High Culture and Popular Culture in Media
Media distributes products––including books, shows, movies, music, fashion, and news––that have a certain cultural appeal. Each society has a culture that includes patterns and behaviors rooted in the norms, traditions, and preferences within the society. However, within each society different social groups also develop particular cultural patterns and preferences. In considering media and culture, theorists distinguish between high culture and popular culture, or pop culture. High culture refers to cultural products including art, literature, music, theater, and fashion that require formal or elaborate training to produce; they often require a certain kind of education to understand. Often, high culture is most accessible to members of the upper class, who have the education required to produce, practice, or understand it. Popular culture includes cultural products, such as art, literature, fashion, film, cyberculture, print media, and music, that are consumed by the majority of members of society. Sometimes referred to as low culture, popular culture is accessible to a wide range of people.
High culture is specialized, costly, and purposefully inaccessible to the general public. For example, fine art, theater and opera, and classical music are all considered part of high culture. To participate in high culture, people must have a relatively high level of economic power. Consuming and participating in high culture is thus a marker of social power. Many people of all social classes genuinely enjoy and appreciate high culture. However, sociologists look at the functions of high culture in society, including the ways that high culture can establish social boundaries.
Popular culture is more inclusive, designed to appeal to as many people and groups as possible. Reality television shows, reporting on celebrities, and popular genres of music and movies are all considered part of popular culture. Products of popular culture are widely disseminated to the majority of the population through many forms of media. The themes and ideas are often fairly simple, with the goal of being easily understood and digested by the population at large, including those without high levels of education. Sociologists study how popular culture allows for community or peer group bonding and fosters a sense of belonging and commonality. They also look at how media function as agents of socialization, communicating ideas to people about how to live and behave as members of a particular society. Popular culture, widely spread and consumed via media, reflects social norms and values and also creates and reinforces them.
French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930–2002) studied how a person's class rank within the structure of society relates to consumption preferences. Bourdieu introduced the notion of habitus—the theory that people internalize class rank at a very young age, which in turn influences tastes and preferences throughout life. Upper-class individuals, for example, have a taste for fine art because they have been exposed to and trained to appreciate it since a very early age. Other sociologists use Bourdieu's framework to analyze how different social groups engage with media and how media disseminates high culture and popular culture. Access to and interest in the products of high culture and popular culture are strongly tied to people's social position. Engagement with and consumption of media can be studied as a type of social behavior, framed by social structure and social stratification.
Elements of Popular Culture
Popular culture is popular in the sense that it is widely appreciated. However, the term popular culture really means "the culture of the people." The idea of the "people" refers to the masses, or the majority of a society, contrasted with social and cultural elites. The way people dress, the food they eat, and even how they greet one another are all part of the popular culture.
Popular culture addresses current and changing trends, concerns, and values in society. It is contemporary, trendy, and can change rapidly. Media platforms both contribute to and reflect the fluid nature of popular culture. Mainstream media, personal media, and social media are embedded in popular culture and also serve to influence it. Various forms of media, particularly the mass media, facilitate the rapid spread of pop culture. One example of the influence of mass media on popular culture is the instant fame of reality TV stars. It can also be seen in the spread of new genres of music, movies, and video games. Social media, such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, and YouTube, provide forums for social influencers to define and redefine popular culture.
Another element of popular culture is its power to persuade. Popular culture is heavily influenced by the agendas of media conglomerates because they control the information that is shared with the public. One strategy often used to sway the public is expert testimony. This method works to influence the general public because the masses consider these sources to be authorities on a given topic. Another widely used strategy is celebrity endorsements for certain products or causes, which harness status and likability of celebrities to influence people. Sociologists also study the role of tastemakers in popular culture. A tastemaker is an influential figure who is connected to the masses through a powerful media platform and encourages particular behaviors, trends, and preferences in popular culture. Tastemakers persuade people to embrace certain forms of culture, frequently encouraging people to buy particular products. For example, Oprah Winfrey is a powerful tastemaker in American culture, leading middle-aged women to consume books and other products that she features through her media channels. Younger celebrities, such as the Kardashian sisters, use social media to promote cultural and consumer products to young women.
Consumerism is social and economic behavior that places consumption at the center of people's lives. It is marked by the practice of buying consumer goods and understanding these goods as connected to one's identity. Consumerism is also linked with popular culture. Popular culture is associated with products made for mass consumption. Not only are consumer products themselves part of pop culture, but so are the accompanying logos, advertising slogans, and marketing campaigns. Media platforms, which are mostly funded by advertisers, encourage consumerism, either explicitly or implicitly.