bavaria Sancta et Pia (16151628) authored by the Tyrolian Jesuit Matthaeus Rader (15611634).

Hierarchical subordination had gender implications as well, the most prominent example being the rise and fall in the popularity of apparitions, sainthood, exorcism, and demonic possession. Once again in Spain, women initially availed of apparitions as a means of empowerment during the fifteenth century, but church authorities ultimately discouraged this practice. With this avenue closed to them, women like Teresa of Ávila and the Italian Angela Merici, founder of the Ursulines, sought recognition as holy women, and after their deaths their followers petitioned for their beatification and canonization. Church officials generally discouraged female incursions into the male-dominated realm of Catholic spirituality, though many succeeded through almost irrepressible popular support. Dynastic support for the cult of the Virgin had an ambivalent effect on the role of women in society, enabling empowerment only for exceptional figures while popularizing the image of merciful women as powerful and personal intercessors for those in need or seeking justice. At the end of the sixteenth and beginning of the seventeenth century, cases of demonic possession were clearly on the rise and opened another window of opportunity for women to enter the public domain. However, this means of access was fraught with danger, and it was not unusual for demoniacs to end their lives at the stake as accused witches. In one rare case, a peasant woman even achieved official recognition as an exorcist; during the Thirty Years' War (16181648), Rosina Huber survived sixteen weeks of severe torture, but was subsequently allowed to exorcise ghosts from prominent households in southern Germany.

Youth culture also found itself increasingly on the defensive as the representatives of established authority channeled youthful exuberance into officially sanctioned activities. The so-called youth abbeys and other such unofficial organizations of apprentices and journeymen were integrated into religious confraternities sanctioned by urban masters. This was part of a broader trend in political culture to limit guild participation in civic government in cities of the Holy Roman Empire after the Schmalkaldic War (15461547) and regulate cooption into the ruling elite. Cooption into the large council in Venice or in German towns with a Venetian-style constitution, primarily a ceremonial body, provided a testing ground for the political reliability of up-and-coming town councillors and created a pool of future recruits for the small council, where true political authority lay. In the eighteenth century, male vagrants became the target of persecutions for witchcraft in Austria, as the gender stereo-type of the witch shifted from the traditional image of the witch as an old hag to incorporate unruly gangs of young men.

The fight against superstitions and popular magic is one of the best-documented examples of the attempt of the mixed success of the ruling elite in limiting popular access to the supernatural. Initially, the ruling elite reviled superstitions as real and diabolical magic. In 1585, the papal bull Coeli et Terri condemned all forms of popular superstitions, including incantations, treasure finding, and necromancy, as covenants with Satan, "the Father of Lies." The Flemish jurist and demonologist Martin Del Rio attacked magic and the veneration of evil spirits as vile superstitionsas dangerous and efficacious magic. Still, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it was often difficult to differentiate between popular and elite superstitions since many attitudes remained shared. During the witch craze in Augsburg during the 1560s, the Jesuit Peter Canisius and the wealthy Fugger family supported a series of exorcisms that ended with accusations that Johann Fugger shared in an "old and damnable heresy" about demoniacs, which held that they were possessed by repentant souls from purgatory rather than by the devil.

Another common belief involved the fear that the interment of suicides in hallowed ground resulted in celestial displeasure, manifesting itself in the form of hailstorms that destroyed crops and livestock. In fact, this belief reveals that many popular superstitions had a sound empirical basis. For example, waves of suicides sometimes followed famine and plague, but the popular consciousness held the former responsible for natural catastrophes, in an inversion of cause and effect. In the sixteenth century, elites also shared similar fears about ghosts, but by the eighteenth century, the Enlightenment adopted a new method of combating themderision. By then, superstitions were no longer viewed as dangerous practices, rather as backward peasant ignorance and nonsense. Ironically, however, the victory of the Enlightenment over popular culture was short-lived. As folklorists reacted against pure reason, popular culture became the rallying point of nationalists and Romantics, who sought originality, purity, and the source of common aspirations in the simple culture of the common people of early modern Europe.

See also Brant, Sebastian ; Catholic Spirituality and Mysticism ; Enlightenment ; Festivals ; Hobbes, Thomas ; Magic ; Montaigne, Michel de ; Romanticism ; Songs, Popular ; Witchcraft .


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David Lederer

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Popular Culture


As anyone who has spent time watching television or going to the movies understands, crime and criminal justice occupy a prominent place in popular culture. The drama of the law violator brought to justice, the portrait of the lives and work of law enforcement officials, the stories of notorious, sometimes sensational crimes, and of justice done or justice denied are found every day as the common fare of the mass media. Crime and criminal justice live in culture as a set of images, as marvelous morality tales, as spectacles of the human effort to maintain "civilization" against the "forces of savagery." Indeed the semiotics of crime and punishment is all around us, not just in the architecture of the prison, or the speech made by a judge as she sends someone to the penal colony, but in both "high" and "popular" cultural iconography, in novels, television, and film.

Crime and criminal justice traditionally have been great subjects of cultural production, suggesting the powerful allure of the fall and of our responses to it. "The law," as Ewick and Silbey write, "seems to have a prominent cultural presence . . . , occupying a good part of our nation's popular media . . . . We watch real and fictitious trials on television, often unable to distinguish fact from fiction . . . . We hear reports of crime and criminals on the nightly local news. And . . . millions of us devote hours of our leisure time to reading stories about crime, courts, lawyers and law" (p. 16). In addition, since the early 1970s, politicians have made crime a salient, often dramatic part of American political culture. As a result, the Miranda warnings, or the rituals of interrogation and cross-examination in a criminal trial, or even the internal life of law firms, these and many more, have a rich and powerful vernacular life (Gaubatz; Friedman, 1999). Thus anyone interested in understanding these subjects must, sooner or later, attend to their complex cultural lives and the consequences of these cultural lives for citizens and for legal institutions.

