9 Ch. 9: Pop Culture


Ch. 9: Popular Culture

Learning Objectives

By the end of this chapter, readers should:

  • Describe and define popular culture.
  • List and explain various ways we consume popular culture.
  • Describe the differences between folk, low, and high culture.
  • Understand and explore the ways popular culture is created.
  • Understand and explore the ways that popular culture influences culture.
  • Describe the ways to resist popular culture.


Key Vocabulary

  • popular culture

  • low culture

  • high culture

  • folk culture

  • cultural jamming

  • cultural industries

  • soap opera

  • cultural imperialism

  • media imperialism

  • electronic colonialism

How important do you think popular culture is within your life?  Are you constantly listening to the newest music?  Do you enjoy watching the most recent episode of something on Amazon Prime or Netflix?  Or do you follow social influencers on YouTube?  Look around your house.  Have your purchases been influenced by the Disney Corporation, Game of Thrones, World of Warcraft, or Peppa the Pig?  The most common forms of popular culture are movies, music, television, video games, sports, entertainment news, fashion, and various forms of technology. Some of us may be very selective in our consumption of popular culture, but it’s difficult to find someone who has not been touched by popular culture at all.  Even if the mere mention of popular culture makes you roll your eyes and sigh, most of us—no matter what nation you are a citizen of—have been impacted by the economic and social impact of popular culture.

According to Dictionary.com, popular culture or low culture as it is sometimes referred as, is comprised of the “cultural activities or commercial products reflecting, suited to, or aimed at the tastes of the general masses of people” (7/21/19). In other words, popular culture is accessible to the masses and has huge appeal.  Traditionally, the term was associated with lower classes who were poorly educated, but after World War II, innovations in radio and television broadcasting or mass media led to significant cultural and social changes.  Popular culture almost always relies on mass consumption of mass media by the masses of people on the planet. Popular culture is constantly evolving and is unique to the time and place in which it occurs.  Societal influences and institutions merge and diverge to appeal to a broad cross-section of people within a culture.  Some social scientists theorize that popular culture is a tool that elites use to control the people below them in society, but others stress that popular culture can also be used as a means of rebellion against the dominant culture.  For our purposes, the characteristics of popular culture fulfill social functions within cultures and can be found everywhere.

High culture, on the other hand, isn’t meant for mass consumption.  It might not be easily available to everyone.  Consumers might need training or education to fully appreciate the benefits of high culture.  It’s also possible that consumers of high culture might need to purchase costly equipment or memberships to participate in high cultural activities.  Because of these limitations, high culture often belongs to social or economic elites, and does not often cross over into the realm of the masses.  In the US, examples of high culture could be opera, ballet, classical music, an appreciation of fine wine, horse polo matches, or other items associated with “sophisticated” tastes.

If popular culture is for the masses, and high culture is for the elites, folk culture is a localized form of culture.  Folk culture refers to the rituals and traditions that maintain a cultural group identity.  According to Wikipedia, “folk culture is quite often imbued with a sense of place.  If elements of folk culture are copied by, or moved to, a foreign locale, they will still carry strong connotations of their original place of creation” (7/21/19).  Examples of US folk culture could be quilt-making, powwows, cakewalks, hula, Shaker furniture, corn dogs, and Creole cuisine.

Folk culture often informs pop culture and has even influenced high culture, but once folk cultural icons have become so internationalized that they have lost their original sense of place, they are no longer part of folk culture.   An example of this could be the Seattle Seahawks football team emblem.  The original 1975 emblem was derived from a picture of a Kwakwaka’wakw tribal mask found in an art book (http://wearefanatics.com/seattle-seahawks-logo, ret. 8/28/19).  Most Seahawk fans will recognize the NFL logo instantly, but have little or no understanding that a “sea hawk” is the nickname for an osprey, and that the original sea hawk mask used as a basis for the team emblem was a “transformational” mask with a specific religious meaning (https://www.audubon.org/news/what-seahawk-anyway, ret. 8/28/19).

So why have a chapter on popular culture in an intercultural communication book?  “Popular culture is intimately connected with education, mass communication, production, and a society’s ability to access knowledge” (Campbell, Intellectbooks.com).  From an intercultural communication perspective, popular culture is usually our first exposure to other cultures.  It is the place that we learn about those who are different than us.    Martin & Nakayama believe that “popular culture is a lens for viewing other cultural groups” (2011, p. 202).  Research tells us that people use popular culture to learn about other cultures, to re-affirm their own cultural identities, and to reinforce stereotypes.  In other words, popular culture plays a powerful role in how we think about and understand ourselves as well as others.

If you are interested in how popular culture impacts your life, look around.  Did you buy a lot of Vans because your really like them?  How many of your friends own them?  Next check your clothing.  Are you buying things because you like them or because they are popular?

