You are on page 1of 12

The Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 40, No. 1, 2007 Journal compilation 2007, Blackwell Publishing, Inc.

Harry Potter and the Functions of Popular Culture

For Sociology really to be a science of things, the generality of phenomena must be taken as the criterion of their normality (Durkheim, The Rules of Sociological Method 104)


EAVY METAL MUSIC HAS BEEN DESCRIBED AS A THREAT TO OUR children and rap is touted as a threat to our society (Binder). Music videos provide a framework that justifies rape and other forms of sexual violence ( Jhally). The reproduction of artwork in mass-produced books has destroyed the special aura of art (Benjamin), and television has made cultural consumers passive (Horkheimer and Adorno). Sociological analyses have produced a lengthy list of critiques of popular culture such that we must wonder why we bother with popular culture at all. What could be more pathological than a social element that threatens a society and its members while also reducing the good life to a commodity and reducing persons to consumers?

20 Utopian visionaries have long hoped to one day eradicate crime. Should popular culture be an additional target? To address this question, I turn to Emile Durkheims The Rules of Sociological Method, which argues that crime is actually normal and necessary for a healthy society. Durkheims principles for the necessity of crime are applicable to the study of popular culture and raise to the surface the often-overlooked functions that popular culture serves in contemporary society. The evidence for this claim comes from the existing literature on the relationship between cultural consumption and social structure, particularly the literature of cultural sociology and of cultural studies. I also offer a brief study of one specific example, that of the hugely successful Harry Potter novels, as an illustration. 30 The Rules of Sociological Method includes a chapter on Rules for the Distinction of the Normal from the Pathological, in which Durkheim uses a functionalist approach to identify those elements of social structure that are conducive to social health and to distinguish them from those that are pathological and destructive. Healthy elements are those whose functions actually benefit social cohesion, and generally they are elements that are found in all societies. Durkheim takes crime as his key example because, given the obvious negative associations with crime, it is surprising that crime persists and is so widespread. Why has it not been eradicated if we all agree that it is bad? Durkheim argues that the sociological approach to crime needs to look past the detrimental effects upon the victim in order to identify the benefits that crime offers to the society in which it occurs. 40 Durkheim begins from the premise that crime is normal because it is found in all societies, in all time periods. He goes on to formulate a list of reasons why crime is necessary. First, he claims that crime defines the norms of a society. By this, he means that the negative sanctions that are associated with crime serve to isolate a particular set of behaviours within a larger range of possible behaviors and label them as normal or acceptable. The remaining possible behaviors are labelled as deviant. Second, Durkheim finds that crime establishes social boundaries. Those who are at the fringes of society, by virtue of

economic disadvantages, cultural differences, or moral displacement, are least likely to follow the norms of the society. Their behaviors are sanctioned against when they diverge 50 from the social mainstreamthey are at or beyond the boundaries of the social group. Moreover, a range of behaviours is possible even within the narrow set of acceptable norms, and crime reveals which of these behaviors are at the boundaries, in contrast to those at the centre. Third, for those within the acceptable boundaries, crime provides a set of rituals that helps to build solidarity. These rituals come in the form of trials, executions, and other forms of public punishment that unite observers in their position of not being tried or punished, reminding them of their collective right to social legitimacy, in contrast to the illegitimacy of the criminal. Fourth, Durkheim argues that crime produces innovation. This can occur when a criminal action is revealed to be helpful to society, as in the case of Napster, online music trading service that was at first sued by the large music 60 corporations, and then subsumed into one of them once its uses were discovered. Or, innovation may result in response to criminal behavior. For instance, after the 1996 kidnapping and murder of nine-year-old Amber Hagerman in Arlington Texas, local residents developed an early warning system that became known as Amber Alert and has since spread to many other states. Fifth and finally, crime can provide the necessary impetus for social change, particularly when it comes in the form of actions that call into question the social mainstream or social authority. Consider, for instance, the various criminal offences that resulted in hate crime legislation. So, crime produces norms, establishes boundaries, provides rituals, produces innovation, and leads the way for social change. 70 This list will guide my argument that popular culture, like crime, is a necessary and healthy element of modern society. But first, we must consider that popular culture is a normal component of all advanced capitalist societies. Within these societies, popular culture has become necessary, in that it establishes norms, social boundaries, rituals, and innovations, while also paving the way for social change. And so, the critique of popular culture must always be tempered by a discussion of the important role that this culture plays in social cohesion. A Note on the Concept of Popular Culture 80 The term Popular Culture is broadly used to identify several forms of culture, some of which are overlapping. The word popular has three meanings that cause, for some, confusion about the sorts of categories that count as popular culture. It can mean the people, in which case popular culture is the peoples culture. In this case, we would largely consider folk culture, as folk can invoke the people as well. Folk culture is generally seen as hand-made, locally produced goods that are often distributed at the local levelthe quilt sold at the farmers market rather than the CD sold on the Internet. This is, of course, changing as cultural boundaries are increasingly blurred and as folk objects are gaining in popularity and value. The peoples culture can also invoke civic culture 90 shared symbols of (generally national) identity such as flags, folklore, anthems, and the like. But popular can also invoke the idea of fame or widespread enjoyment. Quilts, as folk culture, do not experience this sort of popularity. Under this definition, we would have to

