Popular Culture Research Paper Starter

Popular Culture

(Research Starters)

Culture, in the broadest of terms, refers to the meanings, values and ways of life of particular groups, nations and classes. Popular culture is generally seen as a set of 'signifying practices' that produce meaning. The term 'popular culture' invokes a notion of a common culture in both material and non-material ways. In order to understand how people think, feel, value, act and express themselves, it is necessary to examine the cultures they create, and are in turn created by” (Inglis, 2005). Yet, it is possible to do so in part only because the cultural sphere has emerged as a historically distinct realm of activities that is differentiated from the social, economic and political spheres, and is oriented toward making meaning (Lury, 1992). Nonetheless, by exploring the meanings associated with popular culture practices, we get to understand how culture, society, and individuals interact. There are different ways of looking at popular culture: as objects and goods produced and distributed on a mass scale; as ideology; as expressions of class, gender, and ethnicity.

Keywords Agency; Culture; Folklore; Identity; Ideology; Social Cohesion; Subjectivity; Totemism

Popular Culture

Overview

During the late twentieth century, very few universities offered courses on popular culture. Since that time, the study of popular culture has expanded, even though its definition remains broad. Culture, in the broadest of terms, refers to the meanings, values and ways of life of particular groups, nations and classes. Raymond Williams, in Keywords, defines culture in three ways:

• As "a general process of intellectual, spiritual and aesthetic development"

• As proposing "a particular way of life, whether of a people, a period or a group"

• As referring to "the works and practices of intellectual and especially artistic activity" (Williams, 1983).

Popular culture is generally associated with the second definition, as a set of 'signifying practices' that produce meaning. “In order to understand how people think, feel, value, act and express themselves, it is necessary to examine the cultures they create, and are in turn created by” (Inglis, 2005). Yet, it is possible to do so in part only because the cultural sphere has emerged as a historically distinct realm of activities that is differentiated from the social, economic and political spheres (Lury, 1992), and that is oriented toward making meaning. Nonetheless, as the inaugural editorial of the Journal of Popular Culture notes, by exploring the meanings associated with popular culture practices, we get to understand how culture, society and individuals interact (Hoppenstand, 2003, p. 151).

The term 'popular culture' invokes a notion of a common culture in both material and non-material ways. The Journal of Popular Culture notes that popular culture "can, and should, be anything: television, automobiles, movies, fast food, tattoos, best-selling novels, buildings, music, holidays-the list is potentially endless" (Hoppenstand, 2003, 3). Nonetheless, there are different ways of looking at popular culture:

• As objects and goods produced and distributed on a mass scale;

• As ideology;

• As expressions of class, gender and ethnicity.

What is Popular About Culture?

On the one hand, culture is popular in this sense because it springs from 'the people', whether we are talking about vernacular language, locally produced, hand-made goods (such as quilts) or civic culture, such as flags, jokes, and anthems (Kidd, 2007). On the other hand, culture is viewed as popular because it invokes a sense of widespread pleasure that is shared by a majority, and distributed via non-human technologies such as print, broadcast, and electronic media.

Popular culture is generally found in advanced capitalist societies characterized by commodification (Kidd, 2007). While popular culture has its roots in folklore, it took on more distinct forms as industrial societies became increasingly urban (Storey, 1989). Forms of popular culture are invariably explained as vehicles of dominant ideology; as a means of cohesion; and as a mechanism of resistance to dominant norms.

Popular culture is commonly viewed as a distinct set of practices set apart from economic, political or social practices; that which is differentiated from art, or high culture. Some, according to Giddens (1997), see popular culture as

… entertainment created for large audiences, such as popular films, shows, music, videos and TV programs. Popular culture is often contrasted to 'high' or 'elite' culture, which refers to the tastes of educated minorities. Classical music, opera and painting are examples of high culture (Giddens, 1997, p. 584).

Popular Culture as Commercial Culture

In pre-modern societies, culture was well integrated with and inseparable from everyday life. For instance, anthropologists have observed how, in traditional societies, totemism, which denotes the symbolic association of plants, animals or objects with people, divides the natural world into groups or categories in ways that reflect and construct social differences (e.g. Levi-Strauss, 1969). Therefore, objects come to stand for or represent social groups that in turn are recognized by its use of the object and its members shared appreciation for what the object stands for.

In modern societies, the way that objects are produced and communicated has changed how people view them and how they are used. For instance, print and visual technology made it possible to produce objects (books, films, game shows) and distribute them to people who are not connected to the way they were produced. Kidd (2007) states, "the negative effects of popular culture were very clear to [sociologist and Frankfurt School scholar] Walter Benjamin, who argued that mechanical reproduction of art" (prints, books, photographs) removes the 'aura' from that work. That is, "the work need no longer be experienced within the particular context of its creation and exhibition" (Kidd, 2007, p. 74).

Culture became commercialized. One consequence of this process has been that in contrast to people in traditional societies, people in modern societies are separated from the cultural means of production and from those who produce cultural objects. For instance, as Kidd (2007) describes:

Most musical experiences happen at home or in the car, mediated through radio or stereo, rather than in the presence of performers. The song is a commodity that can be purchased as a tape or CD, or downloaded over the Internet. Even the "live" experience of music, where the song is heard in the presence of its performers, is a sort of commodity since the performances are largely the same. In fact, performance itself is largely mass-produced and so in this way, there is no original, special moment in the production of music in which, Benjamin might say, an aura can be perceived” (p. 74).

In this way, power differentials may develop between producers and consumers of popular culture and cultural objects are transformed from objects of art (high culture) into commodities. For some commentators, this phenomenon is highly problematic.

Theorists of the Frankfurt School, especially Jürgen Habermas, argued that the standardized, commercialized products associated with the 'culture industry' have undermined the capacity of people to think independently and critically and they distract people from organizing against the established order. Other theorists, such as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, examined how commercialized culture is produced and how the interests of producers are reflected in the content of popular culture. For instance, contemporary media ownership is illustrative of this analysis. Newspapers are owned by a small number of large corporations that set editorial policies. Thus the news and information newspapers provide is often limited in scope and detached from the concerns of everyday life.

Moreover, the technology of popular culture that allows mass reproduction, especially with television, has turned people into passive consumers. According to Horkheimer and Adorno's work in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1992), “the production and distribution of culture through mechanical processes constitutes a ‘culture industry’ in which culture is reduced from art to business” (Kidd, 2007, p. 72).

Popular Culture versus High Art

However, in his classic text Art Worlds, Howard Becker (1984) criticizes this view of popular culture as something that stands in contrast to high culture, or to art. It's true, as Inglis and Hughson (2005) point out, that many people have written about art as a form of high culture. For instance the poet Matthew Arnold defined high culture as 'sweetness and light', as something that offers beauty and intellectual insight. In this view, the things that are seen as high culture are assumed to display the best quality of a given form-e.g.the symphony is more complex and sophisticated than the pop song (Inglis, 2005, p. 78)-and has...

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