Scholars traditionally have looked to portraits of crime, whether fictional or based in fact, as devices through which cultural boundaries are drawn, arguing that solidarity is created through acts of marking difference between self and other (Durkheim; Mead). Yet today research suggests a more complex picture of the place of crime in popular culture and of its consequences for the cultural life of criminal justice. Some of this work examines the treatment of crime in popular culture for what it says about the adequacy of our institutions, their capacity to accurately assign responsibility and do justice. Still other research examines the representation of crime and criminal justice in popular culture to assess its accuracy or comprehensiveness, with a view to trying to understand the sources of public attitudes toward crime and justice. Finally, scholars analyze the way images in the media contribute to the creation of folk knowledge and assess the impact of that folk knowledge on the criminal justice system.

Criminal justice as "spectacle"

Any account of contemporary scholarship on crime and popular culture must come to terms with Michel Foucault's account of public executions. Historically, Foucault writes, executions were "More than an act of justice"; they were a "manifestation of force" (p. 50). Public executions functioned as public theater; they were always centrally about display, in particular the display of the majestic, awesome power of sovereignty as it was materialized on the body of the condemned (Gatrell). Execution without a public audience was, as a result, meaningless (Spierenburg).

Following Foucault, scholars such as David Garland suggest that images of criminal punishment help "shape the overarching culture and contribute to the generation and regeneration of its terms" (p. 193). Punishment, Garland notes, is a set of signifying practices that "teaches, clarifies, dramatizes and authoritatively enacts some of the most basic moral-political categories and distinctions which help shape our symbolic universe" (p. 194). Popular culture treatments of punishment teach us how to think about categories like intention, responsibility, and injury, and they model the socially appropriate ways of responding to injury done to us.

One example of a study of the pedagogy of punishment as it is portrayed in popular culture is Sarat's treatment of the films Dead Man Walking and Last Dance. These films, and others like them, focus on the appropriate fit between crime and punishment. As is typical of most representations of crime and criminal justice in popular culture, neither of these films explores the social structural factors that some believe must be addressed in responding to crime; instead they are preoccupied with the question of personal responsibility. To the extent they contain an explanation of crime and a justification for punishment it is to be located in the autonomous choices of particular agents.

While building dramatic tension around the question of whether their hero/heroine deserves the death penalty, these films convey a powerful double message: First, legal subjects can, and will, be held responsible for their acts; second, they can, and should, internalize and accept responsibility. Last Dance and Dead Man Walking suggest that there can be, and is, a tight linkage between crime and punishment such that those personally responsible for the former can be legitimately subject to the latter.

In the way they address questions of responsibility, Dead Man Walking and Last Dance, as well as much film and television drama about crime and criminal justice, enact a conservative cultural politics, a politics in which large political questions about what state killing does to our law, politics, and our culture are largely ignored. They leave "audiences clueless about systematic inequities and arbitrariness" of the criminal justice system (Shapiro, p. 1145) and, in so doing, support existing mechanisms of criminal punishment.

Critique of criminal justice

However, other research on representations of crime in popular culture also calls attention to the fact that those representations are sometimes quite critical of the criminal justice system, reminding their consumers of the inefficiencies and inequities that plague the criminal justice system, and highlighting the place of extralegal forces in balancing the scales of justice (Hall et al.). One example of such research is Miller's analysis of Clint Eastwood's film Unforgiven.

Set in the "old west," Unforgiven depicts the quest of a group of prostitutes to buy justice for one of their number who was attacked by a customer. Clint Eastwood plays the reluctant hero who heeds their call. Yet throughout the film, while vengeance is presented as justified, as an equitable complement to law, it is not simply heroic. Unforgiven, Miller says, is at once a praise of revenge but also a caution about it, an invitation to do justice justly, to do it humbly, to do it no more than absolutely needs to be done.

Miller's work highlights the importance of revenge in popular representations of crime. Miller contends that our culture is deeply conflicted about the moral status of revenge. Nonetheless, revenge retains its appeal; it is a pervasive theme in "the movies most people pay to see, the TV they watch, or the novels they read" (p. 169).

"Implicit in stories of revenge," Miller argues, "is the suggestion that revenge is a criticism of state-delivered justice" (p. 174). This criticism is directed at law's technicality, its preoccupation with procedure. Miller's research shows how popular culture draws our attention to the failings and inadequacy of a legal order. Law may thus always be called to account by narratives that it cannot fully contain or control. Those narratives provide powerful reminders of the gap between the justice that law regularly provides and the justice that resonates most powerfully throughout our culture.

"Accuracy" of popular representations

Another strand of research on popular culture analyzes the treatment of crime and criminal justice on television, in film, and in political campaigns to assess its informational content, in particular to determine whether the images presented there adequately and accurately portray the realities of crime and justice in the United States (Sasson). Not surprisingly, most such studies note gaps between the accounts provided in the mass media and the "facts." As Friedman notes, "popular culture, as reflected in the media, is not, and cannot be taken as, an accurate mirror of the actual state of living law . . . Cop shows aim for entertainment, excitement; they are not documentaries . . . Crime shows . . . over-represent violent crimes; shoplifting is no great audience-holder, but murder is" (1989, p. 1588; also Graber).

