Herber J. Gans: The Plurality of Taste Cultures

Herbert Gans criticised mass culture theorists by suggesting there was a plurality of cultures in America, each of equal value.

Writing in the 1970s Herbert J. Gans noted that America was developing a plurality of taste cultures which existed side by side with each other. He identified several different types of culture including:

  • High culture
  • upper-middle culture
  • lower-middle culture
  • low-culture
  • quasi-folk low culture
  • cultures based on age and ethnicity
  • total cultures
  • partial cultures.

Gans believed that each of these cultures were of equal worth and that all peoples had a right to engage with the culture they preferred. He was against cultural theorists who viewed high culture as superior and mass or popular culture as worthless.

Herbert J. Gans types of culture: a summary

Gans defined high culture as works of art, music and ‘serious’ literature which looked critically at social and psychological issues, emphasising these over story line and entertainment.

High culture paid more attention to abstract social and philosophical questions and subjecting societal assumptions to critique – it was more about ‘high philosophy’ rather than ‘politics on the ground’.

Upper-middle culture was the culture of well-educated middle class professionals who enjoyed reading works of fiction with more plot than was found in high culture. They enjoyed works such as those written by Norman Mailer.

Upper-middle culture rejected anything that was too experimental or abstract and also anything that was too vulgar and populist.

Lower-middle class culture was the dominant taste culture in America, exemplified by Cosmopolitan magazine and enjoyed by mainly lower middle class professionals such as teachers.

Low culture was the culture of the old working classes who liked stories about individuals and families with problems and action films. This is the culture of country music and tabloid newspapers

Quasi folk culture is a blend of pre WWII culture and commercialism enjoyed by Blue collar workers and the rural poor and includes comics, old westerns and soap operas.

Total Cultures

For Gans total cultures were cultures which existed completely outside of mainstream society and were critical of mainstream society. Total cultures were not followed by many people but they attracted a disproportionate amount of media concern and worry from other people.

There were five types of total culture:

  • communal cultures – which involved people living in communes
  • political cultures – for example groups wishing to overthrow the American government
  • religious cultures – for example people living in world rejecting sects.
  • neo-dadist cultures – experimental artists and musicians
  • drug and music cultures.

Partial Cultures

Partial cultures were part-time versions of total cultures. Partial cultures were also critical of aspects of mainstream society but hey were closer to mainstream society than total cultures and more likely to have been commercially exploited than total cultures.

According to Gans ‘ethnic cultures’ were a form of partial culture – each group of immigrants bought their own culture with them to America but this culture was less important to the successive generations of children born in America.

The hierarchy of tastes

Gans noted that was a hierarchy of tastes with High culture at the top, followed by upper-middle class culture, but this hierarchy was only because of the social class hierarchy in America at the time.

The cultures at the top had more status because the people who created and consumed them had more money to pile into creating cultural products and maintaining their status, but there was no intrinsic way in which high culture was superior to low culture.

in other words high culture wasn’t ‘superior’ to low middle class culture because it was better on merit, it was simply ‘superior’ because those involved with it were higher up the social class hierarchy.

Gans also believed there were no hard and fast barriers between different types of taste cultures – people were free to pick and mix from aspects of different cultural types.

Evaluations of Gans

Gans perspective is useful for criticising the critics of mass culture. For Gans, mass or popular culture had value in that it provided entertainment for people rather than being worthless.

However he did still come across as seeming to respect high culture more than other forms of culture!

Gans’ description of culture in America is far more accurate than mass cultural theorists as he recognises that there is much greater plurality in ‘popular culture’, and he recognises the differences across class and ethnic lines too.

However, in reality cultural divisions in America were probably a lot more clear cut than even Gans suggested!

Signposting and relevance to A-level sociology

This material is primarily relevant to students studying towards to culture and identity option as part of the AQA’s specification.

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The 2022 World Cup and LGBTQ rights

The 2022 football world cup in Qatar has caused controversy because Qatar does not recognise same sex marriage or civil partnerships whereas European nation states tend to do so.

To my mind this year’s world cup has been overshadowed by politics and it’s shone a light on how little global consensus there is over the issue of LGBTQ rights.

LGBT rights in Qatar

(Or lack of them!)

  • Sexual acts between men can be punished with prison sentences of between one and three years, and flogging.
  • Muslims can be sentenced to death for having sex with another man, but this is because extra-marital sex is sanctionable by death and the state doesn’t recognise same sex marriage.
  • Trans women can be imprisoned for ‘impersonating a woman’ and forcibly de-transitioned while in jail.
  • Campaigning for LGBTQ rights is also legal in Qatar

The 2022 World Cup and the LGBTQ debate

Initially the Qatari authorities said they would allow the display of LGBTQ imagery at world cup games, but just before the tournament began they said they would be forcibly removing any spectators displaying such symbols, such as the Rainbow Flat.

This is line with announcements from the authorities that gay and trans football fans should respect the norms of Qatari culture while in public, and should hide their sexuality when in public by showing no signs of public affection.

FIFA also announced that any players displaying support for LGBTQ rights, such as by wearing rainbow armbands, would be fined.

There have been reports of some hotels refusing to allow same sex couples to stay as well as eye witness accounts of police brutality against gay people.

No global consensus on LGBTQ rights

Qatar’s failure to recognise the basic human rights of LGBT people to freedom of expression is clearly against the The United Nations Position on Human Rights, in violation of International Human Rights Law.

