Popular Culture

views updated May 11 2018


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

Popular Culture

views updated Jun 27 2018


Peter Burke

Definitions of popular culture abound, whether it is viewed primarily as peasant culture, oral culture, unofficial culture, the culture of custom, the community, culture created by the people or for the people. Despite or sometimes because of this abundance, some historians have questioned whether popular culture is a useful category of analysis at all. To discuss this question is the fundamental aim of this article. After a short discussion of the historiography of the subject, the remaining pages will be devoted to problems, notably the problem of the sources; the problem of defining the key terms "popular" and "culture"; the twin problems of hegemony and resistance; and the problem of mass culture.


Popular culture was long neglected by historians because ordinary people were considered beneath the "dignity of history." Although earlier European antiquaries had sometimes written with more or less condescension about popular customs, a serious interest in the culture of ordinary people on the part of the learned began not among historians but among men of letters, such as Sir Walter Scott and Johann Gottfried Herder. A movement developed, from the late eighteenth century onward, to collect traditional popular poetry before the new urban and commercial society destroyed it. This interest in the "folk" spread from poetry to music, painting, and building and to the beliefs and customs described from the middle of the nineteenth century onward as folklore (Volkskunde, folclore, and so on). Open-air museums of peasant housing and material culture were founded in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and elsewhere in the later nineteenth century.

One of the main reasons for this new interest was that the people, especially the peasantry, were believed to have preserved the cultural heritage better than other social groups had done. Around 1800 in many parts of Europe, a return to this heritage was regarded as an antidote to the corruption of different national cultures by the imitation of foreign models on the part of the upper and middle classes, especially in the cities. It was no accident that this "discovery of the people" took place in the age of nationalism or that more interest was shown in popular culture in central and eastern Europe and in Scandinavia than in western Europe, more in Scotland than in England, and more in Britanny or Languedoc than in the Îlede-France.

Until the 1960s most historians were content to leave the study of popular culture to the folklorists. However, two shifts of interest combined to place the study of popular culture on the agenda of historians at this time. First was the rise of history from below. Following the example of E. P. Thompson in Britain and like-minded scholars in other countries, historians of culture and society increasingly found a place for ordinary people in their narratives. Second, the turn toward the new cultural (or sociocultural) history meant that historians of the "popular classes" found a place for culture alongside their discussions of the standard of living or political action.

However, to give culture a greater importance than before was to do more than simply widen the historian's agenda, as the debate over Thompson's Making of the English Working Class (1963) shows clearly enough. Thompson's book was criticized by his fellow Marxists for what they called its "culturalism," a deviation from the economic interpretation of history. They had not expected to hear so much about broadside ballads or to learn about the symbolism of food and initiation ceremonies and the iconography of riots or to be told that John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress was a foundation text of the working-class movement or to read about the culture of the English radicals or that of the weaving communities of Yorkshire and Lancashire.

As this example suggests, although new approaches to history are normally designed to solve problems, they often raise problems of their own. In the field of popular culture, the two most fundamental problems revolve around, although they cannot be reduced to, the difficulty of defining the two key terms, "popular" and "culture."


All historians have to grapple with the problem that their access to the past is indirect, but historians of popular culture face the problem of mediation in an unusually acute form, as the following observations may suggest.

  1. Historians of the culture of ordinary people are often condemned to see it through the eyes of elites, including the antiquarians and folklorists who collected much evidence that would otherwise have been lost but also added their own interpretations of it. We know a good deal about elite views of popular culture and all too little about the reverse.
  2. The alien eyes through which we see so much of popular culture are sometimes literally foreign, the eyes of travelers, because in early modern Europe in particular, festival culture and everyday culture alike were taken for granted in the region itself, so that only outsiders found it sufficiently surprising to bother to record it. It would be difficult indeed to write the history of the Carnival of Venice without the testimony of a succession of foreign visitors who described what they saw or asked the locals what it meant, visitors such as the fifteenth-century German nobleman Arnold von Harff or the seventeenth-century English gentleman John Evelyn. However, foreign visitors notoriously misunderstand what they see and even what they hear in a strange environment.
  3. The eyes through which a historian observes popular culture may also be hostile eyes, for example, the eyes of reformers, whether clerical or lay, intent on purifying the culture from paganism, superstition, immorality, or disorder.
  4. Much of popular culture is oral; some would define it as essentially oral. Yet in the age before the use of the tape recorder, the oral survives only through written evidence, which necessarily distorts it. The performative element in popular culture is even more elusive, the verbal descriptions and occasional images providing no more than an approximation to the lost reality.
  5. Historians of culture, like historians of society, want to discover what the norms were in particular places and times. Since these norms were taken for granted at the time, historians are condemned to discovering them from the breaches, reconstructing what should have happened from stories about what went wrong—from a tavern brawl that led to manslaughter to Carnival in the city of Romans in Dauphine in 1580—analyzed by the French historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, in which local social and religious conflicts, exacerbated rather than appeased by the festivities, led to a massacre.
  6. When, in the most favorable conditions, the sources allow the historian to view popular culture from inside, the participants who have left first-hand accounts do not form a random sample of the whole but are the more self-conscious individuals, generally the more prosperous, literate, and urban.
  7. In any case, different kinds of ordinary people participated to different degrees. The visibility and audibility of young adult males in festivals from carnival to charivari will be obvious enough. The majority of the community, including women, remained relatively invisible and inaudible. Following the sources closely, historians run the risk of assuming the consensus of the community and overlooking possible differences, distinctions, and conflicts.
  8. Surviving sources privilege major celebrations in major cities at the expense of the more common rural festivities, which were smaller in scale and often escaped the notice of visitors and reformers alike.

All these problems are serious, but none of them rules out the possibility of writing history at all. Better-documented examples illuminate others for which the evidence is more fragmentary, while different sources for the same event or activity may confirm or supplement one another.


For some nineteenth-century scholars, "the people" included everyone. It was synonymous with the nation, and in some European languages the same word (narod in Russian, for example) is used in both contexts. For others, the term rightly referred only to the peasantry, thus excluding the urban working classes, who were thought to have no traditions of their own. Today, historians still have problems with the concept of the popular. From an economic point of view, the people might be described as the relatively poor. In political terms, they are what the Italian social theorist Antonio Gramsci called the "dominated classes" (classisubalterni), in other words, the powerless. A strictly cultural definition is more difficult. The people might be described as the formally uneducated, more exactly, as those who have not had access to higher education and may not even have attended school. It will be noted that these three definitions are essentially negative, describing the people as those who lack what other groups possess. In similar fashion, popular culture has often been described if not defined in terms of residues, what is left over after "high" culture (Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Descartes, Beethoven, and so on) has been subtracted—leaving us with folk songs, folktales, and folklore. The disadvantages of defining any object of historical study in terms of what it lacks rather than what it possesses should be obvious enough.

The binary model. Another general problem is that of the cultural distance between the elites and the people in a given place and time. Where earlier historians either argued or, more frequently, assumed that the upper classes lived in a different cultural world from ordinary people, much work in cultural history has dealt, following the Russian cultural theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, with interactions, exchanges, or negotiations between the two. For Bakhtin, the cultural distinction between high and low was not a distinction between social groups but rather one between the official and the unofficial. He emphasized the importance of unofficial occasions, such as Carnival, and unofficial locales, such as the marketplace.

Late-twentieth-century studies confirmed Bakhtin's suggestion by showing that sixteenth-century European nobles, for example, participated in what we call "popular culture" at least on some occasions in the year, such as Christmas and Carnival—the rituals associated with the annual cycle of the seasons offer the clearest example of common participation by different social groups. The wives and daughters of the nobility participated still more fully in everyday popular culture at this time partly because their level of literacy was generally lower. The elites were bicultural just as they were bilingual in the sense of being able to speak a standard or literary form of the vernacular as well as to communicate with ordinary people in the local dialect.

This biculturalism of individuals and groups facilitated exchanges between cultures or subcultures. It has long been known that certain cultural items, romances of chivalry, for example, have descended in the social hierarchy over the centuries, forming part of what the German folklorists called "sunken cultural property" (gesunkenes Kulturgut). Movement also took place in the opposite direction, as in the case of dance. The European upper classes regularly appropriated styles of dancing from the peasants, attracted by the vigor and spontaneity of these dances but gradually refining them until the need to borrow reasserted itself. In some cases it is possible to trace a complete circle of appropriation and adaptation between the culture of shepherds, let us say, and aristocratic pastoral.

It is virtually impossible to discuss interactions of this kind without using terms such as "learned" and "popular," or "high" and "low." In other words, we need the dichotomy in theory even when we are engaged in undermining it in practice. At the very least it provides historians with a useful kind of shorthand or a model in the sense of a deliberate simplification that enables the user to understand a more complex reality somewhat better. Some scholars, particularly those interested in cities, have advocated a three-tier rather than a two-tier model, finding a place for an apparently distinctive third or middle-class culture. One example is found in the American historian Louis Wright's Middle-Class Culture in Elizabethan England (1935) with its descriptions of printed books or booklets that encourage self-improvement, give instructions in domestic relations or guidance to godliness, or offer accounts of the wonders of nature and of travel. Another comes from a perceptive study of nineteenth-century Sweden, by Jonas Frykman and Orvar Löfgren, in which the bourgeoisie are presented as defining themselves first against the culture of the aristocracy and then against the culture of the working class.

The problem is that on close inspection, this middle-class culture often turns out to have many elements in common with the other two. In those cases it therefore seems preferable, on the grounds of intellectual parsimony, to work with a binary model on one condition: that the frontier between the two cultures is not regarded as too sharp or too stable. Historians need a model that enables them to discuss not only degrees of cultural distance but also change over time. The binary model allows them to do this and also to distinguish the directions of cultural movement, upward or downward.

The logic of appropriation. Unfortunately, the conceptual problems of historians of the popular do not end at this point. As the French scholar Roger Chartier has argued, it is extremely unwise to try to define the popular in terms of particular texts, images, festivals, or other items given the different uses and meanings of the same artifact or practice when it is appropriated by different individuals or groups. In France at the end of the seventeenth century, for example, certain folktales (fairy tales, as we sometimes call them) that had long circulated among the peasantry were appropriated by the lords and ladies who surrounded Louis XIV. However, the stories changed their meaning when they were transported from the cottage to the court, just as Marie Antoinette in pastoral garb was no ordinary shepherdess. In his own work on French chapbooks, the so-called Bibliothèque Bleue (so called because the booklets were bound in cheap blue paper), Chartier has tended to focus on the texts, studying their careers or trajectories as they were adapted to the needs of different communities of readers and listeners.

This approach is both valid and valuable. However, it surely needs to be complemented by another approach, which might be described as a "social history of culture." The traditional, more or less Marxist sociology or social history of culture, which aligned ideas, artifacts, and performances with different social groups (usually social classes) has often been criticized as too simple and reductionist. For instance, according to the French theorist Michel de Certeau (a major influence on Chartier), the old sociology of culture failed to take account of the phenomenon of appropriation, of what he called the creative or productive aspect of consumption, the different uses and meanings of the same item in different settings. Certeau viewed culture as a kind of bricolage in which the users were continually producing something new out of old materials.

However, the social history of culture is capable of being revised to take account of these suggestions. A new social history of culture might usefully center on what might be called the logic of appropriation, in other words, the principles underlying the selection and combination of texts, images, and so on by a particular social group in a particular setting at a particular time. The British sociologist Dick Hebdige's well-known study of some British popular subcultures of the 1960s and 1970s, notably the Rastas, mods, and punks, argued that it was precisely by bricolage that these groups created their own styles, but that each style also had a social meaning. How can we discover this logic of appropriation? Such an investigation might well start from a social rather than a cultural definition of the popular, such as the attitudes and values of ordinary people as they are expressed or embodied in practices and in artifacts. Of course social groups are to some extent culturally constructed—defined by their style of life—but only to some extent, since there are real and sometimes extreme contrasts in wealth and power underlying the lifestyles of different classes or "estates."

The advantage of this social definition is that it leaves open for empirical investigation two fundamental problems. The first is whether or not there are cultural divisions within the subordinate groups taking the form either of cultural stratification (the richer and the poorer peasantry, for example) or of what has been called segmentation into subcultures—male and female, old and young, urban and rural, not to mention occupational subcultures such as soldiers, sailors, beggars, thieves, shepherds, cobblers, and so on. In order not to forget this variety, it might be advisable to employ the term "culture" in the plural and speak of learned cultures, popular cultures, religious cultures, and so on.

The second problem is whether or not particular cultural items are shared (in a given place at a given time) between ordinary people and elites, either ruling classes or specialists in what is variously called "high" or "learned" culture (priests, intellectuals, and so on). What is often called popular religion, for instance, might be better described as the religion of the laity or as unofficial religion—although we should not forget that ordinary people sometimes developed their own forms of religious organization, such as Catholic confraternities and Protestant lay preaching.

An alternative description might be "local religion," a point made by the American anthropologist William Christian in a study of religion in the region around Toledo in Spain in the later sixteenth century. Focusing on chapels, shrines, relics, indulgences, and the collective vows that villages made to saints to invoke their aid against natural disasters, Christian argues that "the vast majority of sacred places and moments held meaning only for local citizens," including in this group the local elites as well as ordinary people.

How much or how little different social groups have in common culturally has varied a great deal in the last five hundred years of European history. From the sixteenth century onward starting in Italy, historians have discerned a movement of withdrawal from popular culture on the part of the nobles, the clergy, and finally the middle classes, male and (somewhat later) female, beginning in Italy and spreading to France, England, the Netherlands, Spain, central Europe, and finally, Scandinavia and Russia. A vivid example comes from a 1986 study of early modern Barcelona. The author, James Amelang, speaks of a "retreat to the balcony" by urban elites; "direct participation in communal ceremonies gave way to observation, as the ruling class abandoned the street in favor of the balconies and inner salons of its mansions" (p. 196). The speed of this process of withdrawal must not be exaggerated. It was perhaps never complete, and in the twentieth century, if not before, the movement went into reverse. All the same, the concept of withdrawal has the advantage of suggesting links between a number of more specific changes, from the rise of private Carnival parties among elites to the abandonment of dances and taverns by the Catholic clergy after the reforms enacted at the Council of Trent.


