The Function of Popular Culture in Society

Jim and Pam got married, Ke$ha brushes her teeth with whiskey, and Lady Gaga ponders if we are actually born predisposed to be weird.  No matter where you look, we are surrounded by pop culture.  Popular culture is a sub-culture that is often mocked and scrutinized as not being meaningful or significant, pop culture is seen as what is considered “cool” at the moment in time, and carries no long-term effects on society or culture as a whole.  Emile Durkheim once said “For Sociology really to be a science of things, the generality of phenomena must be taken as the criterion of their normality.”  In the same book, He argues for the functions of crime in society, I believe that these functions are the same functions that popular culture has in society.  In brief, these functions are to produce social norms, establish social boundaries, create rituals that generate social solidarity, generate innovation, and pave the way for social change.  It is important to identify what “pop culture” is identified as, seeing as how it can be used in several different ways.  When I refer to pop culture, I mean so in the commercial culture sense.  Commercial culture produces a product in order to generate a profit.

Allow us first to examine the way popular culture produces social norms. In the book The Dominant Ideology Thesis, the authors argue that mass media is the key by which ideas of the dominant class is spread to the rest of society.  I believe this view is crucial to understanding how popular culture produces social norms.  For example, let’s use what we wear as a way to show how social norms are produce.  The fashion industry tells us what to wear in magazines and advertisements, these norms are reinforced over and over again by television, actors, film, musicians, and celebrities who embrace the fashion trends.  Stores begin to only sell a certain type of clothing, and it becomes increasingly more difficult to not conform to the fashion norm.  Popular culture is not limited only to the fashion world in terms of the norms it produces, it is impossible to go through a checkout at the store and not be bombarded by magazines that share what type of sexual practices are not acceptable, what type of music is on the rise, and even what type of foods we should eat.  Even children are being conditioned to behave a certain way thanks to programming such as Sesame Street and Barney.

In addition to producing social norms, popular culture also helps us establish social boundaries.  The music we listen to, along with the clothes we wear and the television we watch not only helps to shape our identities but also helps us find those people more like ourselves.  It is because of the rise in popular culture that we are able to embrace certain musical tastes and reject others, allowing us to find others who share the same likes and dislikes as ourselves.  People who listen to Metallica probably don’t have much in common with those people who listen to Miley Cyrus.  Pop culture offers us a unique system to identify those who are like us, this is seen more obviously in the pornography business.  The internet has normalized amateur pornography to the point where there is an unjustifiable amount of naked people on the internet, most of whom clearly (and I mean clearly!) do so for non-profit.

Perhaps the easiest aspect of popular culture to observe is the rituals that it creates.  Teenagers are brought together through dance clubs, college students come together to view television events, comic book fans wait in line hours to see a new movie.  All these rituals produce feelings of belonging, bonding with members of society over a common interest.  The super bowl for example is a multibillion dollar affair because of the fact that millions of people from all demographics will sit down and watch the game for three hours.  Going to a concert gives you a since of social solidarity, singing along to a song in unison with fifteen-thousand other people creates close social bonds… even if you hardly know anyone else at the concert.  They share a sense of meaning in their identity; this shared meaning is the basis of group solidarity.  According to Durkheim, it is solidarity that is the basic building block of social cohesion.

Popular Culture has also helped to generate innovations that have no only progressed itself, but all of culture.  Obviously the most important area that popular culture has helped progress is clearly the internet.  The World Wide Web has progressed and is driven by what could be considered the largest are of pop culture, pornography.  I suspect that pornography hasn’t exactly helped the advancement of civilization, but it has helped the advancement of technology greatly.  The development of broadband internet, streaming videos online, high definition quality pictures, all came to be as a result of the pornography business.  Of course innovation isn’t held strictly by the adult entertainment business; another huge industry spurred by pop culture is the music industry, specifically the way we listen and buy music.  Before 1999, and the invention of Napster, the internet was not a medium that many in the music industry embraced… and it wasn’t until Napster exploited the lack of regulation over the internet that big music corporations saw the advantages of using the internet as a means to spread their product to a whole new audience.  Before, the customer had to venture to a record store and sort through hundreds of albums in order to find a new type of music or band to listen too, now it can be accomplished with a quick Google search.  The film industry has also been touched by the advancement that pop culture has allowed.  With companies such as Netflix set up to combine movies with the internet, and the invention of the DVD, thousands of films are at our disposal and all with crystal clear clarity.

Arguably the most important function that popular culture serves in our society is that it paves the road to social change, numerous times it is actually the driving force behind social change.  This can be seen all the way back to 1906 when Upton Sinclair’s book The Jungle helped lead to a revolution of the food industry in America.  We can see this clearly most recently with the sudden involvement of celebrities who got involved in the 2008 presidential election, primarily in Barack Obama’s campaign.  Robert DeNiro, Oprah Winfrey, Usher, Chris Rock, Scarlett Johansson, Ron Howard, Magic Johnson, and John Mayer are just a few of the actors/athletes/comedians/musicians that are linked with Obama.  It is no surprise that Obama won the 2008 presidential election in a landslide.  Companies have long known the effect that celebrities have on America and have used them to push products.  We are seeing this again with the involvement of such celebrities as Lady Gaga in the Gay Rights movement.  Rap music is a great example of a group inside of pop culture which constantly challenges the social norms and the power structure of the white majority.

It is clear that popular culture serves many functions in society, many of which are shared by crime.  These functions include producing social norms, establishing social boundaries, creating rituals that generate social solidarity, generating innovation, and paving the way for social change.  We cannot simply push pop culture off to the side as low-brow culture and has no significance.

8 thoughts on “The Function of Popular Culture in Society”

  1. This is the most insightful and relevant article I have read on popular culture in society- and I have read A LOT of articles. Thank you.

  2. This enlarges my knowledge on popular culture. Thanks a lot. The emphasis should also be laid on how popular culture is dragging cultural resources into extinction. Most of the traditionally ways of doing things e.g mode of greeting, enjoying moonlight play, festivals celebrations, archaeological and ethnographical resources in short are not being managed due to modernization that brought about popular culture.

  3. nice article but i think you should add something on the impacts it (popular culture) has in the society both positive and negative

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