Popular Culture

For several years, the definitive meaning of the term ‘Popular Culture’ has stirred many cultural debates. The reason may claim that the term is a combination of the most two complicated words in English language as acknowledged by Raymond William (1976). Popular culture together brings varied and sometime conflicting associations. Stuart Hall’s essay on ‘Notes on Deconstructing ‘The Popular’ (1981) constructs a foundational material in popular culture studies as it produced a critical theory of popular culture. Hall derives the meaning of the word “popular” from ‘the tensions and oppositions between what belongs to the central domain of elite or dominant culture, and the culture of the “periphery” (Hall 1981, p.234). In response to that statement, this essay will examine Hall’s elaboration of the ‘popular culture’. The case study of ‘Reality television programs’ will be further applied to inspect those features raised in his theory.

In Hall’s ‘Notes on Deconstructing ‘The Popular’, the author decisively focuses on ‘popular culture’ within the pole of ‘containment and resistance’ (Hall 1981, p.228). He rejects the commercial approach to categorize ‘the popular’ into things that masses of people follow’. Since the audience are not ‘cultural dopes’, they do not passively consume whatever being fed. Rather being purely manipulated, popular culture is a constant battlefield between acceptance and refusal. Popular culture is always closely governed in which it continuously adjusts its forms and filters to avoid ‘pollutions’. While some practices resist to be distorted and survive, others may be displaced with new appearance. There is not only a battle within the popular culture itself, but also a combat between the ‘dominant culture’ and ‘the culture of the “periphery”’ (p.234).  Hall’s definition of popular culture is in fact an ongoing cultural struggle. Agreed upon this idea, Omaya Cruz and Raiford Guins (2005, p.4) also restate that popular is a ‘site of struggle’ where its implication can only be recognized as a ‘significant form of power’.  This notion of Hall is established in his rebut to the meaning of popular culture as “all things that ‘the people’ do or have done” (p.234). As he suggested, popular culture should be carefully considered in relation with the concept of ‘the people’. The authority to label ‘the people’ or ‘not the people’ is eventually a foundation to distinguish what is popular and what is not. Popular culture also entails recognition of ‘cultural hierarchy’: the popular is being differentiated from the ‘dominant’ form of culture (M.Shiach 1989, p.15). However, the items classified under these categories are not fixed, and the relations between two groups can only be accurately described at a particular historical moment. The pressure between the ‘dominant’ and the ‘minority’ causes the shifts overtime. Today ‘low’ popular culture form might be defined as high culture in the future (H. Jenkins et al, p.26). Those relationships are created and destroyed to turn anything from ‘meaning to pleasure’, from ‘the ‘commonplace to the powerful’ (O. Cruz & R.Guins 2005, p.11). Since popular culture is an actively dynamic process, it is the power relation that is essential in defining the term, not the shifting boundaries between and the content of ‘popular’ and ‘elite’ (J. Simons 2003, p.181). The author Morag Shiach also agrees that popular culture is unstable in which he did not satisfy with the historical attempt to claim the nature of ‘the popular’ as constant overtime (1989, p.9). Therefore, there are constant shifts between the dominant culture and the culture of the periphery. This also implies that there is no direct relationship between a class and a particular cultural practice – as suggested by the term ‘popular’ (Hall 1989, p.238). This is evidenced in cases where dominant culture tries to gain a position in ‘the people’ world. For example, to legitimate a production, artists (i.e. music composers, script writers etc) often place themselves culturally and linguistically within the dominant sphere, and simultaneously allege to stand for the perspective and desire of ‘the people’. Hall thus concludes with a waning when reading a sign of popular culture since a single sign is not guaranteed to be the ‘living expression’ of any particular class and . A practical case study would thus be essential to illustrate the above aspects in Hall’s definition of ‘popular culture’.

Reality Television Programs are considered as remarkable innovation in media industry. Australian Reality Television Programs first arrived in 1992 and have become highly popular with Australian audiences (ACMA 2007, p. 26). In general, reality televisions presents unscripted dramatic or humorous situations, documents actual events and features ordinary people instead of professional actors. This definition makes the Reality Televisions programs fits well in the definition of popular culture as tensions between the cultures of the ‘dominant’ and periphery. Up until the arrival of Reality TV (i.e. the 1990s), the notion of watching ordinary, boring events unfold gained momentum. The dominant culture at that time was passive engagement with media. Main stream of TV entertainment was that professional actors performed on screen for so-called ‘couch potato’ (M. Mike 2000) to watch. Music script to be screened must be played by singers, highly edited by professional publishers, and massively distributed. The arrival of ‘Australian Idols’ brought the new culture of the ‘periphery’ (i.e. the amateur singers) into the music industry.  In addition, reality TV programs have also shifted some perspectives in dominant culture into things that no one has expected before. The shows ‘Britain’s Missing Top Models’ are examples. Dominant portrait of a model should be beautiful women with perfect body shape. Disabled women are classified as ‘periphery’ to that catwalk world. The shows have raised the awareness and profile of disabled people in the dominant culture.  Reality TV is not only a narrative form of entertainment, but also a restoration of citizenship (J. Dovey 2002, p.87). Border Security shows encourage audience’s interaction with national affairs. Performers are no longer dominantly played by the authority as traditionally framed documentary-styled programs but also by any random person. The appearances of illegal immigrants representing the periphery and the authority officer representing the dominant class reaffirm Hall’s statement that popular culture oscillates between the culture of the dominant and the periphery.

In conclusion, the term ‘popular culture’ houses a broad range of meanings. Since there is a continuously cultural struggle to identify what belongs to the ‘popular’ and what does not, as Hall suggested, a definitive implication must be analyzed in light of the power relations between the cultures of the dominant and the subordination rather than the contents of each category. Reality TV Programs is used to illustrate the above definition. However, further research should examine other forms of popular cultures, such as displayed museums, theme parks, Blackface Minstrelsy performance etc to reaffirm the aspects in Hall’s definition of ‘popular culture’.


Australian Communications and Media Authority 2007, Reality Television Review, ACMA, Canberra

BBC n.d., Britain’s Missing Top Model, accessed 25 March 2011, < http://www.bbc.co.uk/missingmodel/>

Dovey, John. ‘Firestarters – Reviewing Reality TV’ in Freakshow (London: Pluto Press, 2002): 78 – 91

John Simons, 2003 ‘Popular Culture and Mediated Politics: Intellectuals, Elites and Democracy’, in Corner, J & Pels, D (eds), Popular Culture & The Restyling of Politics, SAGE, London, pp. 171 – 189

Hall, Stuart. ‘Notes on Deconstructing the Popular’ in Raphael Samuel (ed) People’s History and Socialist Theory (London: Routledge, 1981): 227 – 240

H. Jenkins, T. McPherson & J.Shattuc, 2002, Defining popular culture, London Duke Press, Durham

Michael, Mike. “Disciplined and Disciplining co(a)agents: The Remote Control and the Couch Potato.” In Reconnecting Culture, Technology and Nature: From Society to Heterogeneity. London: Routledge, 2000, 96-166

Morag Shiach, 1989, Discourse on Popular Culture: Class, Gender and History in Cultural Analysis, 1st edn, Stanford University Press, USA

Omaya Cruz & Raiford Guins, 2005 ‘Entangling the Popular: An Introduction to Popular Culture: A Reader’, in O Cruz & R Guins (eds), Popular Culture: A reader, SAGE Publication, London, pp.1-19

Williams, Raymond. ‘Popular from Keywords’ in A Critical and Cultural Theory Reader. Anthony Easthope and Kate McGowan (eds). (Buckingham: Open University Press, 1996): 213 – 232

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