"Culture" is if anything an even more difficult concept than "popular," and students of this topic have experimented with different definitions and research strategies. The first solution to the problem, adopted by the folklorists of the nineteenth century (if indeed it was a conscious solution and not an unconscious assumption), was to treat popular culture as a set of popular equivalents of the main forms and genres of high culture, in other words folk music, folktales, folk art, folk drama, and so on. This was for the most part what they chose to collect. A second solution, more open ended, was to focus on performances and especially on festivals, above all on Carnival—not only the central rituals (processions, dances, mock trials, and executions) but also the informal practices that surrounded them, the songs, the masks, the violence, and so on. Carnival has been studied with most care in the major cities along the urban spine of Europe—Naples, Rome, Florence, Venice, Basel, Nürnberg, and Cologne. These were the locales in which the most spectacular performances took place from the later Middle Ages onward for the sake not only of the citizens but of villagers from the surrounding countryside, not to mention the foreign visitors who arrived in increasing numbers from the late seventeenth century onward. From the nineteenth century onward, however, there is also increasing evidence of Carnival at the village level in Italy, France, Germany, and elsewhere.

Whether or not ordinary people used to spend most of their year looking forward to Carnival and other festivals or remembering past ones, it is clear that their culture cannot be reduced to such events. The late-twentieth-century solution to the problem, "What is popular culture?" was to approach it through the study of everyday life. Following the lead of anthropologists and the philosophy of the "cultural construction of reality," historians used the term "culture" more and more widely to speak of "political culture," "print culture," "culinary culture," "housing culture," the "culture of poverty," "the culture of the factory," the "culture of consumption," and so on. Among the advantages of this approach is the fact that the gendering of popular culture appears more clearly in the study of the everyday than in that of festivals, whether one thinks of distinctive female attitudes to sexuality or violence, or of women's access to certain cultural spaces, from the public square to the tavern.

However, if all human activities are to be described as culture, there seems no point in using the term at all. Cultural historians have stuffed so many different items into their sack that it is on the verge of bursting. A possible solution to this problem might be to define cultural history, like cultural studies, in terms of an approach (or a discourse) rather than a field in the conventional sense. The approach might be described as one emphasizing values, attitudes (including what the British critic Raymond Williams called "structures of feeling"), and symbols, wherever they are to be found, as they are expressed or embodied in artifacts (images, tools, buildings) and in actions, whether everyday practices or special performances. It is also concerned with what the Russian semiotician Juri Lotman called the poetics of culture, the unwritten rules and unspoken assumptions underlying everyday life.

Unfortunately, these concepts too present obstacles. The notion of a cultural rule has been criticized by the French social theorist Pierre Bourdieu as too rigid. On the other hand, his alternative to it, "habitus," might be said to have the opposite disadvantage—it is too flexible and elusive. The idea of the "everyday" is also more ambiguous than it may look, since in different contexts it has different meanings—private as opposed to public, popular as opposed to elite, routine as opposed to creative, and normal life as opposed to special occasions.

Perhaps the safest way to operate with the concept of culture is to treat it as historians have learned to treat the popular. In other words, not to focus on the everyday in itself but rather on the relation between the everyday and its opposite, the extraordinary, including in this category major events like the Renaissance, the Reformation and the French Revolution. The German sociologist Max Weber had a word for this process of interaction. One of the recurrent themes in his work was what Weber called Veralltäglichung. Usually but not quite accurately translated as "routinization," the term refers to the incorporation of novelties into everyday practices. It might be rendered as "quotidianization," "domestication," or even "familiarization"—a choice that has the advantage of reminding us that the "defamiliarization" advocated by some European writers early in the twentieth century was precisely an attempt to combat this process and to force people to look at their everyday reality with fresh eyes.


The study of popular culture, like the study of the everyday, has sometimes been criticized by politically committed historians as a kind of escapism, a retreat from the political. In the case of some scholars, this criticism may have been on target, but the links between politics, the everyday, and popular culture have been pointed out by a number of scholars.

Some of these scholars view popular culture as a means of political control or of "social" control as sociologists used to say. This theory goes back a long way. Roman elites thought that the people could be controlled by "bread and circuses." In the late Middle Ages, Carnival was already viewed as a period of license that would enable society to function normally the rest of the time. Marx called religion the opium of the people, and this idea has been extended to include elements of secular culture such as escapist literature.

A more subtle explanation of the fact that governments and ruling classes have often more or less had their way, taken over from Antonio Gramsci by some historians of popular culture, is the idea of "cultural hegemony." The essential idea is that the ruling class rules not, or not only, by naked force but rather by infecting other social groups with its values or worldview, so much so that ordinary people may come to accept the dominance of the church, the monarch, the aristocracy, and so on as unquestionable, as natural, as no more than common sense. Thus the popular image of the "three estates," which circulated in Europe in the form of cheap woodcuts as well as in literary texts, portrayed society as a division of labor blessed by God between those who pray, those who fight, and those who work in the strict sense of the term. Subaltern or dominated groups often structure their world through models provided by the dominant group. In that sense the dominated groups may be described as "muted," the term coined by the British anthropologist Shirley Ardener to describe the culture of one of the most important of these groups—women.

The principal alternative to the opium theory, however, is its exact opposite, the idea of popular culture as encouraging or underpinning resistance to changes initiated by governments or ruling classes. Open resistance sometimes took the form of rebellion, its forms or language colored by the local culture as many historians have argued with reference to the Peasants' War in Germany; the "barefoot" rebellion of Normandy in 1639 (Va-nu-pieds); the revolt of the serfs, led by Pugachov, in eighteenth-century Russia; or the Luddite riots in early-nineteenth-century England.

Another form of resistance is more subtle. Muted groups often have a way of subtly changing the interpretation of the ideas or symbols handed down to them by the ruling classes. The creative appropriation discussed earlier, in the section on the idea of the popular, may be linked to what are sometimes described as "counterhegemonic strategies," a phrase that may exaggerate the degree of self-consciousness and planning involved. Popular revolt, for instance, has not infrequently been justified in terms of official religious values. One famous example is that of the German peasants who rose against their masters in 1525 claiming that serfdom was unjust because Christ died for all men. Another is that of the Neapolitans who claimed that the Blessed Virgin (more exactly, a particular manifestation, the Virgin of the Carmine) was on their side in their revolt against Spanish rule in 1647. Alternatively, appeal may be made to a dead ruler for support against a living one, as the Norman rebels in 1639 appealed to Louis XII, who was said to have wept whenever he asked his people for money, against his successor Louis XIII, who had recently increased the burden of taxation. The songs, stories, and plays that treat outlaws or bandits as heroes, from Robin Hood to the mid-twentieth-century Sicilian Salvatore Giuliano, should not be forgotten because they justify resistance. No wonder then that Henry VIII was advised to forbid plays about Robin Hood on the grounds that they encouraged disobedience to royal officials.

To study popular resistance through rebellion alone, however, is like studying popular culture through its festivals, forgetting everyday life. Open revolt, however spectacular, was relatively rare. As the American political scientist James Scott was one of the first to emphasize, resistance to officials, landlords, or factory owners has often taken more everyday forms such as going slow, poaching, or sabotage, and the repertoire of these forms is part of popular culture—it is, after all, a form of knowledge and it may also have a symbolic meaning.

In any case, popular political culture was not just a matter of resistance. There were traditions of self-government at the village level in many parts of Europe, the German Gemeinde being a particularly well-known example. In Sweden the peasantry were represented in the Diet (Riksdag) as a separate estate of the realm. In many early modern cities, the craft guilds played a significant part in municipal politics. From the sixteenth century on, the role of ordinary people, especially urban males, in politics gradually became more important at the level of the state as well as the locality. The impetus to this increased political participation and political consciousness was one of the consequences of the Reformation. The religious wars in France, for example, and the revolt of the Netherlands against Philip II were civil wars in which local elites divided by religion appealed to the people for support, forming unstable coalitions with them. Something similar happened in the course of the so-called revolutions of the 1640s, notably, the English Civil War. In all these cases, a crucial element in the mixture was print. Printed pamphlets produced by both sides to justify their cause had the long-term effect of involving ordinary people in supralocal (if not national) issues more deeply than before.

The French Revolution both fitted the pattern of the earlier revolts and went beyond it. Once again, divided elites appealed to the people, and once again, print played an important part in the movement. However, there was a larger role for ordinary people on this occasion. The new political culture was more egalitarian than its predecessors, witness the attempt at the elimination of distinctions of dress, for example. Festivals were organized on a grander scale than before, allowing more people to participate.

Retrospectively at least, 1789 appears as a watershed in the history of popular culture, especially since it more or less coincided with the first stages of the longer industrial revolution. Traditional revolts continued in rural areas, such as the Rebecca Riots in Wales or the War of the Demoiselles in the Ariege in 1829, in both of which cases male rebels dressed as women. In cities, on the other hand, we see increasing participation by ordinary people in large-scale political movements such as the revolutions of 1848 and 1917. There was also more popular participation in everyday politics, thanks to the gradual extension of the vote.

The extension of the vote was linked to the spread of schools, the spread of schools to the rise of newspaper reading, and this in turn to increased political awareness. In England universal education was made compulsory after the extension of the vote to artisans in 1867. As a Victorian cabinet minister joked, "We must educate our masters." Universal primary education was also necessary to inculcate loyalty to the nation-state, to turn "peasants into Frenchmen" as the American historian Eugen Weber put it. In Russia a literacy campaign followed the revolution, while posters and films also promoted "mass mobilization." We have reached the problem of "mass culture."


It has often been argued or at least asserted that a major change in European culture took place around 1800. It was about that time that traditional popular culture was replaced or, more exactly, began to be replaced by mass culture. The culture that the folklorists were collecting and recording was in terminal decline. Where popular culture "grew from below," to employ the incisive formulation of Dwight Macdonald, "Mass Culture is imposed from above."

Discussions of "mass culture," at their height between the 1930s and the 1960s, present two problems in particular. In the first place, description, narrative, and analysis were closely linked to critique, to rejection. The critique was often formulated in terms of inauthenticity or spuriousness. Mass culture was viewed not as a culture but as an absence of culture or an anticulture. The intellectuals who criticized mass culture viewed the masses as the "other," in a way not so very different from earlier condemnations of "superstition," "license" or disorder.

In the second place, there was the problem of nostalgia, of idealizing or romanticizing earlier forms of popular culture from different periods. For example in The Uses of Literacy, a study of publications and entertainments such as magazines, popular music, and television, the English critic Richard Hoggart contrasted the "candy-floss world" of the 1950s, with its "sex in shiny packets," with what he described as an "older order," the more authentic working-class culture of his youth in Leeds in the 1930s. Needless to say, other critics located the golden age of popular culture considerably earlier than Hoggart, in 1900, for example, or in 1800. Take the music hall or its French or German equivalents at the end of the nineteenth century. Does this new institution exemplify the creativity of popular culture or, on the contrary, the rise of a mass culture turning ordinary people into passive spectators (as television would later be said to do)? The history of spectator sports such as boxing (institutionalized in England by the eighteenth century) and horse racing (institutionalized by the seventeenth century) leads to similar conclusions.

If only homemade culture qualifies as "popular," while commercialized culture is mass culture, then the latter has a much longer history than is usually admitted. In England, France, and elsewhere, the eighteenth century has been described as the age of the first "consumer society" in the sense that certain manufactured goods, such as clothes and furniture, were now cheap enough for ordinary people to buy. As for commercialized entertainment, one need look no farther for it than the theater of the fairground in Paris and elsewhere or the races at Newmarket. But why stop in the eighteenth century? The rise of the permanent theater in the late sixteenth century in London and Madrid gave opportunities to Shakespeare and Lope de Vega, but all the same it was commercialized and passive entertainment for a broad section of the urban population. The prevalence of print was already allowing "stars" of the entertainment world to emerge, among them the Londoners Richard Tarlton, the clown, and John Taylor, the waterman-poet. Both men knew how to add to their reputation with publicity stunts, such as dancing all the way from London to Norwich or sailing from London to York. Does this mean that mass culture had already arrived by 1600?

A more precise and so a more useful concept than mass culture is that of a "culture industry," central to the Frankfurt school of critical sociology. The industrial revolution, so it is argued, led to the mass production of culture. To be more precise, it led to a proliferation of standardized objects such as cheap prints, still cheaper in the age of the steam press than they had been in the early modern period. According to Marx, mass production led to the transformation of the people into the masses.

In contrast to Marx and the Marxists of the Frankfurt school, some late-twentieth-century analysts of popular culture, notably Michel de Certeau, emphasized the freedom of individual consumers to resist mass culture, for example, by making their own selection from the mass-produced objects available to them and by endowing these objects with personal meanings. Some of the British youth cultures or subcultures of the 1970s, such as the Rastas, mods, and punks mentioned in an earlier section, exemplify this process with particular clarity. However, the style of these rebellious subcultures has in turn been incorporated by the producers of mass culture, notably in the garment industry.

In any case the training of children was also standardized in the, nineteenth and twentieth centuries with the rise of compulsory school attendance in one European country after another, replacing informal methods of instruction in the family, the field, or the workshop by a more official, formal, or institutional culture. The British anthropologist Ernest Gellner described this process as the rise of "universal high culture." It might be more exact to speak of an attempt to introduce pupils to a high culture that was national or Western rather than local. The standardizing or leveling tendencies of the schools were reinforced by those of youth organizations such as the Hitler-Jugend and the Russian Komsomol, founded in a fascist and a communist country, respectively, in the twentieth century and an integral part of what has been called the "propaganda state." In the USSR in the 1920s, for example, the regime favored revolutionary songs and the patriotic music of Glinka and Tchaikovsky over traditional folk music.

