Anthropology Popular Culture
by
Elizabeth ErkenBrack, Rebecca Pardo, John L. Jackson
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0055

Introduction

An ambiguous concept by most accounts, “popular culture” first became a widely used term in the mid-19th century in reference to the culture of the masses, as opposed to elite, or high culture. Although anthropologists have arguably studied aspects of popular culture for a long time—particularly with reference to dance or music as foci of study—understanding the contributions of these fields to popular culture, and the effect that popular culture studies have had on these fields, is an important clarifying contribution. However, it is undeniable that now “popular culture” is most often used in reference to industrial societies. This is especially true since the term began to be most widely used in the post–Industrial Revolution era. Popular culture has changed as a concept throughout the decades, often because of how different technologies and fields reinvent it. We see this clearly in television and music, as well as in the current new media age. Now the term is commonly shortened to “pop” culture and is not always directly associated with a sense of non-elite positioning. Although closely aligned with subaltern studies historically for its anti-elite positioning, it has largely dropped connotations of socioeconomic class today; however, it is still used to reference mass culture, or mainstream experiences in the everyday Western world. The current understanding of popular culture as synonymous with mass culture can be traced back to the Industrial Revolution and its expansive middle class. It has long been thought that studying what is popular, especially popular forms of art and communication, reveals a great deal about general cultural practices and the people who make use of them. Popular culture is not a concept that is exclusive to anthropology. Indeed, it is widely used in communication studies, media studies, cultural studies, history, sociology, and literature, as scholars unpack the idea of cultural production and popular action. Trying to determine where the field of study of one of these areas ends and the others begin is less helpful than tying the threads each bring together, seeing how they build on and support each other rather than untwisting the interrelationships of study. Anthropology brings a uniquely ethnographic perspective, particularly in this evolving and ambiguous field that often overlaps with media studies, communication studies, and cultural studies. We will visit how they are occasionally put into conversation with each other and aim to highlight the unique contributions of our field to this evolving and interdepartmental theoretical foil. Because of the evolving nature of the term, the use of popular culture by anthropologists as a theoretical or analytical term tends to be directly associated with the technologies the anthropologist focused on. For example, examining popular culture and television will produce different understandings of the phenomenon than popular culture and archaeology, or popular culture and new media. However, there is a great deal of conversation about the popular culture presence in these technologies.

Anthologies

Several readers are particularly helpful introductions to the concept from a variety of perspectives. Some cast a very wide net, looking at different manifestations, methodologies, and theories of popular culture, such as Nachbar and Lause 1992, as well as Guins and Cruz 2005. Some focus on media forms from a theoretical angle, such as Buhle 1987. Others use theory as a window into various expressions/forms of popular culture, such as Docker 1994, which is a look at modernism and postmodernism and popular culture in the late 20th century, or the analysis of popular culture and theories of citizenship and identity in Hermes 2005. A few pieces explicitly defend their interest in popular culture, reacting to the raised eyebrows or dismissiveness that popular culture studies can sometimes receive from other academic circles. That is one of the reasons why, for instance, Freccero 1999 asserts that the leisure of the common person is critical analytical ground and Danesi 2007 reassures readers that popular culture is valuable far beyond being a guilty pleasure.

  • Buhle, Paul. 1987. Popular culture in America. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press.

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    This is a collection of work that was originally published over the course of eight years in Cultural Correspondence. It openly synonomizes “mass” and “popular,” putting both under the umbrella of collective culture and analyzing what ordinary lives and leisure look like. It covers topics such as television, music, humor, and radio.

  • Danesi, M. 2007. Popular culture: Introductory perspectives. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

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    In a straightforward and entertaining look at popular culture, Danesi examines a wide variety of popular culture forms, from literature and music to language and art. The focus is on understanding what makes various aspects of culture popular, on how society structures concepts of fun, and on how to take the notion of pop culture as a guilty pleasure and firmly reposition it in the realm of fun and pleasure.

  • Docker, John. 1994. Postmodernism and popular culture: A cultural history. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    A very theoretical approach, which is an overview of both modernism/postmodernism and structuralism/poststructuralism. Docker uses various forms of popular culture such as television, literature, and architecture to highlight the relationship between theory and practice. Shows how theory can inform our understanding of popular culture but also how these manifestations of popular culture help support a postmodern theoretical approach to cultural analysis.

  • Freccero, Carla. 1999. Popular culture: An introduction. New York: New York Univ. Press.

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    Working from a literature and cultural studies perspective, Freccero theorizes that popular culture is a common part of every individual’s life and is therefore essential to understand. She looks at film, music, and literature in terms of both why popular culture is important and how various aspects are currently being studied and taught.

  • Guins, Raiford, and O. Cruz. 2005. Popular culture, a reader. London: SAGE.

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    This collection of essays is widely lauded for connecting foundational theorists to more current aspects of popular culture. Most interestingly, it openly connects the aspects of popular culture as a central part of everyday life, an object of academic interest, and a very specific product of various industries such as the music or movie industry.

  • Hermes, Joke. 2005. Re-reading popular culture. Oxford: Blackwell.

    DOI: 10.1002/9780470776568E-mail Citation »

    Hermes takes on the study of popular culture from the perspective of citizenship and democracy, looking at how various forms of media construct concepts of self and of participation in society and a nation-state. As with many such works, television and literature are analyzed here, with particular theoretical attention paid to feminism/masculinism and multiculturalism.

  • Nachbar, John, and K. Lause. 1992. Popular culture: An introductory text. Chicago: Popular Press.

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    Focused specifically on America and what the authors consider “contemporary identities,” this work is a slightly dated introduction to several aspects of popular culture. The description of various categories of popular culture, combined with a wide variety of methodologies with concrete demonstrations, prove this work to be a very useful introduction to the basics of popular culture studies.

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