Such a phenomenon as popular culture is regarded by many scholars as a mass-marketed phenomenon that is essentially a product of capitalist development (Rhodes & Westwood 2008, p. 7). Moreover, this concept often has negative connotations and it is often used as a reference to something rather primitive and populist. This paper will discuss the main distinctions of popular culture and its growth.
This discussion will show various sides of popular culture and explain why it can be criticized and praised. Overall, it is possible to argue that popular culture can indeed be viewed as a mass-marketed phenomenon that appeals to the general public.
Nevertheless, it should not be always associated with something superficial or commercial as many people do. In other words, this concept does not always have negative meanings. Moreover, this essay will show that sometimes it is rather difficult to draw a distinct line between popular and elite culture. This is the main idea that should be illustrated.
Culture and popular culture
To get a better understanding of this issue, one should first look at the definitions of culture and popular culture. These notions have frequently attracted the attention of many sociologists, anthropologists, and psychologists.
Overall, the term culture can be defined as a system of beliefs, attitudes, values, norms and material objects that are shared or recognized by a certain group of people (Samovar, Porter & McDaniel, 2008, p. 10). This definition may not be conclusive, but it shows that this term includes a large number of components. Moreover, it implies that different elements of culture have to be recognizable by members of a certain group.
In turn, the definition of popular culture can be even more complex because while explaining it, one has to be free from prejudice against this phenomenon. As a rule, scholars regard it as a form of entertainment that is mass produced and appeals to a great number of people (Rhodes & Westwood 2008, p. 7).
Moreover, this term also encompasses attitudes, ideas, and perspectives that are recognizable and popular within in a certain group. These are the most typical characteristics that are normally attributed to popular culture. However, people often believe that this term has much more negative meanings. In particular, it denotes something unsophisticated and dumbed down.
For instance, this term is often used when people speak about films, TV shows, books, and other works of art that are believed to be consumerist, superficial, or sensationalist. Admittedly, there are some works of art that deserve such criticism, for instance, soap operas or pulp fiction. In the majority of cases, they are intended for people who do not want to take intellectual effort.
One can hardly deny that they are oriented toward quick commercial success. However, these features are not typical of the entire popular culture. There are many cultural phenomena that belonged to the elite part of society for a long time. For instance, before the twentieth century only very well-to-do people could purchase or at least see the reproductions of paintings by Leonardo da Vinci or Raphael.
Yet, nowadays, they have become a part of popular culture because practically every person can at least look at them with the help of Internet. To some degree, this example suggests that the boundaries between popular and elite culture are not always clear. These distinctions are often determined by technological and social development.
On the basis of this discussion, it is possible to distinguish several characteristics of popular culture such as increased availability, mass production, recognizability, and appeal to a large number of people. It is possible to agree with an argument that popular culture may act as a commodity that is marketed to people throughout the world.
However, it does not mean that this commodity always has negative qualities that are often attributed to it. For instance, one can mention works of famous writers or poets such as Shakespeare or Mark Twain. It is quite possible to say that their books are recognizable and even mass produced, but they are by no means consumerist or superficial.
These examples show that from qualitative point of view, popular culture is very diverse, and people should not judge it by stereotypes. The main paradox of popular culture is that many of its critics may actually enjoy artistic works that are a part of it.
Furthermore, one should not forget that the same phenomenon may be viewed as something very superficial or dumbed down by contemporaries, but with time passing, it can be incorporated into elite culture. For instance, jazz was frequently opposed to classical music by critics who believed that this musical genre was more appropriate for uneducated people of lower classes (Lopes, 2003, p. 11).
Yet, nowadays, it is recognized and appreciated by critics throughout the world. This case illustrates an idea that it is rather difficult to establish the boundaries of popular and high culture. Peoples’ attitudes toward works art are dynamic, and the division of art in popular or elite culture is rather conventional. It does not reflect the changes in public opinion and critical evaluation of art. This is one of its major limitations.
The establishment and development of popular culture
To elaborate this idea, one should look at the establishment and growth of popular culture. These questions give rise to different historical interpretations. Some researchers explain the rise of popular culture by the Industrial Revolution, and particularly the development of cinematography, radio, or sound recording (Edgar & Sedgwikc 2002, p. 285).
In other words, the establishment of popular culture was marked by the arrival of material objects such as musical recordings that can be reproduced on a massive scale. Thus, the origins of this phenomenon can be traced to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Additionally, sociologists agree that television and Internet contributed to the growth of popular culture.
The thing is that that these inventions made books, paintings, music compositions, or films much more accessible to people. By applying this logic, one can even trace the origins of popular culture to the fifteenth century when printing was introduced in Europe.
Overall, this approach to the establishment and rise of popular culture emphasizes mostly technological development of society. Yet, one cannot argue that popular culture was always distinct from elite culture. The main difference lies in their availability, rather than quality.
However, it is possible to provide a different explanation for the establishment of popular culture. In particular, one can speak about social differences between people and their opportunity to receive education. According to this hypothesis, at some point, some parts of society became separated from its elite, and the culture of elites became inaccessible to them because they lacked money or education (Edgar & Sedgwikc 2002, p. 285).
For instance, one can mention that during the Middle Ages, the majority of books were written in Latin which was not spoken by spoken by many people. Hence, they had to invent their own vernacular culture that was based on the own language. Such an approach may seem plausible, but it does not suggest that popular culture is always unintellectual or primitive.
The thing is that nowadays people have access to a variety of cultural forms, but they do not always prefer only elite or high culture. Overall, this argument confirms the thesis that the main characteristics of popular culture are its recognizability and availability to the public. Yet, it is not appropriate to speak about qualitative dimensions of this phenomenon because it includes a large number of elements.
Thus, this discussion shows that popular culture can indeed be regarded as a mass-marketed phenomenon and a product of capitalism. However, it does not mean that this concept should be associated with something primitive. It simply denotes material objects or ideas that are available and recognizable by a large number of people. Its establishment and development can be explained by technological progress.
Finally, one can say that the distinctions between popular and elite culture become blurred. This paper provided examples showing that elite culture can eventually transform in popular culture. Moreover, those things that are often labeled are as popular culture, can later appeal to the elite. Thus, people should very careful when they distinguish popular and high culture. Such distinctions are not always justified.
Edgar, A. & Sedgwikc P. (2002). Cultural Theory: The Key Concepts. London: Routledge.
Lopes, P. (2003). The 1950’s Cultural Revolution: Race, Music and the American Popular. Conference Papers — American Sociological Association, 1-20.
Rhodes, C. & Westwood, R. (2008). Critical Representations of Work and Organization in Popular Culture. New York: Routledge.
Samovar, L., Porter, R. & McDaniel. (2008) Intercultural Communication: A Reader. New York: Cengage Learning.
Storey, J. (2006). Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: An Introduction. Berkeley: Pearson Education.