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Popular culture

(Redirected from Pop Culture)

Popular culture, or pop culture, is the vernacular (people's) culture that prevails in a modern society. The content of popular culture is determined in large part by industries that disseminate cultural material, for example the film, television, and publishing industries, as well as the news media. But popular culture cannot be described as just the aggregate product of those industries; instead, it is the result of a continuing interaction between those industries and the people of the society who consume their products. Bennett (1980, p.153-218) distinguishes between 'primary' and 'secondary' popular culture, the first being mass product and the second being local re-production.



Popular culture is constantly changing and is specific to 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 is only partially aware; 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."

Items of popular culture most typically appeal to a broad spectrum of the public; it is only occasionally that they are esoteric, as for instance in freemasonry. There are two reasons why broad-appeal items dominate popular culture. First, profit-making companies that produce and sell items of popular culture attempt to maximize their profits by emphasizing broadly appealing items. Second, popular culture apparently is governed by the "meme" effect, promulgated by Richard Dawkins. This is a form of natural selection: the items of popular culture which are most likely to survive are those which have the broadest appeal and thus propagate themselves most effectively.

A widely held opinion about popular culture is that it tends to be superficial. Cultural items that require extensive experience, training, or reflection to be appreciated seldom become items of popular culture.


Popular culture has multiple origins. A principal source is the set of industries that make a profit by inventing and promulgating cultural material. These include the popular music industry, film, television, radio, video game publishers, and book publishing.

A second and very different source of popular culture is the folkloric element. In preindustrial times, the only culture was folk culture, and popular culture did not exist. This earlier layer of culture still persists today, for example in the form of jokes or slang, which spread through the population by word of mouth much as they always have. The rise of the Internet has provided a new channel of folkloric transmission, and thus has given renewed strength to this element of popular culture.

The folkloric element of popular culture is heavily engaged with the commercial element; indeed popular culture might be defined as the kind of folkloric culture that arises under heavy commercial influence. To the repeated chagrin of the purveyors of commercial culture, the public has its own tastes, and it cannot always be predicted which cultural items sold to it will be successful and thus form the next ingredient of popular culture. Moreover, beliefs and opinions about the products of commercial culture (e.g. "My favorite character is Homer Simpson") are spread by word of mouth, and are modified in the process just as all folklore is.

A different source of popular culture is the set of professional communities that provide the public with facts about the world, frequently accompanied by interpretation. This includes the news media, as well as the scientific and scholarly communities. The work of scientists and scholars is mined by the news media and promulgated to the general public, often emphasizing "factoids" that have the power to amaze, or other items with an inherent appeal. To give an example, giant pandas are prominent items of popular culture; parasitic worms, though of greater practical importance, are not.

Both scholarly facts and news stories are modified through folkloric transmission, sometimes to the point of being transformed to outright falsehoods, known as urban myths (example: "the Eskimos have 50 different words for snow"). Doubtless many urban myths have no factual origin at all, and were simply made up for fun.

Feedback loops

The creative workers in commercial music, film, and television, for example script writers, are of course themselves members of the culture at large; in fact, usually they are highly attuned members. As a result, there often arises a kind of feedback loop, as the folkloric side of the popular culture serves as an input to the commercial side.

To give an example: stereotypes about African Americans, which are widespread in American popular culture, form an important (and in the view of many, regrettable) influence on movies with African-American characters. These movies then propagate the stereotypes further, perhaps in exaggerated form.

A more harmless example is given above: it seems likely that the script writers for The Simpsons learned about Kraftwerk folklorically, by word of mouth from their friends and acquaintances. They then propagated the fame of this group to millions of others by mentioning it in a Simpsons script.


Although popular culture is not especially prestigious, it nevertheless gives rise to interesting and important questions, for example, how it spreads or what traits are needed for a particular items to become a part of popular culture. For this reason, popular culture is studied by scholars, who invoke the usual apparatus of the scholarly association (e.g. the Popular Culture Association ) and the scholarly journal (e.g. the Journal of Popular Culture ). For a survey on different positions scholars have traditionally taken to popular culture, see popular culture studies.

See also


  • The urban myth that Eskimos have 50 words for snow is debunked in Geoffrey Pullum's book The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax and Other Irreverent Essays on the Study of Language (1991, University of Chicago Press, ISBN 0-226-68534-9). The testimony of a leading expert can be read at this link

External links

Wikiquote has a collection of quotations by or about Popular culture
  • (a definition of the discipline of Popular Culture Study)
  • Popular Culture Association
  • Journal of Popular Culture

Last updated: 02-20-2005 19:59:56