Syllabus: The Sociology of Popular Culture
Once upon a time there were the mass media, and they were wicked, of course, and there was a guilty party. Then there were the virtuous voices that accused the criminals. And Art (ah, what luck!) offered alternatives, for those who were not prisoners of the mass media.
Well, it's all over. We have to start from the beginning, asking one another what's going on.

Umberto Eco, Travels in Hyperreality

Sociology 150, Spring 2002; 12:20 – 1:10 MWF, 101 Fleming Museum

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Prof. Thomas Streeter; 31 So. Prospect, 656-2167; Email: thomas.streeter@uvm; Office Hours: 1:20-2:20 MWF and by appointment

The Sociology of Popular Culture is a serious exploration of the development and social significance of various non-elite cultural forms in the U.S., such as rock music, television entertainment, and paperback novels. Topics will include: the development of the distinction between "highbrow" and "lowbrow" culture in the closing decades of the 19th century, the role of popular cultural forms in ethnic and other subcultures, the role of gender differences in popular culture, and recent theories and debates about the relation of culture and society.

Assignments: Class participation is an important part of the course, and may influence final grades. There will also be a ritual analysis essay (written in groups, due Feb. 6) worth 15%, a theory essay (approx. 15% of grade; due at the final exam), two quizzes (35%, on 2/15 and 3/29), an electronic class discussion list (15%, minimum of one posting per week), and a final exam (20%, noon, Tuesday, May 7). Descriptions of the discussion list and the two written assignments are attached to this syllabus. Further details, and possible changes in assignments, will be announced in class; it is your responsibility to keep up with announcements. All assignments must be completed to pass the course (that means, skip one, and you flunk the course, no matter how good your grades on the other assignments).

Texts: Readings are on reserve in the library, mostly available electronically, and can be reached from the course home page, a version of this syllabus at:

Course Outline: The questions following each set of readings serve two purposes: 1) they will help guide you through the readings and lectures, and 2) they will serve as study questions for the exams.

Introduction: the debate about culture

[C]ulture [is] a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best that has been thought and said in the world.

-- Matthew Arnold, 1869

Roll over Beethoven.

-- Chuck Berry, 1958

  1. Matthew Arnold, excerpts from Culture and Anarchy in John Storey (ed.), Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader 2nd edition (Univ. of Georgia Press, 1998) pp. 7-12.
  2. Raymond Williams, "Culture is Ordinary," in Gray and McGuigan (eds.), Studying Culture: An Introductory Reader (New York: Edward Arnold, 1993), pp. 5-14.
  3. Lawrence W. Levine, excerpts from Highbrow/Lowbrow: the emergence of cultural hierarchy in America, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988, Part 1: pp. 13-23, 27-29, 30-33, 52-54, 56-81; Part 2: 171-173, 176-184, 199, 221-225, 235-236.
  4. James W. Carey, "A Cultural Approach to Communication," from Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society, Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989, pp. 13-36.
  5. Julian Dibbell, "Lord of the Geeks: J.R.R. Tolkien Still Feeds the Nerd Nation's Imagination," Village Voice June 6-12, 2002;

What are the differences between "high" culture and anthropological understandings of culture? Who was Matthew Arnold, and how did he view culture? How is Raymond Williams' view of culture different? What is the central argument of Levine's Highbrow/Lowbrow? According to Levine, how was Shakespeare perceived in the early 19th century in the U.S? What evidence does he give to make his point? How and why did the perception of Shakespeare change as the century progressed? How did the organization of culture, behavior of audiences, and expectations of cultural organizations change through the century? What does Levine mean by "the sacralization of culture?" What influences have the cultural trends Levine discusses played in twentieth century culture? in the reception and development of new cultural forms like photography, film, and jazz? According to J. Carey, what is a transmission view of communication? How is it distinct from a ritual view of communication and culture? What are the implications and underlying principles of a ritual understanding of culture?

