Mass Culture

‘‘Mass culture’’ typically refers to that culture which emerges from the centralized production processes of the mass media. It should be noted, however, that the status of the term is the subject of ongoing challenges – as in Swingewood’s (1977) identification of it as a myth. When it is linked to the notion of mass society, then it becomes a specific variant of a more general theme; namely, the relation between social meanings and the allocation of life chances and social resources. Considered as a repository of social meaning, mass culture is one of a group of terms that also includes high (or elite) culture, avantgarde culture, folk culture, popular culture, and (subsequently) postmodern culture. The interpretation and boundaries of each of these categories are routinely the subject of debate and dispute. This becomes particularly evident in attempts at ostensive definition (i.e., the citation of examples of each term and the reasoning employed to justify their allocation to the category in question). In combination, these concepts constitute a system of differences, such that a change in the meaning of any one of its terms is explicable through, and by, it’s changing relation to the others. Those same terms frequently function as evaluative categories that – either tacitly or explicitly – incorporate judgments about the quality of that which they affect to describe.

In his introduction to Rosenberg and White’s Mass Culture Revisited (1971) Paul Lazarsfeld suggested that in the US, controversy and debate with respect to mass culture had most clearly flourished between 1935 and 1955. It was a time when recognition of the mass media as a significant cultural force in democratic societies coincided with the development of totalitarian forms of control, associated with the regimes and media policies of Hitler and Stalin. The perceived affinities between these developments prompted concern about how best to defend the institutions of civil society, culture in general, and high culture in particular against the threats that they faced. Such preoccupations helped shape the pattern of the mass culture debate at that time. Certainly, what was evident among American social commentators and cultural critics was a widespread antipathy to mass culture that reached across the differences between conservative and critical thinkers. Even among the defenders of mass culture, the justifying tone was characteristically defensive and apologetic (Jacobs 1964).

For many of the critics, a typical strategy was to define mass culture negatively as high culture’s ‘‘other’’ (Huyssen 1986). This convergence in defining and understanding mass culture as being everything that high culture is not, occurred under circumstances where the conception of high culture that was valorized might be either (1) generally conservative and traditional, or (2) specifically modernist and avantgarde. For some conservatives, in a line of thought influenced by Ortega Y Gasset and T. S. Eliot, it took the form of an unabashed nostalgia for a more aristocratic and purportedly more orderly past. They therefore tended to see the threat posed by mass culture as generated from ‘‘below’’ (by ‘‘the masses’’ and their tastes). For critical theorists such as Theodor Adorno, mass culture served interests that derived from above (the owners of capital) and was an expression of the exploitative expansion of modes of rationality that had hitherto been associated with industrial organization. This critical group’s understanding of the attributes of a high modernist culture is that it is – or rather aspires to be – autonomous, experimental, adversarial, highly reflexive with respect to the media through which it is produced, and the product of individual genius. The corresponding perspective on mass culture is that it is thoroughly commodified, employs conventional and formulaic aesthetic codes, is culturally and ideologically conformist, and is collectively produced but centrally controlled in accordance with the economic imperatives, organizational routines, and technological requirements of its media of transmission. The emergence of such a mass culture – a culture that is perforce made for the populace rather than made by them – serves both to close off the resistance associated with popular culture and folk art and that seriousness of purpose with which high culture is identified.

The debate around this opposition between the culture of high modernism and mass culture was, for the most part, carried forward by scholars in the humanities. What proved to be a point of contact with social scientists was the latter’s related concern as to whether the development of modernity (understood as a social process) was associated with the emergence of mass society. Insofar as the notion of such a society is grounded in the contrast between the (organized) few and the (disorganized) many, Giner (1976) suggests that its lengthy prehistory in social and political thought stretches back to classical Greece. In like fashion, Theodor Adorno had seen the foundation of mass culture as reaching as far back as Homer’s account, in The Odyssey, of Odysseus’s encounter with the Sirens and the latter’s seductive, but deeply insidious, appeal.

A specifically sociological theory of mass society, however, with its antecedents in the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville, John Stuart Mill, and Karl Mannheim, is altogether more recent. As formulated by such writers as William Kornhauser and Arnold Rose that theory was concerned to highlight selected social tendencies rather than offering a totalizing conception of modern society. The theory does nevertheless advance a set of claims about the social consequences of modernity, claims that are typically conveyed by way of a stylized contrast with the purportedly orderly characteristics of ‘‘traditional’’ society or, less frequently, those forms of solidarity, collectivity, and organized struggles that exemplify ‘‘class’’ society. In brief, social relationships are interpreted as having been transformed by the growth of, and movement into, cities, by developments in both the means and the speed of transportation, the mechanization of production processes, the expansion of democracy, the rise of bureaucratic forms of organization, and the emergence of the mass media. It is argued that as a consequence of such changes there is a waning of the primordial ties of primary group membership, kinship, community, and locality. In the absence of effective secondary associations that might serve as agencies of pluralism and function as buffers between citizens and centralized power, what emerges are insecure and atomized individuals. They are seen as constituting, in an influential image of the time, what David Reisman and his associates called ‘‘the lonely crowd.’’ The ‘‘other directed’’ conduct of such individuals is neither sanctified by tradition nor the product of inner conviction, but rather is shaped by the mass media and contemporary social fashion.