This same concern for the accuracy of portraits of crime has been influential in studies of the treatment of crime in political campaigns. One famous example of the "manipulation" of images of crime for political purposes is provided by George Bush's use of the controversial "Willie Horton" TV ads in the presidential campaign of 1988. These ads created a narrative nightmare of escape from punishment that resonated with public fears of criminal violence. The Horton narrative did so by making a black man who senselessly brutalized a white couple the symbolic representation of Michael Dukakis's alleged criminal justice policy failure. This narrative has provided the bedrock for both political rhetoric and the consciousness of crime and punishment ever since.

The Horton advertisements blamed Dukakis for the occurrence of senseless, brutal crimes because of his alleged policy of letting serious violent offenders back into society far too soon. The first ad showed a revolving door with running text warning that 268 convicts escaped while on furlough and a voice-over stating that many leave prison early to commit crime again. The second ad provided emotional testimony about Dukakis's record of failed furloughs and vetoes of capital punishment.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson has demonstrated the substantial effect of these ads on the public's consciousness of crime and punishment. She describes, for example, how a nine-member Dallas focus group that favored Dukakis by five to four early in the campaign shifted support to Bush by a seven-to-two margin shortly after the airing of the Horton ads. Analyzing this change Jamieson notes that "the cues in the media have triggered a broad chain of associations" (p. 35). She observes that the Horton narrative"murderer released to murder again"had a powerful resonance with the public's fear of violent crime and desire for a commonsense explanation for why it occurs. In Jamieson's words, the Horton ad "completes in a satisfying manner a narrative that is already cast with a menacing murderer in a mug shot; anguished, outraged victims; and an unrepentant, soft-on-crime liberal" (p. 36).

The captivating character of the Horton narrative was evident in another aspect of public response. In particular, over time, focus group members became resistant to evidence that might debunk the accusations against Dukakis. Despite statistics documenting the overall success of the Massachusetts furlough program, as well as statistics from the federal government showing higher rates of early release and recidivism in California under Governor Ronald Reagan, one group member was provoked to respond, "You can't change my mind with all of that. . . ." Another focus group member dismissed statistical evidence: "We should ship all our criminals to the college liberals in College Station . . . or Austin. Crime's not statistics, honey" (Jamieson, pp. 3132).

Jamieson blames the media as a willing, sometimes eager, accomplice in creating distorted perceptions. The media, she suggests, did little to disabuse the public of the misimpression that Dukakis promoted an irresponsible and failed policy of early release, or to get the details or context of the Horton story across. However, to the extent that the Horton ads hit home, it may have been because they tapped into, rather than created, the prevailing cultural common-sense. As Ericson notes, the relationship between the media and the public involves a "process of discursive struggle and negotiation" (p. 237).

Impact of popular culture

A final kind of work takes this idea of "discursive struggle and negotiation" seriously as it examines the impact of media accounts, whether on the news or in dramatic programming, on "folk knowledge," with a view to understanding not the accuracy of that knowledge but rather its impact on the criminal justice system itself. Steiner, Bowers, and Sarat (2000), to take one example, describe the impact of representations of crime and justice in shaping folk knowledge concerning the punishment of murderers not given a death sentence. In particular they seek to understand how long people believe those sentenced to life in prison actually serve. They find that most people believe that convicted murderers sentenced to life in prison do not serve life, but are instead released early. The impression of leniency is conveyed best, perhaps, by news accounts of the recidivism of ex-convicts or persons on probation, parole, or furlough from prison (Hall et al.; Barak). Such cases easily become the focal points for public debate about the "crime problem" and how it should be dealt with (Roberts and Doob).

As a result, Steiner, Bowers, and Sarat contend most citizens give time-served estimates that fall below the mandatory minimum for parole eligibility for first degree murderers in their states. The single most common estimate of the amount of time convicted murderers who are given life sentences actually serve is "less than ten years." This relatively low estimate is consistent with the kind of narrative representation contained in the news media and in film and on television (Ericson, Baranek, and Chan).

Most importantly, Steiner, Bowers, and Sarat (2000) suggest folk knowledge has an important influence on how citizens behave when they are given decision-making power in the criminal justice system, namely when they serve as jurors in capital cases. They report that when jurors deliberate specifically about what the punishment should be, their specific release estimates become especially salient. In the context of group decision-making, folk knowledge of the timing of release is the currency of negotiation and decision-making. Jurors whose folk knowledge leads them to believe that murderers are less likely to be released early if given a life sentence may be more open to mitigating evidence and argument during sentencing deliberations. By contrast, believing that the defendant would soon be released may close jurors minds to mitigation, and hence to a sentence less than death. Thus folk knowledge of crime and punishment not only shapes individual judgments, but it also short-circuits existing legal procedures (in this case the requirement to consider mitigating evidence).


Examining the representation of crime and criminal justice in popular culture reveals that these representations are both ubiquitous and highly consequential. Whether they reinforce prevailing ideas of criminal responsibility or critique the adequacy of formal legal institutions or their capacity to do justice, whether conveying accurate information or helping to create a stock of folk knowledge about crime and punishment, these representations mean that crime is neither an esoteric subject nor one far removed from the consciousness of ordinary Americans.

Research on the images of crime and criminal justice available in popular culture suggests that those images empower citizens, giving them a conception of the crime problem and the state's response to it that has a source independent of those whose legal authority derives from formal training or official position. It means that law can, and does, live in society, in ways that cannot readily be confined or controlled by state law. It also means that citizens can and will judge the seriousness of the crime problem and the state's responses to it in terms of a widespread cultural common sense. Presented with what they regard as cultural nonsense, they make recourse to their own store of folk knowledge, their own repertoire of legal understandings. The result, as Yngvesson notes, is that popular consciousness of crime and criminal justice may become "a force contributing to the production of legal order rather than . . . simply an anomaly or a pocket of consciousness outside of law, irrelevant to its maintenance and transformation" (p. 1693).

