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Read: Storey, J. (2006) What is popular culture?, pp. 1-12 in J. Storey, Cultural theory and popular
culture: An introduction. Harlow: Pearson Education.
John Storey: What is popular culture?
general outline of the field
hard to define
in a relationship with others
Storey refers to Raymond Williams. According to Raymond Williams (in his book 'Culture & Society:
1780-1950), Culture can be used to refer to:
1. A general process of intellectual, spiritual and aesthetic development: cf. civilization;
2. A particular way of life, whether of a people, a period or a group : ethnographic definition;
3. The works and practices of intellectual and especially artistic activity. Culture in this third
definition is synonymous with what structuralists and post-structuralists call signifying
To speak of culture usually means to mobilise the second and third meanings of the word culture.
The second meaning culture as a particular way of life would allow us to speak of such practices
as the seaside holiday, the celebration of Christmas, and youth subcultures, as examples of culture
referred to as lived cultures or practices.
The third meaning culture as signifying practices would allow us to speak of soap opera, pop
music, and comics, as examples of culture referred to as texts.
! So popular culture is the second and (mostly) the third definition.
Ideology is a crucial concept in the study of popular culture. It has many competing meanings, Storey
only considers those meanings which have a bearing on the study of popular culture.
1. Ideology can refer to a systematic body of ideas articulated by a particular group of people.
E.g.: The Labour Party in the UK; Peta; Greenpeace;
2. Ideology can be used to indicate how some texts and practices present distorted images of
reality. It is used as masking and concealment (MARX).
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Here he refers to Marx. Marx argues that in society, at the moment when the capitalist
ideology became active, everything was put into function to make sure that society was
aimed at becoming profitable. Profit only for a particular group, a specific class, mostly a very
small class: the upper class. So only a small portion in society benefits from this capitalist
logic. To do that Marx argues that you need a base that decides how everyone should live,
everyone becomes part of it, even if they do not know it that they are part of a system thats
only beneficial for a small group. This base, the economy, the way labour is organised in our
society, actually decides how we are going to organise our government, how we think of
family, religion, culture. When that cultures make sure that the capitalist ideology is
presented as normal something we all accept because there is not alternative than such a
system (the base, economy) decides how we all live. So a lot of people are being suppressed
in this system and do not benefit from this capitalistic logic. Because of the power that is
given to the economy, we all agree to it. What happens here is that in order to make
everyone agree to this, there is a necessity of an ideology that masks and conceals these
elements that actually expose the processes that discriminates between people, that a lot of
classes do not benefit while only a small part does.
So ideology here is not always transparent but at the same time everywhere.

3. Ideology as ideological forms. This usage is intended to draw attention to the way in which
texts (television fiction, pop songs, novels, featured films, etc.) always present a particular
image of the world.
4. Ideology as a myth. This definition is based on the early work of the French cultural theorist
Roland Barthes. He argues that ideology (or myth) operates mainly at the level of
connotations, the secondary, often unconscious meanings that texts and practices carry, or
can be made to carry.
E.g. The myth of dumb blondes,
5. French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser: he sees ideology not simply as a body of ideas,
but as a material practice ideology is encountered in the [material] practices of everyday
life and not simple in certain ideas about life. There is no outside of ideology.
E.g. the way we keep on working more efficient but we still work as much hours as people
did so many years ago. That idea of how even the same amount of time we spend at work, is
still assumed the norm that we work 38h/w. this is a form of materialised practice of the
capitalist ideology: both symbolic as in a materialised form.
What we can gather from all this nuances of ideology is that ideology has always been something
about social and equality on the one hand and power relations on the other. They are always
reflected in some way in media of popular culture and group representations.
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Raymond Williams suggest four meanings of popular culture:
1. Popular culture is simply culture which is Well-liked by many people. A quantitative
approach. In order to become popular, you need a specific audience.
2. It is culture which is left over after we have decided what high culture is, it is a residual
category, to accommodate texts and practices which fail to meet the required standards to
qualify as high culture INFERIOR CULTURE.
Popular culture is mass-produced commercial culture whereas high culture is the result of an
individual act of creation.