look specifically at commercial culturethose cultural products which are produced by industries that, at least in part, seek to generate profit, and which are often produced or distributed through nonhuman technology such as the printing press, the CD manufacturing plant, or television airwaves. 100 Finally, the term popular culture can also invoke the idea of common culture, which might include any or all of the above forms of culture but also goes beyond tangible cultural products to include widely shared values and beliefs. These values and beliefs may be embodied in tangible cultural objects, but they are not reducible to those objects. Given such broad use of the term popular culture, the researcher of popular culture needs to be precise about which of these areas are subject to analysis. In this article, I examine commercial culture and it is this form of culture that I mean to invoke when I use the term popular culture. My chief examplethe Harry Potter novelsis popular precisely for its fame and the breadth of its audience, rather than for any civic ideals or folk qualities. 110 Although the ideals located in the novels are considered here, the focus is on the books themselves and their function within a capitalist society. The Normalcy of Popular Culture in Advanced Capitalism To begin, we cannot make the claim of popular culture that Durkheim makes of crime, that it is common in all societies in all time periods. Popular culture is absent from many societies, and it is historically isolated to those periods in which mechanical production and distribution were technologically affordable and widely practiced. However, popular 120 culture is found in all societies in which capitalism has advanced far enough to include the commodification of culture. I know of no long-standing capitalist system that has not reached such a point. To that end, we can say that popular culture is a normal element of all advanced capitalist societies. According to Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adornos work in Dialectic of Enlightenment, the production and distribution of culture through mechanical processes constitutes a culture industry in which culture is reduced from art to business. 130 Under monopoly all mass culture is identical, and the lines of its artificial framework begin to show through. The people at the top are no longer so interested in concealing monopoly: as its violence becomes more open, so its power grows. Movies and radio need no longer pretend to be art. The truth that they are just business is made into an ideology in order to justify the rubbish they deliberately produce. (Horkheimer and Adorno 121)

Horkheimer and Adorno indicate by their language that they assume art, apart from popular culture, to be an element of the sacred, and business to be an element of the profane. It is clear from their selection of film and radio as examples that Horkheimer and Adorno are 140 referring to popular or commercial culture in their discussion of the culture industry. The notion that popular culture furthers a selflegitimating ideology leads Horkheimer and

