During the Industrial Revolution, the English word “class” morphed from a general term for a division or group to a specific term for a position of rank within a social system based on economic wealth. Around the same time, the word “popular” began to be applied to communication and culture with meanings ranging from “liked by many people” to “created by many people.” Thus, social class and “the popular” simultaneously arose as objects of intellectual interest. Indeed, the very question of what counts as popular culture or popular communication has always led to questions of class. In the late eighteenth century, when J. G. Herder coined the term “popular culture,” he had in mind the peasant culture that, for him, represented a more authentic alternative to Europe’s elite, classical culture.
By the late nineteenth century, when Matthew Arnold wrote Culture and anarchy, he understood popular communication as the culture of the “masses,” the culture of cheap novels and melodrama that was crowding out the high cultural tradition of “the best that has been thought and said” (Arnold 1960, 6). Though neither Herder’s romanticism nor Arnold’s elitism made explicit reference to social class, the issue of class and its contested role in defining culture, communication, and “the popular” lay just below the surface for both.
Mass Versus Class Culture
In the early twentieth century, as the field of popular communication came into focus, so did debate about the role of social class. One key debate pitted a European-influenced mass culture approach against an American-influenced class culture approach. The former approach was represented by the group of German émigré intellectuals known as the Frankfurt School. Horkheimer and Adorno (1972, 1st pub. 1944), for instance, blamed the ideological influence of mass culture for forestalling revolutionary social change. The culture industry cranked out nearly identical forms of entertainment that lulled the masses into a false consciousness of mindless consumerism. The Frankfurt School thus shared the animosity of elitists such as Arnold to the popular culture of their time, yet they saw popular culture as an imposition from above rather than a contamination from below.
Within US communication research, the Frankfurt School was opposed by a more sanguine class culture approach. This pluralist perspective viewed social classes as having their own autonomous and equally valuable cultures. In Katz and Lazarsfeld’s (1955) research on communication flows among a sample of women, social class is treated as just another influence (along with social contacts and position in the life cycle) on individuals’ lifestyle choices regarding public affairs, movies, fashion, and household products. Gans (1974) later solidified the American approach, arguing that the cultural affinities of different class and educational groups should be viewed not as a hierarchy but as a collection of diverse “taste cultures.” In Gans’s view, so-called mass culture was just as valid for its less wealthy, educated public as high culture was for its public, and those critics on the left and right who derided mass culture were mere elitists who feared that the popularity of mass culture would erode their own privileged status.
The lines drawn within these mid-century debates have remained fairly resilient. While positivist researchers are accused of underemphasizing the determining role of social class in popular communication, critical scholars are faulted for overstating the influence of class. A rapprochement of sorts took form within the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmingham, England. The Birmingham School originated with scholars who became disenchanted with classical Marxism’s economic determinism. They built a model of scholarship that was rooted in Marxist notions of class conflict but showed an engagement with the culture of working-class people. In contrast to the Frankfurt view of the working class as victims of a totalitarian mass culture, the Birmingham scholars made the case that progressive social change remained possible and would be made by working-class culture.
The Birmingham School
Inheritors of this tradition were among the first scholars to grapple with modern practices of popular communication in ways that did not merely condemn them. Under the direction of Stuart Hall, work within the Birmingham center turned to ethnographic studies of working-class sub-cultures. Birmingham scholars decoded the complex sign systems that lay below the surface of the music and style of sub-cultures like the Teddy boys, mods, and punks. Much of this work took its lead from Raymond Williams’s (1973) argument that cultural practices could be divided into dominant, residual, and emergent formations. While dominant formations wielded the majority of power and residual formations were remnants of the past, emergent formations created lines of resistance and pointed the way to new social structures. By Birmingham scholars’ accounts, then, youth sub-cultures were not mere curiosities but potentially a kind of vanguard.
On another front, Birmingham scholars looked beyond the Frankfurt School’s grim view of media culture by giving new attention to media reception. Hall (1980) forged a model of reception by integrating Birmingham-style cultural analysis with semiotics. Media texts constitute a “structured polysemy.” They are open to interpretation while usually favoring interpretations consonant with dominant ideology. The ways audience members interpret such texts are influenced by their position in the social structure; thus dominant readings will tend to be produced by those whose social position aligns them with dominant ideology (i.e., upper-class people), while oppositional readings will be produced by those whose position places them in opposition to dominant ideology (i.e., working-class people).
The world conjured by Birmingham theorists proved alluring to media scholars. It put a neo-Marxist spin on popular communication research and thereby lent such research a new political urgency. As studies accumulated of symbolically rich sub-cultures and resistant audiences, however, three criticisms arose of the Birmingham model. First, the narrative of dominance and resistance that underlay such work often reduced it to a trite Manichaeism. As Meaghan Morris (1988, 15) quipped, “I get the feeling that somewhere in some English publisher’s vault there is a master-disk from which thousands of versions of the same article about pleasure, resistance, and the politics of consumption are being run off under different names with minor variations.” Second, despite the Marxist origins of cultural studies, its focus on audiences and relative disregard for economic and textual analysis opened it to charges of political complacency.