All the same, in practice culture was also shaped by class. E. P. Thompson was a sharp critic of the traditional view of culture as the expression of communal values, thus privileging shared meanings over conflicts of meaning. Ironically, he has himself been criticized for the communitarian model of worker's culture that underlies his famous Making of the English Working Class. To go beyond this communitarian model, it may be useful to turn to Pierre Bourdieu, whose ethnography of contemporary France stressed the extent to which the bourgeoisie and the working classes have each defined themselves in contrast to the other. Was this also the case in nineteenth-century England? To the argument that schools introduce high culture to everyone, Bourdieu replies by stressing the hierarchy of schools and other institutions of higher education and the inequality of access to institutions at the top of the ladder. In other words, universal education did no more than replace one form of cultural stratification with another, while the cultural hegemony of the elite persists.

The culture of the school can also be resisted, a process described by Paul Willis in a study of working-class male adolescents in Birmingham in the 1970s. However, resistance had its price. The rebels who did not take school seriously ended up in unskilled working-class jobs.


Studies of the postindustrial or postmodern age have important implications for historians of contemporary popular culture. The increase in leisure, whether voluntary (owing to a reduction of working hours) or enforced (owing to unemployment) obviously has important cultural consequences. So does the late-twentieth-century globalization of culture. It undermines the nineteenth-century nationalization of cultures, reducing cultural variety in the world as a whole while at the same time increasing choices at the level of the individual and leading to cultural hybridization on a scale and at a speed previously unknown. The decline in the importance of literacy in an age of television and home computers is also of great significance for the future history of popular culture. Of the changes in progress in the 1990s, however, the one most central to the theme of this essay is the break-down of the old barriers between elite and popular cultures. It is the inverse of the movement of withdrawal in the early modern period, discussed above. Almost everyone watched the same television programs, for instance, and thus participated in a common culture, even if many minorities—not only elites—had a second culture of their own.

In the last few years of the twentieth century, a certain reaction among historians against the idea of popular culture arose. To some extent this reaction was justified by the crude dichotomies sometimes employed in the past. However, this response may also be a projection onto the past of the situation in which, to quote Susan Sontag, "the distinction between 'high' and 'low' culture seems less and less meaningful." Late-twentieth-century analysts perceived a danger that historians of the early twenty-first century would forget the existence of the barriers of birth, wealth, and education that were so important in the cultural history of Europe in the previous five centuries or more.

See also other articles in this section.


Amelang, James. Honored Citizens of Barcelona: Patrician Culture and Class Relations,1490–1714. Princeton, N.J., 1986.

Anderson, Patricia. The Printed Image and the Transformation of Popular Culture,1790–1860. Oxford, 1991.

Bailey, Peter. Leisure and Class in Victorian England: Rational Recreation and the Contest for Control, 1830–1885. 2d ed. London and New York, 1987.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Translated by Helene Iswolsky. Cambridge, Mass, 1968.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Translated by Richard Nice. Cambridge, Mass, 1984. Translation of La distinction.

Burke, Peter. Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe. 2d ed. Aldershot, U.K., 1994.

Capp, Bernard. The World of John Taylor the Water-Poet 1578–1653. Oxford, 1994.

Certeau, Michel de. The Practice of Everyday Life. Translated by Stephen Rendall. Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1984. Translation of L'invention du quotidien.

Chartier, Roger. "Culture as Appropriation: Popular Cultural Uses in Early Modern France." In Understanding Popular Culture. Edited by Steven L. Kaplan. Berlin, New York, and Amsterdam, 1984.

Christian, William A., Jr. Local Religion in Sixteenth-Century Spain. Princeton, N.J., 1981.

Davis, Natalie Z. Society and-Culture in Early Modern France. Stanford, Calif., 1975.

Davis, Robert C. The War of the Fists: Popular Culture and Public Violence in LateRenaissance Venice. New York, 1994.

Frykman, Jonas, and Orvar Löfgren. Culture Builders: A Historical Anthropology ofMiddle-Class Life. New Brunswick, N.J., 1987.

Ginzburg, Carlo. The Cheese and the Worms. Translated by John and Anne Tedeschi. Baltimore, 1980. Translation of Il formaggio e i vermi.

Gramsci, Antonio. Selections from Cultural Writings. Edited by David Forgacs and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith. Translated by William Boelhower. Cambridge, Mass., 1985.

Harris, Tim, ed. Popular Culture in England, c. 1500–1850. London, 1995.

Hebdige, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. London, 1979.

Hoggart, Richard. The Uses of Literacy. London, 1957.

Hutton, Ronald. The Rise and Fall of Merry England: The Ritual Year, 1400–1700. Oxford, 1994.

Kenez, Peter. The Birth of the Propaganda State: Soviet Methods of Mass Mobilisation,1917–29. Cambridge, U.K., 1985.

Le Roy Ladurie, Emmanuel. Carnival in Romans. Translated by Mary Feeney. London, 1980. Translation of Le Carnaval de Romans.

Lotman, Juri, and Boris Uspenskii. The Semiotics of Russian Culture. Edited by Ann Shukman. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1984.

Macdonald, Dwight. "A Theory of Mass Culture." In Mass Culture: The PopularArts in America. Edited by Bernard Rosenberg and David M. White. Glencoe, Ill., 1957. Pages 59–73.

Sahlins, Peter. Forest Rites: The War of the Demoiselles in Nineteenth-Century France. Cambridge, Mass., 1994.

Scott, James C. Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts. New Haven, Conn., and London, 1990.

Scribner, Robert W. For the Sake of Simple Folk: Popular Propaganda for the GermanReformation. Rev. ed., Oxford, 1994.

Sider, Gerald. Culture and Class in Anthropology and History. Cambridge, U.K., 1986.

Stites, Richard. Russian Popular Culture: Entertainment and Society since 1900. Cambridge, U.K., 1992.

Te Brake, Wayne. Shaping History: Ordinary People in European Politics, 1500–1700. Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1998.

Thompson, Edward P. Customs in Common. London, 1991.

Thompson, Edward P. The Making of the English Working Class. London, 1963.

Weber, Eugen. Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France 1870–1914. Stanford, Calif., 1976.

Popular Culture

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Since the 1960s, studies of popular culture in the United States have proliferated and a range of novel arguments have been proposed, linking patterns of popular culture production and consumption to systems of stratification and power. Before the 1960s in Europe, Roland Barthes ([1957] 1972) and Fernand Braudel ([1949] 1966) championed (for quite different reasons) increased attention to everyday culture and its social significance, and members of the Frankfurt school emigrating to the United States brought new theories of mass culture to American academics (Rosenberg and White 1957; Lowenthal 1961), but American scholars still did not generally see any value in studying popular culture.

Beginning in the mid-1960s, as the American middle class began to be targeted by the mass media as the desired audience, more American educators started to show more interest in media-based popular culture, even though in much of academia, studying popular culture was either declassé or taboo (Ross 1989). A few hardy souls from sociology and literary criticism looked at popular culture as a realm of interesting fads and fashions, ephemeral cultural forms that plummeted though modern urban life with regularity, gave rise to much cultural entrepreneurship, and left ordinary citizens running to keep up with what was "happening." Sociologists found it a bit easier to justify ongoing attention to these social ephemera because of the established tradition in sociology of examining urban and suburban communities and their cultures (Park 1955; Lynd and Lynd 1929). By the mid-1960s a quite active community of scholars around Bowling Green University proliferated empirical and descriptive accounts of everything from fast-food restaurants to rock and roll (Keil 1966; Nye 1972; Cawelti 1972; Browne 1982). At roughly the same time, a small group of literary scholars drew on longstanding literary interest in the voices of the people in literature (Shiach 1989, chap. 2, 4), and argued that to understand contemporary uses of language, one had to study commercial language in popular culture (McQuade and Atwan 1974). This work did not have much success in changing either sociology or literature. In sociology, it was eclipsed conceptually by sociological work that linked patterns of popular culture to systems of institutional control (Cantor 1971; Denisoff 1974; Hirsh 1972).This work had greater legitimacy because it addressed the organizations' literature, but it also reinforced the sense that the study of popular culture was not really important enough to stand on its own.

By the end of the 1960s, as the political climate shifted, radical scholars began to champion studies of popular culture either to understand the world of "the people" (disregarded by elites) or to account for the political passivity of the working class and poor. They tried to resuscitate questions about elite distaste for popular culture itself and its relation to systems of social control. These questions gave popular culture new importance, not as an aesthetic or commercial system but as a political actor in systems of stratification and power (Schiller 1969; Guback 1969; Aronowitz 1973; Gans 1974).

This legacy has been carried into present-day popular culture research as it has spread through sociology, literature, anthropology, history, and cultural studies. Ongoing fascination with "politics from below" has made this subfield a conceptually complex and politically "left" branch of cultural studies, not concerned so much with the moral fabric of society or the ideational sources of its integration (subjects derived from the Weberian tradition of cultural studies), but rather with the use of culture to exert or avoid systematic domination from above.

Many contemporary attempts to explain patterns of cultural domination through popular culture are indebted to (and in different ways critical of) the work on mass culture and consciousness begun by the Frankfurt school. Members of the Frankfurt Institute of Social Research originally organized themselves to examine the philosophical underpinnings of Marxism, but when Hitler came to power, since most of the leading members of the group were Jewish, this project was disrupted and many figures came to the United States. The work on mass culture that developed from this group was (not surprisingly) devoted to understanding the success of Nazism by dissecting and analyzing the psychological and political effects of mass society (Jay 1973). Members of the Frankfurt school perceived mass culture as aesthetically and politically debilitating, reducing the capacities of audiences to think critically and functioning as an ideological tool to manipulate the political sentiments of the mass public. They argued that in modern industrial societies, the pursuit of economic and scientific rationality provided an impoverished environment for human life. The realm of culture, which might have provided respite from the drudgery of everyday life, was itself being industrialized, yielding a commercial mass culture that atomized audiences and lulled them with emotionally unsatisfactory conventionality. This world of commodities only added to the dissatisfactions that deflected people from their desires. The dulling of their senses made them politically passive, and their emotional discontent made them easy targets for propaganda that addressed their powerful inner feelings. This combination, according to theory, was what made the propaganda in Nazi Germany so effective (Horkheimer and Adorno 1972).

During the 1960s, critical theory, as the work of the Frankfurt school came to be known, continued in U.S. intellectual circles to be used to explain the political conservatism of the working class, but it was also taken up in the student movement as a critique of commercial mass culture that justified the efforts by "flower children" to create radical social change through cultural experimentation. The problem was that, for the latter purpose, critical theory was too deterministic to have much room for human agency, including cultural strategies for change. Constructivist models from the sociology of culture could be and were used to explain how ordinary people could break the hold of political institutions over their imaginations (Blumer 1969; Goffman 1959; Berger and Luckmann 1966; Schutz 1967; Becker 1963), but they did not explain how ideological control of populations by elites could work. The insights of the Italian communist political writer Antonio Gramsci (1971) about hegemony seemed a better scheme for explaining both the role of ideology in systems of power and the constructed nature of social reality. According to Gramsci, elites maintained their power and legitimacy by creating hegemonic definitions of reality that were accepted as common sense by the population. By subscribing to these views, nonelites collaborated in their own oppression. Gramsci's work, available in English translations and popularized in the academic community in the 1970s, gave the study of culture and power in the English-speaking world new direction.

By the 1970s, much innovative work on popular culture was coming out of Great Britain. The British school of cultural studies drew attention to the role of nonelites in systems of power, but it focused more on working-class culture—particularly its role as a crucible for cultural resistance, innovation, and change. This school had its roots in the work of E. P. Thompson (1963) and Raymond Williams (1961; 1977; 1980). These authors began from the premise that the working class is not defined just by relations of production, but also by a self-consciousness bred in a class-based way of life. The working class has its own history and traditions that give its members distinct values and a complex relation to societal level systems of power. In their own cultural enclaves, class members are active producers of their own political institutions and popular entertainments (and through them defined social realities). So while the public culture of Western industrialized societies may be dominated by elites who control the mass media and who try to use cultural systems for exerting power, their hegemonic control is circumscribed by the cultures of subordinated groups. The realm of popular culture, in this tradition, is an arena of conflict in which cultural identity, authority, and autonomy are contested. Social rifts are made manifest in the multiplicity of points of view that enter into the public sphere along with the hegemonic messages of much mass culture (Curran, Gurevitch, and Woolacott 1979; Hall and Whannel 1965).

While early British cultural studies paid greatest attention to working-class culture, the ideas about cultural resistance were easily transferred to the analysis of other subordinated groups such as women, youth, and minorities. This broader approach to cultures of resistance gave birth to the kind of subcultural analysis conducted, for example, by Dich Hebdige (1979). He argues that innovations in youth culture come from marginalized working-class youths rebelling against both their parents and hegemonic culture. New developments in music and dress are culled from the cultural possibilities made available in mass society, both in commercial commodities and local cultures. These cultural resources are mixed and reassembled to create new subcultural styles. Much innovation of this sort comes from minority communities and is picked up by middle-class kids in part because it is so offensive to their parents. The irony, of course, is that if they make these styles popular, they end up making them part of the world of mass culture, economic mainstays of the entertainment industry.

One of the most interesting literatures spawned in America by this British school comes from historians looking to the realm of popular culture to try to understand class, gender, and ethnic relations in the United States. Roy Rosenzweig (1983), Kathy Peiss (1985), and George Lipsitz (1990) look at how class, gender, and ethnic culture are sustained and dissolved over time in patterns of resistance, co-optation, mutual influence, and change. They identify ways that residues of older cultural traditions both resist and are incorporated into the cultural mainstream, and ways that different groups have absorbed and used elements of both traditional and mass culture to fashion distinct identities and ways of life.

Rosenzweig (1983), studying the white working class in nineteenth-century America, treats popular culture as a site of resistance to work discipline in the factory. The division of life into periods of work and leisure for workers in this period was not, to Rosenzweig, the articulation of two spheres of activity, but a political division that was part of a struggle over control of time by workers.

Peiss (1985) looks at women workers in nineteenth-century cities. She demonstrates that young working women used their new economic independence to resist the constraints of the family as well as of the factory. They were able to develop new styles of dress, dancing, and play, but could not free themselves from their highly structured gender relations.

