Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: Popular culture from Dictionary of Media and Communication Studies

See culture: popular culture.

Summary Article: Popular Culture
From The SAGE Glossary of the Social and Behavioral Sciences

The culture “of the people.” Culture has a broad semantic range broadened further by some attributives (high culture, popular culture, subculture, etc.). In this usage, one speaks of cultures in the plural to denote specific, local ways of life and the customs of a particular group rather than some universal notion of evolving civilization. The word popular, in use from the 15th century, ranges from the neutral sense of “belonging to the people” to the negative meaning of low, vulgar, and common on one end and the more positive sense of having general appeal, being widespread, and being well liked on the other. This latter, positive sense developed in the 18th century. The term popular culture has, however, never shed the taint of the vulgar. The abbreviation of the term in the mid-20th century to “pop,” as in pop music or pop art, conveys the sense of trivial, superficial, and undiscriminating, despite the important innovations pop culture is capable of making. The objects of representation in pop art— mass produced, disposable, cheap, and endlessly replicated (e.g., Andy Warhol's Campbell's soup cans)— seriously critique the possibility of authenticity and originality in a consumer-driven society.

The gradual acquisition of the more positive meaning of popular and the emergence of popular culture must be understood in light of the changing structure of society and the economy. Capitalism, urbanization, and industrialization increasingly legitimated bourgeois tastes as the middle classes expanded and became wealthier. The surge of mass production in the mid-20th century has arguably submerged the traditional markers of difference and the distinction between high and low culture into a global culture, differentiated primarily by income and consumer taste. The rise of the digital media and consumer Web sites enabled by the Internet has globalized access and further leveled the restrictions imposed by locality, class, race, ethnicity, and gender. Popular culture and culture have, thus, in many ways come to mean the same thing.

See also

Culture (communication, media studies), Mass Culture

Copyright © 2009 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

Related Articles

Full text Article Popular Culture
Bloomsbury Guide to Human Thought

Popular culture used to mean the culture ordinary people actually made for themselves: activities and habits of mind arising, usually...

Full text Article popular culture
The Blackwell Dictionary of Sociology

Popular culture is the accumulated store of cultural products such as music, literature, art, fashion, dance, film, television, and radio that...

Full text Article popular culture
The Bloomsbury Guide to Art

While there have long been forms of popular culture such as folk tales, folk art and popular theatre that to some extent have opposed the...

See more from Credo