A few problems: e.g. William Shakespeare is now seen as the epitome of high culture, yet his
work was very much a part of popular theatre when it was performed a few centuries ago.
so it can change.
3. Popular culture is MASS-CULTURE Work deliberately setting out to win favour of the
people. Popularised by production of a popular culture product. Products widely distributed.
There is some criticism however: Frankfurt School is extremely critical of commercialisation
Others say that Popular culture is understood as a collective dream-world. Richard Maltby:
popular culture provides escapism that is not an escape from or to anywhere, but an escape
of our utopian selves.
The access to (popular) culture is overwhelming (in contrast to a few decades ago)
democratisation of culture: the idea to get in contact with many and all kinds of (popular)
culture products. For example: you dont have to go to the museum to see the Mona Lisa,
you can find her on t-shirts, on the internet, in books, television,
4. Popular culture is the culture which originates from the people This is popular culture as
folk culture: a culture of the people for the people. It is often equated with a highly
romanticised concept of working-class culture. Culture actually made by the people for
The problem with this definition: the fact remains that people do not spontaneously produce
culture from raw materials of their own making.
Some other approaches to popular culture:
5. This definition draws on the political analysis of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. He uses
the term HEGEMONY to refer to the way in which dominant groups in society, through a
process of intellectual and moral leadership seek to win the consent of subordinate groups
in society.
This approach sees popular culture as a site of struggle between the resistance of
subordinate groups and the forces of incorporation operating in the interests of the
dominant groups. Those looking at popular culture from this perspective (hegemony theory)
tend to see it as a terrain of ideological struggle between dominant and subordinate
classes, dominant and subordinate cultures.
Dominant ideology seeking consent of the subordinate;
Struggle over meaning; played out in media, in popular culture;
Conflict over class, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, ...
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6. POSTMODERNISM (like Baudrillard): The claim that postmodern culture is a culture which no
longer recognises the distinction between high and popular culture.
For some this is a reason to celebrate an end to an elitism constructed on arbitrary
distinctions of culture. ( Positive vision: end of elitism).
For others it is a reason to despair at the final victory of commerce of culture ( Negative
vision: victory of commerce over culture). People become couch potatoes
What is common in these definitions: a culture emerging after industrialisation. Before the
industrialisation there were only two cultures:
1. A common culture which was shared, more or less by all classes;
But it was very educational in a way
2. A separate elite culture produced and consumed by the dominant classes in society.
After the industrialisation:
1. Industrialisation changed the relations between employees and employers
2. Urbanisation produced a residential separation of classes.
3. Panic engendered by the French Revolution encouraged successive governments to enact a
variety of repressive measures aimed at defeating radicalism.
Popular culture as other
The term is not as definitionally obvious as we might have first thought. There is no single
definition. It depends on who is formulating what is popular culture.
We will, in this course, look at popular culture from a cultural studies approach. Because if you want
to define popular culture, you have to do it from a certain perspective and that is what Cultural
studies does.
John Storey enlists three definitions of popular culture. But what he hasnt addressed is that culture
is something that historically evolves.
In the beginning the word culture was only used for: (1) to cultivate, growing of seeds, pending of
animals, taking care of plants etc. This was the very first basic concept of culture.
Afterwards, taking care of plants became taking care of (2) taking care of the mind, the way of life
and evolved to a national culture. This happened around the 19
The most recent definition of culture depicts (3) culture are intellectual and artistic practices.
By many people, culture is still often equated with high culture. The specific idea that a product (for
example classical music) is still considered a form of high culture, is even today still going on.
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One of the reasons why this is the case is because of Culture critics like Matthew Arnold (19

century): culture should be considered as something that is the best that has been thought and said.
Everything else does not qualify as culture. This idea degraded the distinction between high and low
culture, between highbrow and lowbrow, which is a recent distinction.
The problem was that what we consider the best that has been thought and said, it had to do with a
specific characteristic such as elegance, refinement, analysis. These characteristics were considered
culture and high culture more precisely. Everything else was considered residual, something that was
for the people. The Ironic thing is that Matthew Arnold argued that if everyone acquired that culture,
that this would be the perfect outcome for society.
