Article

Popular Culture

Elizabeth ErkenBrack, Rebecca Pardo and John L. Jackson

in Anthropology

ISBN: 9780199766567
Published online January 2012 | | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0055
Popular Culture

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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.

Article.  12570 words. 

Subjects: Anthropology ; Human Evolution ; Medical Anthropology ; Physical Anthropology ; Social and Cultural Anthropology

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