Adorno to claim that the culture industry becomes a filter for all forms of culture. Eventually, popular culture becomes indistinguishable from other forms of culture all culture becomes popular culture. We see this today in the popularity of Shakespeare movies, the commercialization of classical music, and the mainstream character of alternative rock music. The Frankfurt School, particularly Horkheimer and Adornos discussion of the culture industry, offered one of the first critical analyses of commercial culture. Adorno and 150 Horkheimers theories are less accepted in scholarly circles now, largely because audience and reception studies have demonstrated that individual participants in mass culture have much more agency than Horkheimer and Adorno assumed; i.e., they are not just passive consumers. But their critique of the production side of culture still resonates and is useful for understanding contemporary concerns such as media ownership, copyright laws, and record industry battles against music piracy online. Contemporary scholarship on popular culture generally begins with this understanding of cultural production and then infuses an understanding of audience agency to produce a more holistic understanding of how culture works in contemporary society. 160 Many members of the Frankfurt School argued that the commercialization of culture changed cultural items from art objects into commodities. As the argument goes, the basis of our judgment of these products shifts from aesthetic principles of beauty to capitalist principles of worth and the cost/benefit ratio. The negative effects of popular culture were very clear to Walter Benjamin, whose article The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction argues that mechanical reproduction of art in the form of prints, books, photographs, etc., removes the aura from that work. The work need no longer be experienced within the particular context of its creation and exhibition. Even if I do travel to Paris to see the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, I go with the image of the painting already in my head from seeing it in art books; I go knowing that I can know all about the painting 170 without seeing it in person; and I go with the notion that if I like it, I can have itas a print, or on a coffee mug, or as a photograph from my disposable camera. The special character of seeing a work of art only in its particular contextwhat Benjamin called the aurais forever gone from the world of art. To put this in modern terms, we may consider the example of music. Music is rarely experienced in the presence of the performers. Most musical experiences happen at home or in the car; the music being played through the radio or on a stereo. The song is a commodity that can be purchased as a tape or CD, or downloaded over the Internet. Even the live experience of music, where the song is heard in the presence of its performers, 180 is a sort of commodity. The music fan who wishes to hear a Britney Spears concert usually has a choice of dates and locations for which concert to attend. But all of the performances are largely the same, because performance itself is mass-produced. Popular performers, selling their commodified concerts, compete as business adversaries for a profitable share of ticket sales. In this schema for cultural production, there is no original, no special moment in which Benjamin might say an aura can be perceived. So, popular culture is an element of capitalism that, at times, has negative consequences. The key issue for my argument is Horkheimer and Adornos sense that commercial culture

is a common component of advanced capitalist societies. As such, popular culture must be 190 understood by the sociologist as a normal element of these societies, regardless of any identifiable consequences that seem deplorable. I turn now from the normalcy of popular culture, to its necessity. Popular Culture as a Space of Norm Production Social norms, as guides to social behavior, are important mechanisms in social cohesion. Durkheims study of suicide and Robert Mertons study of crime reveal that anomic communities experience higher suicide and crime rates, suggesting that adherence to social norms increases ones sense of social importance and responsibility. Popular culture is not 200 the only source of norm production in advanced capitalist societies, but it is perhaps the most important because of its wide distribution. To compare popular culture and crime as sources of social norms, it is important to recognize that many Americans are not aware of all of the laws of their country, state, or community, but they are enormously aware of popular culture. Most crimes never become truly public events; only the major crimes make the news, and few Americans attend trials. So, crime has a very limited role as a means by which norms are produced and distributed. The role of popular culture, in contrast, is quite large. Although no American consumes all of American popular culture, most Americans consume quite a lot of it. In their book The 210 Dominant Ideology Thesis, Nicholas Abercrombie, Stephen Hill, and Bryan Turner identify popular culture, in the form of mass media, as the key means by which the ideas of the dominant classes might be transmitted to the whole of society in the era of late capitalism. Although the authors ultimately argue that no dominant ideology is in place in late capitalismbecause the dominant class is too fragmentedthe study nevertheless highlights the fact that popular culture is the most centralized and effective means for defining and distributing the norms of society. The norms that popular culture produces are not limited to the realm of expression. Magazines tell us what kinds of sexual practices are now acceptable. Audiences tune in to 220 finance-oriented shows on cable television to learn about the norms of investing. Kindergarteners learn the basic norms of behavior from Barney and Sesame Street. Michael Schudsons work on the efficacy of culture argues that this informal institutionalization of culture leads to such informal social sanctions as social exclusion or a loss of social power for those who have failed to consume enough of the right culture. The matrix of popular culture, with its complexly self-referential character, has become perhaps the chief space in which social norms are negotiated and transmitted throughout society. Popular Culture and Social Boundaries 230 The exact norms that any particular culture consumer will internalize will depend on the consumers social location and social roles, which is why popular culture is an important dynamic in the creation and maintenance of social boundaries. The clothing we wear, the music we listen to, and the television we watch not only constitute our identities, but also help to separate our identity categories from others.