MASS CULTURE: it has some positive connotations but the negative connotations are more
pronounced. Mostly passivity: think of the couch potato, that people seem to be unable to reflect on
it they just want to be entertained
POPULAR CULTURE: Ironically, this refers to the same mass culture, but it is more approached in a
positive way. It is linked with pleasure and seeking out pleasure. Popular culture theorists argue that
its consumers are aware of its entertaining value. Popular culture can also be linked with resistance:
this notion of resistance has to do with ideologies and being able to challenge them. It is also linked
with Fandom: fans making their own kind of stories based on those mass cultural products that they
FOLK CULTURE: even today it still returns as a concept that refers to the past and is seen as authentic.
Once it was better, nowadays it is all commercial, nothing seems to be authentic, only folk culture
has that authenticity But since the industrialisation, the notion of folk culture has no actual
meaning anymore. Some things can be produced or made on an authentic base without using any
meanings of production. But they also depend on distribution etc. So in a way, Folk Culture products
dont really exist anymore in this day and age.
One can conclude that it doesnt make any sense to make a distinction between these three forms of
culture. They all depend on production and distribution.
Mass / popular culture: a negative view
Mass/popular culture is commodity-based, it is made to be sold. That is its only value.
Something that is made by the people for the people, is considered authentic. Its the audience that
decides what is interesting, what should be made and not an industry. The cultural industry on the
other hand, is not seen as something authentic, because they produce and make cultural products
and try to sell it to the audience. Thats why it is considered inauthentic, because its decided top-
down and not bottom-up.
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Even more, it is considered manipulative since the primary purpose is to be purchased and they also
make sure for instance the vampire hype is prolonged as long as possible and. They will also make
sure that it is being considered normal, that one does not become critical. For example: an artist
makes seven records, but it is almost always the same, yet it gets sold the audience is
manipulated to buy it (in other words: the individual is considered nave by the industry).
It is also unsatisfying because mass culture is something that is easy to consume, little work has to
be done to get it. And you will always want more and the industrys goal is just to give you that. So
its repetitive.
These last three negative views or ideas of mass / popular culture have their origin in the Frankfurt
This school of thought (German and Jewish intellectuals) was very crucial during the 20
They were very critical about mass culture. They defined what it is and they criticised it.
Context: right before and during (and also after) the second world war, they
saw how propaganda was being used by the Nazi regime as a way of
indoctrinating their ideas and ideologies. So they witnessed a very negative
aspect of how media and mass media were used to indoctrinate the fascist
These intellectuals had to flee from Germany (and Europe) to the U.S.A.. Once there they were
confronted with a booming popular culture atmosphere (the golden 50s, James Dean, etc.). They
valued popular culture in the U.S. as of a lower quality in comparison to the German literature and
the German cinema of the 20s and 30s and they didnt appreciate it.
So they started to voice their critique on popular culture and its industry. They considered that it was
only aimed at profit and that it was made for the people but not by the people. So its an industry
that decides Top-down what the audience (should) likes, appreciate. And it was always ruling class
content, it was always a specific ideology that only supported a small portion of the people (see
above: hegemony theory)
They saw this in their own country with the Nazi ideology, when they came to the U.S. they
witnessed the same, only with a capitalist ideology: the materialistic way of living that started in the
50s and 60s.
So they had some criticism of Popular culture in general. This was very pessimistic: they assumed
that people did not have any control against it, and that they were always victims to this mass
It was always based on textual analysis. So they assumed that the people would agree with this
ideologies and that they would swallow whatever that was thrown at them. That the audience
were only thinking based on what they saw.
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They never did any audience research. As a consequence, what is here presented is a very MONOLITHIC
VIEW on cultural industry. The audiences are brain-dead they consume everything, but also the
industry is monolithic because they only produce one type of content. Content that will always
support the ideology.
So a very binary and pessimistic view of popular culture, mass culture and the cultural
industry by the Frankfurt Schule.
