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The power of popular culture

Updated Wednesday, 5th October 2011

Mark Banks explores the power of popular culture, as Thinking Allowed looks at comic book heroes.

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The Sun newspaper Creative commons image Icon By Ben Sutherland via Flickr under Creative Commons license under Creative-Commons license Social scientists have been exercised by the News International hacking scandal The concept of power was once used routinely in the social sciences, particularly with regards to popular culture. Why do you think we use this term less often now – and is there reason to resurrect it?

I’m not so sure we do use it less now – many social scientists are still absolutely concerned with how popular cultural texts are implicated in regimes of power, or contain symbols and meanings that reinforce or challenge power relationships. Since the 1940s the study of media influences and popular cultural ‘effects’ has expanded significantly, and at the heart of this has always been some sense of evaluating the ‘power’ of mediated communications and cultural artefacts. There is also an established and active tradition of investigation into the ways in which different cultural and media organisations operate (for example, lots of social scientists have been exercised by the recent News International phone hacking scandal), which explores the manner in which those who set social and political agendas are often implicated in the very power structures they are supposed to criticize and stand apart from. So I would say that even though we have become more interested in the pleasures involved in the consumption of popular culture, and have a more sophisticated reading of its range of meanings and effects, at the heart of this is still a strong concern with power

What has understanding popular culture got to do with understanding power relations in society?

We can think of popular culture as the stuff we consume. But another way is to think of it is as culture made, literally, by the people  – so traditionally, music, stories, sports and other communications, arts and entertainments – that exist as part of the common inheritance of ordinary life. Not only does this popular culture contain political elements – in the form of social satire, commentary or critique – but is itself subject to the political scrutiny of powerful groups (such as the state). History shows us that producers of popular culture have often been censored or oppressed by powerful interests who wish to avoid challenges to their eminence and status. So popular culture is an important site for political struggles, and continues to be so; for example, think of protest songs, critical literatures, arts movements or the recent debate concerning the role of social media in allegedly helping to incite the urban riots - a clear case of where popular culture and politics collide.

Many people consider comics and other popular cultural forms as ephemeral and/ or irrelevant to the world of real politics. Why is that and how would you respond?

This is an old argument that's now, thankfully, largely discredited – few social scientists would argue that any form of popular culture (even comics!) can be disassociated from politics. If we take politics to mean the study of the social arrangements of government, influence, power and control, then popular culture is clearly implicated. And while popular culture may be ephemeral in some respects, in other ways it is substantial and enduring. What is more, it has proved to have a pervasive presence that shapes and colours the ways in which we look at the world and act within it

What would you identify as some of the critical issues for social scientists now studying popular culture – such as film and comics?

Films and comics tell us much about the political interests and concerns of their makers, both in terms of the author and in terms of organisations and institutions. Who is producing this text and why? These are always key questions to ask. But they may also tell us something about the prevailing (or countervailing) mood of the times, the ways in which people are thinking about social and political life, as well the aesthetic and stylistic conventions and frames they are choosing to adopt. One way of thinking about ‘critical issues’ is to think of comics, films – art more generally – as forms of social critique through symbolic means. We mustn’t forget audiences too for what social science research has consistently shown is that popular culture is not always consumed or ‘read’ in the ways authors anticipate or intend….

As a researcher, what methods do you use? What are your reasons for preferring one method over another?

In terms of my own work – which less often looks at popular culture texts and more often at the conditions of work for the makers and producers of arts and culture – I tend to use a combination of in-depth qualitative interviews, which provide detailed accounts of the character of workers’ everyday lives, and more formal techniques such as questionnaires and surveys which are good for aggregate data of larger groups and populations. Like most social scientists I’m happy to adopt a pragmatic approach, since the choice of method largely depends on what it is I’m trying to find out about.

The new Open University module The Uses of Social Science is very interdisciplinary in scope; what are some of the key issues raised about popular culture in the module and why was it considered important to approach the issues in an interdisciplinary way?

This course looks at the many ways in which social science helps create and make the everyday world, as well the ways in which it influences and intervenes in our private and public lives. It takes an interdisciplinary approach, partly because it is core to the new Combined Honours in Social Sciences interdisciplinary degree (B69), but also because, quite simply, many social issues are often better understood through an interdisciplinary lens.

The module has many different topics and facets, but in specific relation to popular culture it examines (amongst other issues) the impacts of media on our private and family lives, the role of music in forming our identities and how our ‘free’ leisure time is governed and controlled. It also reveals something of the ways in which our habits, hobbies and interests are partly shaped and defined by the (often hidden) techniques and findings of social science research – so watch this space!

Mark was talking in response to the 10th October 2011 edition of Thinking Allowed, which looked at comic books and also surnames. You can listen to the programme online.





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