Lipsitz (1990) looks at how ethnic and class cultures have been sustained and dissolved in the late twentieth century in the United States. He sees popular culture forming a kind of popular memory, obscuring and yet reviving the U.S. working class's immigrant past and ethnic complexity. Centralized mass media such as television have helped to create and record the decline of immigrant identity under the force of consumerism. In contrast, more participatory cultural forms like street dancing and parading during Mardi Gras and some popular music forms have allowed ethnic groups to play their identities and create an urban mixed culture that simultaneously embraces and rejects traditional ethnic identity.

Another direction in the analysis of class and culture has been developed by Pierre Bourdieu (1984) and his colleagues in France. They have been looking for the mechanisms by which domination has been sustained across generations. If social constructivists are right and social life must necessarily be "created" by each new generation, then social stability over time needs theoretical explanation. To Bourdieu, culture is a main source of class stability. He argues that each rank has its own kind of cultural tastes, some systems of taste constituting cultural capital that can be exchanged for economic capital. People at the top of the hierarchy have a class culture with a high amount of cultural capital. They teach this culture to their children and thereby give them an economic edge. This kind of elite culture is also taught in school, but kids from less affluent backgrounds often resist learning it. This cultural resistance by the working class is not a victory, according to Bourdieu; rather, it is a trap for reproducing the class system.

Bourdieu's theory of cultural and social stratification is interestingly unlike most models found in the United States and Britain because it has no special place for a homogenizing mass culture. Bourdieu argues that members of different social ranks may see the same films (or other forms of mass culture), but they see them in different ways and they like or dislike them for different reasons. Elite culture is more abstract and formal than working-class culture, so elite filmgoers pay more attention to film language while nonelites care more about plots and stars. These differences in cultural consumption are more significant to Bourdieu than differences of cultural production (mass versus handmade culture) because elites identify with formal approaches to culture and prefer to associate with (and hire) those who share their views.

Scholars in both Britain and the United States have been profoundly influenced by Bourdieu. Paul DiMaggio (1982), in a study of the Boston Symphony and its development in the nineteenth century, paid attention to the differentiation of tastes and social ranks at issue when concerts for elite audiences were purged of popular songs and were used to define a special repertoire of classical music. This happened when the symphony was established as an elite musical institution and drove out competing musical organizations that had more "democratic" tastes. DiMaggio argues that this cultural differentiation took place when immigrant groups grew dramatically in Boston and took over local politics there. The superiority of traditional elites was no longer visible in the public sphere, but it remained central to the economy. The creation of cultural institutions identifying this elite with elevated tastes helped to make class power visible and to sustain it over time by giving upper-class Bostonians a distinctive culture.

In Britain, Paul Willis (1977) has confirmed Bourdieu's perceptions about class reproduction through his study of the education of working-class youths. He argues that distaste for the "elevated" values of the school among working-class youths is expressed in school by resistance to lessons. This resistance does not have the optimistic possibilities found in the theories of Williams (1977) or Hebdige (1979), but results in class reproduction. Working-class youths, in eschewing elite cultural values, end up reproducing their own domination within the class system. MacLeod (1987) in the United States finds much the same thing, although he focuses on differences between blacks and whites. Members of gangs from both ethnic communities who lived in the same housing project found difficulty escaping their social rank because of difficulties at school. The blacks believed that by going to school they could achieve mobility, while the white kids did not. Still, both groups were kept in their "places" by a lack of cultural capital.

Since the end of the 1970s, there has been a growing literature, stimulated by the women's movement, on gender stratification and popular culture. The bulk of it addresses two media—novels and film—because of the centrality of women to the economic development of these two areas of popular entertainment. As Ann Douglas (1977) pointed out in her seminal and controversial book, Feminization of American Culture, women readers and women writers helped to establish this form of popular novel writing in the United States during the nineteenth century. Sentimental novels were tailored to the domesticated women in the period, who had to stay home and devote their attention to familial relations and child rearing. The novels focused on interpersonal relations and problems of individuals' morals (as opposed to large issues of morality)—just the kind of thing that both fit and justified middle-class women's highly circumscribed lives. Douglas decries the role of women writers in shaping this disempowering literature for women and praises in contrast more "masculine" and male writings from the period (hence generating much controversy about her easy acceptance of the literary canon). Most important for students of popular culture, she argues that the sentimental novels were models of mass culture that have been used ever since in romance novels and soap operas.

Janice Radway (1984) questioned this easy dismissal of romance novels, and went out to study in a quasi-ethnographic fashion the readers of contemporary romance novels to see how they were affected by their reading. She found that the novels had more mixed effects than Douglas supposed. While they taught traditional gender relations (including male violence toward women), they also celebrated the gentler side of men and (more important) were used by women readers as a reason to deflect demands on their time by husbands and children. Women claimed their reading time as their own, and used it to withdraw temporarily from the uninterrupted flow of demands on their attention.

Gaye Tuchman's book (1989) provides some interesting history that serves as a vantage point from which to view the controversy between Douglas and Radway. She shows that, around the turn of the century, publishing houses began to reject the women novelists and their sentimental novels and to favor male novelists. Publishers were central to the switch to the canons of modernism, and the "expulsion" of women from the profession of novel writing. Women readers still constituted the major market for novels, but their market had become so lucrative that high-status male poets, who had eschewed the novel before, began to be interested in it. Once this occurred, their tastes were taken as authoritative and the novel was quickly placed in their hands. Tuchman makes clear that changes in taste like this were neither arbitrary nor grounded purely in aesthetics; they were the result of economic changes in the literary market, institutional decisions about how to address them, and institutional trivialization of women and their culture.

The attention to gender and film has been inspired not by the importance of the female audience or the centrality of women to the film industry (the opposite is the case), but rather by the importance of actresses, of the faces and bodies of film stars, to the commercial and cultural success of the industry. When feminist studies of film began in the 1970s, most of the work was on the exploitation of the female body in films by male filmmakers and for a male audience. This kind of analysis stressed how commercial films used male-centered notions of sexuality and power, presenting women in films as objects of desire and/or violence (Weibel 1977; Tuchman et al. 1978). In the 1980s, researchers turned away from the study of film production and toward analyses of film language and film consumption to construct a psychology of film watching (Modleski 1982; Mulvey 1989). Much of this literature focuses on the voyeuristic pleasure film watching provides men by allowing them to gaze at women's bodies while sitting in a dark theater where the female objects of the gaze cannot look back. Scholars in this tradition examine in shot-by-shot detail how men and women are differentially presented on film: men are generally in medium shots, carrying the action of films, while women stand in the background (or are dissected in close-ups to appear as faces or other body parts, available to the male gaze).

Because this type of analysis seemed to prove so decisively that films are constructed for a male audience, feminists wondered why women seem to find so much pleasure in going to the movies. One answer is that some films contain strong and interesting female characters who address issues of concern to female audiences. Another is that interpretations of films are not so controlled by authorial intentions, and are much more a matter of audiences' active readings of messages. Drawing on Nancy Chodorow's ideas about female psychology (1978), Carol Gilligan's ideas about female reasoning (1982), Lacanian psychology, and poststructuralist views of the politics of interpretation (Eagleton 1983), a psychology of film emerged around how audiences (particularly women) construct meaning from film texts (Mulvey 1985, 1989; Erens 1979). The most recent works of media analysis have rejected altogether such a dualistic approach to gender. Learning from studies of sexuality itself, they have considered how gender categories are at stake in popular culture. They examine how gender dualism is enforced and contested in the mass media (Gamson 1998).

In the 1980s, two opposite developments in culture theory have emerged from renewed attention (in poststructuralism in general and in the film theory described above) to the multivocality of texts and the proliferation of meanings through multiple readings. The upbeat one emphasizes the liberatory nature of culture, and is related to: (1) the poststructuralist argument that asserting alternative interpretations undermines the authority of canonical readings; (2) feminist versions of reader response theory that contend that how you use culture is central to what it is; and (3) the idea from the British school of cultural studies that competing social voices enter into the public sphere and are available for readers or audiences to find. Advocates of this position claim that efforts at social control through culture do not work very well because, in their own life worlds, people use the cultural resources around them in their own ways. These new constructivists—for example, Robert Bellah (Bellah et al. 1985) Ann Swidler (1986), Joseph Gusfield (1989), and Michael Schudson (1989)—are much like Goffman (1959) and earlier symbolic interactionists who presented everyday life as a cultural achievement, but they see the construction of meaning in everyday life (in an optimistic reversal of Foucault and other poststructuralists) as a healthy exercise of power as well as symbolic manipulation (Foucault 1970, 1975, 1979; Jameson 1984; Zukin 1988).

This optimistic view of the proliferation of meanings in everyday life is countered by students of postmodernism who derive from structuralism and poststructuralism an interest in the languages of culture and see in modern urban society a loss of meaning resulting from the multiplication of signs and their decontextualization or reappropriation. They argue that commercial culture has such a need to assign meaning to objects (in order to make sense of their consumption and use) that signs are proliferated, reappropriated, mixed, and reused until they lose their meaning. For example, as famous paintings are used to sell cosmetics, images of the Old West are used to signify the solidity of banks, and bits and pieces of past architecture are mixed to construct a new built environment, history is made meaningless. The play with signs goes on without serious thought to what this does to human life. The result is (to postmodernists) a politically debilitating alienation. Cultural production and counterproduction, the argument goes, may reduce hegemony by undermining attempts to define "common sense," and may give people pleasure through the free play of signs, but they provide only an illusion of freedom, and breed a loss of meaning in life. This view of modern urban life contains some of the unremitting pessimism of the Frankfurt school, but it is tied to a view of cultural decentralization that is at odds with traditional critical theory.

The diverse approaches to popular culture that have developed since the 1960s seem to have produced a proliferation of meanings for popular culture itself, but the result has not been alienation. Popular culture research has gained an analytic richness that it lacked when few scholars dared or cared to approach it. Conflicting theoretical views about what makes popular culture significant may make it more difficult to define and characterize (much less understand) the field. But all the debates consider how groups come to understand the world they live in, and how those understandings subordinate or alienate them (on the one hand) or liberate them to make meaningful lives, in spite of efforts by others to control them (Long 1997). This heritage is clear, and gives both meaning and direction to popular culture studies.

(see also: Mass Media Research; Postmodernism; Social Movements)


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——1977 Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

——1980 Problems in Materialism and Culture. London: Verso.

Willis, Paul 1977 Learning to Labor. New York: Columbia University Press.

Zukin, Sharon 1988 "The Post-Modern Debate over Urban Form." Theory, Culture and Society 5:431–446.

Chandra Mukerji

Popular Culture

views updated May 18 2018



Popular culture in twentieth-century Europe is the culture of mass appeal. In contrast to earlier periods when "popular" described essentially non-literary, folkloric, often local forms of culture, culture is seen as popular in the twentieth century primarily "when it is created to respond to the experiences and values of the majority, when it is produced in such a way that the majority have easy access to it, and when it can be understood and interpreted by that majority without aid of special knowledge or experience" (Bell, 1982, p. 443).

This modern idea of popular culture was linked to the rise of the mass media that dominated public life in the twentieth century. The popular press, the cinema, the gramophone, and its successors, radio, television, and the Internet, all addressed the mass public that came to characterize modern, industrialized Europe. Its rise had begun in the last decades of the nineteenth century, brought about by a number of interlinked economic and social factors, among them increased primary education, a rise in disposable income, the effects of urbanization, new means of transport and communication, increasing leisure time, and the commercialization of this leisure time with the rise of new forms of tourism, recreation, and entertainment.


Spectator sport, one of the most popular forms of twentieth-century mass entertainment, was part of the commercialization of leisure that began in the late nineteenth century. Of the many forms of sport that became an integral part of popular culture in modern European societies, none has been more influential than football. Its professionalization was signaled by the foundation of associations (in England in 1863, in the Netherlands and Denmark in 1889, in Switzerland and Belgium in 1895, in Italy in 1898, and in Germany in 1900) that regulated rules, competitions, and leagues. As early as 1888 the first professional league was established, the English Football League. The Fédération Internationale de Football (FIFA), founded in Paris in 1904 as an amalgamation of national football associations, signaled the European-wide success of spectator sport.

The new mass-circulating newspapers of the late nineteenth century, and all other important media of popular culture after it, discovered and cultivated sport as a prime arena of entertainment. Indeed, the merging of sport, entertainment, and mass media became one of the driving forces of popular culture in the twentieth century. There were already clear signs for this before 1914. A prominent example was the Gazzetta dello Sport, one of the most popular twentieth-century Italian newspapers. Founded as a weekly in April 1896 but published daily from 1913 on, it organized mass sporting events as much as it disseminated them. The title page of its first issue announced a regional cycling race hosted by the newspaper; in 1909 the Gazzetta organized the first Giro d'Italia, the nationwide cycling contest.

In merging media and sports, the Gazzetta provided an early model for twentieth-century popular culture. Its deliberate distance from established politics and its direct participation in mass culture can be seen as paradigmatic for the popular press that expanded rapidly in most European countries toward the end of the nineteenth century. Innovations in printing technology were a contributing factor, but decisive for the rise of mass-circulating newspapers was the fact that they combined commercial success with popular appeal. Their economy relied primarily on advertising revenue rather than on the income from news vendors; they ensured mass circulation through a comparably low selling price, new forms of distribution, and new styles of journalism. Instead of politics and international affairs, the popular press focused on entertainment, sports, sensation, and practical advice. In Britain, the Daily Mail was the pioneer. Started by Alfred Harmsworth, later Lord Northcliffe, in 1896, it was the first British morning paper to sell for a halfpenny. It began with a circulation of 200,000 issues a day, rising to 400,000 in 1898 and 989,000 in 1900. The Mail's success was soon imitated: the Daily Express was founded in 1900 and the Daily Mirror in 1903. From 1911 onward the Mirror topped the Mail 's circulation and was the first British "tabloid" (the word was coined in 1900 by Harmsworth) to reach a million copies.

