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Popular Culture: What Everyone Needs to Know

by Angela M.S. Nelson


"There she is -- Miss America;" Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls; "Did somebody say --McDonald's?;" "GeneratioNEXT;" Forrest Gump; . Playboy; The National Tractor Pulling Championships -- one thing that all these people, places, and things have in common is that they are popular culture in diverse manifestations. Just what is popular culture?

Popular culture consists of "products" of human work and thought that express specific individual and cultural beliefs and values; provide pleasure and enjoyment; and are accepted and approved by individuals or groups. Popular culture is media, or the term I prefer to use, "media culture" (1).

Values are at the core of popular culture. It embodies popular objects or icons, heroes and heroines, and the rituals, myths and beliefs surrounding these. I think of popular culture in terms of spheres in which it is produced, and the principles it illustrates. Here, I will discuss briefly the spheres and principles of popular culture.

Spheres of Production

Popular culture covers different levels of analysis that can be distinguished as cultural domains (or spheres). The spheres of popular culture production range from micro to macro and they encompass differences in the organization, encoding, and dissemination of popular culture. The domains are personal, local, national, and national global. Personal, local, and some artifacts and events of national popular culture represent non-mass mediated popular culture. All national global popular cultures is mass-mediated popular cultures (2).

Personal popular culture is produced by individuals or small groups of individuals, and the encoded cultural values are accepted and found meaningful to these individuals often based on their ethnic, racial, economic, political, educational, or historical commonalities. This is the least mass-mediated level of popular culture. It is usually oral, small-scale communication that takes place face-to-face over short distances. The communication process is a flexible and transactional one where communicators encode and decode messages at the same time and are alert to many cues from the other person. This sphere of popular culture produces bonds that forge the sense of community and serve as cornerstones for the identities of individual participants.

Local popular culture is produced by local organizations that form city, state or regional networks. Colleges and schools, local art organizations, local television, radio and newspapers, City Halls and Chambers of Commerce are among the key producers. The communication process takes a different form -- one where professionals produce culture for audiences. This introduces a hierarchical dimension to the communication so that the producers and audiences of local popular cultures are often stratified in terms of social class, and diverse in terms of numerous other social background factors. To some degree, local popular culture is mass-mediated. It is often disseminated in more impersonally and more widely than is personal popular culture. It is a more linear communication process that reflects cultural myths, beliefs, and values, but also sometimes manipulates values to further the purposes and goals of producing organizations.

National popular culture is created or produced by groups in a country or nation, usually by professionals in specialized fields. It is sometimes transmitted interpersonally, but more often mass-mediated. Not only is communication impersonal, as in the local level, but it is more large-scale communication that is widely disseminated over long distances. It is communicated rapidly and continuously, and it is a more rigidly linear, often high-tech, communication process that is often profit-driven.

National-global popular culture extends the national sphere to international audiences. Communication in this sphere is dominated by conglomerates that disseminate cultural through television, film, news services, and recording companies. Communication here is thoroughly mass-mediated, highly profit-driven, and on the frontiers of high-technology.

The sphere in which popular culture is produced and the manner in which it is disseminated affects the degree to which it is influential. The national and national-global popular cultures, for example, are more pervasive, thus casting a wider net of influence than personal popular culture. However, personal popular culture may sink deeper into the meanings of individual lives and personal identity.

Six Principles of Popular Culture

Popular culture has six significant underlying principles that summarize its unique place in humanity (3). The first is reflection and manipulation. Popular culture reflects the myths, beliefs, and values of people, but at the same time manipulates those same beliefs. Action adventure films like Rambo and Air Force One, for example, reflect the myths of America as a special nation, but they also manipulate audience beliefs such as stereotypes about different racial groups for example.

Leisure and pleasure combined make up the second principle of popular culture. Popular culture is at the center of American leisure activities and pleasure often dictates whether a person will choose to participate in a particular popular culture activity. Like leisure, popular culture activities are done because one wants to, it involves rest and relaxation from "work," and it is expressed through lifestyle choices that reflect the attitudes and values of individuals or groups. Popular culture attracts that part of us that seeks pleasure and gratification, and it is this aspect of pleasure that unites popular culture with leisure.

Popular culture also is distinguished by its pervasiveness. Popular culture is virtually everywhere. It constitutes essentially all of the activity which people spend on enjoying themselves and providing comfort for themselves.

Popular culture relies on formula and repetition. People need to be reminded of what they believe and popular culture does this my repeating certain beliefs and values and organizing them into genres. Through formula and repetition, popular culture evolves into standards that tell people what is approved and accepted among its participants.

Paul Tillich's use of the term "ultimate concern" referred to the "ultimate desire to express ultimate meaning," or "a passionate longing for ultimate reality." According to Tillich. "there is no cultural creation without an ultimate concern expressed in it" (4). How telling! Popular culture seeks to express "ultimate meaning" through its embodiment and expression of myths, beliefs, and values. It longs for ultimate reality by portraying it in the symbols and images of comic strips, music, and film that outlives our own mortality. Popular culture helps give grounding and meaning to our existence.

Finally, popular culture can be good or evil. One of the main corrective points the Apostle Paul made to the Hebrews living after Christ's death and resurrection related to the purpose of teaching in their lives. He said that "solid food," or mature teaching, is for men and women who have become trained by practice to "discriminate and distinguish between what is morally good and noble and what is evil and contrary either to divine or human law." Popular culture in America often uses narrative plots that show the expulsion of evil from an individual or group. Despite the relativity of these terms in today's world, popular culture seeks to reach into our bodies, our minds, and our spirits to tell stories of good and evil.


(1) The term is borrowed from Douglas Kellner, Media Culture (New York: Routledge, 1995).

(2) For more elaborate discussion of the spheres of production, see Diana Crane, The Production of Culture: Media and the Urban Arts (Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1992).

(3) My view of these principles is influenced by J.I. Packer, "Leisure and Life-Style: Leisure, Pleasure, and Treasure," in God and Culture: Essays in Honor of Carl F.H. Henry, edited by D.A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1993).

(4) See Paul Tillich, Theology of Culture, Robert C. Kimball, editor (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959).