Bethany Brysons Anything But Heavy Metal: Symbolic Exclusion and Musical Dislikes uses musical dislikes to illustrate class and education-based identity patterns. She finds that cultural univores those who have very narrow cultural toleranceare more likely to be consumers of lowbrow culture. Further, she speculates that elites use broad 240 cultural tolerance as a kind of multicultural capital that protects their elite position within an anti-elitist value structure. This multicultural capital still produces exclusion, first by using a broad knowledge of middle- and low-brow culture as a barrier to low-status univores, and second by rejecting the popular culture that is most associated with the least educated, such as heavy metal and rap music. Bryson demonstrates that distaste is a key element in social stratification. Similarly, Paul Willis finds that popular culture in the form of fashion is an important tool for boundary maintenance among working-class adolescent males. In Learning to Labour, Willis takes as his subject population a group called the lads who actively resist the 250 authority of the school system. The lads define their identities in contrast to the earoles who embrace school culture, and in contrast to the school itself. Fashion constitutes and negotiates the boundaries between the lads and the earoles and between the lads and the teachers. It is a shorthand for a distinctive set of values, goals, and practices. To cross the boundary and become a lad, as Willis indicates, requires an embrace of one kind of fashion and a rejection of another. Willis goes on to argue that culture is then a key component of class reproduction. The very concept of popular culture implies a kind of cultural stratification. Although it is 260 important to recognize that popular culture generally serves as common culture, in that it is commonly available to all within a given society, it is equally important to recognize the implication of power that is behind the concept. To designate certain culture as popular is often a way of distinguishing that culture which is not high. Paul DiMaggio has written about the complex process that Bostonian elites in the late nineteenth century undertook to designate certain art as high culture. As DiMaggio demonstrates, the goal of this process was to make distinctions between elites and nonelites, and to legitimate the position of the elites. This is a symbolic process, as is made clear by studies that compare the content of high and popular cultures such as those by Herbert Gans or Lawrence Levine. The consequence of this symbolic work is the maintenance of social stratification. In other 270 words, culture is a mechanism of social reproduction, as demonstrated by Bourdieus studies of cultural consumption (1977 and 1984). Bourdieu argues that elites use culture as capitalexchanging cultural knowledge for social or economic capital. The cultural knowledge that is most valuable is precisely that knowledge that is dominated by elites, and for which access by nonelites is often denied. Consumption patterns of popular culture determine who is included and who is excluded from our social groups. They provide an easy reference system for identifying our allies and adversaries. Further, they constitute the meaning of our identities. The ideas that underlie identity categories vary significantly, due in part to differences in the popular 280 culture that people in these categories consume. The Rituals of Popular Culture

People who share identity categories have solidarity with one another, thanks to the rituals of popular culture. Teenagers are united by rhythms at the rave and the club; college students come together to watch Must See TV on NBC; rural whites meet on Friday nights for hoe downs and line dancing; Harry Potter fans become friends at book release parties or while standing in line for the movie. These rituals produce feelings of shared sentimentthe excitement and love for Harry Potter and his friends, for instanceand 290 these feelings produce social cohesion by bonding members of society together in relationships of trust and shared purpose. John Fiske explores the audience rituals of television using the concept of audiencing, which is a research method that explores how groups produce meaning through shared cultural consumption, and how the meaning that is produced varies by audience. Fiske compares the perceived meaning of the television show Married . . . With Children as it is understood by executives at the Fox television network, by a housewife on a campaign against the shows lack of decency, and by a group of college students who watch the show together on a weekly basis. Fiske only offers direct audience observations from the 300 students, but extrapolates about the Fox executives and about the housewife through analyses of media sources and the show itself. Fiskes descriptions of the college students is important for understanding how popular culture produces rituals that, in turn, produce solidarity. The theme music of the show, Love and Marriage, a Frank Sinatra number from their parents generation, provoked the group into singing along in a vacuous parody of both its older style and older sentiments. A similar parody of their parents taste (as they saw it) hung on the walla somewhat motheaten painting of Elvis on black velvet. The bad taste of the picture was different from the bad taste of the program, for it was their view of teenage culture then as opposed to now. (Fiske 349) The audience sings along together to the theme song, and shares physical space during the period of cultural consumption. The time they spend together watching the show makes them more closely bonded socially, and leaves them with a shared sense of meaning. Specifically, according to Fiske, they share a sense of the meaning of their age-group identity, and its distinction from the identity of their parents. This shared sense of meaning is the basis of group solidarity. 320 Why does solidarity matter? Based on the work of Durkheim, it is clear that solidarity is the basis of social cohesion; the sense of trust that solidarity engenders is a necessary precondition before members of society will take the risky step of investing their resources, time, and selves into their societies. Without solidarity, humans are purely biological and not socialentities. In contemporary capitalist societies, popular culture is one of the most important sources of the rituals that produce solidarity because of its widespread and frequent consumption. Popular Culture and Innovation