Austin Sarat

See also Fear of Crime; Literature and Crime; Public Opinion and Crime.


Barak, Gregg. "Between the Waves: Mass Mediated Themes of Crime and Justice." Social Justice 21 (1994): 133147.

Durkheim, Émile. The Division of Labor in Society. Translated by G. Simpson. New York: Free Press, 1933.

Ericson, Richard V. "Mass Media, Crime, Law, and Justice." British Journal of Criminology 31 (1991): 219249.

Ericson, Richard V.; Baranek, Patricia M.; and Chan, Janet B. L. Representing Order: Crime, Law, and Justice in the News Media. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991.

Ewick, Patricia, and Silbey, Susan. The Common Place of Law: Stories from Everyday Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish. Translated by Alan Sheridan New York: Vintage Books, 1977.

Friedman, Lawrence. "Law, Lawyers, and Popular Culture." Yale Law Journal 98 (1989): 15791606.

. "On Stage: Some Historical Notes About Criminal Justice." In Social Science, Social Policy and the Law. Edited by Patricia Ewick, Robert Kagan, and Austin Sarat. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1999.

Garland, David. "Punishment and Culture: The Symbolic Dimension of Criminal Justice." Studies in Law, Politics, and Society 11 (1991): 191224.

Gatrell, V. A. C. The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People 17701868. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Gaubatz, Kathlyn. Crime in the Public Mind. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994.

Graber, Doris A. Crime News and the Public. New York: Praeger, 1980.

Hall, Stuart; Critcher, Charles; Jefferson, Tony; Clarke, John; and Roberts, Brian. Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order. London: Macmillan, 1978.

Jamieson, Kathleen Hall. Dirty Politics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Mead, George Herbert. "The Psychology of Punitive Justice." The American Journal of Sociology (1918): 577602.

Miller, William. "Clint Eastwood and Equity: Popular Culture's Theory of Revenge." In Law in the Domains of Culture. Edited by Austin Sarat and Thomas Kearns. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998.

Roberts, Julian, and Doob, A. N. "News Media Influences on Public Views of Sentencing." Law & Human Behavior 14 (1991): 451468.

Sarat, Austin. "The Cultural Life of Capital Punishment: Responsibility and Representation in Dead Man Walking and Last Dance." Yale Journal of Law & the Humanities 11 (1998): 153190.

Sasson, Theodore. Crime Talk. New York: de Gruyter, 1995.

Steiner, Benjamin; Bowers, William; and Sarat, Austin. "Folk Knowledge as Legal Action: Death Penalty Judgments and the Tenet of Early Release in a Culture of Mistrust and Punitiveness." Law & Society Review 33 (1999): 461506.

Shapiro, Carole. "Do or Die: Does Dead Man Walking Run?" University of San Francisco Law Review 30 (1994): 11431166.

Spierenburg, Petrus. The Spectacle of Suffering. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Yngvesson, Barbara. "Inventing Law in Local Settings: Rethinking Popular Legal Culture." Yale Law Journal 98 (1989): 16891710.

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Popular Culture

Popular Culture








Popular culture is the domain of cultural products created in mass quantities for a mass audience. While folk culture is the realm of face-to-face culture in small groups and high culture is the realm of cultural products produced by a few for the few, popular culture is more public than folk cultures and more easily accessible than high culture. Popular culture often appropriates ideas, forms, and formulae from both folk culture and high culture. In modern industrialized societies, popular culture appeals to the broad middle class and generally reinforces that classs views of the world.


Although some historians argue that popular culture is very old, most scholars believe that popular culture in its present forms emerged in the nineteenth century when communication technologies (e.g., printing processes and photographic reproduction) and large-scale media organizations (newspapers, magazines, book publishers) were able to create and market messages for a large audience of consumers. Modern popular culture required the development of commodity capitalism, the stage of capitalist development when the problem of production had been solved (through technology and bureaucratic organization), leaving the problem of consumption of the goods and services produced by the society. Advertising, a form of popular culture, plays a crucial role in the creation of desire to consume the commodity goods and services produced in a capitalist society.

The role of print and electronic media (print, then film, radio, television, and Internet-based communication) in the dissemination of popular culture products leads some critics to call this realm mass-mediated culture, and the role of markets and consumers since the latter part of the twentieth century has led some to call this realm commodity culture. Whatever the term the key elements in identifying and analyzing popular culture are its mass production and mass consumption, often mediated through channels of communication that stand between the producers and consumers of the cultural products. Scholars who study popular culture believe that patterns of production, dissemination, and consumption in this realm of culture reveal much about the values and beliefs of the audience. The assumption is that if people will spend money to consume a product or an experience, then they expect that experience to satisfy some need or desire. The nature of commodity capitalism, of course, is that the satisfaction experienced by consuming popular culture products and experiences is fleeting, always bringing the audience (the customer) back for more.

Some genres of popular culture include familiar sorts of texts, including popular fiction, magazines, advertising, film, radio programs, comic books, cartoons, television programs, recorded music, and even fast food. Other genres appear as more complex social events or experiences, such as popular music concerts, sporting events, entertainment events (e.g., professional wrestling), visits to amusement parks, leisure pastimes, or tourist experiences. In all of these cases and more, the critical element is that a mass audience pays money to consume the commodity or experience.


Social class issues pervade discussions of popular culture. Access to the economic resources one needs to consume the products of popular culture is one of these issues, but equally important has been the issue of taste cultures, the idea that different social classes acquire different tastes in arts and entertainment, for example. Popular culture has been dismissed by some critics as middlebrow, a judgment that its quality is not on par with high culture, but defenders of popular culture champion it as the distinctive product of democratic societies.