Contemporary culture as modern ritual

  1. Laura Morin, "Ritual Analysis of Cruising" (student ritual analysis)
  2. Douglas E. Foley, "The Great American Football Ritual," from Learning Capitalist Culture: Deep in the Heart of Tejas, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990, pp. 28-62.
  3. Henry C. Finney, "Mediating Claims to Artistry: Social Stratification in a Local Visual Arts Community," Sociological Forum, Vol 8. No. 3, 1993, pp. 403-431.
  4. Kathryn Fox, "Real Punks and Pretenders: The Social Organization of Counterculture," Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, Vol 16, No. 3, Oct. 1987, pp. 344-370.
  5. David Brooks, "Business Life" (on "Burlington, Vermont and other Latte Towns"), from Bobos in Paradise: the New Upper Class and How They Got There (Simon & Schuster: 2000), pp. 103-112.
  6. Global Culture: a photo essay by Joe McNally, with text by Joel L. Swerdlow and Erla Swingle, National Geographic Vol. 196, No. 2, August 1999, pp. 2-33.

What are the key techniques and principles of ritual analysis? What are the rituals of small-town football, according to Douglas Foley? How do those rituals relate to social class, ethnicity, and gender? How did Henry Finney study the arts community in Vermont? What conclusions did he draw about that community? What methods did Kathryn Fox use to study punk subculture? What patterns of social organization within the subculture did she discover? How does David Brooks study the culture of business in Burlington Vermont? What conclusions does he draw about that culture? About business culture in general?

Popular Culture and Capitalism

I see an innumerable multitude of men, alike and equal, constantly circling about in pursuit of the petty and banal pleasures with which they glut their souls. Each of them, withdrawn into himself, is almost unaware of the fate of the rest.

--Alexis de Tocqueville, 1835

  1. Sut Jhally, "Image-Based Culture: Advertising and Popular Culture," The World & I, Vol. 5, No. 7, July 1990, pp. 506-519.
  2. Deborah Baldwin, "The Hard Sell," reprinted in Utne Reader, Jan./Feb., 1992, pp. 54-60, from Common Cause Magazine.
  3. Ronald K. L. Collins & Michael F. Jacobson, "Are We Consumers or Citizens?" reprinted in Utne Reader, Jan./Feb., 1992, pp. 56-57, from The Christian Science Monitor.
  4. Susan G. Davis, "Shopping," in Richard Maxwell (ed.), Culture Works: the Political Economy of Culture, University of Minnesota Press, 2001, pp. 163-196.
  5. Mary Harron, "McRock: Pop as a Commodity," in Simon Frith (ed.), Facing the Music, New York: Pantheon Books, 1989, pp. 173-220
  6. Stuart Ewen, "Hard Bodies," from All Consuming Images: the Politics of Style in Contemporary Culture, New York: Basic Books, 1988, pp. 188-194.
  7. Matt Witt, "We Rarely See Those Who Labor: Newspapers and broadcasters favor corporate views, ignoring those of people who do America's work," 8-26-99,
  8. Richard Butsch, "Ralph, Fred, Archie, and Home: Why Television Keeps Recreating the White Male Working-Class Buffoon," from Gender, Race and Class in the Media, Dines & Humez (eds.), Sage, 1995, pp. 403-412.
  9. Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, "The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception," (originally published in 1944) as abridged in Curran, Gurevitch, and Woolacott (eds.), Mass Communication and Society, Beverly Hills: Sage, 1979, pp. 348-383.