However, there is NOT universal agreement at the level of nation states on LGBTQ rights. In fact we are nowhere near achieving a global consensus around this issue.

According to the Human Rights Campaign same sex marriage is only legal in 32 countries, meaning that Qatar is actually in the global majority, while the various activists from the various European Nations who have been championing LGBTQ rights during the World Cup are from countries in the global minority over this issue.

Most European countries have full equal recognition of same-sex marriage but the majority of countries do not recognise this and many, like Qatar, enforce harsh punishments for adults who same-sex consensual sex.

‘Enlightened’ European states have long ignored human rights abuses abroad

The difficult question is how should European nations deal with the majority of countries who don’t respect the sexual preferences of LGBTQ people?

At the moment the policy is to basically ignore what we would define as human rights abuses and carry on trading with countries such as Qatar. To be blunt, economic relations trump universal human rights around sexuality and sexual identity.

To my mind FIFA giving the 2022 World Cup to Qatar isn’t particularly unusual, it’s merely a more overt recognition of the way most Nation States (who are represented by FIFA) deal with countries who abuse human rights – we welcome them as part of the international community and ignore their abuses.

I mean the World Cup was in Russia in 2018 after all, and Russia doesn’t recognise equal rights for LGBTQ people either and most European countries actively trade with China and other well known human rights abusers.

Relevance to A-level Sociology

Personally I do think Western European nations are more enlightened than countries who are intolerant of LGBTQ rights, primarily because I believe in freedom of expression and don’t recognise religious authority of any kind.

But is this just me being a modernist dinosaur and out of sync with our relativistic postmodern times?

And so for me the global situation on LGBTQ rights which the World Cup has shone a light on is throughly depressing as it shows we are nowhere near progressing towards a global consensus on this issue – there is no global culture in this regard, in fact the issue is very divisive.

It’s also a reminder of the extent to which nation states put economic relations above individual human rights, and reminds us of the immense power of nation states in this regard, they seem to be at total liberty to ignore UN conventions on human rights with absolutely no consequence!

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Mass Culture

Mass culture refers to standardised, simplified cultural products produced for profit. According to Dwight Macdonald mass culture was harmful to society.

Mass culture refers to standardised, formulaic, mass produced cultural products designed to be entertaining and simplistic so that it will be consumed by a mass audience. Mass culture is produced by companies in order to make a profit and is deliberately designed to be simplistic so that it appeals to the lowest common denominator.

Examples of mass culture include any mass produced cultural product such as The Lone Ranger (from the 1950s) and ‘I’m a Celebrity’ (contemporary society).

Marxist inspired theorists such as Dwight Macdonald (1957) were very pessimistic about the harmful effects of mass culture which included:

  • the erosion of high culture
  • increasing alienation
  • infantilisation
  • Eroding the social fabric and increasing totalitarianism

The rest of this post summarises Dwight Macdonald’s (1957) theory of mass culture, outlines the problems he saw with mass culture and then evaluates his theory.

A Theory of Mass Culture

The Critique of Mass Culture was most fully developed by Dwight Macdonald in the USA in his 1957 book: The Responsibility of Peoples and Other Essays in Political Criticism (1).

Mass culture, folk art and high culture.

Macdonald distinguished between folk art, high culture and mass culture.

Folk Art

Folk art was created by ordinary people, emerging spontaneously within communities in pre-industrial societies. Folk art was common and produced no great artistic works but was created from below and reflected the needs of communities and so was authentic.

High Culture

High culture was the work of great individuals which was appreciated mainly by an elite minority who had the capacity to appreciate such works. High culture included the works of classical composers such as Beethoven, artists such as Rembrandt and also the art emerging from more modern movements such as avant-gardism.

Mass culture

Mass culture has neither the authenticity of folk art or the intrinsic value of high culture.

Mass culture is mass produced by technicians working for companies whose primary motive is to make a profit. It is standardised, populist kitsch, created to appeal to lowest common denominator.

Mass culture is unchallenging and uncritical. Its purpose is to pacify through cheap entertainment and allow its creators to carry on making profit and maintain their class rule.

Mass culture has no real value; it has nothing to offer people as they don’t participate in it in any meaningful way – people are encouraged to be mere consumers of culture and their choices in relation to it are limited to either buy or not to buy the cultural products.

Macdonald believed that Mass Culture could be potentially harmful to democracies and saw it as playing a role maintaining totalitarian rule in the USSR and in bringing Hitler to power in Nazi Germany.

The Lone Ranger: An example of Mass Culture from 1950s America.

The Problem with Mass Culture

Macdonald was highly pessimistic about the potential harmful effects of mass culture.

Mass culture erodes high culture

Mass culture may have been created by the technocratic elite, but Macdonald believed that it was so pervasive and overwhelming that it would eventually drive out high culture through its sheer brutal quantity.

He believed that high culture could become vulgarised by mass culture. For example the high culture of the theatre was being undermined by the popular culture of the cinema.

Macdonald noted that some plays were already being put on in order to sell movie rights and attract more people to cinemas, and if ‘high culture’ plays were too complex to be turned into films, they were in danger of being axed from theatres.

Macdonald believed that it was only a matter of time before the traditionally high culture of theatre had been undermined by the pervasive influence of the cinema – eventually we would be left with one homogenised culture in which the only plays being staged were those simple enough to be understood by the mass-audience of the cinemas.

Thus even though it had been created by elites it could eventually hurt even them by destroying the high culture which they themselves value.

Mass culture creates more alienation

The triumph of mass culture would also lead to more alienation for everyone involved in the creation of cultural products.

