Sociological Definition of Popular Culture

The History and Genesis of Pop Culture

Keeping Up With the Kardashians star Kourtney Kardashian

Gregg DeGuire/WireImage/Getty Images

Popular culture (or "pop culture") refers in general to the traditions and material culture of a particular society. In the modern West, pop culture refers to 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 are those types of media that have mass accessibility and appeal.

The term "popular culture" was coined in the mid-19th century, and it referred to the cultural traditions of the people, in contrast to the "official culture" of the state or governing classes. In broad use today, it is defined in qualitative terms—pop culture is often considered a more superficial or lesser type of artistic expression.

The Rise of Popular Culture

Scholars trace the origins of the rise of popular culture to the creation of the middle class generated by the Industrial Revolution. People who were configured into working classes and moved into urban environments far from their traditional farming life, began creating their own culture to share with their co-workers, as a part of separating from their parents and bosses.

After the end of World War II, innovations in mass media led to significant cultural and social changes in the west. At the same time, capitalism, specifically the need to generate profits, took on the role of marketing: newly invented goods were being marketed to different classes. The meaning of popular culture then began to merge with that of mass culture, consumer culture, image culture, media culture and culture created by manufacturers for mass consumption.

Different Definitions of Popular Culture

In his wildly successful textbook Cultural Theory and Popular Culture (now in its 8th edition) British media specialist John Storey offers six different definitions of popular culture.

  1. Popular culture is simply culture that is widely favored or well-liked by many people: it has no negative connotations.
  2. Popular culture is whatever is left after you've identified what "high culture" is: in this definition, pop culture is considered inferior, and it functions as a marker of status and class.
  3. Pop culture can be defined as commercial objects that are produced for mass consumption by non-discriminating consumers. In this definition, popular culture is a tool used by the elites to suppress or take advantage of the masses.
  4. Popular culture is folk culture, something that arises from the people rather than imposed upon them: pop culture is authentic (created by the people) as opposed to commercial (thrust upon them by commercial enterprises).
  5. Pop culture is negotiated: partly imposed on by the dominant classes, and partly resisted or changed by the subordinate classes. Dominants can create culture but the subordinates decide what they keep or discard.
  6. The last definition of pop culture discussed by Storey is that in the postmodern world, in today's world, the distinction between "authentic" versus "commercial" is blurred. In pop culture today, users are free to embrace some manufactured content, alter it for the own use, or reject it entirely and create their own.

Popular Culture: You Make the Meaning

All six of Storey's definitions are still in use, but they seem to change depending on the context. Since the turn of the 21st century, mass media—the way pop culture is delivered—has changed so phenomenally that scholars are finding it difficult to establish how they function. As recently as 20 years ago, "mass media" meant only print (newspapers and books), broadcast (televisions and radio), and cinema (movies and documentaries). Today it embraces an enormous variety of social media and forms.

To a large degree, popular culture is today something established by niche users. What is "mass communication" any longer? Commercial products such as music are considered popular even when the audience is tiny, in comparison to such pop icons as Britney Spears and Michael Jackson. The presence of social media means consumers can speak directly to producers—and are producers themselves, turning the concept of pop culture on its head. 

So, in a sense, popular culture has gone back to its simplest meaning: It is what a lot of people like.

Sources and Further Reading

  • Fiske, John. "Understanding Popular Culture," 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2010.
  • Gans, Herbert. "Popular Culture and High Culture: An Analysis and Evaluation Of Taste." New York: Basic Books, 1999.
  • McRobbie, Angela, ed. "Postmodernism and Popular Culture." London: Routledge, 1994.
  • Storey, John. "Cultural Theory and Popular Culture," 8th ed. New York: Routledge, 2019.