Cultural Studies has always been very critical of the Frankfurt Schule. Especially the British cultural
studies tradition (Hoggart, Williams, Hall) re-evaluated the idea that popular culture can be
something valuable to study and that it tells us a lot about society. They also consider the audience
way more active than the Frankfurt Schule did.
This perspective will come up in later chapters / lessons.
The notion of cultural capital by Pierre Bourdieu is very valuable in trying to
understand why there is so much differentiation between high culture and popular
The idea of la distinction, the idea of making a distinction started from a Marxists
perspective (where we have the base and a superstructure)and he tries to
understand the way that superstructure enables also a kind of class distinguish.
Why is this class distinction linked to culture? If you have a higher class, whos values and norms are
articulated to the benefits of the capitalists society?
High culture equals upper class, equals capital. Whereas all the others do not have any economic
capital or social capital. In this system it is important that they remain subordinated. Thats why
there is also something crucial: how culture participates in this system.
So besides
Economical capital: command over economic resources (cash, assets);
and Social capital: resources based on group membership, relationships, networks of
influence and support. Bourdieu described social capital as "the aggregate of the actual or
potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less
institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition."
Bourdieu also speaks of Cultural capital: forms of knowledge, skills, education, and
advantages that a person has, which give them a higher status in society. Parents provide
their children with cultural capital by transmitting the attitudes and knowledge needed to
succeed in the current educational system. The capacity of a community to appreciate
culture = learned behaviour. It has to do with media literacy, but also cultural literacy.
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Those we have economical capital, have the ability and/or power to make sure that they get Social
capital and cultural capital. For example: think of how expensive the opera is. This system will make
sure that only the upper class will be able to not only appreciate it, but they also have (easy) access
to that as well.
It is interesting to see that nowadays an opera-screening is sometimes shown in large cinema-
complexes. Whereas the opera was through mid-20
century the symbol of high culture. It is
interesting to see that the line between opera and cinema (popular culture), or class distinguish to be
more precise, gets blurred once in a while.
He also says that the concept we consider as taste, is something that is learned, even though you
think it is your taste. Your own taste is being constructed while growing up. You learn how to
appreciate something, how you differentiate yourself with others, all this elements have to do with
the class and values you are brought up with.
So taste in lower class has something to do with IMMEDIACY: immediate experience of something
entertaining (For example: going together to the cinema), there is no room for experiment, because
it is considered too difficult and it is mostly a collective experience.
Bourdieu [states] that the legitimate taste of the society is the taste of the ruling class. This position
also rejects the idea of genuine good taste, as the legitimate taste is merely a class taste.
Even though there is this distinguish and theoretical understanding of cultural capital that works to a
certain extent, in post-modern times it isnt workable anymore.
The class divisions arent so clear anymore, especially in the symbolic way. You see middle-class
people enjoying popular culture, typically linked to lower class. (For example: Jersey shore, a reality
show linked with the lower class but many people of the middle-class see and enjoy this show as
well). Also the link between class an culture isnt so strong anymore.
Though there are still social differences in taste & cultural capital. For example: young-adults that
can study to get a higher education get access to different kinds of cultural capital than those who
dont study further. So there is still kind of a distinction going on.
Popular culture has an American connotation. It is not only linked to that country, but also often
considered as bad other. This idea started with the Frankfurt Schule (the rock & roll culture as they
sometimes described it). It is linked with values that are materialistic, individualistic, they do not take
account with social valuable norms, its only goal is commercialisation, its pulp, etc. So it is a very
negative idea of what Pop culture is.
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This has to do with its historical roots, the modernisation after World War II that the Frankfurt
Schule was confronted with. Whereas the rest of Europe was licking its wounds, the U.S.A. took a
head start with the modernisation. There was also a lot of liberalism (and sex & violence),
materialism, it was all superficial, of low quality, All these elements became characteristics of a
pop culture and linked with youth-culture. And it was made to be distributed globally. While Europe
was rebuilding itself, American products were easily introduced since the cultural industry was on a
hold in Europe. That is why it is linked with a fear of loss of the own cultural identity of the European
This kind of response is something we still see today. Not only with the U.S.A. but also linked with the
fear of new media (such as cinema, television and games). A moral panic every time a new media
form was introduced (for example: the idea that games would have an effect on the behaviour of
children. Look at how shootings in the US are so quickly linked with violent videogames).