As mass culture advanced into the the realms of theatre and arts there would be less of a role for individuals to create independently like many of the ‘masters of high culture’ do and an increase in the number of cultural producers working for the ‘mass culture machine’ – like on a production line.

Mass culture infantilises

Mass culture led to adults becoming more infantile. In America in the 1950s Macdonald noted that there was an increase in the number of adults watching children’s programmes such as The Lone Ranger. He argued that this made adults more unable to cope with adult life: mass culture had an infantilising effect.

At the same time children also had easier access to more adult products, which led to them growing up too fast.

Mass culture erodes the social fabric

Most seriously of all mass culture was undermining the fabric of society. Mass culture created atomised individuals who passively consumed media products alone, rather than actively engaging in small community groups.

This meant that isolated individuals were more subjected to the messages coming from media products created by political elites – individuals in a mass culture were easier to manipulate.

Resistance to Mass Culture?

While Dwight Macdonald was very pessimistic about the potential for mass culture to become the ‘dominant form of culture’ he did recognise that small groups of people might still be able to keep the flame of high culture alight, so possibly there may be a way out of Mass Culture in the future.

Evaluation of Macdonald’s Mass Culture Theory

To be fair to Macdonald we have to recognise that his fears about the potentially harmful effects of mass culture were justified in the light of what appeard to be the oppressive effects of cultural propaganda in Nazi Germany and the Totalitarian USSR.

However with hindsight it is obvious that the rise of mass culture has not had anywhere near the amount of negative impact predicted. For example, we now have a thriving mass culture industry in the USA and Europe but we also have a thriving elite culture and many subcultures.

And subcultures may eventually get co-opted by mainstream mass culture industries but more emerge quickly, suggesting that there are a lot of people who are not pacified by mass culture.

Also it is obviously the case that many people can selectively engage with aspects of mass culture and also be critical of that culture, and of society and politics more generally – so even those who engage with it aren’t necessarily pacified by mass culture.

Postmodernists might further criticise Macdonald for judging mass culture as being inferior to folk art and high culture. Just because many people like something doesn’t mean it is worse than those other cultural products.

Signposting and relevance to A-level Sociology

This material has primarily been written for students studying the Culture and Identity option as part of the A-level sociology course, but the material above should also be relevant to media studies students.

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References and sources to find out more

(1) Dwight Macdonald (1957) The Responsibility of Peoples, And Other Essays in Political Criticism

Lone Ranger Image from WikiPedia.

Raymond Williams

Williams was a neo-marxist cultural theorist who argued that while economic structure and class position do influence culture, the economic base did not determine culture, and that people weren’t just passively subsumed by ruling class ideology.

Raymond Williams is one of the most influential cultural theorists of the modern era. He developed theories of culture from a broadly Marxist perspective, although he was critical of many aspects of traditional Marxism.

For the purposes of A-level sociology Williams is classified as a Neo-Marxist.

Culture and Society

In Culture and Society (1961) Williams criticised the traditional Marxist conception of economic base and superstructure and the relationship between them.

Williams argued that Marx and Engels mistakenly saw economic infrastructure as determining the superstructure (or culture), whereas in reality culture is much more complex and diverse and can change significantly even if the economic base remains the same.

Williams argued that a new Marxist theory of culture needed to take account of the relative autonomy of the superstructure from the economic base, seeing the economic base as ‘the guiding string on which a culture is woven’ rather than something which determined it in a fixed and predictable way.

Cultures were not the automatic product of economic structures, people respond to their class positions consciously and create their cultures actively, thus culture is much more dynamic than Marx and Engels believed was the case.

Williams also criticised Marxist cultural theorists such John Berger for having too narrow a focus purely on the arts. He argued that contemporary marxism should focus on the interdependence of all aspects of social reality and thus examine culture more broadly, treating culture as a ‘way of life’ rather than just focussing on art and literature.

Working class culture and bourgeoise culture

The working classes did not develop much art and literature during the industrial revolution but they did develop their own distinctive institutions and lifestyles.

Williams argued that the main basis for working class culture was a commitment to collective action because the working classes realised that they could not progress in life as individuals because the life chances of individuals were too restricted throughout the 19th century.

It follows that the key working class institutions which developed historically were trades unions, co-operatives and also the labour party which focussed on collective action for change.

Williams saw bourgeoise culture as more individualistic – the key defining aspect here being that members of the bourgeoisie sort success as individuals, in contrast to the collectivist culture of the working classes.

However Williams also argued that there was not a hard and fast dividing line between working class and bourgeois culture

Challenging the Dominance Ideology

There may well be a dominant ideology in a culture, but it also likely that there will be challenges to this dominant ideology.

Challenging ideologies can be either residual or emergent and either alternative or oppositional…

  • residual ideologies – are those of a declining culture, but which is still important in a society
  • emergent ideologies – the ideas of new social groups outside of the ruling class.

Residual and emergent ideologies can either be alternative or opposition

  • oppositional ideologies oppose the dominant ideology and may challenge it overtly.
  • alternative ideologies co-exist with the dominant ideology without challenging it

Hence for Williams the dominant ideology doesn’t necessarily impose itself on people and create a false consciousness.

In fact it is likely that several people in a culture will develop cultures of their own that challenge or overlap with the dominant ideology.

Evaluations of Williams

Williams work is an improvement over traditional Marxist theories of culture because it is less deterministic and recognises the active role individual humans play in creating their own cultures.