In C. Wright Mills’s (1956) version of the thesis the relevant (and media centered) contrast was not so much between past and pre sent, as between an imagined possibility and an accelerating social tendency. The most significant difference was between the characteristics of a ‘‘mass’’ and those of a ‘‘public,’’ with these two (ideal type) terms distinguished from one another by their dominant modes of communication. A ‘‘public’’ is consistent with the normative standards of classic democratic theory, in that (1) virtually as many people express opinions as receive them; (2) public communications are so organized that there is the opportunity promptly and effectively to answer back any expressed opinion; (3) opinion thus formed finds an outlet for effective action; and (4) authoritative institutions do not penetrate the public, which is thus more or less autonomous. In a ‘‘mass,’’ (1) far fewer people express opinions than receive them; (2) communications are so organized that it is difficult to answer back quickly or effectively; (3) authorities organize and control the channels through which opinion may be realized into action; and (4) the mass has no autonomy from institutions.

As these images imply, and as Stuart Hall was subsequently to suggest, what lay behind the debate about mass culture was the (not so) hidden subject of ‘‘the masses.’’ Yet this was a social category of whose very existence Raymond Williams had famously expressed doubts, wryly noting that it seemed invariably to consist of people other than ourselves. Such skepticism was shared by Daniel Bell (1962), an otherwise very different thinker from Williams. In critiquing the notion of America as a mass society, he indicated the often contradictory meanings and associations that had gathered around the word ‘‘mass.’’ It might be made to mean a heterogeneous and undifferentiated audience; or judgment by the incompetent; or the mechanized society; or the bureaucratized society; or the mob – or any combination of these. The term was simply being asked to do far too much explanatory work.

Moreover, during the 1960s, such a hollowing out of the formal, cognitive basis of the mass culture concept was increasingly complemented by altogether more direct empirical challenges. The emergence of a youth based counterculture, the Civil Rights Movement, opposition to the Vietnam War, the emergence of second wave feminism, and the contradictions and ambiguities of the media’s role in at once documenting and contributing to these developments, all served to bring the mass society thesis into question. In addition, both the control of the popular music industry by a handful of major companies (Peterson & Berger 1975) and of film production by the major studios were the subject of serious challenges from independent cultural producers with their own distinctive priorities (Biskind 1998). The result (for a decade at least, until the eventual reassertion of corporate control) was an altogether more diversified media culture. And in what was perhaps explicable as part reaction, part provocation vis a vis an earlier orthodoxy, what also emerged were instances of populist style academic support for the very notion of mass culture – as, for example, in the Journal of Popular Culture. If this latter tendency sometimes displayed an unreflective enthusiasm for ephemera and a neglect of institutional analysis, it nevertheless presaged the more broadly based recognition of the diversity of mass culture that was evident during the 1970s (e.g., Gans 1974).

During the 1980s an emphasis on the cultural reception of popular cultural forms attracted innovative empirical work (Radway 1984; Morley 1986) at a time when the notion of the postmodern had become the subject of sustained critical attention. Postmodernism displayed none of high modernism’s antagonism towards mass culture. On the contrary, as evidence of the blurring of cultural boundaries multiplied, practitioners of postmodern ism either interrogated the very basis of such contrasts between ‘‘high’’ and ‘‘mass’’ and the hierarchical distinctions that sustained them (Huyssen 1986) or (somewhat matter of factly) proceeded to ignore them. For example, work on television soap operas subverted the convention of critical disdain for such texts by directing attention towards such structural complexities as multiple plot lines, absence of narrative closure, the problematizing of textual boundaries, and the genre’s engagement with the cultural circumstances of its audiences (Geraghty 1991).

In its ‘‘classic’’ forms the mass culture/mass society thesis has thus lost much of its power to persuade. Contemporary permutations of its claims are nevertheless discernible in, for example, the post Marxist writings of Guy Debord and Jean Baudrillard, and in the contention of the erudite conservative critic George Steiner that it is disingenuous to argue that it is possible to have both cultural quality and democracy. Steiner insists on the necessity of choice. It is, however, refinements to the closely related concept of ‘‘culture industry’’ which may prove to be the most enduring and most promising legacy of the thesis (Hesmondhalgh 2002). Culture industry had been identified by Adorno and his colleague Max Horkheimer as a more acceptable term than ‘‘mass culture,’’ both because it foregrounded the process of commodification and because it identified the locus of determinacy as corporate power rather than the populace as a whole. As originally conceived, it presented altogether too gloomy and too totalizing a conception of cultural control. An emphasis on the polysemy of media texts or on the resourcefulness of media audiences offered an important methodological corrective. But these approaches could also be overplayed, and the globalization of media production and a resurgence of institutional analysis and political economy among media scholars during the last decade have revived interest in the culture industry concept.


  1. Bell, D. (1962) America as a Mass Society: A Critique. In: The End of Ideology. Free Press, New York, pp. 21-38.
  2. Biskind, P. (1998) Easy Riders; Raging Bulls. Simon & Schuster, New York.
  3. Gans, H. (1974) Popular Culture and High Culture. Basic Books, New York.
  4. Geraghty, C. (1991) Women and Soap Opera. Polity Press, Cambridge.
  5. Giner, S. (1976) Mass Society. Martin Robertson, London.
  6. Hesmondhalgh, D. (2002) The Cultural Industries. Sage, London.
  7. Huyssen, A. (1986) After the Great Divide. Macmillan, London.
  8. Jacobs, N. (Ed.) (1964) Culture for the Millions? Beacon Press, Boston.
  9. Morley, D.(1986) Family Television. Comedia, London.
  10. Peterson, R. & Berger, D. G. (1975) Cycles in Symbol Production: The Case of Popular Music. American Sociological Review 40(2): 158-73.
  11. Radway, J. (1984) Reading the Romance. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill.
  12. Rosenberg, B. & White, D. M. (Eds.) (1971) Mass Culture Revisited. Van Nostrand, New York.
  13. Swingewood, A (1977) The Myth of Mass Culture. Macmillan, London.
  14. Wright Mills, C. (1956) The Power Elite. Oxford University Press, New York.

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