330 In addition to producing solidarity, popular culture also produces innovation. In fact, popular culture is an outcome of technical innovations, such as the printing press and photography. But the market value of popular culture has produced a race for new technologies, whose benefits extend beyond the realms of the popular and the cultural. In the area of film, new technologies such as DVD have not only changed the ways that we view movies, but also have changed the ways that movies are produced. The conceptualization stage of movie production now takes the possibilities of DVD into account, such that the special features on new DVDs are actually part of the initial concept. DVD technology is used for many purposes other than cinema. For instance, Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland now offers visitors the opportunity to purchase a 340 digitized copy of The Book of Kells, an ancient religious text, available on DVD. Arguably, the most important area of technological progress as a consequence of popular culture is the Internet. The World Wide Web is largely driven by one of the most financially successful areas of popular culturepornography. We can thank the porn industry for such important technological advancements as e-commerce and streaming videos (Kriz). These technologies are now widely used for nonpornographic purposes of business and leisure. The innovations of popular culture are not just technical. Presidential politics happened 350 differently after the invention of television than it did previously. Television and other forms of mass media have also innovated the ways that we think about the world. The nightly news, National Geographic, and the Internet have made the international world less foreign. These innovations of popular culture, technical and otherwise, have been key mechanisms of social change. Popular Culture as the Road to Change Popular culture goes further than providing the tools for social change; in many cases, it is actually the driving force behind social change. Books in particular have been very 360 important. Upton Sinclairs book The Jungle (1906) led to significant reforms in the American food industry. Harriet Beecher Stowes publication of Uncle Toms Cabin (1852) prepared America for massive reorganization of its racial structure, and is credited as at least a partial cause of the Civil War. More recently, Mary Bray Piphers Reviving Ophelia (1995) caused parents, educators, and policymakers to re-evaluate how they understand and influence the lives of adolescent women. Contemporary spaces of popular culture that lead, or may lead, to social change are numerous and varied. On television, news-based exposs consistently challenge public policy, while Oprah leads a revolution of the spirit that certainly marks a change in 370 television programming, if not in the lives of its viewers. Magazines such as Ms. challenge the norms of Americas gendered power structure and rap music continues to offer critiques of race-based power. The weighty role that popular culture performs in social change makes it an important element in the dynamics of contemporary social life. By Way of Example

We have five reasons why popular culture is necessary for America. How does this list of claims work when applied to one specific piece of popular culture? I take, as my example, 380 one of the most phenomenally successful pieces of recent popular cultureHarry Potter. J. K. Rowlings Harry Potter and the Sorcerors Stone, and its sequels and spin-offs are a product and export of England, which is certainly an advanced capitalist society. The most documented reception of Rowlings novels is in America where the role of the books as a commodity is clear. These books are expensive items, particularly at first release, yet their early hardback sales far exceed that of any other book on the market. They are heavily promoted by stores like Barnes & Noble, and on Web sites like As a marketing technique, the publishers have used different cover illustrations to attract different audiences, including 390 versions that are more appealing to adults. They have even adjusted the language of the books to suit the audience. Awkwardly British terms are replaced by American equivalents. In the first novel, this includes the changing of spellingslike the shift from moustache to mustacheas well as the changing of termslike the transformation of Sellotape into Scotch tape, and trainers into sneakers. Even the title is changed. The first book was released in England as Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone, but in the United States, philosopher has a more academic and less mystical connotation; thus, the shift to sorcerer. The books stand as a powerful example of the commodification of culture that is prevalent in late capitalism. 400 Owing to their massive audience and broad appeal, the Potter novels are an extremely important source of social norms. This happens first with the content of the novels. The books take place within a magical realm that co-exists with the known nonmagical world. In the magical world, otherwise inanimate objects become very much alive and are given subjectivity, such as the talking portraits that guard several doors at Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry. Readers of the novels recognize the violation of their taken-forgranted beliefs, and become more aware of the norms by which they structure their lives. But the magical world is not anomic. Thanks to the Ministry of Magic, all wizards and witches live by certain rules. For instance, school-aged children are not allowed to perform magic during their summer vacations. So while the specific norms of the nonmagical social 410 world are violated, the importance of norms is not violated. Second, there is the reception of the novels in the context of contemporary America. The dominant role that these novels played at the top of the bestseller lists attests to their institutionalization in American culture. There is a sense in which you just have to read them, or so you would think from listening to Potter devotees, children and adults alike. Literary critic Harold Bloom, perhaps the most vocal Potter antagonist, has commented in many of his writings on the Western canon that the literary critic is most concerned with the question of which literature deserves to be read again (The Western Canon, How to Read and Why). In an editorial titled Can 35 Million Book Buyers Be Wrong? Yes, he says of 420 the Potter novels, One can reasonably doubt that Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone is going to prove a classic of childrens literature, and How to read Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone? Why, very quickly, to begin with, perhaps also to make an end (A26).