Postmodern theorists criticise Williams arguing that there is no such thing as working class culture today, and especially not a collectivist working class culture.

SignPosting and Relevance to A-Level Sociology

This material should be relevant to students studying the Culture and Identity option within the AQA specification.

Sources

Sources/ Find out More

Adapted from Haralambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives, edition 8.

Raymond Williams: Wikipedia entry.

Lucien Goldmann – Class and Literature

Lucien Goldmann is a marxist theorist of the arts who argued that social class shapes the worldview of authors.

Lucien Goldmann is a Marxist theorist of the arts. He argued that great works of literature reflected the (sometimes contradictory) class positions of those who wrote them.

The Expression of Class WorldViews

In The Hidden God (1964) Goldmann developed a theory about the French writers Pascal and Racine.

He argued that the social class to which one belongs is the most important thing when it comes to the production of intellectual and creative works.

Humans in the ‘subject class’ need to spend most of their time devoted to physical survival while those in the ‘dominant class’ need to spend their time maintaining that dominance.

Class thus tends to be the most influential factor in shaping people’s world views and thus their creative and intellectual output!

Goldmann argued that most people only have a dim perception of class consciousness, but a few exceptional individuals are class conscious and able to express this clearly.

Pascal and Racine

Goldmann believed that Pascal and Racine were two such ‘exceptional individuals’ who were aware of their class consciousness, both of whom belonged to a social class which Goldman referred to as the ‘Noblesse de Robe’ in 17th century France.

The Noblesse de Robe consisted of legal and administrative professionals who were employed by the state, which was partially controlled by the monarchy.

These individuals thus had a conflicted worldview which partially reflected the authoritarian traditions of the monarchy but also the more rational ‘new bourgeoise’ worldview associated with their professions.

The contradiction between these two world views comes through in the tragedies that Pascal and Racine wrote, which tended to focus on how it was impossible to succeed in the rational world and to please God at the same time.

In the words of Goldmann the central theme of the Noblesse’s tragedies was:

“that everything that God demands is impossible in the eyes of the world, and that everything that is possible when we follow the rules of this world ceases to exist when the eye of God lights upon it”

Evaluation of Goldmann

On the positive side Lucien Goldmann’s analysis is more subtle than Berger’s who simply argues that art reflects ruling class ideology.

At least in Goldmann’s theory the authors are conscious actors expressing their own class consciousness.

Criticisms of Goldmann

  1. He may overemphasise the role of class in shaping the worldview of authors. For Feminist, for example, gender is more important in this, as is ethnicity and the experience (or lack of) of colonialism.
  2. Even if class is the prominent influencer of art, other factors such as gender probably play a role too!
  3. Goldmann assumes that a social class can possess a clear ideology, express that ideology and that there is one clear interpretation of this one ideology. Poststructuralists argue that there are multiple interpretations of multiple realities.

John Berger

John Berger was a marxist cultural thinker who argued that art reflects ruling class ideology.

John Berger was an artist, novelist, cultural thinker and art critic who developed a Marxist inspired theory of art.

His best known work is ‘Ways of Seeing’ (1972) in which he explored the ‘hidden ideologies’ in historical works of art.

Berger argued that art reflects the political and economic system in which it was produced and that “the art of any period tends to serve the ideological interests of the ruling class” (1)

Berger is an extremely influential Marxist critique of the arts who is also credited with introducing the concept of the Male Gaze to visual analysis.

John Berger in 2009

Berger: Art and Ruling Class Ideology

Oil painting was the dominant medium for painters between 1500 to 1900.

The ruling classes were more able to impose their view of the world through art simply because oil paintings were expensive and they had the money to commission them.

Berger argued that oil paintings had unique properties that made them especially suitable for portraying ruling class ideology during the Renaissance years and into modernity.

These were the years of emergence of Capitalism when acquiring private property and earning money through trade were becoming increasingly central to the world-view of the ruling class, and most oil paintings during 1500-1900 were concerned with depicting the accumulation of such wealth and property, reflecting the interests of the ruling classes during that period.

Oil paints were particularly suited to making what they depicted seem tangible, or ‘real’ because of the texture, depth and lustre of the medium.

The depiction of wealth in oil paintings changed as modernity developed.

Oil paintings had always portrayed items of value, but in early periods these items were usually linked to the glorifying God. However, as capitalism developed paintings focussed increasingly on portraying the wealth and power of the ruling class, effectively suggesting that money was more important than religion.

Another change was that older works portrayed wealth as a symbol of a fixed social or divine order, reflecting the traditional nature of religious power structures, while oil paintings during modernity portrayed wealth as something more dynamic and linked to the successes of the individuals who had acquired it.

Interestingly many of the works commissioned by the wealthy elites during modernity were of poor quality, or ‘hack work’ as Berger calls it.

This was because it was more important to the elites to have their art showing off their wealth in the way that they wanted rather than for them to have high quality works.

In short there were many more mediocre artists prepared to ‘paint to demand’ than there were excellent artists prepared to do so! So even here the market influences the quality of work that is produced.

The Portrayal of the Ruling Class in Art

Landscape paintings portrayed the property of the rich, and sometimes the property owners insisted on being in the landscapes themselves, to demonstrate that it was them who owned the land.

Berger uses the example of Mr and Mrs Andrews by Gainsborough (circa 1748 to 9). In this landscape painting the husband and wife are in the foreground and Berger argues that their ‘proprietary attitude to what surrounds them is visible in their stance and their expression’.