In what ways are consumer capitalism and advertising linked to American popular culture? What is the difference between consumers and citizens, and why are some critics concerned that our culture treats them as though they are the same? How does Susan Davis explain the role of shopping in culture and the economy? According to Mary Harron, in what ways does pop music become commodified? How does this shape the cultural significance of the music? What does she argue about the rebellious self-image of rock music in the late 1960s? How does Stewart Ewen explain the fascination with "hard bodies" in contemporary culture? How does Witt explain the limited coverage of working life in the media? How does Butsch explain the persistence of the working class buffoon character in television? What are the characteristics of the consciousness industry? What is the thesis of Adorno and Horkheimer's "Culture Industry" essay? What evidence do they use to support their thesis? In what ways is our culture industrialized? What is a commodity? What are the different ways of conceiving the relations between capitalism and culture? What are some problems with conspiracy and instrumentalist theories of the relation between capitalism and culture? In what other ways can the relation be conceived? What is the fetishism of commodities and how is it relevant to today's culture?

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Popular Culture, Race, and Ethnicity

The country's image of the Negro, which hasn't very much to do with the Negro, has never failed to reflect with a kind of terrifying accuracy the state of mind of the country.

--James Baldwin

  1. Video: Ethnic Notions
  2. Michael Omi, "In Living Color: Race and American Culture," in Ian Angus & Sut Jhally (eds.), Cultural Politics in Contemporary America, New York: Routledge, 1989, pp. 111-122
  3. James Loewen, "Black Image in White Vermont: The Origin, Meaning, and Abolition of Kake Walk," in Robert V. Daniels (ed.), The University of Vermont: The First Two Hundred Years, Hanover: University Press of New England, 1991, pp. 349-431.
  4. Stuart Hall, "The Whites of Their Eyes: Racist Ideologies and the Media," from Gender, Race and Class in the Media, Dines & Humez (eds.), Sage, 1995, pp. 18-22.

What are the different stereotypes of African-Americans common to popular culture? What are the 'traits' of the Sambo, Pickanninny, Coon, Mammy, Uncle Tom, and Black Brute? What is their relation to the history of slavery, the post-reconstruction era, northern immigration, etc? How have the stereotypes evolved over the years? What are the common stereotypes of Asian women and men? Of Mexicans and Hispanic Americans? What are some "positive" ethnic stereotypes in American culture? What is the difference between overt and inferential racism? What roles to racial stereotypes play in everyday interaction? What are the general patterns common to the process of stereotyping in Western culture? According to Ellen Seiter, how do racial stereotypes and images of domesticity appear in television ads featuring children? According to Michael Real, how do codes and myths of race influence popular culture, and how can the Cosby show be said to be recoding ethnicity? What are the limits to that recoding?

Popular Culture and Gender

"There comes a time, Constance, when a man's just got to stick his hand in the fire and see what he's made of."
"What the hell are you talking about?"

-- dialogue between McCabe (Warren Beatty) and Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie) in Robert Altman's "McCabe and Mrs. Miller"

  1. Susan Brownmiller, "Skin," from Femininity, New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1984, pp. 129-167.
  2. John Berger, Chapter 3 of Ways of Seeing, New York: Penguin/BBC, 1972, pp. 45-64.
  3. Male Gaze and Fashion advertising web site:
  4. Lois W. Banner, "Men," from American Beauty, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983, pp. 226-248.
  5. Marion Winik, "How Do I Look," Brown Alumni Montly, pp. 27-30.
  6. Video: Tough Guise, by Jackson Katz and Sut Jhally.
  7. William Gibson, "Paramilitary Fantasy Culture and the Cosmogonic Mythology of Primeval Chaos And Order," Vietnam Generation, Volume 3, Number 3, 1992.

How have standards of beauty changed over the years? How do those changes relate to changes in social conditions? According to Brownmiller, what notions of gender does our culture attach to skin, complexion, smell, and body hair? How are those notions expressed? What stereotypes of masculinity existed in the U.S. in the 1800s? What are the origins of today's stereotypes of masculinity? According to John Berger, what conventions and modes of perception dominate representations of women in Western culture? How are those modes of perception linked to gender relations? Does Berger think those modes of perception can be transcended? According to William Gibson, what is paramilitary fantasy culture? How has it changed since the Viet Nam war? What kind of definition of masculinity does it imply?