It was in France, however, that Europe's biggest-selling popular newspaper was produced. With 1.5 million copies by 1914, Le Petit Parisien was the most widely read of the four popular papers that dominated the French market from the turn of the century (Le Petit Journal, Le Matin, and Le Journal being the other three). Together, they enjoyed a combined circulation of 4.5 million before World War I. In Germany, the Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung was the first to reach a circulation of one million. By 1914, the popular press was an established factor all over Europe, not only in the large urban centers, but also in smaller cities and their hinterlands. Kraków, Poland, with a population of approximately 120,000 people, had two hugely successful popular dailies by the outbreak of World War I. As elsewhere, their titles indicated a new readership and a new style of journalism: Nowiny dla wszystkich (News for everyone) and Ilustrowany Kuryer Codzienny (The illustrated daily courier).


The second important agent of twentieth-century popular culture that was already well established by 1914 was the cinema. The Grand Caféin Boulevard des Capucines, Paris, has a reasonable claim to being the location of its birth. It was here, in December 1895, that Louis Lumière introduced his "cinematograph" to a public audience. In the two decades between then and World War I, Europe experienced a breathtaking expansion of the new medium. From the turn of the century, cinemas became a common feature of cities and smaller towns. By 1914, the number of registered cinemas in large European cities had reached hundreds, typically seating between two hundred and eight hundred guests. Rapidly expanding to regional and rural areas, the cinematograph overtook earlier popular art forms such as the music hall. By the outbreak of World War I, the cinema was firmly established as "the most popular form of amusement of the day," as an early historian of the cinema observed (Steer, 1913, pp. 11–12).

As with most other new forms of mass media after it, the rise of the cinema triggered debates about morality, education, and "the masses." Politicians, intellectuals, and self-acclaimed moral authorities, many of them associated with the "reform movement" that accompanied the cinema in its early days, advocated a range of restrictions for the new medium. Their moral concerns were not only about the content of films but also about the unregulated public space and the "semi-darkness" of the cinema, which they saw as encouraging loose morals. The cinema channeled anxieties about "the masses" and "the crowd," perceived as a threat by many intellectuals. The German novelist Alfred Döblin described the spectators in cinemas as "a monster of an audience, a mass cast out by that white, staring eye." For this crowd, entertainment was "necessary like bread." With a "reflex-like lust," the consuming crowd satisfied its "hunger for sensation." Advocates of the cinema, in contrast, stressed the educational and artistic potential of the new medium. The stage was set for future debates about the influence of popular culture on moral and cultural values.

In parallel to the cinema rose the gramophone. First demonstrated by the American inventor Emile Berliner in 1888, this was a device that could reproduce the sound stored in acoustically generated, laterally cut grooves in the surface of a rotating disc. Different formats and technologies coexisted during the decades before World War I, but the gramophone increasingly won over the "phonograph" developed earlier by Thomas Edison. There were to be many changes in the way music was recorded and reproduced during the twentieth century, from the shellac disc to the vinyl plastic record, the magnetic tape to the compact disc, but the underlying model introduced by the gramophone changed very little until the 1990s: music was stored on a record that was then mass-produced and sold. There was a mass market of music consumption in Europe as early as 1904 when the Italian tenor Enrico Caruso had his first million-selling record.


The year 1914 marked a new era in the development of popular culture. Although governments had attempted to influence and manipulate popular culture before the war, its use for propaganda purposes was only fully explored during World War I. A number of important developments, among them the consolidation of national film, media, and entertainment companies, were the result. This went perhaps the furthest in Germany, where the founding of the Universum Film AG, or Ufa, in December 1917, brought the most important production and distribution companies into one government-owned holding that was to play a major part in the expansion of mass culture in Germany in the first half of the twentieth century. Yet, the relationship between popular culture and war was about more than propaganda and censorship, power and manipulation. World War I was the first of the major European conflicts that was experienced and made sense of through mass entertainment. The cinematograph and the gramophone made it possible for even remote audiences to participate in as well as seek diversion from the war. It was during World War I that the aesthetic strategies by which popular culture approached and represented war in the twentieth century were first experimented with. This could be seen in the novelty of violence, killing, and death represented in film and in the nostalgic and romantic framing of the radically challenging effects of modern warfare—themes that were taken up with new intensity during World War II, when the radio offered an additional medium of popular culture.


There were other important pioneers, such as Eduard Branly in France, Augusto Righi in Italy, and Alexander Popov in Russia, but Guglielmo Marconi is usually credited with the invention of the radio in 1895, harnessing the achievements of earlier innovators such as James Clerk Maxwell, Heinrich Hertz, and Oliver Lodge. Having failed to win support in his native Italy, Marconi brought the technology to Britain, where he demonstrated the potential of radio waves as a means of telegraphic communication. In 1914 he succeeded in transmitting speech over the radio, and in 1920 Marconi invited opera star Dame Nellie Melba to perform at his works in Chelmsford, demonstrating the potential of the "wireless" for entertainment. Whether state-controlled or industry-run, there were initially only a very few nationwide stations in European countries. The Netherlands led the way in regular broadcasting, putting out programs from The Hague in November 1919 through a station set up by the Netherlandse Radio-Industrie. In France the first radio station to broadcast was Radio Tour Eiffel, established in 1921 as a state station. In Britain, initial experimental stations were followed by the formation of the British Broadcasting Company, which began its daily schedule in 1922.

The radio soon reached much larger audiences than any other contemporary medium. By the late 1930s, roughly three out of every four households in both Great Britain and National Socialist Germany had a radio. In the context of popular culture, two aspects were particularly significant. First, these were simultaneous audiences. Programs could be heard at the same time by millions of listeners who did not have to be in the same location. Second, these were increasingly international audiences. The Geneva Plan for European wavelengths, drawn up in 1926, signaled that the new medium transcended national boundaries, a phenomenon that became a defining feature of popular culture in the twentieth century. While it offered a new experience of simultaneity, the radio did not make other agents of popular culture redundant. On the contrary, gramophone records, spectator sports, the cinema, and popular newspapers continued to flourish in the "age of radio."

During World War II the line between entertainment and propaganda was indistinguishable, in radio as in cinema and other arenas of popular culture. Indeed, forms of entertainment that were less directly political often proved to be more efficient in the mobilization of consent both in National Socialist Germany and in the Allied countries. The radio was the most important medium, in particular because it did not stop at boundaries and check points. To talk "live" to audiences all over Europe that could be reached simultaneously was a technological innovation that propagandists and politicians made use of in all countries. Charles de Gaulle's appeal on 18 June 1940, in which he coined the phrase "France has lost a battle; but France has not lost the war," became the most famous instance. Talking on "Radio London" over the airwaves of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), he rejected capitulation to Germany and appealed to French listeners in Britain and on the Continent to join him in the resistance movement.


It was not until after World War II that the most important medium of twentieth-century popular culture began its rapid rise. The technological foundations of television had been set in the first half of the twentieth century through experiments and inventions by William Crookes, Paul Nipkow, Karl Ferdinand Braun, and Boris Rosing. Drawing on their achievements, the Scottish inventor John Logie Baird demonstrated a workable system in the 1920s, holding the first public display of television at the department store Selfridges in London in 1925. In 1936 the BBC began to broadcast experimental television programs using Baird's system. However, the age of television actually began only in the 1950s when it became possible in large parts of Europe to receive images transmitted as electrical signals. Just as in the 1920s, when radio broadcasting had begun as a mostly state-controlled medium, publicly controlled institutions were given the license to transmit television programs: the BBC in Britain, RTÉ(Radio Telefís Éireann) in Ireland, RAI (Radio Audizioni Italiane) in Italy, TVE (Televisión Española) in Spain, ARD (Arbeitsgemeinschaft der öffentlich-rechtlichen Rundfunkanstalten Deutschlands), a consortium of public broadcasting services, in West Germany. In the 1980s and 1990s European countries began to "deregulate" and "liberalize" television, resulting in a competition between "public" and "private" channels and in the rise of new formats and programs of televised entertainment.

The number of households owning television sets increased steadily during the second half of the twentieth century. In 1955, only three out of one thousand inhabitants owned a television set in France, five out of one thousand in West Germany, and ninety-five out of one thousand in Britain. By 1972 there was roughly one television set per four inhabitants in these countries. Twenty years later the number had doubled. There was now one television set per two inhabitants in most countries of the European Union. Outside the European Union the picture was more diverse. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) estimates for 2000, San Marino was, with 849 television sets per 1,000 people, the European country with the highest and Bosnia and Herzegovina, with 111 sets per 1,000 inhabitants, the country with the lowest density of television receivers. The Europe-wide success of television did not necessarily result in the decline of other media of popular culture. Indeed, the average amount of time per day spent listening to the radio by European adults in 1989–1990 (174 minutes in Switzerland, 159 in Britain, 131 in France, 154 in Germany, 90 in Portugal, and 73 in Spain) represented an increase on the figures for 1950, when there had been very little competition from the television.


Of the many intellectual critics of popular culture in twentieth-century Europe, the sociologists and philosophers of the "Frankfurt School" have perhaps been the most influential. Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer provided a deeply pessimistic assessment of what they called the Kulturindustrie, the "culture industry," in their Dialectic of Enlightenment (Dialektik der Aufklärung, 1947). They saw popular culture as primarily driven by economic interest. This "commercial imperative," resulting in the commodification of culture, had deeply negative effects. Because they were produced according to economic considerations, advertising, television, film, and popular music encouraged a standardized and mechanical consumption of culture. Audiences were manipulated into becoming uncritical consumers of mass entertainment. The resulting conformity of society suited the economically powerful and ruling classes. Ultimately, the culture industry made mass audiences willing subjects in a repressive system of thought and organization.

Jürgen Habermas, the key representative of the generation of the Frankfurt School after Adorno and Horkheimer, offered a similarly pessimistic, but more historically based interpretation in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit, 1961). His model centered on the change from an eighteenth-century public in which a "rational-critical discourse" was cultivated, mostly by educated and propertied men supported by individual printers and publishers, to the modern public sphere in which mass consumption and the domination of a few capitalist enterprises, primarily interested in the generation of profit, resulted in the degeneration of critical discourse. This model did not go unchallenged, and Habermas accepted some of the objections in the foreword to the 1990 edition of Strukturwandel, acknowledging that his interpretation had suffered from too stark a contrast between an idealized depiction of the eighteenth-century and a pessimistically painted twentieth-century public sphere.

The various forms of "cultural studies" that blossomed at universities in the 1970s contributed significantly to the revision of models such as those by Adorno and Horkheimer as well as Habermas. The Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham in Britain, founded in 1964, was one of the pioneering institutions developing the interdisciplinary study of popular culture. While many authors associated with the cultural studies approach saw the Frankfurt School as founding fathers of their enquiry into the relationship between society and culture, the new academic discipline produced important revisions of earlier, predominantly pessimistic, approaches to popular culture. Thus Stuart Hall and Tony Jefferson (Resistance through Rituals, 1976) still saw popular culture as shaped by hegemonic forces, yet simultaneously as a territory in which people could genuinely resist manipulation and conformity. Toward the end of the century popular culture became increasingly conceptualized as a space in which power and values were contested and negotiated. John Fiske (Understanding Popular Culture, 1989; Reading the Popular, 1989) was influential in emphasizing the capacity of popular culture to articulate the contradictory values of diverse audiences. Popular culture became interpreted much less as a form of coercion or as effecting a "cultural decline." Writers instead focused on the way in which popular media and cultural forms could be seen as a process of struggle and negotiation, the outcome of which was open-ended and continuously reevaluated.


The experience of the last new mass medium of the twentieth century, the Internet, perhaps contributed to a less monolithic and pessimistic interpretation of popular culture. The Internet, a worldwide network of computer networks, developed out of a government initiative in the United States in the 1970s, under the direction of the Department of Defense, which aimed to connect computers in military and research establishments throughout the United States and overseas. European universities and research institutions joined this network in the mid-1980s. While its technology originated in a government initiative, the Internet had no central governing body or authority that regulated it. With the growth in the ownership of personal computers, the network expanded dramatically in the 1990s and became mostly used in the form of the World Wide Web. Technically speaking, the "web" was the entirety of all computers linked to the Internet and storing documents that are mutually accessible through the use of a standard protocol. The computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee, credited with the creation of the World Wide Web, defined it as "the universe of network-accessible information, an embodiment of human knowledge." In September 2004, the Geneva-based International Telecommunications Union, an organization representing the telecommunications industry, estimated that there were 230,886,000 Internet users in Europe, an increase from 2000 of 124 percent. In countries such as Denmark, Germany, Finland, Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, roughly half the population used the new medium regularly. Within the European Union, Sweden had the highest Internet penetration with 74.5 percent and Greece the lowest with 15.3 percent. Outside the European Union the divergence was even stronger: while only 1 percent of Albanians used the Internet, 66 percent of Icelanders were "online."

By the end of the twentieth century, the extraordinary growth of the Internet had begun to transform many established practices and forms of popular culture. Convergence and fragmentation were two key words in the interpretation of these changes. The first was not necessarily a new phenomenon: the gramophone and the radio had "converged" just as much in the 1920s as television and Internet seemed to at the beginning of the twenty-first century. The second, however, reflected a trend that was suited to transform popular culture more profoundly. It had arguably begun in the 1980s when the success of the video cassette recorder (VCR) had brought about a change in viewers' relationship with television schedules. For the first time, patterns of individual demand could be accommodated: no longer did viewers have to conform to television schedules, they could store and view programs at their chosen time. The phenomenon of empty streets during the broadcasting of popular dramas or comedies, a visible sign for the simultaneous audiences and shared experience of popular culture, became increasingly rare. A number of new digital recording devices introduced in the 1990s accelerated this effect, as did the arrival of satellite, digital, and online transmission. The numbers of subscribers to these new services varied naturally greatly across Europe, but the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) estimatedin2003thatonaverage73outof1,000 inhabitants in the European Union owned a satellite dish and that 162 out of 1,000 subscribed to cable television. By 2004, governments in a number of European countries expected digital television to supersede analog television during the first decade of the twenty-first century. Whether available via satellite, cable, or terrestrial aerials, new forms of television allowed for not only an unprecedented multitude of channels to be received, but also the selling of programs and films "on demand." As a result, a television program was no longer a singular event, but a commodity that could be selected, stored, and repeated at the consumer's choice.