Mr and Mrs Andrews by Gainsborough

Other still-life paintings during modernity portrayed expensive furnishings in houses and tables laden with exotic foods as symbols of wealth. Animals were also featured, but not animals in the wild, rather domesticated livestock with a rare pedigree, so that their monetary value was clear.

The Portrayal of the Lower classes in Art

Paintings representing the lower classes were also popular among the ruling classes.

A common theme in portrayals of the lower classes was that of the common people being drunk and debauched in taverns which suggested they were immoral, feckless and lazy.

Such portrayals served to foster a kind of ‘myth of meritocracy’ – the idea that the poor were to blame for their own poverty because they preferred to drink and party rather than to work hard, while it was the hardworking who prospered and thus deserved their wealth.

And of course it was the ruling classes who saw themselves as hard working and deserving the wealth displayed in their own paintings of themselves.

NB – it’s worth noting the following difference:

  • the ruling classes controlled what went into the paintings of themselves that they commissioned.
  • the working classes had no control over this – artists drew them without any input from them.

Some artists break free of Ruling Class Ideology

While most works of art reflect ruling class ideology, Berger accepts that some artists break free from such ideological constraints.

One example of someone who did this is the artist Rembrandt.

Berger points to an early painting of Rembrandts: Self-Portrait with Saskia (circa 1635) in which Rembrandt is painting within ‘ruling class ideology’ – the painting depicts himself showing off his wife as a form of property, a symbol of this own wealth and success.

However, 30 years later when he produces ‘self-portrait of an old man’ (circa 1664) in this painting he just sitting on his own in a sombre and reflective mood with no symbols of wealth depicted.

In Berger’s interpretation of Rembrandt’s journey he has undergone a struggle over the course of his life to throw off the shackles of ruling class ideology and succeeded in producing a piece of art that is more authentic.

Evaluation of Berger’s theory of art

John Berger’s work has been extremely influential, with Ways of Seeing being described as ‘revolutionary‘.

Berger’s work has become a standard edition to cultural studies and history of art courses the world over and he is responsible for encouraging students and anyone else who reads his work to think critically about the role of power and money in influencing art and culture.

Even if you you do not entirely agree with Berger’s analysis, at the very least you should appreciate the fact that he is encouraging us to ask critical questions about the processes which lie behind the production of art.

It is possible that his analysis isn’t that systematic and thus alternative interpretations maybe just as valid. For example do the expressions of the Andrews really demonstrate that they own the land in the background…? Does Rembrandt’s old man portrait really show that he’s been through a life-time of personal struggle to break free from ruling class ideology, or is he just showing that he’s ‘old and sad’…?

Even though Berger devoted some time to how women are portrayed as being owned and controlled by men in Ways of Seeing he has been criticised for not giving female analysts more of a central role in discussing this.

Sources/ find out more

Brtannica: John Berger

This post was adapted from Haralambos and Holborn(2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives 8th Edition.

John Beger image.

Mr and Mrs Andrews

Signposting

This material is primarily relevant to those studying the Culture and Identity option within A-level Sociology.

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Marxism and Culture

Culture is what distinguishes humans from animals, but under Capitalism culture becomes a tool of the elite used to repress the masses. However, there is capacity for individuals to rise above false consciousness and usher in communism which is where the spontaneous production of culture can happen under free conditions.

Marx argued that human labour was integral to an individual’s sense of identity and the wider culture of a society.

In the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts Marx argued that it was work, or consciously transforming nature, which distinguished humans from animals, and it was through the creative process of work that man came to recognised himself as human.

For Marx the ideal-state of society was one in which individuals freely organised themselves into groups and collectively engaged in work, intentionally and consciously using their labour power to meet their own physical and aesthetic needs.

In fact for Marx, the origins of culture lie in the capacity of men to collectively organise and consciously produce things, especially those things which are over and above what individuals need to survive.

The material conditions and social relations of a society shape culture to an extent – in Marx’s view there is an ideal state he calls communism which is where there is no private property and under these material conditions man is the most free to use his labour power to express his humanity to its fullest extent.

Under such ‘ideal conditions’ the cultures which emerge are (in my interpretation of Marx) just spontaneous human cultures, as ‘good’ as it gets.

However under the unequal material conditions of class stratified societies, it is the culture of elite class which emerges as the dominant one which in turn becomes a tool to oppress the minority who live in a state of unfreedom and false consciousness.

Alienation and Culture

According to Marx, the ideal-state for humanity is that they live in social conditions which allow them the freedom to fulfil their material needs and aesthetic desires through the creative process of creating things using their imagination.

However, historically the emergence of the concept of Private Property and the accumulation of this property by a few gave rise to Capitalism. Under capitalism a handful of people own and control the means of production which means the majority do not own them which thus means the masses cease to exist in a state of freedom.

Under capitalism the majority lose their freedom to organise their own labour, instead they end up having to work for those who own the means of production, in places such as factories, in order to survive, and they thus lose control over their creative-productive process, and also their very sense of humanity and culture. It was this condition which Marx referred to as Alienation.

So for Marx, the ideal state is that human culture emerges through the individuals freely engaging in productive activities, but the emergence of Private Property and Capitalist inequalities distorts this process, alienating the masses because they are no longer free to organise create their own cultures through their own productive processes.

Culture as Ruling Class Ideology

Marx argued that in class-stratified societies the dominant culture came from the ruling class…..

“The ideas of the ruling class are, in every age, the ruling ideas… the dominant ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas.”

