Cultural Theory and Popular Culture
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Cultural Theory and Popular Culture

An Introduction

John Storey

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eBook - ePub

Cultural Theory and Popular Culture

An Introduction

John Storey

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Über dieses Buch

In this ninth edition of his award-winning introduction, John Storey presents a clear and critical survey of competing theories of, and various approaches to, popular culture. Its breadth and theoretical unity, exemplified through popular culture, means that it can be flexibly and relevantly applied across a number of disciplines.

Retaining the accessible approach of previous editions and using appropriate examples from the texts and practices of popular culture, this new edition remains a key introduction to the area.

New to this edition:

  • updated throughout with contemporary examples of popular culture
  • revised and expanded sections on Richard Hoggart and Utopian Marxism
  • brand new discussions on Black Lives Matter and intersectionality
  • updated student resources at

This new edition remains essential reading for undergraduate and postgraduate students of cultural studies, media studies, communication studies, the sociology of culture, popular culture and other related subjects.

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1What is popular culture?

Before we consider in detail the different ways historically, theoretically and methodologically, in which popular culture has been defined and analysed, I want to outline some of the general features of the debate that the study of popular culture has generated. It is not my intention to pre-empt the specific findings and arguments that will be presented in the following chapters. Here I simply wish to map out the general conceptual landscape of popular culture. This is, in many ways, a daunting task. Part of the difficulty stems from the implied otherness that is always absent/present when we use the term ‘popular culture’. As we shall see in the chapters that follow, popular culture is always defined, implicitly or explicitly, in contrast to other conceptual categories: folk culture, mass culture, high culture, dominant culture, working-class culture. A full definition must always take this into account. Moreover, as we shall also see, whichever conceptual category is deployed as popular culture’s absent other, it will always powerfully affect the connotations brought into play when we use the term ‘popular culture’.
Therefore, to study popular culture we must first confront the difficulty posed by the term itself. For it will almost certainly be the case that the kind of analysis we do and the theoretical frame we employ to do this analysis will be largely shaped by the definition of popular culture we use. The main argument that I suspect readers will take from this book is that popular culture is in effect an empty conceptual category, one that can be filled in a wide variety of often conflicting ways, depending on the context of use.


In order to define popular culture we first need to define the term ‘culture’. Raymond Williams (1983) calls culture ‘one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language’ (87). Williams suggests three broad definitions. First, culture can be used to refer to ‘a general process of intellectual, spiritual and aesthetic development’ (90). We could, for example, speak about the cultural development of Western Europe and be referring only to intellectual, spiritual and aesthetic factors – great philosophers, great artists and great poets. This would be a perfectly understandable formulation. A second use of the word ‘culture’ might be to suggest ‘a particular way of life, whether of a people, a period or a group’ (ibid.). Using this definition, if we speak of the cultural development of Western Europe, we would have in mind not just intellectual and aesthetic factors, but the development of, for example, literacy, holidays, sport and religious festivals. Finally, Williams suggests that culture can be used to refer to ‘the works and practices of intellectual and especially artistic activity’ (ibid.). In other words, culture here means the texts and practices whose principal function is to signify, to produce or to be the occasion for the production of meaning. Culture in this third definition is synonymous with what structuralists and post-structuralists call ‘signifying practices’ (see Chapter 6). Using this definition, we would probably think of examples such as poetry, the novel, ballet, opera and fine art. To speak of popular culture usually means to mobilize 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. These are usually 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. These are usually referred to as texts. Few people would imagine Williams’s first definition when thinking about popular culture.


