Introduction [Understanding Popular Culture, Part 1]

I originally wrote on this issue for the now defunct articles, but instead of simply reposting it like I did with the other articles I wrote, I thought it deserved a full out rewrite. Predictably, in my revising and expanding efforts, it grew longer than any sane post should be. So, please enjoy the first part of my open series on popular culture.

Popular culture is a pet topic of mine, especially when it comes to how it influences the way that we interact with the world. We are all immersed in it — from advertising that becomes more invasive as the years go by to whatever hobbies we choose to get into. Yet, despite how widespread the phenomenon is, most people are convinced that these things have absolutely no impact on our lives. To the extent that the study of popular culture — whether in a formalized academic setting, or just people examining their own hobbies — is seen as “frivolous”. It is my belief that labels like those stem from a fundamental misunderstanding of popular culture and how it works. In this series, I would like to explore all the facets of pop-culture in an effort to promote better understanding of what it is and why it’s valuable.

I. What is Popular Culture?

Before I can begin a discussion on the effects of pop-culture, I need to make sure that we’re all on the same page regarding what it actually is.

Popular culture, or pop culture, is the vernacular (people’s) culture that prevails in any given society. The content of popular culture is determined by the daily interactions, needs and desires, and cultural ‘moments’ that make up the everyday lives of the mainstream. It can include any number of practices, including those pertaining to cooking, clothing, mass media and the many facets of entertainment such as sports and literature.

[From Wikipedia’s entry on Popular Culture]

So, popular culture is really the culture of our current society. It’s what we do every day from watching TV to playing video games to what we cook and beyond. It’s what we like to do, what others like to do, what others would like us to do. It’s All Your Base and O RLY. Buffy and American Idol. Comics and manga; anime and cartoons. It was even Kabuki, once upon a time. And Wikipedia, the source of all the links? That’s pop-culture, too.

II. Why bother studying this stuff?

The bottom line is that pop-culture is in everywhere. It’s everything new and current. We can no more escape it than Oedipus could escape killing his father and marrying his mother. Because of this, not studying this topic makes it into the elephant in the room.

And, indeed, while we’ve been so busy ignoring the elephant in the room, a dangerous dichotomy has formed regarding the impact of pop-culture on people. They can be summed up as such:

  1. Questionable pop-culture media makes people do bad things.
  2. There is no evidence that proves that pop-culture makes people do things, so obviously it has no affect on us at all!

Over and over again, you see these two factions duking it out, sometimes to the point of muddying the meaning of words in their quest to make it “us” versus “them”. But, you know what? The problem is much more complex than a 100% argument either way can ever hope to encompass. And if people weren’t so busy telling us not to study popular culture for whichever of the two reasons they prefer, then maybe they could see that it does not have direct control over people, but neither does it have absolutely no affect on us at all.

Another problem with the two opposing factions, besides them being overly simplistic, is that they are arguing from the basis of causation rather than correlation. If pop-culture media did, indeed, have the power to make people do things, then a causational argument (either for or against) would be valid. But, it’s not a causational relationship in question here, but a correlational one. And correlation does not equal causation.

What does this mean? In short, popular culture will influence the way we think (correlation) but it cannot compel us to believe something we don’t want to believe or act a certain way (causation). And, indeed, studies that are starting to be done on this subject are finding that very thing.

Still, television and Pop-Culture have made significant strides in portraying the people of the LGBTQ Community in a positive and non-homophobic fashion.

For the viewers, this could have positive affects as well. Simply seeing more and more Gay men and Lesbian women in television, certainly in shows that happen to be the audiences’ favorites, could possibly reduce and perhaps even squash any anti-LGBTQ prejudices they could harbor. According to this newsbyte from G.L.A.A.D., a study done by the University of Minnesota found this to be true…

It could be argued that this is quite similar to when more African-Americans were featured in television and movies in the early seventies and how it affected White people’s view of that particular community. Or even women featured in more positive and progressive roles. The more one views a group of people in entertainment and Popular Culture with positive and progressive depictions, the more likely they are to develop an open-minded opinion of this group. It’s probably one of the best ways a society could rid itself of bigotry against those who have historically been at a disadvantage, especially when it came to culture and the entertainment world. With it becoming more and more common place to see people of the LGBTQ Community in television and movies, the possibility of ending cultural and hopefully legal discrimination against them seem to be greater. It’s about damn time.

So, why is it useful to study popular culture? In a nutshell, it is too large a part of our lives to go unstudied, by not studying it we open ourselves up to misunderstandings about its potential impact on us, and by studying it we can learn strategies to fight bigotry and hatred.

III. Where to go from here?

This introduction is intended to serve as a springboard to more deeply explore the importance of popular culture, the arguments made against studying it, and the attitudes that hinder it from being taken seriously not only in academic critique, but also in our daily lives.

While I have a few posts lined up, I don’t really know where this series will go. Since popular culture is a pet topic of mine, I often come across issues that I feel need to be explored further. I’m also writing this so I can have an easy reference to point people in when they play “pop-culture bingo” (meaning that they use the stereotypical arguments against examining pop-culture). Much more easy than typing it out over and over again, wouldn’t you agree? But, I guess, ultimately I’m writing this because I think popular culture matters. And I think it’s important for people to recognize that, even if they themselves aren’t interested in examining the impact it has on their lives.

