Sociology Popular Culture
Dustin Kidd
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 February 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 February 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0193


Popular culture is the set of practices, beliefs, and objects that embody the most broadly shared meanings of a social system. It includes media objects, entertainment and leisure, fashion and trends, and linguistic conventions, among other things. Popular culture is usually associated with either mass culture or folk culture, and differentiated from high culture and various institutional cultures (political culture, educational culture, legal culture, etc.). The association of popular culture with mass culture leads to a focus on the position of popular culture within a capitalist mode of economic production. Through this economic lens, popular culture is seen as a set of commodities produced through capitalistic processes driven by a profit motive and sold to consumers. In contrast, the association of popular culture with folk culture leads to a focus on subcultures such as youth cultures or ethnic cultures. Through this subculture lens, popular culture is seen as a set of practices by artists or other kinds of culture makers that result in performances and objects that are received and interpreted by audiences, both within and beyond the subcultural group. Holistic approaches examine the ways that popular culture begins as the collective creation of a subculture and is then appropriated by the market system. Key issues in the sociological analysis of popular culture include the representation of specific groups and themes in the content of cultural objects or practices, the role of cultural production as a form of social reproduction, and the extent to which audiences exercise agency in determining the meanings of the culture that they consume.

General Overviews

Classical sociologists spoke generally to the concept of culture and culture’s role in shaping human social life, but without distinguishing the specific form of popular culture. The Frankfurt and Birmingham Schools, discussed in Classic Works, fostered interdisciplinary analyses of popular culture that include a number of sociological perspectives. The general overviews listed in this section offer broad social and sociological analyses of popular culture. Storey 2015 has used cultural studies to open new lenses for the study of popular culture, and this book is now in its seventh edition. Grazian 2010 and Kidd 2014 are both written as introductory texts for the sociology of popular culture, but they also serve well as field guides for scholars studying popular culture. Similarly, Holtzman 2000 and Danesi 2012 provide an introduction to the study of media and popular culture from the perspectives of communications and anthropology, respectively. Gaines 1998 is a study of youth music cultures in the 1980s, while Gaines 2003 is a memoir of writing a sociological analysis while also participating in the rock and roll culture of New York City in the 1980s. Gamson 1994 provides a detailed history of the celebrity concept in American culture. Lopes 2009 provides a broad historical account of the development of the comic book industry.

  • Danesi, Marcel. 2012. Popular culture: Introductory perspectives. London: Rowman & Littlefield.

    Anthropologist Danesi presents a broad introduction to the study of popular culture organized around specific media formats such as radio, television, film, and music.

  • Gaines, Donna. 1998. Teenage wasteland: Suburbia’s dead end kids. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    This ethnographic analysis of rock youth subculture began as a Village Voice article about a suicide pact among four teens in suburban New Jersey.

  • Gaines, Donna. 2003. A misfit’s manifesto: The spiritual journey of a rock & roll heart. New York: Villard.

    Gaines presents a unique memoir about becoming a sociologist, studying your subculture, and participating in the rock culture of 1980s New York.

  • Gamson, Joshua. 1994. Claims to fame: Celebrity in contemporary America. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    Gamson unpacks the concept of celebrity in American popular culture using both historical and sociological lenses. He then takes the concept to the audiences to unpack the varied ways that audiences respond to or utilize celebrity fetishes.

  • Grazian, David. 2010. Mix it up: Popular culture, mass media, and society. New York: Norton.

    This widely used introductory text to the study of popular culture emphasizes foundational theories and concepts from sociology.

  • Holtzman, Linda. 2000. Media messages: What film, television, and popular music teach us about race, class, gender, and sexual orientation. Armonk, NY: Sharpe.

    Holtzman presents a series of studies about representations in popular culture, focusing on race, class, gender, and sexuality.

  • Kidd, Dustin. 2014. Pop culture freaks: Identity, mass media, and society. Boulder, CO: Westview.

    This book focuses on issues of identity in the labor force, representations, and audience for commercial popular culture.

  • Lopes, Paul. 2009. Demanding respect: The evolution of the American comic book. Philadelphia: Temple Univ. Press.

    Lopes examines the origins of the comic book and its evolution across the 20th century. He focuses on how comics moved from the margins of nerd culture to the center of American popular culture.

  • Storey, John. 2015. Cultural theory and popular culture: An introduction. 7th ed. New York: Routledge.

    Storey’s texts on popular culture have helped move the study of popular culture into the classrooms of colleges and universities. This book applies a range of social and literary theories to the analysis of popular culture objects as texts.

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