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The word ”popular” denotes ”of the people,” ”by the people,” and ”for the people.” ”The popular” is made up of subjects, whom it textualizes via drama, sport, and information; workers, who do that textualization through performances and recording; and audiences, who receive the ensuing texts.
Three discourses determine the direction sociologists have taken towards this topic. A discourse about art sees it elevating people above ordinary life, transcending body, time, and place. Conversely, a discourse about folk-life expects it to settle us into society through the wellsprings of community, as part of daily existence. And a discourse about pop idealizes fun, offering transcendence through joy, but doing so by referring to the everyday.
The concept of culture derives from tending and developing agriculture. With the emergence of capitalism, culture came both to embody instrumentalism and to abjure it, via the industrialization of farming, on the one hand, and the cultivation of individual taste, on the other. Culture has usually been understood in two registers, via the social sciences and the humanities – truth versus beauty. This was a heuristic distinction in the sixteenth century, but it became substantive as time passed. Culture is now a marker of differences and similarities in taste and status within groups, as explored interpretively or methodically. In today’s humanities, theater, film, television, radio, art, craft, writing, music, dance, and electronic gaming are judged by criteria of quality, as framed by practices of cultural criticism and history. The social sciences focus on the languages, religions, customs, times, and spaces of different groups, as explored ethno-graphically or statistically.
”Popular culture” clearly relates to markets. Neoclassical economics assumes that expressions of the desire and capacity to pay for services stimulate the provision of entertainment and hence determine what is ”popular.” Value is decided through competition between providers to obtain the favor of consumers, with the conflictual rationality of the parties producing value to society. The connection of markets to new identities leads to a variety of sociological reactions. During the Industrial Revolution, anxieties about a suddenly urbanized and educated population saw theorists from both right and left arguing that newly literate publics would be vulnerable to manipulation by demagogues. The subsequent emergence of public schooling in the west took as its project empowering, and hence disciplining, the working class.
This notion of the suddenly enfranchised being bamboozled by the unscrupulously fluent has recurred throughout the modern period. It inevitably leads to a primary emphasis on the number and conduct of audiences to popular culture: where they came from, how many there were, and what they did as a consequence of being present. These audiences are conceived as empirical entities that can be known via research instruments derived from sociology, demography, psychology, and marketing. Such concerns are coupled with a secondary concentration on content: what were audiences watching when they . . . And so texts, too, are conceived as empirical entities that can be known, via research instruments derived from sociology, psychology, and literary criticism. Classical Marxism views the popular as a means to false consciousness that diverts the working class from recognizing its economic oppression; feminist approaches vary between a condemnation of the popular as a similar diversion from gendered consciousness and its celebration as a distinctive part of women’s culture; and cultural studies regards the popular as a key location for symbolic resistance of class and gender oppression alike.
Antonio Gramsci maintains that each social group creates ”organically, one or more strata of intellectuals which give it homogeneity and an awareness of its own function not only in the economic but also in the social and political fields”: the industrial technology, law, economy, and culture of each group. They comprise the ” ‘hegemony’ which the dominant group exercises throughout society” as well as the ” ‘direct domination’ or command exercised through the State and ‘juridical’ government.” Ordinary people give ” ‘spontaneous’ consent” to the ”general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group.” In other words, popular culture legitimizes sociopolitical arrangements in the public mind and can be the site of struggle as well as domination.
- Adorno, T. W. & Horkheimer, M. (1977) The culture industry: enlightenment as mass deception. In: Curran, J., Gurevitch, M., & Woollacott, J. (eds.), Mass Communication and Society. Edward Arnold, London, pp. 349-83.
- Gramsci, A. (1978) Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, trans. Q Hoare & G. Nowell-Smith. International Publishers, New York.
- Hebdige, D. (1979) Subculture: The Meaning of Style. Methuen, London.