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Key Concepts in Media Studies Lecture 2 Mass culture/ mass society theory
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Key Concepts in Media Studies Lecture 2 Mass culture/ mass society theory


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Lecture 2 of key concepts in Media Studies, University of Winchester. Looks at mass society theory.

Lecture 2 of key concepts in Media Studies, University of Winchester. Looks at mass society theory.

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  • 1. Lecture 2: Studying Culture: Popular, Mass and High Or “ The modern world is rubbish and media studies is a waste of time” Key Concepts in Media Studies University of Winchester Dr Marcus Leaning
  • 2. Introduction
    • This week we are going to look at a theory.
    • It is a very powerful theory and is very influential.
    • In fact this is the theory for media studies, it is partly responsible for the emergence of media studies and key to the demonisation of media studies.
    • This argument underpins a lot of political commentary and you will see it all around you.
    • The aim of this lecture is to enable you to:
      • recognise it – as a theory or ideological position and see it in its different forms
      • to understand it – discern its constituent parts such as the ideas of popular culture and high culture.
  • 3. Hello Mass Society Theory!
    • The theory is called Mass Society or Mass Culture theory.
    • While it has its origins in the late 18 th and early 19th century it is really in the 20 th century that it gained strength and is still going strong.
    • Indeed, it is regarded as one of the big ‘framing’ arguments we use to live by in the 21 st century western world.
  • 4. Theory is interpretation
    • Identikit description of the theory – lots of versions but with a core set of beliefs.
    • Important to understand that this is a theory , it is an ideological position to explain how the world works.
    • We may agree or disagree with it but it is only an interpretation of the world, however for many it has a high degree of verisimilitude or the appearance of truth.
    • One of the tasks of the social sciences is to take what we think are certainties and to critically examine them, to pull them to pieces and to identify underlying beliefs.
  • 5. Modern life is (not) rubbish
    • The modern world is very different from the pre-modern world.
    • Our lives are structured in very different ways to those of our ancestors.
    • For the most part this has lead to a better standard of living, we live longer, are less sick and have a much higher standard of living.
    • This is possible because of a number of features of the modern world:
      • Rationality and scientific advances;
      • Bureaucratisation;
      • Capitalism;
      • Urbanisation;
      • Mass media;
      • Democratisiation;
      • Education.
    • The modern world is very different from the world of our ancestors!
  • 6. Downside
    • However this ‘progress’ has a downside.
    • Mass society theory proposes that as well as benefits the changes brought about also have downsides.
    • With the transition we have lost the old bonds that bound communities together.
    • The modern world has destabilised the previous social and moral structures.
    • We have lost the ‘immediate’ social bonds to family and community that gave us our place in the world.
  • 7. Cut adrift
    • The decline of religion, of other forms of bonds (trade guilds, clans, tribes etc) and the shift from small communities to large urban conurbations has resulted in us living in a ‘mass society’ – a universal, equal but utterly atomised environment.
    • We are all individuals now but we do not live in communities.
  • 8. Community vs Society
    • This split between Community (good, traditional ‘real’) versus Society (bad, modern and ‘artificial’) has been an argument used by nearly every major political ideology from both the left and the right in the C20th.
    • Everybody loves and misses traditional community.
    • Nobody likes contemporary society .
    • The past was a golden age…
  • 9.  
  • 10. Cultural codes and values
    • Furthermore it is argued that in pre-modern times we got our codes / values from our community and the art of our community.
      • If we were poor our codes came from folk crafts.
      • If we were rich we got them from fine arts.
    • The two were separate and served their populations well.
  • 11. Atomised world
    • However in the modern, atomised world we have lost this.
    • We live in a place where there is little local culture – unless we can sell it to a mass market, it does not get made.
    • But what is worse is that the moral order that is communicated and maintained by culture is also destroyed.
    • And when we have no local moral order, no codes of value or culture then a new code will emerge, or be imported, to fill its place.