Social scientists became interested in popular culture in the 1920s as Marxist scholars and others began to realize that commodity capitalism was creating a whole new realm for struggles between ideologies and centers of power. A group of intellectuals affiliated in these years with the Institute for Social Research at the University of Frankfurt am Main in Germany (known as The Frankfurt School of social thought and criticism) began rereading German political philosopher Karl Marx (18181883) and adding Sigmund Freuds (18951939) psychology of the unconscious, thereby developing a critical theory of society that saw the products of popular culture as a more effective means by which one class of people establishes hegemony in society, persuading with words and images rather than with class violence. Especially relevant to understanding popular culture is Walter Benjamins 1936 essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, which belongs to this period and school of social criticism and lays the groundwork for important inquiry into issues of authenticity, the political uses of popular art, and the possibilities of cultural change in a world of mass production and consumption.

Social scientists in the United States were a bit slower than their European colleagues to realize the importance of popular culture. In their 1929 and 1937 studies American sociologists Robert S. (18921970) and Helen Merrell Lynd (18961982) noted the importance of popular entertainments in the lives of their Middletown (Muncie, Indiana) families, but it was in the postwar years that sociologists like Paul Lazarsfeld, Kurt Lewin, Harold Laswell, Carl Iver Hovland (19121961), David Riesman, and C. Wright Mills (19161962) took mass-mediated culture seriously as the realm where middle-class ideologies of gender, race, social class, and American exceptionalism were exerting their power. After struggling for legitimacy in the academic world through the 1950s, the academic study of popular culture finally took hold in the 1960s. In the next decade a new cluster of ideas came from those working at the University of Birmingham Centre for Cultural Studies and elsewhere in Great Britain, again informed largely by Marxist thought. British cultural studies recognized the importance of popular culture and saw in youth cultures and in other subcultures the potential (often squandered) for resistance. As Americans and then others picked up and elaborated on the ideas offered by the Birmingham School, the study of popular (mass-mediated, commercial) culture moved to the center of these social scientists interest in power and ideology.


Some social scientists ask and answer questions about the societal circumstances and organizations that produce popular culture. Historian and cultural studies scholar Raymond Williams, for example, led the way in creating a sociology of culture in the 1970s and early 1980s. His 1974 book Television: Technology and Cultural Form is a classic piece of cultural studies criticism, and a generation of sociologists, historians, and communications scholars has continued the examination of the ways mass media corporations organize production, create popular culture products, disseminate the products, and exert control over other organizations and realms of society. Of special interest to some scholars is the concentration of media power by certain corporations, including powerful transnational corporations, and how this affects society.


Humanists brought to the initial media criticism of the 1950s their familiar methods from literary and art criticism, but social scientists had their own methods for understanding the meaning of texts. Content analysis of films, television shows, advertising, and other popular culture genres was a favored method of popular culture analysis for a time, and some theories of textual criticism (e.g., semiotics) provided an interdisciplinary bridge between humanistic and social scientific approaches.

The problem with most media textual criticism, whether it used humanistic or social scientific methods or a combination of these, is that the criticism appears to assume that the meanings of a popular culture text or experience are determined by the author(s) of the text. British cultural studies, especially the work by cultural theorist Stuart Hall and his colleagues, challenged that author-based model of the meaning of texts and in its place developed the position that the meanings of a popular culture text or event is a product of the active interaction between the text itself and the audience consuming the text. The creators of the popular culture may have encoded a series of meanings in a text or event, noted Hall, but the audience decodes the communication and need not accept the hegemonic reading of the text desired by the creator. Some readers or viewers might have the resources to formulate an oppositional understanding of the text, while others may adopt a more negotiated stance, accepting some of the creators meanings and rejecting others.

This new view of the agency of the audience led critics to see that they would have to do fieldwork with audiences or otherwise engage in exchanges with audiences so that the critic could see how people were making their own meanings out of popular culture texts and experiences. Some social scientists use broad survey instruments for their audience response analysis. Others use interview methods with focus groups of audience members. Some put themselves in the natural settings with audiences (e.g., at Disney World) and observe how the audience interacts with and talks about the experiences.


The products of popular culture easily cross geopolitical boundaries. National film industries quickly became international, for example, but this is also true for other popular art forms, including music, literature, television, and comics. By the 1930s American films were dominating the world markets, but it was World War II (19391945) and the occupation of Europe and Japan by U.S. soldiers that accelerated the foreign appetite for American popular culture, in particular music, film, clothing (especially blue jeans), and comic books. By the 1950s the increasing globalization of the corporations producing popular culture was leading to what critics came to call the Coca-Cola-ization of the world, as it was hard to find any place in the world without that soft drink and the advertising for its consumption.

Some scholars and critics point to this international dissemination of American popular culture as a form of neocolonialism or neoimperialism by which the United States exerts ideological influence on other nations through its popular culture. Governments and nationalist social movements sometimes have resisted this American world hegemony through popular culture. Cultural studies expert Paul Gilroy and other critics see a different sort of neocolonialism in the field of cultural studies itself. Gilroys work on the transnational movement of African people and their cultural products makes an explicit critique of the racial assumptions and of the Anglocentric and Eurocentric focus of some cultural studies scholarship.

Although American popular culture still dominates the world markets, the flow of popular culture across borders became more complicated in the turn of the twenty-first century. Japanese animated television series and films (animé) and Japanese graphic novels (manga) became very popular among American and other youth, and Korean popular culture (musical groups and television serial dramas, for example) became very popular in Japan. Scholars have mapped world music cultures and the movement of the music across cultural boundaries. These trends have raised speculation that there is emerging a transnational youth culture linked by communication technologies and creating a shared culture through music, dress, video games, and television.