In Capitalist societies the dominant class was the Bourgeoisie (the owners of the mans of production) and they used their economic power to shape the dominant culture (norms and values) in capitalist society in the 19th century.

We see this especially in Marx’s ideas about the role of religion in society – Christianity in the 19th century was mainly a conservative force which encouraged the poor to know their place in society, respect authority, work hard and seek their rewards in heaven.

Hence Marx saw culture as part of the superstructure of society – with (for example) religious ideas helping to maintain a system of norms and values (a culture) which benefitted existing elites by preventing the spreading of more revolutionary ideas and thus keeping the existing unequal material relations in place.

Some later Marxists such as Adorno applied Marx’s theory to how the mass media works along similar lines in modern societies – with the media effectively keeping the massive passive and stupid and preventing social change.

However even Marx and Engels themselves admitted that the material infrastructure does not entirely determine culture, there is room for some alternative cultures to emerge besides the dominant culture.

Culture as a Reflection of Class Differences

One interpretation of Marx and Engels’ perspective on culture in relation to social class is that different classes will have different cultures, because culture reflects the material conditions in which people live, and there are material differences between social classes.

However Engels himself recognised that aspects of culture could transcend class origins, at least in the sphere of literature where some writers were concerned.

Using the example of Goethe Engles noted that he both celebrated German culture, which reflected his comfortable middle class origins, but he was also clearly disgusted by the wretchedness of his surroundings.

Thus Engels argues that while literature and other forms of art do generally reflect the class origins of those producing them, there is the capacity for individuals to break free of false consciousness and perceive social injustices.

This capacity for individuals and their cultural products to break free of their material conditions is in fact essential for Marx and Engels’ theory of social change to work.

The end point for Marxist Theory is the transition from Capitalism to Communism via revolution, and for that to happen the working classes need to break free from their chains, and to do that they have to break free of false consciousness and be able to see ruling class ideology as false.

Signposting and related posts

This material in this post is relevant to the Culture and Identity module, usually taught as part of the first year of study for AQA’s sociology specification.

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Socialisation

Socialisation is the process whereby an individual learns the norms and values of a culture.

Giddens and Sutton (2017) provide a lengthier definition:

For sociologists socialization is the process whereby the helpless human infant becomes a self-aware, knowledgeable person, skilled in the ways of the culture into which he or she was born. Socialization of the young allows for more general phenomenon of social reproduction – the process through which societies achieve structural continuity overtime.

Agencies of socialisation

Agencies of socialisation refer to groups, social contexts or institutions in which socialisation takes place. The main agencies of socialisation include:

  • The family
  • Friendship and peer groups
  • School (education)
  • Social Media circles
  • The mass media
  • Any voluntary groups or clubs people might be a part of
  • Religion (for those who are religious!)
  • The workplace

In post-industrial societies socialisation is a complex process involving hundreds of thousands (possibly millions) of micro-interactions on a day to day basis within the context wider power relations – such as school, work, social media, and economic and political ‘structures’.

Social interactions over the life course within all of these contexts help individuals learn the specific norms of each context and the more general norms which make up their broader culture.

Socialisation isn’t just a passive process in which individuals ‘soak up’ and passively accept already existing norms and values… individuals have the capacity to reflect on the culture presented to them and change the way other people think, feel and act and thus have the capacity to change culture through the socialisation process.

Of course different individuals have different levels of desire and ability to change the culture into which they are socialised. As a general rule children have less ability to enact change compared to adults, while adults with more money, status and visibility have more power to change cultures than others.

For the most part, individuals accept most of the basic norms into which they are socialised – such as language, dress codes in the broader sense (i.e. actually wearing some clothes), being generally polite to people, not being violent, and the concept of working for a living.

However it also true that many people will go through a rebellious phase at certain times of their lives – the most well known of these include toddlers having tantrums and teenagers rebelling, but for the most part most people end up accepting and abiding by most of our already existing norms and values.

There are a minority of individuals for whom the socialisation process is one of rejecting the culture with which they are presented, and for these people socialisation may not be a smooth process – if a child rejects school rules for example they are handed out punishments, maybe even excluded permanently; if someone rejects the social norm of ‘having to work for a living’ they may end up unemployed and living on the streets.

As a final word on this topic individuals who reject ‘mainstream culture’ often go on to form subcultures – of which there are many in postmodern society – everything from Gay Pride to prison gangs and from Goths to Furries can be regarded as forms of subculture – the existence of which offers people who don’t feel a connection with mainstream agencies (such as education or work) a chance to belong to something they actually identify with.

For further information on this you might like to explore the culture of identity further and the relevant posts under the Crime and Deviance section.

Primary socialisation

Sociologists typically distinguish between two broad phases of socialisation: Primary Socialisation and Secondary Socialisation.

Primary socialisation occurs in infancy and childhood and is the most intense phase of learning.

This first phases of socialisation primarily takes place within the family and it is when the child learns the most fundamental norms of their culture such as language, basic manners, and where they start to learn gender.

In the United Kingdom today most children spend most of their early childhoods (pre-school age) in their family domestic unit with their parents and siblings being the main influencers on their socialisation, but there is considerable variation in family structures today – most children are socialised in nuclear families, but a significant minority are socialised in single parent or reconstituted families.

There is also a lot of global variation – in many cultures around the world grandparents, uncles and aunts continue to play a significant role in the primary socialisation of children.

Secondary Socialisation

There is no clear moment when primary socialisation begins and secondary socialisation starts, but the three main agencies associated with the later are education, peer groups, the media, and work.

