Sociologists study culture by different TYPES.
Mass culture includes any product designed for and consumed by a mass audience.
Mass culture is manufactured and is produced for profit.
Mass culture includes most forms of communication and entertainment produced in capitalist societies – cinema, television (broadcast and streaming), magazines, popular fiction, comics and, more recently the way football has become a central part of a shared cultural experience.
Mass culture may reflect a shared set of norms and values in society – it may also be part of the process whereby those same norms and values end up being shared by a mass of the population through a process of mass consumption.
It may be argued that mass culture is ‘trash’ culture and has very little real meaning and virtually no artistic merit, especially when compared with high culture.
Neo-Marxists are critical of mass culture because of the way they see it diminishing and replacing localised and folk cultures. The Frankfurt School, especially the sociologist Herbert Marcuse – were leading voices in this criticism of a homogenised mass culture being transmitted through the mass media.
Neo-Marxists also argue that mass culture manipulates passive audiences into a form of thoughtless consumerism which leads us to desire and consume things we don’t really want or need.
Sociologists from the New Right have been critical of mass culture because of the way in which certain types of mass culture – violent computer games, rap music etc have a negative effect on those who consume them in large amounts. Feminist sociologists are critical of mass culture for similar reasons, particularly the way in which it may often be seen to portray women in sexist and misogynist ways.
McDonald is critical of mass culture because it has ‘dumbed down’ our ability to appreciate aspects of high culture which may take more time to understand but which may ultimately be more satisfying and provide a richer cultural experience.
Giddens also offers a critical view of mass culture on the grounds that soap operas, reality TV and celebrity magazines produce a passive and uncritical mass audience who are losing the ability to think for themselves or to even bother engaging with culture that may require a bit more effort and thought.
Discussions of ‘high’ and low’ culture focus on how we judge the quality of what is being watched, read or observed.
High culture is represented by those arts and interests which are seen as superior to others.
High culture would include ballet, classical music, opera, literary novels and poetry and ‘art’ cinema.
High culture is not produced for a mass audience, it is associated with smaller ‘elite’ audiences. This often means that various types of high culture have limited appeal and struggle to be financially viable. The government – through grants and the lottery – often steps in to subside arts associated with high culture.
It is usually felt that high culture represents some deeper or intellectual meaning. Because of this, high culture is often seen as having more ‘quality’ than other types of culture and may also be considered as being more ‘intellectual’ in its outlook.
high culture – creative, with high statusHaralambos
Marxists often view high culture in terms of its appeal to, and control by, political and economic elites.
Davis argues that high culture is produced and consumed mainly for and by a small elite group in society.
To understand low culture you should simply ‘flip’ your understanding of ‘high culture’.
‘Low culture’ makes a judgement on the value on what is being produced and consumed as culture.
Low culture is linked to the commercialisation and mass appeal of ‘mass culture’.
Low culture is usually perceived as being somehow inferior to ‘higher’ forms of culture.
Ideas around ‘low’ culture may be seen as prejudiced against those groups in society who have less power and less wealth than cultural elites who often determine what is and what isn’t ‘good’ culture.
This view is closely linked to ideas around mass culture and low culture.
Popular culture may be defined as cultural attitudes and experiences that most of us would recognise in mainstream society – it’s popular, it’s easy to understand and it entertains us. It’s what we like to read, see, watch or listen to.
Popular culture is accessible and easy to find. Compared with high culture, it is relatively cheap to consume.
Storey makes the point that popular culture and mass culture are not necessarily the same thing. Popular culture, he argues, often comes from the people themselves – they create and participate in the cultural process, they are not the passive consumers typical of commercial mass culture. A good example of this would be the way the internet now allows us the opportunity to produce our own writings, films and music outside the control of capitalist companies.
Postmodernists recognise the relative value of popular culture and argue that simply because a TV show or piece of music has mass appeal it should not be judged as being any less valid than what passes for high culture. In this view, Dua Lipa is as culturally relevant as the National Opera.
Postmodernists would go on to argue that all classifications of culture are a waste of time and that the distinctions between low/high/popular/elite cultures are meaningless. We live in a postmodern culturally diverse world and we pick and choose those aspects of culture that appeal to us. No one form is any better or worse than any other.
Folk culture is traditional, older, authentic and has its origins in (mostly rural) pre-industrial societies where the emphasis is on active participation.
Folk culture traditions stem from ordinary people – it is not an elite concept.
Folk culture is often verbal, based on oral traditions and has been passed down from generation to generation.
Examples of folk culture will include folk music, Morris dancing, storytelling and rural crafts.
Much folk culture will be localised and specific to a particular area i.e. cheese rolling, gurning and black pudding throwing.
Critics of mass culture and popular culture (i.e. Neo-Marxists) point to the decline of folk culture as a negative consequence of industrialisation and commercialised capitalist forms of culture.
Any group of people in society who break away from the norms, values and customs of the larger group may be seen as forming a subculture.
subcultures – groups of like-minded individuals who feel neglected by society. The formation of the subculture allows them to develop their identities with people of similar tastes and views and similar attitudes to norms, values, customs and traditions not shared by society as a wholeHebdige
Subcultures may be defined by sexuality – gay subcultures
They may be defined by age – youth subcultures
They may also be defined by attitudes to the environment – veganism, climate change campaigners
They may also be defined in terms of their attitudes to politics – far-left or far-right subcultures
It is also possible to see subcultures that have developed around different ethnic groups, particularly in large cities i.e. Chinatown in Liverpool and Manchester and Bangladeshi communities in Manchester.
Some subcultures may also be described as ‘countercultures’ – this is where the subculture being observed represents an organised and systematic opposition the existing dominant culture. In this sense, countercultures frequently represent direct challenges to the traditional norms and values of the society.
Functionalists may see subcultures as a normal aspect of society in that it is always likely that there will be groups who do not conform to the dominant standards.
Postmodernists see subcultures as yet more evidence of the diversity of modern society and the pointlessness of trying to conform to a standardised one-size-fits-all culture.
This concept brings together many of the strands of argument discussed above in terms of mass culture and popular culture.
As the term suggests – consumer culture is based on the view that values, status, activities and lifestyles are based primarily on what is consumed. Our culture is what we buy in terms of goods and services and it is this act of consumption that we increasingly use as a way of defining ourselves.
There is a clear link here with ideas of identity – we are what we consume, and it matters to us.
A world increasingly defined by high-speed communication, global media companies, global branding of food, goods and services alongside mega multi-national corporations and businesses may mean that we are moving towards a global culture.
Is this a good thing? Neo-Marxists see it as yet another example of the homogenisation of culture at the expense of folk-culture and more localised beliefs, practices and traditions. Independent cultures are being lost – this is not a good thing, a genuinely global culture will be little more than a packaging of dominant Americanised themes for a global audience. In the process, we lose our individuality.
Postmodernists, on the other hand, see the prospect of a globalised culture in terms of the natural outcome of a multi-cultural, globalised and increasingly diverse world based around choice managed by online technologies. It is what it is and there’s not much we can do about it.
HOWEVER – the impact of Covid-19 may suggest that we have in fact reached ‘peak globalisation’ and are now in the process of reviewing exactly what it means to have globally interconnected cultures and economies.
As countries struggle to cope with travel restrictions and lockdowns, as consumers discover that it may not always be possible to expect supply-chains to provide us with everything we need, exactly when we want it – we may now be in the process of reviewing exactly what the consequences of global cultures are and deciding if this is how we wish to continue to live.