Popular culture has depended on advances in technology since the nineteenth century. Technologies of mass production and mass distribution made possible newspapers, magazines, and popular fiction (from dime novels to comic books to paperback novels). Popular music and the technologies of sound production have always been intertwined. Songwriters wrote to the time limits possible for recordings, and scholars have noted the effects of electronic amplification of music on the art of the music itself. The history of film is as much a history of technological change as of artistic change, and digital moving images may actually make film an archaic technological medium. Radio continues to evolve with the technologies, as the new satellite radio manufacturers and stations overcome the limitations of atmospheric broadcast and as increasing numbers of people listen to radio through their computers. Musicians and the companies that produce and market popular music have had to adjust to digital technological advances that make artistic and intellectual property rights difficult to enforce, as people use their computers to share music, films, and television shows. Young people seem to be platform agnostic, as some critics call the tendency to move easily between different technologies for consuming music, film, and television. These technologies add to the globalization of popular cultural products.

The new technologies of communication are having effects on social interactions that scholars are still trying to understand. Several studies make clear the role of social class in the uses of these technologies, and several worry that the gap between rich and poor people in the world will be widened by this technology gap.

Scholars are also interested in the cognitive effects of these new technologies for disseminating and consuming popular culture. American cultural historian Walter J. Ong studied the cognitive effects of our move from primarily oral cultures to written cultures, which led him to speculate that there is a secondary orality emerging in electronic communication. Furthermore some scholars argue that new media entertainments, including video games and computer games, actually require increasingly complex cognitive skills, from spatial intelligence to the ability to keep track of multiple storylines and characters. The advancements in cognitive and mind sciences make it likely that those working in these natural science disciplines will collaborate even more with the social scientists studying popular culture toward understanding the social and cognitive effects of mass mediated experiences.

SEE ALSO Capitalism; Cognition; Comic Books; Cultural Studies; Culture; Culture, Low and High; Digital Divide; Distinctions, Social and Cultural; Film Industry; Food; Frankfurt School; Freud, Sigmund; Globalization, Social and Economic Aspects of; Hall, Stuart; Humanism; Imperialism; Internet; Internet, Impact on Politics; Lasswell, Harold; Lazarsfeld, Paul Felix; Lewin, Kurt; Literature; Marx, Karl; Media; Mills, C. Wright; Music; Neuroscience; Property Rights, Intellectual; Radio Talk Shows; Social Science; Television; World Music


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Bourdieu, Pierre. 1984. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Trans. Richard Nice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Durham, Meenakshi Gigi, and Douglas M. Kellner, eds. 2006. Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks. Rev. ed. Malden, MA:Blackwell.

Hall, Stuart, et al., eds. 1980. Culture, Media, Language: Working Papers in Cultural Studies, 19721979. London: Hutchinson.

Jenkins, Henry. 2006. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press.

Lynd, Robert Staughton, and Helen Merrell Lynd. 1929. Middletown: A Study in American Culture. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company.

Lynd, Robert Staughton, and Helen Merrell Lynd. 1937. Middletown in Transition: A Study in Cultural Conflicts. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company.

Morley, David, and Kevin Robins. 1995. Spaces of Identity:Global Media, Electronic Landscapes, and Cultural Boundaries. London: Routledge.

Schiller, Herbert I. 1992. Mass Communications and American Empire. 2nd ed., updated. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Staiger, Janet. 2005. Media Reception Studies. New York: New York University Press.

Williams, Raymond. 1974. Television: Technology and Cultural Form. London: Fontana.

Williams, Raymond. 1982. The Sociology of Culture. New York: Schocken Books.

Jay Mechling

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Popular Culture

Popular Culture

Popular culture can be thought of as a composite of all the values, ideas, symbols, material goods, processes, and understandings that arise from mass media, such as the advertising and entertainment industries, as well as from other avenues, such as games, food, music, shopping, and other daily activities and processes.

Understanding Circumstances

For many people, popular culture may be the primary way of understanding, reinforcing, and modifying the circumstances of their lives. Most of the everyday knowledge and experiences that are shared by people (in the form of reading, watching, wearing, using, playing, working, talking, and so forth) make up the concept of popular culture. Popular culture, however, is distinguished from such traditional institutions as education, politics, and religion, although the distinction often becomes hazy. Over time, and with repeated exposure to societal norms (through, for instance, mass media), people form conscious and unconscious impressions of various aspects of life, including attitudes about pollution.

Chronicling the Good Life

Popular culture in the United States and much of the Western world has concentrated on the reoccurring major theme of the search for "the good life." Since the establishment of the United States, there have been two opposing themes of popular culture. The first theme, a materialistic one, emphasized a belief in happiness and success through technology, material wealth, and upward social mobility, while the second theme, a simpler one, sought happiness and success in a life of simplicity, one with few possessions, and a spiritual connection. Over the 230-plus years that these two themes permeated American society, they have alternated between being the majority and minority views. During years of prosperity, the materialistic theme dominated, whereas during more modest times the simpler theme was emphasized.

Social Values, Awareness, and Preferences

As the world's population continues to increase dramatically, and as issues such as global warming, ozone depletion, and the extinction of species garner worldwide attention, popular culture becomes more intertwined with people's environmental beliefs and values. The social values, awareness, and preferences of people are enmeshed in the fundamental moral and religious views between nature and humanity: Is it right to manipulate nature? What is the responsibility of society to future generations? Are the rights of other species more or less important than human rights, or are they equally important? These and many other questions are fundamental to the cultural beliefs and values that guide how people live.