Before we turn to the different definitions of popular culture, there is another term we have to think about: ideology. Ideology is a crucial concept in the study of popular culture. Graeme Turner (2003) calls it ‘the most important conceptual category in cultural studies’ (182). James Carey (1996) has even suggested that ‘British cultural studies could be described just as easily and perhaps more accurately as ideological studies’ (65). Like culture, ideology has many competing meanings. An understanding of this concept is often complicated by the fact that in much cultural analysis the concept is used interchangeably with culture itself, and especially popular culture. The fact that ideology has been used to refer to the same conceptual terrain as culture and popular culture makes it an important term in any understanding of the nature of popular culture. What follows is a brief discussion of just five of the many ways of understanding ideology. We will consider only those meanings that have a bearing on the study of popular culture.
First, ideology can refer to a systematic body of ideas articulated by a particular group of people. For example, we could speak of ‘professional ideology’ to refer to the ideas that inform the practices of particular professional groups. We could also speak of the ‘ideology of the Labour Party’. Here we would be referring to the collection of political, economic and social ideas that inform the aspirations and activities of the party.
A second definition suggests a certain masking, distortion or concealment. Ideology is used here to indicate how some texts and practices present distorted images of reality. They produce what is sometimes called ‘false consciousness’. Such distortions, it is argued, work in the interests of the powerful against the interests of the powerless. Using this definition, we might speak of capitalist ideology. What would be intimated by this usage would be the way in which ideology conceals the reality of domination from those in power: the dominant class do not see themselves as exploiters or oppressors. And, perhaps more importantly, the way in which ideology conceals the reality of subordination from those who are powerless: the subordinate classes do not see themselves as oppressed or exploited. This definition derives from certain assumptions about the circumstances of the production of texts and practices. It is argued that they are the superstructural ‘reflections’ or ‘expressions’ of the power relations of ‘the economic structure of society’. This is one of the fundamental assumptions of classical Marxism. Here is Karl Marx’s (1976a) famous formulation:
In the social production of their existence men enter into definite, necessary relations, which are independent of their will, namely, relations of production corresponding to a determinate stage of development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation on which there arises a legal and political superstructure and to which there correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general (3).
What Marx is suggesting is that the way a society organizes the means of its material production will have a determining effect on the type of culture that society produces or makes possible. The cultural products of this so-called base/superstructure relationship are deemed ideological to the extent that, as a result of this relationship, they implicitly or explicitly support the interests of dominant groups who, socially, politically, economically and culturally, benefit from this particular economic organization of society. In Chapter 4, we shall consider this formulation in more detail.
We can also use ideology in this general sense to refer to power relations outside those of class. For instance, feminists speak of the power of patriarchal ideology, and how it operates to conceal, mask and distort gender relations in our society (see Chapter 8). In Chapter 9 we shall examine the ideology of racism.
A third definition of ideology (closely related to, and in some ways dependent on, the second definition) uses the term to refer to ‘ideological forms’ (Marx, 1976a: 5). This usage is intended to draw attention to the way in which texts (television fiction, pop songs, novels, feature films, etc.) always present a particular image of the world. This definition depends on a notion of society as conflictual rather than consensual, structured around inequality, exploitation and oppression. Texts are said to take sides, consciously or unconsciously, in this conflict. The German playwright Bertolt Brecht (1978) summarizes the point: ‘Good or bad, a play always includes an image of the world. . . . There is no play and no theatrical performance which does not in some way affect the dispositions and conceptions of the audience. Art is never without consequences’ (150–1). Brecht’s point can be generalized to apply to all texts. Another way of saying this would be simply to argue that all texts are ultimately political. That is, they offer competing ideological significations of the way the world is or should be. Popular culture is thus, as Hall (2019a) claims, a site where ‘collective social understandings are created’: a terrain on which ‘the politics of signification’ are played out in attempts to win people to particular ways of seeing the world (106).
A fourth definition of ideology is one associated with the early work of the French cultural theorist Roland Barthes (discussed in more detail in Chapter 6). Barthes argues that ideology (or ‘myth’ as Barthes himself calls it) operates mainly at the level of connotations, the secondary, often unconscious, meanings that texts and practices carry, or can be made to carry. For example, a Conservative Party political broadcast transmitted in 1990 ended with the word ‘socialism’ being transposed into red prison bars. What was being suggested is that the socialism of the Labour Party is synonymous with social, economic and political imprisonment. The broadcast was attempting to fix the connotations of the word ‘socialism’. Moreover, it hoped to locate socialism in a binary relationship in which it connoted unfreedom, whilst conservatism connoted freedom. For Barthes, this would be a classic example of the operations of ideology, the attempt to make universal and legitimate what is in fact partial and particular; an attempt to pass off that which is cultural (i.e. humanly made) as something which is natural (i.e. just existing). Similarly, it could be argued that in British society white, masculine, heterosexual, middle class, are unmarked in the sense that they are the ‘normal’, the ‘natural’, the ‘universal’, from which other ways of being are an inferior variation on an original. This is made clear in such formulations as a female pop singer, a black journalist, a working-class writer, a gay comedian. In each instance the first term is used to qualify the second as a deviation from the ‘universal’ categories of pop singer, journalist, writer and comedian.
A fifth definition is one that was very influential in the 1970s and early 1980s. It is the definition of ideology developed by the French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser. We shall discuss Althusser in more detail in Chapter 4. Here I will simply outline some key points about one of his definitions of ideology. Althusser’s main contention is to see ideology not simply as a body of ideas, but as a material practice. What he means by this is that ideology is encountered in the practices of everyday life and not simply in certain ideas about everyday life. Principally, what Althusser has in mind is the way in which certain rituals and customs have the effect of binding us to the social order: a social order that is marked by enormous inequalities of wealth, status and power. Using this definition, we could describe the seaside holiday or the celebration of Christmas as examples of ideological practices. This would point to the way in which they offer pleasure and release from the usual demands of the social order, but, ultimately, return us to our places in the social order, refreshed and ready to tolerate our exploitation and oppression until the next official break comes along. In this sense, ideology works to reproduce the social conditions and social relations necessary for the economic conditions and economic relations of capitalism to continue.
So far we have briefly examined different ways of defining culture and ideology. What should be clear by now is that culture and ideology do cover much the same conceptual landscape. The main difference between them is that ideology brings a political dimension to the shared terrain. In addition, the introduction of the concept of ideology suggests that relations of power and politics inescapably mark the culture/ideology landscape; it suggests that the study of popular culture amounts to something more than a simple discussion of entertainment and leisure.

