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Popular Culture

Since the 1960s, studies of popular culture in the United States have proliferated and a range of novel arguments have been proposed, linking patterns of popular culture production and consumption to systems of stratification and power. Before the 1960s in Europe, Roland Barthes ([1957] 1972) and Fernand Braudel ([1949] 1966) championed (for quite different reasons) increased attention to everyday culture and its social significance, and members of the Frankfurt school emigrating to the United States brought new theories of mass culture to American academics (Rosenberg and White 1957; Lowenthal 1961), but American scholars still did not generally see any value in studying popular culture.

Beginning in the mid-1960s, as the American middle class began to be targeted by the mass media as the desired audience, more American educators started to show more interest in mediabased popular culture, even though in much of academia, studying popular culture was either declassé or taboo (Ross 1989). A few hardy souls from sociology and literary criticism looked at popular culture as a realm of interesting fads and fashions, ephemeral cultural forms that plummeted though modern urban life with regularity, gave rise to much cultural entrepreneurship, and left ordinary citizens running to keep up with what was ‘‘happening.’’ Sociologists found it a bit easier to justify ongoing attention to these social ephemera because of the established tradition in sociology of examining urban and suburban communities and their cultures (Park 1955; Lynd and Lynd 1929). By the mid-1960s a quite active community of scholars around Bowling Green University proliferated empirical and descriptive accounts of everything from fast-food restaurants to rock and roll (Keil 1966; Nye 1972; Cawelti 1972; Browne 1982). At roughly the same time, a small group of literary scholars drew on longstanding literary interest in the voices of the people in literature (Shiach 1989, chap. 2, 4), and argued that to understand contemporary uses of language, one had to study commercial language in popular culture (McQuade and Atwan 1974). This work did not have much success in changing either sociology or literature. In sociology, it was eclipsed conceptually by sociological work that linked patterns of popular culture to systems of institutional control (Cantor 1971; Denisoff 1974; Hirsh 1972).This work had greater legitimacy because it addressed the organizations’ literature, but it also reinforced the sense that the study of popular culture was not really important enough to stand on its own.

By the end of the 1960s, as the political climate shifted, radical scholars began to champion studies of popular culture either to understand the world of ‘‘the people’’ (disregarded by elites) or to account for the political passivity of the working class and poor. They tried to resuscitate questions about elite distaste for popular culture itself and its relation to systems of social control. These questions gave popular culture new importance, not as an aesthetic or commercial system but as a political actor in systems of stratification and power (Schiller 1969; Guback 1969; Aronowitz 1973; Gans 1974).

This legacy has been carried into present-day popular culture research as it has spread through sociology, literature, anthropology, history, and cultural studies. Ongoing fascination with ‘‘politics from below’’ has made this subfield a conceptually complex and politically ‘‘left’’ branch of cultural studies, not concerned so much with the moral fabric of society or the ideational sources of its integration (subjects derived from the Weberian tradition of cultural studies), but rather with the use of culture to exert or avoid systematic domination from above.

Many contemporary attempts to explain patterns of cultural domination through popular culture are indebted to (and in different ways critical of) the work on mass culture and consciousness begun by the Frankfurt school. Members of the Frankfurt Institute of Social Research originally organized themselves to examine the philosophical underpinnings of Marxism, but when Hitler came to power, since most of the leading members of the group were Jewish, this project was disrupted and many figures came to the United States. The work on mass culture that developed from this group was (not surprisingly) devoted to understanding the success of Nazism by dissecting and analyzing the psychological and political effects of mass society (Jay 1973). Members of the Frankfurt school perceived mass culture as aesthetically and politically debilitating, reducing the capacities of audiences to think critically and functioning as an ideological tool to manipulate the political sentiments of the mass public. They argued that in modern industrial societies, the pursuit of economic and scientific rationality provided an impoverished environment for human life. The realm of culture, which might have provided respite from the drudgery of everyday life, was itself being industrialized, yielding a commercial mass culture that atomized audiences and lulled them with emotionally unsatisfactory conventionality. This world of commodities only added to the dissatisfactions that deflected people from their desires. The dulling of their senses made them politically passive, and their emotional discontent made them easy targets for propaganda that addressed their powerful inner feelings. This combination, according to theory, was what made the propaganda in Nazi Germany so effective (Horkheimer and Adorno 1972).