Education or school

In developed societies with well established education systems children spend at least 30 hours a week (during term time) at school from the age of five where their interactions are highly regulated by the school environment.

School may well be where children are introduced to formal collective rules for the first time – such as uniforms, timetables and codes of conducts.

Thus in terms of time spent during later childhood, school is certainly a main agency of secondary socialisation, especially once we factor in how the school day and week can be extended by journeys to and from school, after school clubs and homework.

Peer Groups

Most children have friendship groups from a young age, typically children who live locally, children of their parent’s friends or siblings.

It is difficult to assess the important of friends in the socialisation process, but friendship is usually one of the most important aspects in the life of individuals and shouldn’t be underestimate – people increasingly report their friends as being ‘ their family’ for example.

When a child gets to school their peer group will typically extend massively such that a child has to start to learn to ‘get on’ with larger groups most of whom they won’t have intimate relationships with, essential to get on in larger societies.

The Media

Simply in terms of time spent online, the media increasingly becomes an important agency of secondary socialisation as children get older.

Historical sociological perspectives such as The Hypodermic Syringe Model saw the media as having a direct and largely negative influence on children – teaching them to be passive consumers in a capitalist society for example, and children were seen as passive receptors.

However, it is clear today that children are much more active users of a diverse array of mainstream and social media and there is much more interaction going on and a massive diversity of experience, such that it is incredibly difficult to make generalisations about the experience of socialisation via the media.

The workplace and other institutions

Secondary socialisation continues all through adult life – getting one’s first and then subsequent jobs will usually require an individual to not only learn the new formal requirements of the job role but also the more informal norms of the working culture.

Socialisation within Sociology

Socialisation is one the major concepts within sociology, and in my experience you will usually find the concept explored in three main areas:

  • Firstly in the introductory sections of text books, it is fundamental!
  • Secondly in social theory – conceptions have changed as social theory has ‘evolved’ from Functionalism through to Social Interactionism for example
  • Thirdly in the ‘life course’ – which may have links to Child Development – Giddens and Sutton (2017) do it this way.
  • Finally as part of Crime and Deviance – socialisation being a part of social control. Abercrombie (2005) does this.

SignPosting

This post was primarily written for A-level sociology students studying the Culture and Identity option within A-level Sociology.

You might also like my introductory post on culture, socialisation and social norms.

NB – I use the correct spelling of socialisation in the title of this post and anywhere I haven’t quoted sociologists who use the incorrect American spelling.

Interestingly I doubt very much that Giddens, being English, would spell ‘socialisation’ with a Z in the middle, it’s most likely that the editors have modified this to fit in with a global American audience.

Sources

(1) Giddens and Sutton (2017) Sociology, Polity Press.

(2) Abercrombie (2005) Sociology, Polity.

What is Culture?

A simplified sociological definition of culture is ‘the whole way of life of a group of people’, which is abbreviated from Ralph Linton’s (1945) more extensive definition of the term:

‘The culture of a society is the way of life of its members; the collection of ideas and habits which they learn, share and transmit from generation to generation’.

Culture is usually contrasted to nature, with ‘culture’ referring to ‘all which is symbolic: the learned… aspects of human society’ (Jencks 1993) whereas ‘nature’ refers to everything that exists without human intervention.

According to Raymond Williams (1976) culture is one of the most complicated words in the English language, and in a deep exploration of the concept by Jencks (1993) identified four different ways in which the term culture is used in contemporary society….

Four uses of the word culture

Culture as a State of Mind

Possible usage: ‘She’s a very cultured individual’.

People sometimes describe particular individuals as ‘cultured’ as in ‘she’s a very cultured individual’.

This is an individualistic use of the word, which usually implies that ‘cultured individuals’ have more desirable traits to those who are not cultured.

Often this usage of the term refers to culture as ‘refined taste’ – the cultured individual is someone who has a knowledge of the arts and manners as is able to to distinguish themselves ‘above’ those without such tastes.

However it might also refer to an individual who has a lot of learned experience – someone who has familiarity with a lot of different cultures and has picked up a lot of skills and knowledge which enables them to function at a ‘higher level’ than most people – such as being very skilled technically or speaking many languages fluently.

Culture as Civilisation

This usage implies that some societies are more civilised than others and was a common usage among Westerners during the colonial era.

For example, the evolutionary thinker Herbert Spencer used the term ‘culture’ in this way – seeing Western societies as more ‘cultured’ than those in Africa and Asia; with the term ‘culture’ here being effectively a synonym for ‘civilisation’.

The common conception of the colonies by Europeans was that they were more ‘savage’ than the more civilised countries in Europe and thus inferior.

This of course was an entirely ethnocentric view, based largely on an inability of the colonialists to really ‘see’ the complex cultures which already existed in ‘their’ new territories.

As with the first usage this is an elitist concept.

Culture as a collective body of artistic work

This is a common sense usage of the term which you will often here in the mainstream media.

‘Culture’ in this sense is the arts – it is music, literature and theatre, for example, and is often seen as part of the domain of leisure rather than of work, and something which is done as a performance by ‘artists’ to be enjoyed by audiences.

The BBC Culture website – uses the word ‘culture’ in this way!

Culture as the way of Life of a People

This final usage is the more sociological definition of culture – referring to all of the learned habits, norms and traditions that are passed down from one generation to the next.

In this sense culture is everywhere in the social world and we find it in every social setting and institution – in schools, the workplace, politics, and more informally in leisure spaces, simply outside in the high street, on public transport, it’s everywhere.

