1. Cultural artefacts or media content produced for mass audiences. This equates popular culture with commercial success. The formal features of mass-media content may be interpreted in terms of broadcast codes. In critical theory, this is mass culture: the standardized commercial products and media texts of the culture industry, produced for the masses; these are alleged to reflect the dominant ideology and to produce conformity among the subordinate classes. Commodity culture is distinguished from the authenticity of traditional folk culture or from the aesthetic value of high culture and often dismissed as ‘mere entertainment’. The media industries usually argue that they deliver ‘what the public wants’. See also commodification; consumer culture; dumbing down; elitism; Frankfurt school.
2. The everyday life and/or arts and artefacts of ‘the people’ within a society. The practices and artefacts seen as reflecting the tastes and values of ‘ordinary people’ (as opposed to the minority tastes of elite or high culture). Historically associated with traditional folk culture (especially oral culture as distinct from literary culture). British cultural studies (e.g. Hoggart) originally defined popular culture as working-class culture. Contemporary sociology stresses the importance of the diversity of subcultures (e.g. black popular culture, teenage popular culture), as distinct from mass culture. See also cultural politics.
3. The productive ways in which audiences engage with the pervasive cultural currency to make it their own, as in active audience theory. In the face of the dominant ideology, resistant audiences are capable of oppositional readings, using popular cultural artefacts and imagery for their own purposes (see also uses and gratifications). Critics of the subversive audience approach to popular culture dismiss it as cultural populism. However, popular culture clearly plays an important role in relation to the development of personal identity, particularly among adolescents.
4. Mass-media content which seeks to produce a particular conception of the collective identity of ‘the people’ within a society: see also imagined community.