Attitudes about Pollution

Popular culture helps to shape people's general understanding about pollution and the environment. Poll results released in the 1990s have consistently shown that from 50 to 75 percent of all Americans consider themselves to be "environmentalists." Moreover, from extensive survey results analyzed by Riley Dunlap and Rik Scarce, three major conclusions have been made about Americans: (1) they have become much more proenvironment since the 1960s; (2) since the 1980s, their environmentalism extends beyond opinions into their basic values and fundamental beliefs; and (3) their attitude about the environment affects the way they interact, consume, and vote.

Images of Pollution in Popular Culture

Images of the natural environment have been prominent in American popular culture since the ecology movement of the 1970s and 1980s. Music and art focusing on human interaction with the environment became popular beginning in the 1960s. Some popular early images of pollution that are now rooted into popular culture:

  • A public service TV advertisement, which features a Native American with a tear running down his cheek (sometimes called "the crying Indian"). After paddling his canoe up a polluted river with dirty smokestacks crowding the shores, he comes ashore to a littered riverbank only to have more trash tossed carelessly out of a car and land at his feet. The narrator for the Keep America Beautiful television public service advertisement then declared, "People start pollution, people can stop it." (It premiered on the second Earth Day in 1971.)
  • The song "Calypso," by John Denver, which was about French explorer and environmentalist Jacques Cousteau's ship, the Calypso. It included the lines "To light up the darkness and show us the way / For though we are strangers in your silent world / To live on the land we must learn from the sea."
  • The song "Mercy Mercy Me," by Marvin Gaye, which laments: "Oh mercy mercy me / Oh, things ain't what they used to be no, no / Where did all the blue sky go? / Poison is the wind that blows from the north and south and east."
  • The song "Big Yellow Taxi," by Joni Mitchell, released on her 1970 album Ladies of the Canyon. The song's lyrics include, "Don't it always seem to go / That you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone / They paved paradise and put up a parking lot."
  • The Smokey the Bear advertisement campaign by the U.S. Forest Service. Over the years (starting in the 1940s), the campaign reminded people: "RememberOnly YOU can prevent forest fires."
  • The recycling symbol, with the familiar three colored arrows that represent three recycling-related actions: (1) The red arrow stands for separating recyclables from garbage and recycle them, (2) the blue arrow stands for manufacturing new products from the recyclables, and (3) the green one represents purchasing products made from recycled materials ("green products").

The relationship between popular culture and popular opinion is circular. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the movie business. Hollywood needs good stories and bad guys. Awareness of environmental issues provided it with a wealth of both.

In what was arguably Hollywood's first environmental thriller, life mimicked theater. In The China Syndrome (1979), a TV reporter (played by Jane Fonda) and her cameraman (Michael Douglas) collaborate with a whistle-blower (Jack Lemmon) to expose the risk of a meltdown at a California nuclear power plant. Within weeks of its release, reactor number two at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island nuclear plant suffered a partial meltdown.

It did not take long for Hollywood to find drama involving real-life whistle-blowers. Silkwood (1983), starring Meryl Streep, Kurt Russell, and Cher, told the story of Karen Silkwood, a chemical technician at the Kerr-McGee plutonium fuels production plant in Crescent, Oklahoma, and a member of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union. Silkwood was an activist critical of plant safety who was inexplicably exposed to plutonium. She was gathering evidence to support her claim that Kerr-McGee was negligent in maintaining plant safety when she was killed in a suspicious one-car crash. The movie was a box-office success; Kerr-McGee settled out of court with Silkwood's family for $1.3 million.

Two later blockbuster movies focused on legal fights against corporate bad guys:

  • A Civil Action (1999) (based on the book of the same name), starring John Travolta and Robert Duvall, portrayed the true story of a dedicatedsome would say obsessedlawyer, Jan Schlichtmann, who took on a case involving drinking water contaminated by industrial pollution from two highly regarded corporations, which caused the deaths of innocent children in Woburn, Massachusetts.
  • Erin Brockovich (2000), starring Julia Roberts and Albert Finney, tells the story of an unlikely real-life heroine, Erin Brockovich, who built a powerful case based on suspicious connections between a powerful electric utility, its abuse of toxic chromium, and the poisoned water supply of Hinkley, California, whose residents had suffered a legacy of death and disease.


The increase in environmental awareness is reflected in the common vernacular: What were once called swamps are now called wetlands; what were once called jungles are now called rain forests; and what was once called a round globe is now called Mother Earth. A shift of perception from insignificant pieces of land to valuable components of an overall ecosystem has shown a fundamental change in cultural awareness. Language, though, is only one example of how a rising awareness of the effects of pollution and a greater understanding of ecosystems has been reflected in U.S. society. An average day contains many small examples of how the environment crisscrosses American lives.

A Typical Day of Enviro-Culture

A day in the life of an average American is filled with popular culture's representations of pollution and the environment. A person makes breakfast with cereal from a company that touts itself as environmentally conscious. Flipping channels while eating breakfast, an individual learns from CNN that an oil spill has occurred overnight near a sensitive coastline, while the Weather Channel reports that beach erosion caused by a hurricane off the coast of North Carolina is harming the natural resources of the sensitive Outer Banks. This average American drives to work in a sport utility vehicle (SUV), which was bought on its ability to drive up rugged mountain roads, but declined to buy a compact car that was advertised to help save the environment because of its fuel economy. This individual arrives in a crowded, concrete parking lot that surrounds a multiple-story office building, as do the other thousands of employees who also drive up singly and sometimes in pairs. The person stops by the grocery store on the way home from work in order to pick up prepared food that has been processed in a factory, but that is heralded as the right way to feed oneself in a wholesome and nutritious manner. And so it goes.