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6 thoughts on “Introduction [Understanding Popular Culture, Part 1]

  1. “What does this mean? In short, popular culture will influence the way we think (correlation) but it cannot compel us to believe something we don’t want to believe or act a certain way (causation). And, indeed, studies that are starting to be done on this subject are finding that very thing.”

    This reasoning doesn’t hold up. If I play three hours of Heart Chest Ripping Action Combat 7 every day for a year, and it increases the probability that I will commit some violent action in real life by twenty percent, then it has caused something—an increase in the probability of violence. Now, it can’t directly cause the action itself, but it’s a mistake to say it hasn’t caused anything. (Perhaps just a mistaken restriction of the usage of “cause”.)

    For something to be caused, it’s not necessary that it be compelled. A cause of some event X is simply anything that increases the probability of X. Or, if you’re looking at things in hindsight, it’s something that was a necessary, but not sufficient, precondition of X happening. Would I have gone on my genocidal rampage if I hadn’t played HCRAC7? What if I hadn’t watched CSI and L&O religiously? What if the nightly news had been more positive? How about if I hadn’t been born a psychopath? What about my severe physical abuse in childhood? If the absence of one of those things would have prevented a genocidal rampage, then it was a cause of said rampage. If the absence of any two would have prevented it, I suppose they all could be said to be weak causes.

    Also, it’s a truism that we won’t believe things we don’t want to. If we believe something unpleasant, we might wish we hadn’t formed the belief in the first place, but we don’t wish to stop believing it. If something influences you so that you form a particular belief, it causes that belief. (Remember, necessary but not sufficient.)

  2. Also, if something you read or watch manages to be so influential that it can convince you to believe something that, five minutes ago, you couldn’t imagine yourself believing, we wouldn’t say that whatever you read or watched has compelled you to believe it, we would still say you choose to believe it. We would probably call it an epiphany or something.

  3. I’m using causal in a deterministic sense — meaning that it’s the “A causes B, then A must always be followed by B” sense. This is to differentiate it from a correlational link, which is closer to the way in which you defined causal here (which, I believe, would fall under probabilistic causation).

    The point of using this simplistic model is to have an easy way in which to move away from the all or nothing view. For instance, I wrote on how I felt that Blizzard’s choice in female armour in World of Warcraft encouraged in-game sexism. Another blogger attacked me saying that I was accusing Blizzard of forcing young men to be sexist. She refused to see that there was a difference between influence and force.

    In this case, I’d label her argument as “causational” — meaning that if WoW causes sexism, then the people who play WoW must become sexist. Whereas, I was trying to imply a “correlational” link, meaning that there is a connection between the sexism in WoW and the players being sexist, but playing WoW does not force you to be(come) sexist.

    Simplicity in language here is important, which is why I tried to clearly define what I meant by “correlation does not equal casuation.” And, anyway, I somehow doubt people who buy into the dichotomy that I outlined above are really interested in debating the finer points of causality 😛

  4. tekanji, on the contrary: say you’re reading a magazine article about the future of PC gaming software. Before you started reading the article you couldn’t imagine how Microsoft could be interested in designing and producing a grahpics chipset. But after the article, you become convinced that they are. If someone had just told you that, though, you would think they were mistaken, since Microsoft doesn’t really do hardware.

    Basically, any situation where your current knowledge leads you to believe X is quite improbable, and in which you gain new knowledge (that’s trustworthy enough), perhaps that invalidates your current knowledge, or perhaps that is simply more specific, that leads you to to believe X is actually pretty probable.

    And, on reflection, only a small subset of these are usually called “epiphanies”. The rest are just called “learning”.

    As far as causality, I suppose your distinction serves your purpose. I only question whether the same distinction is usually made, or whether this particular way of using the words is particular, or even novel, to you. It’s a bit confusing when you don’t make clear that you’re using the words in a restricted sense, as opposed to the common one.

    I won’t be back to this thread, sadly. I’m cracking down on procrastination, and blog commenting has to go.

  5. Just to be clear, the brainwashing bit was a joke. But bringing the dynamics of “learning” into this debate just makes it too messy — because it loses the distinction between the extremist arguments and the one I’m making. If I can think of a good angle to approach it from, I might devote a post to it later, though.

    It’s a bit confusing when you don’t make clear that you’re using the words in a restricted sense, as opposed to the common one.

    But, see, what’s common to you wasn’t common to me. I had to actually look it up because I was taught “correlation” and “causation” in the way I used it in the post. I didn’t even know that there were different kinds of causational arguments before you challenged me on it.

    And, I mean, that’s going to happen in any debate. In feminism, one person’s definition of, say, pornography will most likely differ from another’s. In fact, that’s partly what sparks a lot of the nasty name calling between “anti-porn” and “sex-positive” feminists (two more terms that have a different common definition depending on the circle they’re used in).

    But I will try to more clearly define the use of terms in the future. After all, one can never know what people are taking from one’s post.

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