During the 1960s, critical theory, as the work of the Frankfurt school came to be known, continued in U.S. intellectual circles to be used to explain the political conservatism of the working class, but it was also taken up in the student movement as a critique of commercial mass culture that justified the efforts by ‘‘flower children’’ to create radical social change through cultural experimentation. The problem was that, for the latter purpose, critical theory was too deterministic to have much room for human agency, including cultural strategies for change. Constructivist models from the sociology of culture could be and were used to explain how ordinary people could break the hold of political institutions over their imaginations (Blumer 1969; Goffman 1959; Berger and Luckmann 1966; Schutz 1967; Becker 1963), but they did not explain how ideological control of populations by elites could work. The insights of the Italian communist political writer Antonio Gramsci (1971) about hegemony seemed a better scheme for explaining both the role of ideology in systems of power and the constructed nature of social reality. According to Gramsci, elites maintained their power and legitimacy by creating hegemonic definitions of reality that were accepted as common sense by the population. By subscribing to these views, nonelites collaborated in their own oppression. Gramsci’s work, available in English translations and popularized in the academic community in the 1970s, gave the study of culture and power in the English-speaking world new direction.

By the 1970s, much innovative work on popular culture was coming out of Great Britain. The British school of cultural studies drew attention to the role of nonelites in systems of power, but it focused more on working-class culture—particularly its role as a crucible for cultural resistance, innovation, and change. This school had its roots in the work of E. P. Thompson (1963) and Raymond Williams (1961; 1977; 1980). These authors began from the premise that the working class is not defined just by relations of production, but also by a self-consciousness bred in a class-based way of life. The working class has its own history and traditions that give its members distinct values and a complex relation to societal level systems of power. In their own cultural enclaves, class members are active producers of their own political institutions and popular entertainments (and through them defined social realities). So while the public culture of Western industrialized societies may be dominated by elites who control the mass media and who try to use cultural systems for exerting power, their hegemonic control is circumscribed by the cultures of subordinated groups. The realm of popular culture, in this tradition, is an arena of conflict in which cultural identity, authority, and autonomy are contested. Social rifts are made manifest in the multiplicity of points of view that enter into the public sphere along with the hegemonic messages of much mass culture (Curran, Gurevitch, and Woolacott 1979; Hall and Whannel 1965).

While early British cultural studies paid greatest attention to working-class culture, the ideas about cultural resistance were easily transferred to the analysis of other subordinated groups such as women, youth, and minorities. This broader approach to cultures of resistance gave birth to the kind of subcultural analysis conducted, for example, by Dich Hebdige (1979). He argues that innovations in youth culture come from marginalized working-class youths rebelling against both their parents and hegemonic culture. New developments in music and dress are culled from the cultural possibilities made available in mass society, both in commercial commodities and local cultures. These cultural resources are mixed and reassembled to create new subcultural styles. Much innovation of this sort comes from minority communities and is picked up by middle-class kids in part because it is so offensive to their parents. The irony, of course, is that if they make these styles popular, they end up making them part of the world of mass culture, economic mainstays of the entertainment industry.

One of the most interesting literatures spawned in America by this British school comes from historians looking to the realm of popular culture to try to understand class, gender, and ethnic relations in the United States. Roy Rosenzweig (1983), Kathy Peiss (1985), and George Lipsitz (1990) look at how class, gender, and ethnic culture are sustained and dissolved over time in patterns of resistance, co-optation, mutual influence, and change. They identify ways that residues of older cultural traditions both resist and are incorporated into the cultural mainstream, and ways that different groups have absorbed and used elements of both traditional and mass culture to fashion distinct identities and ways of life.

Rosenzweig (1983), studying the white working class in nineteenth-century America, treats popular culture as a site of resistance to work discipline in the factory. The division of life into periods of work and leisure for workers in this period was not, to Rosenzweig, the articulation of two spheres of activity, but a political division that was part of a struggle over control of time by workers.

Peiss (1985) looks at women workers in nineteenth-century cities. She demonstrates that young working women used their new economic independence to resist the constraints of the family as well as of the factory. They were able to develop new styles of dress, dancing, and play, but could not free themselves from their highly structured gender relations.

Lipsitz (1990) looks at how ethnic and class cultures have been sustained and dissolved in the late twentieth century in the United States. He sees popular culture forming a kind of popular memory, obscuring and yet reviving the U.S. working class’s immigrant past and ethnic complexity. Centralized mass media such as television have helped to create and record the decline of immigrant identity under the force of consumerism. In contrast, more participatory cultural forms like street dancing and parading during Mardi Gras and some popular music forms have allowed ethnic groups to play their identities and create an urban mixed culture that simultaneously embraces and rejects traditional ethnic identity.

Another direction in the analysis of class and culture has been developed by Pierre Bourdieu (1984) and his colleagues in France. They have been looking for the mechanisms by which domination has been sustained across generations. If social constructivists are right and social life must necessarily be ‘‘created’’ by each new generation, then social stability over time needs theoretical explanation. To Bourdieu, culture is a main source of class stability. He argues that each rank has its own kind of cultural tastes, some systems of taste constituting cultural capital that can be exchanged for economic capital. People at the top of the hierarchy have a class culture with a high amount of cultural capital. They teach this culture to their children and thereby give them an economic edge. This kind of elite culture is also taught in school, but kids from less affluent backgrounds often resist learning it. This cultural resistance by the working class is not a victory, according to Bourdieu; rather, it is a trap for reproducing the class system.