The American individual is exposed daily to images and ideas from popular culture (oftentimes unknowingly) in prepackaged advertisements on television, in newspapers and magazines, on the side of food products, on the Internet, and from hundreds of other sources. Certainly, most people's understanding of pollution issues and policies is formed from such brief tidbitsnews reports, literature, and entertainment they encounter throughout their busy day.

American Lore: The Ecology of Images

The use of environmental images in popular culture has figured distinctly in American lore. Included in a paper titled "Ecology of Images," cultural theorist Andrew Ross calls the use of environmental images in popular culture the "ecology of images." The negative images of the natural environment included within the popular culture since the ecology movement emerged in the 1970s have included burning rivers, oil-slick waterfowl, and dirty smokestacks. The positive images include a green planet, rushing, clear waters, and white-peaked mountains. The negative images are often used by activists, who often direct blame onto the industrial sector of the community. The positive images are often shown by the business sector, in an effort to demonstrate how well they get along with nature and the environment. Nature and the environment are used as the means to produce the material goods that are needed and desired in society, but they are often abused as a result of in this materialistic way of living.


Popular culture is a world in which everything is for sale one way or anothera world of commercialism. The environment is often thought of as a product to be consumed, and, as a result, pollution becomes one facet of an ever-growing concern of the American popular culture. Companies involved in the capitalization and industrialization of the United States increasingly promote their products, and themselves, as being in tune with nature.

Greenwashing. D.C. Kinlaw states in Competitive and Green: Sustainable Performance in the Environmental Age, published in 1993, that businesses increasingly associate themselves with nature (sometimes called the "greenwashing" of the environment). Kinlaw continues by saying that only "by making the environment an explicit part of every aspect of the organization's total operation, can the leaders of an organization expect to maintain its competitive position and ensure its survival." By associating themselves with a good environmental policy (even though they may have a poor environmental record), companies can incorporate these advertised ideals into the popular culture for economic gain and for a supposed improvement in the quality of life. Major department stores and name brands promise the "good life" when they advertise a seemingly endless array of clothes, electronics, home furnishings, kitchen appliances, or whatever other material goods they offer. Similarly, Arkansas officials advertise that their state is "the Natural State," Texans can say "Don't Mess with Texas," and Midwesterners can say their states are "America's Breadbasket," but in reality these lands must be used (and often they are environmentally abused) to produce the lumber, oil, wheat, corn, cattle, and pigs necessary to support the economy and economic standards of the United States.

Two Sides of Nature. Nature must be used to fulfill the needs of people, as they endlessly demand new and better products with which to live the good life. Sometimes called "eco-pornography," the pollution that results from manufacturing is not always evident in everyday life, in the blue skies and clear waters of the images seen in popular culture in the form of television commercials, greeting cards, corporate promotions, and in books, magazines, calendars, travelogues, and videos.

The perspective of the environment as a commodity is found throughout the domain of popular culture. The cultural realm shapes and reflects the values, awareness, and preferences concerning pollution. Whether the vehicle is advertising, music, slogans, symbols, or mascots, the power of popular culture to shape society's behaviors and thoughts with respect to pollution is significant.


Anderson, Alison. (1997). Media, Culture, and the Environment. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Dunlap, Riley E.; and Scarce, Rik. (1991). "The PollsPoll Trends: Environmental Problems and Protection." Public Opinion Quarterly 55:713734.

Grossberg, Lawrence; Wartella, Ellen; and Whitney, D. Charles. (1998). Media Making: Mass Media in a Popular Culture. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

Kempton, Willett; Boster, James S.; and Hartley, Jennifer A. (1995). Environmental Values in American Culture. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Kinlaw, D.C. (1993). Competitive and Green: Sustainable Performance in the Environmental Age. San Diego, CA: Pfeiffer & Company.

Rushkoff, Douglas. (1994). Media Virus! Hidden Agendas in Popular Culture. New York: Ballantine Books.

Ross, Andrew. (1994). The Chicago Gangster Theory of Life: Nature's Debt to Society. New York: Verso.

internet resources

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William Arthur Atkins

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popular culture

popular culture Culture is the central concept of anthropology, and denotes all the knowledge, technologies, values, beliefs, customs, and behaviours common to people. While simple societies may have only a single integrated culture that is shared by everyone, complex societies can accommodate many layers and levels of cultures and subcultures.

One important distinction is between popular culture and what is usually called high culture. The latter includes things like classical music, serious novels, poetry, dance, high art, and other cultural products which are usually appreciated by only a relatively small number of educated people. Popular culture, sometimes also called mass culture, is far more widespread and accessible to everyone. The main business of popular culture is entertainment and, in Europe and the United States (for example), it is dominated by sports, television, films, and recorded popular music.

Traditionalists from Wordsworth on have lamented the poor quality of popular culture. Liberal and radical critics have been more inclined to support the popular as an authentic expression of public taste, and to dismiss the remote products of high culture as élitist. Sociologists have become involved in the analysis of popular culture because it provides a window into public consciousness, and is an important element of solidarity within social classes and of division between them. Conflict theorists focus on the production of popular culture by large, capitalist corporations, and suggest that the product may be not only inauthentic but also an instrument of ideological domination.

Studies of popular culture overlap with those of subcultures, youth cultures, ideology, leisure, and the mass media. Ian Chambers , Popular Culture (1986)
and Tony Bennett et al. , Popular Culture and Social Relations (1986)
, indicate the range of topics which can be subsumed under this general heading. See also CULTURAL STUDIES.

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culture, popular

culture, popular See POPULAR CULTURE.

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