What is meant by “popular culture,” and is there a particular method for studying it? Even among scholars in the field, debate has gone on about these and other basic questions surrounding the relatively new discipline. Some of the best writing on the issues, representing a number of perspectives, has been compiled in a new, edited collection of essays on the still-controversial field of study.
BGSU popular culture faculty Drs. Marilyn Motz and Angela Nelson, chair of the department, along with Dr. Harold Hinds of the University of Minnesota at Morris, have compiled Popular Culture Theory and Methodology: A Basic Introduction. The book, published by the Popular Press, an imprint of the University of Wisconsin Press, brings together some seminal writings from the 1960s and chronicles the maturation of popular culture as an academic discipline.
Though sometimes still decried as unworthy of serious study, popular culture as a discipline has continued to grow and evolve in its consideration of those activities and products that people derive pleasure from, or, as Nelson says, “What do they do after work?”
BGSU’s Dr. Ray B. Browne, one of the earliest pioneers in its establishment as a legitimate field of study, said popular culture is “all those elements of life which are not narrowly intellectual or creatively elitist and which are generally though not necessarily disseminated through the mass media.”
It differs from elite culture, which typically requires some specialized training, and folk culture, which predates mass communication and Americans’ move to the cities, but may contain elements of each. “Everyone participates in popular culture in some way depending on the different roles they have in life,” Nelson says.
A dual approach
What is unique about the new book is that it combines both popular culture theory and methodology. It provides guidelines to understanding what popular culture is, along with the specific tools and methodology needed for a thorough examination and analysis.
In the past, Nelson says, scholars have attempted to examine popular culture using various cultural theories, as opposed to allowing the theory to arise from the popular culture products themselves. “Because of the multiplicities of popular culture itself, you need a methodology that will encompass the unique characteristics of each popular culture product,” Nelson explains. The three editors have attempted to “pinpoint popular culture theory within cultural theory,” she says.
The book contains several essays by Browne, whose “vision had a breadth that differed from some other of the early scholars,” such as Dwight Macdonald and Russel B. Nye, Nelson sayss. While Nye was a supporter of the study of popular culture, she describes his views as at times “diametrically opposed” to Browne’s. Writing a bit later was John Fiske, whose views on popular culture came from a Marxist and British cultural studies perspective; he is also represented in the book.
Other chapters deal with the evolution of the discipline, methodologies, aesthetics, folk culture and popularity, in essays by Gary Harmon, Lawrence Mintz, Tim Lally, John Shelton Lawrence and Elizabeth Bird, among many others.
Aimed at scholars and graduate students, Popular Culture Theory and Methodology is designed to “provide a vehicle for courses, curricula, programs and departments to be reevaluated, reformed and restructured,” Nelson writes in her foreword.