Popular culture

There are various ways to define popular culture. This book is of course in part about that very process, about the different ways in which various critical approaches have attempted to fix the meaning of popular culture. Therefore, all I intend to do for the remainder of this chapter is to sketch out six definitions of popular culture that, in their different, general ways, inform the study of popular culture. But first a few words about the term ‘popular’. Williams (1983) suggests four current meanings: ‘well liked by many people’; ‘inferior kinds of work’; ‘work deliberately setting out to win favour with the people’; ‘culture actually made by the people for themselves’ (237). Clearly, then, any definition of popular culture will bring into play a complex combination of the different meanings of the term ‘culture’ with the different meanings of the term ‘popular’. The history of cultural theory’s engagement with popular culture is, therefore, a history of the different ways in which the two terms have been connected by theoretical labour within particular historical and social contexts.
An obvious starting point in any attempt to define popular culture is to say that popular culture is simply culture that is widely favoured or well liked by many people. And, undoubtedly, such a quantitative index would meet the approval of many people. We could examine sales of books, sales of CDs and DVDs. We could also examine attendance records at concerts, sporting events and festivals. We could also scrutinize market research figures on audience preferences for different television programmes. Such counting would undoubtedly tell us a great deal. The difficulty might prove to be that, paradoxically, it tells us too much. Unless we can agree on a figure over which something becomes popular culture, and below which it is just culture, we might find that widely favoured or well liked by many people included so much as to be virtually useless as a conceptual definition of popular culture.
Despite this problem, what is clear is that any definition of popular culture must include a quantitative dimension. The popular of popular culture would seem to demand it. What is also clear, however, is that on its own, a quantitative index is not enough to provide an adequate definition of popular culture. Such counting would almost certainly include ‘the officially sanctioned “high culture” which in terms of book and record sales and audience ratings for television dramatisations of the classics, can justifiably claim to be “popular” in this sense’ (Bennett, 1980: 20–1).
A second way of defining popular culture is to suggest that it is the culture that is left over after we have decided what is high culture. Popular culture, in this definition, is a residual category, there to accommodate texts and practices that fail to meet the required standards to qualify as high culture. In other words, it is a definition of popular culture as inferior culture. What the culture/popular culture test might include is a range of value judgements on a particular text or practice. For example, we might want to insist on formal complexity. In other words, to be real culture, it has to be difficult. Being difficult thus ensures its exclusive status as high culture. Its very difficulty literally excludes, an exclusion that guarantees the exclusivity of its audience. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argues that cultural distinctions of this kind are often used to support class distinctions. Taste is a deeply ideological category: it functions as a marker of ‘class’ (using the term in a double sense to mean both a social economic category and the suggestion of a particular level of quality). For Bourdieu (1984), the consumption of culture is ‘predisposed, consciously and deliberately or not, to...