The technological availability and changing formats of mass entertainment that came with the Internet pushed this process further, especially with the increasing success of "broadband" services. This was a transmission technique that used a wide range of frequencies, allowing for higher volumes of data and several channels to be communicated simultaneously, even when using existing networks such as telephone circuits. According to media analysts, fifty-four million people in the European Union used broadband access to the Internet in 2004, twenty million more than in the previous year. This meant that consumers could browse Internet pages at high speed, download music or films as files, and play online games. Market researchers found that, as a result, Europeans changed what they did in their spare time. A quarter of broadband Internet users in Europe said in 2004 that they spent less time watching television and more time using the World Wide Web. The development of mobile phones and other portable devices capable of downloading Internet items of popular culture almost without any geographic restriction contributed further to the challenge of the television as the dominant medium and to a process that critics interpreted as the fragmentation or individualization of popular culture. Yet, while there was evidence that audiences did become more fragmented, the opposite continued to characterize the entertainment and media industry. Popular culture at the beginning of the twenty-first century continued to be dominated by a comparably small number of international companies that exercised a far-reaching influence by shaping and channeling tastes and fashions, issues and debates. Their power and its regulation remained at the heart of public debates about popular culture.

See alsoCinema; Football (Soccer); Leisure; Television; Tourism.


Adorno, Theodor W. The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture. London, 1991.

Adorno, Theodor W., and Max Horkheimer. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Translated by John Cumming. London, 1972. Translation of Dialektik der Aufklärung (1947).

Anderson, Patricia. The Printed Image and the Transformation of Popular Culture. Oxford, U.K., 1991.

Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. Translated by Annette Lavers. London, 1972. Translation of Mythologies (1957).

Bell, Michael. "The Study of Popular Culture." In Concise Histories of American Popular Culture, edited by M. Thomas Inge. Westport, Conn., 1982.

Benjamin, Walter. "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." In Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt, 219–253. Translated by Harry Zohn. New York, 1968. Translation of Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit (1936).

Berners-Lee, Tim, with Mark Fischetti. Weaving the Web: The Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web by Its Inventor. San Francisco, 1999.

Bigsby, C. W. E., ed. Approaches to Popular Culture. London, 1976.

Bourdieu, Pierre. On Television. Translated by Priscilla Pankhurst Ferguson. New York, 1998. Translation of Sur la television (1996).

Briggs, Asa. The Birth of Broadcasting. Oxford, U.K., 1961.

——. The Golden Age of Wireless. Oxford, U.K., 1995.

Briggs, Asa, and Peter Burke. A Social History of the Media: From Gutenberg to the Internet. Cambridge, U.K., 2002.

Calhoun, Craig, ed. Habermas and the Public Sphere. Cambridge, Mass., 1992.

Carey, James W. Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society. Boston, Mass., 1989.

Chanan, Michael. Repeated Takes: A Short History of Recording and Its Effects on Music. London, 1995.

Charney, Leo, and Vanessa R. Schwartz, eds. Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life. Berkeley, Calif., 1995.

Charon, Jean M., ed. L'État des médias. Paris, 1991.

Debord, Guy. Society of the Spectacle. Detroit, 1970. Translation of La société du spectacle (1967).

Döblin, Alfred. "Das Theater der kleinen Leute." Das Theater 1, 1909.

Fiske, John. Reading the Popular. Boston, Mass., 1989.

——. Understanding Popular Culture. London, 1989.

Habermas, Jürgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Translated by Thomas Burger. Cambridge, Mass., 1989. Translation of Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit. Untersuchungen zu einer Kategorie der bürgerlichen Gesellschaft (1961).

Hall, Stuart, and Tony Jefferson, eds. Resistance through Rituals. London, 1976.

Lee, Alan J. The Origins of the Popular Press. London, 1976.

Marvin, Carolyn. When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking about Electric Communication in the Late Nineteenth Century. New York, 1988.

Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. New York, 1985.

Rowe, David. Popular Cultures: Rock Music, Sport and the Politics of Pleasure. London, 1995.

Steer, Valentia. The Romance of the Cinema: A Short Record of the Development of the Most Popular Form of Amusement of the Day. London, 1913.

Williams, Raymond. Communications. 3rd ed. London, 1976.

Winston, Brian. Technologies of Seeing: Photography, Cinema and Television. London, 1996.

Jan RÜger

Popular Culture

views updated May 23 2018


POPULAR CULTURE . The study of popular culture brings together three different yet related concerns: culture, the popular, and mass culture. Culture is the term used to denote a particular way of life for a specific group of people during a certain period in history. It also references the artifacts, narratives, images, habits, and products that give style and substance to that particular way of life. Mass culture is a term that highlights the profit motive that directs the production of certain products made available for commercial sale. It refers to both these mass-produced products and the consumer demand for them that justifies their widespread production and distribution. The popular makes reference to "the people," and as such there are in some discussions overlaps between "folk" and "popular" culture. What usually distinguishes the two in the common use of these terms is that whereas "folk" culture is presumed to refer to cultural products and practices that emerge from the people, often having a historical connection to a certain racial, ethnic, or geographically located group, popular culture usually refers to those commercially produced items specifically associated with leisure, the mass media, and lifestyle choices. Whereas there is therefore a great deal of overlap between mass and popular culture, the latter retains its populist impulse and thus tends to be less pejorative in tone than references to mass culture. In this sense elements of popular culture are presumed to be popular in that they are well liked by many people and they hold special meaning for certain groups of consumers at certain points in history.

Items of popular culture become important markers for identity construction in the context of a society increasingly defined by differentiated lifestyle segments or taste cultures. As such popular culture includes elements produced for consumption: (1) by the mass media industries, including products such as reading materials, music, visual images, photos, film, television, advertising, video games, celebrity culture, professional sports, talk radio, comics, and the World Wide Web; (2) by artistic and creative realms, such as live and performance theater, art, musical arrangements and performances, and museum installations designed for popular consumption; and (3) by manufacturers and other players within global capitalism who seek to link certain taste cultures with commercially available products. This latter category includes a seemingly endless variety of goods, including modes of transportation, fashion, toys, sporting goods, and even foodin short, anything that can be successfully packaged for consumers in response to their desire for a means to both identify with some people, ideas, or movements and to distinguish themselves from others.

The phrase popular culture first came into use in the English language in the early nineteenth century, when for the first time it was possible to manufacture and widely distribute cultural products with relative ease and speed. Prior to the emergence of a capitalist market economy with industrialization, the popular was a term with legal and political meaning that derived from the Latin popularis, or "belonging to the people." The term was used as a way to draw distinctions between the views of "the people" and those who wielded power over them. In the past therefore the term popular culture was used to reference the folk traditions created and maintained by the people outside of the purview of cultural authorities and away from the demands of labor. The term is still used in this way among historians who examine practices and products that were in existence prior to a commercially dominated marketplace.

By the late nineteenth century, however, the term popular culture had come to have a rather specific meaning in relation to presumed distinctions between the elite and the people that echoed presumed distinctions between superior and inferior culture, between the artistic and the vulgar, or between the sophisticated and the banal. These distinctions gained political importance as the industrial era progressed.

Theory, Criticism, and the Study of Popular Culture

As the working class that staffed the industrial landscape continued to grow in the late nineteenth century, concerns about both the influx of people in urban areas and the popular culture they favored came to be closely entwined. The bourgeoisie in industrialized Europe tended to view the shared artifacts of working-class culture as evidence of both their unity and their inferiority. Fearing an uprising similar to that of the French Revolution, early criticism of popular culture, known in the twenty-first century as the "culture and civilization" tradition, linked the growth of what critics viewed as inferior popular culture with concerns over the weakening of a social order that had been based on power and privilege. This tradition had its beginnings in the writings of Matthew Arnold. In his book Culture and Anarchy (1882), Arnold contrasted "culture" (now "high culture") with what he viewed as the anarchic and disruptive nature of working-class or popular culture.

Arnold believed that much of the problem of his generation lay in the emergent working class and its seeming refusal to adopt a position of subordination and deference to the elite. Part of the problem, in Arnold's view, was illustrated in the refusal of the working class to adhere to the suggestions of the elite in terms of which elements of "culture" to consume. This presumed problem was echoed in the writings and sermons of ministers and other religious leaders, who were particularly animated in their concerns about fiction, as will be discussed in a subsequent section.

The "culture and civilization" tradition of popular cultural critiques found renewed expression in the writings of F. R. Leavis and Q. D. Leavis, who began writing about popular culture in the 1930s in England. Believing that popular culture provided a dangerous distraction to responsible participation in democracy, they advocated that public schools engage in education about the ill effects of popular culture on young people. The Leavises promoted the idea of a mythic "golden age" of England's rural past, in which they believed a "common culture" (or "folk" culture) had flourished. Their many treatises aimed to keep the expansion of popular culture's influence under control so as to maintain what they believed were the truly valuable aspects of England's cultural tradition.

A similar strand of thought has long been a part of U.S. approaches to popular culture. In 1957 Bernard Rosenberg and David Manning White published Mass Culture: The Popular Arts in America, a collection of essays that bemoaned the supposed dehumanizing impact of popular culture. Other popular culture critics, such as Dwight Macdonald (who contributed to the Rosenberg and White volume) and later Daniel Boorstin, Stuart Ewen, and Neil Postman, voiced similar concerns about popular culture's ill effects on society. In the shadow of the cold war, the contributors to the Rosenberg and White volume feared that a passive audience in the sway of popular culture could be easily brought under the influence of a totalitarian government.

A fear of totalitarianism animated the writings of scholars such as Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Leo Lowenthal, and Herbert Marcuse of the Frankfurt school as well, although their intellectual roots were in Marxism rather than in the Romanticism that often informed the nostalgia-tinged desire for a culture untrammeled by popular culture. Expatriates from Adolf Hitler's Germany, the scholars in the Frankfurt school feared the manipulative potential of popular culture through the workings of what they called the "culture industries." Bringing to their work a perspective informed by Hegelian philosophy, they articulated a critique of popular culture known as critical theory. Although often dismissed as overly pessimistic in that these scholars saw little potential for change in the relations between the privileged and the disadvantaged in society, the critical school inaugurated several important streams of thought regarding popular culture. Particularly influential have been the ideas of the critical theorist Walter Benjamin, whose attention to both the mass production and ideological role of images in contemporary society has been influential in debates of art, politics, and postmodernism. Equally important, the critical school spawned the scholarly tradition of cultural imperialism, which came to prominence in the 1970s as it explored the flow of mass media across transnational borders.

Critiques of popular culture that grew out of cultural imperialism tended to assume a central role for the media in the creation of popular culture. Similar to their predecessors in the critical school, popular culture was approached methodologically through an analysis of political and economic structures, with specific attention to the relations among governments, policy makers, and development efforts as they played out in relation to media. The theory was articulated among Latin American scholars of media and popular culture, such as Antonio Pasquali, Luis Ramiro Beltran, Fernandez Reyes Matta, and Mario Kaplun. These scholars, as well as Herb Schiller in the United States and Dallas Smythe in Canada, were concerned about the ways multinational media corporations were, through the organization of profit and commerce, able to dominate the development of media and by extension popular culture in smaller and less-wealthy nations.

By the 1980s, however, a new school of thought regarding popular culture had taken root in the United States and Europe. There were several reasons for the emergence of a critique that challenged the "high culturelow culture" and cultural imperialist assumptions of the time. In the mid-1960s "pop art" had called into question the very definition of art and high culture, foregrounding meanings made by the viewer of art rather than by the creator or the art critic. A similar revolution had begun with the emergence of reader-response theory in literary criticism, as theorists posited that what made for "classic" texts were assumptions often based in race, gender, and economic privilege and that literary criticism would benefit from an examination of meanings readers made of differing texts. With the advent of pop art and reader-response theory, along with the rising prominence of feminism, black, and cross-cultural perspectives and the emergence of social analysis informed by cultural anthropology, the cultural studies approach to popular culture coalesced in Great Britain, Australia, the United States, and Latin America.

Much of the early scholarship in cultural studies approaches to popular culture was motivated by a desire to demonstrate that audiences were not passive consumers of the products produced for them by the culture industries. Drawing upon the earlier scholarship of British cultural theorists, notably Raymond Williams, cultural studies scholars such as Stuart Hall, David Morley, Charlotte Brundsen, John Fiske, Ien Ang, Meghan Morris, Jesus Martin-Barbero, Nestor Garcia Canclini, Lawrence Grossberg, and a host of others set out to demonstrate that the reception of popular culture was much less predictable than previously thought. Pointing to such factors as the vast numbers of heavily promoted popular cultural artifacts that failed to find a positive reception in the marketplace, they argued that popular cultural artifacts must meet the emotional needs of their audiences in order to succeed in the cultural economy. Methodologies differed, although many embraced textual criticism, semiotics, audience reception research, and cultural history. In the increased recognition of the need for multiple voices contributing to analysis, feminists in the United States and Europe looked at how particular popular cultural artifacts speak to and in some cases offer symbolic resolution for the real tensions in women's lives, Latin American scholars explored the role of telenovelas in the creation of a collective identity that may be at some distance from national identity as it has been defined within a dictatorial government, and Asian scholars explored the intersection of cultural policy and popular cultural creation and consumption.

Within the context of an affluent United States in the 1990s and the rise of interest in postmodern theory, some cultural studies critiques of popular culture tended toward a populist celebration of popular culture. A reinvigoration of neo-Marxism through the emergence of postcolonial perspectives and critiques in anthropological methods, combined with a renewed interest in cultural history, everyday life, and issues of visual representation, have redirected cultural studies toward its central concern with the ways in which specific narratives and representations contribute to maintaining power relations as they are. Multiple methodologies are now applauded in the effort to provide analyses of the nuanced relations between power and agency, creation and consumption, consciousness and control, and individual and society in understanding the relations between popular culture and its audiences.