Third, empirical research contradicted the assumptions of cultural studies. David Morley (1980) tested Hall’s model of audience readings by showing a television news show to viewers of different social classes. He then interviewed them about the program and classified their readings. Contrary to Hall’s predictions, Morley found that the working-class apprentice engineers tended to produce dominant readings of the program while the upper-class university students produced oppositional readings. Such results pointed to problems in cultural studies’ attempt to reconcile audience analysis and class analysis. Social class is a multivalent concept whose influence on media interpretation is complex and changeable. As far back as the 1940s, American media research indicated that audience members’ critical or uncritical reception of mediated messages depends on education. Given the covariance of education and social class, it is as likely that it was education that accounted for Morley’s university students’ oppositional readings as anything directly to do with class.
Despite their differences, Frankfurt and Birmingham scholars shared a common theoretical trajectory, agreeing on a Marxist ideological critique while disagreeing on the potential for resistance. A more coolly analytical line of theorizing on popular communication and class can be traced to Weber’s “Class, status, and party” (1958). While class is determined by control over production, status is rooted in consumption and lifestyle. Whereas Marx understood the economic base as the driving force behind status, Weber saw class and status as autonomous and mutually influential. A similar emphasis on status and consumption appeared in Veblen’s The theory of the leisure class (1994), which portrayed social life as a contest in which people assert status through conspicuous consumption and conspicuous leisure; that is, the ostentatious waste of money and time.
Bourdieu’s Notion Of Consumption As Communication
The notion of consumption as a communicative system of status is elaborated in Pierre Bourdieu’s (1984) work Distinction. For Bourdieu, the cultural field stands alongside the social and economic fields as avenues through which class divisions are reproduced. “Cultural capital” includes tastes, abilities, and habits of consumption that social actors employ to achieve a higher status. Like Veblen, Bourdieu sees economic capital as translatable into cultural capital, yet for Bourdieu, the reverse is also true: habits of consumption can influence economic capital. The interpenetration of wealth and culture occurs through the subtle mediation of “habitus,” an unconscious system of dispositions ingrained through socialization. In an analysis of French survey data, Bourdieu finds class variations not only in tastes, but in the very bases of taste. For instance, he argues that the upper class’s distance from necessity leads them to employ an “aesthetic disposition,” observing objects of culture with a disinterested eye for formal beauty untainted by moral, practical, or sensual considerations.
Bourdieu’s field theory forms a counterpoint to mainstream ideologies of social mobility and pluralism, pointing to the symbolic boundaries cultivated by differences in taste and conduct. His work has provided the terms for an analysis that forgoes both the Frankfurt School’s ideological monoculture and the Birmingham School’s dualistic struggle of dominance and resistance. Like these other paradigms, Bourdieu’s work has led to valuable research in popular communication, yet it too has its critics. In his response to idealist notions of culture handed down from Kant, Bourdieu subjects culture to a cynical reductionism. As sociologist David Gartman (1991, 422) writes, Bourdieu “reduces cultural choices to passive reproduction of structural necessities.” As a result, there is no room for agency in Bourdieu’s conception of culture, no possibility of changing rather than reproducing the class system.
To the degree that trends in theory follow politics, it is not surprising that Bourdieu’s Weberian realism has gained ground. His vision of an aesthetic elite set against a moral and practical working class resonates at a time when conservatives have appropriated populist rhetoric through appeals to so-called “values issues.” At the same time, the conservative political environment seems ripe for a resurgence of Frankfurt-style critical theory. Evidence of such resurgence in the US can be found in Thomas Frank’s (2005) recent work, which traces conservatives’ success in convincing working-class voters to vote against their own economic interests. Hence criticism of popular communication and class may come full circle, to renewed cries of mystification and false consciousness.
- Arnold, M. (1960). Culture and anarchy. London: Cambridge University Press. (Original work published 1882).
- Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction: A social critique of the judgment of taste. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Frank, T. (2005). What’s the matter with Kansas? New York: Metropolitan.
- Gans, H. (1974). Popular culture and high culture. New York: Basic Books.
- Gartman, D. (1991). Culture as class symbolization or mass reification? A critique of Bourdieu’s Distinction. American Journal of Sociology, 97, 421–447.
- Hall, S. (1980). Encoding/decoding. In S. Hall, D. Hobson, A. Lowe, & P. Willis (eds.), Culture, media, language: Working papers in cultural studies, 1972–79. London: Hutchinson, pp. 123–138.
- Horkheimer, M., & Adorno, T. (1972). The dialectic of Enlightenment. New York: Seabury Press. (Original work published 1944).
- Katz, E., & Lazarsfeld, P. (1955). Personal influence: The part played by people in the flow of mass communications. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.
- Morley, D. (1980). The “Nationwide” audience: Structure and decoding. London: British Film Institute.
- Morris, M. (1988). Banality in cultural studies. Discourse, 10, 3–29.
- Veblen, T. (1994). The theory of the leisure class. New York: Dover. (Original work published 1899).
- Weber, M. (1958). Class, status, and party. In H. Gerth & C. W. Mills (eds.), From Max Weber: Essays in sociology. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 180–195. (Original work published 1924).
- Williams, R. (1973). Base and superstructure in Marxist cultural theory. New Left Review, 82, 3–16.