Do We Live in a Postmodern Culture?

Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social relations, everlasting uncertainty and agitation, distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier times. All fixed, fast-frozen relationships, with their train of venerable ideas and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become obsolete before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned . . .

-- Marx & Engels

  1. Umberto Eco, "Towards a Semiological Guerrilla Warfare," and "The Multiplication of the Media," from Travels in Hyperreality, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986, pp. 135-150.
  2. Henry Jenkins, "Star Trek Rerun, Reread, Rewritten: Fan Writing as Textual Poaching," Critical Studies in Mass Communication, Vol. 5, 1988, pp. 85-107.
  3. Walter Armbrust, Georgetown University "The Riddle of Ramadan: Media, Consumer Culture and the 'Christmas-ization' of a Muslim Holiday," Paper delivered at the American Anthropological Association, November 2000, online at

What is postmodernism? How is it related to realism? to modernism? What is its history? What are its key features? According to Eco, what is "semiological guerrilla warfare?" What trends in our society are making it increasingly important? What is the cultural and social significance of what Eco calls "the multiplication of the media?" How does Jenkins explain the activities of Startrek fans? How does he disagree with most critics of Startrek fandom? How does Armbrust explain what he calls "the 'Christmas-ization' of a Muslim Holiday?"

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Culture and Social Power

The people have always had to make something out of the things that the system is trying to make them into.

-- Stuart Hall

  1. Raymond Williams, "Hegemony," from Marxism and Literature, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977, pp. 108-114.
  2. Excerpts from Janice Radway, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy and Popular Literature. Durham: University of North Carolina Press, 1984: pp. 11-12, 86-118.
  3. Gina Marchetti, "Action-Adventure as Ideology," in Ian Angus & Sut Jhally (eds.), Cultural Politics in Contemporary America, New York: Routledge, 1989, pp. 182-197
  4. George Lipsitz, "Buscando America (Looking for America): Collective Memory in an Age of Amnesia," in Time Passages: Collective Memory and American Popular Culture, Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1990, pp. 257-274.

What, according to Raymond Williams, is hegemony? How is it different from pluralist views of culture, society, and social power? How is hegemony theory different from orthodox Marxist theories of culture and society? Why is culture especially important in hegemony theories? How does Marchetti apply hegemony theory to action-adventure films of the 1980s? What relations do the films have to the social order? to class, race, and gender relations? to American foreign policy? How does Radway respond to previous feminist critics of Harlequin Romances? How does she study the role of romances in society? What does she find out about the role of romances in the lives of their readers, particularly homemakers? How does Lipsitz analyze the importance of popular culture in American society? What is the relevance of the pieces by Radway, Marchetti, and Lipsitz to hegemony theory? How does Mike Davis analyze social power and the causes of racial strife in L.A? What does he have to say about intellectuals, popular cultural myths, power hierarchies, real estate policies, police, the Catholic church, and the steel industry of LA? Why does he call his book "excavating the future?"

The Class Discussion List

All students are required to post a message to the class discussion list at least once a week, from the week beginning the week of January 21 through the last week of April. Your postings will be graded as a whole. The postings should be about the readings; sometimes a specific reading will be assigned for discussion on the list.

The way you participate is that, at least once a week, you use any computer on campus with a browser to go to, sign on (using your regular email name and password), select the most recent month's "archive." Sometimes there will be an assigned topic for you to discuss. Sometimes you will choose a topic or two that seem interesting to you, read the latest postings, and then sign on (using your regular "zoo" email name and password) and post your own message or two.

Your messages do not have to be perfectly written; some typing mistakes and the like are OK. They can be a question about something you don't understand, a comment about something you agree or disagree with, or perhaps a clarification or reflection. They should be at least three or four sentences long. It's good if they respond directly to another student's posting, though they don't have to. But the most important thing is that, to receive credit, you should directly address something in the class readings in a serious thoughtful way. In general, it's good if you quote directly from the reading (or readings) you are discussing. Personal experience is sometimes useful, but make sure that you explain why it's relevant to the reading or issue under discussion. Avoid simply stating likes and dislikes in popular culture without any connection to cultural theories.

