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SOCI1019: Investigatg Cont Pop Culture 5

CM Morris

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How have different approaches to the study of

popular culture understood what popular
culture is?
Among the social sciences, culture is a considerably complex and contentious concept, with a
variety of functions. It serves as an explanation for the progress and evolution of particular
societies (Paris and Howell, 2011: 232). Culture is also integral to the causal relationship
between possession of power and exercise of control. In addition, culture is the focal point by
which sociologists explain the behaviour of numerous social groups. By extension, popular
culture is the collection of texts, materials, practices, values, norms and ways of life,
characterised by the majority of a society. Popular culture is manifested through a specific set
of mores and ethos, located in a historical period. In sociology, attempts to conceptualise
popular culture within theoretical perspectives have led to changes. These include what
popular culture means to people. Furthermore, such attempts give answer to how and why
popular culture produced.
Classical Marxists argue that popular culture is a projection of the relations of production.
Neo-Marxists, such as the Frankfurt School, uphold the existence of a culture industry. This
theory proposes relative autonomy of the superstructure from the base. Structuralism is less
radical in its explanation of popular culture. Language and its use brings to light the way
popular culture is understood, and by extension, consumed. Semiologists draw from
structuralists the importance of signs and meaning in making sense of culture.
Other approaches to studying popular culture emphasise the importance of historical context
over evaluation. The holistic nature of ethnography and historicism require one to accept their
perception of popular culture as indicative of a distinct socio-cultural circumstance. As
opposed to theories, ethnography and historicism takes little interest in objective truth(s) and
laws. Both are part of the inter-disciplinary academic field of cultural studies. The two differ
mainly in how they interact with the subject of popular culture. Itll be argued that neoMarxism, despite its shortcomings, paints the most accurate picture of popular culture.
Classical Marxists claim that texts must be contextualised. That is, in relation to their
historical conditions of production (Storey, 2006: 59). Texts comprise of both literary and
non-literary works, such as music and painting. The classical Marxist view of popular culture
draws from the Marxist conception of history. This embodies the base/superstructure
account of social and historical development (ibid.). A societys means of existence
ultimately determines the political, social and cultural shape of that society. The bourgeoisie
(upper class) own the means of production, while the proletariat (working class) are exploited
for their wage-labour. Such is the relations of production (the base), which informs the
legitimisation of the relationships form (superstructure). Therefore, popular culture is the
extension of the ideas of the ruling class the ruling ideas (Marx and Engels, 2009; cited
in Storey, 2009: 61). In other words, it justifies the false class consciousness of the
proletariat. The latters subordinate position is presented as fair and rational (ibid.)
Marxism insists that the study of popular culture be situated in its historical moment of
production (ibid). Problems occur when the ultimately economic (ibid.) nature of
historical conditions is overlooked. Classical Marxist analysis of popular culture is, as a
result, economically determinist. The cause-and-effect assumption of the base/superstructure

relationship limits the scope for study of texts and practices. The ability of the superstructure
to shape the base cannot be ignored. Attention shall now be turned towards this.
The Frankfurt School originated in Germany in 1923. Amidst the rise of fascism and Nazism
across 1930s Europe, the Schools members relocated to New York in the early 1940s. Its
main aim was to critique capitalism and capitalist ideology in its current form. Adorno (1991;
cited in Strinati, 2004:63) argues that the proletariat are led to recognise how difficult it is to
change the world. His reason is twofold. Developed economies have managed to overcome
the contradictions it once faced (ibid.: 53). Society has, however, failed to tackle its
continuing problems of inequality, poverty and racism. Adorno defines popular as a
respite to the harsh and unfulfilling reality of capitalism. Neo-Marxism displayed the
hegemonic nature of the base/superstructure relationship. As demonstrated through Adornos
analysis of popular music, the proletariat are desensitised to political and economic reforms.
It then follows that blind consumption of economic and cultural goods (the culture industry)
reinforces the dominant capital order. Consequently, popular culture stunts the political
imagination (Storey, 2009: 63).
On the contrary, Adornos analysis of popular culture does not empirically validate his
argument. It relies on inferences from his theory as opposed to a body of qualitative
research (Strinati, 2006: 69). With no basis in social reality it is difficult to accept Adornos
conception of popular culture as appropriate. Additionally, the belief that consumers are
passive and non-resistant to bourgeois domination is refutable. Consumers lack the resources
to produce cultural texts at industrial levels. Nevertheless, it doesnt follow that they can be
defined as cultural dopes (ibid.: 72). The proletariat can shape and challenge popular
culture. In this regard, people can consume cultural goods actively. The Frankfurt School
theorises popular culture under the general sociological orientation of structuralism. Another
aspect of structuralism, called semiology, theorises popular culture otherwise.
The main objects of study, for structuralists such as Saussure, are the underlying relations of
texts and practices (Storey, 2006:273). The concept of langue is used to denote the rules
and conventions that organise a language (ibid.). Also, parole refers to the individual
utterance, the use of language as a way of communication. Saussure couples with this a new
definition of meaning. Storey (2006: 273) writes that meaning is always the result of an
interplay of relationships of opposition and combination the signifier and the signified.
The meaning of a particular text is parallel to its placement in the whole system. Saussure
takes a synchronic viewpoint of language i.e. as it exists at one time. This distorts structuralist
readings of popular culture, since it typically emphasises cognitive organisation (Mujerki
and Schudson, 1991: 20).
Influenced by structuralist thought is the theory of semiology. Barthes (1963, cited in Mujerki
and Schudson, 1991:434) asserts a threefold system of signification: one technological,
another iconic, the third verbal. The technological (signifier) refers to the physical text of a
book, or a photograph. It denotes the cultural images we associate with the text (signified),
resulting in a (primary) sign. The sign (iconic) itself becomes a signifier for the verbal
structure. Here, the connotations of an icon are displayed through the signified we assign it
verbally (the secondary sign). Storey, however, questions why a semiological understanding
of popular cultural signs is accurate it neglects groups who consume these signs (2009:

Semiologists do attempt to incorporate the historical, if not social, context of the production
of the readings of texts. Cultural studies, in general, shifts away from the metanarratives of
sociological theory. Historicism, in particular, oppose the view that culture refers exclusively
to high culture (Murfin and Supriya, 1988; cited in Das, 2007: 127). Popular culture is
instead a set of interactive cultures changing rather than static. Historicism posited that
uncovering the episteme (framework of knowledge) of a particular time is crucial to reading
cultural texts, while recognising ones own cultural codes. It follows that popular culture, to
historicists, entails the interpretation of signs and texts as one sees it. Related to historicist
conceptions of fluid culture is the Foucaldian concept of fragmented power. The hegemonic,
ideologically-driven nature of popular culture in sociological theories does not account for
the plurality of relationship and types of consumption.
In tandem with historicism is ethnography. This is a research method, or methodology,
emphasising the nature of human behaviour with regards to studying social groups.
Ethnographic research includes unstructured interviews, focus groups, participant
observation, etc. Lynch (2005: 163) argues that we as consumers of cultural products have
some creative freedom in the ways in which we make use of cultural resources. The
meanings that one particular culture will ascribe to a text may not be those intended by the
producer of the text. In direct opposition to the evaluative tendencies of sociological theory,
ethnography has two aims. The first is to describe and unearth the wealth of experiences of
both the ethnographer and their subject. The second is to allow for the interpretation of data,
subsuming the values, norms and ways of life of the ethnographer themselves. The
definitions and descriptions of popular culture are invariably contingent on how
ethnographers may have shaped the data they received (ibid.: 165). This includes whether
any hunches or biases may have distorted their interpretation of the data (ibid.).
Ethnography and disciplinary approaches to understanding popular culture in general are
indebted to the theoretical stances of classical Marxism, neo-Marxism, and other theories
alike. But in order for the discipline to be an alternative to theoretical standpoints,
ethnographers must maintain reflexivity. In other words, the ethnographer has to recognise all
of the areas of their research where potential for bias exists (Richardson, 2000: 254). As
humans, ethnographers are no different from their object, and will inevitably fail to ensure
pure reflexivity, or to express a given reality. Conversely, the neo-Marxist realisation of
hegemonic domination through the culture industry is very real today. It is possible to employ
ethnographic methodology to the empirical research needed to validate neo-Marxist
theorisations of popular culture. In conclusion, neo-Marxism at least has the audacity to claim
the difficulty of challenging bourgeois hegemony. This is amplified through the politicising
language used by the Frankfurt School. If society was less divided along arbitrary lines of
socio-political circumstances, a popular culture created by the majority of the population
would be possible.

Strinati, D. (2004) (2nd ed.) A Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture New
York: Routledge
Mujerki, C. and Schudson, M. (1991) Rethinking Popular Culture London: University
of California Press
Storey, J. (2006) Cultural theory and Popular Culture: a Reader. Essex: Pearson
Storey, J. (2009) Cultural theory and Popular Culture: an Introduction Essex:
Lynch, G. (2005) Understanding theology and Popular Culture London: Wiley-Blackwell
Paris, J. and Howell, B. (2011) Introducing Cultural Anthropology Grand Rapids: Baker
Das, B. (2007) (5th ed.) Twentieth Century Literary Criticism New Delhi: Atlantic