Despite Blooms nose-thumbing at Harry Potter it is Rowlings novels that receive the most reads and rereads in contemporary America. Harry Potter has become the norm. As a norm maker, how does Harry Potter define social boundaries? Two specific boundaries seem important: the boundary between legitimate culture and illegitimate extra-curricular culture,6 and the boundary between religious conservatism and spiritual liberalism. The first boundary has been negotiated by the school system, the second by the 430 institutions of faith. Harry Potter represents Bourdieus concept of illegitimate extracurricular culture in that it is not generally assigned by schools, although there is some indication that this is beginning to change; largely, it is leisure and not assigned reading. Yet it is credited with increasing American adolescent literacy because so many young people have actively pursued the chance to read the Potter novels. This is a boundary violation that is disconcerting to the schools. Many school systems have actually banned the books from school property. In doing so, they have affirmed Harry Potters position as illegitimate culture, in contrast to the legitimacy of the novels that are assigned by schools. But the publishing industry has continued to challenge the boundary by arguing that Rowlings novels should be legitimate culture. Beachams Sourcebooks has published 440 Exploring Harry Potter (Schafer), a book that demonstrates for teachers how the Potter novels can be used to teach children such basics of literacy as irony and character development. So the boundary is still under negotiation. The second boundary that Harry Potter helps to define is within the realm of faith. Many faith groups have reacted negatively to the Potter novels because of the significant role that magic plays in the premise of the books. For religious conservatives, magic is generally associated with evil, but in Harry Potter, the hero-protagonist is portrayed as a powerful wizard. This framing of magic as good is troubling to these conservatives who have reacted by discouraging the reading of Harry Potter in their communities. Although the books 450 affirm a distinction between good and evilrarely seen in postmodern literature but viewed with favour by religious conservativesthey also suggest a spiritual liberalism. This liberalism embraces magic as a constitutive element of the good. Not every reader of Harry Potter believes in magicprobably, most do notbut every reader must be comfortable with the possibility of magic. Magic is also bound up in many of the rituals that surround the novels. The most basic ritual is the actual reading of the novel, which is not a particularly social event. Most readers will consume the novels in privacy, although some may read together. But private reading becomes a social experience when it becomes an important feature of 460 conversations. Formal conversations, organized by bookstores and libraries, and informal conversations at the cafeteria table are likely to be filled with Potter-mania. In these conversations, readers work together to produce the meaning of the novels. They become an interpretive community, just as the readers of romance novels form an interpretive community in Janice Radways study Interpretive Communities and Variable Literacies. As an interpretive community, they have their own distinct ways of making sense of the novelswhat Radway calls a literacy. For Radway, literacy is a qualitative variable that recognizes that different readers have different styles of reading. In their discussions of Harry Potter, these readers bond and develop a strong sense of solidarity with one another.