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Ritual Analysis

In cooperation with three classmates, write a brief (about 6 pp.) essay that analyzes a contemporary cultural event or form as a ritual. In other words, take an aspect of contemporary culture and describe it in such a way as to illuminate its symbolic, ritual, or mythic character. There are several examples of ritual analyses in the reading packet. When writing your ritual analysis, it is useful to remember several things:

1.?Thick Description: A ritual analysis is not just a step by step recounting of concrete events; it tries to reveal the many layers of meaning imbedded in cultural events and activities. A ritual analysis, moreover, does not simply name or list meanings ("the Superbowl was exciting") it shows them, it describes the processes and rules of meaning-making that the participants actively invoke. (Think of the difference between an eye twitch and a wink.) It is about symbolic codes and the ways that people actively make meanings with them.

2.?Defamiliarization: A ritual analysis involves making the common seem uncommon, taking something from our culture's unquestioned stock of background knowledge and bringing it into the foreground, taking something we assume to be "given" or natural, and showing it to be socially constructed. Two tricks can help you achieve this. First, you can imagine yourself as a Martian anthropologist, trying to make sense of the peculiar activities of the naked apes that call themselves Americans. Second, you can try to reveal the underlying cultural codes by substituting characters and/or contexts in your mind. What would happen if, say, the men and women in your ritual reversed roles? If it happened in a symphonic concert hall instead of a stadium?

3.?Style and Eloquence: A ritual analysis is about cultural forms, but it is also itself a cultural form, just like the fairy tale, the Gothic novel, the news story and the editorial. ("Communication," remember, is always "of and for reality.") Just as the writing of a good news story or a good fairy tale involves craft, style, and imagination, so does a ritual analysis.

Due Feb. 6

Final Writing Assignment: the Relation between Popular Culture and Society

[Final Draft Due no later than Final Exam]

What is the best way to understand the relation between society and culture in our world? Is our popular culture completely shaped by capitalism, or patriarchy, or some other structure? Is popular culture better understood in terms of a struggle between such structures and human communities? Write a 5-8 page essay on the relation between popular culture and society based on the course readings. Select a subset of these or related questions (don't try to tackle everything) and provide your own best analysis of the problem. Choose a total of at least seven readings from the course, and use your chosen readings as examples of both concrete cultural phenomena and of different theoretical approaches to culture.

The readings for this course share a few basic premises: that popular culture is socially and politically important in contemporary societies, that traditional divisions of popular culture into gradations of high and low are inadequate, and that popular culture has to be understood in its social context. Beyond those basic premises, however, the readings are very diverse in their approaches and attitudes. For example, some see contemporary trends like rock subcultures as the struggles of communities to create and express their own personal meanings, as a form of resistance to the uncaring world around them; others interpret the same phenomena as a product of the unceasing commodification of culture and everyday life in corporate capitalism; and still others see them more in terms of a postmodernist vision in which the only honest position is one that denies any stable meaning altogether.

Your essay should be a coherent, analytical discussion. It should present an argument, or at least a central question or dilemma. It should be more than a book review. In the course of your essay you should 1) clearly explicate the different approaches to popular culture of the authors of your chosen readings, 2) compare and contrast those approaches, 3) come to some conclusions about the differences between the approaches.

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Curve for Exam #1 (high score 31; average 23):

0-16 F
17-18 D
19 C-
20-21 C
22 C+
23-24 B-
25-26 B
27 B+
28-29 A-
30 A

Curve for Exam #2 (high score 24; average, 17)

0 F
9 D
13 C-
15 C
16 C+
17 B-
18 B
20 B+
21 A-
23 A