Bourdieu’s theory of cultural and social stratification is interestingly unlike most models found in the United States and Britain because it has no special place for a homogenizing mass culture. Bourdieu argues that members of different social ranks may see the same films (or other forms of mass culture), but they see them in different ways and they like or dislike them for different reasons. Elite culture is more abstract and formal than working-class culture, so elite filmgoers pay more attention to film language while nonelites care more about plots and stars. These differences in cultural consumption are more significant to Bourdieu than differences of cultural production (mass versus handmade culture) because elites identify with formal approaches to culture and prefer to associate with (and hire) those who share their views.

Scholars in both Britain and the United States have been profoundly influenced by Bourdieu. Paul DiMaggio (1982), in a study of the Boston Symphony and its development in the nineteenth century, paid attention to the differentiation of tastes and social ranks at issue when concerts for elite audiences were purged of popular songs and were used to define a special repertoire of classical music. This happened when the symphony was established as an elite musical institution and drove out competing musical organizations that had more ‘‘democratic’’ tastes. DiMaggio argues that this cultural differentiation took place when immigrant groups grew dramatically in Boston and took over local politics there. The superiority of traditional elites was no longer visible in the public sphere, but it remained central to the economy. The creation of cultural institutions identifying this elite with elevated tastes helped to make class power visible and to sustain it over time by giving upper-class Bostonians a distinctive culture.

In Britain, Paul Willis (1977) has confirmed Bourdieu’s perceptions about class reproduction through his study of the education of workingclass youths. He argues that distaste for the ‘‘elevated’’ values of the school among working-class youths is expressed in school by resistance to lessons. This resistance does not have the optimistic possibilities found in the theories of Williams (1977) or Hebdige (1979), but results in class reproduction. Working-class youths, in eschewing elite cultural values, end up reproducing their own domination within the class system. MacLeod (1987) in the United States finds much the same thing, although he focuses on differences between blacks and whites. Members of gangs from both ethnic communities who lived in the same housing project found difficulty escaping their social rank because of difficulties at school. The blacks believed that by going to school they could achieve mobility, while the white kids did not. Still, both groups were kept in their ‘‘places’’ by a lack of cultural capital.

Since the end of the 1970s, there has been a growing literature, stimulated by the women’s movement, on gender stratification and popular culture. The bulk of it addresses two media—novels and film—because of the centrality of women to the economic development of these two areas of popular entertainment. As Ann Douglas (1977) pointed out in her seminal and controversial book, Feminization of American Culture, women readers and women writers helped to establish this form of popular novel writing in the United States during the nineteenth century. Sentimental novels were tailored to the domesticated women in the period, who had to stay home and devote their attention to familial relations and child rearing. The novels focused on interpersonal relations and problems of individuals’ morals (as opposed to large issues of morality)—just the kind of thing that both fit and justified middle-class women’s highly circumscribed lives. Douglas decries the role of women writers in shaping this disempowering literature for women and praises in contrast more ‘‘masculine’’ and male writings from the period (hence generating much controversy about her easy acceptance of the literary canon). Most important for students of popular culture, she argues that the sentimental novels were models of mass culture that have been used ever since in romance novels and soap operas.

Janice Radway (1984) questioned this easy dismissal of romance novels, and went out to study in a quasi-ethnographic fashion the readers of contemporary romance novels to see how they were affected by their reading. She found that the novels had more mixed effects than Douglas supposed. While they taught traditional gender relations (including male violence toward women), they also celebrated the gentler side of men and (more important) were used by women readers as a reason to deflect demands on their time by husbands and children. Women claimed their reading time as their own, and used it to withdraw temporarily from the uninterrupted flow of demands on their attention.

Gaye Tuchman’s book (1989) provides some interesting history that serves as a vantage point from which to view the controversy between Douglas and Radway. She shows that, around the turn of the century, publishing houses began to reject the women novelists and their sentimental novels and to favor male novelists. Publishers were central to the switch to the canons of modernism, and the ‘‘expulsion’’ of women from the profession of novel writing. Women readers still constituted the major market for novels, but their market had become so lucrative that high-status male poets, who had eschewed the novel before, began to be interested in it. Once this occurred, their tastes were taken as authoritative and the novel was quickly placed in their hands. Tuchman makes clear that changes in taste like this were neither arbitrary nor grounded purely in aesthetics; they were the result of economic changes in the literary market, institutional decisions about how to address them, and institutional trivialization of women and their culture.