It’s fair to say that it might be difficult to pinpoint a set of norms and values that everyone shares at the national level, although the idea of there being a distinct ‘British’ or ‘French’ culture still makes sense to most people.

However you need to be mindful that this is an extremely high level of generalisation which risks drifting into stereotyping!

Sources – Find out More!

Adapted from Haralambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives, edition 8.

Jencks, C (1993) Culture

Williams, R (1976) Developments in the Sociology of Culture

Linton, R (1945) The Cultural Background of Personality

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Four Types of Culture

Folk culture, mass or popular culture, high culture and low culture

Culture is one of the most complex terms in the English language. This post summarises four ways in which the term is most commonly used…

  • Folk culture
  • Mass or Popular culture
  • High culture
  • Low culture

Folk Culture

Folk culture refers to the every day practices of ordinary local peoples, often rooted in long-standing traditions dating back to the pre-industrial era.

Folk cultures are usually rooted in one specific place and unique to that place.

There are thousands of different folk cultures all over the world, which have emerged from the ordinary day to day lives of ordinary peoples and their practices have been passed down, often orally (through word of mouth) from generation to generation.

The term ‘folk culture’ is used to refer to both specific cultural practices and whole cultures, and examples include Morris dancing in England, folk singing such as Mongolian throat singing, Choctaw (Native American) story telling and the whole of the Amish culture is also referred to as a ‘folk culture’…

Morris Dancing in England – a form of folk culture

Folk culture is thus about lived experience and is usually locally based, in one place rather than global.

Folk cultures are usually seen as part of the authentic, lived experience of real people, although you will often see ‘mock versions’ of historical folk culture played out for the benefit of tourists, in which case many aspects of the original ‘folk culture’s may have been changed over the years to make them more entertaining (NB this has possibly happened with Morris Dancing!)

Popular Culture

Popular culture refers to cultural products manufactured by entrepreneurs and media companies in modern capitalist societies which are produced for mass consumption, the aim being to reach a wide audience typically with the aim of making a profit.

Popular culture products are thus not organic like folk cultures, they do not emerge out of day to day to interaction between ordinary people, rather they are produced by professionals with an instrumental purpose – to entertain and make money.

Examples of popular culture include television programmes (think of the most popular shows on Netflix), box-office films, pop music and popular literature (Harry Potter), and of course the more modern forms which combine several of these into one such as the X FACTOR…

A whole 45 minutes just on their X Factor journey!

Critics of popular culture tend to refer to it as ‘mass culture‘ – for the purposes of A-level sociology you can think of ‘mass culture’ as a derogatory term for ‘popular culture’.

Critics tend to see what they call ‘mass culture’ as being formulaic and simplistic, and very easy to watch lots of it – which has the affect of pacifying people by preventing them from engaging with more complex forms of high culture or more critical content – rather an endless stream of popular culture products keep people happy and stupid, like a king of modern day ‘opium of the masses’

High Culture

High Culture refers to cultural products which are perceived by some to be the pinnacle or creative achievement and thus to have a higher status in society.

Examples of ‘high culture’ include classical music, opera and ballet, classical literature and historical works of art and sculptures…

A performance of the Opera La Boheme – an example of high culture…?

Enjoyment of such works forms part of the identity of the political and economic elite of many European societies, and the elite who patronise these types of ‘high’ cultural products tend to see them as superior to other forms of leisure and culture which are more widely enjoyed by the masses.

This notion of elitism and superiority is an important aspect of High Culture – there is an idea that such cultural forms require a high level of skill to produce and thus are extremely rare, and that it requires a certain amount of refinement and distinction to enjoy them.

Indeed, ‘enjoyment’ is not sufficient to understand the norms which surround the ‘experience’ of ‘high culture’ – in fact ‘appreciation’ might be a more accurate word because to truly enjoy the works above requires an understanding which is usually learned through many years of experience…

Opera for example may well be in a foreign language, classical literature requires a high level of reading skill and music is better understood with a personal background of having learned a classic instrument yourself.

Thus part of the experience of high culture is very much about the elite distinguishing themselves from the non-elite.

NB organisations such as the Royal Ballet and the Royal Opera house have been making attempts for many years to make opera and ballet more accessible to a wider range of people, so the boundaries between elite and popular culture may be becoming more blurred over time!

Low Culture

Low culture is a derogatory term used to refer to cultures which are seen as inferior or of low or no value.

For example the elite classes might refer to popular culture as ‘low culture’ to denote the fact that it is inferior to ‘high culture’ which they see as more refined , nuanced and/ or complex, requiring more learning and effort to fully appreciate, which thus makes it superior to the more accessible popular culture.

Historically, many folk cultures would have been viewed as ‘low cultures’ by colonialists and other agents of modernity who believed that the whole point of the modernist project was to use science and rationality to bring about social progress, effectively washing away inferior traditional cultures which were rooted in tradition and superstition .

Tasks and Find out More

You might like to visit the Royal Opera House website – have a click around the site and decide for yourself whether you think Opera is really an elite cultural form today.

SignPosting

This post should be useful for students studying the first year option in A-level Sociology Culture and Identity option (AQA)

Sources

Morris Dancing Picture – By Tim Green from Bradford – Morris Dancers, York, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51786023

La Boheme picture – https://www.metopera.org/season/2022-23-season/la-boheme/

This blog post was adapted from Chapman et al (2015) Sociology AQA A-level Year 1.

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