    • This will lead to a fake or surrogate culture and morality.
  • 12. New culture
    • There are a mass of people without a local, authentic , culture or moral code.
    • They have no access to their real culture as it has been lost, washed away by modernity, education and democracy.
    • They are ripe for a new culture that fulfils their needs and matches the universal but atomised nature of their reality.
  • 13. Step forward pop culture!
    • The mass markets and mass media of the modern world need filling.
    • We develop a popular culture that can be sold to the masses .
    • Pop culture is manufactured, it is produced by an industry and is therefore regarded by this theory as less authentic , less valuable , and in some way false .
    • It should be criticised and rejected.
  • 14. Criticism
    • However the masses are not critically endowed – they are the mass, the stupid, the unchallenging.
    • Criticism has always been the job of the elite, they looked at their art and judged it.
    • But now there is only one culture, mass culture, that role is problematic.
  • 15. Criticising culture
    • The manner in which culture had historically been examined has been to differentiate good from bad, to sort the wheat from the chaff.
    • Criticism from this semi classical perspective is about making value judgements.
    • Education was about learning what is good culture, the great works.
    • Culture was considered differentiated, high culture and folk culture.
    • Only high culture is really worth considering as that is the best a society has produced.
    • Culture is a measure of a society’s civilization.
    • The more sophisticated the culture the more advanced the society.
  • 16. High Culture
    • From this point of view in contemporary Western society we tend to regard the following as culture:
      • Classical art – the old masters - stuff in traditional museums.
      • High literature – canonical texts (things you should have read to be regarded as well read)
      • Classical music – the more difficult the better.
      • Certain films - ‘Art house’.
    • The master pieces of western civilisation.
    • A way of saying what is good and bad practice.
  • 17. Bad pop culture! Bad!
    • For the elite cultural commentator popular culture is doubly bad:
      • It is of the masses and therefore not worthy of consideration.
      • It is a ‘false’ culture, produced by the culture industry or imported (or both).
    • Pop culture has bad effects upon poor, less educated people, it might cause violence in the untutored mind.
    • A long standing fear that pop culture will cause social disharmony, no such fears for high culture though (see Don Jose stabbing his ex girl friend to death in Carmen)
  • 18. Old news…
    • This is of course all old news, these ideas have been around since the 20-30s.
    • They were particularly strong just after the war.
    • But they resurface all the time and have a safe home in much contemporary Conservative party policy: community solutions, anti bureaucracy.
    • They are also voiced strongly on the left as well.
  • 19. The real villains
    • Our mass culture is partly to blame for our contemporary problems.
    • Particular disdain is held for people who dare to study mass or pop culture.
    • What possible worth can there be in studying it?
    • And as it’s popular culture and not high or ‘difficult’ it must be easy.
    • The purpose of criticism is to determine good from bad, so why study the obviously bad?
  • 20. Media studies – a different emphasis
    • Media studies is not about deciding what is good and bad in popular culture.
    • We are not interested in such aesthetic judgements.
    • Media studies is interested in how culture functions, the industries behind them, the mechanics of texts and the politics of media.
  • 21. Our interest…
    • Our interest lies not in whether a piece of popular culture is good or bad, but how it works, how meaning is made and the ideological function of media in maintaining the social order.
    • Next week we will turn to one of the major analytic tools of media studies for examining media texts, semiotics.
  • 22. Conclusion
    • Mass society theory is a very popular interpretation of history.
    • Implicit within it is a strong moral agenda:
      • Things today are not as good as they used to be, there has been a moral breakdown, our popular culture is artificial and are partly to blame for the weak moral agenda.
      • There is a distinction between mass culture which is bad and high culture which is good.
      • Consequently if you study the mass media you are studying something really stupid.
    • Seminar reading:
      • Dominic Strinati, (2003) An introduction to theories of popular culture ,  London: Routledge. Chapter 1 pages 1-43, but especially pages 1-19.