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Popular culture, or pop culture, the vernacular (people's) culture that prevails in any given society, results from the daily interactions, needs and desires, and cultural 'moments' that make up the everyday lives of the mainstream. It can include any number of practices, including those pertaining to cooking, clothing, mass media and the many facets of entertainment such as sports and literature.

If one regards culture as a way of defining oneself, a culture needs to attract people's interest and persuade them to invest a part of themselves in it. People like to feel a part of a group and to understand their identity within that group. This scenario works well in small communities where people feel needed and special in their small world. Mass culture, however, lets people define themselves in relation to everybody else in mass society at the level of a city, of a country or of a planet. In a sense it 'makes the ball park a lot bigger' and individuals have to fight harder to find and keep their identity.

Pop culture finds its expression in the mass circulation of items from areas such as fashion, music, sport and film. The world of pop culture had a particular influence on art from the early 1960s, through Pop Art.

Defining popular culture

Curiously, though almost everybody spends their lives immersed in popular culture, nobody seems able to agree on what popular culture consists of. We glance at the comics daily. That counts as participation in popular culture. We watch television a good deal and it was boring. (A study conducted in 2006 revealed the average adult spends four hours, sixteen and one half minutes watching television a day. TV Shines in TVB Study. Broadcasting & Cable. URL accessed on 2006-05-31.) We go to the movies, buy rock-and-roll music, eat snacks, and dress in certain ways. All of this forms a part of our popular culture.

Some people make a distinction between popular arts, such as detective stories, westerns, and situation comedies, and mass media, such as radio, television, film, newspapers and magazines. But to the extent to which much of the media devotes itself the popular arts, the distinction between the two may seem relatively unimportant.

Some people talk about mass culture, which suggests an interest in the culture of the ordinary man (as contrasted with the "high culture" of élites). But the title of an important collection of articles on mass culture, published in the mid-1950s: Mass Culture: The Popular Arts in America suggests that (in America at least) mass culture equates to the popular arts.

Popular culture has a broader scope than the popular arts. It comprises the whole culture of the people — their behavior, values, and (in particular) their entertainments — not just certain art forms which appeal to large numbers of people. One can perhaps best give an indication of the definition of popular culture by stating what popular culture generally is not. It does not equate to the classic works of literature and philosophy (though curiously enough much popular culture relates directly to the same myths as in Greek tragedy, for instance; and Greek tragedy had its roots in ancient Greek popular culture). Popular culture does not consist of highly sophisticated art which appeals only to a person of highly cultivated and discriminating tastes (though popular culture can demonstrate considerable sophistication). Cultivated and discriminating persons may enjoy modern poetry as well as roller derby and professional football, but the average roller-derby and football fan probably doesn't enjoy esoteric poetry or the novels of Henry James.

Popular culture in the 20th and early-21st centuries

In modern urban mass societies, several factors have played a major role in shaping popular culture:

  1. the development of industrial mass production
  2. the introduction of new technologies of sound and image broadcasting and recording
  3. the growth of mass media industries — the film, broadcast radio and television, and the book-publishing industries, as well as the print and electronic news media

But one cannot describe even contemporary popular culture as just the aggregate product of industrial developments; instead, it contemporary Western popular culture results from a continuing interaction between those industries and those who consume their products. Bennett (1980, p.153-218) distinguishes between 'primary' and 'secondary' popular culture, defining primary popular culture as mass product and secondary popular culture as local re-production.

Popular culture changes constantly and occurs uniquely in place and time. It forms currents and eddies, in the sense that a small group of people will have a strong interest in an area of which the mainstream popular culture has only partial awareness; thus, for example, the electro-pop group Kraftwerk has "impinged on mainstream popular culture to the extent that they have been referenced in The Simpsons and Father Ted."[How to reference and link to summary or text]

Items of popular culture most typically appeal to a broad spectrum of the public. Some argue that broad-appeal items dominate popular culture because profit-making companies that produce and sell items of popular culture attempt to maximize their profits by emphasizing broadly appealing items (see culture industry). But that may over-simplify the issue. To take the example of popular music: the music industry can impose any product they wish. In fact, highly popular types of music have often first evolved in small, counter-cultural circles (punk rock and rap provide two examples).

Since World War II a significant shift in pop culture has taken place: from the production of culture to the consumption of culture. Commentators have noted[How to reference and link to summary or text] that those in power exploit consumers to do more of the work themselves (for example, do-it-yourself checkout lines), and advertising on television, movies, radio, and in other places helps those in power to guide consumers towards what those in power consider needed or important.

Alternative usage

The phrase 'Pop' culture may also refer semi-humorously or euphemistically to physical punishment. Pop can express onomatopoeically a swat or lick given with an implement, as in the title of this newspaper article on CorPun.


Popular culture has multiple origins. In conditions of modernity the set of industries that make profit by inventing and promulgating cultural material have become a principal source. These industries include those of:

Folklore provides a second and very different source of popular culture. In pre-industrial times, mass culture equalled folk culture. This earlier layer of culture still persists today, sometimes in the form of jokes or slang, which spread through the population by word of mouth and via the Internet. By providing a new channel for transmission, cyberspace has renewed the strength of this element of popular culture.

Although the folkloric element of popular culture engages heavily with the commercial element, the public has its own tastes and it may not embrace every cultural item sold. Moreover, beliefs and opinions about the products of commercial culture (e.g. "My favorite character is SpongeBob SquarePants") spread by word of mouth, and become modified in the process in the same manner that folklore evolves.

A different source of popular culture lies in the set of professional communities that provide the public with facts about the world, frequently accompanied by interpretation. These include the news media, and scientific and scholarly communities. The news media mines the work of scientists and scholars and conveys it to the general public, often emphasizing "factoids" that have inherent appeal or the power to amaze. For instance, giant pandas have become prominent known items of popular culture; parasitic worms, though of greater practical importance, have not.

Both scholarly facts and news stories get modified through popular transmission, often to the point of outright falsehoods. At this point, they become known as urban legends. Other urban myths may have no factual basis at all, having simply originated as jokes.

Criticisms of popular culture

Given its wide availability, popular culture has attracted much criticism.

Some charge that popular culture tends to the superficial. Cultural items that require extensive experience, training, or reflection for their fuller appreciation seldom become items of popular culture.

Critics may also claim that popular culture stems more from sensationalism than from reality.

Corporations often aquire a reputation for pushing popular culture to produce public consumerism.

Some Marxists provide the critique that the divisions created from popular cultures separate the working class of all individuals.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

See also

br:Kultur ar Bobl ca:Cultura popular de:Popkultur el:Μαζική κουλτούρα es:Cultura popular fr:Culture populaire he:תרבות פופולרית hr:Popularna kultura li:Populair cultuur pt:Cultura popular ru:Массовая культура zh:流行文化

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