What about your entertainment choices?  The 2019 DC Comics film, AQUAMAN, grossed over $1 billion dollars making it the highest-grossing DC Comics film.  A former student and her husband looked forward to watching it because of its popularity, but was disappointed when they finally saw it.  “We sat and watched the entire thing even though it was cheesy and not very well made.  Why? Probably because we have watched many other superhero movies over the years that have taken over the movie scene” (Hein, 2019).  According to CNBC.com, “more than 70% of the film’s revenue came from countries outside the US” (https://www.cnbc.com/2019/01/08/aquaman-nears-billion-dollar-bench-mark-thanks-to-international-sales.html, ret. 8/18/19).

According to Kathryn Sorrells (2013, pp. 142-144), there are several ways that we can become informed consumers of popular culture.  First, we should increase awareness of what role media plays in forming views, normalizing ideas, and spreading stereotypes.  Second, we need to understand that we have a choice in what we media we consume and what we don’t.  And third, we do not have to accept what mass media promotes.  Kalle Lasn, author of Cultural Jam (2000), introduced the idea of cultural jamming which is a form of public activism that helps us to become better interpreters of media rather than simply consumers.

Globalization and Popular Culture

The economic prosperity of the United States at the beginning of last century created cultural industries.  The term cultural industry was created by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer (1944; 1993) to mean the creation, production, and distribution of goods and services that are cultural in nature and usually protected by intellectual property rights.  The globalizing forces of trade & international commerce, media & communication technology plus the arts & languages are behind the rise of US pop culture. In the 1920s, US media was exported to boost sales of US products.  Among the major sponsors of such programming were Procter & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive, and Lever Brothers, all US manufacturers of soap and cleaning products, thus the term soap opera came into being for the daytime dramas that also became popular exports by themselves.

The growth of the influence of US television has also impacted the international film industry. In 1987, US films captured 56% of the European film market.  Less than a decade later, that statistic rose to 90% (Dager, n.d.).  Recently, the market share across Western Europe has ranged from 60-75% (Hopewell, 2013).  In such a lop-sided import/export market, concerns are often raised.  “Not only do foreign nations worry about their own domestic entertainment industries from an economic standpoint, but they also worry about the effects on their culture” (Levin Institute, 2017).

For many countries the abundance of US media is not just another commodity, but rather cultural imperialism.  Cultural imperialism can be defined in many ways, but for our purposes, we will think of it as domination through cultural products.  Imperialism is the “creation and maintenance of unequal power relationships between civilizations favoring a more powerful civilization” (Wikipedia, 7/25/19).  Other related terms include media imperialism or the domination or control through the media, and electronic colonialism or domination or exploitation through using technological forms.

When culture becomes a commercial commodity, the fear of the homogenization of cultures rises.  People from different parts of the world can learn to dress, eat, consume, and communicate in the same ways.  Localized cultural diversity could become endangered as a dominant, globalized culture becomes the norm.  As Martin & Nakayama (2011, p. 202) note “There is no easy way to measure the impact of popular culture, but we need to be sensitive to its influences on intercultural communication because, for so many of us, the world exists through popular culture.”   Global circulation of popular culture enables foreign companies to distribute materials from cultural industries as well.  Not all popular culture comes from the United States.  Manga, anime, K-pop, bairro dances, and British rock bands are all prime examples of wildly popular cultural influences originating from outside of the United States.

It’s interesting to note that some forms of popular culture can be limited to particular cultures such as slang words, while other forms, such as music can be universally popular.Globalization also allows foreign companies to earn money selling US cultural products and making them more accessible worldwide as well.  CNN now reaches over 200 million households in over 212 countries and territories.  Such exposure could only be possible through the cooperation of international distributors.UK culture and communication researcher, Mark Banks, believes that the heart of the pop culture discussion is always about power.  His work focuses on how pop culture, economics and politics collide through use, social critique, and exploitation of cultural work.

Consuming and Resisting Pop Culture

People negotiate their relationship to pop culture in interesting and complex ways.  To maintain or reshape our identities, we both resist popular culture, and actively consume it.  If a social group participates in particular forms of pop culture, individuals often feel that they should participate as well.  On the other hand, if a social group has concerns about pop culture, individuals will often refuse to engage with that particular form as well.

Facebook usage is a great example of this.  According to Statista.com (ret. 7/25/19), seventy-nine percent of 18-49 year-olds in the United States used Facebook in February of 2019 while only forty percent of the 65 and older group did.  According to the Pew Research Center (ret. 7/25/19), those in the 18-24 range embrace a variety of platforms (YouTube 94%, Snapchat 78%, Instagram 71%, and Twitter 45%) by visiting them multiple times (71%) a day.  Interestingly enough, popular culture does not have to win over the majority of the people to be considered “popular.”  With usage by less than a quarter of the world’s population, Facebook can be considered the ultimate media imperialist. 

Wrapping it up…

According to Internet Live Stats (ret. 2/27/18) there are 3.5 billion Google searches per day.  Some scholars have proposed that this usage indicates the intensity that US culture has permeated the planet through continual dependence.Whether you embrace it or resist it, popular culture serves important cultural functions.  Those functions are connected to cultural identities, or our view of ourselves in relation to the cultures to which we belong.  Those functions also embrace how we get information about, and understand, other cultural groups.


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Intercultural Communication for the Community College Copyright © 2019 by Karen Krumrey-Fulks is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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