What are some challenges associated with studying popular culture in the academy?

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ancientteacher's profile pic

ancientteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Adjunct Educator

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The fundamental problem facing a scholar of popular culture is the low level of value the area is given in academic and general circles because it is seen as "low brow" or "low culture." 

This viewpoint disregards two things - 

1. most people digest at least one form of popular culture each day - that is, it is readily available and enormously accessible. This alone makes it worth studying as it's currency and popularity makes it both a mirror of and an influence on our society. 

2. the enormous textual richness of much popular culture.

The viewpoint I am critiquing claims value should be given to texts that can be placed in a canon of great texts.

This view is refuted well in books like From Lowbrow to Nobrow by Peter Swirski and Popular Culture and High Culture by Herbert Gains (both of which can be previewed online at either Google books or Amazon).

The second broad issue for the study of popular culture is that it is such a broad interdisciplinary field that is it very difficult for it to gain its own academic and public identity  - a very experienced and respected scholar in the field, Michael Bérubé, has claimed that "cultural studies now means everything and nothing".  Please note here that in England cultural studies includes the study of popular culture.

 

pohnpei397's profile pic

pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

There are a number of problems that are faced by scholars trying to study popular culture.  Among them are such issues as:

  • Difficulty of defining the field.  It is very hard to accurately define what is and is not popular culture.  There are many gray areas, such as Shakespeare plays that are clearly "high culture" but which are also often made into movies.
  • Difficulty of being taken seriously.  People have traditionally been hostile to the idea of academics studying anything as lowbrow as popular culture.  National media commentators frequently make fun of college courses that are centered on popular culture. 
  • Difficulty of making clear demarcations between that and other disciplines.  It is hard for popular culture to make it as a separate discipline in academia because it overlaps to such a great degree with many other subjects.  Aspects of popular culture studies could equally belong in literature departments or sociology departments.  This makes it hard for popular culture departments to get started.
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