The attention to gender and film has been inspired not by the importance of the female audience or the centrality of women to the film industry (the opposite is the case), but rather by the importance of actresses, of the faces and bodies of film stars, to the commercial and cultural success of the industry. When feminist studies of film began in the 1970s, most of the work was on the exploitation of the female body in films by male filmmakers and for a male audience. This kind of analysis stressed how commercial films used male-centered notions of sexuality and power, presenting women in films as objects of desire and/or violence (Weibel 1977; Tuchman et al. 1978). In the 1980s, researchers turned away from the study of film production and toward analyses of film language and film consumption to construct a psychology of film watching (Modleski 1982; Mulvey 1989). Much of this literature focuses on the voyeuristic pleasure film watching provides men by allowing them to gaze at women’s bodies while sitting in a dark theater where the female objects of the gaze cannot look back. Scholars in this tradition examine in shot-by-shot detail how men and women are differentially presented on film: men are generally in medium shots, carrying the action of films, while women stand in the background (or are dissected in close-ups to appear as faces or other body parts, available to the male gaze).

Because this type of analysis seemed to prove so decisively that films are constructed for a male audience, feminists wondered why women seem to find so much pleasure in going to the movies. One answer is that some films contain strong and interesting female characters who address issues of concern to female audiences. Another is that interpretations of films are not so controlled by authorial intentions, and are much more a matter of audiences’ active readings of messages. Drawing on Nancy Chodorow’s ideas about female psychology (1978), Carol Gilligan’s ideas about female reasoning (1982), Lacanian psychology, and poststructuralist views of the politics of interpretation (Eagleton 1983), a psychology of film emerged around how audiences (particularly women) construct meaning from film texts (Mulvey 1985, 1989; Erens 1979). The most recent works of media analysis have rejected altogether such a dualistic approach to gender. Learning from studies of sexuality itself, they have considered how gender categories are at stake in popular culture. They examine how gender dualism is enforced and contested in the mass media (Gamson 1998).

In the 1980s, two opposite developments in culture theory have emerged from renewed attention (in poststructuralism in general and in the film theory described above) to the multivocality of texts and the proliferation of meanings through multiple readings. The upbeat one emphasizes the liberatory nature of culture, and is related to:

(1) the poststructuralist argument that asserting alternative interpretations undermines the authority of canonical readings;

(2) feminist versions of reader response theory that contend that how you use culture is central to what it is; and

(3) the idea from the British school of cultural studies that competing social voices enter into the public sphere and are available for readers or audiences to find.

Advocates of this position claim that efforts at social control through culture do not work very well because, in their own life worlds, people use the cultural resources around them in their own ways. These new constructivists—for example, Robert Bellah (Bellah et al. 1985) Ann Swidler (1986), Joseph Gusfield (1989), and Michael Schudson (1989)—are much like Goffman (1959) and earlier symbolic interactionists who presented everyday life as a cultural achievement, but they see the construction of meaning in everyday life (in an optimistic reversal of Foucault and other poststructuralists) as a healthy exercise of power as well as symbolic manipulation (Foucault 1970, 1975, 1979; Jameson 1984; Zukin 1988).

This optimistic view of the proliferation of meanings in everyday life is countered by students of postmodernism who derive from structuralism and poststructuralism an interest in the languages of culture and see in modern urban society a loss of meaning resulting from the multiplication of signs and their decontextualization or reappropriation. They argue that commercial culture has such a need to assign meaning to objects (in order to make sense of their consumption and use) that signs are proliferated, reappropriated, mixed, and reused until they lose their meaning. For example, as famous paintings are used to sell cosmetics, images of the Old West are used to signify the solidity of banks, and bits and pieces of past architecture are mixed to construct a new built environment, history is made meaningless. The play with signs goes on without serious thought to what this does to human life. The result is (to postmodernists) a politically debilitating alienation. Cultural production and counterproduction, the argument goes, may reduce hegemony by undermining attempts to define ‘‘common sense,’’ and may give people pleasure through the free play of signs, but they provide only an illusion of freedom, and breed a loss of meaning in life. This view of modern urban life contains some of the unremitting pessimism of the Frankfurt school, but it is tied to a view of cultural decentralization that is at odds with traditional critical theory.

The diverse approaches to popular culture that have developed since the 1960s seem to have produced a proliferation of meanings for popular culture itself, but the result has not been alienation. Popular culture research has gained an analytic richness that it lacked when few scholars dared or cared to approach it. Conflicting theoretical views about what makes popular culture significant may make it more difficult to define and characterize (much less understand) the field. But all the debates consider how groups come to understand the world they live in, and how those understandings subordinate or alienate them (on the one hand) or liberate them to make meaningful lives, in spite of efforts by others to control them (Long 1997). This heritage is clear, and gives both meaning and direction to popular culture studies.

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