Popular culture

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Popular culture has been defined in a large number of different ways, but the core essential seem to include an opposition to or polarity with high culture - either popular culture ends up being the culture of the mass, the Marxist proletariat, the dismissed culture of glitz and razzle-dazzle. Popular culture is also thought of as a commercialised folk culture that has been created as a result of urbanization, the increase in leisure time after World War Two and mass media. Another important aspect of popular culture is the fact that it evolves alongside subcultures. For instance, in the commercialisation of black culture - specifically jazz, blues, hip-hop, soul, dance and club culture - and also of punk music and fashion.

In the fourth edition of his book on cultural theory and popular culture, John Storey describes popular culture thus:[1]

As we shall see in the chapters which follow, popular culture is always defined, implicitly or explicitly, in contrast to other conceptual categories: folk culture, mass culture, dominant culture, working-class culture, etc. A full definition must always take this into account. Moreover, as we shall also see, whichever conceptual category is deployed as popular culture's absent other, it will always powerfully affect the connotations brought into play when we use the term 'popular culture'...Therefore, to study popular culture we must first confront the difficulty posed by the term itself. That is, 'depending on how it is used, quite different areas of inquiry and forms of theoretical defi­nition and analytical focus are suggested' (20). The main argument which I suspect readers will take from this book is that popular culture is in effect an empty conceptual category, one which can be filled in a wide variety of often conflicting ways, depending on the context of use.

The 'Pop Culture' website of the English Department of the University of California, Berkeley, reads thus:[2]

Popular culture has been defined as everything from "common culture," to "folk culture," to "mass culture." While it has been all of these things at various points in history, in Post-War America, popular culture is undeniably associated with commercial culture and all its trappings: movies, television, radio, cyberspace, advertising, toys, nearly any commodity available for purchase, many forms of art, photography, games, and even group "experiences" like collective comet-watching or rave dancing on ecstasy. While humanities and social science departments before the 1950s would rarely have imagined including anything from the previous list in their curricula, it is now widely acknowledged that popular culture can and must be analyzed as an important part of US material, economic and political culture. "Pop culture" is also one of the US' most lucrative export commodities, making everything from Levi's jeans to Sylvester Stallone movies popular on the international market.

Popular culture is often traced to a number of sources - the form of the operetta or light opera, and early musical theatre like Gilbert and Sullivan, which led on to the development of early film, including the animated shorts and features of Walt Disney. Similarly, twentieth century popular music combined a mixture of the black influence of blues and jazz with that of gospel music from both black and white ecclesiastical traditions. The invention of the Player-Piano and then radio and television helped shift the culture over to one of mediated experience from live performance to mediated experience.

History records that popular forms of entertainment have always existed. In his Historia, Herodotus (circa 485-425 BCE) wrote about amusing performances and songs that he encountered as he traveled the ancient world that seemed rather odd to him but that were highly popular. Fortunately, he thought, such phenomena were the exception, not the rule. Today's popular entertainment culture, or "pop culture" as it is commonly called, is instead the rule, not the exception. It is everywhere—on television, in movie theaters, in sport stadiums, in shopping malls, and so on. Is pop culture on the verge of taking over the hearts and minds of everyone living today?[3]

Many have been critical of popular culture, including the late Neil Postman who criticised television in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, which argued that the format of television reduces the intellectual involvement and attention span of the viewer compared to the reader of a book - and that ideas in politics, science and religion are trivialised by the medium.


  1. Storey J. (2006) Cultural theory and popular culture: an introduction. Athens: University of Georgia Press. ISBN 0820328391.
    • John Storey is Professor of Cultural Studies and Director of the Centre for Research in Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Sunderland. He has published widely in cultural studies, including seven books. The most recent book is called The Articulation of Memory and Desire (Guangxi Normal University Press, 2007). His work has been translated into Chinese, German, Japanese, Korean, Persian, Polish, Serbian, Slovene, Spanish, Swedish, and Ukrainian. He has been a Visiting Professor at the universities of Henan, Vienna and Wuhan.
  2. Pop Culture. English Department, University of California, Berkeley.
  3. Danesi M. (2008) Popular Culture: Introductory Perspectives. Roman & Littlefield. ISBN 074255547X.
    • Marcel Danesi, Professor, Department of Italian, University of Toronto.