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