Return to Syllabus   Dr. Andrew Wood
Office: HGH 210; phone: (408) 924-5378

Schudson, M. (1987). The new validation of popular culture: Sense and sentimentality in academia. Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 4(1), 51-68.

Note: These comments are not designed to "summarize" the reading. Rather, they are available to highlight key ideas that will emerge in our classroom discussion. As always, it's best to read the original text to gain full value from the course.

The author begins by defining popular culture. He states, “Popular culture can be understood broadly as beliefs and practices, and the objects through which they are organized, that are widely shared among a population” (p. 51). He then explains how popular culture - both folk and mass - has risen above its one-time status as “trash” to be considered a topic worthy of academic inquiry. Schudson denotes three dimensions of popular culture study - production, content, and reception.

He begins by describing how U.S. sociologists (and political scientists) initially found that the production of mass media content is generally unable to change a person’s attitudes and behaviors. Schudson then turns to European criticism (notably, the Frankfurt School), which argued differently. European academics argued that mass society was becoming increasingly powerful - even replacing family and community ties as the site of meaning production. He singles out Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno [learn more] as theorists who warned of the rising culture industry. Schudson notes that many scholars in the U.S. and Europe later turned to hegemony as a means to understanding culture. Hegemony reflects a process through which “the state achieves its power not only through force but through defining a reality that citizens freely accept” (p. 53). Hegemony is not monolithic. Rather, it contains a continuum of practices that range from domination to resistance. More recently, Schudson notes, sociologists have complicated the study of popular culture further by attending to organizational and market realities that shape the production of cultural texts as much as a concepts such as individual “authorship” or collective ideology.

The author then shifts his focus to how anthropologists have expanded the notion of text beyond traditional writings to include oral storytelling, rituals, and performances, even the consumption of meals (citing Mary Douglas). Here, Schudson emphasizes how the study of this expanded range of texts does more than merely reflect cultural meanings; these texts provide a way to imagine a culture from an idealized point of view. He cites Clifford Geertz and Victor Turner who recast popular culture texts as “ways a culture thinks out loud about itself” (p. 57). In contrast, Schudson argues that most colleges and universities have been slow to expand the definition of what “counts” as a text worthy of study. This, he says, creates a problem. If we are to study some texts but not others, how shall we decide where to start? Who can make that decision? Does “meaning” emerge from the Work or in what Roland Barthes (pronounced Bart) defines as the Text, “something that is produced by reader as much as by writer” (p. 59)? Perhaps, Schudson proposes, we should seek to be active players rather than passive readers in the co-production of texts.

Schudson shifts once more, focusing on how the audiences of popular culture texts wield more power than one might imagine. To illustrate, Schudson describes Janice Radway’s pathbreaking Reading the Romance, which rejected the notion that audiences can be lumped into broad categories - and argued that individual readers of even the most banal texts manage to use them for their own purposes. Here, Schudson explores how subcultures may appropriate or co-opt dominant culture in clever ways, which might be unrecognizable to folks in power. Even so, Schudson notes how audiences continue to be constructed. His description of how Shakespeare became transformed during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries from a pleasure of the masses into a High Culture text provides an apt example. Audiences may be powerful, but they also exist within an interlocking set of social forces.

Schudson concludes with some reminders of the limitations of these trends in production, content, and reception. Initially, he argues that the study of production without meaning runs the risk that “art” may become an empty term. He then warns us to consider how the choice of text to study is always selfish; we should not create readings that are devoid of context by, for example, ignoring their “native” interpretations. Nor, in our haste to expand our sphere of study beyond traditional texts should we ignore the cumulative potential of the written word. Finally, we should expand our understanding of audiences, abandoning the dichotomy of dupe and critic. This represents a particular obligation for colleges and universities: “The new validation of popular culture should not lead higher education to abandon its job of helping students to be critical and playful readers, helping to deepen and refine in them a capacity for significant response. Instead it should enhance these efforts with new respect for how, in some spheres and in some ways and despite some limits, students (and others) have been critical and playful readers all along” (p. 66). While this piece was published in 1987, the challenges it posits remain for us today.

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