Early Popular Culture and Religion

Religious popular cultural artifacts have roots in the particular popular religious practices of every culture in the world. By the mid-nineteenth century the industrial market revolution of the United States and northern Europe, and later in Asia, Latin America, and Africa, had resulted in the increased availability of religious products in various forms. Some popular cultural items had distinct roles to play in relation to practices of piety that were embraced at the time. In the United States and in Europe popular art for the home and church featured biblical scenes as well as Christ's visage along with mass-produced statues of saints, angels, Mary, and Jesus and of course the family Bible. In China, although the nineteenth-century elite viewed Daoist practices as debased "folk" traditions, religious popular cultural practices endured through ritual theater, music, incense, chanting, and dance, all of which were designed to attract the attention of the gods and to communicate to them the human needs they were asked to address. Analyses of festivals and celebrations of China as well as those related to Hindu deities point to the difficulties of distinguishing between popular religion and popular culture, as it is impossible to consider these events apart from the locations in which they are held.

There is increasing evidence that items related to religious practices in other parts of the world were influenced by the colonial encounters of the nineteenth century. With the awareness of colonial British attitudes toward feminine bodies and modesty, for example, saris worn by women for ceremonial and religious festivals (as well as for daily wear) became longer in the nineteenth century, an influence found in styles of dress in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka among other places. In Nepal a change in traditional Buddhist meditation paintings also reflected this encounter, as the Rajesthani style gave way to European-style portraiture. Scholars of nineteenth-century Islamic, Hindu, and Buddhist popular and "high" art similarly contend that it is virtually impossible to understand religious art and popular religious artifacts of the period without taking the colonial encounter into consideration.

In the early-twentieth-century Victorian society of the United States and the United Kingdom, sentimentalized and domesticized Christian art and objects became popular decor items among the well-heeled and middlebrow alike, making piety but one reason to own such products. Tea was served from tea sets depicting scenes from the Bible, and angel statuary and artwork decorated walls and furniture. By the early twentieth century people who embarked on leisurely travel purchased and sent home postcards embossed with biblical figures and scriptural messages. Each of these signaled an identification with Christianity but also with a distinctive worldview that underscored elite and middlebrow tastes. Not surprisingly therefore many of these products were made available to consumers not through official religious sources but through mail-order catalogs and department stores.

A significant increase in the rates of literacy among the general population at this time meant that commercial publishing expanded as well, making available new genres of reading materials, notably those written specifically for entertainment purposes. Fiction quickly became an immensely popular commodity, illustrated in the often-told story of how Charles Dickens was mobbed by fans when he toured the United States in 1848. Many religious leaders were skeptical, believing that practices such as fiction reading could rouse inappropriate passions and distract from a moral, faith-centered life.

Their skepticism about fiction did not prevent some religious leaders from seeking to harness what they believed to be the powers of the new medium, however. Some saw in the nascent publishing industry the opportunity to further their cause for Christian witness and education. With the rise of wood engraving, lithography, and later photography, religious leaders employed mass-produced images both for advertising and for didactic purposes. These visionaries produced some of the earliest best-selling printed popular cultural items in the form of devotional materials, magazines of missionary societies, readers for Christian schools, and fictional novels that purportedly advanced Christian moral messages. Members of evangelical voluntary societies, who in the mid-nineteenth century traveled from town to town distributing literature such as the Family Christian Almanac or other materials from the American Tract Society and the American Sunday School Union, offered many people in the United States their first exposure to modern mass media and its popular cultural artifacts.

Fiction writers of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century often relied upon religious themes for inspiration as well yet produced less didactically oriented materials for commercial consumption, forming an enduring intersection of popular culture and religion in Western cultures and beyond. Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (1868) emphasized compassion and even Christian pity for the disadvantaged, whereas the novelist L. Frank Baum wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) as a means of reinforcing the importance of inner resources, such as courage and love, considered of spiritual significance among the Theosophical Society of which he was a part.

Twentieth-Century Popular Culture and Religion

"Christian kitsch," a derogatory term used to refer to sentimental material cultural products, is generally believed to have appeared less frequently among elite households in the United States and Europe after the decline of Victorian styles in the 1930s. Yet popular culture of the middlebrow and of other taste cultures continues to incorporate religious references within it. Precious Moments figurines, cross necklaces and angel lapel pins, Bible covers (or "cozies"), posters with God's "footprints," santos and votive candles, dashboard statues of the Madonna, items purchased in relation to religious pilgrimages, as well as the more ubiquitous bumper stickers, T-shirts, hats, and key chains with a variety of messages all comprise some of the materials that can be purchased to signify identification with religion in its various forms. Elite culture in the United States and Europe, rather than being devoid of religious popular cultural items, prefers the esoteric and Eastern, as found in such items as small indoor fountains, crystals, yoga mats and accoutrements, and African, Asian, and Latin American religious artwork. Research on the contemporary religious popular cultures of Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, and other traditions has much to contribute to understandings of how these religions have been encoded and commodified in the realm of items for sale in various contexts around the world. Existing work suggests that contemporary religious festivals and material objects associated with them extend an association with various religious, racial-ethnic, and taste cultures.

Throughout the twentieth century U.S. filmmakers incorporated religious themes and imagery into their stories, looking to sources such as the German passion play at Oberammergau to produce religiously themed epics. Many early films centered on Christ's life and death, such as Sidney Olcock's From the Manger to the Cross (1912) and Cecil B. DeMille's epic The King of Kings (1927). The pattern of borrowing from religious stories continued in the 1940s and 1950s. Films such as Samson and Delilah, David and Bathsheba, Quo Vadis?, The Robe, and The Ten Commandments were successful both at the box office and with critics. The religious epic Ben-Hur set an unsurpassed record of receiving eleven Academy Awards. The 1960s and 1970s saw the successful return of Jesus films with the 1961 remake of King of Kings, The Gospel according to Matthew, The Greatest Story Ever Told, Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Jesus of Nazareth. New genres such as satire and the art film influenced the production of religiously themed films of the 1980s and 1990s, such as Monty Python's Life of Brian, Jesus of Montreal, and The Last Temptation of Christ. Mel Gibson's widely publicized film The Passion (2004) reinvigorated the genre of biblical epic at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Various television interests have retained the broadcast rights for these films over the years, thus domesticating them from large-screen spectacle to small-screen rituals, airing frequently in conjunction with the U.S. holiday calendar.

Many less-celebrated films and television programs of the twentieth century have referenced Christianity in more popular ways through themes and characters such as angels, heaven and hell, and "the Big Guy upstairs." Stateside audiences during World War II frequented A Guy Named Joe, The Bishop's Wife, and Carousel, each of which featured a person who came from the realm beyond to provide heavenly assistance to those on earth. The guardian angel theme gained renewed interest near the close of the millennium. Film audiences of the 1990s saw Always and The Preacher's Wife (both remakes of World War II films) as well as Michael, City of Angels, and the satiric Dogma, while the CBS television program Touched by an Angel demonstrated the small-screen appeal of angelic helpers and haloed backlight. In the early years of the new millennium the popular CBS drama Joan of Arcadia posited a God who appeared in varying forms to a typically nonreligious teenage girl, while PAX television audiences enjoyed It's a Miracle! and even Pet Psychic. Before that spate of films and television programs, Oh, God! had garnered box office success in the 1970s, and the Catholic Church had been dubiously featured in relation to demon possession and devils in such horror films as Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist, and The Omen.

The link of religion's dark side and horror remained throughout the 1980s and 1990s, with such entries as Stigmata, Priest, Seven, The Devil's Advocate, and many others in addition to the ironic references of the popular teen television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Charmed. The increase in cultural and religious pluralism in the latter part of the twentieth century was reflected in films, as reincarnation was popularly depicted in Hollywood films in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s as well as in such entries as Heaven Can Wait, All of Me, Switch, Chances Are, Made in Heaven, and Hearts and Souls.

While these and other films were popular at the box office, religiously themed popular books remained on the best-seller list throughout the twentieth century. Charles Sheldon's In His Steps; Ralph Connor's (Charles Gordon) Black Rock; and Harold Bell Wright's The Shepherd of the Hills and The Calling of Dan Matthews were widely read and indeed outsold almost every other book in the period before World War I. The 1965 publication of The Gospel according to Peanuts sold ten million copies and served as a prototype for a series of popular books that emerged nearly four decades later, including The Gospel according to Harry Potter (2002), The Gospel according to the Simpsons (2001), The Gospel according to the Lord of the Rings, and even The Gospel according to the Sopranos. In the 1990s and 2000s books about angels, the Apocalypse, and the Holy Grail topped the best-seller charts, with the fictional Left Behind thriller series, penned by the fundamentalist writers Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, and less didactically motivated books such as the thriller The Da Vinci Code (2003) by Dan Brown and The Five People You Meet in Heaven (2003) by Mitch Albom. Meanwhile the Bible remained a best seller, including the fashion magazine format New Testament edition aimed at teenage girls, titled Revolve.


Religious groups of all backgrounds have long held what seem to be contradictory views on popular culture. On the one hand, they have been wary of entertainment, believing that it can rouse inappropriate passions and distract people from leading a moral, God-centered or ritually organized life. Yet on the other hand, throughout their history religious leaders, especially those within Christianity, have sought to harness the power of entertainment in their efforts to introduce their beliefs to nonbelievers. The twentieth-century development of the dramatic television and film industries in the United States provided new avenues for proselytization efforts while enlarging the reasons for concern. In the United States and Europe religious leaders continue to worry about popular culture's ill effects on morality and consumption practices, whereas religious leaders elsewhere in the world express grave concerns about the influence of U.S. culture's secular and materialistic representations. Despite the varied viewpoints on religion and popular culture, a revolution in the relationship between popular culture and religious leadership was begun in the earliest part of the nineteenth century and continues to play out.

The twentieth century ushered in an era of unprecedented popular culture materials, not only in written form but in oral and visual media as well. The sheer quantity of materials that have entered the commercial marketplace has made it virtually impossible to ignore the fact that popular culture and popular religiosity are now forever entwined. Religion has found a solid footing in commodified popular culture.

See Also

Art and Religion; Popular Religion; Visual Culture and Religion.


Arnold, Matthew. Culture and Anarchy. New York, 1882.

Clark, Lynn Schofield. From Angels to Aliens: Teenagers, the Media, and the Supernatural. New York, 2003.

Danto, Arthur C. After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History. Princeton, N.J., 1997.

Journal of Religion and Popular Culture. Available at: http://www.usask.ca/relst/jrpc/.

Lippy, Charles H. Being Religious, American Style: A History of Popular Religiosity in the United States. Westport, Conn., 1994.

McDannell, Colleen. Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America. New Haven, Conn., 1995.

Morgan, David. Protestants and Pictures: Religion, Visual Culture, and the Age of American Mass Production. New York, 1999.

Rosenberg, Bernard, and David Manning White. Mass Culture: The Popular Arts in America. Glencoe, Ill., 1957.

Schiller, Herbert. Communication and Cultural Domination. White Plains, N.Y., 1976.

Storey, John. An Introductory Guide to Cultural Theory and Popular Culture. Athens, Ga., 1993.

Williams, Raymond. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. London, 1976.

Zelizer, Barbie. "Popular Communication in the Contemporary Age." Communication Yearbook 24 (2000): 297316.

Lynn Schofield Clark (2005)

Popular Culture

views updated May 11 2018

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


Benjamin, Walter. 1936. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/ge/benjamin.htm.

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

Popular Culture

views updated May 29 2018


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.

Popular Culture

views updated May 08 2018

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

America Remembers. "Iron Eyes Cody: The 'Crying Indian.'" Available from http://www.americaremembers.com/FI09100-2.htm.

Dyer, Judith C. "The History of the Recycling Symbol: Gary Anderson, Recycling Dude Extraordinaire." Available from http://home.att.net/~DyerConsequences/recycling_symbol.html.

Earth Odyssey. "Recycling Symbols." Available from http://www.earthodyssey.com/symbols.html.

Federal Trade Commission. "Part 260: Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims." Available from http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/grnrule/guides980427.htm.

FOX.com "The Simpson's: Official Web Site." Available from http://www.thesimpsons.com.

Keep America Beautiful. "Public Service Announcements." Available from http://www.kab.org/psa1.cfm.

Snopes.com. "Urban Legends Reference Pages: Movies (Iron Eyes Cody)." Urban Legends Reference Pages. Available from http://www.snopes.com/movies/actors/ironeyes.htm.

STLyrics. "FriendsSoundtrack Lyrics (Mitchell, JoniBig Yellow Taxi [Traffic Jam Mix])."Available from http://www.stlyrics.com/lyrics/friends/bigyellowtaxitrafficjammix.htm.

U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, the National Association of State Foresters, and the Advertising Council. "Smokey's Vault: History of Campaign." Available from http://www.smokeybear.com/vault/history.asp.

Wood, Harold. "Earth Songs." Available from http://www.planetaryexploration.net/patriot/earth_songs.html.

Yamhill County Building and Planning Department, McMinnville, OR. "Yamhill County Solid Waste." Available from http://www.ycsw.org/index.asp.

William Arthur Atkins

Popular Culture

views updated May 09 2018


The term popular culture, often shortened to pop culture, crystallized around the middle of the twentieth century in recognition of the definitive emergence in European and especially North American society of mass-produced and -consumed cultural goods (including novels, recorded music, radio programs, motion pictures, and advertisements). Popular culture products are usually created by people who do not classify themselves as artists, and they are accepted by people who do not think of themselves as exercising aesthetic judgments. Other, more pejorative terms that have been used to refer to this phenomenon are mass culture (José Ortega y Gasset and others) and the culture industry (Theodor W. Adorno). The term was fashioned after the pop art ("popular art") movement that emerged in the late 1950s—a movement that saw artists appropriate images and commodities from consumerist culture as their subject matter. One of the most famous pop artists was the American Andy Warhol (1928?–1987), who created paintings and silk-screen prints of commonplace objects, such as soup cans, and pictures of celebrities, such as the actress Marilyn Monroe. Pop culture involves the representation of any aspect of consumerist society, not just visual, emphasizing the powerful impact of consumerism and materialism on contemporary life. Pop culture rejects both the supremacy of the "high art" of the past and the pretensions of avant-garde intellectualist trends of the present. It is highly appealing for this very reason. It bestows on common people the assurance that artistic texts are for mass consumption, not just for an elite class of cognoscenti. It is thus populist, popular, and public.

