Sociological Definition of Popular Culture

The History and Genesis of Pop Culture

Keeping Up With the Kardashians star Kourtney Kardashian

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Popular culture is the accumulation of cultural products such as music, art, literature, fashion, dance, film, cyberculture, television and radio that are consumed by the majority of a society's population. Popular culture has mass accessibility and appeal. The term "popular culture" was coined in the 19th century or earlier. Traditionally, it was associated with lower classes and poor education as opposed to the "official culture" of the upper class.

The Rise of Popular Culture

After the end of World War II, innovations in mass media led to significant cultural and social changes. Scholars trace the origins of the rise of popular culture to the creation of the middle class generated by the Industrial Revolution. The meaning of popular culture then began to merge with that of mass culture, consumer culture, image culture, media culture and culture for mass consumption.

John Storey and Popular Culture

There are two opposing sociological arguments in relation to popular culture. One argument is that popular culture is used by the elites (who tend to control the mass media and popular culture outlets) to control those below them because it dulls people’s minds, making them passive and easy to control. A second argument is just the opposite, that popular culture is a vehicle for rebellion against the culture of dominant groups.

In his book, Cultural Theory and Popular Culture, John Storey offers six different definitions of popular culture. In one definition, Storey describes mass or popular culture as "a hopelessly commercial culture [that is] mass-produced for mass consumption [by] a mass of non-discriminating consumers.” He further states that popular culture is “formulaic [and] manipulative,” not unlike how he views the process of advertising. A product or brand has to be “sold” to an audience before it can be entrenched in mass or popular culture; by bombarding society with it, it then finds its place in popular culture.

Britney Spears is a good example of this definition; her road to stardom and place in popular culture were based on marketing strategies to build look along with her fan base. As a result, she generated millions of fans, her songs were played frequently on numerous radio stations, and she went on to sell out concerts and garner the public's fascination with her meltdown. Like the creation of Britney Spears, pop culture almost always depends on mass production for mass consumption because we rely on mass media to get our information and shape our interests.

Pop Culture vs. High Culture

Pop culture is the culture of the people and it is accessible to the masses. High culture, on the other hand, isn't meant for mass consumption nor is it readily available to everyone. It belongs to the social elite. The fine arts, theater, opera, intellectual pursuits — these are associated with the upper socioeconomic strata and require more a high brow approach, training or reflection to be appreciated. Elements from this realm rarely cross over into pop culture. As such, high culture is considered sophisticated while popular culture is often looked down upon as being superficial.