Constant fear of new media
We see this fear with Americanisation as well, the fear of losing the cultural identity. There is a fear
that for example the typical Flemish identity is threatened by this Americanisation. Not only in terms
of language (many Belgian groups sing in English), but also the production system and even the
format of a simple rock song, or for a television sitcom is all based on American standards.
We have to be critical of this fear. Because, what is the actual influence of America? Yes as
mentioned above, there is an influence in the production and formats. But there is no direct link
between import and consumption nor is there a direct link between consumption and identity. It is
not because you watch American shows youll take all those values that are shown as your own (and
thus lose your own identity in the process).
Actually, the dominance of the US is not so clear. Even though there are a lot of American series and
films, Belgian/Flemish products are still being made. Flemish movies get even the most box-offices
here than most American movies. Because there is a desire for local products and local popular
culture products. A lot of radio stations play a lot of Belgian made music (although it might be mostly
in English, it is still a Belgian or Flemish cultural product).
Glocalisation is a combination of the words 'globalisation' and 'localisation' and is used to describe
products and services that are both developed and sold to global customers but designed so that
they suit the needs of local markets.
Formats for television (among other things) are made and sold all over the world and are being used
to make their own national version. Think of: Big Brother, X got Talent, Survival (Expeditie Robinson),
but also of: Sara(Bel/Vl), Ugly Betty (US), Betty La Fea (Argentinian) They all follow the same
format, but in each country it was made as a local product. Other countries sell formats for television
shows as well, it is not only the USA. For example: Belgian sold the format of De Mol to other

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This doesnt mean we dont have to be critical for American shows (or from any other
countries). One has to be aware of the (sometimes hidden) ideologies that are shown in
texts of (popular) culture.
Today we live in a postmodern tradition. The way our society is organised has changed again from
industrialism to a post-industrialism society. We go for the experience experience economy.
For example: when we go to Starbucks, we dont just go to buy a coffee, you go to buy the
experience Its the idea of buying Starbucks. What is being sold is not only the material stuff, but it
is also symbolic.
PROLIFERATION OF ART AND CULTURE is another aspect of Postmodernism. And its mostly considered a
positive thing. The global village (an idea/concept of McLuhan), the idea that we are all connected,
that we all have easy access to many forms of popular culture. There is also a bombardment of signs,
there is no time to make meaning because there is so much going on or being shown (according to
Baudrillard) Though there is some critique: even though there is indeed a bombardment of signs
going on, one is not always confronted with them. As a viewer you choose between those signs, it is
not that you visit every single site on the world wide web, you skip and choose from what is
available. You choose what you find important. The viewer is a critical being, not a couch potato that
swallows everything that is being shown.
Another characteristic of postmodernism is the blurring between high and low culture, and the
notion that there are many truths out there. Scolars are critical that there is only one truth (as
opposite of the many philosophers before that said there was only one truth, only one way how
society should act/be, etc.)
The last characteristic is the politics of postmodernism, this has to do with a concept by Linda
Hutcheon. She argues that when we think of popular culture today, they all have to do with the
politics of postmodernism. Which means: popular culture products (a television show for example) is
always ambiguous (she refers to it as: the duplicity of popular culture). There is not only one message
but many messages. It depends on the perspective one has when watching a popular culture
product. Some people see the many messages, while others just experience the pleasure that the
product gives.
Specifically, Hutcheon suggests that postmodernism works through parody to "both legitimize and
subvert that which it parodies" (Politics, 101). "Through a double process of installing and ironizing,
parody signals how present representations come from past ones and what ideological consequences
derive from both continuity and difference" (Politics, 93). Thus, far from dehistoricizing the present
or organizing history into an incoherent and detached pastiche, postmodernism can rethink history
and shed light on new critical capacities.
Think of television shows like Family guy, the Simpsons, South Park, etc. They use humour
to be critical of certain gender roles and political views, etc.