"High," "Low," and "Pop" Culture

Culture is a system of shared meanings. The Estonian semiotician Yuri M. Lotman (1922–1993) used the term semiosphere to encapsulate that very fact and to emphasize that the ways in which people come to understand the world is through the semiotic filters of the language, music, myths, rituals, and other codes that they acquire in cultural context (Lotman 1990).

The adjectives high, low, and popular have been used with culture to differentiate between levels of representation within the semiosphere. "High" culture implies a level considered to have a superior value, socially and aesthetically, than other levels, which are said to have a "lower" value. Traditionally, the high and low levels were associated with class distinctions—high culture was associated with the church and the aristocracy in Western Europe; low culture with "common folk." "Pop culture" emerged in the twentieth century, obliterating this distinction. As John Storey (2003) argues, the idea of pop culture replaced that of "folk" culture, becoming a target of autonomous academic study in the late 1950s when the French semiotician Roland Barthes (1915–1980) showed the importance of studying such things as wrestling and blockbuster movies in terms of how they generate cultural meanings. By the early twenty-first century, the study of pop culture had become a flourishing interdisciplinary area of investigation that had several important journals, including the Journal of Popular Culture (founded in 1967).

As Jean Baudrillard (1998) has emphasized, pop culture engages the masses, rather than the cognoscenti, because it takes the material of everyday life and gives it expression and meaning. Everything from comic books to fashion shows have mass appeal because they emanate from within the culture, not from sponsors or authority figures. As such, the makers of pop culture make little or no distinction between art and recreation, distraction and engagement.

The spread of pop culture as a kind of mainstream culture has been brought about by developments in cheap technology. The rise of music as a mass art, for instance, was made possible by the advent of recording and radio broadcasting technologies at the start of the twentieth century. Records and radio made music available to large audiences, converting it from an art for the elite to a commodity for one and all. The late-twentieth-century advent of satellite technology is responsible for the spread and appeal of pop culture throughout the globe. Satellite television, for example, is often cited as bringing about the disintegration of the former soviet system in Europe, as people became attracted to images of consumerist delights by simply tuning into American television programs. The Canadian communications theorist Marshall McLuhan (1911–1980) went so far as to claim that the diffusion of pop culture images through electronic media has brought about a type of "global culture" that strangely unites people in a kind of "global village" (McLuhan 1964). Clearly, the pop culture distraction factory has had an impact on the world far greater than that of the material it communicates.

Pop Culture as a Mythological System

Barthes (1957) claimed that a large part of the emotional allure of pop culture is due to the fact that it is based on the recycling of deeply entrenched mythical meanings. To distinguish between the original myths and their pop culture versions, Barthes designated the latter mythologies. In early Hollywood westerns, for instance, the mythic struggle of good versus evil manifested itself in various symbolic and representational forms—heroes wore white hats and villains black ones; heroes were honest and truthful, villains dishonest and cowardly; and so on. The Superman character of comic book and cinematic fame, to cite another example, is a perfect example of a recycled hero, possessing all the characteristics of his mythic predecessors but in modern guise—he comes from another world (the planet Krypton) in order to help humanity overcome its weaknesses; he has superhuman powers; but he has a tragic flaw (exposure to the fictitious substance known as kryptonite takes away his power). Barthes claimed that pop culture is an overarching "mythological system." And because of this it imbues its own representations and spectacles with an unconsciously felt cogency.

As a consequence, Barthes argued, pop culture has had a profound impact on modern-day ethics. In the historical development of ethics, three principal standards of conduct have been proposed as the highest good: happiness or pleasure; duty, virtue, or obligation; and perfection, the fullest harmonious development of human potential. In traditional cultures, these standards were established through religious and philosophical traditions. In pop culture, they are shaped by spectacles, performances, and especially media representations. Ethical issues that are showcased on television, for example, are felt as being more significant and historically meaningful to society than those that are not. Television imbues them with significance and salience.

The power of the media to affect the interpretation of ethical behavior has inevitably led people to stage events for the cameras. The social critic Walter Truett Anderson (1990) calls these appropriately "pseudoevents," because they are never spontaneous, but planned for the sole purpose of playing to pop culture's huge audiences. Most pseudoevents are intended to be self-fulfilling prophecies. The media are thus the vehicles through which people come to grips with issues of lifestyle, ethics, and morality. The understanding of them, however, is fragmentary and ephemeral because the images of media are constantly in flux. The only constant in pop culture is, in fact, constant change. With few exceptions, most pop culture products and styles come and go quickly. Thus, while it has great appeal, pop culture has also had a powerful negative impact on traditional approaches to ethics.


Pop culture has become virtually mainstream culture, having obliterated the distinction between high, low, and folk culture. It has become a powerful force in modern-day society because it has great emotional appeal and because of its built-in tendency for constant change. The comic-book art of Charles Schulz (1922–2000) is a case in point. His comic strip Peanuts, which was originally titled Li'l Folks, debuted in 1950, appealing to mass audiences. Through the strip Schultz dealt with some of the most profound religious and philosophical themes of human history in a way that was unique and aesthetically powerful.

The movie Amadeus is another case-in-point. This 1984 work directed by Milos Forman (b. 1932) became a pop culture phenomenon in the decade of the 1980s. It is based on the 1979 play by British playwright Peter Shaffer (b. 1926) about the eighteenth-century rivalry between Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Italian composer Antonio Salieri. The play plumbs the meaning of art, genius, and the important role of music in the spiritual life of human beings. The film captures these themes visually and acoustically by juxtaposing the emotionally powerful music of Mozart against the backdrop of dramatized events in his life and the truly splendid commentaries of Salieri, who guides the audience through the musical repertoire with remarkable insight and perspicacity. Forman's camera shots, close-ups, angle shots, tracking shots (which capture horizontal movement), and zooming actions allows the viewer to literally see Mozart's moods (his passions, his tragedies, and so forth) on his face as he conducts or plays his music, as well as those of his commentator Salieri (his envy, his deep understanding of Mozart's art) as he speaks to his confessor. In effect, Mozart became a pop culture hero, so to speak, through the power of cinema.


SEE ALSO Consumerism;Critical Social Theory;Entertainment;Information Ethics;Movies;Music;Robot Toys;Technocomics;Television.


Anderson, Walter Truett. (1990). Reality Isn't What It Used to Be: Theatrical Politics, Ready-to-Wear Religion, Global Myths, Primitive Chic, and Other Wonders of the Postmodern World. San Francisco: Harper and Row.

Barthes, Roland. (1957). Mythologies. Paris: Seuil. A critical analysis of the mythological structure of pop culture performances, from wrestling matches to blockbuster movies.

Baudrillard, Jean. (1998). The Consumer Society. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. An acerbic critique of the image-making techniques of consumerist culture and their effect on human cultural development.

Lotman, Yuri M. (1990). Universe of the Mind: A Semiotic Theory of Culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. A groundbreaking study of the semiosphere, showing that human psychic life is governed by sign-making tendencies that are tied to social context in the same way that human biological life is governed by organic tendencies that are tied to physical context.

Ortega y Gasset, José. (1932). The Revolt of the Masses. New York: Norton. Originally published in Spanish, 1929.

McLuhan, Marshall. (1964). Understanding Media. New York: McGraw-Hill. The classic study of the effects of technology and media on cultural evolution. The basic idea presented here is that media are extensions of sensory processes and thus felt to be emotionally powerful.

Storey, John. (2003). Inventing Popular Culture: From Folklore to Globalization. Malden, MA: Blackwell. In-depth analysis of the ideological structure of pop culture and its manifestations in the political and social spheres.

Popular Culture

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Popular Culture

Black popular culture is the individual and collective expression of identity that reflects the social, historical, and cultural politics surrounding the black presence in the Americas. The black body is a site for modern consumer culture industries such as fashion, music, film, and advertising. Within a media-driven contemporary society, blacks use the body, self-adornment, movement, language, and music to construct and locate themselves socially and culturally in society (Gray, 1995). Black cultural production occurs in a myriad of institutions and spaces including churches, urban and rural neighborhoods, colleges and universities, and social and civic organizations. One of the spaces in which black cultural production is exercised is aggrieved communities that exist on the margins of society because of racist social, economic, and legislative policies that are the result of dominant and pervasive ideologies articulated by the ruling class. Colonial and imperialist encounters such as the transatlantic slave trade, Jim Crow, apartheid, and racist and sexist policies imposed by government institutions created deplorable socioeconomic conditions for people of African descent worldwide. Within these highly contested spaces emerges the cultural production of blackness through cultural signifiers, practices, and consciousness.

By recognizing the convergence of history, culture, and power, blacks divert power away from mainstream culture toward a culture in touch with their present conditions tied to common traditions in an effort to build an uncommon and distinctive future. Blacks have used organic and technological means to present their experiences and aspirations to the larger world (Lipsitz, 1990). They merge the oldest African-American oral and folk traditions with new technology in order to create a visual and aural presence in society. The struggle that ensues over power and meaning establishes a space for black cultural expression. An example of this occurrence is black youth style.

The representation of black youth styles, expressed through the body, language, hair, music, and fashion, occurs in relation to African-American cultural traditions. In The Black Atlantic, Paul Gilroy (1994) discusses blackness as a socially situated production that is constantly invented and reinvented from tradition. Black cultural expressive forms are not fixed, essential, or unchanging. Traditions are structured differently, appropriated, modified, and transformed within specific historical, social, and cultural conditions. This is the condition of the "changing same," a condition that must be constantly situated and theorized and not assumed in the manner of either essentialism or radical social construction (Gray, 1995). As is the case with black youth culture, the construction and reorganization of black youth style is imbued with struggles over power and access.

When located within institutionally structured settings like visual media, black popular culture is largely represented as fear and menace by dominant media institutions invested in the circulation of pop cultural iconography and images that are palatable to the ruling class. A broader representation of black cultural production can be found in alternative and independent media spaces and reflect social and historical movements. For example, in the 1970s, the Los Angeles School of Black Filmmakers (19741978) contributed a variety of films that offered critical perspectives on black life and a myriad of representations of black figures and characters. Founders of this movement included Julie Dash, Haile Gerima, Charles Burnett, Billy Woodberry, Ben Caldwell, and Jamaa Fanaka. The Los Angeles School of Black Filmmakers consisted of African-American and African students studying at the University of California at Los Angeles whose films were the direct result of the cultural expression of the civil rights, Black Power, and black arts movements of the 1960s and 1970s. In the many media representations of success and achievement, blacks appeared as objects rather than as the subjects of their own construction. Black cultural producers like the members of the Los Angeles School of Black Filmmakers created alternative images that reaffirmed black cultural expression and challenged dominant constructions of blackness found in black popular culture, like those found in blaxploitation films which were at their peak during this time. Black youth cultural production is also a space where blacks create identities and cultural expressions.

Symbols of black youth culture travel to the commercial mainstream through advertising, film, and television. They labor discursively in several directions at the same time. As consumers and producers of media images, black youth, in the manner of organic intellectuals, seem to understand implicitly and negotiate effectively the dual nature of representations. W. E. B. Du Bois's theory of double consciousness resonates with contemporary blacks because of the need to exist in two worlds that are largely separate and unequal for survival. Black youth culture and style collide with American and European commercial culture (magazines, music videos, television, advertising), transporting them into a "media hyperspace where they are magnified into a spectacle of hyperblackness" (Gray, 1995). Marketing professionals actively shape the meanings of the category of "the black consumer" for the public at large; promote powerful normative models of collective identity that equate social membership with conspicuous consumption; and believe that African Americans use consumption to defy racism and share collective identities most valued in American society. Black cultural production can typify and resist this assumption simultaneously. A contemporary example of this can be found in hip-hop culture.

Hip-hop culture arose out of the malaise of a postwar society destroyed largely by the effects of racist and sexist socioeconomic policies. An example of this is the systematic use of highways and freeways to literally destroy once thriving communities, resulting in the loss of a solid financial base because of white flight. The demarcation of deteriorating tenements as "affordable" housing, colloquially known as the "slums" or "projects," and the introduction and infiltration of crack cocaine into black and brown communities created the socioeconomic conditions out of which hip-hop culture was born in large urban centers. Hip-hop culture was a blend of African-American, West Indian, African, and Latino cultural expressions.

It emerged not only to offer a different sense of blackness but also to alter many of the ways that society understands the function of blackness, especially as it exists in contemporary popular culture (Boyd, 1997, p. xxi). Hiphop culture did not come about in a vacuum. It is reflective of the cultural production of blackness that has occurred continuously in a postwar society and falls squarely into a long history of black popular cultural production.

There are many traditional and contemporary examples of black popular culture, including blues, jazz, reggae, Gandy dancers, rap, turntablism, break dancing, art, fashion, advertising, stepping, sports, cheers, double-dutch, poetry, and literature. However, the unifying principle of black pop cultural production is the coalescence of African peoples in the global struggle for equality and freedom through expression.

See also Blaxploitation Films; Filmmakers, Los Angeles School of; Hip Hop


Bobo, Jacqueline. Black Women as Cultural Readers. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.

Boyd, Todd. Am I Black Enough for You?: Popular Culture from the 'Hood and Beyond. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1997.

Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Dates, Janette L. and William Barlow, eds. Split Image: African Americans in the Mass Media. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1993.

Davis, Angela Y. Blues Legacies and Black Feminism. New York: Pantheon, 1998.

Dent, Gina, ed. Black Popular Culture: A Project by Michele Wallace. New York: Dia Center for the Arts, 1992.

DuBois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Fawcett, 1961.

Gayle, Addison, Jr., ed. The Black Aesthetic. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1971.

George, Nelson. The Death of Rhythm and Blues. New York: Pantheon Books, 1988.

Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. London: Verso, 1994.

Gray, Herman. Watching Race: Television and The Struggle for "Blackness." Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995.

Guerrero, Ed. Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993.

Hall, Stuart, ed. Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. London: Sage, 2000.

hooks, bell. Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Lipsitz, George. Time Passages: Collective Memory and American Popular Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990.

Rose, Tricia. Black Noise. Hanover, N.H.: Wesleyan University Press, 1994.

nsenga k. burton (2005)

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