470 The rituals of Harry Potter occasionally become more intense, particularly when new novels are released, or at the release of the film versions. When the fourth novel, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, was released in 2000, my local Barnes & Noble held a release party the night before the book was to be sold, so that book sales could begin promptly at midnight. I arrived at 10:00 p.m. to observe the festivities, and found a crowd of over one thousand people crammed into the store. Most of these partygoers were in full Potter regalia, dressed in the garb of wizards and witches. Less than half of them were children. At one point, I spotted a middle-aged woman in the philosophy section dressed as Moaning Myrtle, a ghost who haunts the girls restroom of Hogwarts. She was cloaked in white, with a toilet seat hanging around her neck. At the back of the store, a clerk was leading a 480 game of Harry Potter trivia. According to this same clerk, the store sold 740 copies of the novel in that single evening, from exactly 12:00 a.m. until 2:00 a.m. This kind of hysteria over popular culture produces emotional energy that unites the group. As Randall Collins explains in a sociological primer, from the excitement of mass gatherings, crusades are born and revolutions are made (40). The release of the latest Harry Potter novel may not spark a revolution (provided the stores do not sell out too quickly) but is an important element of social cohesion. It unites the community in the pursuit of a common goal Potter. If Harry Potter does not produce a revolution, does it produce any sort of innovation? I 490 know of no technical innovation that has occurred as a result of Rowlings novels, but the books have changed the publishing industry in important ways. For instance, as a result of the Potter novels, a new list of childrens bestsellers was formed. This allowed the Potter novels to take their appropriate place as bestsellers while freeing up the primary bestseller list for more adult novelsof course, that is despite the fact of a large adult readership for Rowlings books. This is an innovation in literature; the invention of a mechanism that measures bestsellers within audience categories. The novels may also be seen as a new kind of book, as a consequence of the massive size of the Potter phenomenon. New novels may soon follow that try to capture the same scope of readership and attention, such as Eoin Colfers Artemis Fowl series and Philip Pullmans His Dark Materials trilogy. And of 500 course, for readers of Harry Potter, the actual writing of the novels is, in some ineffable way, an innovation in literature. For many fans, there simply has never been anything like Potter. If Harry Potter paves the road for social change, it will be as a consequence of the issue of literacy, in the quantitative sense of measured reading ability. The novels can be credited for forging many new readerspeople who may not have become readers were it not for these particular novels. Perhaps this change will effect the removal of the boundary between legitimate and illegitimate culture, such that novels like Harry Potter will be appreciated within the institutions of legitimate culture without losing their popular status. 510 Based on this example, the list of societys needs for popular culture does hold up when applied to a specific piece of popular culture. However, the list is also a useful way of making sense of popular culture as a whole industry. Some social needs that are not fulfilled by some pieces of popular culture will be fulfilled by others. Deliberately or not, the industry that produces popular culture regulates the fulfilment of these needs. Conclusion


We must not forget that the advantage of distinguishing the normal from the abnormal is principally to throw light upon practice. (Durkheim, The Rules of Sociological Method 94) To some, popular culture is bizarre; to others, it is evil. For most of us, popular culture is everyday, taken-for-granted. But it has particular functions and it exists for a reason. The primary reason that I have isolated here is capitalism. Popular culture is a means by which culture generates profit. But once in place, popular culture then co-opts many other important social functions. Norm generation, boundary maintenance, ritual development, innovation, and social change are the key social functions to which popular culture contributes.

530 To claim that popular culture serves important functions in society is not to claim that it must do so in a particular way. While recognizing the value of popular culture as a social institution, it is still necessary to critique the content of this culture as well as the particular mechanisms by which it is produced, distributed, valorised, and interpreted. To that end, the criticisms of popular culture that were described at the start of this article are still open for debate. Although many critiques have been levelled against the Frankfurt School approach particularly for its totalizing approach to the audience members of a mass culture, which fails to account for audience agency newer research still finds much cause for concern in the production and reception of commercial culture. The world of market research, reality television, and professional wrestling may really be the cause of some social ills at the 540 start of the twenty-first century, but the way that we respond to these concerns must account for the important role that popular culture performs in generating social cohesion and individual identity. Works Cited Abercrombie, Nicholas, Stephen Hill, and Bryan S. Turner. The Dominant Ideology Thesis. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1980. Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt, Trans. HarryZohn. New York: Schocken Books, 1968. 550 Binder, Amy. Constructing Racial Rhetoric: Media Depictions of Harm in Rap and Heavy Metal. American Sociological Review 58 (1993): 753 67. Bloom, Harold. The Western Canon: The Books and Schools of the Ages. New York: Riverhead Books, 1994. . Can 35 Million Book Buyers Be Wrong? Yes. Wall Street Journal 11 July 2000. A26.