Popular Culture Theory

What we started looking on this session was that there are many theories of Popular Culture and many difinitions. It’s broadest definition which is the one we mustuse in a broad overview is “a set of generally available ar tefacts: films, records, clothes,TV programmes,modes of transport, etc.” (Hebdige, 1988, p.47)

Today’s Popular Culture comes from everywhere, films, fashion, social networking, music, etc.

Early Theories of Popular Culture:

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Linked with the rise of a market economy as far back as the 16th century. Associated with ideas of a national consciousness in late 18th century. Argued that popular culture comes out of the mechanisation of the industrial revolution. Others argue that circuses of the Roman empire were examples of popular culture.

 Much has been made of the distinction between ‘popular’ culture and ‘high’ culture. There seems to be a shift in perspective of popular culture between the 18th and 19th centuries. Early Ideas of Popular Culture – inferior kinds of work which deliberately set out to win favour and thus compromise on quality. Current Ideas – work made by the people for the people.

The 1920’s and 1930’s are often seen as key in the development of ideas and theories of popular culture, technological developments such as cinema and radio, mass production, mass consumption.

Mass = Great unspecified quantity

Masses = Ordinary People

Mass: Production, Consumption, Culture, Media, Society

Mass Society refers to the relationship between people and the social order not numbers. For example, India has a massive society, but it’s still fairly simple in nature; it’s not a mass society.

According to the theorists, mass society has a few characterist. People are psychologically isolated from each other. They are relatively free from social obligations. Characteristic of complex cultures. People are interdependent but have no central unifying value or purpose.

The individual is isolated and is required to judge everything for himself and find his own criteria. He is responsible for his own decisions, both personal and social, he/she must rely entirely on his/her own resources.

Mass Culture Theory

Mechanisation + Urbanisation = Atomisation

Mass society theory has grown out of this concern, individuals can only relate to each other like atoms in a chemical compound. The essential condition of the society is the contract, so no bonds, feeling or individually inherent value is assumed, value is based on what a person can do rather than who the person is.

The permanent uncertainty, social mobility and absence of sociological protection and of traditional frames of reference, leave the individual defenseless, thus becoming an easy prey for,mass media, propaganda, mass currents, mass culture, direct integration into mass society, influence and exploitation by the state. Intellectuals in Western Societies have historically been fearful and anxious about where the rise of mass society and mass culture will lead us, and this has led to much of the debate around the subject.


Screen Shot 2016-05-09 at 21.12.58.pngNot many films, programmes or newspapers need to be produced to reach a wide audience. Its no longer considered art, not of the people and content decided upon by a few higher up people.

Mass culture is popular culture produced by mass production, industrial techniques and is marketed for a profit to a mass public of consumers.


“All Germany hears the Führer on the People’s Receiver.” Nazi Propaganda Poster


The main determinant of mass culture is the profit that production and marketing can make from the potential mass market. In order to sell, and be cheap to produce and to maximise profits, the product must be bland and standardised to a formula, squeezing out authenticity and originality. Standardised, formulaic and repetitive products of mass culture are then sold to a passive audience, prone to manipulation by mass media as a sop to prevent discontentment and uprising. Mass culture theorists argue that both folk and high art are at risk from mass culture. Dominic Strinati summarises the theoretical arguments about the dangers of mass culture thus: “Mass Culture represents a debased, trivialised, superficial, artificial and standardised culture. One which saps the strength of folk and high culture and challenges the intellectual arbitration of cultural taste”(1995).


American popular culture is seen to embody all that is wrong with mass culture. America is the capitalist society most closely associated with mass production and consumption.

Looking into an Art&Design Context in America:

Insitence on distinction between Fine Art and Popular Culture

“Young working class people do not consume….in a passive and unreflective manner. They consume styles in images, clothes and music in an active, meaningful and imaginative fashion, thus converting them into distinct sub-cultural tastes”

– Hebdige,1979

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Beyond the youth cultures there are a whole range of individuals with different life experience, disposable income, varying educational backgrounds, etc. Therefore popular culture must be diverse because it is open to diverse uses and interpretations by different groups in society. Likewise Popular Culture must be diverse in it’s nature due to the varied set of genres, texts, images and representations which can be found across a range of different media. Within this diversity there inevitably exist tensions and conflicts and it would therefore be impossible to describe it as homogenised or standardised. Audiences, crucially are now able to be pro-active in contributing to popular culture.

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In Conclusion, mass culture theory lacks an adequate understanding of social and cultural change, and therefore undermines it’s own theories. Audiences are more knowing and more discriminating in their consumption of popular culture than ever before.



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BA (Hons) Final Year Ceramics student at Cardiff Metropolitan University. Love experimenting with material and techniques and work on a range of medium.

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