Dominic Strinati – A Critique of Mass Culture Theory

mass culture is not homogenous, its consumers are not passive and there are no distinct high or folk cultures.

Writing in the early 200s, Dominic Strinati is a contemporary cultural theories who developed one of the most comprehensive critiques of mass culture theory (1).

Strinati made four main criticisms of mass culture theory:

  • Mass culture is not homogenous
  • consumers of mass culture are not passive
  • There is no clear boundary between high and mass (or popular) culture
  • There are no authentic folk cultures.

Mass culture is not homogenous

Mass culture theory tends to see popular culture as being all the same, but Strinati disagrees, arguing that there is a lot of diversity of cultural products within popular culture.

Probably the best example of this is within popular music as there are several different genres, from rock to new wave, and from soul to trance.

It’s difficult to maintain the argument that the music industry churns out uniform products for mass audiences with so much diversity of musical choice today.

Consumers of mass culture are not passive

Mass culture theory tends to portray the ‘masses’ of ordinary people as cultural dopes who will happily and passively consume anything that the media churns out.

Strinati rejects this idea pointing out that the audience is not a ‘undifferentiated mass’, rather audiences are diverse groupings of people who interpret media content in numerous different ways.

Many consumers of mass (or popular) cultural products are discriminating and have mixed tastes. They are critical of aspects of the cultural products they consume, and some consumers actively reject some products altogether, hence why there are so many box office flops!

For example, the 2013 version of the Lone Ranger, one of the most popular television shows of the 1950s, was one of the biggest box office bombs of all time, losing $200 million.

Consumers of mass (or popular) culture can be discerning after all!

No clear boundary between high and mass culture

Mass culture theory rests on drawing a clear boundary between high culture and low or mass culture.

However Strinati argues that the boundary between the two is not objective, rather it is subjective and thus blurred and forever changing. It is after all, people with power who decided what high culture is and power in societies shift over time.

An example of this is with Jazz Music and Rock and Roll. Jazz used to be an integral part of working class culture in America, but today it has attained elite status, and there are hundreds of popular songs from the 1960s which have today attained the status of classics.

There are no authentic folk cultures

Mass culture theory also distinguishes between ‘authentic’ folk cultures which are somehow supposed to be better than ‘popular culture’ because folk cultures are rooted in the day to day lives of local peoples.

Strinati points out that this kind of face-face to face rootedness doesn’t necessarily make folk cultures any better than popular cultural products. In a way it’s a matter of who cares about authenticity? Popular culture is about enjoyment, that doesn’t necessarily make it inferior.

Strinati also questions whether folk cultures are actually authentic today – most cultures have been influenced by outside forces around the world, after all!

Cultural Politics and Power

Strinati argues that mass culture theory is a product of cultural politics rather than an objective assessment of the relative merits of so-called high and low cultures.

Mass culture theory represents a backlash by intellectuals who feel threatened by the growth of popular culture which threatens the hierarchy of taste by giving everybody equal power to choose what they think are the best books etc.

Effectively the rising popularity of popular culture threatens the symbolic power of intellectuals over the standards of taste which are applied to the consumption of cultural goods. They have thus labelled popular culture ‘mass culture’ and claimed it is inferior, when in fact it isn’t!


This material has been written primarily for students studying the culture and identity option as part of their A-level sociology course.

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Strinati (2004) An Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture

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

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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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.

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